Other People

SNL’s Chris Kelly gives us a sneak peek at his debut feature film

By Hans Pedersen, September 2016 Issue.

Children watching their mother die is not typically a source of humor in cinema. But writer-director Chris Kelly fills his movie Other People with a slew of moments that are funny because they’re so true, tapping into that human need to find humor in tragedy because it makes it more bearable.

The SNL writer spoke with Echo Magazine following the premiere of his belly-achingly funny and stunningly sad movie Other People after its screening at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Echo: What gave you the courage to share everything that happened to your family on the big screen? Was it strange seeing these alternate versions of family members?

Kelly: Yeah it was a little weird. I’m a comedy writer and I mostly write for SNL… I just wanted to write something longer. First and foremost, I wanted to write a feature. I wanted to write something that was a little, tonally – something that I want to watch, that’s like half and half comedy-drama … I felt like you basically write what you know, so I thought it would be good to write something personal, something that I felt capable of writing about.

And so when I started it I didn’t have designs to directing it or making it. I never imagined that would ever happen. It didn’t feel courageous or anything … It was a writing exercise, first and foremost, to see if I could do it. And now that it’s turned into something that people have seen, it’s been very lovely.

And a little bizarre for family members to see alternate versions of themselves! But I would say it is autobiographical and the building blocks of it are there, but I don’t watch the movie and say “oh that’s exactly my sister” or … “that’s exactly my dad.” These just became fictionalized versions of everybody.

Chris Kelly_Photo courtesy of imdb.com

Chris Kelly, Other People writer/director. Photo courtesy of imdb.com.

Echo: You succeed in making a film that had universal themes that people could relate to … Can you talk about “gay incidentalism” and how the gay content is an important part of the story, but it’s not the most important part?

Kelly: Jesse Plemons the actor in the movie [who plays David] said recently he’s not gay in real life, but he could relate to it, even though he wasn’t gay, because even if you’re not struggling with that (issue) with your family, there’s something else. Something that makes you self-conscious or makes you feel like “other”… whether it’s that you’re gay or that your mother’s dying, or whether you’ve moved away, or feel weird coming back to a small town.

I didn’t really think much about the “gay aspect” of what I was writing. It was just a no-brainer to me, I didn’t really think anything of it.

Echo: Can you talk a little bit about the decision to include humor to include and the tonal shifts?

Kelly: I never relate to something that’s all sad. I never relate to a wrenching drama without a moment of levity. That doesn’t ring true to me, at least for myself, that wasn’t what it was like when my mother passed away. It was kind of the funniest nine months of my life, and the saddest. To have this horribly wrenching experience and then my mother would just make some joke… You just go through so many absurd experiences that you’d never realize were possible until you’re in such a horribly sad experience.

I remember the moments of levity coming without warning, and the moments of sadness coming without warning sometimes. And so that’s in the movie why I wanted in both a mix of both. But also why I wanted hard cuts from one to the other, so to end a moment of everyone laughing to a hard cut of this horrible moment in the hospital. That just seemed like a close approximation of what I remembered it being like…

I think you get emotion easier if you’ve been laughing and then you’re surprised by how sad something got, rather than if you’ve been watching a two-hour movie with a gorgeous score totally lulling you into a cry for two hours.

Echo: Has your dad seen the movie?

Kelly: He hasn’t seen the movie but he’s super-supportive and there’s no drama there… (The movie is) based on some things that he will cop to, and I will cop to, and us not being close, or having some differences of opinion, to say the least. But he’s great, and so excited the movie… but this isn’t a documentary about my life. This isn’t my father up there. It’s been good, he’s been nothing but wonderful about it.

Echo: Can you talk a little bit about the decision to include humor to include and the tonal shifts?

Kelly: I never relate to something that’s all sad. I never relate to a wrenching drama without a moment of levity. That doesn’t ring true to me, at least for myself, that wasn’t what it was like when my mother passed away. It was kind of the funniest nine months of my life, and the saddest. To have this horribly wrenching experience and then my mother would just make some joke… You just go through so many absurd experiences that you’d never realize were possible until you’re in such a horribly sad experience.

I remember the moments of levity coming without warning, and the moments of sadness coming without warning sometimes. And so that’s in the movie why I wanted in both a mix of both. But also why I wanted hard cuts from one to the other, so to end a moment of everyone laughing to a hard cut of this horrible moment in the hospital. That just seemed like a close approximation of what I remembered it being like…

I think you get emotion easier if you’ve been laughing and then you’re surprised by how sad something got, rather than if you’ve been watching a two-hour movie with a gorgeous score totally lulling you into a cry for two hours.

Echo: Has your dad seen the movie?

Kelly: He hasn’t seen the movie but he’s super-supportive and there’s no drama there… (The movie is) based on some things that he will cop to, and I will cop to, and us not being close, or having some differences of opinion, to say the least. But he’s great, and so excited the movie… but this isn’t a documentary about my life. This isn’t my father up there. It’s been good, he’s been nothing but wonderful about it.

 Echo: Is there an underlying message to the film?

Kelly: Yeah, yeah, it feels so pretentious to articulate it … The movie starts with this really sad death scene, and then it’s undercut by this woman who’s calling and giving her condolences, and then she’s taking a Del Taco order on the phone. And it’s this rude, other person, treated as a bumbling dummy, and it’s like, how could you not know any better? And then it cuts to the title Other People. And I liked the idea of being introduced to the idea of other people as a joke, like (makes face) “Oooh! aren’t other people the worst? Who is this other person, like, you dummy how could you not know?”

You see through the lens of judgmental selfish comedy writer who writes other people off, doesn’t pay enough attention to them. But hopefully the idea of the movie is that the idea of “other people” is important. This guy spends so much time worrying about his own problems, worrying about his own issues, worrying about things he can’t control. Ultimately his family says that doesn’t matter: care about your sisters, care about other people.

There’s a moment where the dad refuses to ask his son about his boyfriend and it’s frustrating. And the son vents to his sisters, like, “he still can’t ask about my boyfriend.” And then his sisters immediately say back, “Well you never ask us about us.” So I like there’s a little bit of blame to go around for everybody, there’s no hero there’s no villain. The dad isn’t a jerk. The main character isn’t perfect. Everyone’s going through this horrible experience together.


Other_People_SUPPORT

Other People4halfstars

The death of a parent, for most of us, can be one of the most painful events of our lifetime.

Writer and director Chris Kelly’s Other People is an incredibly personal film based on his own mother’s battle with cancer. And it’s a brilliant balancing act between comedy and tragedy, making pinwheel turns from snarky quips to heart-wrenching sadness and back again.

The first feature film from this “Saturday Night Live” writer premiered earlier this year at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and is headed to theaters Sept. 9.

Molly Shannon is the ideal casting choice for the role of Joanne, the mother battling the disease. The SNL alum’s entire persona somehow gives viewers the permission to laugh whenever guffaws need to escape. Turns out Shannon studied at the Yale School of Drama, so she’s got the strong acting chops for the role.

Kelly makes a brave choice by opening the movie with a death scene that would typically happen at the end of the story, and then tops it off with a dark comic touch.

You don’t expect a distant friend’s unthinking phone call of consolation, playing out on an answering machine message at a woman’s deathbed, to be quite so funny when it’s interrupted by a Del Taco drive-thru order, but Kelly nails such absurdities with an ineffable authenticity. Moments of jest bring levity to the situation time and time again here.

In the story, struggling comedy writer David (Jesse Plemons from AMC’s “Breaking Bad”) returns to his suburban Sacramento home, ensconced in a world of strip malls and housing developments. You can feel the awkward tension underlying a genial, fun-filled family gathering. Looking for his next gig, this young gay man is back home because his mother is dying of cancer.

But David hides the fact that he has broken up with his boyfriend Paul. And while David’s father pays lip service to accepting his sexuality, there’s clearly a bit of distance and a whiff of homophobia. Yet, in turn, David seems to avoid his sisters as they try to bond with him during this family crisis.

Over a series of several months events unfold, and each time we watch David and his mom cross the same public square in identical overhead shots, Joanne walks more slowly and with greater frailty with each passing season.

But the story is peppered with funny family moments like Joanne throwing up on the bathroom floor and then squirting soap in her mouth to clean it out. This is clearly a mother who wants her kids to remember some good times before she’s gone.

Undercutting the gravity of death with the light-heartedness with which we ought to try to face it, Kelly deftly handles these tonal shifts.Other-People-620x335

Despite the pain from chemo and loss of her hair, David’s mother takes a trip to New York City to check out her son’s stomping ground. The two even attend an improv event with his friends at the Upright Citizens Brigade, where Joanne shares her struggles.

And while this mother and son share a close bond, David ultimately must mend fences with his other family members, particularly when tensions with his father boil over.

An entertaining subplot also features the introduction of Justin, is friend’s adopted brother, who has got to be most liberated 9-year-old around.

This boy is fierce and treats David and family members to a performance in drag that makes the Little Miss Sunshine pageant dance sequence look tame by comparison. This boy definitely knows how to sashay and do a room makeover, and young actor J.J. Totah relishes the role, playing it to the hilt.

Kelly’s actors do a tremendous job, including Plemons, Bradley Whitford as David’s father, and June Squibb and Paul Dooley as his grandparents. And Shannon’s work is certainly truly Oscar-worthy and deserves some accolades at awards time. No doubt Kelly’s SNL background gave him a toolbox of skills to draw upon when directing, and he gives the cast room to truly shine.

Death is a horrid universal thing which we bravely face; how delightful and empowering to be able to laugh at it once in a while. And what a gift to enjoy a full ninety minutes that bring levity to the inevitability of death: for that alone, Kelly’s movie is worth watching.

Some may shirk from the dark humor, but comedy is a clever coping mechanism for embracing life, the movie seems to suggest, one that behooves us as we slog through life.

Edifying in its honesty and entertaining in its embrace of the absurd, Other People is a story about loss and acceptance that’s worth putting at the top of your list.


BIO_HansPedersen_WEB