The Frame

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'Other People' filmmaker to close Outfest with a personal cancer comedy

by Darby Maloney | The Frame

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Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon star in "Other People," Chris Kelly's comedy about a mother struggling with cancer. Sundance Film Festival

Outfest — one of the largest LGBT-themed film festivals in the country — is currently underway in Los Angeles. This year the programmers chose to open and close the festival with comedies. The opening night movie was “The Intervention," from actress-filmmaker Clea Duvall; and to close the event, Outfest will screen "Other People," from first-time filmmaker Chris Kelly, on July 17. 

“Other People” stars Molly Shannon ("Saturday Night Live") as a mom dealing with terminal cancer, Bradley Whitford ("The West Wing") as her husband, and Jesse Plemons ("Fargo") who plays their adult son, David.

David is gay. His mom loves and accepts him, his dad is less accepting. The story follows David as he grapples with uncertainty in his career, his family, a failing relationship with his boyfriend, and his mom's ill health. But the tone of the movie is decidedly comedic. Kelly cast a number of veterans from the improv world and his writing style lends itself to comedy. He was previously a writer on "Saturday Night Live" and the Comedy Central series, “Broad City."  

When “Other People” premiered as the opening night film at the Sundance Film Festival, The Frame's John Horn was there. Below are excerpts from their conversation. Click the play button above to hear the full interview.

Interview Highlights:

I'm curious, how much of the movie is from your own life?

The fundamentals of the movie are based on truth, but then it's not a hundred precent autobiographical. I wasn't obviously trying to make a documentary, word-for-word, of my life. I will say that my mom was probably the most intact [character], if that makes sense. She's the closest to the real thing. I think Molly did such a great job of capturing her. She died of cancer and it was horrible and awful, but she was funny and a smart-ass and stubborn and sarcastic and just full of life, so it was cool to be able to capture that.

At one point in the film, Jesse Plemons, who plays the character named David, doesn't get hired for a television writing job and he says something like, It's okay, I'm writing something specialIs what he's doing as a character — trying to create a narrative for what he's going through — part of what you're trying to do in telling the story?

A little bit. It's such a weird thing to take a few years and articulate what you thought you learned, or what you remember of that experience. I just remember being home with my mom. One of my flaws that I look back on was [being] so obsessed with, When was she going to die? How was she going to die? Will I be there? Will it be morning? Will it be night? What happens after she dies? I need her to know that I'm going to be in a relationship and I'm going to have a good job. All these things that, in retrospect ... not that it was silly and not that it was wrong to have these thoughts. It just didn't matter as much as some of the other things.

Is that why you wanted to write the movie? To revisit that experience and try to figure it out more clearly? What was the motivation?

I just remember being so in my head all the time and having to learn to be in the moment and just be there with my mom, be there with my family. It was me trying to articulate that and step out of myself. Not judge myself, but ... I don't know.

No, I know what you're talking about. My mom died about three years ago and one of the things that I remember specifically from that period is how personal it felt. I was with my family and it felt to us as if it had never happened to anybody else before. The title of your movie is "Other People." I'm wondering if you feel the same way?

I remember thinking, Wow, I'm in a cancer movie. I've seen so many cancer movies, but I have never experienced it myself. But you always know a friend, or a friend of a friend, or an aunt or an uncle who's going through it. You hear about it and you're always a friend [saying], Oh, that's so sad. I'm so sorry for what you're going through. Then to be going through it like, I'm in the scene where this happens. It felt so surreal, which is such a weird selfish way to think about it. But I had never been through it and I found myself going through the motions of this thing that I heard about and seen other people go through. But it felt very bizarre to [think], Now I have to do this?

But what you're describing is so fascinating on so many levels, that your life felt like it was a cancer movie, and then you make, from one perspective, a cancer movie. 

Yeah, the logline in my movie is not like, Oh my God! I've never heard this in a movie. Cancer? But yeah, I remember I had expectations going through that [and thinking], When am I going to learn? When do I have this beautiful moment with my mother? When does someone teach me something? When do I realize I believe in God? When is the music going to swell? It just was so much more different than I thought it was going to be. It was more brutal and more boring and then more strange and funny and absurd and harder than I thought it would be. The goal was, I guess, a cancer movie that felt ...

Authentic to you?

At least to me, yeah. 

I want to talk a little bit more about the tone of the film itself. It's a sad film obviously, but there's also a lot of comedy in it. You cast Molly Shannon in the lead role. You also have a lot of the members of the Upright Citizens Brigade in the film. There's even a sketch comedy scene. How important was it to integrate comedy in the story?

That's what I wanted the most. I truly, from the beginning, wanted comedians and funny people. Molly and then Matt Walsh and June Squibb and Paula Pell and Kerri Kenney and all the UCB people. My friend D'Arcy Carden, who I've known for years who does the improv scene. I just didn't need to make cancer and dying more sad. It's already so sad and so heavy that I thought if I just cast funny people it would help bring levity to some of the moments. But not in a way where I was trying to shy away from the sadness. My mom was so funny and she was so full of life. And my memory of being back home wasn't just sad, sobbing torture for a year. There were moments that were weird and funny and we would just sit and laugh about how much it sucked. It was important to me to not make the movie just a heavy slog towards death.

There are a couple things that you've done in this film. One is that, as a longtime writer, you've directed your first feature. And then, your first feature has gotten into the Sundance Film Festival and your first feature was the opening night movie there. There's layer upon layer of firsts for this film. What did the experience of  [the premiere] mean to you?

It was cool. It was very surreal. I was so excited for strangers to see it. We came out for a Q&A at the end and I was introducing the cast and I wanted to secretly [ask], Did you like it? Was it okay? It was just very special. I wrote it so long ago with truly zero expectations and when Adam and Naomi Scott [said], Let's make this...

They were the producers?

The producers, yeah, who are amazing. But every step of the way I was [thinking], This is still happening? We're still doing this? So I never expected to get to be [at Sundance]. It was just fun that everyone was back together.

You wrote it never expecting it to get made? Why did you write it?

I had never done it before, so I had no expectations. I wrote it the summer after my first year at SNL and I wrote it because mostly I just had only written comedy and just three- or four-minute sketches, so I wanted to write something longer and something more tonally accurate to what I like, some sort of combo of comedy and drama. Then, also, I just wanted to write about that experience, so I just kind of wrote it as an exercise to practice writing in this style, and it just snowballed I guess.

There's a line in the movie about whether or not somebody who has died is watching from above. You have some fun with that, but I'm curious if your mother was alive and could see this movie, what would it mean to her and to you?

I think she would be immediately embarrassed like, There's a movie about me? No, no, no, Chris. Then I think she would think it was great. I know she would be excited that it was Molly Shannon. She would think that was cool. She would like that it's a lot about my sisters. I think she would think it was fun. Like I said, it's not a hundred percent like a documentary about my life, but I did get to have a lot of family involved. My mom was a teacher in real life and there's a scene at an elementary school with a bunch of teachers sitting around, and a lot of them are her teacher friends in real life that worked with her and wanted to be in it. There was a scene earlier in the movie where an aunt character plays some music live at a New Year's Eve party — that's my actual aunt's music. So it's been nice that even though it's not a hundred percent about what happened, it's still nice to have real family in there.

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