by Patricia Grandjean
Oct 7, 2012
03:38 PMBox Office
Hello, I Must Be Going: Q&As with Melanie Lynskey and Sarah Koskoff
This month, Westport native Sarah Koskoff's Hello I Must Be Going may just be playing at a theater near you. Premiered in January at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival (where it caused a splash as both the opening-night film and a Grand Jury Prize nominee), Hello has already been lauded by critics at Entertainment Weekly and The Los Angeles Times as a character study that’s greater that the sum of its premises. Actually, Salon probably said it best: “Sarah Koskoff’s screenplay starts out so modestly, you think it’s just going to be a female early-midlife-crisis movie, or an older-woman/younger-guy love story, and, heck, it is both of those things. But as the movie goes along it becomes much richer and funnier than that summary suggests, painting a satirical but sympathetic portrait of upper-crust family life in Westport, Conn.”
As screenwriter, Koskoff collaborated on the movie with her husband, director Todd Louiso, and, she says, a "dream cast" that featured Blythe Danner, John Rubenstein and New Zealand actress Melanie Lynskey—who stars as divorcee Amy, a woman who falls in love with a high school boy in her hometown, Jeremy (Christopher Abbott). We talked with both Lynskey and Koskoff about the film.
How did you get involved with "Hello I Must Be Going"?
I got a call and was asked to do a reading for the Sundance Institute. I guess the movie was developed at the Sundance Lab, and they chose a couple of those movies to do readings of in front of an audience. I loved the script so much, and I just thought, "Oh gosh, if I get to read this character just one time, I'm going to be so excited." So I agreed to do the reading, then after that they told me they wanted me to do the movie.
Upon talking with Sarah Koskoff, I got the impression that she and Todd Louiso really felt they landed their dream cast for this. What did you love about the screenplay?
I'm really so like a woman in her mid-30s who's not drop-dead gorgeous. There are not a lot of interesting juicy parts to be played, you know? I just love that Amy's a fully realized human and that it's a very honest portrayal. She spends the first part of the movie in basically a catatonic depression, and then this thing happens to her where she gets so filled with life and laughter. There's so much to play in that journey from feeling absolutely nothing to feeling everything—it was very magical to me.
Did you relate to Amy?
I definitely did. I experienced my last personal heartbreak some time ago, thankfully. In my professional life there have been times when I'm just sitting around thinking, "Who am I? What's going to happen to me? What is this life all about?" And I related to her sense of humor.
It's a very literate movie, isn't it? Sarah and I talked about the fact that she has done a lot of playwriting. The movie is very verbal, but I understand earlier versions of the scrennplay were even more so. But what kind of demands does that kind of script make on you as an actor, as opposed to scripts where there's a lot of action and scenery?
Sometimes, when there's a lot of talking in a movie, you get to work and you realize you don't need to say everything, because you can see our faces. In extreme closeups, some things you can sort of sense or feel or do with a look. Sarah and Todd were great about calling off extraneous moments that didn't need to be there anymore. Otherwise, it's great to play somebody articulate.
This the first movie in which you've starred, the first one you've carried on your own.
Yes, this is the first time of my life i've been in every single scene of a movie. I didn't really think about it when I read the script; I just thought it was so balanced and there were so many interesting things about it and characters. Then I got the schedule and I realized, "Hang on, I'm in every scene." And the pace at which these indie movies is shot is so fast, this one was 20 days.
What is your take on Amy and the journey she goes through in the film, from the beginning to when the credits roll?
It's funny, it seems like at the beginning of the movie she's just a person who's given up any identity that she might have had. As a child, she was very comfortable trying to make evryone else happy—looking after her dad, looking out for what everyone needed from her. Her father's kind of a narcissist, and then she grew up to marry this other narcissist. She ended up thinking, "I don't need to work, I don't need hobbies, I'll just be your wife—that's what I do now." For some people it's just easier to not have to challenge themselves and ask the hard questions: "What am I good at? What am I passionate about? What makes me happy?" She's just used to being in that place of, "What does everyone else need?" So the movie is a journey of, "Who am I?" I think Amy and Jeremy are both going on the same journey, but hers takes place 15 years later in life—discovering herself and what she really wants to do.
I always wonder what actors pull from in themselves when they play any part.
My favorite experiences are always the movies where you read it and you're not sure why, but it resonates with you on some level. You just feel like you need to do this right now. It's difficult to articulate what it awakens inside you. I felt that way when I read The Informant! That character was kind of a Western housewife in the 1990s, sort of blindly going along with what her husband was doing. I didn't have any way of relating to that, but there was something about it that made me want to do it right then. There are these different parts of you and different things you want to explore within yourself, and this material will come along to allow you to open up and make discoveries, or it'll remain a mystery.
Was this the first time you've done any work in Connecticut?
I was in Connecticut once before, when we shot a few days of Away We Go there. We shot in New Haven and Stamford. But that was just a week. Westport was so beautiful and peaceful, and the people were so friendly. I went for a walk one evening along this little beach, and there were all these beautiful houses. I thought it would be so nice to have a place there, then I went home and Googled real estate sites and was like, "Noooo—I'm never going to have a place there!" But it's so gorgeous. And there are so many good restaurants. Every meal I ate there was so great. One night, I had a super late shoot, and Blythe got one of the assistants to go to a restaurant and bring me back pizza and salad on the set.
I was just so impressed with your performance in this movie, because Amy is a character you could easily tire of—as an observer or a friend. But you really make the audience root for her from the get-go.
There were moments when I was like, "God, people are going to hate her! She's doing nothing to help herself." But you know, she's totally called out by her mother. Blythe is such a natural caretaker, so sweet and loving and such a mom. She thought she was being mean and I said, "Look who you're talking to! I'm driving you crazy." She kept saying, "I'm an awful person." She's so good in the movie. This was one of the greatest working experiences of my life.
How was it to work with Blythe? Because Amy's mother is an interesting counterpart, she's almost a brutal conscience for her.
Blythe is such a natural caretaker, so sweet and loving and such a mom. She thought she was being mean and I said, "Look who you're talking to! I'm driving you crazy; you're allowed to be mad." She kept saying, "I'm an awful person." She's so good in the movie. This was one of the greatest working experiences of my life.
What do you hope viewers will take away from the movie?
The nicest responses for me were when people would come up at Sundance and say, "I've just gone through a divorce, and the movie gave me a sense of hope that I might be okay, that it's possible to start your life over." I think there's a message in it, that even when you think everything you love is finished, it's possible that you have an even better life waiting for you. You just have to be open to it.
The Marx Brothers are a significant motif in this film, down to the title. Why is that?
I love the Marx Brothers, so there was a personal attachment. It started out that Amy was going to be a filmmaker, or was studying film—but then their significance evolved to something deeper, which really had to do with her relationship with her father. It was a childhood, childlike connection. For me, the images of them contain a lot of information, much of which is emotional. I can sort of pick the motif apart, but in some ways I hope it works on a level that's more experiential. There's something chaotic about the Marx Brothers, and purely joyful and anarchic, and I think those are all things that are underneath Amy's experience, that she's trying to process. It's reflective of the slapstick in the film itself—as things progress in my story, they get more and more chotic and ridiculous. Tonally, that was a tricky thing to track through the script—that idea of we're in a real world, but it's slightly heightened.
The movie has to do with a kind of affluence that is reflected in anxiety about the stock market. People tend to grasp onto what they're most afraid of losing. In the process, they're missing out on a deeper understanding of their lives. Amy is an artist caught in a world that doesn't really work for her.
So, the placement of the Marx Brothers—at first it has to do with her intimacy with her dad. She's gone back to a childlike state, when she's living at home, acting like a child—and then she gets into this very very intimate relationship that reconnects her to some really youthful joy, and something very rebellious again. It's chaotic and it's crazy what she's doing, and she watches a Marx Brothers film with him. And at the very end, the Marx Brothers films are revisited, and it's approached with a kind of a question: "What is this intimacy with my father? Is it something that is holding me back? What does it come at the cost of?" Groucho asks all those questions in that song, "Hello, I Must Be Going," which I just love: "What am I doing here, exactly? Am I a welcome guest? Do I fit into this world?"
At the beginning of the film we see the image of her hanging upside down with the Groucho Marx nose on, and she's looking at this photo of herself as a little girl. It's what I love about film, that an image can evolve in meaning and it's nonverbal. It's so different from theater.
What I think of when I consider the Marx Brothers is this comment a famous critic of their time made, James Agee or somebody like that—he said that their goal was to act mad in a world that was superficially sane, to shake up the superficially gentility of things.
Part of what they do as well is to reveal the ridiculousness of a high-society world that everybody believes in so much by commenting on all the ridiculous aspects. In Amy's world, everyone is struggling to hold it together despite all this stuff bubbling underneath; there's this "container" of appropriate behavior.
Melanie Lynskey said something interesting to me, that she saw Amy as someone who at the beginning of the film has lost all sense of herself. Would you say that that's true?
Definitely. I wanted to track her personal transformation in a very close and real way, and part of that transformation was going from a state of complete dissociation to a place of complete presence. She is so disconnected and outside of her true self at the beginning, floating in this void, but comes to a place of pure potential. We're all in it all the time, but it's hard to feel that.
How did this story develop? How did you get the idea?
I was interested in the idea . . . in a very small way, what is that process of going from depression to health? Since I wrote the script, there have been movies that have come out about these "adolescent" adult women, but at the time I had the idea there really weren't. I had noticed that so many of the women that I know still felt out of step with motherhood or the professional world. I wanted to tell that story.
I also had the desire to tell the story of people in the "background." I had been feeling that every movie was about a giant problem like addiction, or following a theme like "someone's a genius and nobody knows it." I was more interested in exploring whether it was possible to make a movie about a person who was in the background of people who are charismatic and dominant. Can you have a protagonist like that? It was something I wanted to find out. And portray how she moves from the background to the foreground of her own life? For some of us, that's really hard to do. i really wanted to tap into people's vulnerabilities and the way they hide their true selves. But that's also where their potency is. I wanted to get into that in as honest a way as I could.
The Sundance lab was really helpful in dealing with issue on rewrite. They kept me true to myself. The typical movie world is so heightened and so "fabulous," and everyone looks so great, I had a lot of self-doubt; I was certain no one wanted to hear this story. I had to get to the point of saying, "Well, maybe that's true, but this is the story I'm interested in telling. So I can't really worry about what others think."
And that's true when it comes to the release of the movie as well. People really love to cut you down and cut your work down; the Internet is just like a free-for-all for that. So you just have to say, "This is my story and everyone doesn't have to like it." When you set out to make something, you're not just setting out to give people what they want.
I understand that the Sundance Lab process is based upon the method used at the Eugene O'Neill Center for playwriting in Connecticut—Robert Redford is a good friend of one of the co-founders of the O'Neill and an admirer of the mentoring and development process it uses.Who were the people who helped you work on the screenplay? What were their key suggestions?
Some of my Sundance mentors were Susannah Grant, who wrote Erin Brockovich; Walter Bernstein, who wrote The Front, Fail-Safe and The Magnificent Seven—he was a writer on the 1950s Communist black list who worked on so many great films; Christopher McQuarrie, who did The Usual Suspects; John Gatins, who worked on Real Steel and John August, who did Go, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Dark Shadows. I really got a barrage of opinions in four days. At the time, I think most people felt that the Jeremy character was underdeveloped. His characteriation in the movie is so different from the script that went into the lab. The feedback that was most helpful was about certain areas of the script—people were so helpful in identifying the things that rang true for everyone, and also the areas that needed work on that score. All their thoughts were different, unlike dramaturgy in theater, which tends to be more academic in nature and tends to focus on things outside the writing process. They made me realize that there are many ways to solve a particular problem.
Most of my mentors were pushing me to make Jeremy much more of a kid; they felt there was a lot more comedy to be mined in how different he and Amy were. But for me, the relationship was not so much about "She's old and he's young"; it was more about their emotional connection and how there really wasn't much difference between them. I realized I needed to explore how they were different, and why he didn't fit in with his peers: He had been working his whole life and was always kind of an adult.
After going through the lab process, I worked on the screenplay for another solid year. So from beginning to end, the movie took about three-and-a-half years to complete.
You've written several plays; this is your first screenplay. Plays tend to develop everything through dialogue, but movies have a wider range of expression—there's a lot of exposition that takes place without words. Was that a difficult adjustment for you—to move between the two forms?
It was a relief, actually, because an image can contain so much meaning, and repetition of images can contain so much. There was space outside of words I wanted to explore. When I sat down to write this I always intended it to be a screenplay, and that's how it came out. I do think I tend to overwrite as a result of my background in theater. That was a process I learned most about when we were editing; I could see where I repeated plot points over and over. But that ended up being helpful, because I could pick where I wanted things placed in editing; I could move ideas around. In theater, you do tend to repeat ideas over and over, because you want people to hear them. There's definitely a theatrical quality to this film. These characters on the whole are overly cerebral, overly verbal and intellectual. Amy and Jeremy embody what's underneath all that—real intimacy, a nonverbal and transformative erotic connection.
What about the town of Westport made it a good setting for this movie?
There were practical concerns; we decided to do it here because we had certain locations in mind. Because I grew up here, I knew it would be easy. People would be helpful, and I knew who to call. I was sort of against having the town specifically named, but my editor and director disagreed, so I gave that battle up. Westport is a very stratified world, and there's an emphasis on status. You grow up here and you have a conception of the world that isn't that accurate. So, it has the right feeling of upper-class containment I wanted, but it's ultra-sophisticated, too. The feeling, too, that Amy was surrounded by water just added to this trapped feeling. She was in a place that's so beautiful, but when you're that depressed you really can't appreciate it; it doesn't have any meaning anymore.
Was Westport helpful about having you film there?
They were great. I knew it would be, because it's a town that has a history of loving and supporting the arts—that's what makes it unique in Connecticut. I knew they would be great, even if there were barriers to get through at first. The crew had some doubts. The town had all these rules, but people were so generous and helpful all throughout the shoot.
Was there anyone in particular you were thinking about when you developed these characters?
I would say the characters resemble everyone living and dead in Westport. I'm convinced some people I know will recognize certain characters as themselves, and that's not true at all. It's a rarefied world, but also a setting: One that's very specifioc to what Amy's going through because of what I was talking about before—the disparity between what she's feeling and what's around her.
There was some comment in the nastier press about "Who cares about these kinds of problems?" Because the protagonist is a woman, those kinds of questions come up more than they would if the lead character was a man. Amy's dilemma is similar to what the characters in The Graduate or Harold and Maude are going through; do people "care less" because Amy's a woman? It seems that there's a bit of contempt felt these days toward a woman who' going through anything.
You've said this movie has your dream cast. Is there anything that any of the actors brought to their roles that you were particularly surprised or impressed by?
Melanie surprised me constantly—I knew she was right for the part, and really hard-working and talented, but she brought a commitment and depth to her role that was just astonishing. Especially given how quickly and under what conditions we filmed—it was a 20-day shoot with no rehearsals, very seat of the pants, done for about $500,000. She's so present scene-to-scene, and I feel so grateful to her for that. She could have become self-pitying. but she never does. And Blythe Danner plays uptight anxiety really well. It's difficult to play both comedy and angst and have it feal emotionally real.
What do you feel your husband, Todd, brought to the table as director?
Todd is very brave in how honest he will allow things to be. I don't see that very often. I would probably be to self-conscious as a director and would want to do trickier things to take attention off the story and characters. But his ability to just go right into the heart of a scene, to get as close and vulnerable as he did—that was very surprising. He didn't flinch. He really trusted the story and the actors. I'm kind of in awe of that.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this movie?
An experience of really joyful intimacy; to be brought into that by the film. If you're moved by the film or it's something you connect with, I do think it has potential to take you through Amy's journey, which is really a journey back to the self. There's a joyful optimism in that—that's something I was trying to put back into the world where there's a lot of negativity right now. My main character gets back to a joyful exploration of life . . . the idea is that we all have the personal power to make change.Hello, I Must Be Going: Q&As with Melanie Lynskey and Sarah Koskoff