Lorene Scafaria's films are, by and large, about the sort of eccentric and deeply lovable women more mainstream movies tend to overlook. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, which the writer-director adapted in 2008 from Rachel Cohn and David Levithan's novel of the same name, stars a young Kat Dennings as a smart, beautiful, but wholly insecure teen finally figuring out that being treated like shit by men isn't her only option. 2012's Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Scafaria's directorial debut, follows a singularly quirky Keira Knightley as she navigates the literal apocalypse (and falls in love with an uncomfortably older Steve Carell, something Scafaria was criticized for and that we'll get into later). In this month's bittersweet dramedy The Meddler — Scafaria's best work yet, in this writer's humble opinion — a particularly incandescent Susan Sarandon plays Marnie, a sixty-something New Jerseyite who picks up and moves to Los Angeles after the death of her husband, much to the chagrin of her L.A.-based daughter Lori (Rose Byrne), into whose life Marnie aggressively shoehorns herself.
Part of what makes the film so moving (and so sharply funny) is that it's a personal one for Scafaria, who wrote the script when her own mother moved to Los Angeles to be close to Scafaria after losing her husband. Equally appealing — and unusual — is The Meddler's persistent focus on Marnie, a wide-eyed, pushy, and profoundly generous woman who, in lesser scripts, would be made the butt of Everybody Loves Raymond–esque jokes. Marnie, lonely and desperate to distract herself from her grief, calls Lori incessantly, leaving her rambling, stream-of-consciousness voicemails; shows up at Lori's house unannounced in the middle of the workday with bags of salt bagels; and pleads with Lori's ex-boyfriend (Jason Ritter) to take her back. But the flip side of her intrusiveness is a rare magnanimity: Marnie offers to pay for Lori's friend's (Cecily Strong) wedding mere moments after meeting her, befriends and emotionally supports a young Apple Store employee (Jerrod Carmichael), and, almost as a last priority, considers letting a mustachioed West Coast cowboy (J.K. Simmons) charm her.
Scafaria called me up this week from L.A. to talk about her mom's reaction to the movie, why she's so hard on her fictional avatar, and whether anything's actually improving for female directors.
A lot of The Meddler is based on your own experience with grief after your dad's death, and with your relationship with your mother. But how much of it? Where does it diverge?
Lorene Scafaria: The setup is all true, about her moving out from New Jersey to Los Angeles. She certainly meddles in the sweetest way possible [laughs] and calls a lot — we're very close. The grief part was definitely true. So many of the characters are conglomerates of people she's helped in life over time. She certainly offered to pay for a friend's wedding, even though they didn't take her up on it. The J.K. Simmons character is the most fictionalized part of the story. There is, unfortunately, no love interest — yet. But I knew that the story needed to be a reluctant love story. And the characters have probably worked through more issues than my mother and I have [laughs]. They probably have more closure. That's the truth.
After your mom saw the film, did that help you guys work through anything?
Scafaria: I think writing the script helped us. That was also the time we probably needed the most help. Once I was realizing it was getting more and more personal, I began sharing with her, and because it was on paper, it really helped us to be able to talk about stuff, about where our "characters'" heads were at [laughs]. Then, of course, when you're making the movie, it's no longer just this personal thing. Susan [Sarandon] made the character her own. There's a lot of my mother in it, but it doesn't feel as personal then. Of course, now that we're sharing it with people, it's personal all over again. I think it's helping to show [my mother] that her life is worth telling a story about. I think it's giving her a little bit of confidence. It's more helpful for each of us individually. Our relationship is pretty solid. We've just gone through a lot together. But the truth is, nothing's really changed that much. It's not like we've drawn any strict boundaries or anything like that. I'm joking that I want to write an article: "I Made a Movie About My Mother and Everything's Exactly the Same." But that's OK. The lesson of the film isn't that we should change each other.
When did you decide to write about this particular portion of your life? Was there a particular "meddling moment" that inspired you?
Scafaria: About a month after she moved here, officially. She really did just move here, get a phone, and start calling me on it a lot. And about a month later, I started writing the opening, where she leaves me a voicemail, walking around the Grove. That hasn't changed since June of 2010. It just immediately became fascinating to me, seeing her in Los Angeles. It started more as a character study; that was what I wanted to stay true to, and why I wanted to tell her side of the story, and not have it be a traditional two-hander, or a traditional romantic comedy. Certainly her going to my therapist was ... a lot [laughs].
She did that in real life, too?
Scafaria: It was under the guise of what I told her: "You should see my therapist, you should talk to somebody." But it did turn into, one time I tried to go see my therapist and I couldn't, because my mom was in a double session.
Did you have to fight to have the film focus solely on Marnie? That's a less "commercial" choice, to focus on an older woman almost exclusively.
Scafaria: That's why the movie was hard to make. It was also the note I got for two years from people: "Can you make the characters younger, can the daughter be in her twenties, can the mom be in her fifties, can you make the daughter character as big if not bigger [of a character]? Can the love interest come in a lot earlier?" I was told it was impossible to get made unless I made those concessions. But I just didn't want to. It obviously just went against the whole point of the movie, but especially the one that made it not about Marnie. That was just so important to me. [The movie] is really just meant to [help us] see what our moms are doing when we're not calling them back, and how much of it comes from loneliness and how much comes from caring a lot, having a lot of love to give and not knowing what to do with it at this point in their life. Getting a break from that would be to not fully understand what she's going through, how hard it is to lose your partner in life, and also how hard it is to care about someone that you can't help the way that you want to. Of course the daughter does need help, and does need her, but not necessarily in the way she wants to give it. It didn't make sense to stray from her side of the story, so I just refused, and that made it really hard to make.
How'd you get Susan?
Scafaria: Years went by without really much help [on the film] or anything, and then one night, I sent the script cold to Susan's agent because I'd been thinking of Susan for the part for a long time. It felt like, "I'll just take a shot in the dark." I wrote up a letter — I love to write letters, I wrote about a thousand letters to get the movie made for the amount it was made, which was not a lot — to Susan's agent, just trying to paint a picture of this. Fortunately, her agent has a mother a lot like this, and gave the script to Susan, who loved it, and then we met. I'd also shot the first five minutes of the movie with my mother in the part [laughs]. We went and filmed at the Grove without permission. Basically it's shot-for-shot what the movie is, with my mother instead of Susan. And she's not an actress, so the voice-over is hysterical. It's so funny. I'd initially made it to show potential financiers to prove that we could make the movie for a lot less than it seemed like on paper, with these ambitious locations like the Grove and the Apple Store and a Beyoncé song on a loop. [Marnie plays Beyoncé's "I Was Here" over and over again throughout the film] When I showed it to Susan, she was like, "Oh my god, this is everything." She just fell in love with the character of my mother, and ended up wearing all her tops from Chico's, and carrying her purse around, driving her car, driving my dad's car. Her artwork, her Kermit the Frog painting, the doll she had made of me — those were all real things [laughs].
Was your mom just thrilled by all of this?
Scafaria: Oh, yeah. She was like [adopts New Jersey accent], "Oh my god, we should all be so lucky to let Susan represent us," and, "Oh my god, Daddy would have loved to be married to Susan Sarandon." She's over the moon about it. She's over the moon about the whole thing, but honestly, Susan playing her was when she fainted.
You managed to make Marnie strange and funny without being the butt of the joke. It would have been so easy to have her be this stereotypical, eye-roll-inducing person. That must have required so much care on your end.
Scafaria: Your mom is the hardest — how do I put this? — you know how a lot of people are like, "Oh, you're gonna hate my dad when you meet my dad," and then everybody meets your dad and loves him? And you're like, "Oh, he just drives me crazy." Part of it is that moms and daughters have such a different relationship than the sweet moms do with the rest of the world, who really appreciate them. I think having it be from her point of view — I certainly wanted to get in there, what the daughter went through, but only through the mother's eyes — these kinds of characters are usually relegated to the sidelines and are in support of a different story. It's so easy to have them be turned into some annoying stereotype. That's really the opposite of what we wanted to do with this. I really wanted to treat her with respect and treat her like a fully formed human, which she certainly is based on. Talking to Susan about how she was going to play it, the point was not to be too broad — even though it's a wild accent that my mother has, and she's a total character — but to respect it. It is someone with a lot of love to give and uncommon generosity. So it wasn't that hard, once we were inside her head.
The character of Lori, who I know is based on you, is often painted as sort of resentful and angry and dismissive of her mom. It seems like you're being a little hard on yourself in this film.
Scafaria: Probably. My mom thinks so. She's very sweet, of course. Our worst selves are around the people who love us the most, who love us unconditionally — or hopefully love us unconditionally [laughs]. I know I was my worst self in grief. The first year after someone dies, it does feel like magical thinking. There's something in the air; they're still with you. But for me, the years one to two — the magic was gone. I was trying to go back to work and go about my business, and really just try to put one foot in front of the other, and then I went through a breakup, and you're grieving this new thing, and it really dredges up all of the grieving you've done in the last few years. It all becomes really hard to be grateful for your life and the people in it, and [for] a kind mother who cares about you. I thought I had to be pretty honest, not only about how annoying she could be, but how mean I could be. As much as I thought, This is painting a terrible portrait of me, I also thought, Well, what do I look like from just my mother's perspective at this point? Every time she sees me I'm in a bad mood. And it's a combination of, "You're at the door with bagels, and I'm sad about my dad, and I have to go back to work or I'm not going to be able to function." There are so many layers to it, and you can just get ... mean. It was an exercise in empathy.
This is your second directorial effort, your first being Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. You've spoken a bit about regretting the misconceptions critics had about that film, like the reason for the age gap between the leads. Hearing you talk about how hard you fought for everything in The Meddler, I'm wondering if that first experience informed that stubbornness.
Scafaria: I don't really regret the age gap as much as I regret how it was conceived. Certain choices, you wonder if you'd made them differently, what would've happened. Probably my biggest regret was shooting the movie in L.A. [when it was set on] the East Coast. That's what we had to do for the actors' schedules. At the time I was so desperate to get my first movie made, you tell yourself, "I'll compromise something like that," and you don't even realize, that changes the entire scope of the movie. It changes what you can do with three-quarters of the direction being covered in palm trees. I didn't know what to fight for, and the truth is, you have to fight for absolutely everything. I wasn't as desperate to get this movie made, and I didn't want to make it the wrong way. It started with not taking those notes that would've essentially ruined it. And once Susan and Rose and J.K. were onboard, it was like, we have these really giant pieces to the puzzle, but, say, if we didn't get the Apple Store, I don't know if I would've made the movie. I didn't want a 555 number in this movie that would take me out of it.
People might be thinking there's lots of product placement in The Meddler, but it's just what's written into the script! [Laughs.] It's because my mom is such a consumer of specific products. When she talks about her TV, she calls it her Samsung. All those details just felt so important; I didn't want to compromise, and fortunately, I didn't have to, even though our budget was so low. People were kind enough to respond to the letters I wrote, and I didn't have to lie in any of them. When writing Beyoncé a letter that begins with "Dear Beyoncé," you feel totally ridiculous, but I was able to explain how much this song of hers actually meant to my mother. How this specific song, "I Was Here," meant so much to her, how she wanted to put a quote of it on my father's headstone. Fortunately, I was able to appeal to people with the total truth.
What's the story behind the giant art piece that appears in both of your directed films, the one that says "All she had was oatmeal and one Bowie record to last her all summer"?
Scafaria: That's a painting I own, this guy Louis Cannizzaro painted that for me. I love the painting, but also, when you're making low-budget indie movies, you need to be able to afford art on the walls [laughs]. It's free art. I do like the idea that maybe Cecily's character in The Meddler maybe gave it to the Penny character in Seeking, in the near future. Or perhaps somehow it ended up in a thrift store that ended up in Penny's apartment.
Before I let you go, I wanted to know what you think about the conversation on female directors right now, which is at a fever pitch. Do you think it's actually helping?
Scafaria: I think possibly in the last six months things have started to change. I've certainly received a lot more scripts, even, about women. Or "female-empowerment stories." That's, like, a genre right now, which is kind of strange, that female empowerment is a movement in 2016! But whatever. It's certainly good if people are more aware of hiring women directors and diversifying writers' rooms, but it's obviously such a problem. I think there's such systemic sexism and misogyny throughout the world that it just has made its way into film and the entertainment business, obviously; throughout time, it's been horrible. For me, it's so much more about the number of women's stories that are told; how even in a movie that stars a woman, it doesn't even mean a woman is talking or has the most lines. It's weird that female stories are still marginalized.
It's definitely a mixed bag, being a female director. It seems like, "Oh, now you must have so much opportunity." I guess. It's not exactly the way I want to get a job, and yet at the same time I do think it's so important that people pay more attention to hiring women, and when you are a woman director, it's nice to be able to hire more women yourself. I'm actually pleased that our movie almost failed the opposite of the Bechdel test. There are very few moments in The Meddler where two male characters who have names talk to each other. It wasn't something I was setting out to do, it was just very easy once I was writing Marnie's story to have her talk to other women. It's kind of amazing how little man-to-man dialogue there is in this movie [laughs].