“Write what you know” is a mantra of writing classes. But taken too literally, that dictum can stifle creativity and encourage unnecessarily limited thinking, not to mention lead to a glut of screenplays about creative single white twenty- and thirty-somethings looking for love and fulfillment. Brett Haley took a different approach. He explored emotional spaces that were authentic to him, but through the eyes of a protagonist who’s a different gender than, and nearly a half century older than, himself. The result was I’ll See You in My Dreams, his sophomore feature, which premiered at Sundance and played a multitude of winter and spring festivals en route to its wide release this week through Bleecker Street Films. Haley joined us recently to talk about writing the script, building an all-star cast that includes Blythe Danner, Sam Elliott, Martin Starr, June Squibb, and Rhea Perlman, and rolling out his first big movie.
: How have you been, man?
Brett Haley: I’m good. Tired and a little bit stressed out, but excited. You know, this is my first time on the roller coaster, so it’s a lot to take, but I’m feeling okay. I’m feeling like maybe everything will work out okay.
Paste: Where all have y’all been since the Sarasota Film Festival?
Haley: Well, I went to Nashville. I went to North Carolina, River Run. I went to Austin, I went to San Francisco Film Festival. I had a special screening in Napa. Then we had press and this premiere thing in L.A., and I went to Louisiana for the Louisiana International Film Festival. … I go to Miami on Thursday and Seattle on Monday or Tuesday, then I’m back home. I’ve been promoting the shit out of this thing.
Paste: Well, that’s going to pay off, the buildup from the grassroots at those film festivals.
Haley: Yeah, absolutely, man.
Paste: Let’s talk a little bit about your directing. I love how Blythe went a little off script for her speech at Sarasota and decided that you were a woman filmmaker in a man’s body. Tell me about writing women and why she’d say that.
Haley: I was more honored than anything. There’s a sensitivity and an honesty and a depth, I think, to women, and a lightness of touch that I think they have in this world. And I’m drawn to write women more than I am to men. I find that when you have a great idea for a movie, I don’t care what movie it is, you make it 10 times more interesting when you make it about a woman. I think it’s because women have it harder than men do. It’s this conversation we’re talking about; people’s rights are a big issue right now, and I think in general, especially through history, women qualify as a minority, and I think they have a harder go at it than men have. So I think just right away by writing women, it’s more layered, there’s more to it, and I guess that’s why I’m naturally drawn to them. Maybe I’m an underdog guy or something, I don’t know.
Paste: You also have much more of a chance of breaking new ground. Even today, the number of films with female protagonists is pretty low.
Haley: It’s getting better. The whole conversation of diversity in film is out there. Patricia Arquette bravely supported equal pay for men and women in this industry. These are all things that need to start changing and I hope that my film can add to the conversation, not only about women but about older people. I think that we could put older people in the minority category as well. In the diversity category they are completely unrepresented, they’re stock characters that move the plot along or a grandma who’s wacky or a crazy uncle or something. This film, it shows I think the older generation as they really are, people who are full of life and love and joy and sadness and all those things that I think young people feel. I think they’re marginalized to a large degree, and I think we think they’re just waiting to die. And it’s just bullshit—they’re not just sitting around waiting to die, they’re living full lives. I was sort of drawn to that. I don’t think Hollywood has helped that conversation in any way.
Paste: Yeah, and ironically enough, the actors that are most able to play those rich, textured parts are that age as well. Like, Robert Duvall hasn’t forgotten how to act, and to take your film, Sam Elliott hasn’t forgotten how to act and Blythe Danner hasn’t forgotten how to act. They just aren’t getting as many parts like this as much anymore.
Haley: Exactly, they don’t get the roles. And they also haven’t forgotten how to live, in case anyone’s wondering. Between Blythe Danner and June Squibb and Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place, these people are living full lives, they’re working constantly and are extremely passionate. They’re more alive than ever. They come with all this great experience and all these great life lessons, so why wouldn’t you want to be around people like that or work with people like that? I’ve learned so much from becoming close to my cast, and they’re like family to me now. I really admire them, I love them as people and I’ve learned so much from them. And I think it comes from them having so much experience in film and having all this time to take it in, you know? It’s really cool.