One of the better underdog stories from this year's Sundance Film Festival is "Hello I Must Be Going," from filmmaker (and sometime actor) Todd Louiso. After making 2009's "The Marc Pease Experience" for Paramount Vantage, the director found his movie marooned after the dismantling of the studio, appearing on a handful of screens before going (virtually) straight-to-DVD. This was a rather inglorious follow-up for the filmmaker, who had previously made the critically lauded Philip Seymour Hoffman vehicle "Love Liza." "Hello I Must Be Going" is not only a comeback for the director, but also a coup for its star, Melanie Lynskey, who is finally awarded her first starring role after her splashy debut in Peter Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures" with a role in a challenging, layered film. The story centers on Amy, a divorced and down-on-her-luck 35 year-old woman who is forced to move back in with her parents, and winds up in an unconventional relationship with a teenage boy. We spoke to the director about what it was like working with his wife on the film's script, his return to Sundance, the influence of Judd Apatow, and toll "The Marc Pease Experience" experience took on him.
"Hello I Must Be Going" is unique in that Louiso's wife, playwright Sarah Koskoff, wrote the script (it should be noted Sarah's brother, Jacob, co-wrote "The Marc Pease Experience"). We asked what that experience was like, and for Louiso it sounded like an easy and natural collaboration. "We worked together for a long time and you know we had just both sort of hit the end of the line with certain things in our professional careers," Louiso said. "I'd had not such a great experience on my last film and it really got to me as far as my confidence. And with Sarah it was other things, you know, and we felt like, we really wanted to just make something because we enjoy it so much."
A lot of the movie's let's-put-on-a-show spirit came from these initial conversations with Koskoff. "She gave it to me and she said 'Let's do 'Hello I Must Be Going' and let's do it ourselves and go to Westport because her family's there and we can get a lot of support from friends and family,' " Lousio explained. "That's how it kind of just started, just out of a desperate need to make something."
Surprisingly, Louiso says that "The Marc Pease Experience" wasn't a direct influence on the back-to-basics indie nature of "Hello I Must Be Going." "It was three or four years later, it wasn't that at all," Lousio explained. "It was just over time I hadn't been doing anything so I felt like I wasn't confident at all, I just felt like I didn't know myself as a filmmaker anymore, I lost like the connection to what my taste was. And then you know slowly it's starting to come back to various things."
One of the things that Louiso got back to was Sundance. Lousio had developed "Love Liza" at the Sundance Directors Lab, and was anxious to return to the supportive and nurturing environment that Sundance provides. After being told by one of the directors of the festival that, while he couldn't do the Directors Lab again (since the program is for first-time filmmakers only), he could instead be part of the Screenwriters Lab. The hitch? The deadline was the day after Louiso spoke to the Sundance person. Still, he and Koskoff had a finished-enough script, and sent it in. "They called us about a week later and said 'We love this script, we want you to come in for a meeting with us,' " Louiso said. "We did that and a couple of weeks later we found out that Sarah had gotten into the Screenwriters Lab and I was going along with her to do that. That was just huge. It is such an incredible program that when I came back I felt like I had been brain washed or something like that. But I just never felt like so supported. It's just all about the work and concentrating on the art and that doesn’t exist anywhere else." He sounded genuinely taken aback, before adding: "I feel so lucky to have been able to come along and do that with Sarah."
It was out of the Sundance workshop that "Hello I Must Be Going" landed its lead in Melanie Lynskey. They had plotted a reading of the script at Sundance Station in Culver City, something that initially Louiso didn't want to do because it made him feel like he was starting over. But once he agreed, he had to get people to participate. "We had asked a bunch of actresses to do the reading, but a lot of the actors or actresses we wanted were in New York and you know Sundance said we should just fly them out for the reading and the actresses didn't want to fly out, or actresses were too busy or they just didn't want to do readings," Louiso explained.
"I had ideas, a picture in my head about who this character was and ultimately we were really brainstorming and I said what about you know the actress who played opposite Kate Winslet in 'Heavenly Creatures' - where is she?" Louiso said. "And I really hadn't seen Melanie at all in anything. Sarah told me she had heard she was in 'Two and a Half Men' for a little bit. She's great, she's so different from what I'd been thinking about, but she's so much more right. So we called her agent and sent her the script. She read it overnight and the next day she said yes immediately. And I didn't know this but she was in Toronto and she cut her trip short to fly back to do the reading. That's how strongly she felt about it." That dedication not only insured her the role, but it spread as an ethos across the whole production.
"I didn't twist anyone's arm to do it and if I did they didn't do the film. I felt like this is too small of a film I'm going to have to be baby-sitting them or feel bad. Someone is here and they're doing this low budget film and I feel so guilty, I'm worried about their happiness, you know? And that's true for crewmembers too," Louiso said. "I think that's what gives the movie such cohesion. Everyone felt so connected to it and wanted to do it, because they loved the script so much."
Also of note is the film's score, composed by wistful indie songstress Laura Veirs. "We put a couple of songs in the temp track and usually, like in 'Love Liza,' we like using one voice as a musician, which I did for that and I wanted to do for this because I felt like it would be good for Amy's voice…Finally one day Sarah and I were like why don't we use all of Laura’s music and try and get in touch with her and she was very easy to get in touch with." Once Veirs signed on, "We mostly used her existing music that she had already written… and she wrote an original song for the movie too." And although Louiso and Koskoff never met the musician, they nonetheless felt a very strong connection. "She's very much on the same page as I am and Sarah is. She's been in the music business for a long time, she used to be signed by Nonesuch Records and then decided to form her own label, I think she felt frustrated too," Louiso explained. "She's an artist, she's been doing it a long time, she's tenacious and she works her ass off."
"Hello I Must Be Going" also comes on the heels of "Bridesmaids" and "Young Adult," two movies that really tried (for once) to come from a female perspective (even though, like "Hello I Must Be Going," they were directed by men). We wondered if Louisio felt in tune with this, or if it was just a kind of fluke of American comedy. "Sarah started writing it so long ago that I think it wasn't on the radar yet, or maybe it was and she was picking up on it and those scripts were all being written then," Louiso said. "I know that's not what you're talking about, but it has a very wide appeal. I hope that can get through to the distributors at the screenings. I do think there's a renaissance of female movies." In fact, Koskoff took inspiration from the man who is currently being touted as a revitalizing force in American comedy. "I know one of Sarah's inspirations were the inner man-child sort of movies. Early on one of her ideas was what if a woman has to move back into her parents house and is still sort of a child. You know why is it always men, like Judd Apatow films, she thought it would be great and funny to see a woman in that role. In her idea of creating it, it was her reaction to those films."
While Louiso and Koskoff have a movie planned in the very near future (he's "too superstitious to talk about it yet"), he says that he is interested in widening his scope and doing a film with a little more technical ambition. "I'm interested in a ton of things," Louiso said. "I love playing around with the camera and I'd love doing something like that at one point that has a little bigger scale, but it's just about the timing and mood."
But we also wondered about Louiso's dayjob, since he's had a steady career as an in-demand character actor, most notably appearing in John Cusack's "High Fidelity." It seems like those days are behind him; he's planning on focusing completely on directing. "At the beginning of the year I said I'm going to stop acting," Louiso said. "Unless it's for a friend or somebody calls me and says would you do this? I like acting alright and it can be fun sometimes but the process of it, of not being not being the author of your own life, I can't take that anymore."
However, with "Hello I Must Be Going," Louiso looks firmly back in driver's seat and we're eager to see where he goes next. The film continues to screen at the Sundance Film Festival though the week and is currently seeking U.S. distribution.