SXSW 2022 Interview: Patton Oswalt, James Morosini Talk I LOVE MY DAD
If the catfish film is defined by a character being duped by another through an online alias, then I suppose the honor of first entry goes to Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, who coined the term with 2010’s Catfish. But if we remove the word ‘online’ from the definition, it won't take long to see that stories of this nature go not only as far back as Hollywood's first talking decade with Ernest Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, but all the way back to the well-intentioned bamboozling of Cyrano de Bergerac.
One hundred and twenty five years after that particular milestone comes James Morosini’s I Love My Dad, which premiered earlier this week at the SXSW film festival. Morosini’s take tells the unsettlingly true story of an estranged father who cons his son into spending time with him by posing as an attractive online romantic interest. While the intentions are innocent enough, the consequences are horrifying.
The best screwballs are, of course, built on cockamamie schemes resulting in a comedy of errors and misunderstandings, but where I Love My Dad takes the tried and true territory into the next century actually has less to do with its online modernity than it does the next-level ick factor of the father’s hair-brained ploy.
This primarily comes from writer/director/star James Morosini’s fondness for social horror, as he explained to me over a Zoom conversation last week, alongside his co-star and producer, Patton Oswalt. Oswalt, a self-proclaimed Silver Screen Fiend, no stranger to the joys of pushing the boundaries of classic comedy tropes, was an instrumental champion in getting the film made and, as a result, we have one of the more disturbing father-son feel-good offerings of recent years.
But this, of course, is exactly what makes the film so interesting. So if a sickening laugh riot sounds as good to you as it does to me, check out I Love My Dad as soon as you can! In the meantime, enjoy my chat with its creators, James Morosini and Patton Oswalt.
Patton Oswalt: Hey, hey! Where are you calling from today?
Zach Gayne: I’m calling from Toronto today.
Patton: Oh, nice! Massey Hall is a great venue.
The first time I had the pleasure of seeing you live was at The Vogue in Vancouver opening for Janeane Garofalo.
Patton: That’s right! Oh my God…
In, like, 07 or 08.
Patton: That was a while ago…
Yeah, that was a while ago…
Patton: Oh, The Vogue is such a great theater.
Right? Vancouver’s the best. So anyway, congratulations on this film, guys! What a funny, crazy ride!
Patton: I’m loving everyone’s reaction to it. The whole “So… you’re gonna sell this movie?!’ type thing.
James cracks up
Patton: The fact that that’s sort of the reaction we get - it’s great! It’s in a good way because we went that far!
I’m sure you’re looking forward to watching it with an audience.
James Morosini: It’s gonna be crazy. When we were making this movie, Patton and I talked about how vocal we wanted these screenings to be. We wanted people to yell to relieve this feeling of discomfort. We wanted it to be as fun-uncomfortable as possible.
We kind of looked at it like -- I’m using the term loosely -- but social horror. Like "Aaaa nooo nooo nooo!"
I wished I was watching it with other people. It was too much to bear by my lonesome.
Patton: Yeah, although I don't know what’s going to be worse, watching it by yourself or with others. I’ve seen it by myself, but now I’m mentally preparing myself for being surrounded by people, 'cause there’s gonna be a lot of “Oh…. god.” I mean, I don't know how that's gonna be. It's actually going to be very interesting.
Yes, I’m sure that will make for a pretty intense screening.
James: That's gonna be part of the fun, man! We’ve all been cooped up for the last two years and we want it to be this fun cinematic experience where we can all collectively “gaaaaa!”
Patton: Right, where we can look at each other and say, ‘Did you see that? Is this…? We’re both seeing this, right?’
Yeah, especially the scene -- actually, I won’t spoil anything.
Patton: There's a scene and you’ll know when it starts… but we can’t talk about it.
So, James, I’m sure you’re pretty sick of this question, but why don’t you tell us what the hell happened.
James: Ha! Oh man, yeah so… My dad and I got into a big fight a long time ago. It was 10-15 years ago. I blocked him. I decided to cut him out and not have a relationship with him. I was going through some tough times and my dad was worried about me but he couldn’t reach me no matter what he did.
I got home one day. And this really pretty girl had sent me a friend request on Facebook. And she seemed awesome. She had all the same interests as me and liked all the same stuff and then I discovered that it was my dad. He had basically created this whole profile as a way of making sure that I was okay. And that served as the kernel for the story. And then we explored the idea of how far that could have gone.
How much time passed between the event happening and you channeling it into a screenplay?
James: When I first discovered that it was my dad, it was like a pretty crazy emotion. Because it was complete rage and embarrassment, but I’ve always been into comedy and I’ve always had a pretty keen sense of irony, so there was this really small part of me, when I discovered it, I was secretly like, ‘Cool, this is so good. There is something here. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t believe that he would do this.’
I was making shorts at the time, but I didn’t think, ‘Oh, this is a movie’. I just thought, Oh, this is a great story and I’m gonna tell people about it. This is going to be fun to just share with people.’
At what point did you decide to make it into a film?
James: I was walking with my dad in New York a few years ago and I had kind of forgotten this whole saga. There was this thing that had happened and I don’t know if I repressed it, but he and I are on great terms now. The film is about forgiving the people in our lives. Because we’re all messed up in our own ways and it’s about accepting each other in our messed up-ness. So he brought it up. He was like, ‘Remember when I did that?’ and it all came rushing back to me.
And it reminded me of all these moments in our life together and all these little anecdotes that kind of strung their way together into this film. There were other little things like the time he drove me from Boston to New Jersey to go see Harry Potter with this girl that I met at camp just to spend time with me. He drove me six hours. So that found its way into informing the script.
He sounds like quite a character. I guess you had issues with him being absent, but then here he’s willing to go way over the top to overcompensate.
James: Yeah 100%. But Patton’s character is different from my actual dad in that we amplified certain qualities. Like my dad stuck around my whole life and he was always there, but I think you go through a phase in life where you see your parents’ flaws all at once and you just want them away from you.
And that’s kind of what starts the movie. Then, without spoiling the movie, you sort of realize over time that, ‘Oh, all of those flaws, I have too’, and hopefully you come around finding some common ground with them.
Patton, how did you get the script and what was your reaction upon reading it?
Patton: I was very fortunate in that the script was given to me by my agent, I think. James, did you give it to my agent?
James: I gave it to your agent and your manager. I mean, I had Patton in mind as I was writing the screenplay and I was in a place where I was like, ‘How can I get it to him?’
So, how did you get it to him?
James: Well, the script had won a competition. We have some similar people in common. We finally just found our way to one another and we hit it off and saw the same qualities in the story that we were both interested in exploring together. And then he and I built out the team together just to make sure everyone was going to tonally align with what we were trying to create.
Patton: I think it helps that I’m such a film buff that I have this instinct of like, I just wanna see if we can pull this thing off. I want to see this script done. I read a lot of scripts on the blacklist and I see so many brilliant scripts that just never see the light of day and this was one of them. So if I was in a position to help get this thing made in whatever little way I could, I was like, ‘Yeah let’s get this made! Let’s see it!’ Y'know?
Have you played a father before?
Patton: Not this deeply and dramatically. Maybe in either humorous ways here and there, but this was the first, real, getting into parenting. Parenting is about loss. There's this little boy or little girl that you love at a certain age and then they’re not that age anymore and then you love the new age and then that age changes so it’s just constant change and loss. It’s joyous, but there’s a real sadness to it sometimes.
I was touched by your character's sense of regret that he felt.
Patton: Yeah, he ruined a lot of stuff. You find out when you’re a parent that if you don’t really bask and enjoy just the moment, the now of being with your kid, then that will eat you alive later when you realize it’s gone.
Did you have a chance to eventually meet James’s father?
Patton: Never met him! I got a couple of research materials that I won’t go into, but I never met him face to face. It had to be my own interpretation, you know?
We were speaking earlier about some of the more discomforting aspects of the story. What were some of the most difficult things to explore in the screenplay and then to actually act out?
James: For me, my thermometer was how uncomfortable am I writing this? I wanted it to be uncomfortable, because we understood why it was happening. I didn’t want it to be uncomfortable in that we were watching something and pushing it away and saying, ‘Ew!’ I never wanted it to feel creepy. I wanted the audience to feel 100% invested in Patton’s character and really understand why Patton is doing everything he’s doing.
So really that creates a lot of the discomfort, because it’s like we are him having to do this, and Patton’s character is super uncomfortable. His son is falling in love and he has to navigate it so delicately and he’s walking on eggshells the whole film and it puts the audience on eggshells as well. And part of the fun is this stark juxtaposition of what my character, Franklin, is experiencing, which is this incredible connection with this beautiful girl and we’re seeing that happen.
I wanted the audience to forget for a moment that that’s actually his dad and get invested in this love that they’re experiencing and then cut to the complete opposite, which is Chuck freaking out. ‘What do I say now? How do I deal with this?!’ And we’re going from the peak of connection and romance to the peak of absolute despair and disgust from Chuck, but he’s not able to stop.
You said you didn’t want it to be creepy, but I’m sure it’s exactly as creepy as it was for all involved.
James: The important thing for me was always getting the audience on Chuck’s side. That we were never like, ‘Oh, this is a bad guy’. Chuck is the hero of the movie. It’s Chuck's story. He’s the good guy, so it’s fun seeing the good guy doing something as insane as catfishing his son, and like, that’s the mission we’re on as the audience. And it was fun for me to make the audience complicit in that.
This is certainly one of the more interesting entries into the catfish genre, which I guess is a genre at this point.
Patton: It kind of is. It goes all the way back to The Shop Around the Corner with Jimmy Stewart. That’s a catfishing movie. Oh my God! It goes all the way back to Cyrano de Bergerac, which was the first catfishing narrative!
If you were putting together a marathon and your film was to close the day, what else is going in that day?
Patton: Roxanne, Shop Around the Corner… I mean, there’s a whole lot of them!
James: This is a catfish film festival we're talking about?
Let’s tweak the question. This is not a catfish film festival. You're programming a double bill with your film and it can be joined by anything... It can be a catfish film if you want.
James: Like what’s tonally in the same family?
You can do whatever you want with this double bill. You’ve rented out a theater for your friends and you get to program a film to open for your film.
James: This is such a tough question because Patton and I are both such cinephiles.
Patton: (focused with closed eyes) I know, I’m going through the rabbit hole.. Okay! This is gonna sound very pretentious, but there’s a French film from a few years ago called The Day I Saw Your Heart. it’s about a daughter with a truly good-hearted but horrible dad.
It’s what that show Stuff My Dad Says wanted to be, but it’s not that the dad says outrageous things, he does insanely outrageous things, but thinks he’s being a good dad. And there’s so much affection and sweetness to it. So I would either program it with that or just go classic with The Shop Around the Corner.
James: I think Toni Erdmann.
Agh! That was on the tip of my tongue!
James: Yeah, I’d say Toni Erdmann. That’s one of my favorite films. It is a movie I thought a lot about when I was putting this film together just because the father is putting his daughter in horrible situations, but he’s doing it from a place of complete love. He’s not trying to mess with his daughter. He just wants a connection with her.