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Screenwriter Angus MacLachlan (Junebug, Stone) makes his directorial debut with Goodbye to All That. The film follows Otto Wall (played masterfully by indie film vet Paul Schneider), a complacent man in his mid-30s who suddenly finds himself divorced by his wife of more than a decade (Melanie Lynskey) and forced to reevaluate his life and his relationship with his young daughter.
Also starring Heather Graham, Ashley Hinshaw, Anna Camp and Heather Lawless, Goodbye to All That is a relatable dramedy about finding yourself and your happiness in a world full of full of false starts and online connections.
We spoke to Angus MacLachlan and Paul Schneider together at TFF 2014 about the film, their collaboration, and why the urge of “not sucking” is a powerful motivator.
Tribeca: You’ve written screenplays like Junebug and Stone, but Goodbye to All That is the first movie you’ve written and directed. Did you write the script knowing that you wanted to direct the film?
Angus MacLachlan: No, not necessarily. I wrote it and then I gave it to Phil Morrison, whom I loved working with on Junebug. He said to me that the center of the film was the relationship between the father and the daughter. Since he doesn’t have any children and I do, he told me that I should direct the movie. After that, I gave the script to another director friend and he told me the same thing.
When finally the producers came on board, they said, “Who do you want to direct it?” I said if we could get someone like Phil, that would be great, but if not, I’m interested in directing it. And the rest is history!
At the end of the day, you just don’t want to suck.
Tribeca: Can you talk about the impetus behind the script? Have you had friends that have gone through a similar situation?
AM: I have actually. Many of my friends have gone through a variety of experiences with life post-divorce and would tell me all the funny, horrendous and painful details. I started taking notes and eventually wrote a script.
Tribeca: What do you think Goodbye to All That says about the ways in which modern society deals with love and relationships?
AM: All relationships have an electronic component now. It’s unavoidable. The main character Otto spies on his wife through Facebook. He’s on OK Cupid meeting women, contacting them via email and text messages.
That’s something very new from a man whose last date with a woman who wasn’t his wife was 15 years ago. Online dating and these online connections didn’t exist when he was younger. There is no standard thing of privacy anymore. Everyone knows everyone else’s business.
You can quickly make these connections that lead to hook ups and a few dates, but does that doesn’t guarantee any true intimacy? The scene with Mildred, played by Ashley Henshaw, in which she and Otto are sitting in two chairs and talking dirty is almost like virtual sex because they don’t touch. They could be anywhere doing it, but they happen to be in the same place.
However, the real point of the film is that we all want to be seen and be known. Everybody does. While Mildred and Otto’s relationship is mostly physical, she still says, “You make me feel pretty.” There’s a moment in all of Otto’s relationships where there is intense intimacy. I made sure that there was a shot with each of Otto’s women where they just really look at each other’s eyes, even if only for a second. There’s a real moment that passes without sentences.
I’ve come to realize that I might be at my most helpful as an actor when I am able to give the director and the editor as many flavors and options as possible.
Tribeca: Do each of these women represent a stage in Otto’s life that he’s missed out on by his marriage? Did you craft these characters according to their similarities and differences?
AM: Yeah, you think so?
Paul Schneider: I don’t think so.
AM: I don’t know if it’s stages, but I think one of the things we spoke about was all the sex was meant to be healing. In that sense, it is in stages. The first woman Otto sleeps with is an old girlfriend for a one-night stand; the second one is this younger woman who just wants to hook up and pushes him outside his comfort zone. Then there’s the third woman, Debbie Spangler [laughs], and she pushes him to have sex way, way out of his comfort zone.
However, none of the female characters are being used. It’s all of their own volition. They are equals and grownups. I think when you go through a big breakup after a serious relationship; you’re just sort of reeling. Maybe you just want something superficial for a while. When he re-meets his childhood love as an adult, played by Heather Lawless, they have an immediate on-the-phone intimacy. Maybe something he never even had with his wife. I think that’s when Otto begins to realize he might want something like that again.
Tribeca: Paul, Goodbye to All That feels like a return to form for you, since you got your start working in the American indie film scene. How did you come aboard the project?
PS: It was similar to the process with any other script. I have very discerning, tasteful agents, and they cast a very small, golden-spun net, and what gets through is the good stuff. This was one of the ones that got through. What attracted me to the script was the character of Otto and his very playable foibles. There’s actable stuff. His—clumsiness is not quite the word—but his oblivion when it comes to physical space is playable and doable.
I can’t act adjectives. I can do things that might give directors what they need, but I can’t just do what they want me to do when they say, “This guy, he’s a little ‘tweaked’ right here.” Well, I don’t know what “tweaked” means.
You can’t say, “I want happy. I want scared. I want funny,” because then you’re just going to mess up your actor/actress and you’re going to make the process untenable. If you ask for what you want—using adjectives and results—you’ll get a confused actor who feels evaluated and wants desperately to hit you’re bull’s-eye but doesn’t know where you hung the dartboard.
Tribeca: So just going off that, Angus, what was your approach to working with this talented group of actors?
AM: I was an actor myself, and I’ve actually directed several plays. So the one thing I felt confident about going into this was working with the actors. There were a lot of technical things that I thought I knew but had never done before because this was my first film. I had no qualms about working with the actors, speaking with them, and knowing that the best thing you can do is make them feel safe and able to trust you.
It’s amazing to me—it’s actually one of the things I learned by being the director this time— how much actors are at the mercy of the director who can truly make performances much better or much worse. If a director doesn’t have a distinct vision, as a film actor you really are flinging yourself into darkness because you can do things a lot of different ways. You just don’t know which one the director’s going to take. There is always the chance that your best work may end up on the floor.
So I felt my job was to be enthusiastic and make the actors feel safe. Sean Penn has said that when he acts he builds an unbreakable cage that he goes crazy inside of. So to me, that’s a safe environment where you know you’re not going to ultimately hurt yourself. As a director, you have to clue in very quickly to what the performers needs and how to handle them.
Tribeca: If you had to describe Angus in one word as a director, what would it be?
PS: One word is just too hard. The experience of a director who has also been an actor means a lot. At the end of the day, the actors are on the other side of the camera. And working with someone who has been there too means a lot in ways that are not really describable.
All relationships have an electronic component now. It’s unavoidable.
Tribeca: I couldn’t help but notice that you played a character in a similar situation in Away We Go. I think in a way, Otto is a sort of continuation of the Burt character. How did you approach the character of Otto? Did take anything from your performance as Burt?
PS: No, I don’t remember anything about Away We Go. [laughs] I didn’t need to do an enormous amount of inventing with either character. Every now and again, you read a script and you’re able to focus in on the character you’re meant to play. Sometimes, I might read the script and it’s fantastic, but when I look deeper into the character, I have no good ideas.
With Otto, I read the script and I could see how he might bonk his head on something, or how Amy Sedaris could corner him in the closet. For whatever reason, Goodbye to All That is one of the few scripts where ideas started coming to me. Like Angus said, I know that you can manipulate a performance. I studied film editing in film school. I’ve turned shitty performances into great ones through the magic of editing!
I think when actors really hem and haw about the “authorship” of their performance, they’re full of crap because there’s an enormous amount of manipulation involved. I’ve come to realize that I might be at my most helpful as an actor when I am able to give the director and the editor as many flavors and options as possible. I’ll give you A through G, if we have enough time. On this film, we had to do A through C. You know what I mean? [laughs] I fully understand that my performance is going to be shaped another day. There’s going to be a further draft of my performance.
It was not so much about me inventing Otto. It was more about me being there, listening, working within the time frame that we had, and trying to give as many reasonable and realistic options as possible.
The real point of the film is that we all want to be seen and be known. Everybody does.
Tribeca: One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Otto discovers his wife’s online transgressions and she says the great line says, “a woman has the right to be loved and known.” I just wanted to know how you approached writing that scene and working with Melanie on set.
AM: Melanie’s character is somewhat antagonistic, but I didn’t want people to think she was horrible. I wanted someone like Melanie, who is so likeable and vulnerable, to play Annie because you have the sense that you could tell the story from her point of view. As she sees it, there’s this oblivious man, she’s dying, and she said three years ago, “Let’s go to counseling” and he didn’t show up. She wanted something more. So she meets this guy, who looks at her and sees her. So what is she supposed to do?
PS: I like that scene a lot, actually. It was difficult to shoot on the day, but as I watch it now, there seems to be an ease to it, even though it’s tension filled and uncomfortable. Melanie and I just wanted it to be good. At the end of the day, you just don’t want to suck. [laughs] Your not sucking is a great motivator.