Director Bob Byington on Somebody Up There Likes Me
It’s rare to come across a film that genuinely feels “different,” but Bob Byington’s Somebody Up There Likes Me is one of those films. Byington is an Austin-based writer/director and has worked (on both sides of the camera) with a number of mumblecore and post-mumblecore figures, directing Justin Rice and Alex Karpovsky in his 2009 feature Harmony and Me while also cameoing in Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax and Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel. His recent films, the gleefully edgy RSO [Registered Sex Offender] and the charming, sweet Harmony, were quirky indie comedies but definitely felt like they fit within a recognizable spectrum. With his latest film, though, Byington genuinely breaks new ground.
Somebody Up There Likes Me tells the story of a quartet of characters: waiter Max (the excellent Keith Poulson), his restaurant colleague Sal (Nick Offerman), Max’s wife Lyla (Jess Weixler), and his young mistress Clarissa (Stephanie Hunt). However, this is not a movie about relationships, as these characters never find tangible connection, nor seem to particularly seek it. Max is a highly unusual protagonist – superficial, unfeeling and unaffected by the peaks and troughs of life. The film skates through time, with “Five Years Later” title cards appearing sporadically, but the years don’t seem to touch the characters, who get older but don’t really look it and definitely don’t act it. Max has a suitcase that may or may not keep him eternally young, however it does not explain his anesthesia to life. Somebody Up There Likes Me is very funny, with some moments that are dry and some plain silly, but the film’s comedy is undercut by a sense of deep existential sadness. It is a contradiction, a work that is simultaneously slight and substantial, and one that suggests Byington may be entering a new and very promising period of his career.
Filmmaker spoke with Byington over Skype about his new film, his inability to write in a three-act structure, and the benefits of making films with known actors. Somebody Up There Likes Me opens today at BAM through Tribeca Film and is also now available on VOD.
Filmmaker: You just told me your cat is named Max, just like the main character in Somebody Up There Likes Me. Which Max came first?
Byington: My cat. I had called the Max character Harmony when I wrote the script and then quickly realized that wouldn’t work so I renamed him Max, went back to Max, which I think is an Annie Hall–Rushmore cat combination.
Filmmaker: Are those two big movies for you?
Byington: I used to watch Annie Hall and Rushmore more regularly than I do now, but those are two big movies for me, sure. Romantic comedies.
Filmmaker: When I watched the film, it kind of struck me that it doesn’t seem like a lot of other films. It kind of has its own thing, tonally. This just felt very original and incredibly distinct from so much else that I’ve seen.
Byington: That’s good. There was a first draft and not a lot of tinkering or dickeying was done to that draft. That might be why you got that feeling. I think we’re lucky in that regard.
Filmmaker: How quickly do you write, then? How long was it from that draft to actually getting it made?
Byington: I think that draft got put down over the course of a few weeks. And then the producer read it a few months after I had finished it. He didn’t read it right away. But I remember he read it over Thanksgiving 2010 and he sort of got the ball rolling on it right away. He wanted to get it made. And then we were shooting six months after he read it. We’re developing another project right now. It’s being developed more traditionally. It’s taking longer and it’s taking more work. I realized with the last movie, Somebody Up There Likes Me, we had a kind of whimsical development process where it nicely avoided some of the stuff that we’re not avoiding right now.
Filmmaker: You have a really great cast. How did that come together that you got with Nick Offerman, Jess Weixler and Megan Mullaly?
Byington: Well. Nick and Keith [Poulson] were the guys I wrote the script for. Keith is going to be generally more available than Nick. Nick is a pretty busy actor, but we got lucky. We ended up getting Nick for a month. He ended up producing the movie and working really hard on it.
And then Jess came in to meet with me and I asked her to audition and she said no. I didn’t really like when she said that, but I understood it. She said she didn’t think it would help anything. And then we talked to a couple of other actresses and went back to her. When she came in and was talking about the script, I thought she was trying to say what I wanted to hear so I didn’t really trust the idea of hiring her. But I think she really got it, and that was born out when we shot the movie. She was just on top of everything. She knew the material better than I did during the job. I went off somewhere where I was thinking about things I didn’t necessarily need to think about and she was always on track with the material so that was great.
Filmmaker: What were those kind of other things?
Byington: I remember there was one scene where we were having some trouble with some crew member and we had decided we were going to let him go at the end of the night. And I was hoping that the production team agreed with me that we wanted to replace that person, so I was thinking about that and there were two lines at the end of the scene that we were shooting and Jess was like, “You know, we haven’t shot those two lines. We need to shoot those.”
Filmmaker: Where does Somebody Up There Likes Me come from? It feels very different from Harmony and Me.
Byington: Well, I don’t know where it comes from. I would describe it as coming from a pretty bleak sensibility. I do know I was in a kind of pocket of contentment when I wrote the script, so it came from a very bleak sensibility where I was somehow content or happy and wrote all this down. And I found a kind of humor and charm in some of the things that we don’t normally find humor or charm in, like people dying or people getting sick. I was able, just for that brief space of time, to locate some comedy in those things. Like, how do you do a joke about liver cancer? And I don’t know if you set out to do it, if that’s going to work. But for some reason in the script, there’s a confrontation about it and it just worked out for me as a comedy moment.
Filmmaker: When I was writing down some notes, I think bleak is one of the words I wrote down. I’s a mixture of kind of silly and bleak.
Byington: Yeah, I agree with that. Life is absurd for sure. You’re not gonna be able to talk me out of that one. And I’m interested in jokes. I think we talked about that in the Harmony interview, about how you make jokes work onscreen.
Filmmaker: It’s one of those clichés that the root of all comedy is tragedy, but I haven’t really seen a lot of films where the two sit so close o each other. The bleak elements are usually more submerged.
Byington: It was really just accidental, it wasn’t deliberate. I showed the script to my agents, and they didn’t think that script was funny at all. I’m just lucky that Hans Graffunder, the producer, that his sense of humor lines up with mine and he found the script funny. I had shown him other scripts of mine and he didn’t want to make them, but he read this and was like, “Let’s make this.” He responded to the tone and humor. I think if it had been more deliberate, it wouldn’t have worked.
Filmmaker: Yeah, I was wondering if this would have read so well on the page. Did it take table reads to get people to see what the film really was?
Byington: I gotta tell you, Nick Offerman read it and I don’t think he got it, but his wife [Megan Mullally] read it and she got it. That’s my opinion about what happened. He kind of denies that and then she laughs when we tell the story. I think he read it and it was kind of okay, and then she read it and was like, “Nick, you’re out of your mind, this thing is great and you need to do it.” And then he came back and read it again, and wanted to do it. She’s got a very refined sense and comic ability, Megan. So, I maintained that we caught a break that she made him reread it.
Filmmaker: Did you have, when you talked about the film, comic reference points or films you would bring up?
Byington: Yeah, Bananas is a reference point for me, the Woody Allen.
Filmmaker: Weirdly, the film reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, which also has a protagonist who is seemingly ageless and sort of floats through time, only partly connected to the people around them. There’s a sensibility to your film that I thought is incredibly sophisticated. You treat time so interestingly. Obviously there’s the device of the suitcase, but that felt very playful, like you’re not supposed to depend too much on that.
Byington: I read something that Zadie Smith or Jhumpa Lahiri wrote about characters and writing; it said when they would get bored with a character, they would kill it. That really struck me and stuck with me. A lot of times, if you’re working with a character and they’re not really doing anything anymore, you’ll stop writing them. But this is a more radical solution; kill them. [Writing this film] I would get stuck sometimes, and I would either kill them or write “Five years later.” That turned out to be the way to deal with getting stuck, or writer’s block, and then we just worked with those times jumps and it worked out. I wanted time to accelerate as he gets older, as the story goes along, and that was one of the biggest challenges in making the movie, putting that across. You’re supposed to feel like the five-year periods are shortening as he gets older.
Filmmaker: At what point did that become a structural element of the film that is driving the narrative, because obviously it’s not a typical three-act structure.
Byington: I don’t know how to write three acts. I think I’ve admitted that to myself. Harmony and Me and Somebody Up There Likes Me are like 75-minutes; they’re like sprints. I think if I might make a 90-minute movie I might try to split it into three acts, but all these movies seem like they are 70 to 75-minutes. I’d love to try to make a longer movie with a three act structure, I just don’t seem to know how exactly.
Filmmaker: It seems that as you progress the casts of your movies are more and more high-profile.
Byington: Well, because of Nick. He’s a TV actor people have heard of and I can’t tell you how much more fun it is to have a movie come out with an actor people have heard of. We’re like, “Hey, we have Ron Swanson [Offerman’s character from Parks and Recreation] in the movie,” and people are like, “Okay, cool. He’s really funny.” That’s just been a huge relief after 20 years of banging my head against a wall of actors nobody’s heard of.
Filmmaker: It’s funny because this movie has a starrier cast than Harmony, but is also more distinctive and daring. Is it possible for you to continue going in that direction of making bigger budget and higher profile movies that continue to be on your terms?
Byington: That’s a good question, and we’ll see. This next one’s supposed to be a little bigger budget, but we’re already running into some of the problems that come with a bigger budget. Mainly actors’ schedules and I think the more money you have, the longer you want to shoot. The more pages you want to shoot. The new script is at 130 pages right now, for example. You wade into a lot of problems that you’re not necessarily going to know how to handle or be good at handling. And I think some good directors are the ones that tend to be flexible in the face of some of those obstacles, say losing an actor that you really want. Everybody knows all the Terry Gilliam stories and maybe his tragic flaw as a director has something to do with getting too attached to certain things, which is what you’re supposed to do as a director anyway. You’re supposed to have a vision and really believe in stuff; but then when you lose an actor, you’re supposed to be able to move on.
Filmmaker: Given what we’ve already discussed, how come you wrote a 130-page script?
Byington: That’s a good question. I’m working with another writer. That’s part of it. Who’s the coolest writer I could be working with. Rather than saying who it is, we’ll say that’s who I’m working with.
Filmmaker: I really loved the music in this film, which I think is a great anchor for the action.
Byington: If you’re going to try to make a movie that you want to be entertaining, one of the things I try to do with the music is be very mindful of how I respond to a song the first time I hear it. So, there’s a half a dozen music tracks that are in the movie or more. Of the half a dozen I’m think of right now, they all have this catchy quality. There’s a Cars song called “Double Life” and this is a song that I had heard in that documentary on Keith Hernandez that’s online. Same with the Sandy Rogers song from Reservoir Dogs. There’s a Sandie Shaw song; same thing, very catchy. And these Albert Hammond songs, very catchy. The Pixies are probably my favorite band, but I don’t want to put Pixies songs in a movie because I don’t think that that music is particularly user-friendly the first time you hear it. I mean you’re preaching to the choir. If you’re going to put a Pixies song in a movie, the only people who are going to like it are people who have already heard the Pixies. Whereas with somebody like Albert Hammond, you can hear that music and like it the first time you hear it.
And then with Chris Baio, his band Vampire Weekend are obviously very interested in pop songs and popular music, and Chris definitely brought that sensibility and we talked about that a lot. We talked about the music in Bananas and Brief Encounter and Hudsucker Proxy. We talked about music that would immediately land and he went into it with that attitude. And then he worked way harder and did a way better job than I could’ve fathomed him doing. I thought he was kind of going to give us a couple riffs that we could use; he worked about 700% harder than I thought he was going to.
Flmmaker: I feel like the score is so helpful in sort of nailing that sense of what this film is.
Byington: One of the reasons you wouldn’t like the film is because the music wants to be liked. And there are some viewers, they don’t want to see a movie where the music wants to be liked, you know? They’re gonna…the people who don’t like the movie are going to bridle like, “Don’t give me this, I don’t want this.” And that’s fine, it’s not for everybody.
Filmmaker: Have you seen the Soderbergh movie The Informant? That’s another film where the score is just phenomenal, because again it just perfectly nails the film’s tone.
Byington: Did Marvin do that score?
Filmmaker: Marvin Hamlisch did it, yeah.
Byington: That guy was fucking brilliant.
Filmmaker: Yeah, he was a genius.
Byington: Really sad that he’s not alive. There’s a great interview about Bananas where they ask him about Marvin Hamlisch and he says, “Marvin Hamlisch has retired and operates a horse farm in Kentucky.”