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Acting Their Age: Dustin Guy Defa on The Adults

Michael Cera and Sophia Lillis in The AdultsMichael Cera and Sophia Lillis in The Adults

“It was a highly anticipated scene for me,” Hannah Gross told me with a laugh. “It’s just so absurd. For anyone who has a complicated relationship, spoken or unspoken, with a sibling, it’s the ideal scenario: to get to express your grievances through the safety of these voices.” 

I’d asked her about a memorable moment near the end of The Adults, Dustin Guy Defa’s follow-up to Person to Person (2017). Gross, Michael Cera and Sophia Lillis star as estranged siblings still reckoning with the death of their mother and still adjusting, unsuccessfully for the most part, to the disappointments of adulthood. The moment in question is the inevitable climax of a film like this, when simmering tensions boil over and people who dearly love one another start throwing cruel, straight-to-the-heart barbs with a precision only possible for those raised under the same roof. But what they say isn’t nearly as memorable as how they say it. In a fit of dissociative, Brechtian playacting, Eric (Cera), Rachel (Gross), and Maggie (Lillis) deliver their most vicious lines in the accented, off-putting voices of characters they’d created as children. Gross describes the process of finding those voices—and of choreographing songs and dances from their imagined childhood—as a “brilliant mechanism” for building their backstory. It’s a tricky balancing act, though, as they needed to stay just on this side of alienating the audience. The result is a delightfully strange variation on a familiar scene.

When The Adults begins, Eric has just returned home for the first time in years, ostensibly to spend time with his sisters, but within minutes of checking into the hotel he starts changing plans, lying shamelessly in order to sneak away to his old poker game. He’s become a better player since he left town, and he’s determined, compulsively determined, to prove it. When the three siblings finally reunite the next morning at a local diner, they all order their favorite items on the menu—chasing nostalgia is one of the unspoken games they’re playing here—but only after making a few jokes at the expense of their elderly waitress. What begins as sweet-natured goofing between Rachel and Maggie turns awkward and uncomfortable when Eric jumps in. He’s just not very funny, and his flailing attempts to join in on the fun trigger hostility in Rachel and wide-eyed codependence in Maggie. 

That sly revelation of conflict is a good illustration of Defa’s knack for dramatizing specific, tangled and immediately recognizable dynamics between characters. Cera and Gross, both longtime friends and collaborators of Defa’s, signed on early to the project in part because of the clarity of his writing and the creative freedom on his sets. “It’s very rare to read a script that activates you as an actor,” Cera said. “Instead of trying to hit a narrow bullseye that you’ve all agreed upon, Dustin conjures a feeling that we’re all wordlessly feeling and chasing after.” The Adults feels old-fashioned in that sense—a studio theatrical release on a small, human scale, like a throwback to the pre-IP days. (Maybe it’s because of his work with Elaine May in the 2018 revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, but I’m suddenly imagining Cera aging into a Walter Matthau type.) Whatever healing the characters discover happens in an ecstatic dance scene that is itself a throwback to the 1980s by way of the French New Wave. There’s no resolution to the story, exactly—”everyone describes it as watching a train wreck,” Gross admitted—but The Adults does end with a touch of grace.

The Adults premiered in the Encounters program of the 2023 Berlinale. I spoke with Defa in Berlin, then talked separately with him, Cera, and Gross ahead of the film’s U.S. premiere at Tribeca Festival. The Adults will be released theatrically by Variance Films on August 18.

Filmmaker: At a key moment in the film, Rachel tells Eric, “You do not like me as a person.” That’s such a brutal realization to come to as an adult.

Defa: It’s sometimes hard to decide how deep I should get into my own relationship with my sister, but that’s immediately where I want to go when I think about that line. I don’t know if it’s making the movie or working through things or what, but I’m having a moment with my family. It’s all very intentional. I’m getting close to my sister now, and that hasn’t been the case since we were in our early 20s. There’s no way we’re ever going to be as close as when we were children. When we were kids, we were each other’s world. We’re not strangers to each other now, but we’ve both gone through so many experiences, and she’s been shaped by things I don’t know about. That line is basically saying, or screaming, “You liked me and loved me as a child, but I’m not that person anymore, and you don’t like who I’ve become. You don’t like who I am.” [Eric] doesn’t like her. She knows him in a way that nobody else knows him, and I think that is very threatening and scary to him, so he keeps his distance. He doesn’t like her, but he loves her. They deeply love each other, which is what the movie’s about to me.

Filmmaker: I’m not surprised to hear you use the word “intentional” because it was easy to imagine the script-writing process being therapeutic. During the dance scene at the end, I wondered if I was seeing a kind of wish fulfillment.

Defa: No, no. Wish fulfillment. Wow. Well, if it is, it’s very unconscious. Oh, boy. Interesting. [pause] I don’t know. [pause] Well, OK, maybe it is wish fulfillment.

When you drink and dance, something can happen that is childlike, or there’s an abandonment that wouldn’t occur otherwise. Sometimes there’s no other way to make that happen. Drugs or alcohol or even just dancing can unlock something playful and walls can come down. It’s playing. That’s how I’ve been able, as an adult, to access a childlike place with other people.

Filmmaker: And how did the cast feel about the dancing and the performances within the performances?

Defa: The movie doesn’t explain too much about their childhood world. I wanted to let it seep in, and I hoped that people would get it. When you’re a child, that’s what you do. You make these worlds and have these characters. I think we all related to that and were excited by the performances within the performances. 

Filmmaker: Once your ideas start taking shape as characters, do they ever surprise you?

Defa: Oh, yeah. The characters were a little bit different at first—two brothers and a sister—and I was going to make a short film with Michael. But I felt like the timing wasn’t right, so we didn’t do it. Then I wrote a draft that we were going to shoot at the beginning of COVID. That didn’t happen. Then, I rewrote that draft and changed 90 percent of it. Hannah was already cast, and that rewrite was really based on talking with Michael and Hannah. During that phase, the characters started becoming more alive to me. Like, I discovered Eric’s lying. The first draft didn’t have any poker. Michael and I are poker players, so having that started unlocking his character more. I started understanding him. But they surprised me more when we started working on them together. During the rehearsal, we started talking about the characters and I started seeing the movie more. It felt more tight-knit, and it started feeling very personal.

Filmmaker: When you were doing interviews for Person to Person, you seemed to emphasize that you filmed what you wrote.

Defa: Because I was always asked about improv, is that it?

Filmmaker: Maybe. I just got the impression that writing was a point of pride for you, in the sense that you had really worked that script into shooting shape. So, I’m curious to hear you say you made new discoveries during rehearsals. 

Defa: The script didn’t change much. Characters have an abstract element to them. They’re like a dream. They’re not concrete, and then they start to become concrete. When you’re actually witnessing the characters in “real life,” there’s no way to know how that’s going to be. It’s really a very different, amazing experience. 

Filmmaker: Can you give an example of when one of the actors brought something—maybe even just a gesture—that made you see the character in a different light?

Defa: It wasn’t an individual, it was actually the family unit. I think we had five rehearsals together, and it was probably the beginning of the third when the family unit started happening. Michael and Sophia didn’t know each other. Michael and Hannah barely knew each other. So, it was a discovery of how these people would be together, how they would interact, which is something I didn’t prepare. I knew what I wanted in a certain way, but I also let them find that interaction. I realized, “Oh, Sophia is gonna be like this, and that’s gonna make Michael do this.” That’s the discovery. 

Filmmaker: The first scene when they’re all together is in a diner. Michael is on one side of the table, Hannah and Sophia are on the other, and you can already see the history of their relationship in their body language and in their expressions: Sophia is so open-hearted, Hannah is harder. How much of that is just casting?

Defa: Those are the characters, for sure. They are written as those things. Hannah is way more open than that character. She’s not really like Rachel. Sophia is more like I’d imagined Maggie, but she’s even more… what is the right word? It’s not more open, and I wouldn’t call it more loving. It’s not more curious. Every word I’m coming up with is not the right word.

Filmmaker: This probably isn’t the right word either, but there’s something desperate about her.

Defa: Yeah. Well, is it desperate? But she’s not willing to be desperate. Whatever it is, whatever the Sophia-ness is—this is something that I didn’t know Maggie would be. But in the script she was open, desperate, wanting his love. They both want his love and his attention. Sophia was the person I knew the least. She was the mystery, but in the movie her character is also sort of this other element. We have two people, Eric and Rachel, and you can automatically see that something is going on between them, and Maggie is sort of like their child. I originally thought The Adults is like a divorce movie, in a way—two people who are getting divorced, with a child caught in the middle.

Filmmaker: There’s a scene at the party near the end, when Eric is in the room alone with Amanda [a friend of Rachel’s, played by Kiah McKirnan] and he says, “Why am I here? If you have an answer, I’d love to hear it.” That tells me that you don’t hesitate, as a writer, to plainly express the big ideas at work in your films.

Defa: I try to be careful!

Filmmaker: No, I enjoy it. I think it’s a strength of your writing. I’m wondering, though, if there was ever a version where Amanda answers? Did you work through what her response might look like, even as a thought experiment?

Defa: No. I mean, we wonder, too. Why is he really in town? If he doesn’t want to connect with his sisters, why is he here? His conscious answer is probably, “I want to beat the old poker group. I’m going to make the trip about my sisters, I’m going to do my best to be nice to them and check on Maggie, but I’m also going to play poker and I’m going to win.” When the person who takes his money asks, “Why are you here?” he says, “You mean in town?” We’re also asking this question in the audience: “What is he really looking for?” I think it’s unconscious: He doesn’t want to have that connection, but it’s just happening. Life is keeping him in town so that he can finally have a moment of connection with someone who was once his best friend and was the closest person he’s ever had in his life. 

But, yeah, I definitely do that [express the main ideas in dialogue]. To me, the line that really lands is, “You used to think I was the funniest person in the world.” I think Rachel and Maggie both thought he was funny. Younger siblings often look up to the older person so much. They’re the greatest person, and they’re the funniest person. And now he’s not nearly as funny to them as he was.

Filmmaker: This is why dad jokes are a thing. When I first figured out how to make my kids laugh, it was the greatest dopamine rush of my life. But, of course, they gradually age out of that phase, and dads keep chasing the high.

Defa: Exactly. They grow out of idealization. It’s the same thing. You go from being the world to just being another person. 

Filmmaker: I was really happy to see a film at this scale with an original, acoustic score. When you were putting the film together, was that on your wish list?

Defa: Yeah, I’ve never had that. I’ve wanted it. I’ve always been afraid of it in some way. Maybe I just hadn’t found the right person. I wasn’t able to figure out how to communicate with a composer. Alex Weston did the score and I learned a lot in terms of realizing how much I do need to talk. I don’t have to direct the score, but I need to try to really express what I’m looking for and when I’m looking for a certain mood. Alex is brilliant in his way, probably because he’s worked with such a variety of filmmakers—from people who can’t figure out what they’re looking for at all to somebody who’s very precise. I’m thankful for Alex because he always listened to me and never thought I was wrong. And even if he did think he was more right or something, he would try the other thing and explain why it didn’t work.

Filmmaker: Is it a piano trio? I wondered if there was one instrument for each of the main characters?

Defa: They are a quartet, actually. And [the different instruments] did mean things to him, yes—there’s three characters and the house. I can’t wrap my head around that. But this was my first time talking to a composer, and I was like, “OK, I’m trusting whatever you’re saying.” Because I think I just needed to respond to what he gave me, to understand how it would work with the image.

Filmmaker: You said you were rewriting during the pandemic, so the movie came together quickly.

Defa: It came together quickly. The big rewrite, when we really focused and honed in on the movie, was in February and March. We were shooting in November. It happened pretty fast.

Filmmaker: How did Universal end up with the rights?

Defa: The script went out through Michael’s agency to Universal [Pictures Content Group], then they came back. That’s just how some of those things happen. It’s all been very easy. They’ve been very supportive and amazing. I mean, there were no notes on the script, which is a good sign. Same with the production—there was nothing. They just let us make the movie. Then, during the edit, there were notes, but no expectation that we had to do any of it. There were some good notes, actually, that helped a lot. It’s still a small movie, an intimate movie. And also it’s not. I don’t 100 percent feel like I’ve worked with a studio, but I have. It’s both things.

Filmmaker: The Adults was shot mostly in the Hudson Valley. Was that location written into the original script?

Defa: I went to high school in Southern Oregon, so in another world I probably would have shot it in Oregon. But, logistically, I knew we would shoot in upstate New York because taking people places starts to cost money. Upstate New York [and] the Pacific Northwest feel very similar in some ways.

Filmmaker: What are some of the pros and cons of making, essentially, a regional film at this budget level?

Defa: Both The Adults and Person to Person are really small, but Person to Person was sort of an impossible movie for the budget. That movie was crazy. We shot it in 19 days, and there were so many locations and characters, and we were moving almost every day. It felt chaotic and difficult, and my brain was scattered. I thrive on a little bit of chaos. There’s an energy to it that can be quite fun and actually help, but for the most part I like to concentrate and focus, so my intention now is to try to ensure calmness. With The Adults, we sort of created our own world, a bubble. Prior to COVID restrictions, you would go out a little bit more, you know—we’d all go to a bar during the weekend or something—but instead we were playing games together. Being upstate created an idyllic environment for what I like. 

Filmmaker: This is your first time working with Tim Curtin as DP.

Defa: I had never met Tim, but he knows a lot of people I know. He’s been a camera operator on so many movies—his IMDb page is really incredible—but he DP’d two Jonas Carpignano movies. A friend of mine, Ryan Zacarias, produced those movies and recommended Tim, so I had an interview with him. Tim has now shot movies in Italy and the Dominican Republic, but The Adults is his first as DP in the States.

Filmmaker: Once you’d brought on Tim and knew you’d be shooting upstate, what were your points of reference for the film’s visual style?

Defa: Oh, man, what did we talk about? I plan every shot, but I’m still poor at describing my vision. Mostly, I talked about warmth and humanness. I know we talked about À Nos Amours [Maurice Pialat, 1983], but when I look at The Adults, it’s hard to understand the connection.

Filmmaker: Pialat was a reference?

Defa: When I watch one of his movies, I don’t understand how it happened. I don’t know how he gets the performances. It doesn’t really make sense. It’s just astounding, the intimacy and the reality of the performances. We Won’t Grow Old Together [Pialat, 1972] was a reference for the script because of the circular motion of the plot, the going away and coming back. In The Adults, Eric tries to leave town but can’t quite. [laughs] I mean, they’re almost opposite movies, but I love that structure. It’s frustrating, but it’s so incredible. The jumps in time—they just broke up, oh, wait, now they’re together—and also the feeling in the viewer of wanting them together and wanting them to not be together. The tension in that structure is so incredible. 

Hannah, Michael and I talked about that movie in this long conversation before I wrote that big draft. All three of us love that movie, and we love that relationship. [laughs] I mean, we don’t love the relationship. It’s just such an exciting, energizing, difficult, hard-to-swallow movie. I also thought of The Adults as being like a love story. Eric and Rachel cannot get away from each other, like magnets. 

Filmmaker: How much time do you spend shooting reaction shots? So much of The Adults is told in reactions.

Defa: I did a lot of that initially. Then, before picture lock, I flew to Columbia, Missouri, and spent four days with Robert Greene, who’s a friend of mine. Robert is an amazing filmmaker and a great thinker of film, and he’s such an incredibly talented editor. Part of what he pushed for was this very thing—spending more time on people not speaking and their reactions. I think that way too, but we added even more. 

Sometimes, the reaction shots, obviously, are just being shot. They’re happening between the two actors while one person’s listening to the other person. When I realize that we are going to need something very specific, I will sometimes let a take run past a normal cut, or even do one take just concentrating on looks so that I have variations for editing. I don’t do it a lot, but sometimes it’s the smartest thing to do for coverage.

Filmmaker: There’s a long tracking shot of Eric and Rachel talking as they walk through a zoo. What inspired that choice?

Defa: I’m often trying to figure out how to make sure that the movie keeps moving and doesn’t stay in one place. It’s strategic in a way. It was the right time in the movie for something like that. It opens up the movie in a way; it’s different from any of the other shots before it. But the scene itself just felt like it needed to be this. 

Tim gets hired so much as a camera operator because he is incredible at pulling off things like that—walking with actors at the right speed, keeping the camera steady, not tripping, making it look good. That was a very stressful moment because it was a heavy day, and time was running out. The take in the film was the last, or the second-to-last, and there was no more light. If you’re not a big movie and you can’t just light up the whole world, you’re in trouble. It was a huge relief when they pulled it off. 

Filmmaker: How many days was the shoot?

Defa: 23—still not a lot when you tell certain people who are not used to small movies, but Person to Person was 19. The dream is, “Man, if I could shoot a movie that’s 40 days, I’m gonna be so happy. It’s gonna be the greatest!” But even this felt like that to me. Unless we got rushed, 23 days allowed us to spend enough time on a scene to really get it, and to talk about it and work through it. And that’s what I need. I would be in the happiest place in the world if I could do one scene a day. One scene for two days would be unbelievable!

Filmmaker: Creating a calm and friendly set seems to be a priority. Any tips?

Defa: The producers and I were very conscious of the crew, of wanting to take care of them. Two of the producers [Allison Rose Carter and Jon Read of Savage Rose] proposed 10-hour days. As the director, I had a little bit of resistance, because 10-hour days are short. It’s hard to do. When you’re making a small movie, you want as much time as you can get. But a 10-hour day for the cast is actually a 12-hour day for the production assistants because they have to drive the trucks to the place, then drive their trucks back and everything.

But the producers wanted to do that, and I agreed to it. I would imagine it’s easier to do 10-hour days when everything is running like a perfect machine, when everybody knows what they’re doing. We had a lot of green people on the set, so any mistakes would make everything really hard on us. But we tried to stick to it and make the spirit of everything a little easier on everybody, less fatiguing. We had a couple of 12-hour days, maybe one 13, but it worked. Everything was very high-spirited, and it felt terrific to take care of the crew in that way.

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