They say you can't go home again, but Parker Posey and Demi Moore try, in Mitchell Lichtenstein's family dramedy Happy Tears.
Writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein’s second feature Happy Tears is best described as a family dramedy (thus the title). While there are lots of comedic moments, at heart it’s a family drama with universal themes: the ups and downs of marriage, the push and pull of one’s childhood home, the complicated layers found in sibling rivalry, and the agony of the aging process.
When their father in Pittsburgh careens into increasing stages of dementia, sisters Jayne (Parker Posey) and Laura (Demi Moore) fly from their respective homes in San Francisco to assess the situation. What they find is a cantankerous coot of an old man (a priceless Rip Torn) with a drug-addicted floozy of a girlfriend (Ellen Barkin, brilliantly cast against type), shacked up in the well-worn family homestead. Oh yeah, and there may be a treasure buried in the backyard.
In the 8 years since the death of their mother, the sisters have led parallel but different lives. Jayne is a free spirit with both a lot of money and fertility issues; her money comes from her husband Jackson (Christian Camargo), whose late father was a famous and successful artist. Jackson may be on the verge of losing his mind, possibly due to the pressures of running his father’s complex estate. Laura, on the other hand, is a maternal type with a husband and three kids; she’s very grounded, but being totally strapped for cash has left her resentful of her carefree sister. The sisters are close, but they have diametrically opposite ways of viewing the world. (Let’s just say Jayne’s outlook is much more myopic.)
Tribeca sat down with Lichtenstein—also the son of a seminal artist, Roy Lichtenstein—to discuss the genesis of the script, the casting process, and just why he is so good at writing female characters.
Tribeca Film: What made you want to tell this story?
Mitchell Lichtenstein: It started with this idea of the character Parker plays, who has trouble facing reality, or difficult realities, and that is probably autobiographical. I mean, I don’t go off into psychedelic meditation [as her character does], but my first instinct is to avoid difficult situations. [laughs] So it started with that germ of a character, and then there were events in my extended family that were pretty amusing that could be woven in with this type of character. It all sort of came together and then grew into a family with dynamics that were interesting to me.
Tribeca Film: Are there particular things that inspired particular elements, like a generation facing or not facing, as you say, the realities of aging parents?
ML: Well, that came out of partly my experience—my mother had dementia when she was quite young (not the kind you see in the movie) so I had to deal with that a bit—and also with experiences people in my life are dealing with too. And without being too specific, there was someone I know who did bury gold in his backyard, which when they sold the house, they dug up the backyard to find.
Tribeca Film: That’s kind of fascinating.
ML: That was an interesting family…
Tribeca Film: Do you have sisters? As a woman with a sister, the relationship between the two women felt very on point: they were so comfortable and affectionate with each other, despite their issues. It’s amazing that, as a man, you were able to write such a relationship. Would it have been very different to write brothers?
ML: I think the dynamic would be very different—I don’t think you could just substitute men for those parts; it would be weird. [laughs] For whatever reason, I am more comfortable writing women characters; in my first movie, Teeth, the main character was also a woman. I’m going to have to talk to my shrink about that.
Tribeca Film: Can you talk a bit about casting? I wouldn’t have pictured Parker Posey and Demi Moore as sisters, but it’s so right on!
ML: Once I started thinking about casting, I immediately thought of Parker, and knew she had to play the part, and she luckily responded well to the script. Once we had her on board, it was about finding someone who was a good balance for her emotionally and also someone who could conceivably look like her sister. I thought of Demi because Parker’s character is pretty flighty and doesn’t face reality, and Demi has a very grounded way about her—very sensible, commanding, and authoritative, and she’s the one who’s kind of in control of things. So I thought she was perfect for the part.
Besides all those personal qualities, it was also interesting to me to think of the two of them in a movie together, because they are from opposite ends of Hollywood. One cool thing about casting is that if you are casting known quantities, you do think about—who are two people you would want together? To me, I thought I would just be intrigued to see how those two related on screen.
Tribeca Film: It was nice to see Demi in such an earthy, maternal, kind of Bohemian role. I’m trying to think—she was a mother in Striptease (with her own daughter)—
ML: —But that wasn’t the most maternal role! [laughs]
Tribeca Film: Exactly! What drew you to the other actors—Rip Torn, Ellen Barkin, Christian Camargo?
ML: Ellen—once I thought of her, I couldn’t get her out of my head. I didn’t know what she would do with the part, but I thought she would be really hilarious. I just liked the idea of her looking like hell, because she’s a glamorous type, and I knew if it turned out that she was interested in it, she would go for it 110%. It was clear that she would have to look like hell, just from what was on the page, but she went so much further than I would have hoped. She put yellow makeup stuff on her teeth. There were some things that were scripted—the bad wig, etc.—but the teeth were her idea.
Well, Rip is just perfect for the part. He came in and met us, and was really into it. It’s hard to picture anyone else now, for me, because he is as irascible as the character. He’s a great dramatic actor—he’s real—but also really funny, as we see on 30 Rock and other comedies.
For Jackson, Christian just was really the most soulful [person we met]—that’s what drew me to him. He doesn’t have a lot of scenes, and he has to carry a lot in a short period of screen time, but I think you very quickly feel for him, and he has an intelligence that comes across. You had to be able to see see why Parker was with him—he’s kind of a wreck, but she’s a wreck too, so maybe that’s why their relationship works. Tribeca Film: You have said that the character of Jackson—the son of a famous artist—is not YOU. So why did you include a character who (kind of) fits your demographic?
ML: He’s not me, but the way the character developed was me thinking, when my father died—and I had a really good relationship with him—but what if I had some sort of unfinished business and I felt like I had to prove something to him? There is a ton of work to do with his estate, dealing with exhibitions, etc., and what if I felt like I had to oversee that because I had to prove my worth and value? [I thought about] a) how unsuited I would be to that work, and b) how overwhelming the task would be. We have a foundation that deals with that, and they are great, and they know what they are doing, but the character really came out of exploring what would happen if there was no one else to do it or I felt some emotional reasons that I had to do it.
ML: It does, I’m sure, because I have some inkling of what they are going through. What the actors are doing is what’s most interesting to me as a filmmaker—capturing moments—so I am influenced by that, having done it. Some directors, including some that I’ve worked with, can be hamfisted in their direction, or their whole approach. Hopefully, I am not that way, but I can instead see when they are struggling and have some help to offer.
Tribeca Film: As a writer/director, are you able to let the actors take the script and do other things with them? Or because you wrote the script, are you more wedded to what’s on the page?
ML: Since I have only directed my own stuff, I don’t know what the difference would be. I’d be eager to direct someone else’s script and find out. In neither Teeth nor Happy Tears did we really do any improvising. I love Mike Leigh, and I love movies that feel that way, but—and I hope that’s just not the writer talking—but I don’t think they are stylistically suited to improvising. That said, Rip had some suggestions about changing some lines, and they were almost always better.
Tribeca Film: Happy Tears is also the title of one of your father’s paintings. What does the title mean to you?
ML: I think it reflects the fact that most moments in life are unalloyed—nothing is all happy or all misery. A lot of scenes in the movie, especially with Parker’s character, are funny, but also sad, or touching. There’s a scene in the movie where Parker is laughing really hard, but at first you think she’s crying. Life has a lot of moments like that.
Tribeca Film: Happy Tears is your second feature. How have you grown as a filmmaker?
ML: Well, when I started my first film [the short film Resurrection], I knew nothing. So hopefully I’ve grown a lot since then. [laughs] On Teeth, the cast was mostly unknown actors who didn’t have a lot of filmmaking experience, so we learned together, and that turned out all right. What I think that gave me, mostly, was the confidence to work with such accomplished actors this time around.
Tribeca Film: Happy Tears has played at a number of festivals. Can you tell us about the most meaningful screening for you?
ML: I guess I would have to say the premiere at Berlin last year, because that was the first time I saw the film with a real audience, not just family and friends and those who worked on the movie. It was gratifying to see that the audience—and an international one at that—laughed in all the right places.