So this is something new, at least for me. My first interview for a movie premiering on Netflix. To be honest, when I did this interview in January, right after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, my belief was that is would be released theatrically in some modest form or another. The deal to have the film’s streaming debut be on Netflix was announced prior to Sundance, if memory serves, with the idea that there would be a theatrical release just in the weeks leading up to that (and in fact, there is some very limited release happening in L.A. and maybe New York this week as well, I believe). But as far as I’m concerned this is a Netflix release (it premieres this Friday, June 24), and while I absolutely believe this film would have done well at the box office, Netflix is certainly a worthy platform, to say the least.
THE FUNDAMENTALS OF CARING is based on Jonathan Evison’s similarly titled novel “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving,” concerning an emotionally vulnerable man (Paul Rudd) on the brink of divorce who decides a career change is in order to give his life some perspective, so he takes classes to become a care-giver for a wheelchair-bound younger man (Craig Roberts), and the two end up going on a bit of a road trip, much to the dismay of his mother (Jennifer Ehle). The film also stars Selena Gomez and Bobby Cannavale, and it’s truly funny and often quite moving, but with barely a wisp of sentimentality. FUNDAMENTALS is directed and adapted by Rob Burnett (WE MADE THIS MOVIE), who is probably best known for producing “Late Show with David Letterman” for roughly 20 years.
Due to my travel schedule and the fact that FUNDAMENTALS was one of the films that closed Sundance this year, I missed meeting up with Rudd and Burnett in person in Park City, but we had this phone conversation just hours before their world premiere. I’m guessing you don’t need a rundown on Rudd’s credits over the years, but outside of a couple of films in which he plays Ant-Man, FUNDAMENTALS might be you only shot to see Rudd in a film this year. You’ll hear his voice in the upcoming animated films SAUSAGE PARTY, THE LITTLE PRINCE and NERDLAND. He’s currently shooting the film IDEAL HOME, opposite Steven Coogan, from director Andrew Fleming (HAMLET 2, DICK), and is signed to be in Duncan Jones next film MUTE, opposite Alexander Skarsgård. And at some point next year, he’ll put the Ant-Man suit back on for Marvel’s ANT-MAN AND WASP, set for release in summer 2018.
I’ve been interviewing Rudd for years, and it’s great to see that he’s still committed to mixing things up among smaller, indie works; massive-scale productions; stage; and weird shorts that defy description. Rudd has a tendency to work with people he admires, rather than picking roles based on how it will impact or strengthen his career, and someone that standard has worked for him. With all that said, enjoy my talk with Paul Rudd and Rob Burnett…
Paul Rudd: What’s up, Steve?!
Capone: Hey, man.
PR: How are you, buddy?
Capone: I’m good. How are you?
PR: Good. I wish you were still here.
Capone: I missed you by that much.
PR: When did you leave?
Capone: Wednesday night. So when’s the screening? Is it tonight or tomorrow?
Capone: Best of luck with that. I hope it goes well. The reaction so far from the press screenings seems to be very good. Rob, you wrote the screenplay as well as directed the film. What do you remember responding to about the novel initially? What about it hooked you?
Rob Burnett: Well, I just thought Jonathan Evison did a beautiful job with a difficult story. What attracted me to it, I would say is a couple of things. One, it could have very easily become sentimental, and he never went there. I thought that’s great. The other thing for me was that I thought the usual form of this story was to see kind of the irascible caregiver come in and breathe life back into the ill or injured, and here I thought it was very interesting that the caregiver, Paul’s character, was every bit as injured as Craig’s character. The two of them, both crippled in their own way, and having no interest, by the way, in helping each other. They’re really not interested in it.
By accident, they breathe life just the tiniest bit back into each other’s life. I think Paul does a very nuanced job in slowly starting to care about this kid in spite of himself. And Craig slowly starts to get the courage to talk to Dot [Selena Gomez’s character]. There’s something so small about this story, so microscopic in their growth, that I thought it would be a very interesting story and a challenging story to try to tell.
Capone: At at the end, it’s not some huge leap into complete resolution for either of them.
RB: You go into this knowing that if you want to be true to life, there is no way for either of them to solve their problems. So that as a writer is challenging because the very basic structure of most things is, there’s a problem and you solve it. Here, Ben will never get over his son and Trevor will never get out of that wheelchair. So what’s heroic here is the two of them just caring a little. There’s just something about that that I think is very inspirational in general, in addition to specifically.
Capone: Were there any big adjustments you had to make from the novel to make this work as a film?
RB: I did make some very big adjustments to some of the ancillary characters. It was difficult to chose to do that. A lot of it was based on what is a movie and what is a book? The book is written from Ben’s point of view, so Jonathan has the luxury and burden of having to carry Ben’s internal monologue. I don’t have the ability to do that. So I think the movie is a little bit more of a two hander, maybe. It’s difficult, because when you start to adapt a beautiful book you feel ridiculous. You feel like you’re writing with your parents looking over your shoulder and you don’t know what to do. And at some point, I just gave over to it and said “Well, I’d rather just take the spirit of this and make it my own.”
To Jonathan Evison’s credit, he loved the script, which is much less about the script and much more about his generosity I think. He’s created these characters, he’s created all of this, and can look at my little dog-and-pony show and like it and understand I made these big changes. What he said to me was “You’ve captured the same spirit of what I’m going for.” I’ll say that, I’m as guilty as the next person being one of those “I read the book. I saw the movie. This one’s better.” I’ve done that my whole life. I’ll never do it again after this. I just think they’re two different things, honestly. I think it’s two completely different art forms. The book is beautiful and hopefully the movie is a good movie. That’s for others to decide.
Capone: Paul, how did you get involved, and what do you remember responding to about your character and his arc?
PR: Well, how I first heard about it is Rob sent me an email. I had met Rob a few times. I didn’t know him very well, but obviously I knew who he was and the stuff he did with the Letterman Show. I’m a Letterman fanatic. I grew up admiring so much of the comedy that was created with that show, and it was great. I got to ask Rob about Letterman bits that I was always curious about. And I also was a fan of the show “Ed,” [which Burnett produced] and have had friends that have worked with Rob.
So when Rob emailed me, he said, “I wrote this script, would you mind reading it?” And I said, “Absolutely not, I’d be honored to.” So I read it and was really taken with the story, really moved, and thought it was hilarious. I love people who are suffering and have gallows humor. That strikes a chord with me, and I thought the story itself was a really about baby steps—no grand gestures, but I loved how these guys helped each other just a little bit.
In regard to the character I was playing, it’s weird. I sometimes just look at the thing as a whole, and I liked the entire script. I loved Craig’s character. I loved Selena’s character, and this character Peaches that comes along. I thought all of these characters were really fleshed out and interesting and funny. But I was drawn to this guy who was going through the worst thing that you could possibly go through as a parent and is lost and has to take care of this kid, and it’s this kid and how funny he is that wakes something up in the character that I play, Ben, and I loved their friendship. And that was it. It wasn’t really anything much beyond that. I thought the story was really moving and that a lot of the back and forth was hilarious.
Capone: This is for both of you: Was there room to improvise not just for laughs but also to get to the emotional heart of the story?
PR: Depending on what the movie is, for me improvisation, if you do it, has never really been about laughs, unless it’s something like ANCHORMAN or WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER, something like that, which is a bit more cartoonish. But even then, it’s got to be based in something dramatic and real for the characters, I think. A lot of my favorite kind of improvisation is actually dramatic. If humor can come out of it, then great, but the underlying thing, for me, my favorite type is when it’s moving or heartbreaking, and there was certainly room for that on this. That being said, it wasn’t like we were improvising a whole bunch.
RB: For me as a writer, I very rarely care about the actual lines. Every once in a while if there’s something I’m proud of, sure, I’m human. But it really both comedically and dramatically, it’s about creating dynamics in a scene and understanding the intentions and going after that. Paul, he’s a great writer also. It’s this great luxury for me to have almost a writing partner on the set. The thing everyone talks about is the comedic scene when Paul’s offering the Slim Jim, and that’s amazing and almost entirely—again, the dynamic is in the script, but the specifics are almost entirely improvised.
I often think about a bunch of copywriters and ad people sitting on Madison Avenue with the Slim Jim account and watching this movie and watching Paul Rudd off the top of his head come up with “Bite of the James?”, and they’re like, “Ah, we should have had that. What were we thinking?” I also would like to point out that we received zero dollars from Slim Jim in this movie. It wasn’t product placement.
But what I was getting to was, much more impressive or meaningful to me was the very dramatic scene with Paul and Craig in the parking lot after Craig gets let down dismally by his father. That scene is an absolute amalgamation of my writing and Paul’s improvising. I remember being there as Paul was rehearsing and jotting things down. It’s very thrilling for me as a writer and director to have somebody who understands exactly what you’re going for and can make it better. When that happens, you just feel like hey, we’re working together here. So the answer is yes.
Capone: I would like to see the uncut, 30-minute version of that Slim Jim scene by the way.
RB: [laughs] Well, I’ll tell you this. There was another scene in the movie that was shortened tremendously in the classic “kill your darlings” category that I don’t know if we’ll ever release it in some form. At some point, we’ll have to make that decision. The thing where Paul arranges the waffles and the sausage. That was a long, long thing of Paul and Craig ad libbing about different configurations of the waffles and ultimately we decided that, while hilarious, maybe that was starting to get away too much from the characters, so we cut some of that stuff, but boy it was funny. It’s really funny.
Capone: I was really impressed with Selena Gomez in this film. She seems to thrive in this four-letter-word environment, but where did the idea come from to bring her in for this? There’s a lot she has to do with here, and so much of what Craig is responding to has to do with her.
RB: Well, it wasn’t my idea. The great Aleen Keshishian [Gomez’s manager] set up an interview with me and Selena and actually didn’t tell me who she was when she set the interview. She came in, and I met with her and I immediately found her to be incredibly thoughtful and smart and responding to the character. She worked very hard for this part. It’s not the kind of thing where, she’s a big star, she could easily say “I’m not going to read.” She came to San Diego and read for us and auditioned. She’s a very hard-working person, and I was very happy and proud to have her in the movie. As far as her acting career, I think this is just the very beginnings of it.
Capone: What does the road trip framework give this story that wouldn’t have worked if they had just stayed at home, for example?
PR: Well, it really is a whole genre, I suppose--the road movie. Sometimes people hear “It’s a road trip movie.” And you kind of gloss over. I think it’s different in this one in that you have a kid who…it’s not just a metaphor. This kid needs to get outside. He needs to leave his house. He doesn’t venture outside. While it can be more of maybe a metaphor for Ben and where he’s at right now, I think for Trevor, it’s “Let’s actually go out and see some of these things that you see on TV.” There really is a life out there, and you don’t have to be stationary and living in this house for your whole life. Just give it a shot, and let’s see how far we get.
RB: I think there’s something poetic about road trips in general in that, you are simultaneously static and moving at the same time. There’s something about that aspect of sitting in a car, sitting and doing nothing, but accomplishing something just by doing that I think fits this story particularly well. And I agree with everything that Paul’s saying. A lot of this is two guys that need to somehow move forward. There is something about a road trip that I think maps well on to their personal stories.
Capone: What does it mean to get your film into Sundance?
RB: For me honestly, I feel like I’ve got to go back and redo my bucket list. I need another draft on my bucket list. This is beyond my imagination or expectation. I’m so thrilled and touched to be a part of this community. I’ve got to say, to be a director at Sundance is like no experience I’ve had. I’ve been working in show business a long time, but here, they really treat you like something. It’s kind of amazing. They respect you. So yes, I am at a loss for words about how grateful I am to be a part of this community.
And what I’ll say about Sundance quickly is, we have this brunch. Robert Redford hosts a brunch with all the directors of all the films. He talked about the history of Sundance, and it comes from such a pure intention of what this man tried to do and did. He created a community for filmmakers. We all know what Sundance has become. It’s gigantic. There are big business deals here, there are sponsors, there’s press, there are all of these things. There is show business is here now, which is probably not what he imagined or intended, but what I can tell you from my experience here is that that original spirit exists in full. The best part of this experience for me was meeting all these incredible filmmakers. For our little movie to play alongside of all of these others at the Eccles Theatre on closing night, I’m profoundly grateful.
Capone: I’m glad you’re having fun already. Thank you so much for talking, and hopefully we’ll talk again down the road.