Published in 2006 to glowing reviews, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, authored by Ned Vizzini, was kind of a funny story – the semi-autobiographical account of a teenager’s stay in a psychiatric hospital. Striking a chord with readers, the young-adult novel went on to win several awards.
Producer Kevin Misher felt that the book’s unpredictable, engaging story would translate into a movie that young audiences would relate to. “Ned’s skill at capturing the humorous incongruity of the young man’s situation is remarkable,” says Misher. “Because Ned’s is an authentic voice, his teenage hero’s uncertainties, vulnerabilities, and appeal are all the more convincing – and entertaining.”
Sharing the novel with staff at his production company Misher Films, Misher found Vizzini’s story connected with former teenagers as well. He offers, “There are people at my company who are in their mid-40s, mid-30s and mid-20s. Everyone felt like it spoke to the teenager in them.”
Vizzini comments, “The book is from my own life. I’ve always been able to remember what it was like to be in high school, because I feel it was a very primal social arena. Real emotions come to the forefront in high school. When I write, I just try and not filter any of that, which I think readers appreciate. I also try very hard to have something funny on every page. If you keep people laughing, they will stick around.”
For the book, Vizzini drew from his high school memories as well as his stay in a psychiatric hospital when he was in his early 20s. The latter came about because of the pressures of writing another book after his successful debut novel, Be More Chill.
He remembers, “I called up a hotline number and I was told, ‘If you’re on medication and you’re feeling suicidal, sir, you have to go to the hospital,’ so I found myself in a hospital.”
Inspiration struck, and that experience quickly became his second novel. Vizzini made a few changes to fictionalize his own story. He offers, “It’s about 85% true. I made the main character 15 years old, and I added the love triangle; I did not meet anyone, romantically speaking, at the hospital.
“I’m indebted to the people I did meet and get to know at the hospital, and I’m indebted to friends who gave me stories that became part of It’s Kind of a Funny Story.”
Once he secured the rights, Misher sent Vizzini’s book to the filmmaking team of writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Misher notes, “Since Ned’s book spoke to the teen audience, what we wanted to do was find talented filmmakers who would find a way to make the film with a comparably authentic voice.
“What this team did in [their earlier features] Half Nelson and Sugar was to take a world that a general audience may not be privy to, and give it a verisimilitude.”
The filmmaking team loved the book right away. Fleck remembers, “We saw how it could be a movie. Although it was different than anything we had ever even considered, we said, ‘Let’s do it.’
“Anna and I loved the character of Craig. He’s so open and honest in a way that we weren’t used to seeing in teen characters. In our films, we like to explore characters struggling to find their place in the world, and Craig is doing just that.”
Boden adds, “Adding to Craig’s appeal was that he’s a character who has a self-deprecating sense of a humor – rather than the ironic edge we see so often in books and movies about teenagers.
“Once inside the hospital, he meets a unique group of patients – unlike people he’s used to in his everyday life. Through his interactions with these patients, Craig’s perspective on his own problems changes and he begins to feel that, with some help from his family and friends, he can embrace his life instead of escaping it.”
Journeyman Pictures’ Jeremy Kipp Walker, a producer on both Half Nelson and Sugar, and executive producer of It’s Kind of a Funny Story, remarks, “What’s consistent with Ryan and Anna’s other films is the sense of truth in their human portrayals.”
Of what draws them to the stories they tell, Boden offers, “I think that we’re interested in people who have an opportunity to reinvent themselves. Teenagers have to reinvent themselves, because that’s what you do when you grow older, but even the characters in our movies who aren’t teenagers are going through a transformation.”
Boden and Fleck spent two years adapting the book, using as their touchstone and guide the work of a writer/director whose movies had spoken to them when they were teenagers – the late John Hughes, whose celebrated films include The Breakfast Club. “We tried to make a movie that we would have wanted to see as 15-16-year-olds,” explains Fleck.
Boden adds, “What was amazing about John Hughes’ movies is how perfectly they captured all that it was to be a teenager – the awkwardness, the anger, the vulnerability – and he was able to do it in an entertaining way, with humor, that didn’t talk down to its audience. In Craig’s story, we saw the possibility of revisiting that world, which was both authentic and exaggerated, weighty and fun – the world as teenagers experience it.”
Misher remarks, “What struck me reading the book was that it’s a different kind of modern coming-of-age story, yet not unlike some of John Hughes’ movies in tone. Today, there are pressures and anxieties not foreseen back then; it’s much harder being a kid, much more difficult to succeed and live up to the expectations of parents anxious for you to accomplish something. Out of such angst, of course, oftentimes comes humor, and that’s what made this story so right for a movie.”
Producer Ben Browning and his Wayfare Entertainment were encouraged to sign on after Browning read the script in 2008. He comments, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story doesn’t condescend to anybody, yet finds its comedy in character. It’s a warm and humanistic film, emotional and with a lot of laughs. That’s the type of picture that rarely gets made any more.
“Through the prism of this interesting place, Craig finds himself. Whether kids or adults, we all can get caught up in the stresses of our everyday lives and not have the objectivity to truly understand the weight of our own problems –and to understand the blessings that we do have.”
The movie version was coming together – and with the full blessing of the book’s author. Vizzini marvels, “Right from the get-go it was clear that Ryan and Anna understood the book. They considered things in the story that I hadn’t. The script became this beast that they built, and I was so pleased with the results.”
Boden reports, “Ned has been so supportive. Ryan and I would refer to the book, figure out what was the core of a given scene, and write. At a certain point, we felt we had digested everything that was in the book, so our script took on a little more of its own form.”
Fleck adds, “There’s lots of scenes from the book that have made it into the movie – but there’s a lot of new stuff, too.”
After the adaptation, the task of casting the (now 16-year-old) lead character was the writer/directors’ most considerable – and considered – challenge. Boden reflects, “It was important for us to have someone age-appropriate. This was the role we focused the most on; we were concerned about getting the right actor, somebody who was able to handle the drama and the comedy, and somebody who didn’t feel older than the teenager he would be playing. Our casting director Cindy Tolan looked at hundreds and hundreds of tapes.”
“That was hard work, finding our Craig,” says Browning. “But I knew that these two had a great history of finding less experienced – or less well-known – actors to embody the roles.”
Boden and Fleck saw self-submitted footage of Keir Gilchrist, the then-17-year-old actor best known for playing the teenaged son on the hit series United States of Tara, and “thought, ‘This could be Craig,’” remembers Boden. “Keir was exactly what we imagined when we were reading the book and writing the script.”
Misher elaborates, “The intent was to cast somebody in the space between Matthew Broderick and Anthony Michael Hall, who were the classic John Hughes [movies’] leading men; somebody whom you could feel was going through many of the very experiences the character was going through.
“Keir embodies those qualities; he’s a cute kid but he’s also in that late-teen stage, trying to figure out where he fits in the world.”
Browning adds, “You see that in his eyes; you see that in his body language.”
Boden notes, “Something happens in the ages of 16-18; young adults turn into adults. It was refreshing to be working with someone still finding who he is as an actor.”
Vizzini was relieved that the actor was not “in his 20s playing a teenager. Keir is able to do a lot with his face to make you feel that he’s coming from deep places emotionally. He brings out a lot in Craig, and is true to the character.”
Gilchrist says, “I think anyone who was in high school can relate to Craig and the feelings he has; I definitely can.
“The script was fantastic. When I read it, I saw that there would be a lot of scenes I wanted to play.”
Zach Galifianakis, one of today’s most distinctive comedic actors, was suggested to Fleck and Boden for the central role of Bobby, which the writer/directors had expanded from the book. Bobby is the fellow patient who takes the younger Craig under his wing – and vice versa – as they navigate the insular world of 3 North, the adult psychiatric ward at Argenon Hospital.
Fleck notes, “We saw The Hangover and looked at some of his stand-up comedy, so we knew he was funny. He has the ‘Is this guy for real?’ quality that the role of Bobby required.
“But, in meeting with Zach, Anna and I saw something in his personality that we didn’t see in his comedy. Who Zach was – when just sitting down for a beer with us – was so much of who we imagined Bobby to be. The Zach that we met was someone we liked, and felt we hadn’t seen before.”
Indeed, Galifianakis saw It’s Kind of a Funny Story as a chance to play a role unlike any he had previously tackled; “As a stand-up comic and someone who is goofy in movies from time to time, it’s nice to try something different – while still playing goofy, I guess.
“I do think we’re all a little bit off-kilter in our own way. Everybody has got an issue, whether they want to admit it or not.”
Galifianakis pegs his character as having “bouts of questioning his own reality, so he goes in and out of moods, and up and down. Anna and Ryan and I had conversations about Bobby, discussing how functional he is.
“Bobby and Craig aside, Keir Gilchrist is much more mature than I am in real life. It would have been nice to have been that level-headed and smart when I was his age.”
Through befriending and being mentored by Bobby, Craig glimpses grown-up problems; finding work, and being able to see one’s own daughter.
In Noelle – the other 16-year-old displaced to 3 North – Craig sees a potential kindred sprit. Noelle displays a tough exterior to Craig when they first meet.
Rising young star Emma Roberts felt that she had a handle on the role and its contradictions, commenting, “Noelle is highly sarcastic, yet she’s cautious when it comes to other people. I can be like that at times. She’s introverted but at the same time outgoing – and not afraid to say what she thinks…or to leave notes about what she thinks.
“It’s Kind of a Funny Story is one of my favorite books. When I got the call to come in and meet about being in it, I was so excited because I already had an attachment to Noelle. She is one of my dream roles.”
Being a fan of the book, Roberts was also glad that Gilchrist was cast, noting, “Keir is perfect for the part of Craig – and I think we had a good chemistry going on. He’s a cool kid!”
The other young woman’s role – Nia, the beautiful charmer from school with whom Craig has long been infatuated – went to Zoë Kravitz. Fleck enthuses, “She was by far the best person for the part. She’s got this exotic quality, but she’s also totally friendly.”
In her audition, Kravitz had revealed a more playful side. She confides, “I acted kind of ditzy, and exaggerated a bit; I think they thought it was funny. But I ended up not playing Nia as ditzy as I did in the audition; I did base her on people I know or have met.”
Kravitz saw that she would have to play up the contrast between the two women Craig is drawn to. She notes, “Noelle doesn’t care much about her appearance, while Nia definitely thinks about that. She’s a little trendy/sexy, and all about looking a bit over the top.”
Two actors adept at mining comedy from drama, and drama from comedy, were tapped to portray Craig’s parents. Given his ongoing work on United States of Tara, “I’ve had good luck with actors playing my parents,” notes Gilchrist. “Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan turned out to be great at improv – hilarious, really. You’d expect that from Jim, but Lauren’s on her game too!”
“I’ve been a fan of Jim’s comedy for a while,” reveals Fleck. “He can do dramatic stuff, too, and he needed to handle both well here.”
Gaffigan comments, “What interested me about this story is that the situations are allowed to be funny, or not.”
Of Graham, Boden says, “She is able to bring a grounded, weighty presence – and to balance that with great comedic timing. Lauren can find the lighter moments.”
Graham remarks, “In a comedic way, It’s Kind of a Funny Story explores how an outsider becomes part of a community, and learns a lot about himself.”
Craig is tended to by empathetic hospital therapist Dr. Minerva, played by Academy Award nominee Viola Davis. The actress read the script and found it “charming – and very honest. I recognized the angst of adolescence and growing up, the teen years of trying to figure out your place in the world and how to process all the complexities of life.
“In admitting that he can’t handle what’s coming at him, Craig does something progressive in getting help. With his trust, my character leads him through this path of realization that none of these issues in life will change; the only thing that can change is him, and how he approaches these issues.”
With the casting process having netted such veteran actors as Novella Nelson and Lou Myers to play other patients at the hospital, Browning praises the ensemble as “diverse ethnically, culturally, and in terms of the acting backgrounds. As a mix, it felt absolutely right for what we were trying to achieve with the picture.”
Vizzini, who had based the story’s characters on the real people that he met in the hospital, proclaims himself to be “happy with everybody they cast!”
Fleck says, “We’re used to working with people who haven’t had that much acting experience, and on this movie everybody was a well-established actor. A lot of surprises happened, as things that we might not have thought of came up or were suggested.
“At some points, we’d urge people to do something completely different just to see what happens…”
To that end, Fleck praises Galifianakis as having given “a performance that will surprise a lot of people.”
Boden notes that “Zach surprised us not only in terms of improvising some comedic moments – which he did – but also in terms of more dramatic scenes. He’s a very spontaneous actor, and he took on the different colors of his character.”
The actors were called upon to interact before filming even began. Boden and Fleck arranged extensive rehearsals, ensuring that the actors cast as Craig’s peers and friends outside of the hospital would get to know one another prior to filming.
Kravitz further reveals, “Ryan and Anna had us hang out; they didn’t want it to seem like we didn’t know each other, since we were playing this group of friends. They took us to brunch, and we rehearsed some scenes. We talked a lot about the characters and dynamic in the group. Keir Gilchrist always made it fun.”
Fleck in turn credits Kravitz with helping her fellow actors become more comfortable. He notes, “Many of the teenagers playing Nia’s friends were intimidated that they were going to meet her. She walked into a room to join them, and it was like she had known them all for years. Zoë has a great disarming quality.”
Galifianakis, tongue back in cheek, notes that he did not participate; “I’m always iffy about hanging out with teenagers or even being near them. If I see a teenager on the subway, or a pack of them, I’ll go to another car…
“I’m not sure how old Emma Roberts is, but it doesn’t matter; she looks like a teenager, so I stayed far away from her except for interacting on camera.”
Also prior to the official start of filming, Fleck and Boden enlisted their returning cinematographer Andrij Parekh to shoot some additional footage of Gilchrist with the actors playing Craig’s non-hospital friends. Not mere rehearsal footage, the scenes were earmarked for inclusion in the finished film. Parekh explains, “We went out a week before principal photography. I had just a 16-millimeter camera, so that allowed the kids to bond. Spending time with them, shooting on Coney Island and around New York City – it helped create their back story.”
Misher notes that the research done was “rigorous. For example, could an adult unit in a hospital accept underage minors? Yes.”
In another initiative, Boden and Fleck led rehearsals with those cast members playing hospital patients and staff, some of whom also did their own research into their roles. Roberts was active in rehearsals, and also took the homework aspect seriously, “reading up on mental hospitals, and reading memoirs about what they’re like. I also spoke with a friend who had been in one.
“Anna and Ryan and I came up with a back story for Noelle, including that she has been in the hospital for almost a month when Craig gets there. They were also receptive to lightening my hair for the part, which I think conveys how any girl can be going through these things. All of this helped me make the character more my own.”
Gilchrist, while joining in rehearsals, “didn’t do research because I didn’t think Craig would have any idea of what it was like in such a place. I felt that was the appropriate way to go.”
While Galifianakis was unable to join the rehearsals because he was working in New Mexico, he made sure to do research there. “I visited a couple of facilities,” he says. “One was in Albuquerque, kind of a halfway house, and one was a state facility. I observed, asked questions and took some notes.
“It was eye-opening. The state facility, which was lacking in funding, had a lot of lost souls. But the Albuquerque place’s people were so friendly and nice; it seemed like a family atmosphere.”
Back in Brooklyn, the It’s Kind of a Funny Story cast and crew was treated to a screening of John Hughes’ classic The Breakfast Club a few days before filming began. “That picture was the tonal model for our movie,” admits Misher. “Personally and professionally, Ryan and Anna were intent on capturing what kids feel and go through.”
Principal photography began in early December 2009, in Brooklyn. The New York City borough is not only the setting of Vizzini’s novel and the screen adaptation; it is also the home base of Vizzini, Boden, Fleck, and Browning. The latter reports, “Almost all of the crew is also from Brooklyn, so we have a geographic and cultural center that is an underpinning for the movie.”
Fleck notes, “As we were writing the movie, it became more and more a part of the story. So we added in Brooklyn scenes that hadn’t been in the book.”
Davis, who has worked throughout NYC, states, “There’s something about Brooklyn that is alive, hard yet real, and which brings this story to life.”
Early in the filming schedule, the production sought to utilize the Brooklyn Bridge, the iconic span linking the outer borough to Manhattan.
Misher reveals, “New York City is particularly film-friendly these days. But we weren’t able to close down the Brooklyn Bridge, because we were a smaller film.”
As it was too crucial a scene to do without, the production shot for two days and nights – even while the Bridge was fully operational and in use. Misher notes, “We had to see Craig on the lip of the Bridge, looking over the precipice, where he makes his decision; ‘This is not the way I want to go’.”
Ned Vizzini says that the scene is “maybe my favorite from the book,” and made a point of visiting during the shooting, meeting Keir Gilchrist for the first time.
Remaining entirely in Brooklyn, the six-week filming schedule further spanned a Hasidic section of Williamsburg; industrial Greenpoint; and Bay Ridge, next to the Verrazano [-Narrows] Bridge – itself the site of another memorable precipice sequence, in Saturday Night Fever. “Except for two days, we shot entirely in practical locations,” says Walker.
The production almost did venture beyond the borough for a real-life hospital that would play its fictional Argenon Hospital. Fleck reveals, “Our location manager Jeff Brown scouted them and not just in Brooklyn, but on Roosevelt Island, in Manhattan, the Bronx…”
Ultimately, the production selected Victory Memorial Hospital, in Bay Ridge, and was there for more than half of the shoot. Victory had the advantage of offering an entire floor in an unused wing to fill in for Argenon, so cast and crew could collaborate in a protected environment.
“Victory had everything we needed,” marvels Fleck. “Spacious hallways, lots of rooms, the right feel…production designer Beth Mickle came in with her team and did a lot of terrific work.”
Boden comments, “Having worked with Beth and Andrij on both of our previous movies, it’s now a fairly organic process by which we get together with them and discuss what we hope to create.
“They are both extremely enthusiastic people – which means a lot when you’re exhausted and need to get energized again in the process of making a movie.”
One key concern of the filmmakers was that Argenon not be an antiseptic, dreary place. Fleck says, “We did not want to show a harsh, cold institution that people were stuck in. So there are curtains, posters, artwork on the walls.”
Boden notes, “Beth added a lot of wood tones to warm things up. We let her come up with ideas – and color palettes – and then would talk it over afterwards.”
Mickle comments, “We wanted it to be a welcoming space for Craig when he lands there.”
Parts of Argenon had to be created outside of Victory; filming was also done at the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood’s YMCA, when Craig plays basketball with Bobby. Woodhull Medical Center in East Williamsburg provided the setting for the roof and exterior of Argenon. Finally, Wyckoff Heights Medical Center provided the emergency room.
The scenes of Craig’s house were filmed in a private home in the residential Windsor Terrace neighborhood, while the scenes in Craig’s high school were shot at Poly Prep Country Day, a school just across the street from Victory.
Complementing all the Brooklyn locales, one of the film’s key locations is not even a tangible place. “Craig’s imagination is a setting as well,” explains Misher. “What Ned’s book did, and what Ryan and Anna certainly wanted to do, was to take you inside the mind of a teenager.”
Accordingly, Craig’s drawings, or “brain maps,” serve as an animated entrée into his vivid imagination and bring the audience more insight into the character. Inspired by the book’s original cover, Curious Pictures, a New York-based company specializing in animation, design, and graphics, produced the sequences. Animation/paintings creative supervisor Dominie Mahl recruited Brian Drucker, an artist with a background in architecture, to submit an illustration for consideration.
Following approval of the initial submission, Drucker “talked through the script with the filmmakers, the different drawings and what they meant to Craig, and the tone needed for them all.”
The animator adds, “This story affected me, so I wanted to keep a human scale and touch to the drawings. I drew by hand, then colored in with the computer and built up everything into three dimensions.”
Mahl elaborates, “Given Craig’s age, we had to make sure that the work was done to display natural talent but not years of experience. Given the particular stage of his life that he’s in, the colors had to be more thoughtful than perky. This artwork comes forth as something of a revelation for Craig.”
Boden comments, “With his drawings, Craig rediscovers a hidden artistic talent – and is encouraged to do so by his fellow patients and through art therapy.”
There are also live-action flights of fancy through Craig’s mind, such as when he fantasizes Nia luxuriating in a sunken bathtub.
But the biggest sequence set in Craig’s head comes during a music therapy session when he is asked to sing lead vocals on the Queen/David Bowie classic song “Under Pressure.” Craig gets up to sing, but lets his imagination go wild; he envisions an elaborate musical number for the entire group in glam-rock attire, rocking out on stage amidst dazzling lights.
Roberts finds the sequence to be both “a colorful, amazing production number and a window into who the characters are, what they’re like on the inside.”
Vizzini notes, “They’re letting out their individual demons.” The author had been part of a similar scene in real life that found its way into the book, but the movie takes it a step further into the realm of fantasy and “Under Pressure” was specifically scripted in by the writer/directors.
Boden remarks, “We took it in that direction because it’s part of Craig’s spirit; he’s started to become more comfortable in the ward, and within this fantasy we see a real confidence which exists in him, and which Keir captures. It’s a quality of Craig’s that builds through subsequent scenes in the hospital.
“In getting together with these patients, he lets out a part of himself that is inhibited – and exercises his imagination.”
So it is that Emma Roberts’ character of Noelle, on guitar, is seen in a body-hugging iridescent leotard with a blue feather jacket; Zach Galifianakis’ Bobby becomes a purple velvet cape-garbed pianist with star-sparkles in his beard. Not quite typical rock stars, these are still recognizably the people looming large in Craig’s hospital life.
Gilchrist enthuses, “We’re super-glammed-up and rocking hard! It was the sequence that everyone was stoked to be doing. How often do you get to play a big musical fantasy number?”
The sequence required extensive preparation that included, but was hardly limited to, Mickle overseeing the construction of a wedding cake-like stage; the building of a full rock concert lighting set-up with a wall of 2,700 dimmer-controlled light bulbs; securing drums, keyboards, a grand piano, a bass, and a microphone stand; rehearsals with cast and crew on days off from filming; and weeks of work for the film’s costume designers Kurt & Bart.
The latter were well-qualified for the sequence; the duo previously designed costumes for the Las Vegas extravaganza Storm, and have worked with such music icons as “Under Pressure” performer David Bowie himself.
Remembering Bowie’s own persona of the era, Kurt admits, “The glam-rock ethos was a challenge because these are not your typical leonine rock stars; they’re a mishmash of people all coming together on a stage.”
Bart adds, “We tried to have things for the characters to wear in the hospital that we could maybe amplify when they’re ‘on stage’ for this number. During the song, they are not bound by rules and they are really enjoying themselves and enjoying life again.”
The number was shot in just one “pressure”-packed day, reflecting not only the meticulous planning but also the way Boden and Fleck approach the making of their movies. Browning remarks, “Before they get on the set, they’ve addressed every question about the script; they’ve already seen the movie in their head. Ryan and Anna are collaborative – they work together on the questions both big and small. You see the result in the intelligence of the films they make.
“They have an absolutely unified vision for what they want, and I think that’s one of their strengths as filmmakers.”
Gilchrist agrees, stating, “It is like they’ve got everything figured out. Before I started, I wondered how this would work – but once on set, I totally understood. I don’t think I ever saw them argue.”
Misher marvels, “They finish each other’s sentences – talking to one of them is like talking to both of them. They speak with, and as, one voice. As a unit, they are the filmmaker.”
Walker, after three films with the duo, says from experience that “Anna and Ryan are actors’ directors; they love working with actors.”
Davis found the shoot “to be the most relaxing, and the most conducive to creativity, that I have ever been a part of. These accomplished writer/directors created an environment that made me feel like I belonged.”
“They’re always coming up with new and fresh ideas,” adds Roberts. “What I liked is that you get a male and a female perspective, which was particularly important on this movie, since we had a strong male cast as well as a strong female cast.”
Galifianakis dryly notes, “It’s tough to ignore two directors; usually it’s just one, easier to ignore.
“I was curious as to just how this would work, but they’re in tandem. This movie, like all their movies, shows their sensitivity.”
In telling a compassionate story about teenagers, Fleck and Boden found that they had cast a wider net for the adult characters. So, Boden says, “I hope audiences have fun meeting a wide range of people – and relating to them.”
Fleck muses, “People will hopefully feel uplifted at the end – and ponder what’s going to happen next for these characters.”
Vizzini says, “I hope that teenagers and parents who are going through things themselves will feel less alone after seeing it – and will have genuinely laughed a lot.”
Gilchrist adds, “First and foremost, It’s Kind of a Funny Story is entertaining. But we also made it so that people will be able to connect with it.”
After Craig’s five days in the hospital, he gains a new outlook on life. Davis says, “He goes back into the world with a more strengthened knowledge of, and a confidence in, who he is. At the ripe old age of 16, he learns something that even a lot of 70-year-olds don’t learn; you can’t go through life alone. It’s a group effort.”