Fall 2017

Dysfunction Junction

Like scrappy fighters, intimate family dramas about wayward parents and their damaged kids continue to assert their place at the big-screen table.


Little Miss Sunshine (Photo: Photofest)

Warring couples and their castaway offspring constitute a staple of Hollywood dating back to the '30s and beyond. But in the current multiplex cartooniverse, truly intimate stories are seemingly being hunted to extinction. That doesn't mean, however, that intricate psychological dramas and character-driven comedies that examine the family dynamic—the kind of fare in which nuance rules over scale and painful, everyday truths are revealed—aren't still emerging with increasing honesty and distinction. Filmmakers like Woody Allen, Nicole Holofcener, Noah Baumbach, Mike Mills and Lisa Cholodenko have certainly made sure of that.

"Of course, I want my next movie to be playing on the big screen, in theaters," says Holofcener, referring to her brand of storytelling for which theatrical windows appear to be narrowing by the week. Holofcener is in the midst of mixing and color-timing her forthcoming film, The Land of Steady Habits, which is being rolled out by Netflix sometime next year.

Holofcener has made her name with such critical darlings as Lovely and Amazing (2001), centering around a matriarch and her three insecure daughters, and Please Give (2010), another ensemble comedy/drama that tells the parallel stories of two families and deals with the kind of everyday issues many urbanites grapple with: value systems that divide the haves and have nots, body image and romantic fulfillment, among others.

In her latest effort, named for a lushly suburban stretch of Connecticut its inhabitants have dubbed "the land of steady habits," Holofcener's protagonist—played by Ben Mendelsohn—is a man who has diligently embodied that quiet, prosperous lifestyle. Until, as his son reaches college age, he overthrows his old life, to chaotic effect. "This movie is dark and sad," she says, "and though it does have humor in it, [it] would be a really tough sell, I think, in this market. It's not a broad comedy. It's not filled with huge stars. They're not—yet—what's considered 'A list,' though they are huge to me."

Director Gillian Robespierre forged a bond with actress Jenny Slate, bottom right, along with co-screenwriter Elisabeth Holm, to realize her second feature, Landline, which also stars Abby Quinn, bottom left, and Edie Falco. (Photos: Amazon Studios)

Another film without huge stars but within the same wheelhouse—Landline, directed by Gillian (pronounced with a hard g, as in "Gilda") Robespierre from a script she co-wrote with Elisabeth Holm—received a limited release in July after a favorable launch at Sundance. The film, set in mid-'90s New York, follows two parents (Jon Turturro and Edie Falco) whose marriage is coming apart while their daughters (Jenny Slate and Abby Quinn) brave either premarital infidelity or the allure of dangerous drugs.

Landline saw modest returns amid shifting sands at the box office. But there was a time, not long ago, when this kind of multi-generation tale of dysfunction stood out from the pack after making waves in Park City. Little Miss Sunshine, from the husband-and-wife directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, turned out to be the indie smash of 2006. It also acted as a springboard for the big-screen careers of Steve Carell, Paul Dano and Abigail Breslin, playing members of an ultra-needy, emotionally competitive clan whose fates unfold during a road trip in a VW microbus.

"We fought that moniker—'dysfunctional family,'" says Faris. "We feel all families are dysfunctional. But looking back, that VW van represented the dysfunction—it was apparently functional, but all along things started to break down, and it was that breakdown that brought the family together. With hindsight, maybe you could see the van as a symbol of the dysfunction, but we really didn't think about it that way."

The family's volatile chemistry, says Dayton, "was the thing we worked on the most, whether in the van or at the dinner table. We knew that we had to get that right."

In order to do so, Dayton says that "building a history" over the course of a week with a series of exercises was part of the process. "We did writing assignments where we'd have people write to each other and then read them aloud," he explains. "We'd do dodge ball games, where—if there was resentment between particular characters—we applied that. If you play and get hit by a fast-moving dodge ball, you remember that. We also took a day where we went on a road trip. There was no script, it was just 'Stay in character all day.'"

Adds Faris: "It's funny to think about that, because we were building the family, as opposed to thinking about the things that would tear it down. The only time we read the script was the very last day, when we did a read-through, and it was really incredible because after that week, they were all exactly where we hoped they would be; they all had completely embodied the characters."

Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton hit it out of the park with their feature debut, Little Miss Sunshine (2006), a Sundance-era benchmark about a dysfunctional family's bonding road trip. (Photo: Everett)

For Robespierre, the rehearsal process on Landline lacked that luxury of time. "Everyone's schedules were so all over the place," she says. "We had only two days to rehearse, and do a wardrobe fitting. We were just really scrambling.

"What we did was pair off family members—then we did a whole table read. Not 'acting,' really, just reading, talking through the script, talking about everyone's characters. Then we paired off—Jenny Slate with Abby Quinn," who were playing sisters, and as their father and mother in marital meltdown, Jon Turturro with Edie Falco.

Robespierre's bond with Slate had been well forged in the years of making her first feature, Obvious Child. "I'd met Jenny when she was part of this ultra-alternative comedy scene—she was more 'alternative' than anybody I saw; she lit the space up. She was a storyteller. She wasn't just going in for the punchline—she was going for the heart and soul of human nature, observing it, encouraging the audience to feel like a family member."

Robespierre admired Slate's beauty and "vulnerable charisma," which were essential to her lead role in Obvious Child. That strong collaborative spirit held even as she shared draft after draft of Landline with Slate, even though the part she was offering was, strictly speaking, a supporting role.

"Jenny was really able to lock into her character early on. Edie and Jon only had the script a couple of weeks before we started shooting. But everyone was and is so professional. Everyone got it, despite everyone's process [being] different."

With respect to the crew, a family-friendly dynamic would appear to be key. In addition to having each other, Dayton and Faris rely on editor Pamela Martin. Robespierre has worked with editor Casey Brooks and cinematographer Chris Teague on both her films to date. Holofcener not only bonded creatively with editor Robert Frazen when he cut Lovely and Amazing (2001)—about the complex relationship between a mother and her three daughters—they became a couple, and are still together.

"Usually a first assembly is very frightening, and looks very strange," Holofcener recalls. "You feel weird, and ask yourself, 'Why did I make this?' When I saw his first cut it was just so moving to me, and so much what I already wanted it to be, that I felt, why not just keep having that collaboration?"

Director Nicole Holofcener has made a career out of exploring interfamily dynamics with such films as Lovely and Amazing (2001). (Photos: (Top) Photofest; (Bottom) Everett)

This kind of creative alchemy can be difficult in dramas that don't rely on conspicuous cinematic style but on character-driven conflict. Robespierre says of her work with cameraman Teague: "We like to let things live, visually, to be as organic as possible. Not in the sense of 'a fly on the wall.' We definitely want to be visually exciting—but we let the actors fill the frame, rather than move the camera for no reason. Our camera only moves if it helps the story, and serves the characters."

The two scout locations together, and even act out scenes. "We shoot on his SLR camera, and although we don't storyboard, we work a lot of the photos that we take, while scouting, into our shot list," says Robespierre. "All department heads know what's going on in our heads. Then you end up changing a little bit, on the day."

Robespierre also prefers practical locations to sets. "Real New York City apartments are not that spacious, so it does limit where the camera goes," she says. "It makes it a little more intimate—that's another reason we don't shoot on a stage. I love the sound of New York hardwood floors creaking: Hard to mimic that!"

Clearly these makers of intimate, character-driven stories are advancing their work. Yet one has to wonder: Do they ever feel particularly hard-pressed to sustain their own voices, their personal sense of film-authorship in the emerging streaming culture?

"We were lucky to be at the sweet spot of timeline for independent film," says Dayton, "because in 2006 there was still great theatrical potential and great home video potential, and Little Miss Sunshine rode that wave all the way through." That big-screen ride with an audience, Dayton adds, "is a lost experience."

Faris elaborates: "And because of that, different kinds of films are being made. Personal stories and original screenplays are not getting the same kinds of budgets. The releases are smaller."

Robespierre, by contrast, revels in the multiplicity of opportunities. She and Holm have plotted and are pitching a series idea. "I directed two episodes of the TV series Casual. That was a wonderful experience." For her, after having struggled for years to get her films made, being asked to direct feels not only welcome, but natural and vital.

"Flexing the 'director muscle' is really hard to do," Robespierre observes. "You need a crew of a hundred people, and you need a lot of money to do it, so when a friend asked me to direct these two episodes, I was overjoyed."

Holofcener holds to the same proactive philosophy, and proudly cites her work for Diablo Cody and comedian Tig Notaro on the series One Mississippi: "Even if there are moments in a script that I wouldn't say, or wouldn't write, or don't prefer, I serve what's written and hope I can do things that are similar to my own work—because human comedy and drama are what I do best."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

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Check out the latest DGA Quarterly, featuring interviews with Kathryn Bigelow, Joe Pytka, Jordan Peele, Todd Haynes, Errol Morris, Alex Gibney, Marc Webb, Erin Ehrlich, Aline Brosh McKenna Brian Helgeland Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.