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Interview: Lorene Scafaria on "The Meddler"

by Peter Sobczynski

The writer-director talks about her latest film, the comedy-drama "The Meddler"

At some point in our lives, nearly all of us will be faced with the loss of a loved one and each of us will process that grief in our own way. Some of us will become overly emotional and find reminders of said loved one virtually everywhere they go. Others will take the exact opposite track and suppress those thoughts and simply press on with their lives. Then there are those who will be inspired by the loss to go out and try to start new lives for themselves. That is the path that is chosen by Marnie (Susan Sarandon), the central character of the lovely new comedy-drama "The Meddler." Following the death of her husband, Marnie moves from New York to Los Angeles to be closer to her daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne), but begins to drive her crazy with her incessant calls and texts from her new iPhone and unannounced visits laden with bagels. When Lori gets a job working on a TV show back in New York, Marnie finds herself using her willingness to give and help out - the thing that drove her own daughter crazy - to help others by doing such things as helping a friend of her daughter throw the wedding she never had to inspiring a helpful Apple store clerk to go to night school and even giving him rides home afterwards. In fact, the only person whose heart she is unable to fully open is hers, which comes into conflict when she meets a retired cop (J.K. Simmons) who she really likes and yet is unable to bring herself to do anything about it.

"The Meddler" was written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, who first gained notice for her screenplay for the charming "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" and then made her directorial debut with the end-of-the-world comedy-drama "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" (2012), a film that many people overlooked when it came out but which is more than deserving of a look. Inspired by her relationship with her own mother and how they dealt with the death of her father, the film is being advertised in a way that stresses the wackier aspects of the story and may make it seem like one of those crappy comedies about overbearing parents and exasperated kids that have pretty much defined Diane Keaton's career for the last 15 years or so. Trust me, while it does have plenty of funny moments throughout, it also deals with the notions of grief and how people process it in a sensitive and intelligent way without delving into melodramatic mawkishness. It also contains what is by far the best performance that Susan Sarandon has delivered in years. Having been stuck in a morass of unworthy parts as of late, she tears into the role of Marnie with obvious delight and she pretty much lights up the screen every time she appears - even at her most overbearing, she does it in a way that still comes off as a delight without veering over the line into pure cartoonishness.

With "The Meddler" now opening around the country, Scafaria recently came to Chicago to promote the film and we sat down to talk about it, working with Susan Sarandon and the positive aspects of modern technology in regards to familial relationships.

Although your first film, "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World," was centered around the literal end of the world and your new one, "The Meddler,"i has the somewhat smaller focus of a woman trying to forge a new life for herself after becoming a widow, there are some thematic similarities between the two in that they both deal with the big themes of how people come to grips with things like loss and grief and they both do so by blending comedy and drama together. What was the process of going from that earlier project into creating "The Meddler"?

I started writing this one before I made "Seeking a Friend. . . " I started writing it in 2010, I went and made "Seeking a Friend" in 2011. That came out in 2012 and then I went back to the script. I was sort of reacting to what happened with "Seeking a Friend. . . " and how it was received. I wasn't sure if I was going to be as personal with this one as I sort of ended up being. To me, "Seeking a Friend. . . " was about dying and this one is about surviving. I guess I have some themes running through them - what it is like to lose something. It was hard because "Seeking a Friend. . . " was not a success and it was hard to get back into this position and get back into the director's chair. People were certainly not that excited with this premise - I guess it was pretty low-concept after my high-concept film. Maybe it was so personal that they though I had given them a diary entry instead of a script. It was really hard to get made and I just felt really determined to tell this story. You know, I wasn't as desperate to get the film made. I was desperate to get my first film made and then, you can either make a flawed film or no film and I sort of chose to make a flawed film. With this, I wasn't as desperate because I wanted to get it right and not make the little compromises that you have to do right out of the gate. I just wouldn't do that on this one.

I liked the film a lot but I must confess that when I went to go see it, my expectations were somewhat lowered thanks to having seen the trailer that heavily emphasizes the more overtly comedic moments and made it look like a standard wacky meddling mom movie - the kind of thing that Diane Keaton seems to have been doing exclusive for the last decade or so - without suggesting the more thoughtful and serious-minded aspects that are there as well. Since it is the tone of the script that goes a long way towards making it all work, I was curious as to how long into the writing process it took to find that particular tone.

The biggest thing was to not focus on the daughter that much. For me, that was the biggest note that I was getting from people when I was having trouble getting it made - they would ask "Can't you make the daughter's role as big, if not bigger, as the mothers?" I think we have seen that before and I felt that just kind of got you into this back-and-forth with all the "Mom!!!" and the eye-rolling. I really wasn't interested in telling that story and I really wanted to tell her story and keep it grounded in reality but also tell a story of grief, more than anything, Yes, she is a meddling mom and yes, she cares a lot about her daughter and is trying to mother her but I was sort of hoping to change what the word "meddler" means in a way. I wanted to see how much of it comes from loneliness and from not getting a break from the mom and the daughter not calling her back. She has a lot of love to give and isn't sure of what to do with it now. I really just wanted to focus on a story of grief and tell a story about two people dealing with grief in very different ways and show that it can be very hard to go through this with someone you love. That is sort of the "Seeking a Friend. . . "element - pretty good people in very bad circumstances and how they cope and get through it.

When you are doing a script like this that does come from a more personal part of your life, does it require a different approach than a more ordinary screenplay to which you don't have that kind of specific emotional connection?

It was easier in one way because I felt as if I knew this person's voice so well - I knew exactly how she would respond or react to any situation that she is put in. I knew I wanted it to be a character study - the first five minutes of the movie never changed at all from when I started in 2010. I knew that the story began with her getting a phone and calling her daughter and coming over and all of that. Of course, a lot of it deals with her being a widow and her new circumstances in life but I didn't totally know where it was going to go. I knew I wanted to tell her character's story but I didn't know how personal I wanted to get with it. It just started to take shape and the more scenes I wrote with the mother and daughter, the more I knew that I had to be honest not just with how annoying the mother could be but mean I could be and how we do that to the people who love us unconditionally.

At a certain point, I had to branch off into fiction and add fictional elements to it but I didn't want them to seem so over-the-top that you wouldn't believe that those character would be involved . Certain elements are based on things that she has done - she did offer to pay for a friend's wedding and help out wayward youths, even when they weren't wayward. It was a challenge to see just how much of it was going to be real or not. The J.K. Simmons character is pure fiction - there is no love interest yet - but I knew that it would be an important part of the story to show a person whose heart is open to everybody but isn't open to the idea of romance. I knew I wanted her involved in other people's live and do-gooding but I had to walk a line between reality and fantasy. That actually wound up being the theme of how we wanted to shoot the film. Marnie is somewhere in her head and playing music on a loop just to keep moving. I do think that my mother and the character are kind of in denial and acceptance at the same time and that just sort of allows for a character to be so blissfully grateful for the life they had but also to ignore a lot of the sadness.

At what point in the writing process did you inform your mother of what you were writing and what was her initial reaction to the idea?

Pretty soon into it. I would read her some of the first scenes and when I had about 30 pages, I probably read it to her over the phone. I think she did appreciate that I was as honest about how mean I could be and that I was calling myself out just as much. I think she got a kick out of it. When there was a finished script, it was certainly a nice tool for us at the time for conversations about what we went through and understanding each other and gaining more empathy for each other. Then when Susan Sarandon was playing her - forget it. My mother was over the moon - she said "Oh, Daddy would have loved to have been married to Susan Sarandon." It took on this other life and just became larger than that. It was so fun. I wouldn't let her on the set at all because I didn't want to make Susan uncomfortable but Susan is wearing all my mom's tops from Chico's and that is her purse and her car and my father's car and license. There are so many personal things in there that I think my mom is just pleased that it is all there for eternity. She is one of those selfless people who doesn't even think of it as being a movie about her - she thinks of it as my father's "It's a Wonderful Life" or something. It is very sweet how she views it now. Now, of course, she is more excited than ever. We are experiencing this totally differently - I am stressed and she is having the time of her life.

This is easily the best part that Susan Sarandon has had in a while as well. When writing the part, did you have her or any other actress specifically in mind for the role?

Not when I was writing it. When I was writing it, it was just my mother and this character of Marnie. When I was done writing it and it was time to find the right person, Susan was the first person that popped into my head. People were just kind of discouraging of the film and it was hard to get made. I had pictured her in the part but it took two years before I just got so fed up with the system that I sent a letter to her agent cold and sent the script unsolicited saying that I just could not picture anyone else in the role but her. Luckily, her agent has a mother a lot like mine, so she she got it and gave it to Susan and she loved it. I think she was grateful for the role but I was even more grateful since it was because of her that a lot of the other actors got involved. J.K. and Rose and the others were just so excited to work with her and be in a scene or two with her - J.K. was certainly excited to be able to kiss her.

The casting of J.K. Simmons was interesting as well - he is a great character actor, of course, and has played gentler roles in films like "Juno" but I think that this is the first time that he has ever played anything even remotely close to a romantic interest in a film.

I've been a fan of his for a long time. I think "Thank You for Smoking" was the first time I remember seeing his face, though I am sure I had seen him in many things before that. He has been so sweet in other things and I would like to say that I was creative enough to have thought of him for it before "Whiplash," but I wasn't. I have said that it takes a girl with daddy issues to see "Whiplash" and think that he would be a great romantic lead but I did. I saw that and I just thought that he could do absolutely anything. I liked the idea of this character being sort of a reformed version of that man - that Zipper used to be a guy with a temper and a crazy job and was probably a much more intense man and now he has reached the point where he has retired and is laid-back and super Zen with his chickens. I just liked the idea that J.K.'s character in "Whiplash" was sort of the black hat cowboy and this would be his white hat cowboy.

One of the most interesting things about the film is the way that it shows an older character embracing modern technology and using it to help reach out to the world. Most of the time, older characters are shown to be either fearful or ignorant of any new form of technology but here, Marnie takes to things like her iPhone and uses them to help better her life.

There is a reason that the film starts with her getting the phone and leaving the message with her daughter. It becomes this literal lifeline to her daughter and anyone else. It is kind of a cure for loneliness as well - it is a friend to have lunch with and it is something to fall asleep with. I like the idea of treating the phone like the volleyball in "Cast Away," as something she would be lost without at that point. That is kind of how I view technology. On the one hand, it is horrible and the Internet feels like this terrible place and everybody is really mean on it. And yet, it is such a great place for people to realize that they are not alone and whatever they are thinking about, they can Google it and someone has also thought about it or has the symptom. I like the idea that it becomes a true lifeline for her and I like seeing someone her age embrace technology. My mother certainly got a phone and learned how to text - at first it was letters with no spaces and now she is really into emojis. It is happening - people of all ages are embracing technology a little more. A lot of moms hate that you just text them back because they want the call and it takes a bit to realize that this is actually a way to be in contact even more. Families are group-texting - i think it is actually a beautiful tool for people to connect with each other.

"The Meddler" is the second film that you have directed. Were there any specific aspects of directing that you learned from the process of making "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" that you were able to apply to your work on this film?

I learned everything from that experience just because that was my first time out and I just did not really know what to fight for. The answer is "everything" - you have to fight for everything. The compromises that you make out of the gate thinking that they aren't really going to have that great of an impact turn out to have a big impact. For "Seeking a Friend," we shot on the West Coast to substitute for the East Coast because of actors schedules and other things and had I realized what an effect that would have on the scope of the film and the look of the film, I probably wouldn't have done it. With this, I just wanted to make it right and not compromise too much out of the gate to make sure that I was at least set up for not failing right away. I learned what to fight for and how to just sort of stay true to your vision. On paper, "Seeking a Friend" was very clear to me and the film isn't that far off but you do make these compromises and these things happen. With this, I can't believe that what is on the screen is what was on the page, right down to details like the Apple store and the Grove and the Beyonce song - things that seemed so impossible at the time and that you would think "Okay, what is this actually going to be?" I don't think I would have made the movie if we couldn't get the Grove or the Apple store. I really don't because I don't know what else it could have been - there are no more Radio Shacks, so I don't know what that would have been. Things like that that just seemed so crucial to the storytelling , I didn't want to compromise on. I guess I learned that - just to fight for everything.

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originally posted: 04/29/16 05:31:27
last updated: 04/29/16 09:07:08
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