“Scary and Sad and Difficult and Funny and Erotic and Exciting”: Angus MacLachlan on Goodbye to All That
Goodbye to All That‘s protagonist Otto Wall is a limited man — the type of man who just goes along with the flow, who doesn’t try to ruffle feathers. He’s not stupid, but neither is he gifted with remarkable intelligence. He has a good job, an attractive if possibly overbearing wife (Melanie Lynskey) and an adorable, auburn-haired daughter who is quickly turning into a North Carolina Methodist. He’s lucky, at least until he isn’t.
Played with gentle moxie by Paul Schneider, in his most memorable motion picture role since Dick Liddil in The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, Otto is clumsy, kind and more than easy to root for. He’ll need it: Otto’s life begins to fall to pieces shortly after the opening frames. An athletic outdoorsman type — we first meet him as he completes a 5K — Otto is heading out on a camping trip with a friend and his daughter when the friend drives their off-road vehicle too fast and crashes in a nearby forest, injuring Otto’s foot. While he’s recovering, his pensive wife demands that he meet her at the office of her therapist (Celia Weston), who informs Otto that his wife wants a divorce. Taken completely by surprise, Otto is cast out into bachelorhood, which he discovers is much different than it was when he was younger. Entering the world of Facebook stalking and OKCupid profiles, Otto finds plenty of sex, but meaningful connections are harder to come by.
Lauded playwright and Junebug scribe Angus MacLachlan’s directorial debut returns to the mid-size North Carolina towns that were such an evocative backdrop for Junebug, one of the great underheralded indies of the aughts. As in that Phil Morrison-directed film, a breezy tone and self-effacing but sophisticated visual style allows darker undercurrents to sit comfortably beneath the action, seeping out in unexpected bursts of emotion that unsettle and refocus MacLachlan’s often symmetrical widescreen compositions. Sneakily affecting, the movie builds to a resolution that left me unsure whether to laugh or weep. I did a bit of both.
IFC Films released Goodbye to All That earlier this week at their flagship IFC Center in New York and in limited bookings around the country.
Filmmaker: Whatever possessed you to want to make your own film, having seen up close as a screenwriter the difficulties and travails that directing entails? Was this a longstanding ambition of yours?
MacLachlan: I was writing plays at the same time and screenplays, and I had directed onstage quite a bit. So it’s something that I always kind of thought of, but everybody thinks of it, being a director. But when I finished the script, I gave it to Phil Morrison and said, “Would you consider directing it?” He thought the central emotional component is the relationship with the daughter. He said, “I don’t have children and you do. You should direct it.” I also gave it to Ramin Bahrani asking if he’d direct it. He said the same thing.
When I got my producers, they said, “Who do you want to direct?” I said, “If you can get someone as good as Phil or Ramin that would be great. But I’m interested.” They went away and thought about it and said yes. When you write films or plays, you don’t write them to be written, you write them to be experienced in time and space. So often they are not produced, and that’s frustrating, and then sometimes as a screenwriter and as a playwright they are directed in a way that’s not your intention, and that can be really, really frustrating. One of the most satisfying things about being able to direct this film was I got to complete the process, because when I write I think about it as an actor and I stand by it visually, so it was kind of the logical next step.
Filmmaker: What were the aspects of directing that in retrospect you probably didn’t have much of an understanding of before making this film?
MacLachlan: Because I didn’t go to film school, I didn’t have all the technical knowledge. I knew what a first AD did and what a script supervisor, but not, like, the extent of the first AD’s responsibility on the set. I was a visual arts major in school as well, so I had very strong visual ideas of how I wanted things to look. I had a great DP, Corey Walter. I was not intimidated at all by working with the actors, because I felt like I was an actor myself, so I kind of understood what they were going through and how to speak to them. Being a parent really helped me, because I really felt like my job was to make everyone be on the same page. I thought I needed to be enthusiastic and reliable and dependent and in a good mood and energetic and know the answers if someone asked me a question.
I did learn quite a bit about being a screenwriter, particularly in the editing process. Our first cut was two hours and 20 minutes, and the movie now is 86 minutes. It’s not like a lot of the story went away, it was just reducing things down to their essentials and keeping things moving. I think my experience as an actor really helped with the idea of rhythm, and how important it is to keep things moving, and also in terms of trying to get laughs. I also understood why screenwriters are treated poorly, because a director really has to make the film their own. You have to adopt that child and say, “I know someone else gave you birth, but you’re now my child.” It still will not make it easy when another director takes my work and doesn’t want to include me in the process of raising that child, but I did understand a director really has to make it his own vision.
Filmmaker: Did you always imagine Paul would play the lead? Did you write the script for him or did he come through the casting process?
MacLachlan: I don’t write for actors. For one thing, for me in my position, I think it’s kind of hubris for me to write a role thinking that I could actually cast an actor that I imagined. I also really really want to write to character, not to actor. Once it was done, he was not the first person that came to mind. We had this great casting director, Mark Bennett, who suggested a lot of people. We had another actor cast at one point who then couldn’t do it and dropped out. We actually had five actors drop out very close to when we were starting to film, but Paul was someone whose name certainly came up early. I’ve always liked him. We went to the same school, the North Carolina School of the Arts, but I never met him. I knew of him, I knew a lot of people who knew him, and I’d actually been at a party once and stood next to him, but hadn’t met him. I like his mind, I like the way that he thinks as an actor. He’s always got something going on, and he had a lot of other qualities that I just thought were perfect. He’s from North Carolina. He’s from Asheville. He is smart and can be funny, and also is attractive enough, you can believe these women want to go to bed with him. And he was a hard worker.
Filmmaker: Did what the film mean evolve as you were shooting it?
MacLachlan: I really believe in the text. I believe in it as an actor, I believe in it as a director. With my first experience with Phil Morrison, he too was a director that wants the text set before you go on set. These days in particular, that’s kind of unusual. There’s so many films where sometimes you don’t even have a script. You have the scenario and the scene, and then you improvise and come up with it while you’re shooting. That was not the case at all with this film. Of course I give actors the leeway to change something if they don’t feel comfortable, but it is really the film that I imagined. I spend a long time on the script before I send it out to try to get it made. When my producers came on, they certainly honed it and there was development of the script and trying to really say “This is what we want, this is what we don’t want.” But once the actors came on board there was no rewriting, and there was no rewriting on the set. When we edited it, it was not finding the movie, it was really like panning for the gold nuggets and trying to cut away all the things that weren’t necessary in a scene. It really is the film that I intended to make.
Filmmaker: I see very few films that attempt to deal with the sexual lives of middle-aged men in a way that is as empathetic as this movie. It’s very rare to see a movie that watches an inexperienced older man struggle to swim in this new of world of Web 2.0 courting.
MacLachlan: It was inspired by a number of friends of mine who went through similar circumstances whose marriages broke up, both men and women. A lot of the men would tell me these stories, and they would be scary and sad and difficult and funny and erotic and exciting. I started taking notes, so it really came from experience. I really wanted to write a film that was also about adults. Very often in our society when you show a man, in films in particular, having a lot of sex, they are judged immature. I wanted to see if one could tell a story of a man having a lot of sex and say, “He’s not immature, that’s not his problem.” Also I really wanted all the female characters to be — nobody was taking advantage of anybody else. They too were all adults and everyone was working out of their own volition.
Also all of the sexual encounters, even Debbie Spangler, are healthy and positive eventually, and at the same time not salacious, and that’s not often the case. We also wanted them to have a certain wit. There’s often humor in their encounters, but the humor, to me, always comes out of humanity. That’s what I always want in my films. I’m not making fun of these people for their circumstances or the situations, but those things are funny sometimes when you’re in them.
Filmmaker: Despite the digital lensing, the film has a classical look. Did you have particular aesthetic touchstones?
MacLachlan: We did a look book — which was also a new thing to me — when we were first casting it and raising money. I gave it to my DP and the art director. It had a page about how it would look and the kind of filmmaking I like. I like really beautiful clear photography, like Caleb Deschanel, and cinematography that doesn’t really call attention to itself but is very thought out. When we would say, “Here’s a set up or maybe we should move the camera,” I’d say “OK, how is that telling our story? What is that telling us about these people?” An example is the scene with Mildred where they’re sitting on the chairs; the camera moves very slowly from a front shot of both of them to a very close-up headshot of both of them, because what they’re doing is just in their heads. They are not physicalizing it, really. So that was an idea that came to me, actually just the night before, to have the camera on two different shots on the dolly that moves slowly to a big profile of both actors, then it pops to the two-shot of them. That was an example of telling us how the emotion of the scene is.
Filmmaker: Do you storyboard? Did you do a lot of the visual design in advance or was it more intuitive when you were working with your DP?
MacLachlan: A lot of it was intuitive. This movie had to be about the performances. That was really to make the actors comfortable, to not have to have them wait much. Because I’m an actor, I think that’s really important. I had general ideas of how things were going to be shot, but Corey and I both agreed that until the actor was on the actual set that we had — and lord knows sometimes we had the set like two days before we shot — it didn’t make much sense to have things written in stone as to how it was going to be shot. Once we had the set, he and I would walk through and I would say, “I think this is what they’re going to do physically.” So he would say, “Well, then maybe we need this set up here. We can shoot here.” You know, a basic shot list.
For the sex scenes, I did storyboard them, because they’re so difficult for everybody involved, and I really wanted people to feel comfortable. So we had the sets and I had drawn things out. Then we actually went with a man and a woman who worked as our stand-ins. We had them get in positions, and we took photographs of how it was going be shot so I could show the women and Paul, “This is what we’ll be seeing. This is how we’re going shoot it.” Now, when we came to the day of shooting it, some of those would fly out the window. They both would say “Why don’t we try this?” And I would say, “Well, how about we do this?” Also the ATV accident, where at one point you actually saw it go over — because it was a very physical thing, I had to draw it out and so that the stunt people and everyone could know.
Filmmaker: I think it works more comedically in the wide shot that you have in it.
MacLachlan: Oh yeah, that’s why it’s that way.
Filmmaker: What have you learned about the current distribution climate for a film that is nothing but thoughtful, well-crafted comedic drama? These type of movies seem to be getting lost these days unless they’re Oscar vehicles.
MacLachlan: It has been a real education. You know, IFC is a great company, and I really have liked working with them, they’re very supportive. But the business is so incredibly different from nine years ago when Junebug came out, even from three years ago when we started making this film. It’s difficult to accept that theatrical releases for this size of film are really becoming smaller and smaller and smaller. I think in four or five years there won’t be theatrical releases, they’ll only go to video on demand. IFC was instrumental in doing the day-and-date release for video on demand and iTunes. The flipside — and they are optimistic, and some people are — is that perhaps more people will actually have access to it than through small arthouse theatrical runs. I hope that’s true. But what’s too bad is that the theatrical experience of seeing a film with an audience in a theater is becoming diminished not only for independent films, but I myself will sometimes say, “Well, I’ll just wait to go see this film until it’s on video on demand or something.”
In light of all of that, I’ve realized in these film festival screenings that it plays. When you have a film that is a comedy, but also has drama in it, sometimes when people have watched it alone, they haven’t understood that it’s also supposed to be funny. When you see it with an audience and people start laughing, then you see that it’s both serious and funny. That’s going to go away if these smaller independent films don’t get theatrical releases. I still hope that we get some attention. I hope that people will see it and then will be able to find it on video on demand or iTunes. It remains to be seen. It’s still a mystery. I’m still on pins and needles, you know. It opens Wednesday, we hope — we think that it’s going to be reviewed by The New York Times. We were told that Stephen Holden has a screener. Who knows? But it’s being shown at the IFC Center in their 33-seat theater.