Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
for Radio Free Entertainment
July 7, 2005
In the ensemble comedy/drama Happy Endings, an ill-conceived moment of passion between teen stepsiblings Mamie and Charley leads to an unwanted pregnancy and sets the stage for a web of dysfunctional relationships. Years later, an adult Mamie (Lisa Kudrow) is approached by film student Nicky (Jesse Bradford), who offers her a proposal: he will reunite her with the child she gave up for adoption if he can film it as a documentary. None too keen on the idea, Mamie instead offers to let him shoot the story of her immigrant boyfriend Javier (Bobby Cannavale), a masseur who offers his clients "happy endings"--massages capped with a sexual twist.
Meanwhile, Charley (Steve Coogan) is trying to convince his partner Gil (David Sutcliffe) that Gil is the biological father of a lesbian couple's child; and elsewhere, a manipulative girl named Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is sleeping with wealthy widower Frank (Tom Arnold) and his gay son Otis (Jason Ritter), who secretly fantasizes about Charley.
Happy Endings is written and directed by Don Roos (Bounce, and the critically acclaimed The Opposite of Sex). In this interview, the filmmaker talks about the making of this movie.
MEDIA: How did you come up with this story?
DON: Well, I wanted to do a movie about a screwed up family, because I always want to do a movie about a screwed up family. And I thought stepsister and stepbrother was an interesting relationship because they're kind of siblings and they're kind of not. And they can make a mistake--a really big mistake. Because the movie is kind of like L.A. as a Garden of Eden, and then these two characters do something just like Adam and Eve did, and they get expelled. And then twenty years later, we pick them up, and it has had a big effect, that they're not even aware of, on their lives. And I thought that was just an interesting story to tell. I've never told a story with a big gap in time, and I thought that would be fun, and I wanted to do multiple storylines. So it all kind of came out gradually when I asked myself what I wanted to see.
"Happy Endings" refers, at least in part, to a massage that ends with a sexual...ummm..."release." What's the deal with that being in the story?
Ben Affleck first told me what "happy ending" meant. And I don't know how Ben knew. Ben Affleck told me when we were shooting Bounce.
How did a situation arise in which you and Affleck were talking about this?
[jokes] You know, when you're working with Ben, you often talk about massage. It comes up. You have to keep the conversation going, and then he tells you a story, and you make up a story, and then he tells you another story...
Did you do some "research" into this?
No. I'm like an altar boy who's never been molested by a priest--I'm very relieved, but also vaguely insulted. [jokes] I've never, never had a happy ending. Yeah, it's sad.
How did you collaborate with Maggie Gyllenhaal to develop her role as Jude?
I thought of her as more of a "character"--kind of wisecracking, very defended, always giving off one-liners. And she would take the jokes and turn them around. I was writing a character, like a "gangster's moll," basically, and she wasn't going to let me do that. She said, "I think it could be bigger than that, and she could really be sweeter or more complicated than that." She didn't want to make her a nice girl, but she wanted her to vary her approach...which I thought was really smart. So she had a lot of subtle [input]. No big things. No sitting down and saying, "This character has to go!" But just tiny little attacks on each line--approaches to each line that made her a fuller, richer character. She was a genius. I missed her a lot when she left. She was very challenging to work with because you could never take the easy way out. You could not manipulate her. She's un-manipulatable. She can see you coming a mile away. Lisa's the same way. You can't tell them one thing hoping they'll do another thing. But if you're really honest with her and you're patient and you explore her ideas, it's great. So I think she's a wonderful actress. She also saved the movie, because if she hadn't signed on, we wouldn't have made the film. Two other actresses dropped out before her.
Who was originally slated for the role?
Gwyneth Paltrow was going to do it. She read the script right after Lisa did and said, "I'm in." And I love Gwyneth, I think she's an incredible actress. But she had a personal tragedy in her life and she needed to take some time off.
And who was the other actress who had to drop out?
It's hard to imagine her playing Jude.
I can't imagine either of them in that role. [laughs] Of course, that's what Maggie did. As soon as Maggie sang it was like, "Oh my God, how could it be anybody else than her?" But I bet Jennifer and Gwyneth would have done another great job.
What attracted you to a story about secrets?
Growing up gay, you're attracted to secrets. I mean, that's the thing you know the most. It's not even like growing up as another despised minority in our society. It's not like growing up as an African-American where society is against you, but your family is there, and your community is there with you. When you grow up gay, you're entirely alone, and you learn about secrets, you learn about subtext, you learn to see where danger's coming, and you operate entirely in your head most of the time. So secrets are a natural part of my life. And in terms of writing, a scene is always better if people aren't telling the truth. It's very hard, in fact, to write a scene where the characters are telling the truth. There's one scene in this movie where Lisa tells her actual internal truth, and you have to actually beat that character up and scare her and knock her off her feet before she tells you what she thinks she believes. And it's that scene where she runs after Nicky and says, "You think you know me? Nobody knows me." That's the first time she actually says something true about herself. But she has to be driven to it. Most of the characters only say things to cover up how they feel. A writing teacher told me that once. He said the point of dialogue is not to reveal what the character feels, it's to hide what the character feels. And if you count the lies in this movie...I mean, Jason's character never tells the truth, ever. Everything he says is a lie. And Tom lies all the time. You know, the kind of lies we all do every day--where you say you don't want something that you do want, because you don't want to look like the person who wants that thing.
What was your experience of working with Jason Ritter like?
Well, I love Jason. I had never seen his work before. I didn't know him. He came in to audition and he was perfect--perfectly great. So we hired him on the spot and stopped looking for that role. And then the movie fell apart. So it was a year before we were actually making the movie again. And in the meantime, Joan of Arcadia had gotten on the air and his father had died, so a lot had happened between his first audition and the day he walked onto the set. We didn't have any rehearsals at all. He was just the character. We didn't have any rehearsals for any of the people. They just showed up and they were it. But he's a wonderful actor to work with. I had a huge crush on him when I was working with him. I was like, "Where's Jason? Is he having coffee now? I'll have coffee! Hold on, Lisa! Freeze! I'll be right back!" I was always like, "Oh, Jason, tell me more about you!" And so Lisa was making fun of me until she had met him. She said, "He can't be that great." We shot that scene where they were dancing in the wedding...that was the first time she worked with Jason, and after five minutes, she goes, "Wow, there's something really special about this guy." He's a very, very open human being. As a person, he's completely open and undefended, which is rare, because most actors and most people in our business are very defended and very careful. But he's completely innocent--very child-like and open. And he's also, I think, a wonderful actor. We just always believed him.
Did you give him any special instructions or tips on playing a gay character?
No, he played it just as he would play it. I mean, that's Jason...he's straight. [jokes] Sadly straight. Sadly. But he plays it just as himself, and that's, of course, the best way to do it.
How did you come to cast Steve Coogan?
You know, Lions Gate (when has a good casting idea come from the studio?) called me up and they said, "You should really think about Steve Coogan." I said, "Who's Steve Coogan?" So they sent over the Alan Partridge show, which is the show he did in Britain. Well, he plays this 45-year-old guy with long hair, and he's a total scuzz--horrible character. And I love the show. I watched all the episodes. But there's nothing in that except that it was wonderful acting that would make me think he could play Charley. But I was intrigued by his talent, and we had lunch. And I just loved him. I thought he was great. And I think he's wonderful in the movie, and it's the hardest part.
Nicky seemed like a difficult role, in terms of being possibly unlikable to the audience.
Yeah, Nicky was tough, too. Well, Jesse was great. And he's also beautiful, which helped. I said, "There's one thing...he has to be beautiful because he does a lot of bad things." It always goes down easier, doesn't it?
How would you describe the experiencing of trying to get this movie made?
It was horrible. After The Opposite of Sex had sort of a success among the critics, I thought, "Well, I'll write a new original script...and there'll be a feeding frenzy." But it was sort of like a feeding frenzy where everybody showed up full and they didn't want anything, because nobody wanted to do it. They were like, "Thank you, I'm stuffed...no more." And it took two years to get the movie financed, and for less money in 2004 dollars than I had for The Opposite of Sex. I had a little bit more money in 1997 to make The Opposite of Sex than I had to make this film, and we have many more characters. I had [42 or 43] days to make The Opposite of Sex. I had 30 days to make this one. It was really a different world. And I took it personally until I realized that independent film has changed quite a bit, and sources of money that used to be there in the late '90s aren't there any more, and it was nothing personal. But we started out trying to make it as a $17 million movie, and then it went down to 15 and 11 and 9 and 8...and finally it had to be under 5.
Did you have to cut a lot of scenes from the script to accommodate the shooting schedule?
No, I had to cut a lot of scenes when it was done. My editor did a wonderful job. He was great. He chose all the music.
Text frequently appears onscreen while the story unfolds. Was that in the script, or did your editor add that?
Oh yeah, that was in the script, but he chose how they would slide on and slide off. He did everything for me. I came in to look at it when it was over, and it was all done. All I did for the next six weeks was try to make it shorter, because it was almost three hours when he showed it to me.
The text includes the word "I" at the end. Does that represent a specific person?
No, it's supposed to finally [be] the narrator coming out of his shell to talk--to sort of announce that he kind of was a person the whole time. And it was to kind of give the character of Jude a boost, because I had punished her so severely. She serves her point in the film, she gives up her child, she gives up her man because she's afraid it's going to ruin his family, and then we don't see her again until the very last moment. And I wanted us to remember her with a bit of mystery. I wanted to give her privacy, so I wanted the "title god" not to exactly know every little detail about her. So she earns one thing, which is privacy.
Why did Maggie get the special "and" credit in the otherwise alphabetical closing credits?
Well, that was like our thank-you to Maggie, because she basically rescued our film. We were all trembling on the abyss of it not happening because we lost that actress, and Maggie said yes, so we gave her an "and."
Thanks for your time.
Thank you, guys.