Getting an indie movie made ain’t an easy process. First-time directors are rarely actually “first timers.” (Okay, sure Troy Duffy was and if you’ve seen Overnight you know how that went for all involved, including Duffy.) Usually they’ve been directing music videos, shorts, and commercials for years while working on getting that one personal project off the ground.
That’s the case with Vivi Friedman, whose first feature film The Family Tree just hit theaters in a limited release (read: LA and NYC) last Friday. I got to chat with her for a few minutes about how it all came about and her approach to her first flick.
Ryan Mason: How did you first get involved with this project?
Vivi Friedman: I did this little short film called Certainly Not A Fairy Tale with Linda Cardellini and Jason Segal. It was a weird little piece of a film. And then I got this call from a manager who said “I saw your short and thought it was really weird; I have this other script that’s kinda weird, too. I think you might like it.” That’s how I originally got it. I had read lots of screenplays and was trying to find, you know, what my big passion project would be. This one was definitely the most interesting of everything. So then I met with Mark Lisson, the writer, and we both saw the film in the same way and started working together on it and tried to find some brave producers to believe in it as well.
RM: What was it about this script that drew you in?
VF: I think on some very basic level it wasn’t the themes, but it was just so well written. It just grabbed me in that way. When you read a lot of scripts, you know, you’ll find how either they might have an interesting subject matter but they’re not well written. Or they’re well written but you couldn’t care less. So on the first basic level it was just so well written. You know, what appealed to me I suppose is, in some ways being from somewhere else, I’m always just so amazed at certain hypocrisies that kind of prevail in the news and the political environment. And I sort of liked the idea of taking all those themes or taboos [with the idea] that nobody would get away with not being looked at or made satire of in some ways. There’s nothing, no topic that was too sacred. And I kind of feel that we all, as humans, we all are great people but deeply flawed. I liked that flawedness of the characters and how there’s certain, you know, empathy for all the characters at the bottom of it all. We’re all freaks and what we all owe each other is a little bit of compassion.
RM: When you started to work with Mark, did you continue to develop the script more together before you went to producers?
VF: Yeah, we worked together for about two years before we started sending it out. It wasn’t that it was a very intense two years of working on it, because we teamed up and no money exchanged hands and certainly nobody was financing the development of it. So, we would just work on it. I was directing commercials and Mark was writing a lot — and he’s also a showrunner so he was very busy. We would attack a scene and, say, “What do we feel about this character arc?” or “What do we feel about these scenes here?” And then Mark would come back to me and say, “Hey, I had this idea.” And then we’d kinda go from there. It was actually a really lovely, delightful, inspired process where we didn’t have a deadline. There was no pressure that we had to finish it by this date. And it was really interesting that neither of us were really afraid to try different things.
RM: Sounds like it was a good collaboration being able to just bounce ideas off each other until you both felt that it was ready.
VF: Yeah, it was a great collaboration. And Mark is a fantastic writer. He always astounded me how he has no ego and how open-minded he is. I mean, I guess he has an ego in the sense that he wouldn’t write something he didn’t believe in. But he was always open-minded about ideas. He always says, “I don’t care where the ideas came from, if it’s a good one I’ll use it.” He’s a great person, a great writer.
RM: The tone of this film is very specific. I thought you nailed it. There are moments that are genuinely funny even though they’re moments that could easily be not at all funny. What was your approach to this?
VF: It’s interesting that you bring this up because comedy is so difficult. One person’s sense of humor is not necessarily another’s. I’ve always been a big fan of dark humor. Being from Finland, I often laugh on the inside; I’m not a big slapstick kind of girl. How do you make something so grotesque funny? Where is the humor? That’s what’s interesting. For me the humor is what’s in absurd and in the human aspect of it all. I was so lucky that I had such an amazing cast, all of whom have such sensitivity to tone. They’re just such brilliant actors that can tread that thin line between the absurd and funny and serious and soulful and thoughtful.
RM: Speaking of the cast, you had some great actors in there – especially Dermot Mulroney playing against his usual type. Did he or Hope Davis come on first and then the rest of your cast filled out from there?
VF: Yeah, that’s sort of how it goes. Dermot was the first person to be cast in the film. He’s such an amazing actor and he fully embraced the thought of playing someone completely different from that character in My Best’s Friend’s Wedding. He totally embraced his gray hair and mustache and glasses and boring beige suits. He even had a special posture: when we’d be getting ready for a scene, you’d know once he was ready. I wouldn’t call action until I saw his shoulders drop. I think that he was a stroke of genius from every perspective, not least of which because he’s such a wonderful actor.
RM: Did you do much rehearsal with the actors before getting to set?
VF: Well, there were two different parts. One was the character arcs and who these people were that wasn’t part of the rehearsal. It was just everyone hanging out telling stories to each other, telling goals for the characters, and Hope and Dermot more or less became those characters. And then there were rehearsals at the set that were for the pacing and the blocking and then to get everyone together. Other than that, there wasn’t much technical rehearsal. It was more creating the characters and putting everybody in the wardrobes and finding who everyone was. And that’s how it all came together.