Yesterday I reviewed Save the Date, a film starring Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie, Mark Webber, Martin Starr and Geoffrey Arend that I absolutely loved at Dallas International Film Festival. Director Michael Mohan co-wrote the film along with Egan Reich and graphic novelist Jeffrey Brown. Mohan was nice enough to sit down with me at DIFF to talk about the making of the film, working with Brown and how he managed to nab Caplan and Brie when pretty much everyone in Hollywood wants to cast them.
How did you go from being a fan of Jeffrey Brown’s to working on the movie with him?
I was such a fan of Jeffrey’s ever since I came across a copy of his book Clumsy at this store Giant Robot in L.A. It caught my eye, this sort of hand-drawn book that felt like it was made by a real person. Flipping through it I saw little snippets of his daily life that felt so true to me, too, even though his was auto-biographical.
When I was getting married to my wife – my wife and I are both big fans. I wrote to the e-mail address that was on the back cover of his book, not knowing if I’d ever hear back, saying, “Hey, I’m such a big fan. I’d love if you could draw something of my wife and me.” He wrote back and graciously agreed to do so. He was very cool, and he drew this really nice portrait of us in the middle of our relationship. I was so excited to give it to my wife, and the night of our rehearsal dinner, I noticed that my wife’s gift to me was the exact same size. As I peeled open the wrapping paper of her gift to me, I saw that trademark of black pen on white, Jeffrey Brown’s style.
We realized that we had, independently of each other, written to this graphic novelist who we did not know to commission him to draw something of us. Hers was of our first date. When we were on our honeymoon, we called him and asked, “What were you thinking when we both contacted you?” And he said, “Well, it was really weird, but you both paid me, so of course I did it!” We had him do a third piece that was of the moment of us opening our gifts.
And so I had read an early draft of Save the Date somewhere in the middle of that about five years ago, and there was another director that was going to direct it. When I played Sundance with my first feature One Too Many Mornings in 2010, the producer of Save the Date was there with a different film called The Kids Are All Right. I had written to him right before the festival because I had heard the director had dropped out. And I said, “Listen, I made a feature on nights and weekends for $21 grand, and I really just love Jeffrey Brown.” I told him that story about my wife. “I would really love to be put at the bottom of your list of directors to meet with. We’re both at Sundance, let’s meet up.” And we really hit it off, and then I talked to Jeffrey and his co-writer Egan Reich and they had done about 19 drafts and they weren’t really sure what was going to happen with the film. They basically said, “You know, go. You clearly get Jeffrey’s voice. Take it on. See where it goes.”
A year later, I was back at Sundance with a short film called Ex Sex and by that point The Kids Are All Right had been nominated for a bunch of awards and we were able to take that momentum, and the script was done by that point, and that sort of thrust us into production.
Can you talk about the collaboration process of writing the script with Brown and Reich?
So at the start of it, they basically gave me carte blanche to do what I want. And it took me a long time because I was working at a record label at the time doing music videos, and I was sort of chipping at it piece by piece. During the writing process, I ended up writing a draft that was really centered around the character of Kevin [Geoffrey Arend], just because I was working at a record label and he was the struggling musician. I thought, “I’m going to make it really true to the life of what it’s like to be an indie rock musician.” And halfway through writing that draft, I forgot what the parents’ names were, and I needed to go back to an earlier draft, and I re-read one of the earlier drafts and it was so much better than anything I’d been writing.
So I was a little bit lost as to what to do with it, and I went to a film festival in Poland, called The American Film Festival, with my first film. I had just lost my job and I wasn’t sure what was going on with this film. The audiences there are kind of like in Dallas; they’re just so enthusiastic. And instead of flying back to LA, I flew back to Boston where my parents live, and they don’t have wi-fi. So for two weeks, it was just me and a stack of Jeffrey’s books by my side, and I plowed through what would ultimately be the draft that got us through production. But I was calling them and asking for advice, and I’d say “I’m stuck on this.” I’d send an e-mail to Jeffrey: “I need your brain cells! I need to fix this. How do I do this?” And they would come back with things, and I think that got them excited that it was actually moving forward, but unlike where I was before, I wasn’t taking it and then turning it into my thing. I was taking what they did and just pushing it forward that little bit further. It was a very good collaboration.
Did the original script contain Jeffrey’s art as part of the story?
Actually, yes, well, the character did sketch, but originally they were going to get a different artist to do her drawings because Jeffrey was worried that his drawing style was too masculine, which I find really funny because his characters aren’t masculine. [laughs] In fact, have you ever read Be A Man? It’s a revisionist version of one of his earlier novels where he injects more testosterone in it.
I mean, you can’t make a Jeffrey Brown movie without Jeffrey Brown’s art in it. So I just twisted his arm, and it took very little twisting, and he did all the art.
That was a really fun process. When we were doing prep, he would send these drawings of our cast, and everyone in the office would say, “Oh, this is so cool!” and I’d send them to the cast and the cast would get really excited. There’s this one drawing he did for the band WolfBird. It’s of a burger with a Tyrannosaurus Rex in the middle.
It’s the coolest thing, and our composer Hrishikesh Hirway, he’s in a band called The One AM Radio. He’s like, “This isn’t fair. This is a fake band and they have the coolest stuff, and I’m in a real band and I have to work really hard to get cool artwork.”
Did any of the cast get to take home drawings of themselves?
I think we gave some of it away. We still have all of it in [producer] Jordan’s [Horowitz] office. My hope is that when the film is eventually released, we can put up an art show in theaters around the country the week or two before it comes out so people can see little snippets of it, and the style of the movie.
That would be amazing. Can you talk about the art book you mentioned during the Q&A that you hope to do?
Oh man, I hope this happens. I feel like people don’t buy DVDs anymore, and if you do, you want to make sure it’s really something special – something you want to own. Because you stream things or you download them and then you toss them away.
If I had unlimited money, I’d love to make a nice coffee table book that is of all the art in the film really beautifully and cleanly presented, that would also have some notes from all of us about the making of the film, and have the soundtrack on vinyl –we actually have interest in the soundtrack, which is really cool – and then a Blu-ray/DVD. So that it’s not just the movie but a real experience. So it’ll get people to buy it.
Not that I’m just trying to get people’s money, but I would buy that for friends.
I would buy the hell out of that.
There are so many movies about weddings lately, especially post-Bridesmaids. Save the Date actually isn’t about weddings; do you have any plans to market it to make it clear that’s not what this movie is?
I’m going to stay out of the marketing thing. We don’t have a distributor yet, so until that happens, I want to make sure that we call upon their expertise for that part. I just want to sell the movie for what it is, you know? The thing that’s kind of tricky about the film is that it’s not like these crazy things happen. It’s not the most extreme relationship movie, it’s not the Community/Party Down laugh-a-thon riot. I think that the risks that the film takes are by having these characters just be real. They aren’t extreme. For me, I just want to make sure that when people see the film, they know, “This is a film that I made for you. This is a film about you. This is about real people.” We’re avoiding the stereotypes, but we’re not like “Screw Hollywood!” It’s just a real film.
Brie and Caplan are perfectly cast as sisters, and they’re both really hot commodities right now. How did you get them involved in the movie?
Yeah, they’re awesome. They are so awesome. Well, one thing I want to say is that with Lizzy and Alison, they’re “hot commodities” but I didn’t cast them because they’re hip. I cast them because they’re the best actors. You see Lizzy in Party Down – I think the reason people fall in love with them so much is that they’re so devoted to their craft as actors. They’re not the kind of people that you see out on TMZ partying. They’re studying. They work hard. And you really see that in their work.
When going after Lizzy, we just knew there was no one else that can play this character. We sent the script to their teams and crossed our fingers. And at that point, Martin Starr and Geoffrey Arend were sort of on board. It was very quick, actually. Once she read it, I met with her a week later and she said she was in.
What was amazing is that the Jonathan character, played by Mark Webber – I had always wanted him. But because they have sex scenes together, I wanted to make sure that whoever played Lizzy’s part would have a say in who that was. I was ready to pitch her on Mark Webber and thought, “Here’s how I’m going to convince her that Mark Webber’s the guy.” When we sat down, she said, “Have you cast Jonathan yet? I have an idea,” and I thought “Oh no.” And she said, “Mark Webber!”
He’s so good in it. I loved seeing him as a romantic lead; that’s so different from anything he usually does.
And he’s such a good dude! In real life, he’s not that dissimilar from that character. He’s such a sweetie, such a romantic guy. Wait, such a romantic guy? That’s a weird compliment. [laughs]
He’s just a real soulful dude. He directed a film that was at Sundance this year called The End of Love, and he starred in it with his two-year-old son, and it’s incredible. He’s one of the most incredible artists working today, I think.
How much of Jeffrey’s artwork informed the way you framed the shots or vice versa?
Jeffrey Brown’s work, for people that don’t know him, is really super simple. When making the film, one of the things I was really trying to do is that even though the story is a very modern story, I wanted to tell it in a very classic style. Because I think Jeffrey’s work really speaks for itself. The characters just are who they are. And so something we do that isn’t a trope in graphic novels because you can’t do this in graphic novels is that we used a lot of zooms. A shot will start out in a wide and then we’ll slowly zoom into a close-up. Some of the scenes are only that one shot.
To me, it allows the actors to just play the scene, but as an audience member, it doesn’t feel like there’s a director there, manipulating something because you’re not cutting. And it also allows you to get a wide shot and a close-up in the same shot. So that was something that we did that’s not directly taken from his novels , but I was trying to find ways in which we could shoot the film very simply, very elegantly and not do anything that gets in the way.
There is one shot that is directly influenced from one of Jeffrey’s books. It’s the sex scene, and we cut to the cat sitting there, looking at them. There’s this similar scene in Jeffrey’s book Any Easy Intimacy that reminded me that sometimes there is this silent, third party watching.
You said you shot it in 20 days. What was the biggest challenge under those constraints?
You know what? The shoot was good. It wasn’t one of those shoots where everyone is fighting to get it done. It was a really good, well-planned shoot. My producers are excellent – both Jordan Horowitz and Michael Roiff- they’re just so on it. For me, my biggest challenge coming from the low-budget world was learning what I didn’t have to do, what I wasn’t responsible for. On my first film, the crew was sometimes just the two actors, me and the DP, and I would be pushing the dolly and holding the boom at the same time. And we always had to figure out who was going to go to Smart & Final to pick up the bottled water.
I remember when were on pre-production on Save the Date, a couple days before the shoot, I went to my AD and asked, “So who’s going to go to Smart & Final and get the water?” and she said, “Mike. Don’t think about that. You just need to direct the movie.” Really the challenge was just being a director, and I think about halfway through the shoot, that settled in. It felt like such an impossible luxury for me, given my background.
And are you already thinking about your next project?
Yeah, I am. I want to keep making films in this style. So I have an idea now that I’m slowly chipping away at. It’s very autobiographical. It’s about a couple that wants to start a family but can’t afford to yet.