Paul Rudd and Filmmaker Rob Burnett on The Fundamentals of Caring

Paul Rudd and filmmaker Rob Burnett on The Fundamentals of Caring

You probably can’t find anyone who is more in touch with comedy than Rob Burnett, having spent over 20 years as producer (and a couple years as head writer) for Late Night with David Letterman, as well as heading Letterman’s Worldwide Pants. Pairing Burnett with a similar comic genius like actor Paul Rudd seems like the perfect formula for laughs, which is only part of what they were going for with their movie, The Fundamentals of Caring.

Loosely based on Jonathan Evison’s The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, it’s a classic Sundance dramedy in which Rudd plays Ben, a writer trying to overcome a tragedy by taking a caregiving class. After getting his certificate, his first job interview is to care for a teenager named Trevor (Craig Roberts from Submarine), who is suffering from the debilitating and potentially fatal disease of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD), which severely limits his movement.

Ben soon learns that Trevor, who mainly stays inside his house, has a very dark and cynical sense of humor, but as he’s challenged by his younger ward, Ben finds he can push back, and he finally decides to take Trevor on a road trip to get him out of the house. Along the way, they meet a rebellious runaway named Dot (Selena Gomez) who makes their trip even more interesting.

Considering the premise and the very serious condition of its main characters, it’s hard to think there would be a way to make this concept as an entertaining and even funny film as it is, but Burnett certainly proves his knack for pulling as much humor as possible from a potentially delicate situation. You can watch the trailer below: had a chance to speak with Rob Burnett and Paul Rudd at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and learned that they had a mutual respect for each other before making the movie and afterwards as well. (Note: The following interview was done at the Sundance Film Festival before this writer had a chance to see the film, though he’s seen it twice since doing this interview.) I know a little bit about the movie, like the fact that it’s based on a book, so maybe you can talk about that book and how you discovered it and decided to adapt it?

Robert Burnett: I had decided to try and adapt a book — that was kind of the plan — so I asked my agency CAA to send books and they started sending books. This was the first one I read and I absolutely adored it, but you can’t of course buy the first one, so I then said, “Okay, let’s keep going.” I read 20 more books and then I came back to this one and said, “This is the one I want.” It’s a beautiful book. Jonathan Evison did such a great job dealing with such difficult subject matter, and he never leaned into the sentimentality of it. I was super-attracted to the notion that you can tell a story that is bathed in tragedy as a comedy. So far, the movie has been getting a lot of laughs, thanks to the man to my left and the other guy (Craig Roberts), so it’s been a thrilling ride so far.

CS: So it is a straight comedy? I wasn’t sure from what I read about it.

Burnett: I wouldn’t call it a straight comedy. There is certainly an emotional undercurrent to it. You can’t get away from what you’re dealing with, but for a movie of this tone, there are a lot of laughs, at least in the screenings that we’ve had so far. Of course, now that I’ve said this, we’ll play to dead silence. There will be tumbleweeds coming across the Eccles.

CS: I’d be surprised if that’s true because the audiences at Eccles will laugh at anything, even the most bizarre things, so if the movie’s funny it will get laughs. Paul, you’ve done smaller, independent movies, and you’re no stranger to Sundance, so what was the appeal to you?

Paul Rudd: The script, I loved the script, and that was it right out of the gate. In particular, that thing that Rob is talking about, which is the humor, the jokes were great. There were these two guys that were going through their own personal things and yet could relate to each other and enjoy each other’s company in a very macabre and singular way. They could joke with each other in ways that other people around them might not get. I thought that sentiment carried through this story. I really like that kind of thing.

CS: Did you guys know each other beforehand, maybe from your Letterman days?

Burnett: I think our paths have crossed a little bit, but we really didn’t know each other. We are both from New York and know a lot of the same people in comedy circles, but no, I just sent Paul an Email. As I was writing it, I started thinking about Paul. I couldn’t help but think about Paul, because it’s the kind of thing where you need somebody… there’s lots of funny people, there’s lots of people that can act and when you get to the Venn Diagram of the two, it starts to become a very small sliver. I knew this was very delicate material. What’s great about Paul, one of the things, is that we have a very similar sensibility comedically in that he knows not to push for laughs. Everything comes out in reality, and he can carry the dramatic stuff as well. I began thinking about him, and sent him an Email and said, “Would you meet for a cup of coffee?” which is odd because at that point I didn’t drink coffee. It was a lot of pressure for me.

Rudd: That’s true. You didn’t drink coffee, and now…

Burnett: And now I drink coffee. I said, “You know what? This is okay.”

Rudd: Welcome to the glorious world of coffee drinking. I knew who Rob was. I met you a couple of times and I knew who he was apart from his work. I enjoyed the show and I knew Mike Black was a friend of ours and Donal Logue, originally, but I’m also a Letterman fan so I knew who he was before I ever met him. I was happy and excited to get this Email and he just said, “Would you read this script?” and I said “Of course,” and right away I thought, “Wow, I don’t read many things like this,” that I had such a visceral reaction to. So it was immediately a no-brainer for me.

CS: The other part of the equation is Craig Roberts, who plays Trevor. He was great in “Submarine” so what made you think of him to play that role? Did you have to audition a lot of people?

Burnett: To be honest with you, one of the unwritten and unspoken benefits of having Paul Rudd in your movie is that once you get Paul Rudd then everyone wants to be in your movie, so it’s fantastic. 

Rudd: I don’t know if that’s quite true.

Burnett: Well, at least it happened to me, because suddenly I’m sitting there and my phone’s ringing off the hook, so that’s a long way of saying that by this point, we had brought on Donna Gigliotti to help produce, and we really had the pick of… we discussed almost everybody in that age range, and we knew that the movie would rise or fall based on that casting choice. We knew that there had to be chemistry between these guys. I was a huge fan of “Submarine,” I loved it. Craig, yes, we auditioned him several times along with many, many other people and he just has this quality about him. He’s different than Paul, but there’s something about them. They both understand “Let’s just play this for real. We’re not going to push for laughs, we’re not going to push for drama.” I think he’s beautiful in the movie—I’m very impressed with him.

Rudd: I would say that people are drawn to it, not because of me, but because of the script. I think a lot of people read this script and the response universally, as far as I can tell, from anyone who read it, was enthusiasm and a real desire to be in it or read for it. When I met Craig, yeah, I think he and I just clicked pretty quickly, in that way that you’re saying. I think a lot of the same stuff makes us laugh, and it can be left of left of center and playing against everything is key. I thought it was particularly crucial for this. Rob thought so, too, and we talked about it the very first time we met. It was just like “We have to play against this. You cannot lean into anything sentimental here. That’s a treacherous road.” Craig understood that implicitly, and if you don’t believe me we can ask him. (At this point, Rudd yells across the room to Craig Roberts who is sitting twenty feet away.) Craig! Did you believe that implicitly?

Craig Roberts (from twenty feet away): Yes.

Rudd: See?

CS: Did you do a chemistry read together? Was it just meeting beforehand?

Rudd: We actually worked on chemistry together. Lined up a bunch of beakers and Bunsen burners. Yup!

CS: Nice. That would be great if someone actually did that, said “We need you to do a chemistry read” and when they come in…

Rudd: We’d all wear white labcoats.

CS: Did you do any research into muscular dystrophy or caregiving for that?

Burnett: We did. I was helped greatly by Benjy and Tracy Seckler who run an organization called “Charley’s Fund.” Their son has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and they’ve been huge activists, and I had known them for a while actually. There’s a documentary called “Darius Goes West,” I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, that weirdly almost as an afterthought, it’s about a bunch of guys who take this kid and put him in an RV and get him out of his town in Alabama. Weirdly and not consciously, there’s actually some similarities. It’s worth people seeing. Anyway, Benjy and Tracy were very generous with us. I went to visit some kids that had DMD. They set up some visits for Craig in England as well. Paul was extraordinarily busy at the time, but was talking to me constantly about all kinds of things. “How would you transfer? How would you lift?” and I felt confident at that point, because of the time I had spent with these kids. The challenging thing about portraying DMD I think is that there’s a very large spectrum of outcomes with this horrible disease, so you find at any age, you can have kids that… there are all different outcomes. We really decided to be very specific and say, “Okay, this is the outcome for this character. Let’s be consistent and do it this way.” That’s what we did.

CS: What’s it like doing a movie like this where you’re playing scenes with someone so much younger than you? Is it a very different experience?

Rudd: No, not at all. You can tell right away whether or not you click with somebody, and if you’re playing something that might be funny or dramatic, but neither one of you are putting quotes around it, you know what the other person is doing and you just slide into a very natural way of working. It happened with Craig and I pretty quickly, and as far as conversations about that, they were minimal, but we both I think had an understanding of how to approach this material and not make it maudlin.

Burnett: I think when you’re making a movie, a huge thing is that it’s hard to hit the target, so I think the first thing is that everyone agrees on the target, and if you agree on the target, you still have your work cut out for you, if it’s not done, but boy, it makes it much easier and much more fun, and in this case, Paul, Craig and I for sure, we knew what we were going for. Like anything, you hit it sometimes in the bullseye, and sometimes you miss a little bit, but for me, it was extremely valuable, honestly, to have Paul there, to use a sports analogy: “He’s not just good on the field, he’s good in the locker room as well.” Literally he passed out towels for me and Craig… no, I’m kidding. It was great for me to have another… most of the stuff I’d done before this, I had a writing partner, the great John Beckerman, who I worked on many, many things with, so you just had two guys that always knew what you were going for. As much as you want to be by yourself think that you can get that done, it’s so valuable for Paul to be able to quietly nudge me and say, “This this this.” It really helped the movie.

CS: I have to imagine that a movie like this would always be difficult tonally, but I’ve been reading that as far as music, you have some Leonard Cohen in there, so what was your approach to using the music to help create that tone.

Burnett: We had a music supervisor, Joe Rudge. We tried to come up with stuff that fit the mood but didn’t lean too heavily into things. The Leonard Cohen song (“I’m Your Man”) and the Kishi Bashi song (“Bright Whites”) are an exception. We actually found that female lyricists were better, because it didn’t feel like they were singing from Craig’s point of view, so a lot of my taste in music, I do like a lot of indie music, and when you start to put some of that stuff on some of this, it starts to feel really old-fashioned, in a way. It’s just in that constant effort to stay away from sentimentality. The Leonard Cohen song, that scene I wrote because of that song. I adore that song, it’s always resonated with me for some reason. If you listen to the lyrics of that song, the vulnerability of what he’s saying, but with the virility of his voice, the two of those things—not too corny—can almost make me weep if I’m in the right mood. That scene exists in the movie because of that song. It wasn’t dirt cheap but at one point they said, “Well, can we replace it?” and I said, “Well if we’re going to replace it, we’re just going to take that scene out, because it’s the only reason it’s there.”

CS: Is there any room for improv in a movie like this? I know you have the knack for it, but I’m sure some movies there’s just no place for it.

Rudd: Yeah, there is. Every time I’m asked this question, I always say “I guess” but the script, it really is all there. There’s a lot of funny dialogue written…

Burnett: Paul’s too modest because some of the funniest stuff in the movie is ad-libbed. In fact, one of the big scenes that everyone’s talking about is when Paul asks Craig to try a Slim Jim, and the credit I get for that scene is writing down, “Paul Rudd should be in my movie.” That’s what I wrote.

Rudd: Is that the first scene we shot?

Burnett: No, was it?

Rudd: It was one of them. Yeah, I think it might have been. It was early on, because I remember I didn’t know anybody.

Burnett: One thing Paul and I both share is that — I don’t want to speak for Paul — but I think we’re both a little bit comedy geeks in a certain way and Craig as well, and there are certain words, little tiny things… it’s funny but when you watch a movie that you made over and over again, there’s just certain things that every time I see them I’m just like, “Thank you, Paul Rudd.” Some of them are small, by the way, some little tiny turn of phrase that wasn’t in the script. Sometimes it goes the other way when you’re dealing with actors. I’m never a super-stickler that every word is gold. I’m not that kind of person, as long as you get the intention and either keep it the same or make it better, but sometimes, little turns of phrases, syllables, words, can ruin things. But Paul just has an instinct for this.

Rudd: Thanks, Rob.

CS: Actually almost every director I speak to from John Hamburg to James Brooks have said great things about Paul’s contributions as an uncredited writer on their movies.

Rudd: Oh, that’s nice. Thank you. Thanks, John and James.

You can also read what Rudd had to say about writing the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp sequel for Marvel Studios right here.

The Fundamentals of Caring will open in select L.A. theaters and be available streaming on Netflix starting Friday, June 24.