Edinburgh 2018 Interview: THE PARTING GLASS, Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer and Denis O'Hare Talk Mental Health and Budget Filmmaking
After working together on vampire drama series True Blood, actors Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer and Denis O’Hare banded together for the production of The Parting Glass. A moving ensemble drama concerning a family’s reaction to the death of their youngest member, the film was a personal project for O’Hare, who wrote the film based upon his own experiences. Moyer stepped up to direct, his debut feature after helming a handful of True Blood episodes, and Paquin took a supporting role, in a film which all three co-produced.
The Parting Glass follows three siblings, played by O’Hare, Cynthia Nixon and Melissa Leo, as they collect the belongings of a younger sister who seemingly committed suicide. Joined by their argumentative father (Ed Asner) and the widowed husband of their sister (Rhys Ifans), the group deals with their grief and confusion by telling jokes and reminiscing over the past, while each one struggles with memories of the deceased (played in flashback by Paquin).
The trio sat down at the Edinburgh International Film Festival to discuss the making of the movie, it’s difficult subject matter and the difficulties in producing and financing this low-key yet intensely affecting work.
Denis, how did you find the process of sitting down and writing the script for what is a very personal story?
Denis O’Hare: I guess part of it was a mental trick, which is I didn’t worry about what I wrote because I really thought “Well, I’ll never actually make it…”. I really did think, ‘You shouldn’t and you can’t because my family really will kill me”. And then once it was actually written, and we started talking about making it, that was a whole other thought process of, “Oh my God…”.
The funny thing is there are a couple of names in the movie of actual people that I haven’t changed and we only discovered late because we went through such a long process of getting clearance and protecting my family; we didn’t want anyone to have the same names. So there was the thought “It will never get made, don’t worry about sparing anyone’s feelings, just write what you want to write.
How difficult was it for you to direct the film rather than acting with everybody?
Stephen Moyer: I was lucky enough to have done that before with these guys as a director on True Blood. There’s a short hand, and some trust that goes with that.
This is a very specific story to Denis and his own personal life and so there was never a moment that I wasn’t aware of the weight that that carried to me in terms of telling that story and wanting to honour not only Denis but also Cathleen, who had died, and Denis’ family, but also the elasticity within that, that’s needed to tell a piece of entertainment that the audience will leave with something that they can talk about whether it will be mental health or some hope in some way, so that's the kind of weight that one carries but the one thing that I could never question was these guys trust or worry in that because I felt vey connected to both of them in terms of lifting me thorough it.
What do you guys think this film will bring to the discussion that’s going on right now around mental health?
Denis: Early on we talked about ways to not just finance but partner with people, and I always felt a little off about trying to exploit the idea of suicide and I’m glad we didn't do that
Stephen: We had someone who is part of a charity for suicide who at one point was going to give us money, which we were very thankful for because it's a very hard movie to get made financially, but there was difficulties attached to it because there were different ways each charity wanted the story to be told and we didn’t want to be told how to tell the story.
Denis: It’s not a simple story and it’s not a simple issue. We’re not saying, “Here’s the answer, and here’s what you can do to make that happen.” It’s not that kind of story, it's the story of one family and how they reacted, it’s weird how it’s happening in this moment, with this attention… I think that it’s all good. Anybody who’s going to watch it, they'll take away their own personal reaction and I think they wont feel so isolated.
Stephen: I think the other thing that hopefully we managed to do, and what Denis’ screenplay does, is it’s about truth, and truth is ugly. And that's ok. If that's what you come out thinking, that ones own experience of ones own scenario has made you feel selfish or guilty in some respect due to something that has happened ton you, that's also okay. Human frailty and human failure is part and parcel of the makeup of who we all are and that’s ok, and that's what people don't talk about.
Denis: And that's what Anna does so well in the movie, the idea of who is this person? There’s a multiplicity to the person, there’s who that person is to different people and that's what’s portrayed so beautifully. And at the end of the day, why did she kill herself? There is no answer. With Anthony Bourdain they’re trying to figure out “Was it this?” “Was it that?” What does that answer give you if you have the facts in front of you? I don’t really think it gives you anything ultimately. It’s always going to be a puzzle.
Anna, how do you approach playing a character who only exists in peoples memories?
Anna Paquin: Well, basically each little individual vignette is its own person that has integrity and truth in that scene and it doesn’t have to have anything to do with what’s playing in any of the other scenes. There’s actually something really freeing and wonderful about that because obviously you can’t erase knowing what you did in some other scene but being allowed to just respond to the sibling whose memory it is and not actually trying to fit them altogether in one piece of a puzzle because that's not what were doing and the story we’re telling. As an acting exercise that's quite interesting in terms of being someone who doesn't exist other than in memory.
Stephen: It’s also a two-fold issue in that not only were these guys, specifically Anna and Denis’ writing of that character, not only is it just the memory of that specific person but also we all are different with specific people. I might be incredibly vulnerable with Anna, but never let anyone else see that. I might be incredibly needy with a friend because I know that they’re going to give me that part of myself that I might not let anyone else see, and I think that's a fascinating human frailty again, but also we show the fallibility of memory as well. So it’s a difficult conundrum.
Being that this is a very personal story to Denis, how much did you all have input on the script writing process?
Denis: Well there’s story and then there’s sturctue. There’s a script and then there’s a film. A script is nothing if its not made. To make a script into a movie is a collaborative process and we spent a lot of time talking about, what does this movie mean? Is it Danny’s movie? Is it an ensemble movie? Should we promote this element more? Should it be funnier, is it not funny enough?
So there’s all these things. And also, just pacing stuff. I wrote the script showed it to these guys, we went back and forth and we actually did a technical exercise once, which is crazy about getting a page count down to satisfy a budget. So we went through word for word about the stage directions. I learnt a lot in that process. I’m more of a theatre writer so stage directions are a different animal. For film it's a very different exercise. I was just trying to be as lean as possible. There’s a sort of poetry to the stage directions, it’s a weird exercise but it impacts the page count which impacts the budget which impacts the financing.
Steven: It’s interesting actually because you can literally save a day shooting by taking all the ‘ands’ out of a script – which sounds bananas - but when you look at a 100 page script say, that’s a 22 day shoot.
Anna: Page count equals days, equals money, equals overall budget, which is literally what it came down.
Steven: To finish what Denis was saying about the comedy, it’s such a difficult subject matter but you want to entertain the audience. The first cut was almost raucous, but the problem is when I put that together and was happy with it and thought we had a very interesting, funny, dark film.
But the problem was when you put that in front of people who don't have the history of knowing these characters and knowing us and they see these characters for the first time, laughing on this particular day, it makes them look callous. It’s ok for them to be ugly and have dark thoughts and be selfish because of what they’re going through, but you have to understand that, you can’t have them laughing on top of it, not straight away, you have to earn that. It’s a real tightrope.
Denis: I’m so glad I didn't direct it because I was able to have a conversation with Steven and he’s going to make me justify it, push back, interrogate, suggest, and improve, and that's not going to happen if I’m the writer-director-actor, and so I think it’s really great to get some air into a piece.
You’re all involved in this in a producing capacity, was it a challenge to finance a film that delves into this subject matter?
Anna: Yes. Every single penny that was scraped together was very, very, difficult and a lot of people were very compassionate passers on being involved because they ultimately put money into a film that you are not guaranteed to make your money back on. Most people don't have the luxury of just investing in something because they really care about it.
Steven: It’s never ideal to rush a shoot but we did this is in 18-days and on that very first day we did that diner scene and I love that scene, and that's an eleven page scene, and the first time that we had really met Ed (Asner), and his brother had just died. He just came from the funeral, he flew in at 2, 3, in the morning was on set at 6 and he’s 87, and he had all the lines, he was driving the scene. But the thing is, as Anna said, a lot of people understand what you’re trying to do but just don’t have the money. We all ended up working for nothing,
Anna: It’s like “Which line can we get rid of? Ok, my pay check? Your pay check” Ok, who can we defer?”
Steven: We already got Cynthia and Melissa and Reese and whoever else working for equity minimum but then you’re not going to ask them to redonate their money because their not producers on the show. We have to get paid because its SAG rules, but we put the money back in.
Anna: One of the things that was pleasing and good to see was how many people were willing to work within our budget because of the nature of the material and the people that we did get, resource wise, had access to a lot of things that we couldn’t afford because people were moved by the story we were telling.
Denis: One of the things that was beautiful was how into it the crew was. They’re also not making a lot of money so there motivation was a little different. Why take this job? It’s because they read the script and go “In want to be a part of that”