“I want to find a soulmate, but my house is only big enough for one person,” Zoe (Noël Wells) says in “Social Animals,” giving the once-over to the trailer she lives in while her friend Claire (Carly Chaiken) laments how securing a boyfriend “who looks great next to me in pictures” isn’t as compatible when no one’s looking. The two discover they can be sympathetic and envious each other at the same time, both still working out how they feel about their friend Lana (Samira Wiley) just getting married, bringing their own progress towards being adults into sharp relief. As Claire ponders if she should continue sacrificing her dignity by dating a Republican just to say she’s in a relationship, Zoe wonders if it would be prudent to make a move on Paul (Josh Radnor), the humble owner of a video store she met at Lana’s wedding who seems perfect other than the wedding ring he sports himself, though little does she know that his wife Jane (Aya Cash) has actually suggested he have an affair to break their marriage out of its current standstill.
Though none of the characters in “Social Animals” can see what direction they should be headed in, it is how writer/director Theresa Bennett observes so shrewdly how things that once made so much sense – whether it’s certain relationships or beliefs held by idealistic twentysomethings – suddenly don’t with time and that the first five to ten years after starting a family and/or a career is filled with trial and error with people just as apt to take the wrong lessons from the adjustments they’ve made to share their lives with someone or protect their independence at all costs as the the right ones. While the fact that the pieces no longer properly align give “Social Animals” its tension, its triumph comes in how Bennett makes them all fall into place, both on camera and behind the scenes where the writer/director spent seven years shepherding the film to the screen.
Originally penned in a fit of anger from her own relationship frustrations over one fraught evening, the film once titled “Fucking People” arrives when its 95% female crew (which Bennett insists was a result of hiring the best people for the job) and warts-and-all depiction of its three female leads might be particularly appreciated, though Bennett bore the brunt of pitching it at a time when such productions weren’t in demand. Yet Bennett has a way of making things work, once reconfiguring a path into showbiz by using the typing skills she had picked up by drafting screenplays under the 20-minute limits imposed on the public computers at her local library into a productive career behind-the-scenes of reality TV, first inputting data of prospective contestants before before being promoted to interviewing them, giving her permission to ask people for personal details they might not even tell their close friends.
No doubt the act of interviewing 25,000 people contributes to the authenticity with which Bennett raises the complexities of the issues her characters face, while the countless hours logged practicing screenwriting at the library can be felt in how dynamic yet invisible the routes are those characters take to reaching epiphanies that will change their lives, perfect for a light comedy in which the blood, sweat and tears that went into making it never show. As “Social Animals” makes its way into the world, Bennett spoke about why seeing the film through was worth the wait, how setting it in Austin became part of the fabric of the film, and the education of her time in reality television and now her feature debut.
Despite the professional frustration that must’ve come from having to wait to make this, do you think the personal perspective of being in your thirties rather than your twenties may have made this a better time to make it?
Our mantra when we were going in to make this film was always that we didn’t want to just make any movie. We wanted to make the right movie and I always tell people the right movie gets made and I think it was made at the perfect time for me personally. I was just really excited to get on set and as frustrating as it was to go through the war of battling to make this movie on a constant basis, to actually get to make it at a time where I felt really ready and had the crew that I wanted and the cast that really encompassed their roles and were so perfect for it, it really was the right version of the movie.
Structurally, you have this marvelous architecture in terms of how you have these three women at very different stages of their relationships, and then you set it against this timeline of this character off in the background, played by Samira Wiley, who’s just gotten married. Was baked into the initial idea or did that develop over time?
The three characters were always baked into the concept because they’re meant to juxtapose each other. They are people who are all in very different places, but still suffer from the same afflictions and I thought it’s a really interesting affliction to be people who are entirely self-aware, but have a completely false perception of self. [Zoe and Jane, for instance] are two people who feel quite similar emotions, which is just feeling stuck and not really knowing what happens next, and they both have a lot of anxiety about that, but their anxieties manifest in totally different ways. Some people’s anxiety is manifested through crying and some people can’t really cry, so [it becomes] just being nervous or really neurotic or really inside your own head, and the goal was always to juxtaposing those two people and see the difference, but in the end also see the similarity between them.
And Samira Wiley’s character Lana was always how I kept time in the movie [because] I had had friends who were going through the stages of getting married and having kids and it seemed like I was constantly celebrating them and buying them things, and I wanted to encompass that in a character and juxtapose her with where everyone else was and how weird that feels to go to a wedding and to see a couple super happy when your marriage is crumbling or to go watch someone’s baby shower unfold when you’re single and you have no light at the end of the tunnel. So I was always really interested in playing with the character of Lana and giving her some depth and Samira really brought something to that character.
How did you cast Aya Cash and Noël Wells for Jane and Zoe? Did the idea of casting Noël come with Austin once you decided to set it there?
I fell in love with Noël watching “Master of None” and then going on YouTube and seeing all these crazy impressions she was capable of. I knew her from “Saturday Night Live,” but I didn’t know she was an actual genius, which she really is, and when I thought about her, I obviously researched her and was like, “Oh my God. She’s from Texas. She went to UT. She has a connection to Austin. This is so awesome.” So that came after and while I was waiting to see if she liked the script, I was like, “Oh man, I hope she connects to the Austin of it all and really feels the vibe and wants to go home.” And that was big for her, for sure.
I met [Aya] when I was doing actor meetings for the movie, which lasted like a year-and-a-half. We met on Skype and immediately, she was like, “I don’t want to play Zoe because I play roles like that a lot. I really want to talk to you about playing Jane.” And that was interesting to me. Nobody had ever done that. People were scared of playing the character of Jane [because they thought] they’d be really shrill or cold and frigid, and I never saw Jane that way. I saw Jane as a really empathetic, relatable person who’s going through something people are scared to talk about — their own feelings about marriage and children and inadequacies — because they get judged for it, so people judged Jane in that way, but Aya brought something to the part that made it so relatable and so emotional and you really feel her pain. That’s her main talent – Aya can drag you in as an audience and make you feel like you are that person and you’re going through it, too.
You’ve said your own experience, having to interview couples when you were working for the NBC show “The Marriage Ref,” contributed to thinking about relationships over the years. How did that work influence the film?
I’d been working in reality TV for nine years, so as a casting producer, a story producer, as a field producer I worked on a ton of different shows and I had this really cool experience of just being able to travel around the country and interview people. “The Marriage Ref” was great because I really got to peek into people’s marriages and interview them about the funny, the awesome and the weird, tragic moments, and it was a comedic show, but at the same time, you are being welcomed into people’s living rooms and their lives for a little bit and you get this very cathartic moment with them where you’re discussing the intricate details of their marriage. I also had a boss on that show, Sandra Philippeaux, who was the most inspiring person to me in my life when it comes to running a set and being a director because I learned everything I needed to know about being a boss from her. That experience and that group of people was just invaluable to me.
That probably helped when you found out you only had 11 days of prep once the financing came through…
Did you know Austin well enough that the locations were already written into the script or did you really have 11 days to figure it out?
Just from having prior experience in Austin, I did know people were really welcoming and accommodating about art projects, but when I got there, it was a shock because I was like, “Man, I’ve got a million locations and nothing’s locked.” My location scouts and my location manager were great and we just knocked on doors and went to storefronts. We would beg a smoke shop to use as the interior of Zoe’s wax salon, or we found locations on AirBNB, which was crazy. We’d [ask], “Can we please rent this room? We need your house for five days.” And people were really open to it. For every door that slammed in our face, we just kicked open a new one and found our spots. The North Loop [in particular] is so awesome. It’s one of the cool neighborhoods in Austin.
But there were places like the Hope Outdoor Gallery and certain spots around Austin that really meant a lot to me that were so visual and so cinematic that I always wanted to shoot at. I wanted Vulcan from the beginning [to be the video store]. I left so many voicemails with the owners, they must’ve thought I was insane. I was like, “I love you! I need this! It needs to be you!” Right before we started shooting, they said, “Yes,” and because we have a store closing as our concept in the movie, locals in Austin would be like, “Can I just go in one last time?!? Like this can’t close. This is my life.” People have such an affinity for that place and it’s such a sanctimonious spot for cinema lovers in Austin, so it was cool to use Vulcan as a backdrop. Then I saw this awesome graffiti painted store that was for lease that was directly across the street, so we wound up using that for the exterior of Zoe’s wax salon.
Austin bands are also very prominently featured and you’ve said you were listening to music while writing this. How did they factor in?
I had been to Austin a bunch of times and I fell in love with this musician Matt the Electrician — Josh Radnor’s obsessed with him also. He’s this amazing lyricist and he has this incredible voice, so I became aware of him through some people in Austin and saw these amazing songs on YouTube and he was the first person I contacted, [saying] “Hey, I need to use your music in the movie. It would mean so much to me.” And he was really open to it and then the rest of the music were recommendations from crew and [other] people I knew locally, like the Ghost Wolves, and Los Coast and Sailor Poon, who [both] perform in the movie. They’re all these phenomenal bands that I can’t believe were cool enough to give me their music.
Is it true it was the music that clinched Josh Radnor’s involvement?
Josh is like a music geek-and-a-half, so he read the script and I had song cues within the context of the script, and he would go on Spotify and get every song and make a playlist. Much like Paul, he’s really in love with mix tapes or playlists, as they’re called now, so he just made a playlist of all the music that was in the movie and just fell in love with that aspect. I was just like, “We like the same stuff.”
You have the perfect closing song, “Shit Makes the Flowers Grow, which really brings home one of the central ideas of the film — that failure can be as much of a way of making progress as success. Was that easy to embrace as an ending thematically, both in terms of the idea and the song?
Yeah, I think failure is a huge part of success and it’s a huge part of life. For every time you get knocked down, you have to pick yourself back up and fight and that was certainly a metaphor for me making this movie. I literally have had every door slammed in my face. I’ve had everyone tell me “It’s a really good writing sample and that I should just give up [trying to make it into a movie,” but I never did. And my producers never did. My producer Ash Christian literally sat by my side forever to make sure this went from script to screen. So definitely the underlying message is failure’s okay and it’s even kind of awesome in a way. You learn so much from it. When Jane says in the movie [to Paul], “I’m really glad I failed with you,” I think that’s such a cool moment because you get the joke of life when you fail a lot. Then you realize why you had to.
And Folk Uke, which is the band that [performs] “Shit Makes the Flowers Grow,” I actually found later down the line. They’re big band [in Austin] that does a lot of humor songs and also this really cool folk band, led by two amazing women [Cathy Guthrie and Amy Nelson], one of whom is Willie Nelson’s daughter. I just contacted [Amy] and was like, “Hey, I’m obsessed with your song. I just need it in the credits,” and she was so cool. She was like, “We’d love to do that. Let’s make it happen.”
Since it’s your first feature, is it interesting to have written scenes that you then have to figure out how to direct or are those things naturally intertwined while you’re writing it?
From the visual perspective, a lot of that has to do with having a really great [director of photography], someone that you really, really trust who can read your mind. And Sandra Valde, my DP, was the only crew member I flew out to Austin besides my producer. We were soul mates cinematically and we totally get each other’s sensibilities and color scheme and we worked from a lot of photographs and just looked at how we would play with the light and color and saturation. Shotlisting with her was one of the most fun parts of making the movie just because she said “yes” to everything. I would say, “I want to do a 360° shot around [Zoe’s] head with all of these lights going,” and [Sandra’s] like, “Yes, let’s do it. I know we don’t have time, but we will build this dolly and I know that we’ll make it happen for nothing.” And that was really, really cool. We mostly shot everything we intended.
Performance-wise, actors will surprise you. It’s crazy. Like you never know what to expect. There are times when Aya Cash would deliver a line and it would just throw me for a loop because it’s not necessarily how I saw it in my head, but it was so much better. That’s always really fun when an actor can just floor you with your performance and you’re like, “I see this now in a totally different way.” I had those moments with every cast member. They were all really dimensional and capable of a lot.
Was there anything that really came out of the blue during shooting that you were happy made it into the final film?
Yeah, Fortune Feimster [who plays Zoe’s friend Sarah-Beth]. She’s just a hurricane of hilarity. She’s an actual genius to watch work and improv is something I thought we’d do a little of. I know Noël is really well-versed in improv and my other actors were capable of doing it, but I had no idea Fortune Feimster would come in and wing it in a way that totally steals every scene she’s in. As a first-time director, it was cool to learn how to direct improv and to learn how to make sure, especially when you’re shooting on one camera, that it’ll actually cut together and [how to] provoke the right lines from someone that moves the story forward, but also gives them the freedom to be funny.
After carrying this with you for so long, what’s it like to be putting this into the world?
Oh my God. It’s like I had a baby and now it’s my college-aged child who’s been living in my basement and I want it to go out and get a job and live its life and earn its own money. [laughs] But I’m excited. When this has been with me for so long, it’s a weird feeling of what do I do next in a lot of ways, but I’m excited for people to go out and check out a movie that feels honest and real and has female lead characters because we need more of those.
“Social Animals” opens on June 1st in Los Angeles at the AMC Orange 30 and in New York at the AMC Loews Jersey Gardens 20, the AMC Palisades 20 and the AMC Loews New Brunswick 18. It is also available now on iTunes.