In tribute to teams that bring movies to life, we're talking with filmmakers to learn how they collaborated to complete their films despite the isolation and distance of pandemic lockdowns.
Today, writer/director Nikole Beckwith describes her process for casting and why Ed Helms and Patti Harrison felt like the ideal fit for her characters in Together, Together, the new comedy premiering January 31st at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Dropbox: What sparked the idea for a comedy about surrogacy?
Nikole Beckwith: I'm a playwright, originally, and the last play I wrote has a surrogacy theme. It's such an intimate and deeply personal thing for both parties, but also clinical—and you're strangers. That is just intriguing to me. My plays are deeply farcical and kind of absurdist. I wanted to look at that story from a grounded, real world perspective.
I was inspired a lot by conversations I had with my friend Matt. He was talking about the experience of the male biological clock. I'd never talked to anyone about that before. I think our culture is obsessed with the idea that women are ruled by their biological clock, and also never mention the fact that men also have an inner drive towards fatherhood. Part of changing the way that we tell stories about women means that we also need to change the types of stories of men as well. You can't have one without the other.
Tamara Melnik from the San Francisco Film Society contacted me about a fellowship. It was right after my first film, Stockholm, Pennsylvania, was at Sundance 2015. Everyone assumed I was going to pitch a thriller idea. But I said, “I want to do a comedy,” They were like, “Wait, what?” I thought, “What about this idea that I've been kicking around?” I pitched it, got the fellowship, and wrote the screenplay over the next few years.
Anthony Brandonisio was on my first film. He and I became close during post [production]. The making of that movie was kind of a tumultuous experience for me. He was a grounding presence, and someone I knew I could trust, who I could believe, who was experienced. He and I developed “a trust circle.” When I finished [a draft of] Together, Together, he was the first person I sent the script to. I was like, “Do you want to do another movie together? Maybe you could just be the person that I talk to?”
“Everyone assumed I was going to pitch a thriller idea. But I said, 'I want to do a comedy,' They were like, 'Wait, what?'”
He and I started working that way on the script. We developed it for a little while, then started sending it out. He really put the funding together and brought the production team together. He sent the script to Ed Helms. Ed responded to the script and asked to meet. I happened to be in LA. We had this really lovely conversation about the film.
He is just a wonderful person. It was easy to connect with him. He doesn't even know that I'm such a big fan of him or his work. I don't know what I was expecting when we met. He's known for very big performances, very comedic energy. I was so surprised to meet him. It was just very genuine, chill, not performative at all. It was just amazing to me how grounded and unassuming and open he was to talking with someone who’d only made one movie. By the end of our coffee, he signed on to do the movie. So that kind of ramped things up. We're like, “Alright, let's actually go for this!”
I had seen Patti on The Tonight Show, her famous appearance. I was like, “Oh, look, there's Anna.” There's just something about her that just clicked to me. When I was casting my first film, I tended to watch interviews more than performances. I'll watch a lot of interviews of someone more than I'll sit and watch the movies. I tend to look for them talking as themselves more than anything else.
Why does it feel important to connect to the actor’s actual personality, as opposed to what they've been able to show in other performances?
I think it's your toolbox. Whoever you are, whatever you're walking around with, your worldview, that's the infinite, endless that’s in there, you know? Every performance is the actors taking on certain elements of their experience or sensibilities or worldview.
A performance is them transforming into somebody else based on the collaboration with the director. I don't necessarily want to look for someone else's performance to think whether or not like they can do something. But I can talk to them as a person and get a feel for them like, “Yeah, there's some stuff in there. I can see where exactly we'll be pulling from in their own heart to bring things out.” That just seems to be more informative.
The cast is an ensemble of incredible comedic actors like Tig Notaro, Julio Torres (Los Espookys) and Anna Konkle (Pen15). Did you have them in mind while you were writing the script?
It was amazing. Once we had Ed attached, so many people thought I had written it for him, because they would read it and imagine him. The same thing for Anna and for Jules. Working with actors is my absolute favorite part of everything. I just love it. I love people. It’s why I'm a writer. I love watching the interviews. When I'm feeling that click: “Oh, it's this person, I know, it's this person!” Then it becomes very organic and natural.
“I think our culture is obsessed with the idea that women are ruled by their biological clock, and also never mention the fact that men also have an inner drive towards fatherhood.”
It’s also funny because when we were looking through the script, I remember Ed asking, “How much can we riff?" I was, like, “I don’t want to bum everyone out, but none.” Because I’m very word specific, very phrasing specific. There's definitely some great improvs that are in the movie that I really appreciate. But they happen in the midst of a scene happening exactly as scripted.
There are some funny, brilliant lines and moments that were improvised with the actors, which is great. But it’s hard to improvise in character. The character of Matt is a tech whiz. It’s hard to be improvising as the super smart guy with a mind for numbers. Same thing for Patti improvising as Anna. I think Julio improvising as Jules was the easiest, because it was kind of like a fish in water. I think some of that comes from getting to know that character really well, the scene really well, the words really well. Then having those distinct lines actually gives you more freedom.
The movie is jam-packed with comedic geniuses and people who I have long admired. The feeling of that collaboration and having them trust my instincts for the story as much as their own instincts for the medium is just such a generous and wonderful experience.
When I watch The Office, there are things that are just so funny. You really key into the vulnerability and the very human, very grounded place in the character that those things are coming from. The first few times you're watching it, you're getting the joke. Then if you're watching it the fourth time, you're seeing all the moments in between the jokes and how that all fits together.
That's what I was thinking about when I was meeting with Ed about this. I want a whole character, a whole performance of those moments, those in-between-the-joke moments, because that's a beautiful talent. I think comedy is like taking something that's very dark and making it light. Comedy is collectively the human coping mechanism. We need comedy. Because it's so ubiquitous, it can be easy to forget what an extremely specific and very rare gift is. I do think that when you have that comedy gift, you’re holding hands with sadness or these deeper qualities of what it is to be alive.
I love that much of what you're describing is about trying to capture authentic, natural, raw moments of intimacy that many of us have been missing during this year of isolation. Did the lockdowns affect the making of the film?
We were very lucky in that October 4, 2019 was our last shoot day. From October to February, I was editing in person. The bulk of it was done. We'd had two test screenings, one in December, and one in February. That was also nice because I got to sit in a room with people and hear and feel things. We were pretty far along in our editing before isolation started. But it became suddenly a much slower process.
“When you have that comedy gift, you’re holding hands with sadness or these deeper qualities of what it is to be alive.”
Basically, the only two times I left my apartment in LA was to go do color and sound. Color was really interesting because the [Director of Photography] Frank Barrera and I never once were looking at the same monitor as the colorist at the same time. Color is always really hard, for me anyway, because it's so specific. Everyone kind of sees color differently. But we went in and set looks and stuff. The colorist did a bunch of work. then we went back into the space. But it was still just Frank and I in the room, basically, and everything else was remote.
For sound, it was setting an initial vibe, then a bunch of work happened on headphones. It's hard to do sound on headphones. They sent me nice headphones, so I wasn't doing it with my air pods. I think we did maybe three days of sound in person with triple masks, and face shields on, and negative tests.
But I felt very lucky that we'd wrapped. I can't imagine being on a set right now. I feel like it takes 100% of your brain to make a movie, and it also kind of takes 100% of your brain to not contract a global virus. So those two things combined just seem like an impossible feat to be protecting everybody, protecting yourself, and doing your jobs at the same time. That seems very overwhelming to me.
Did the circumstances affect your editing choices?
I don't think it affected choices that I made, but I was very grateful for the movie. It was funny because lockdown, especially the beginning of it, really felt like Groundhog Day. We were all kind of losing our sense of time. Everything seemed to be moving very quickly and very slowly at the same time. That it is amplified when you're also watching the same scene over and over again for a day, two days, three days, who knows? You don't remember. So it ramped up that kind of crazy feeling for me.
But the movie, the story, and the characters are kind. I felt grateful to be able to spend that time [with them]. I live alone. For the last year, I've been by myself. So the movie is what has been invited into my home and my life the most. More than once, consciously, I’ve just acknowledged how grateful I was that they were characters I wanted to be spending that amount of time with, played by people who I also love.
I think that's such a gift, when you know you're making something you love. Then also, through the course of making the film, the people that you're collaborating with also just become so important to you. I really I love them. The story to me is hopeful and I just felt grateful to able to spend my time that way.
To check out the Sundance Film Festival’s new online platform, visit festival.sundance.org
To read about the making of this year’s films, visit our Sundance 2021 Featured Collection.