I happened to see writer-director Craig Johnson first (and only other) film, TRUE ADOLESCENTS, five years ago at the SXSW Film Festival primarily because I had just seen Mark Duplass in HUMPDAY a couple of days earlier and was prepared to pretty much see him in anything else at that point. I’d seen Duplass’ work before in some of his own films (as actor and writer-director), as well as Joe Swanberg’s HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS, but that particular year was the first time I saw the possibilities he had as an actor with some degree of range. But I digress…
I lost track of the man that made TRUE ADOLESCENTS for a few years, until reading reports that he had a new film at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, THE SKELETON TWINS, which pairs for “Saturday Night Live” cast members Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as grown twins who meet again after a 10-year estrangement, when Hader’s Milo attempts suicide. If this film doesn’t sound like a typical Hader-Wiig comedy, that’s because it’s actually a wonderfully balanced drama that just happens to have a few laughs tucked away to cushion some pretty serious emotional blows
As he did with his first film, Johnson focuses on 30-somethings who have lost their way. In the case of Milo and sister Maggie, they both are frustrated artistic types whose lives have sent them not just far from each other but also from their intended dreams. It’s a quietly devastating little movie, with some truly wonderful performances and sharp writing from Johnson and co-writer Mark Heyman (Black Swan). I had a chance to speak with Johnson earlier this week and dug into the themes and dreams of THE SKELETON TWINS. Please enjoy my talk with Craig Johnson…
Craig Johnson: Hello?
Capone: Hi, Craig. How are you?
CJ: Hey, I’m good. How are you?
Capone: I’m great. I wanted to tell you first that seeing both TRUE ADOLESCENTS and HUMPDAY at SXSW 2009 pretty much solidified my Mark Duplass man crush. So, thank you for your part in that.
CJ: [Laughs] You’re welcome!
Capone: And I noticed obviously that Mark and Jay Duplass are listed producers on THE SKELETON TWINS. In terms of getting this film across the funding finish line, did having them aboard make a difference?
CJ: Yes. The short answer is yes. This movie wouldn’t have happened without Mark and Jay. One of their key puzzle pieces for getting it going was bringing in Avy Kaufman, our casting director, because we knew that that was the way to get a movie like this made. You bring in actors that people have heard of and people like to watch, and you can maybe get some money that way.
After I did TRUE ADOLESCENTS, Mark and I had become buddies, and I had actually co-written THE SKELETON TWINS before TRUE ADOLESCENTS. It had been sitting in a drawer for a little while—a couple of years in fact—and I dug it out and re-read it and was like, “This is not half bad.” And I sent it to Duplass and was like, “What do you think about this and what do you think about maybe exec producing?” And he said, “I really dig this, and I’d love to produce. Let’s get a cool casting director and make it happen.” And that is the Duplass attitude. He’s like, “Yup. Let’s do it. There's nothing standing in our way; we’re in control of this thing. Let’s do it.” He’s just like a little ninja. He kicks these doors open for you. And that was the case with Avy Kaufman. He got Avy on board, and once she was doing it, we were able to get it out to the actors we wanted to be in it.
Capone: It’s my understanding that as much as it would seem like they were, that Bill and Kristen were not a package deal, that they came on board at very different times. Can you talk about the progression there, and why did it take so long to figure out Kristen was the right Maggie?
CJ: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well we obviously had other actresses that we had spoken to about it, but you know how these things go. People are in, people are out, but Bill was on from a very early stage and was just so devoted to this movie, and I couldn’t think of anybody else to be in it. So Bill had been cast for two years. And it was just one of those moments where I think maybe because they were together in “Saturday Night Live” for so long, I think I thought for awhile, “If I did that, would that feel like a gimmick?” And then like a thunderbolt hit me: “Oh my god, no. It would be the exact opposite.” This movie is so different from what they’ve done, the fact that they have done stuff together, that there’s an association in the public’s mind of them as a duo, that would only help this movie and really make it sing. Plus, when I really open myself up to the idea of Kristen doing this I was like, “She’s absolutely perfect for it.”
Capone: When you get two people that know each other and have worked together for so long, is it tough to be convincing as people who are estranged from each other? Or was that familiarity between them more important in a lot of ways?
CJ: It’s true. Estrangement is the easy part. The hard part is connection and familiarity and a sense of a shared history, and that was the benefit of having those two together, because you can’t invent that kind of chemistry as a director. You can cast people and hope it’s there or tease it along, but with those two—because they’re really dear friends in real life as well—that chemistry is baked in, so it makes my job easier.
We didn't do any rehearsal. I just had an intuitive sense that that would be the case, and it wasn’t until our first day of shooting with them on set together, which was actually the scene in the bar during Halloween when they show each other their tattoos, which is one of the warmest most connected scenes that we kicked off with, and just from take one I was doing a little dance behind the camera because I was like “This is working. They feel like brother and sister.”
Capone: I’m sure a word that has come up a lot in these interviews is “balance,” because you’ve loaded this film with so many moments where we’re not really sure laughter is appropriate, and you’ve done a wonderful job of striking exactly the right tonal balance. Was that a tough thing to find, either in the writing, directing or editing?
CJ: It was extremely tough, and we also knew it was critical to the movie working. If the tone wasn’t right, if you tipped over either to the comedic side, it would just feel cartoonish and not like real life. If you tipped over to the more dramatic side, it could be too dark and too much like a dirge and too much of a drag. We knew in our heads when we were writing the script—my co-writer Mark Heyman and I—what we wanted. On set, you’re just throwing everything into the basket, including stuff that’s probably too funny and stuff that’s probably too dark. It so comes together in the edit. Editing is everything in a movie like this, where you’re just piecing it together. So I really can’t say enough about my editor, Jennifer Lee, in helping me find that balance.
Also music is critical to finding that tonal balance. Music is deeply, deeply important to me, and there’s a pretty solid score in the movie by Nathan Larson. I really think Nathan found that musical balance between a score that’s warm and emotional, but not too saccharine and syrupy. We don’t want the music to take us over into melodramatic territory or territory that’s a little too sentimental.
But that balance of tone was always, always forefront in our minds. We knew what we wanted. I’m a big fan of the old ‘70s Hal Ashby movies that are funny and bittersweet. I’m a big Alexander Payne fan, and love old Milos Forman. Those are movies that are absolute tonal balances between the funny and the sad. I am one of those people that thinks if you feel like laughing, laugh. There’s no such thing as inappropriate laughter.
Capone: Well, when you’re in a crowded theater and you’re the only one laughing at a weird failed suicide attempt, then maybe…
CJ: [laughs] Well, her phone plays the freaking “Growing Pains” theme. You know? That’s funny, I think.
Capone: Both this film and TRUE ADOLESCENTS have mid-30s characters who are lost at sea. I feel like they had a clear idea of what they wanted to be when they were younger, and they just missed that. What fascinates you about people like this?
CJ: Oh lord, where do I start? Well, I’m in my 30s, I’m now in my later 30s, so I’m wrapping this up. So much of this comes from what you’re dealing with at the time of your life when you’re coming in to it. I think that in both TRUE ADOLESCENTS and this movie, there are characters who are maybe, I wouldn’t say they’re versions of myself, but people who have artistic aspirations, and for one reason or another, they didn’t manifest in the way that they’d like them to, and that is I think a profound fear of mine as I was coming into my own artistically—that sense that you’re a fraud or the sense that it’s never going to happen, because I don’t know what else I’d do if I wasn’t doing this. I don’t know that I’m equipped to do anything else. So that fear is very real. Even to this day, even though I’ve been able to make a couple movies, you’re always like, “Ugh, can I get the next one off the ground? Do I deserve to? Am I just fooling myself and everybody else?”
Capone: I have to ask you about Lance [Maggie’s husband, played by Luke Wilson], because watching this film I realize, Lance doesn’t say anything funny, but everything he says is hilarious because they’re judging him all the time, and we’re judging him a little bit too. Who is Lance? How does Lance fit into this, because he’s wonderful.
CJ: Well, I love Lance. He tends to be people’s favorite character often. He’s pure of heart, Lance. I think that’s why you love him. He’s a pure creature. He’s not the smartest tool in the shed, but he’s deeply sincere. He’s one of these guys, I grew up in Washington, we called them “nature frat boy”— a lot of Ultimate Frisbee, a lot of Dave Matthews Band concerts, just really sincere guys who weren’t necessarily deep thinkers, but were sincere and had a simple, awesome view of life. An everything’s awesome kind of view. And I love Lance. My heart really goes out to him. He just needs to find people a little less complicated to spend his time with.
Capone: We need t-shirts that say “I Love Lance.”
CJ: I already do [laughs].
Capone: Comedy has always been a great vehicle to explore tragedy and trauma. Has that framework been a useful one for you? Tell me about taking that path.
CJ: Well, I am just more comedic driven than anything else, I have to say. So anything that I do in the future, I think, will have some element of comedy to it. I don’t like watching dramas that have no sense of humor. I just don’t think that’s how life is. I think there’s always some humor, especially dark humor, when you’re dealing with dark issues, so that was always embedded. It was never one or the other. It was always both.
Capone: As damaged as the Milo and Maggie relationship is, it’s not the most messed-up relationship in this film. Are we able to talk about Ty Burrell’s character? I’m still trying to wrap my brain around just how twisted that whole situation is, and he’s magnificent in the part. I don’t think anyone’s going to see him coming. Talk just about that character and why that relationship is so important.
CJ: It’s a lot to unpack because it’s a very fraught, difficult relationship, but I wanted to make it as hard as possible to judge Milo and judge Rich, to a certain degree. In terms of Rich, I wanted to see someone who was in such pain, who was so repressed, who was hiding his real self to such a degree that it was making him make really horrible life decisions that have made him a sick person, and I’m not sure there’s a lot of hope for him. For Milo, when you’re 15, you can fall in love. It’s a real thing, and quite frankly, I think Rich was his first love, and that is certainly, as inappropriate as it might be, to Milo it was very, very real. So I wanted to make sure we didn’t judge it. And I have to give Ty Burrell props because, Rich could have easily been a monster, and Ty is so just infinitely likable and warm and relatable, that it just makes him very complicated when you see him in this role.
Capone: I don’t know if it would have worked with anybody else, quite honestly. He brings with him the perfect baggage to the part.
CJ: I agree.
Capone: Craig, thank you so much for taking the time to talk.