In the darkly comic film Another Happy Day, hitting theaters this Friday, Ellen Barkin plays Lynn, a high-strung woman whose interactions with her family at her estranged eldest son’s wedding make it pretty clear to the audience why family reunions aren’t something this clan does often. The exceedingly high caliber of Another Happy Day‘s cast—which includes, in addition to Barkin, Ellen Burstyn, Demi Moore, Thomas Haden Church, Kate Bosworth, George Kennedy and Ezra Miller–combined with the fact that it won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award when it debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, makes it even more amazing the film is writer/director Sam Levinson’s first.
As charmed as Levinson’s life as a moviemaker may seem at first, making Another Happy Day was no easy task. After signing Barkin, Burstyn, Moore and Bosworth, he was pressured by financiers who balked at the primarily female cast to “Make the role of one of the men bigger.” His response? “No, we’ll just make the film cheaper. We’ll have to sacrifice for it.” In the end, the sacrifices paid off.
Levinson took the time to chat with MovieMaker about his debut film and how he “wake[s] up every day and thank[s] Sundance for their film festival.”
Another Happy Day opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, November 18th. For more information, visit anotherhappydaymovie.com.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): What drew you to write a family-oriented dark comedy? When you started writing, did you have a pretty good idea of where the story was going to end up?
Sam Levinson (SL): To be honest, no. I had certain ideas and themes that were lodged in my brain, but because of the nature of this film, I didn’t want to put any parameters on where it could go. I purposefully didn’t outline it. Now, I did have very specific intentions. I wanted to make a film that dealt with a family and the communication within the family in a nonjudgmental way. That I knew from the get-go, but in terms of how it was going to unfold, I just allowed the characters to find themselves rather than forcing it on them.
MM: Was it always your intent to direct the film, too? Did the challenges of directing enter your mind during the writing process?
SL: I don’t separate the two, writing and directing. When I write a scene, I see it and feel it. I see it as kind of two sides of the same job.
[Directing Another Happy Day] was never a question that entered my mind. I essentially direct as I write. It’s all in description; I just remove the description when I hand it out to the actors, producers and so on. The template is still there, so I can work on it with my production designer, my director of photography, my costume designer. I have a version of the script that’s just from the sound point of view, highlighted with different colors about how I wanted to hear the sound. I would also have trouble writing a script to then give to a director to direct, because it would mean that I wasn’t as passionate about the project. Therefore, it would be a sub-par script in my mind.
MM: For this being your first feature as a director, you got some pretty big names on the cast. Since it’s a large cast, it seems like the chemistry between the actors would be incredibly important. Can you talk a little bit about the casting process for the film?
SL: It took about three years. I was 22, I believe, when I first approached Ellen Barkin. I’d been doing a rewrite on another film that she was acting in, and I was hired to work with the actors on set. She is someone I always had in mind for this role, so after about a week of working with her and getting to know her, I said, “By the way, read this, I’m curious if you’d be interested in playing this part.” And she called me about two hours later and said, “I’m in.” She shepherded this project through; she’s still shepherding this project through release.
MM: She’s an executive producer as well, right?
SL: No, a producer. A physical, on-the-ground producer. She said to me, “So you have me and we’ve hired Cindy Tolan”—an enormous casting director— “In a dream world, who do you see as the matriarch of the family?” And I said, “OK, in a dream world? Ellen Burstyn.” And she said, “Alright, we’ll send it to her.” And I have to be honest, I was sort of shocked—what do you mean, just send it to her? She’s like: “Well, call her agent and send it to her! She’ll read it and get back to you.” And she did. She came over for lunch, we spoke about it and then she signed on a few days later.
The next thing was, who do we go to next? Well, I think the preconception of the audiences [is to see Ellen Barkin] as a very tough woman. Now, whether that’s true or not is irrelevant, but [I said to her], “I think we do need to in some way undercut that in casting your other formidable opponent.” That would be the character of Patty. And she said, “Well, who do you have in mind?” So we went through the same process [with Demi Moore], and I met with her, and it fell into place really beautifully.
The only thing I didn’t realize is that after attaching Ellen Barkin, Ellen Burstyn, Demi Moore and Kate Bosworth, we still couldn’t get any financing whatsoever [with a primarily female cast]. It sort of came as a shock to me. Women aren’t worth as much as men? I honestly did not know that that was an issue. [Some financiers] said, “Why don’t you make the role of one of the men bigger?” I said, “No, we’ll just make the film cheaper. We’ll have to sacrifice for it.”
That was the way we put this together. Ellen was not only the producer, but also the lead actress, so she was able to set up equity by saying, “Look, no one’s getting a trailer bigger than the 13-year-old Daniel Yelsky’s. There’s no personal hair and makeup. There’s no stylist. This isn’t that film.” We approached actors in a very strong way [by saying,] “If you’re interested in doing this project, you’re going to have to sacrifice a couple of things that maybe you’re used to. If you’re not willing to do that, then we don’t want you.”
I also asked that the actors remain on set for the entirety of the shoot, no matter the size of their role. Because I knew that, dealing with a cast this large and this diverse, unless I really set the egalitarian tone on set, everything would go to shit, and it could get out of hand very quickly. I wanted to create a very protective environment for my actors, so they could do what they know how to do, [so they were] able to be vulnerable and make mistakes and fail and not be judged and, ultimately, reach it. That’s one of the reasons I closed the set for the entirety of shooting. I think it was very beneficial for the cast and for the crew, because we were able to find our way together and there was no judgment made. Artists are fragile people. You don’t want someone coming up to you who’s not intimately involved in the process saying “Can you push your hair back so we can get a closeup?” I had a very specific way of shooting this film. I’d mapped it out very clearly. There weren’t going to be any closeups. I didn’t want it to be from anyone’s point of view. I wanted it to feel like you were entering this home as you would if you just walked into some unknown person’s house for Thanksgiving and started to slowly discover who everyone was: Who the mother is, who the kid was, what the issues were. And if it’s shot from someone’s perspective, it automatically becomes judgmental.
Whenever you set a camera down, you’re making a judgment, so objectivity is impossible. But my crew and I worked very hard to create as objective a palette as possible, so the audience could form their own allegiances, and so this film could serve as almost a reflection of the viewer’s own baggage with their own family. I think that’s why we get very strong, visceral, polar opposite reactions from people.
MM: As to which character they empathize with?
SL: At Q&As at Sundance, the audience started arguing with each other. One person would say “How did Ellen Barkin play a character who was so despicable?” and someone [would respond,] “What are you talking about? She’s the angel of that family!” I liked that aspect of it. I’m not interested in making comfortable films or crushing the audience’s imagination. I want them to walk away from this film… thinking about their own family. I don’t want people to walk out and say “That was OK, what’s for lunch?” I want to disrupt something inside of people, and hopefully that’s what we accomplished.
MM: Speaking of Sundance, after the film won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, did your phone start ringing off the hook with distributors wanting to know how they could get your film?
SL: I’m not really sure. Thankfully, I’m not involved in that side of the business. But I wake up every day and thank Sundance for their film festival. I’m not sure how this film would have necessarily found a home if it weren’t for the Sundance Film Festival. But in terms of the Waldo Salt Award, it’s like any other kind of award. I’m not sure what weight it holds, other than the fact that it’s really nice and it’s named and it’s named after a fucking incredible screenwriter (laughs).
MM: It had to have felt good to win, though.
SL: Of course it did, but the competition aspect… The director Andrew [Okpeaha] MacLean, who did On the Ice, put it best. [At Sundance,] someone was talking to both of us [and asked] how it was being in competition with each other…They made it sound like it was like a fucking UFC match! And Andrew said, “We’re not in competition with each other. We’re in competition with, like, Transformers 10.” And I think that’s really true. I love the fact that there are still these few havens of light that are left in this country for independent films to be shown on screen, in theaters, projected on 35 or in HD. People are seeing [them] in a movie theater, and that’s the greatest award I think any filmmaker can get. Because to see your film in a theater, that’s rapidly vanishing. That’s the true award, I think.
As a special bonus for MM readers, here’s a candid interview between Levinson and Barkin on her somewhat insane-looking script notes and how they helped her better connect to the character of Lynn.