The writer/director opens up to Movieweb about his private life and his most recent film, Happy Endings
The Opposite of Sex put Don Roos on the Hollywood map, Bounce gave him Hollywood star power, and now in Happy Endings, Hollywood is his backdrop for dysfunction. The writer and director went through a lot of time and tribulations to get this film on the big screen, and thanks to Maggie Gyllenhaal, it got the green light.
But Maggie isn't the only star in this film - Lisa Kudrow, Laura Dern, Jesse Bradford, Tom Arnold, and Jason Ritter (just to name a few). The film focuses on three different stories that merge together at the end.
I had never met Don so when he walked in to the interview room with his $500 sunglasses on, I knew this was going to be a fun conversation. Here's what we talked about:
What was the genesis, what did you think of first when making this movie?
Don Roos: Well, I wanted to do a movie about a screwed up family cause I always want to do a movie about a screwed up family, and I thought step brother and step sister was an interesting relationship. They’re kind of siblings and they’re kind of not and they can make a mistake, a really big mistake cause the movie is kind of like LA as a Garden of Eden and these two characters do something just like Adam and Eve did and they get expelled. Twenty years later, we pick them up and it has had a big effect that they’re not even aware of on their lives, and I thought that was just an interesting story to tell. And I’ve never told a story with a big gap of time like that, I thought that would be fun. I wanted to do multi story lines and it all came out gradually and I asked myself what I wanted to see.
Well, the funny thing was when I rolled up a friend of mine said ‘happy ending, you know what that means, right?’ She said drive down to Koreatown, you can get a massage and get a happy ending. And I thought ‘how do you know?’ (laughter) It can’t be about that and then five minutes in, she’s like ‘I told you!’
Don Roos: Ben Affleck first told me what that meant and I don’t know how Ben knew. Ben Affleck told me when we were shooting ‘Bounce.’
How did that circumstance come about?
Don Roos: Well, when you work with Ben, you talk about massage, it comes up (lots of laughter) you have to keep the conversation going and you have to keep the story going, so you make up a story and he tells you another story.
So you did research to see how it –
Don Roos: No, not really; I’m like an alter boy who’s never been molested by a priest. I’m very relieved but also vaguely insulted. Never had a happy ending, yeah it’s sad, sad.
Talk a little about Maggie Gyllenhaal. When she came in, it said you had thought of the role as totally different without changing the dialogue. How could she have been so different from back when you wrote it?
Don Roos: I thought of her as more of a character more wisecracking, very defended, always giving off one liners and she would take the jokes and turn them around like there was one time in the movie she’s moving into the house and I think Jason’s [Ritter] character says ‘it was so fast’ you know, it was so fast. And Jude’s (Maggie) character was supposed to say it like the love making was really fast like he’s bad at it – the intent of that line, she was supposed to zing him. And she said, ‘no I want to compliment him on his love making, I want to build him up. Why would I just gratuitously be mean to him, I’m about to be mean to him for a reason later on. Why don’t I just say it like I’m showing him what life can be like, so maybe I should compliment him.’ And it was those little kinds of changes, so she says ‘no it wasn’t fast, it was really good, it was really nice,’ she does say that. It was the little changes like that had the character have much more dimension than I was writing. I was writing a character, like Gangster’s Mall and she wasn’t going to let me do that, she said ‘I think it could be bigger than that,’ and she could be sweeter or more complicated than that. You know, she didn’t want to make her a nice girl, she wanted to very her approach to him, which was really smart. She had a great idea where there’s a break up scene where the guys finally find out, Tom Arnold finds out that she’s using him, Jason tells on her. You can’t put this on the radio, but there’s a line at the end where she says ‘I glad you grew some balls, but the only problem is it’ll make your dick look smaller.’ She originally said that to the Otis (Jason Ritter) character and she said ‘Well I think I should really say that to Tom [Arnold] cause if I really loved him and I was really hurting, I’d want to hurt him when it would look like I wasn’t hurting. So I should really direct that line to Tom.’ That’s impossible, I know how I wrote it. She said ‘let me just show it to you’ and she did it and I said ‘of course you should do it that way. I insist that you do, and it’s my idea!’ (lots of laughter). So she did a lot of subtle, not big things, no sitting down and saying this character has to go. Just tiny little attacks on each line to make her a fuller, richer character. She was a genius, I missed her a lot when she left. She was very challenging to work with because you could never take the easy way out, you could not manipulate her, she’s unmanipulatable; she could see you coming a mile away. Lisa’s [Kudrow] the same way, you can’t tell them one thing hoping they’ll do another thing, it’s very hard to hide what I want. But if you’re really honest with her and you’re really patient, explore her ideas, great! I think she’s a wonderful actress. She also saved the movie, cause if she wouldn’t have signed on, we wouldn’t have made the film. Two other actresses dropped out before her.
Were those Gwyneth?
Don Roos: Yes, Gwyneth Paltrow was going to do it, she read the script right after Lisa did and said I’m in. And I love Gwyneth, I think she’s an incredible actress, but she had a personal tragedy in her life and she needed to take some time off.
Who was the other one?
Don Roos: Jennifer Garner
I can’t imagine her in that role.
Don Roos: I can’t imagine either of them in that role. That’s what Maggie did; as soon as Maggie sang, you know, cause we recorded the songs three days ahead of time; as soon as she sang, I said how can it be anyone else than her. And I think Jennifer and Gwyneth would have done another great job.
When did you decide it was going to be about secrets?
Don Roos: Well, growing up gay you’re attracted to secrets, I mean, that’s the thing you know the most. You grow up in a family, it’s not like growing up in another despised group in our society, like growing up as an African American, the society is against you, but your family is there and your community is there with you. When you grow up gay, you’re entirely alone in your home and you learn about secrets, and you learn about subtexts, you learn to see where danger is coming entirely in your head most of the time. So secrets are a natural part of my life and in terms of writing a scene is always better if the people aren’t telling the truth. It’s very hard in fact to write a scene where the characters are telling the truth. There’s one scene in this movie where Lisa tells her actual internal truth and you have to actually beat that character up and scare her and knock her off her feet before she tells you what she actually believes. It’s that scene where she runs after Nicky (Jesse Bradford) and says ‘You think you know me, nobody knows me.’ That’s the first time where she actually says something true about herself, but she has to be driven to it. Most of the characters say things to cover up how they feel; a writing teacher told me that once - the point of dialogue is not to reveal what the character feels, it’s to hide what the character feels. And if you count the lies in this movie, Jason’s character never tells the truth, ever; everything he says is a lie and Tom lies all the time. It’s the kind of lies we tell everyday where you say you don’t want something that you do want, you don’t want to look like that person who wants that thing.
Can you talk about directing Jason and did you develop a friendship at all?
Don Roos: Well, I love Jason; I had never seen his work before, I didn’t know him. He came in to audition and he was perfect, perfectly great. So we hired him on the spot and stopped looking for that role and then the movie fell apart and so it was a year before we were actually making the movie again. And in that time, Joan of Arcadia had gotten on the air and his father died, so a lot had happened from when he auditioned to the day he walked on the set. We didn’t have any rehearsals at all; he was just the character, we didn’t have any rehearsals for any of the people, they just showed up and they were it. But he’s so wonderful to work with, everybody was. But I had a huge crush on him when I was working with him; I was always like ‘where’s Jason, is he having coffee, I’m going to have coffee. (laughter) Hold on Lisa, freeze; I’ll be right there.’ I was always like ‘oh Jason tell me more about you.’ And so Lisa was making fun of me until she met him. She was always like ‘oh, he can’t be that great.’ We were shooting that scene when they were dancing in the wedding; that was the first time she worked with Jason and after five minutes of working with him, she was like ‘oh, there’s something really special about working with this guy.’ He’s a very, very open human being; as a person he’s completely open and un-defended which is rare, cause most people in our business are very defended and very careful, but he’s very innocent and childlike. And I think he’s also a wonderful actor, we just always believed him.
Because he played a gay character, did you give him any ways to go about it?
Don Roos: No, he played it just as you would play it; that’s Jason, he’s straight, sadly straight, sadly. But he’s a, he plays it just as himself and that’s of course the best way to do it.
Can you talk a little bit about the road to getting the movie made.
Don Roos: It was horrible. With The Opposite of Sex, I had sort of a success among the critics and I thought I’ll write a new original script. This was the first one I had written since 1996, and I thought it would be a feeding frenzy, but it was sort of like a feeding frenzy where everyone showed up full and they didn’t want anything (lots of laughter) because nobody wanted to do it, I mean, it was like ‘I’m stuffed, I’m stuffed, no more.’ And it took two years to get the movie financed and in less money in 2004 dollars than I had for The Opposite of Sex. I had a little bit more money in 1997 for The Opposite of Sex than I had for this one. We had many more characters, I had 42 or 43 days to make The Opposite of Sex, I only had 30 days to make this one. It was really a different world, and I took it personally until I realized the independent film has changed quite a bit; the sources of money that were there in the late ‘90’s aren’t there anymore. It was nothing personal, but we started trying to make this as a $17 million movie, and then it went down to 15, 11, 9, and 8 and finally it had to be under 5.
You made this in one month?
Don Roos: Well, 30 days, so six weeks cause we took the weekends off.
Did you have to cut a lot of scenes?
Don Roos: No, but I had to cut a lot of scenes when it was done cause my editor did a wonderful job. He chose all the music too.
And was that your choice to have all the character descriptions?
Don Roos: Oh yeah, but he chose how they would slide on and slide off. He did everything for me; I came in to look at it when it was over and it was all done. All I did for the next six weeks was try to make it shorter cause it was almost three hours when he showed it to me.
With all that text, I noticed there at the end, the narrator finally mentions the word ‘I;’ is that supposed to be a specific character or is it you?
Don Roos: No, it’s supposed to be the narrator coming out of his shell to come out and announce that he was a person the whole time and it was there to kind of give the character of Jude a boost, cause I had punished her so severely. She serves her point in the film, she gives up her child, she gives up her man cause she’s afraid it’s going to ruin this family and then we don’t see her again until the very last moment. And I wanted us to remember her with a bit of mystery so I wanted to give her privacy. I didn’t give any of the other characters privacy, but I wanted to give her some privacy so I wanted to subtitle g-d or the title g-d not to know every single detail about her. So she earns one thing, which is privacy.
Do you have anything in the future?
Don Roos: No, I don’t know what to do?
What about Steve Coogan?
Don Roos: Steve Coogan is good, isn’t he!
Did you have to tell the actors how to say things or did they just do it?
Don Roos: It’s all in the casting, it’s all in who said yes.
Did you see Steve Coogan in something?
Don Roos: No, the studio actually, Lions Gate brought him up. You know, when has a good casting idea come from the studio! (lots of laughter) They called me up, it’s a red letter day, they said ‘you should really think about Steve Coogan’ and I said ‘who’s Steve Coogan?’ So they started sending tapes over; they sent over The Alan Partridge Show, the show he’s on in England. Well, he plays this 45 year old guy with long hair, total skuz, horrible character, and I love the show, I watched all the episodes. And there’s nothing in that, except that it’s wonderful acting that could make me think that he could play Charlie. But I was intrigued by his talent, we had lunch and I just loved him, just loved him, great; I think he’s just wonderful in this movie. And it’s the hardest part, he does something he tells this poor girl – he thinks he’s telling her that her son is going to die of a horrible disease, and the audience can pull away from him, as they should; but because he’s so comedic, he’s able to pull that off, it’s really tough.
I thought Nicky was the hardest part.
Don Roos: Nicky was tough too; Jesse [Bradford] was great and he’s also beautiful which also helped. I said one thing – he has to be beautiful because he does a lot of bad things. It always goes down easier, doesn’t it!
Don gives Maggie an extra 'thanks' in the credits by giving her the "and" status. Happy Endings is rated 'R' for some language and some obvious sexual references - common people, the title of the film is reason enough for the rating, but don't think it's totally about that. You can see for yourself when it opens in theaters July 15th.