SXSW 2015 Interview: Michael Showalter Talks HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS

Contributor; Toronto
SXSW 2015 Interview: Michael Showalter Talks HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS
Anyone familiar with Michael Showalter's work - be it his groundbreaking comedy troupes, The State and Stella, or his widely cherished cult films which he co-wrote with David Wain - is well aware that Showalter is a comedic mastermind; a true original in an era where the word original is growing harder to use. But what fans of Showalter's penchant for hyper irony are perhaps less aware of, is his soulful flair for heartfelt, comedic storytelling, as evidenced by his two directorial credits.

His first film came in 2005 with the Tribeca hit, The Baxter, in which, Showalter himself plays an out of step romantic, too pure for the modern dating world. Now 10 years later, Showalter returns to the big screen with Hello, My Name is Doris, which received a glowing reception at its SXSW premiere earlier this week.

Hello, My Name is Doris also sees the welcome return of screen-vet Sally Field, who, at the premiere accounted for her absence with the sentiment that the scripts she's been given in recent years are, for her, too generic. "They don't need me", she told the adoring sold out theater.

Luckily, Showalter has broken the chain by offering Field her most delightfully absurd yet lovingly sympathetic role in- well possibly ever. Field plays Doris. Doris is the oldest person at her office, lending her a reputation amongst her junior colleagues as prehistoric. But when Doris finds herself with a head-over-heels crush on a new thirty-something coworker, she finds herself shedding her cat lady neuroses in a love-inspired effort to become relevant.

Though Showalter takes full advantage of the comedic legs of his premise, his refusal to let Doris ever become the butt of a cheap joke lends his film a richness to which few comedies aspire. It's funny and sad, but never cruel or cheap. Consequently, Hello, My Name is Doris is a layered treat for fans of Field, but more importantly, appreciators of well-crafted yet hilariously sincere storytelling.

How did you discover Laura Terruso's short film, which the two of you together adapted into HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS?

Michael Showalter: She was a student at NYU. She wasn't in my classes. I was teaching at NYU and she was a student there. I saw her film in one of the short film festivals. They screen their stuff or whatever. This was a while ago. I just thought it was really funny.

We kind of became friends and started talking about working on something together and writing something together. Then we worked on a bunch of different ideas and then came back around to what if we took the Doris short and turned it into a feature?

Beyond finding it funny, what about it spoke to you?

I liked the main character, the Doris character. It felt like a really interesting comedic protagonist. I felt she was different and yet relatable in a lot of ways and had a lot of qualities that felt universal to me, and felt like an interesting muse. Someone to tell stories about that felt like a different take.

If I could draw any connection with DORIS and THE BAXTER, I would say they both have protagonists who are kind of unlucky in love despite being really sweet characters. What do you think draws you to that type of personality?

They're unlucky in love but they're also somewhat out of step. I would almost say I guess it is true that they're unlucky in love, but it's almost more that they're just out of step with society in a sense. They're not against the stream, they're not with the stream, they're not in the stream. They're on the outside somehow.

Right, and they're unlucky as a result of that.

Yeah. They want love and they want all those things and it's just that they are not ...They're not in the popular crowd, they're not "normal", and so it's a little harder for them. 

When did Sally Field enter the picture or join the discussion?

When we talk about her, always as a kind of pie in the sky, if only type thing. Once we had gotten the scrip to where we felt like it was ready to start showing people, we offered it to her. We did that old fashioned, sent it to her agent and her agent read it first and then you have to ask her when in that process she got the script, but I know at some point they contacted me and said, "She's read the script, she's interested in talking to you some more." She and I met for coffee in LA and had a pretty long conversation and then the next time we spoke she agreed to do the movie and it was an amazing, amazing moment. 

Can you talk about that conversation and her first impressions?

First of all, I think she was just curious to meet me and why would a younger guy want to write a movie about an older woman? How do you see the movie, are we laughing at her, is this a big joke? She wanted to know what ideas I had in terms of what was the tone going to be and stuff like that. I said, "It's a combination of tones." For me, there's no real line between the comedy and- it's all one thing to me.

She wanted to know how are you going to pull off these two worlds of ... it gets very serious. I don't know if you've seen the film, but it gets very serious and it also is very poignant comedy. Can those two things live in the same movie together? I said, "I hope so." To me it doesn't seem hard. The two in my mind don't seem separate, so it was never a question for me of how are we going to do this, it's just we just are.

That brings me to what might be my favorite moment of the film, which is a pretty strange favorite moment, but I think it's when Stephen Root is yelling at Doris, his sister... It's this really uncomfortable moment. They're trying to get her stuff out and you assume he's this prick and then all of a sudden- 

He turns.

You see his humanity and see his love for her.

It's interesting. For many drafts... we probably took about two years to write the movie, and of course we weren't writing it all the time during that, but I mean over two years and numerous drafts, there were multiple drafts of the script that he was just a jerk.

That turn didn't exist. With each subsequent draft you're kind of peeling layers away and it felt really right to let him show up to surprise you. You're thinking you know him and you're thinking you've got him all figured out and then you realize he really does care about her and it's almost a surprise moment. It's a fun surprise because you're really rooting for her and against him, and sort of upset with him. Why are you like this? He really rises to the occasion. It's just a nice moment.

He's also telling the audience what needs to happen by the end of the movie, which is she's got to get out of there. That's how this movie ends, we just don't know how she's going to get there.

You're clearly having a little fun with modern Williamsburg or what you might call hipsterism. Can you share some examples of real life things you've encountered and found too bizarre to be true?

A lot of the hipster stuff for me is really specifically related to the Brooklyn Flea Market. There's this very popular thing called the Brooklyn Flea Market and it just kind of an amazing phenomenon of ... I don't know if this is true in other hipster cities, but in Brooklyn, young people are very entrepreneurial in a way that my generation was never when we were in our 20s. It's like anything that you can eat or consume can be its own product. There's a guy who sells macaroons, there's a pickle guy who just sells pickles. There's the guys who are making their own whiskey. 

It's like every single digestible product has now got a Brooklyn hipster version of it. Salsa, chips; it doesn't matter. I both sort of was mocking the entrepreneurial spirit of it, but also the specificity of it. I was once talking to two people, one of them makes vanilla with a bean in and the other makes chocolate with haiku in the wrapper. It's hopefully somewhat of a lovable homage. I didn't want to go too far.

Yeah, there's no spite in it or anything like that.

No, exactly. Yeah, yeah.

I love the fake band in the film and that you named them The Nuclear Winters.

That's a Laura Terruso special. It was like, "What should the band name be?" She was like, "This." I think she had thought of that just tangentially as wouldn't that be a funny name for a band, and so when this came up she had that ready to go.

I've got to ask. I love the recurrence of cats in a lot of your work. In Doris, you feature a wonderful cat calendar. How would you describe your fascination with cats?

I just love cats. I just think they're ... I don't know. There's something... I like how wild they are and yet domesticated at the same time. It's like they're never actually... I don't know. I just like them.

Do you have a favorite Screwball comedy?

From the old era, or just in general?

Let's go one from the classic era and one from your childhood.

The Awful Truth from the old world, and then... (thinking) screwball comedy from the more recent ones... I mean, I love all of Steve Martin's early movies, The Jerk and Man With Two Brains. I don't know if you'd call those screwball comedies, but I think of screwball comedies as zingy, silly, lighthearted physical comedy - misdirection, misunderstandings. 

I think that some people are going to - before they see the film, not after - are going to want to talk about Harold and Maude. I'm wondering what kind of films you found yourself watching to - not necessarily pull from, but to get you in the proper mind frame?

We watched all sorts of different movies, but we definitely started thinking a lot about coming of age movies. John Hughes' Pretty in Pink or something where Doris was really a teenager experiencing falling in love and getting her heart broken for the first time. That, a little bit, became my guiding light. To think of Doris as that, as a teenager, experiencing love and heartache for the first time.
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Hello My Name is DorisMichael ShowalterPretty In PinkSally FieldSXSW 2015

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