Staging The Intervention: Writer-Director Clea DuVall Confronts Her Debut Feature, With Melanie Lynskey

When The Intervention, Clea DuVall’s debut film as writer and director, premiered at Sundance in January, an audience member asked her if she’d ever taken part in a real-life intervention.

“I have,” she said, slightly cringing. “It did not go well.”

That type of personal relationship with interventions, as well as her own tendencies to presume she always knew what was best for her friends, informed DuVall’s screenplay, which never feels like the work of a first-time writer.

2016 marks 20 years in the industry for DuVall. Audiences will recognize her from several things, including her breakout as the third lead in Girl, Interrupted (1999), her role as one of the Iranian embassy workers being rescued by Ben Affleck in the Best Picture-winner Argo (2012), and recently as the awkward Secret Service agent dating President Selina Meyer’s daughter in the latest season of HBO’s Veep.

Her new film, The Intervention, chronicles four couples—a group of old friends—on a getaway in Savannah, and what happens when one of the couples finds out the weekend was put together as an intervention for their marriage. DuVall stars in the film with a cast of indie film all-stars, including two of her best friends, actresses Melanie Lynskey and Natasha Lyonne (whom she met while filming 1999’s cult classic But I’m a Cheerleader, and has stayed close with ever since). Lynskey’s character is the mastermind behind the titular intervention, and she’s basically DuVall’s surrogate in that sense.

“It was really funny to me,” Lynskey later told me, “that it was only when [Clea] was editing that she started to see some similarities. It was pretty hilarious.”

DuVall pitched the film to Lynskey, the latter reports, as “‘I think it’s super funny when you’re drunk, or like when you pretend to be drunk.’ A few days later she had a draft of it—she writes very, very quickly. Honestly, I knew I wanted to do it when I read her first draft. I was so relieved that it was good, first of all, because I had to do it whether I liked it or not!”

Lynskey elaborates on the shooting process: “The plan was to do a few takes that were scripted and then we’d do a fun one, but we just didn’t have the time.” She actually preferred doing fewer takes. “I’m used to just doing the thing that’s spontaneous, which feels right with my instinct, and not really having to change it up too much. Just sort of going with the thing that comes out most naturally. So it’s quite challenging for me sometimes to have to do it again and again.”

When I spoke to DuVall early last month, she was very open about the struggles of writing and directing for the first time, what she learned from Ben Affleck and her recent work in TV, and how she put together such a great cast.

Daniel Joyaux, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You’ve said that the genesis for the film came from you always thinking that you knew what was best for your friends. Was using a couples intervention the initial vehicle you thought of to try and tell a story about that?

 Clea DuVall (CD): Yeah, it did start with the idea of intervening on a couple, based on the amount of times I’d had conversations with people about, like, “Why are they together?” But never saying it to anyone because it’s socially unacceptable. But what if there were someone who just didn’t have that filter, and thought that was going to be a good idea?

MM: One of the most distinct things about the film is the setting. How did you decide on Savannah, Georgia, as the location?

CD: I knew that I wanted it to be somewhere that felt very isolated, and I didn’t want it to be L.A. or New York. I had been to Savannah once, 10 years before, and it really stuck with me how it was such a beautiful place that really felt like its own world.

MM: I know you wrote this movie for Melanie Lynskey, who’s one of your best friends. When you were initially writing the screenplay, did you tell her about it at that stage, or did you wait until it was finished?

CD: I told her that I was writing something, and that I was writing something for her, and I finished the first draft and sent it to her. She read every draft of the script and gave me notes, and she was a part of it from the very beginning.

MM: You’ve said you initially assumed that someone else would direct the film. Did you go so far as to meet with other directors about the project? When in the process did you decide to handle it yourself?

CD: I talked to a couple of people about it, sort of loosely. I wasn’t really being that proactive about it. And I had an experience on a film where I had to take on a lot more than an actor usually has to take on, and I really enjoyed that process and I was able to do it—being in something and then also having more responsibility. It was through that that I got the confidence to direct this.

I wrote the part for myself because I don’t usually get to be in movies like that, and I really wanted to be. And once the investors came on board, that was a part of it. You know, casting is a really challenging process, and the idea of having to find another person just seemed too daunting. And I’m so glad I didn’t, because I would have watched it and been so jealous that I wasn’t in it.

MM: What was your biggest fear about tackling both acting and directing at once?

CD: Being without that person to whom I could go and ask if I was doing a good job. Not having that was very scary to me, and destabilizing in the moment. But I worked very closely with my DP and script supervisor and I told them what I wanted, and I would check in with them as we were filming to just see, “OK, are we getting that? Does this moment feel right? Are we hitting that beat properly?” They were really, really wonderful and I think helped me a lot.

MM: One of the greatest things about the film is the cast. It’s really just an all-star cast of indie actors where audiences will probably recognize all of the principals. Did Natasha Lyonne, your other best friend, sign on early in the project? 

CD: Actually Alia Shawkat was the second person that I brought on. I think she is so brilliant and I had never really seen her do anything like this before. She read the script early on and wanted to do it. Then Jason Ritter is a friend of mine and I think he is also such a wonderful actor and able to do so much. His part on paper was actually the most difficult to flesh out, because he is a more passive character, and it’s hard to write out someone who is not doing things. That’s why I wanted Jason—because I knew that he would get it and make it feel like a complete character.

Ben Schwartz, Cobie Smulders and Vincent Piazza, I didn’t know. I loved the choices that Cobie was making in the films that she was in, and I had heard such wonderful things about her as a person. That was as important to me as anything else: just having people who were going to be game for something that was not comfortable and not glamorous—run-and-gun filmmaking, nothing fancy happening at any time. It really takes a certain kind of actor to be able to kind of get in there and get in with the nitty-gritty and just go. She really did that.

And Vincent, I had seen some of his work, and his role, in my opinion, is the most difficult in the movie. I really needed a strong actor to be able to pull it off and he did such a beautiful job.

An indie all-star cast in The Intervention

An indie all-star cast in The Intervention

MM: How did you secure funding for the film, and how did you connect with your producers for the film—Paul Bernon, Sev Ohanian and Sam Slater—whom you hadn’t worked with before?

CD: Sam and Paul had heard about the script before I was really actively looking for financing. They called my agency one day asking if they had any projects that needed financing, and my agent mentioned the script to them and they were already interested in it, so we set up a call. We got along on the phone, and then we met in person and it all happened very quickly after that. Sev was brought on by Mel Eslyn, who is an executive producer on the film. Mel got involved early on, but then was doing something else and wasn’t able to really be around, so she brought Sev on.

MM: How long did you shoot for?

CD: We shot for 18 days.

MM: You’ve said that after your appearance in Argo, Ben Affleck was a huge influence on your directing. Can you talk about that?

CD: Working with an actor-director is not an easy thing to do, and seeing him do it so well was really important for me. Our shoot was obviously very different than the Argo shoot, but he’s so smart and he understands filmmaking from all angles, and he also really knows how to allow people to do what they’re good at. He doesn’t try to micromanage and he’s not a control freak; he’s just a very smart guy who hires talented people and allows them to do their job. He steers the ship in a way that really allows you to be your best self, and I really tried to do that with my cast and crew. I’ve worked with some directors that try to micromanage the shit out of everyone, which means no one is doing their best work. That’s why you have a whole cast and a whole crew, because you need all of those people and all of their skills. You can have a vision and you can tell them what it is, but they execute it in their way.

MM: You’ve done a lot of great acting on TV, especially recently on Veep and Better Call Saul. What do you notice about the differences in directing for film versus TV?

CD: I feel like, because there’s been such a huge crossover with movies and TV, it doesn’t feel that different anymore. At least with the environments I’ve been in lately, the caliber of talent is so incredible. Working with people who don’t stop until they get it right is really inspiring. Especially on Veep: They work so hard and everyone is so good, and there’s no settling. They’ll keep doing it until it’s right, even if that means not shooting a scene, and re-writing it and doing it another day. Those standards are so high, and you don’t really see that very often. We didn’t have the luxury of that kind of time, but I think the nature of TV and how quickly it moves, for me, being in those environments and getting a comfort level with that kind of pace helped me. On a movie where we didn’t have any time, and we just needed to keep going, and being able to see when we had it and when we could move on—working in TV helped me with that.

MM: Now that you’ve gone through the process of making a film from scratch, how do you feel about the health of the indie film industry?

 CD: I had a very unique experience putting this movie together, because it wasn’t a struggle to get financing. The first people I met with wanted to finance it and we got to make the movie, and I got to make the movie I wanted to make and have creative control. I know that doesn’t always happen, so my experience was unique and I recognize that.

Ten years from now, I hope we do go back to making those middle-of-the-road movies, and not just the huge $200 million superhero action movies. I think those can be a lot of fun and they can be done very well, but there are a lot of other kinds of stories to tell. Hopefully we’ll make more room again for the smaller stories, the human stories, because those are really important for people to see. I loved Captain America: Civil War. And Mad Max: Fury Road was one of my favorite movies last year. I know that’s not a superhero movie, but it was a blockbuster and I thought it was fucking brilliant. I like going to see those movies, but I miss the movies that were around when I was a kid in the ’90s, and I think that audiences do too.

MM: What’s next for you as a writer, actor, and a director?

CD: I’m writing something right now for an actor, and I’m looking at projects to direct that I didn’t write. There are some things that I really like and we’ll see what happens with them. And I’m developing a TV show. As an actor, I don’t know. I’m focusing more on writing and directing right now.

MM: So you think it’s more likely that you’ll direct other people’s screenplays than you’ll write for other directors?

CD: I think if I write something I will likely want to direct it. At least for me, the process of writing happens over time. You do your first draft and you do another draft, and it evolves. The turnaround on a script takes a little more time to feel like I really understand it and that I’m not missing anything, so I don’t want to rush that process.

There are so many incredible writers out there who are so much better than I am, and I would love to work on someone else’s material, because I think it would teach me so much about directing and writing. Starting as an actor you have so many different experiences, and you work with so many different directors and writers and genres, and that is one of my favorite things about it. As a director, I’m very open to a lot of different kinds of experiences. MM

The Intervention opens in theaters August 26, 2016, courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

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