Josh Radnor, happythankyoumoreplease
Josh Radnor, the writer-director-actor of, happythankyoumoreplease, has a day job: he stars on the hit CBS sitcom, How I Met Your Mother. (Radnor plays the titular “I”— perhaps the most famous “I” in pop-culture since Withnail & I.)
happythankyoumoreplease is an immensely likeable New York ensemble film about young people trying to negotiate love and responsibility, and its Audience Award win at Sundance in 2010 marks Radnor, who makes his directorial debut with the movie, as a filmmaker to watch.
happythankyoumoreplease features a number of outstanding performances by actors including Malin Akerman, Tony Hale, Zoe Kazan, Kate Mara, Pablo Schreiber, Michael Algieri, and, of course, Josh Radnor.
The film opens in select theaters this weekend.
FILMMAKER: Can you tell me about how you came to write the script for happythankyoumoreplease?
Radnor: I didn’t write it to become a film director. I wrote it to give myself a great film acting opportunity. Theater was my home for many years and then TV was very welcoming, but it felt like that great film role was eluding me. I felt like if I can write, why don’t I just write myself that role? And then attach myself and say: “If you want to make this movie, I’m going to be playing this part.” So that’s what I did. I conceived of it as an ensemble film. The first twenty minutes or so of the film are “Sam” [Radnor’s role] and the boy he meets, but once he gets to the party the story blossoms into all these other stories. There was this thing I read years ago that Tony Kushner said, which was that when he started Angels in America all he knew was that he wanted to write about Mormons, angels, and Roy Cohn. And I had this thing where I wanted to write about a guy who’s late for a meeting, who gets stuck with a kid he meets on the subway, who is separated from his family; I wanted to base a character on a dear friend of mine who has alopecia; and I wanted a character to end the movie singing this song, “Sing Happy,” an old Kander and Ebb song from Flora, The Red Menace. Those were the three things I started with, and that’s how I constructed the movie. I didn’t go to film school, I haven’t read Robert McKee — I just kind of felt like I’d seen enough movies in my lifetime, and I’d acted in enough well-constructed scenes… I think we all have an intuitive sense of the film vocabulary on some level. I didn’t even know who was going to sing that song at the end, and then the character of “Mississippi” [Kate Mara] appeared, and suddenly it was like, “Oh, she’s a cabaret singer,” and then this notion of my character not wanting to hear her sing because he wouldn’t be attracted to her anymore if she sucks became a metaphor for intimacy. And all then all the pieces sort of came together — with a bit of finessing.
FILMMAKER: Are there other ensemble films you admire or thought about while writing the script?
Radnor: I can’t call myself an Altman acolyte, but I love the films of his that I’ve seen. And I know he’s probably like the God-child of Altman, but Paul Thomas Anderson—Magnolia was a really important film for me. I really admire the film’s earnestness. He’s not a cynical filmmaker. I mean, There Will Be Blood wasn’t a bracing dose of optimism, but in Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, too, there’s something so open about these people who’ve been battered a little bit and their hearts are caked over with their defenses — watching them emerge into a bit more sunlight, there’s so appealing about that as a filmmaking motif. And the daring that he has — I remember reading the Janet Maslin review in The New York Times for Magnolia, and she called the moment where they all start singing the Aimee Mann song the “uh-oh” moment — you know, where a film’s going well and then “uh-oh.” But for me, that was the moment I leaned forward and said, “Oh my God, this is fantastic!” And then frogs fall from the sky. He’s definitely a filmmaker that made me think: Well, you can do anything.
Richard Linklater is also a favorite of mine. I’m beyond obsessed with Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and then Dazed and Confused, which I’ve been kind of watching on a loop lately. I wanted to do title cards for all the actors in happythankyoumoreplease, so I just e-mailed the people who were doing the credit sequence a Quicktime of the end of Dazed and Confused and said, “Just copy this.” I just think he has a deft touch with actors; he’s a really openhearted filmmaker who I admire.
FILMMAKER: I thought your entire cast was great, but I was especially blown away by Tony Hale, who I only previously knew as Buster on Arrested Development. He’s a fantastic dramatic actor! Can you talk about how he came to be in the film?
Radnor: I’ve known Tony socially for a number of years, and I’ve always just really liked him. Then I asked him to do a reading at my house. He started to just be someone I thought would be perfect for the part of “Sam #2.” He read it with Jenna Fischer — who read “Annie” — and there was magic in the room. I couldn’t get him out of my head. We didn’t know if we’d be able to get him, because we were trying to hire New York actors, ‘cause we were shooting in New York, and he was in L.A. So we auditioned some other actors and saw some great people but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that he was perfect for the role. I think it’s a great role for Tony because people see him on screen and think, “Oh, there’s Buster,” or, “Here’s this guy from movies that always plays this goofball.” When we first meet him, that’s who he is at first, but then through each progressive scene he gets more grounded. He’s actually, in some ways, the romantic hero of the movie.
FILMMAKER: Yeah, and it’s such a fine-line, because he sort of aggressively pursues “Annie” [Malin Akerman], and with another actor — and another filmmaker — he might have become more obsessive and creepy. Like in, say, a Todd Solondz film…
Radnor: That’s funny. I actually showed Seamus Tierney [the film’s cinematographer] Happiness, which I love, in pre-production. We watched the opening break-up scene between Jon Lovitz and Jane Adams, and Seamus pointed out that that dynamic was the exact opposite of the dynamic between the climactic restaurant scene between Tony and Malin’s characters in happythankyoumoreplease.
Part of how I knew Tony was perfect for the part was that other actors who read the part, with the best of intentions, tipped over into that stalker place. There’s just something so winning about Tony that it never goes there. I’m really proud of how authentic that storyline is — the payoff is quite big.
FILMMAKER: How did you make Malin bald for the film?
Radnor: She did shave her eyebrows. And we have a shot in the opening credits of her putting on fake eyelashes. We sort of just said that this is something this character does, so she was able to keep her eyelashes. And she shaved the sides and backs of her head so no hair was coming out from the fantastic head-wraps she wears. We had one day when she looks in the mirror [without] wearing the head-wraps anymore, and she needed to be bald-capped. So Amanda, who did hair and make-up for the film, did that.
FILMMAKER: At what point do you actually decide that you would be the one to direct the film? Did someone talk you into it?
Radnor: My producer Jesse Hara, who manages writers and directors and who is actually a childhood friend of mine, has always been an artistic sounding board for me. He saw every draft of the script, and nobody loved this script more than him. He was so passionate about it. I was going on meetings about the movie, and everyone was so complimentary about the script. They would offer me other writing jobs, but we just couldn’t lock the money down to make the film. And then Jesse said, “Let me have it — let me see what I can do.” From then on he was the producer. This was the first film he produced. After seeing me talk to the actors after the readings, he told me he really thought I needed to direct the film. That was a big thing too — I think I did eight to ten readings in New York and L.A., and I learned so much about how to talk about the script. I realized that tone was so important for the film, and Jesse helped me see that I’d probably be the best gatekeeper for the tone. And then I found this cinematographer, Seamus Tierney (who shot Adam, Sundance ’09), and we had such a fantastic collaboration. He made me feel so good about the film. He’d say: “Don’t talk about shots. Tell me what you want emotionally.” He approaches it as a storyteller — not just as how to light a scene. He’s always thinking about how to best juxtapose images to best tell the story. Michael Miller, who was my editor, said this about Seamus: “Most cinematographers can either move very fast or they can make it look good, but very few can do both.” And that’s just something that Seamus has a particular genius at.
There was a moment when in pre-production when there were about eight people crowded around me and we were trying to figure out a police car situation. It’s actually really tough to get police cars, to clear them, and to get the police officer to be there on set. We were trying to figure out where to shoot because we couldn’t shoot right in front of the station — you can’t show an actual precinct number. It’s a law. I was being asked so many questions, and that was the one time when I wanted to curl up in a ball and take a nap and cry. I talked to Seamus afterwards and told him I was freaked out that I wouldn’t know the answers to everyone’s questions, and Seamus said: “If you know the answers to questions then there’s no reason to make the movie. Making a movie is about figuring things out in the moment.” And that’s what you do: not know, and then figure it out.
FILMMAKER: Can you talk about the challenges of acting in a film that you’re directing?
Radnor: Well, on one hand, I wouldn’t recommend it! But I’m proud of my performance. I mean, I watch it and there are certain things I might have done differently, but that’s understandable. The one thing that got difficult was that we had playback but we were shooting four or five pages a day, which is pretty fast, and I didn’t have that much time to watch playback. Especially between takes. So I would do three or four takes and then sometimes watch playback but after a while I stopped doing it. I really trusted Seamus a lot, and Jesse, and Laurifer Abrams, my script supervisor — the people behind the camera started to understand what movie we were making. At some point I just had to say: “Do we have that?” And they would say, “Yeah, we got it,” and we’d move on. A lot of it was a leap of faith. But I was also watching dailies. [The film] was really fascinating to edit because I’d watch the first assembly the editor put together and I’d think: Oh my God, I hope I didn’t do that in every take. I found myself generally picking my most subtle take. If I’d done something that felt great in the moment I always felt like when I watched it back it was too theatrical or heavy-handed. I read something from Jack Nicholson where we said no matter how many awards you get, you realize if you watch your dailies that 50% of what you do as an actor is total shit.
FILMMAKER: Can you talk about how you found the young actor [Michael Algieiri] that plays “Rasheen”? He’s really excellent.
Radnor: Suzanne Smith and Jessica Kelly were my casting directors, and they’re amazing. In terms of casting, that was our biggest concern — if we’d be able to find an actor to play that boy. Jessica had helped cast Precious, so she’d went to neighborhoods in all five boroughs, and was really clued in to how to find kids that weren’t just, you know, submitted by agents. But, oddly, Michael was submitted by an agency. He’s done some modeling and commercials and I think he’d done a TV movie. I’d gone up with them to a school in Harlem and met a slew of kids, who were all great, but there’s a particular quality that the actor needed to possess. I wrote in the script that he had “thousand year-old eyes.” Michael is just really special. He’s eight years old but he’s a little small for his age and there’s just a stillness about him. He watches the History Channel and knows a lot about presidential history. He’s a very serious boy, but not in a joyless way. His work is just elegant somehow. I don’t think the movie would work if you didn’t buy his performance. He has like a truth-meter in him. I don’t think it’s something you can teach. I really lucked out.
FILMMAKER: Do you think of happythankyoumoreplease as a distinctly New York film?
Radnor: Yeah, I do, but it’s funny, because I started writing it while I was living in Los Angeles. Maybe some of my New York nostalgia was seeping out, or maybe I was processing actor guilt for moving to L.A.! You know, like: I’ll write this love-letter to New York and all will be forgiven. But… I happen to really like Los Angeles too, and I’m a big defender of it. I think it takes a lot of crap from people that’s not all that deserved.
FILMMAKER: It sounds like you enjoyed the process of directing and you’d like to do it again.
Radnor: Yeah, certainly — without hesitation.