An Underdog Guy

Brett Haley, director of I’ll See You in My Dreams, talks the universal appeal of a film about women and senior citizens

Movies Features

“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.

Paste Magazine: 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.

Paste: Tell me about when it came time to market the film and find a buyer, the possible struggles there with the fact that this is a senior citizen story. One of your producers, Laura Smith, produced a movie a few years ago called That Evening Sun which was good as just about anything done in the last decade, but it couldn’t find an audience because it was about an old guy who was a farmer, you know? Did you feel that because this was a story about senior citizens? Was that an impediment to you?
Haley: I think it’s a double-edged sword in a way. I think that baby boomers are going to the movies and they made things like Woman in Gold and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel—maybe it’s gold in the title, maybe I’m missing something! I’ll See You in My Golden Dreams, My Gold Dreams, I don’t know, we’ll figure that out. But for some reason there seems to be a real audience and hunger for this type of role. So on one hand you’ve got these baby boomers who are going to the movies, and if they like something, they’re going to talk about it and they’re actually going to the cinema, unlike a lot of millennials or 20- or 30- something year-olds who are not going to the movies as much. They only go for Mad Max or The Avengers, the big technical stuff. Which I think is totally fine, I think there’s a place for that, but I also think there’s a place for this.

I certainly don’t think the film is a senior citizen movie, or something that only appeals to older people. Obviously, I’m 31 years old and I was 30 when I made it, and I wouldn’t have made a film that only appeals to a demographic that has nothing to do with me. I made a film that I thought would appeal to everybody. I think it’s universal, something that everyone can relate to.

I do think it is hard. When you make a movie and it gets bought, it has to become a product; that’s just the way this works. And you have to take the easiest, safest way to package your movie and put it out for the world. That’s just the necessary evil of making movies, so I hope that people don’t dismiss it thinking that it’s just one thing. I think Bleeker Street has done an amazing job promoting this film and making it feel like an honest, heartwarming, moving, funny picture, which I really think that it is. And people love this film. Whether you’re 17 or 70, I think there’s something in the film for you.

But it is hard, it’s kind of uncategorizable, you can’t really put a genre on it. It’s not a plot-driven thing; it’s not about, you know, someone who wins the lottery and their life changes, that’s a plot movie and something wacky is happening and changing the circumstances. These are very subtle real-life things. A lot happens in this film, but it’s not plot driven. It’s very funny but it’s also very sad, it’s very honest but it’s also very entertaining. It walks a line and I think I like movies like that the best, movies that can’t be categorized. I can’t easily categorize the great films of the ’70s like Five Easy Pieces and Midnight Cowboy, Scarecrow and The French Connection. The French Connection is an action movie but it’s also so much more than that, it’s not just an action movie. The same goes for Five Easy Pieces and Midnight Cowboy; they’re hilarious but they’re also extremely layered and sad and real and honest. I think that I’m influenced by that at all times.

But it also makes it difficult to market. It makes it difficult to convey to an audience—hey, there’s actually got a lot going on here, it’s not just a one-note kind of genre thing. It’s a fulfilling meal, it’s got some real weight to it while being entertained. I was very surprised to get into Sundance with a film like this, because I think Sundance historically has edgier films and, you know, really pushes the boundaries and my film doesn’t push any boundaries. But actually saying that out loud, I’m thinking, well, maybe it does, maybe just simply having these older characters be the leads of this film and be conventional is pushing boundaries.

Paste: Tell me about building your magnificent cast. Tell me about how the project came together once the script was done.
Haley: Well, we—my great producers Rebecca Green, Laura Smith, and I—said come hell or high water we’re making this film. We set a date, we had a little bit of equity from a previous project that we were working on, so we convinced those investors to move over to this one, and it was a little friendlier of a project in general so they were okay with it. Then we did a Kickstarter, just to kind of get the wheels greased, just to kind of get going. I think we raised about maybe 10 percent of our budget or a little bit less on Kickstarter and the budget was around $500,000—we raised around 60, so I guess that’s around 12 percent, on Kickstarter.

We got sort of ramped up, then we went after more people saying we’ve got Blythe Danner and Martin Starr. They came on actually before we had any money; they came on when it was just a script. They really believed in this script, and they said, you know, we’ll attach ourselves, and that certainly got the wheels going. Everybody that I went to was my first choice—every single person in this movie was my first and only offer, right down the line. I couldn’t believe it was happening; when Sam Elliott said yes I was like, Oh shit, we’ve just become a real movie. A bona fide movie with a capital M. I was scared to death in one way but just so excited people were responding to the material Marc [Basch] and I had written.

So I’d always described it as walking towards the edge without a parachute and someone straps on the parachute at the last minute before we jumped, everything just came together wonderfully. The money came in, the actors came in, it’s sort of always a chicken-and-egg situation where the cast brings the money but the money brings the cast. It’s a very complicated thing to navigate.

Rebecca and Laura are both amazing at their jobs and I think they were really able to keep control of the film, creative and business control of the film, and do it right because nobody was getting paid—this was all passion. This wasn’t about the money, it was all passion for this story. We approached this film with the best intentions; it goes back to intentions, we just wanted to tell this story and it was never about anything other than just getting this film in the can and with an 18-day shoot and it just came together. Just a great group of people, we’re like a little family now. Blythe described us as when we were shooting the film as sort of a repertory company, doing a small play. We really came together like that. No one had known each other from previous work and we came together and we just had a blast because we made it about the work, and that’s really what made it a successful shoot or keeping us focused but not taking things too seriously, not running around like chickens with our heads cut off. Just staying focused, doing our jobs the best we could and just having fun with it.

Paste: That’s fantastic. I think that’s as good a place as any to end, that’s a really nice picture to end the interview on.
Haley: I’m lying down right now on a couch in the Waldorf Astoria just musing to you, you’ve got me at a really good place now, man. Sort of off-the-cuff, honest and real.

Paste: Just where you thought you’d be a year and a half ago.
Haley: Ha, exactly, I knew I would be laying on the couch at the Waldorf Astoria just talking to you about myself. Let me say that was the last fucking thing on my mind, I was like, Oh please just get into Sundance and I’ll be happy. And now I’m like, Oh please get good reviews, the expectations continue. I’m just honored to be involved with this film and so happy it had any shot at all. It’s a dream come true, so I just hope people connected to it the way I connected to it when I was making it.

Michael Dunaway is the producer and director of 21 Years: Richard Linklater, a New York Times Critics Pick starring Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke; Creative Producer for the Sarasota Film Festival; Movies Editor of Paste; host of the podcast The Work; and one hell of a karaoke performer. You can follow him on Twitter.

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