September 07, 2012
At some point in Hello I Must Be Going, Amy (Melanie Lynskey) trips on a beach and asks, splayed flat on the rocky shore, “where the motherfucking fuck is motherfucking bottom!” In the aftermath of a surprise divorce, she’s moved back into her parent’s house, and in the way of their home renovations and retirement plans, when she begins a fling with a younger man (played by Girls’ Christopher Abbott). And it’s Amy’s seemingly bottomless, endless sense of stasis that director Todd Louiso and screenwriter Sarah Koskoff navigate with such care … and a little humor. I recently spoke with Louiso and Koskoff via phone about Hello I Must Be Going, the cast, the Marx Brothers, and defying the status quo (and the weather) to create a candid, female-centric film.
I think there’s a lot of desire to see more women telling real women’s stories in film, which Hello I Must Be Going certainly does, and I’m wondering what challenges you feel there might be for screenwriters in bringing stories like Amy’s to light?
Sarah Koskoff: I think that things are definitely changing for the better. I mean in the last few years there’s been a huge, it seems anyway, like there’s been a huge increase of films with women as the main character, but I think the way that people view the viability of female-led film is still sort of limited. We heard quite often that there are about five actresses who can open a film, and we just sort of made the choice not to buy into that. And sure enough it’s not true, but you do have to kind of go outside of the system in order to make that happen. So, I think until people do that enough outside the system – the system being the studio system – I don’t think it’s going to change. When I was writing this, I was thinking a lot about the movies from the seventies, very feminist films from the seventies, and I wondered where those films had gone and why we dropped back after that. Like Jill Clayburgh.
Todd Louiso: Ellen Burstyn.
Sarah: And Ellen Burstyn. Yeah, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is one of my favorite films that Scorsese made, and it’s such a female-driven story and there’s so much depth to it. When I was writing this script and I heard the statistics, what people said, that you can’t write a story about a woman like this, I just thought about those movies and thought, well, why not? That was thirty years ago that those films were made, you know?
I’m glad you went with the choice of Melanie Lynskey because she’s terrific in the role. And Amy’s post-divorce funk, her return to her parent’s home, and her regression into teenage-hood, I guess you could call it, is one story I think a lot of viewers, male or female, could connect with. What’s the inspiration behind it?
Sarah: Well, I wanted to write a romantic story about an older woman and a younger guy, and I wanted to write it more from a female perspective. I just felt like I hadn’t seen that. But it was more about two people who were hidden to themselves, really, and who were so accommodating to the people in their lives that that’s really where they connected. But it felt like after her crash and burn, after her marriage, that it was somebody with a kind of innocence who would really help her recover. So that kind of man had to be, in a way, a boy, and the boy was the real man. Does that make any sense?
Sarah: I need more coffee.
That’s okay. It makes perfect sense to me.
Sarah: So that was my feeling, that on the surface it’s about this older woman and younger man, but it’s really more about these two people who are at exactly the same place in their lives and how they help each other.
And I’m not sure who’s responsible for the use of the Marx Brothers clips in the film, but I love that, those moments when Amy sits down to watch them as she’d done as a kid. And I love that her demeanor is different each time but the fact that she turns to the Marx Brothers is consistent. What did you have in mind, either one of you, when you chose the Marx Brothers for her touchstone, as it were?
Sarah: That was in the script, and for Amy – what you said is exactly true. It kind of tracks the way she evolves as a person throughout the script, and it is a connection to her father, a connection to her childhood. And it was a way to visually represent her transformation, and how those two relationships – her relationship to herself as a child and her relationship to her father – how they’re evolving throughout the film.
Todd: The clips the first time she’s watching them, she does start the film off back at home, back as a child again, and using those clips as a security blanket. That’s what she was as a child. As the film progresses those clips really don’t work anymore. Those same comforts don’t work anymore. By the end where she’s trying to force herself to watch this, she’s trying to make this thing work by watching Animal Crackers.
Sarah: Yeah, she’s re-examining it. Like you said, Cynthia, she’s sort of changed, and you can see that in the way she’s looking at her relationship with her father and her relationship to herself and seeing that in a different way. She realizes she hasn’t been seeing the full picture of what’s been going on in her parent’s house.
Todd: We can see that through how the Marx Brothers clips remain the same and her father’s behavior remains the same by him coming in at the end of the thing – “You can stay here as long as you want. Don’t worry about your mother.” Which is pretty much what he did at the beginning too.
Sarah: And also I think for me it was a way to unify some of the tone in the film, that there is a kind of an element of slapstick in the film while it’s also really grounded in reality. That’s something that for me the Marx Brothers really captured, that kind of slapstick, and also the way that Amy is sort of this loose canon in her own house. She reveals the dysfunction of the house. I always loved that about Groucho. He goes into these very formal situations and he’s just a total anarchist revealing the façade in every situation, the ridiculousness of all of these social norms.
I love that connection between Groucho and Amy. That’s perfect. So, it seems movie moms tend to be either the best friend or the tyrant, & Ruth Minsky quite wonderfully defies those types. She can say pointedly damaging things to Amy in one scene and then, you know, read a children’s book to her grandchild in different voices in another. I found her to be both endearing and maddening at times, vacillating between those. That made her seem more real, too. But I’m wondering if you could speak to the effectiveness of Blythe Danner in this very nuanced role.
Todd: When we asked Blythe if she would do it, she just seemed so perfect for it. She brings such an incredible body of work to the role, with such a history in the theater also. When she read for the role she saw all those different layers that were in the role, and I think she just leapt at the chance to do that. I think, like you said, a lot of parts these days for women of her generation end up being a caricature or this or that, whereas this is more textured and layered and allowed her to really show so many things. She’s an incredible artist, and she delivered such an incredible performance. I can’t say enough about her.
I understand you had twenty days to film and that shooting was interrupted by a hurricane, which sounds harrowing. What did those constraints bring out in the work that may or may not have been true of it otherwise?
Todd: Having those constraints to me is a really good thing. I’ve found that having too much time is a bit of a danger for me, whereas if I have certain boundaries and I have to make certain decisions or compromises it forces me to be more creative. And those are usually more interesting choices.
Sarah: It keeps everybody very alive and awake, and I think that that can really help a film have a kind of vitality. The script was very set. There wasn’t a lot of improv or anything. It had been worked on for awhile. So it was a stability for the film and a good balance for the speed we worked at.
Todd: We were able to do it at that speed. We did have more than we needed, as far as the script, so when we got into the editing room we were able to work with it. Sometimes when you get into the editing room you have too little to work with. So we did. We had enough. And we had stuff we could cut, which is great to have fat to be able to cut off. But it was so sleek, the script, that we were able to do it that fast.
Sarah: It was like an anchor for everybody, I think.
Todd: It still was hard, certainly. It was a grueling shoot, because, twenty days —
Sarah: The actors had to be on their toes. They had to really show up fully for every take.
Todd: Because we’re not going to do fifteen takes of, of—
Todd: You know, of any emotional scene there are going to be two or three takes. So the actors have to be really on. Everybody. The crew. The camera operator. You have to deliver your best every time.
And this is the first film that the two of you have collaborated on together as a married couple, right?
And did you learn anything new about each other, working with each other on this level?
Sarah: Um …
(Much laughter here.)
Todd: So much?
Sarah: Yeah, really. So much. Not appropriate for any kind of print. Not appropriate.
Todd: Not appropriate, or not interesting.
Sarah: Probably not interesting to anyone. Or interesting in a weird way.
Do you think you’d be collaborating on a project again in the future?
Sarah: Yeah, I like collaborating with Todd, though. It was very difficult, but it was very rewarding. I think with another director I would have been very shy. And I think that screenwriters are often relegated to the background at best if they’re even around at all or have any say, and I had a lot of input. That was a good thing.
Todd: It was great for me too. It was Sarah’s script. The film was such a collaboration between the two of us. It wasn’t like I just took the script and went off and did my thing. I so love Sarah’s taste and her writing and what she creates. It’s so specific that I don’t know how I could do it without her.
Sarah: But the thing is that with Todd and the actors there, it was completely different than I would have done. I have this private relationship with the writing and with the story, and that jump from the page to film is something I can’t really make happen. Not yet, anyway. I have a lot of experience in theater, but the way that it was visually interpreted and the way that the actors took on the roles, it was really incredible to see that. So different and so much better than I could have imagined.
One last question for you both. Of course we’ve talked about Amy’s situation minimizing her as her parent’s child again, in a sense. So, I’m wondering what the last thing that made you feel like a kid again for better or worse might have been?
Sarah: The last thing that made me feel like a kid … in my life … is probably coming over this morning to my parent’s apartment to use their landline.
Well, there you go.
Sarah: We no longer have a landline. So, probably that recently — this morning. Todd?
Todd: Not being able to stop eating the icing on the cupcakes that my son and I made yesterday. Like, why can’t I stop eating this chocolate icing?
TODD LOUISO directed Love, Liza with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Kathy Bates (Sony Classics), and The Marc Pease Experience with Jason Schwartzman and Ben Stiller (Paramount Vantage). His first short, The Fifteen Minute Hamlet, starring Austin Pendleton, screened at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival. As an actor, he has appeared in many films, including Scent of a Woman, Jerry Maguire, High Fidelity, School for Scoundrels, and Thank You for Smoking.
SARAH KOSKOFF studied Literature and Anthropology at Sarah Lawrence College. After graduating, she made the natural transition to working as an actress in episodic television. She also wrote plays for the Los Angeles theater scene. Unencumbered by audiences, she was free to develop her voice as a writer. Hello I Must Be Going is her first screenplay. She was a 2009 Sundance Screenwriting Lab Fellow. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children.