FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL... goes from screenplay to Sundance hit.
Making Connections with Jamie Travers as the Director
Jim Sheldon / Focus Features
(l to r.) Actress Ari Graynor, director Jamie Travis and actress / co-writer Lauren Anne Miller on the set of For A Good Time, Call…, a Focus Features release.
Katie Anne Naylon (screenwriter/producer): Producing is so fulfilling. Why give up quality control over something that is so personal to you, that you’ve worked hard on? Lauren and I stayed a part of it instead of selling it off, working on the film from beginning to end. That was a blessing, and it’s something I’m sure we’re going to want to do in the future. When Lauren and I closed our eyes, other than Lauren picturing her own face, we couldn’t quite picture what the movie looked like. We knew that it didn’t look like “mumblecore,” and it didn’t feel gritty, and the camera didn’t hang too long. I like to say I found Jamie in the paper, because I read about him in The New York Times and became interested. Then we saw Jamie’s short films, which really moved me. We thought maybe there was a way to bring his world to ours, and then that’s what the movie would look like – and that’s what it does look like.
Jamie Travis (director): I had always written and directed my own short films. This is the first time I’ve directed a feature and the first time I’ve directed from someone else’s script. When I made this movie, it actually felt freeing. I’d been reading others’ scripts, sent from my agents, for about four years while writing my own projects up in Canada and directing commercials. I was doubting that I would even be capable of directing someone else’s script; I was always skeptical when a new script would be in my In Box. This was the first one I read that I loved. I laughed out loud, and I was really attracted to how female-driven it was. I’ve always found the male-driven sensibility difficult to get my head around. Like Lauren & Katie, I saw FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL... as a romantic comedy between two women as friends. There aren’t enough female-driven films, especially comedies; there were in the 1980s. I’m a child of the ‘80s, and I don’t know why these went away for so long. I went after this with real confidence. It’s funny; people at Sundance asked me what my sales pitch was, what my angle was. Well, I didn’t have one. This was the one time when I’d read a script and thought, “I know I’m right for this.” I could also see how it could go in a bad direction, with a filmmaker objectifying the leads and making them more sexual. I wanted the great and relatable friendship story.
Ari Graynor (executive producer; plays Katie in the movie): Finding Jamie was a gift. I watched literally 30 seconds of [his short film] The Saddest Boy in the World, and immediately e-mailed the rest of the team; ‘This guy has to be our director, no question.’ His visuals, his creativity…you could tell right off the bat that he understood the balance between reality and humor. The comedy I respond to, and I think that most people respond to, feels real and character-based.
JT: My first meeting, the initial conversation, was with Lauren & Katie, over Skype; I fell in love with them as soon as I saw their faces on Skype. They were full of energy, and responsive in all the best ways towards my work.
Lauren Anne Miller (screenwriter/producer; plays Lauren in the movie): He was also like, “You cannot let a straight man direct this movie.” [Laughs] We clicked with him.
JT: We connected. Then I came down to L.A. and met them and Ari in person, and met with our producers. We were all on the same page.
LAM: Very adorably, after Jamie was gone, Ari stood up and said, “I’m not saying I’m going to leave the project if we don’t hire him, but, I’m going to leave the project if we don’t hire him.” [Laughs] “OK, Jamie it is!”
KAN: It was so clear that, going forward, this guy was going to be one of the most talented directors and we should jump at working with him. He had a vision of what the movie would look like. We took a chance, because we felt people were finally taking a chance on us.
AG: The four of us developed this collaborative working dynamic that was arguably the most special part of making FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL...
JT: Not once did anyone turn to me and ask for “the male perspective.” [Laughs]
I think that my prioritizing their friendship over the gags was probably the thing that bonded us the best. Making this movie was intensely collaborative, more than the other films I’ve done. My short films had a more visual kind of humor. Here, I was working with actors as real, live human beings. I always knew this movie would register as commercial because of the script; these women coming together, going through these experiences, and becoming friends was a three-act structure. There wasn’t, say, a loose indie-film mentality.
KAN: In the weeks before we shot, we wisely spent time sitting around Lauren’s dining room table and going through the script aloud several times. It was a tune-up. As a screenwriter himself, Jamie helped us get the story tighter. We tweaked the dialogue, because I found that the girls couldn’t say the lines if they didn’t like them. [Laughs] We went through it so everyone would be comfortable with every line, every scene. After we were apart, it was, “I miss the dining room table!”
JT: I have very fond memories of that time.
AG: We referred to it as “the dining room table in our hearts.” The four of us spent a lot of time fine-tuning the characters. We went a little deeper; I wanted to make sure that we kept it as real as possible. We had kind of a hard time cracking Sean [played in the film by Mark Webber], so he got worked on. We’d read a scene and than talk about it, rework it. Doing this for the entire script would take a week, and then we’d read the whole thing out loud again and take other notes.
KAN: The script finally had to be cut down by 15 pages because we didn’t have enough money for the locations and we didn’t have enough time. And our AD – who is an all-star, he got three other movies into Sundance this year! – said this was the only way we could possibly do it, so we sat down with Jamie and cut pages, scenes, lines. I don’t even know that there’s a shooting draft.
JT: There was a rehearsal process with Ari and Lauren. It wasn’t formal –
AG: We’d step away from the dining room table and sit on the couch –
JT: -- because we really wanted to keep things fresh for the shoot.
AG: I come from a theater background, where rehearsal is everything. In filmmaking, rehearsal comes down to time spent with each other, so that there’s comfort and safety and ease. On this movie, we were doing a comedy and focusing on a friendship, so it was important that Lauren and I felt comfortable with each other. I wanted to make sure that she felt supported, and that we could communicate.
JT: I didn’t have much time to rehearse with the supporting actors.
AG: For the first week of shooting, we needed to know how we would block a few things. Mark Webber came over one day, and we rehearsed with Mimi Rogers and Don McManus [who portray Lauren’s parents] a little bit. But we had a pretty tight schedule, both on-set and in pre-production. The most important thing was getting the script in the best, tightest shape possible since we knew we were going to have such limited time when we were shooting. Among all the actors, the most character study came from Justin Long with Jamie Travis; as soon as they spoke on the phone, Justin asked for when they met if he could record their conversation.
JT: At one point on the call, there was this silence and then Justin said, “I like your voice.” He wanted to meet up and have me read lines from the script. This was his process.
AG: On-set, he’d shadow Jamie. In the movie, you’re seeing an homage.
KAN: The way he stands, the way he dresses, the way he gestures…It was very “meta.”
JT: As a gay director, I didn’t want Justin to take the character into stereotypical territory – as a caricature of me, or of gay men. But he took it seriously and it worked out so well.
AG: I tried to take what Lauren & Katie had created and make it come to life in my own way. I didn’t try to imitate the sound of Katie’s voice – her and Lauren’s voices are innately in the script in a strong way, including Katie’s sense of humor and the way that she talks.
KAN: Ari didn’t need to come to me too much. I have quite a big personality, so she got it right away. On the set she’d ask, “Would Katie do this?”
AG: Lauren and I immediately had such an easy rapport. The characters are such great foils for each other, and we were too. This was Lauren’s coming-out party as an actor, and she did such a beautiful job. She’s funny and smart and pragmatic as a person, and as a character. It’s life imitating art imitating life.
JT: Lauren is a new face for people to see in a movie. I was impressed with how fearless she was, and I knew she would be good because when I first met her I saw how likable and natural she is; she radiates something that’s positive, and you can feel her spirit. Lauren’s character at the beginning of the movie is uppity and uptight. Lauren in real life is easier to be around! [Laughs] Or, it’s not so much that the real Lauren is uptight; it’s just that the real Katie is a loose cannon of energy. So when you’re in that presence, you’re automatically the uptight one! [Laughs] We play that up and have fun with it in the movie, and Lauren was quite conscious of that.
JT: We talked a lot about Shelley Long – who has really left an imprint on me – and Bette Midler in Outrageous Fortune [, from 1987], which is an extremely fun movie about women who would traditionally be at odds finding this great friendship. That movie has spirited performances, and such a female point of view from [screenwriter] Leslie Dixon. I think Ari definitely channels a Bette Midler vibe – I don’t know if it’s accidental or on purpose – and sometimes Goldie Hawn. These are female performers who would just go for it, with a physicality in their work. Ari is a natural physical performer. Somebody who saw our movie remarked on how physicalized the comedy was, how there is a lot of body language; both of the main characters have dancing scenes. These feel like something you don’t see any more.
AG: Even though I worship Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn, I don’t love to be compared to them; maybe it’s my desire to be my own person. They are incredible people to be compared to. It’s a funny thing about comparisons; whether it’s individuals to individuals, or movies to other movies, we can all be inspired but at the end of the day you want to be honored and liked for your own work, your own vibe, your own personality. The impact of those movies from the 1980s is something I fully realized even before we started shooting. There was this breed of actresses then that were uniquely themselves. The films allowed them to play around, as the characters. Now, a lot of the movies starring women are much more romantic comedies; you often find these stereotypical roles. Back then, there was a different kind of freedom with the roles; they weren’t just comedic and they weren’t just romantic. They were both, and dramatic at the same time. Movies like Big Business, Baby Boom, and Overboard, and the performances in them, got in deep with me. Lauren and I didn’t set out to emulate those movies or those relationships, but I think we were aware of the dynamic – and excited to bring that back. Also, there’s no good 1980s movie that didn’t have a montage, so that was really fun to shoot!
JT: My short films were more art direction-driven. With this movie, I knew it would need to be made more real and character-driven. Visually, the thing that we were trying to avoid was standard commercial comedy coverage – bright and flat. We were trying to go with something a little moodier. [Production designer] Sue Tebbutt, [costume designer] Maya Lieberman, and I put in a few “pop” colors, but there was a schematic sense to where color was in each of the apartment’s rooms so each could have its own impact. It’s how I always work, so that was applying my own process to this story. With our short shooting schedule, there was also a lot of spontaneity. For the lighting, [cinematographer] James Laxton and I planned out scenes that felt like they were “lit” from windows, and in motivated ways with practicality. When you watch the movie, you don’t feel that there’s a realist aesthetic at all, but the lighting was always done with a relaxed touch so that the art direction ended up being what would pop. We also tried not to be scared to do things that were less traditional – we’d backlight, rather than put a flat light on a face.
AG: In terms of the phone calls, the ideal way to film these would have been to shoot both people on the phone simultaneously on two side-by-side sets – if we’d had the money. But it wasn’t possible, so we shot Lauren’s or my coverage first. So she and I had to give many options in takes, coming up with weird crazy stuff and doing a lot of “Oh yeahhh!” and “Mmm-hmmm!” and “Hahaha, that tickles!” We put in a lot of placeholders so the actors playing our callers wouldn’t feel too locked-in to anything. We were specific, but also vague. When Lauren and I shot our side of the three-way call, I don’t think we knew at that point that Seth Rogen was going to be playing the pilot on the line.
KAN: Lauren was the one who had the bright idea that the cameo callers be talented comedians – and they would go off on their own, too. We can’t take credit for their gags – Ken Marino, Seth Rogen, and Kevin Smith completely did their own things. Kevin hadn’t even read the whole script; he had read his scene, then got on the set and proceeded to do it his way. Lauren and Ari would improv for those scenes, but we didn’t have them call phone-sex lines for research…
AG: We all had phone sex together! [Laughs] We said we were going to call a phone-sex line for research, but then we got wrapped up in the script work and I think we were creative and outgoing enough to come up with things on our own.
JT: Well, we weren’t doing the complete and utter realistic version of that business. I knew that I wanted it to be brighter and sunnier than in Short Cuts; I mean, when my agent told me that this was a phone-sex comedy, the first thing on my mind was Jennifer Jason Leigh tending to her child while she’s doing phone-sex [in the 1993 movie]. We knew that we didn’t want to go gritty; this is a bit of a fantasy version of phone sex. So, no research…but, that said, when I was a kid, a pre-teen, my friend and I would call up this company named The Night Exchange. Women would call in and they would not have to pay. We would spend hours calling in and recording messages, trying to make fools out of these men [who called in] by disguising our voices as women because we were pre-pubescent. So I guess that was my accidental research.
AG: I did go on YouTube to look for recorded phone-sex conversations, but I found stuff which is fake – funny, but fake. One of the things that we were conscious of was always wanting the scenes to be funny over sexy. Being hot and sexy was never ever the goal; it was always about finding the comedy and the reality in the scenes. When we were working on the first phone-sex call between Katie and Sean, we had to make clear the difference between how they spoke to each other and how she spoke to everybody else; theirs had to feel much more real.
KAN: Ari would ask me for advice during some of the sexier stuff on the phone, and then run with it.
JT: There were times when we’d crack up; the first day, for the crew shooting Ari talking to a caller, the way she was positioned on the bed – it’s not the way you expect to meet people, and it was hard to keep a straight face.
AG: I’d played out orgasms before on-screen, so I knew I could play those out in the calls. But the stripper-pole scenes were really a workout. Being on that and talking on the phone and shaking my body parts – I’d get exhausted.
KAN: We all had to roll with it. Sometimes as soon as “cut” was called, everyone would laugh – the whole crew. Our first AD would get mad, because there was no time for that. There was always more ahead of us. We lived in fear, and, it worked!
LAM: [Laughs] There’s very little in the way of a blooper reel in terms of us messing up. I can only think of one scene where I couldn’t hold it together, and one where Ari couldn’t –
KAN: Lauren had two scenes – both in the bathroom! – where she would chuckle.
LAM: The bathtub scene was stressful! I mean, when do you sit in a bathtub with another girl, with bubbles and there’s a boom mike up over you?
KAN: Justin Long’s first day, filming the scene where he convinces the girls to live together, was I think the only day where Ari kept laughing.
AG: It wasn’t that it was a serious set, but we knew we had to get down to business. There were moments when we couldn’t keep it together. I think we’d gotten a lot of that out of our system at the dining room table; while we wrote out that newer version of the Katie-and-Sean call, we all got more nervous and giggly. That felt real, and it was hard to keep a straight face; our immaturity came into play. When you’re fake-orgasming, there’s a silliness to that which makes it less uncomfortable – and we all still couldn’t make eye contact when Jamie was reading Sean’s part of the conversation.
LAM: As far as when we got on-set, we were able to keep it loose and do some improvisations. But we didn’t have a ton of time; we had to make sure that we were covered before we started experimenting. We had to focus, and get what we needed to tell our story.
KAN: I walked around with note cards writing new jokes because we knew the characters better right there in the moment, and if we had time we would just throw them in.
JT: We had to move so quickly to make this film; we shot it in 16-17 days [in August 2011]. If you knew you’d gotten something, you had to move on. But I could feel the connection between Ari & Lauren, I could see the closeness in their scenes. I knew we were in a groove.
KAN: Jamie was upbeat and smiling every single day on the set. We had two little lovers’ quarrels, that was it.
AG: With Jamie leading us, our crew was unbelievable. So often in filmmaking, you lose a lot of time in set-ups and in lighting. With our crew, there was rarely more than 10-15 minutes of waiting.
LAM: There is cut footage of lines we didn’t end up using. Our amazing editor, Evan Henke, was cutting while we were shooting. Then, after a short break, Jamie got in there right away. Then we all got in there and, like during production, it was a big collaboration with all hands on deck.
KAN: It took a village. We hurried so we could screen the movie for some talented people we know and get their first-cut reactions. If their notes were similar, and each one of us felt the same way, we would attack things as specifically as possible.
But from the first cut, it was always pretty tight – 90 minutes or less. It was never a three-hour comedy. The last few weeks were marginal little tweaks here and there.
LAM: We had just over two weeks’ worth of footage, not three months’ worth. It’s both a blessing and a curse in the editing room. We had a couple of choices, basically, and we picked and made the best version.
KAN: “A or B?” “1 or 2?”
AG: We didn’t do reshoots, but we did do the magic of ADR. Any time that I was off-screen doing calls, that was ADR [automated dialogue replacement, in post-production] – from a very long session. I was doing a play in New York, and my voice was already on the fritz. But I still had to do 7-10 different bizarre fetish options for the phone calls. Jamie was with me and for part of it, Lauren & Katie were on Skype to weigh in from L.A.
LAM: It was, “Let’s get this thing together to show to Sundance,” so long as we were happy with it. At Sundance, although I’ve never been so cold in my life, to have what happened there could not have been a more perfect ending to our story. To have it work out that way and to have people understand and love our story, and laugh in the right places and feel what they’re supposed to feel…We were so appreciative and so happy.
AG: This was such a labor of love for all of us, and we all had so much at stake in different ways. None of us had really seen it with an audience; there were a few screenings for friends with maybe 10-20 people at a time.
KAN: I’m not the emotional one – or, I am, but not in this way – but a few hours before the Sundance premiere I was crying. I was so moved by what was going to happen; I had no idea what was going to happen. I got on the phone with Lauren, and she said, “Listen, the movie’s going to play at 9:45 either way, so, we should just go, okay!” [Laughs]
AG: Yes, as we got closer to the screening, I started having “birthday party syndrome;” that fear of “No one’s gonna come,” “What if nobody has fun!” You love something, but you just don’t know how other people are going to react. We believed in what we were doing, but we’re cautious optimists. I was anxious to see what the response would be. My mom was there.
KAN: My heart was racing when the screening started, and it just took off…1,200 people laughing.
AG: 1,300 people, I thought.
KAN: Maybe. We were in the front, and I kept turning around and looking back and up at the balcony – everyone was rapt with attention for our small story. I’m still pretty overwhelmed by the experience.
AG: Hearing them laugh and clap and gasp was surreal and magical. Every hair on my body was standing up. I was smiling and crying at the same time. We walked onstage to a standing ovation. I was so proud of us!
JT: At our second Sundance screening the next morning –
LAM: At 8:30 in the morning! I thought, “How does phone sex play at 8:30 in the morning?” Well, that screening may have played even better than the one the night before.
KAN: They broke out into applause; “You go, girl!”
JT: We had a group of self-proclaimed “suburban moms” who were sitting in the back. I could hear them hooting and hollering.
LAM: I’ve been most surprised by the women who are 45-65. They liked seeing our characters stand up for ourselves, rather than just go along with things. These women seem to freakin’ love our movie. After that morning screening, I went into the bathroom and there were so many women in that age range quoting dialogue and saying the most complimentary things!
JT: When we screened in Ann Arbor later that month, there were a lot of older people. One woman came up to me after the screening and told me that she was sitting next to this frail 90-year-old woman, and that she was concerned initially because she knew this movie was going to be a racy ride. Apparently, the 90-year-old woman was laughing hysterically the whole time. But people were also surprised by how much heart there is in our movie.
LAM: What it is is that, yes, our movie is raunchy but it’s presented in a sweet, accessible way. Women of that age can accept it more than other movies because they feel, “My friends and I are friends first, even though we say dirty things.” So they’re not offended by it.
KAN: It came up at Sundance; “This is just how I talk to my best friend,” or “I love the clothes!” Critics, regular people, people in the business…We couldn’t be more humbled by the response.
JT: I always knew women were going to like the film, but men are liking it much more than I expected. They may go in to see a raunchy phone sex movie, but they’ll also get their hearts warmed.
KAN: I’d say I’m a little surprised too by the male response. We knew that, because it was about sex, guys would laugh. I talked to so many guys after the Ann Arbor screening who thought the movie was hysterical. But they realized it’s not catering to them, because it has some emotional moments. So it’s something they haven’t seen.
AG: There’s something in it for everybody. To me, one of the gifts of cinema is to be able to forget about life for an hour and a half. Seeing a movie that is fun – those are the movies that I like to play over and over again when I’m laying in bed before I fall asleep, or on a rainy Saturday. I want people to go and laugh and then leave the theater feeling great, feeling happier than when they came in.
JT: It’s for adult audiences – but they don’t have to be “movie-savvy,” because this is an audience movie. It’s been nice to see how universal it is for audiences and I think that’s because its themes are ones of friendship and love. FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL... is also a celebration of women.
KAN: And a celebration of how women can fall in friend-love with each other, in a deep connection. It’s not “a movie by women, for women.” It’s a movie about women that transcends demographics. We wanted to give audiences a good time, hanging out with girls who are irreverent and real.
LAM: When I was in film school, I used to say that I wanted to make movies that made people think or feel in ways they hadn’t before. And that’s what we set out to do; I hope that people look at our movie and find an honest portrayal of female friendship – and laugh a lot, too.