CS Interview: Writer/Director BenDavid Grabinski on Twilight Zone rom-com Happily
Just in time for the daring film’s debut, ComingSoon.net got the opportunity to chat with debuting writer/director BenDavid Grabinski (Are You Afraid of the Dark?) to discuss his Twilight Zone-esque rom-com Happily featuring an ensemble roster led by Joel McHale and Kerry Bishé.
ComingSoon.net Happily, man that movie was trip, but it was so much fun and it was such an interesting ride. How did the concept for this really come to your mind?
BenDavid Grabinski: Well, first I want to say thank you because I couldn’t have asked for a better description. Can I put that on a poster? I think it’s too late, our poster’s done. You know, it came from two things. There’s two, I’d call them genres but I don’t know if the really count as genres, but two genres of movie that I really love. I love movies that are very romantic, but offbeat, like Phantom Thread, Wild at Heart, Gone Girl, even, I could argue about Gone Girl being a weird rom com all day, but I won’t. Then the other genre I really like is I love movies that feel like a 90-minute Twilight Zone episode and it’s not about being Twilight Zone literally, it’s just there’s a vibe of watching Twilight Zone where there’s like relatable emotions and characters, but the more you get into it, the more you start to feel unsettled, and you can never really feel exactly what’s coming next. I wanted to combine those two things so I could make a movie that was very romantic, but off kilter, that also had that kind of unsettling unease of The Twilight Zone. The multi genre element of this movie, I think, also leads to the entertainment value, because you never know where it’s going next, you’re not sure if it’s gonna be a straight drama or straight comedy, or if there’s even going to be sci-fi elements and all of that was just really exciting to me.
CS: With the the cast that you have in this film, I mean, comedy vets from all walks of life, did you write some of these characters with these performers in mind or was it just the luck of the draw?
BDG: Well, that was actually the biggest lesson I learned from writing and directing this movie is writing with actors in mind. It can be helpful for like just getting the work done, but it’s kind of useless. What ends up really happening is if you’re lucky enough that you wrote a script that people like, you’re still driven by who was available, who was looking for a smaller thing right now, who really wants to just be doing TV, who lives in the city you’re shooting in? So the job ends up being I got Joel first and I was really excited about it, because it felt like he was cast against type. I could capture a little bit of his vulnerable Boy Scout side that he had in The Informant, which I love, then after that, you say, “Okay, tell me every actor available in LA to shoot from February 1 to the end of February. Okay, I really like this guy, I think he can be Val, let’s see if he likes the script.” What ends up happening is you’re looking at who’s available and then also finding out who you’re excited about and who you can see doing the part. So much of the job is scheduling and logistics and your job is to make the best artistic choice you can be with what’s there. In this case, I got every single person I was happy with, I’m happy with everybody’s performances. No one was someone I’d written it for, the only person who I brought on that I knew personally was Shannon Woodward, because she was a friend of mine, then also a very good actor. But everybody else it was really just like, “Hey, Paul Scheer is available and liked your script” and I’m like “I love Paul Scheer, let’s get on a Zoom.” Basically, the lesson of it is that I wrote the next script, that I’m hoping to direct soon, and I didn’t even bother thinking of anybody. I’m just gonna sit down and say, “Who’s the best person available now” and I’ll just think, “Can I do this? Are they good for this tone? Have they done it too much?” In this case, I just really lucked out because a lot of talented people liked my really weird script.
CS: What was it about this script that you wanted it to be your directorial debut?
BDG: I literally spent a decade trying to make a different movie, it kept almost happening, but the movie was expensive. It was literally more than 10 times the budget of this one and it couldn’t get smaller, because there’s like a 20 minute car chase in it. [chuckles] So no matter what country I shot in, no matter how much they tried to make it easier or cheaper, I could not and I finally took a hint after it not happening for seven years and almost happening, I’m like, “I need to write something smaller.” The problem is almost everything I write tends to have explosions or FBI agents or robots or a bunch of things. I knew I wasn’t going to have a lot of money and I basically was just trying to come up with a concept that I was really passionate about that I also felt like only I would make. I don’t mean in terms of quality, I just mean like I wanted to make something so if I never got to make another movie, I could look at this and go “That was very me.” I wanted to feel like almost in a way like I got away with something. Going back to what I’d said earlier, I got really excited about the idea of making an offbeat romantic movie that was funny and felt like a Twilight Zone episode and it is contained enough. I personally, hopefully feel like the movie doesn’t look or sound or feel cheap, I don’t think it feels like I didn’t have money, cuz I didn’t have money, but I’m just really happy with how it turned out. I truly do feel like if for some reason I never got to direct again and I had to just keep writing and producing, I’d probably be okay, because I got to do everything I wanted with this little weird movie.
CS: Since you do mention the look of the film, what were your thoughts when you were sort of developing the look? Did you have specific influences or inspiration?
I mean, that’s the thing, you know, some people will be like, “Oh, I don’t have influences.” I have 1000, [chuckles] it would take all day for me to list everything, but for me I wanted it to feel like a ’70s paranoid thriller. My kind of joke of that is the paranoia in this is more emotional, sometimes as an adult, you wonder “Wait do my friends actually liked me, or wait, does my spouse actually like me, or all these things” and the movie captures that emotional paranoia, and I wanted it to feel like a lot of my favorite movies from back then. But the weird thing about either my writing or my approach to directing is there’s so many disparate influences that they kind of add up to being its own thing. Because you could say it’s De Palma, you could say it’s Lynch, you could say it’s a lot of things, but for me, I was just really trying to follow my gut. I really believe that a stylistic approach doesn’t undercut the comedy, and a lot of comedies, to me, the way that they’re shot and lit feels a little insecure, like you’re worried people won’t laugh. I really wanted to avoid that approach, but at the end of the day, I just wanted it to feel like a stylized thriller, and part of the reason that was doable on the budget is I focused a lot of attention on locations and also instead of shooting coverage, we’d spend 90 minutes lighting one shot for a scene instead of like, you know, doing everything we can to get as many different shots we could so you’re kind of prepared for the edit. I prepped a lot, I thought about it a lot, because I wrote it in 2016 and I shot it in February 2019.
CS: Did you allot your performance the opportunity to sort of improv here and there or was it pretty much all just right there on the page?
BDG: There’s only, I think, two lines in the movie that are improvised. It’s very kind of rigid, but not, like you’ll have a line and then when someone says it out loud, sometimes it won’t sound right and then you’ll sit with them and talk about it and things get changed on the day. But in terms of like, people just saying things I was off book 99 percent of the shoot was sticking to the script and then there was some riffing. But it led to two of my favorite lines in the movie. I don’t want to take credit for them, but Jon Daly says “Nice tits, bro” to Joel. Regarding it being laugh out loud funny, I personally do find it very funny in that way, but I mean, I guess this is a spoiler, so if you haven’t seen the movie, don’t read this part. On first viewing, I hope that someone’s so worried about the ending, that it may get in the way of kind of being a laugh out loud movie. But once you know that everyone is going to be okay, except for one guy who deserves to die, I think you can kind of loosen up and enjoy it. But I do think on the first viewing if you don’t know what’s happening, the unsettling nature may overwhelm the comedic side. Does that make sense?
CS: Now that you do say that, I feel like I want to go back and give it another watch just to see if I can get that dichotomy of feelings in there.
BDG: Look dichotomy, big word. Love it.
CS: It’s rare, I use big words.
BDG: Hey, man, I’m sorry that my dumb movie inspired you to use big words.
CS: Actually, I will say there’s so many different kinds of relationships explored in this, there’s domestic abuse, there’s infidelity, there’s all these different things. What was it like for you exploring all of these different facets when writing it?
BDG: Well, I really wanted to make a movie for adults about what it’s like to be an adult. A lot of times, when you’re coming up with concepts like this, someone will tell you “Oh, that’s for TV, which is where you make shows for adults about adults or stories like that.” But I had a stubborn kind of feeling, which is not every story needs to be 10 hours long and this is a 90-minute story I wanted to tell that felt like a movie. My North Star was really trying to make a movie that was about things that were personal for me and emotional, but also that I think are in some ways universal. I mean, like, for adults, you have couple friend groups and if you’re in a couple, there’s conflict, there’s things left unsaid. Then when it comes to that sort of heavier subject matter, I wanted to get into kind of the murkier areas of being an adult, but also kind of have a clear statement that some things are unforgivable, but that’s sort of a complicated subtext, thematic thing about the movie. Most of what the movie’s about to me is not ever verbalized, and that’s okay, I mean you could just watch a movie and enjoy it as a piece of entertainment, you could watch it and think it maybe has something to say. I mean, I don’t know if they’re right or wrong, and a lot of the movie to me is very personal and also I tried to be a little honest, in spite of all my sarcasm and dumb jokes.
Happily follows Tom (McHale) and Janet (Bishé) who have been happily married for years. But a visit from a mysterious stranger (Root) leads to a dead body, a lot of questions, and a tense couples’ trip with friends who may not actually be friends at all.
The film stars Emmy Award Nominee Joel McHale (Community, Deliver Us from Evil), Kerry Bishé (Red State, Halt and Catch Fire, Argo), and Emmy Award Nominee Stephen Root (Barry, King of the Hill).
The ensemble’s supporting cast includes Natalie Morales (Parks and Recreation), Paul Scheer (The League), Natalie Zea (Justified), Charlyne Yi (Knocked Up), Breckin Meyer (Designated Survivor), Shannon Woodward (Westworld), Jon Daly (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Kirby Howell-Baptiste (Barry), and Al Madrigal (I’m Dying Up Here).
This riveting dark comedy was financed by Chuckie Duff’s Common Wall Media and produced by Electric Dynamite’s Jack Black and Spencer Berman, Indy Entertainment’s Nancy Leopardi and Ross Kohn and executive produced by Chuckie Duff, as well as filmmakers Dave Green and Kyle Newman.
Happily is set to debut in select theaters and on digital platforms on March 19!