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Making the Specific Feel Universal: Lorene Scafaria on “The Meddler”

Lorene Scafaria’s second film, “The Meddler,” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, and is expanding this weekend after opening in limited release on April 22. The deeply personal film stars Susan Sarandon as Marnie, a woman who moves from New Jersey to Los Angeles after the death of her husband. She also becomes a little overly involved in the life of her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne). When Lori leaves to work a job in NYC, Marnie has to figure out life without her husband and daughter being around. The result is a delicate, nuanced study of grief, carried by a fantastic performance from Sarandon, and strong supporting work from Byrne and J.K. Simmons. Scafaria recently sat down with us in Chicago to discuss her mother, grief, and how hard it is to get a movie like this made.

The first question most people will have without knowing about the background of the film will be "How much of this is you?"

It’s me. It’s my mom more than me. She moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles after my father passed away.

When was that?

Six-and-a-half years ago. 2009. I didn’t start to feel good until year five. The fifth anniversary was the first time I was OK. It felt like a mark in some way. My mom is a bit of a meddler, certainly. Got herself a phone right away and started calling me on it a lot. I was more interested in telling the story of the two of us grieving in different ways. I thought the way she handled herself was so beautiful and optimistic, and I was not. I was just in anger and depression. She was somehow in denial and acceptance at the exact same time. It was bothersome and yet beautiful to me. The first year after someone dies, Joan Didion was right. There’s the “Year of Magical Thinking.” I was looking around. Every time I would see a hummingbird, I would think someone was watching over me. Year one to two, it’s like “Nope. There’s no magic in here.” There wasn’t anything and this person was truly gone and not coming back and now it was just the two of us. Friends go back to work and you have to try to figure out a way to put one foot in front of the other. That was all very real.

It’s interesting that you include very little of the magical element in the film, in that it would be tempting to have her talking to her husband more, but you keep it focused on the present.

I think Marnie likes mentioning and talking about daddy and Lori doesn’t like doing that at all. The only times that Lori does do it is regarding the ashes and the headstone—things that would provide her the closure that she needs, but would be the exact opposite of what her mother wants and needs. They’re both in such different places about it. I didn’t want anything to be expositional, really. I didn’t want any of the characters to say anything they wouldn’t normally say.

Is it tough to be so personal? A lot of filmmakers never make a film this personal, much less for the second film.

That’s funny. I did feel like [Lorene’s first film] “Seeking a Friend [For the End of the World]“ was personal, even though it was so high concept. I guess maybe because it didn’t do that well, I was wondering, “Do I get less personal? Do I have her solving crimes?” I had been writing this since 2010. A year before we made “Seeking a Friend” and two years before it came out.

Right after he passed.

Right after he passed. The opening sequence of her walking around The Grove and leaving that message never changed. That was basically what it was since June of 2010, a month after my mom was there officially. Once “Seeking a Friend” was received a certain way, and, of course, I did take it personally, I was like, “You know what? As an act of rebellion, I’m going to get even more personal” [laughs].

Not the way a lot of people would go.

Maybe not. [Laughs]. We’ll just dig deeper. And I wasn’t sure how personal I would get as I was writing it, but you know. You have to write your character’s search history and I was like “Alright, how honest am I going to get?" [laughs].

You weren’t scared at all?

I wasn’t that scared because I feel like people have gone through similar things. Of course, we’re the meanest to people we love the most and the people who love us unconditionally, especially our moms. We turn into total brats around them. I felt like I had to be as honest about how mean I could be as much as how she could be annoying sometimes. Because I was trying to tell her story, I didn’t want Lori to be a victim. I felt like it was more important to show the mom’s side of it than anything else. It was scary on paper, especially right after it—show an ex-boyfriend [laughs]. And certainly my mom. Once we were making it, we’re all there to make a film. Yes, there are so many personal elements—my mom’s tops from Chicos, that’s my dad’s car and his license and his pictures. So many of the elements and details were SO personal, but, while we there, it just felt like work, in the best way. I mean I shed some tears in some scenes and was moved on the day, but it’s more personal now [laughs]. And bizarre. My mom and I are, as usual, experiencing things differently.

How’s she experiencing it?

She’s having the time of her life. It’s her favorite movie. She and her friends are just going, “Aren’t we nuts? Aren’t moms crazy?” Oh my God. I can’t believe she’s going around town talking about this stuff.

For a lot of people, this would have been a two-hander, a mom-and-daughter story, but I found it interesting that Lori basically disappears at the end of the first act and it becomes Marnie’s story. Can you talk about that?

For the two years that I was trying to get this made, that was the biggest note. “Make them younger. Bring the love interest in sooner.” That also would have gone against other points of the movie. But the largest thing for me was that they wanted the daughter character to be as big if not bigger. I was like, I feel like we’ve seen that and it also goes against the whole point of the film, which is to be this character study of this woman who’s going through this loss and navigate and move on. The daughter has to go away.

I’m not interested in dysfunctional family stories. I don’t know how long you want to see a mom and daughter fight before they realize what this is actually about. The mom is trying to figure out her new sense of purpose and her new role, now that she’s not somebody’s wife and not allowed to mother Lori the way that she wants to. So, with all this love to give and nowhere to put it, what does she do with it? How does she cope? It comes naturally for her, to meddle and to love and to dote—the same way that other people are so much more receptive to your mother than you are. Of course, there’s wish fulfillment and fun and things that don't exist in real life, but I thought it was important to see her side of the story, and not get a break from her and really take part in what it is she’s going to be without her anchor, which is her daughter.

People get real scared about unlikable characters, especially female. Aren’t we sometimes unlikable? We can act a certain way. I don’t think these people are unlikable but moms can be annoying and daughters can be mean.

Speaking of things people don’t make movies about often, we see a lot of movies about death but not a lot of movies about grief. Death is used manipulatively or as a plot twist or a melodramatic advice. We’re scared of grief. Why do you think that is?

Maybe because it’s harder to explain. There’s no right or wrong way to do it and it doesn’t move in a straight line. “Seeking a Friend” was sold as this end-of-the-world romantic comedy and, to me, that was about dying [laughs]. So, you know, this is hopefully about living or surviving after people have gone and the dynamics totally shift.

I think it’s a scary thing. For the same reason it’s so hard for these people to communicate about anything, about what they’re going through, about the person they’ve lost. I’m sure it’s worse when you don’t like the person who’s left—I don’t even know. But knowing what this is like, I certainly felt like maybe people who were in similar situations could get something out of it—maybe find empathy in each other. The movies that seem to tackle [death], always seem to sacrifice reality for some quirk. I didn’t really want to do it. I wanted to dig in. It made it easier that it was through the eyes of a person handling themselves relatively well. She’s got a very deep surface.

At the same time, I also love that you clearly tried not to make a film about how “all people deal with loss.” It’s very specific. The specific can be universal, don’t try to make it universal. Did you very consciously do that? Did you not try to make a message movie?

I didn’t even think of it that way. I really just thought I was making a movie about this character, who is my mother, who I know how she would react. Not a message. What was so nice was feeling like the more specific I got about her, the more universal she seemed to other people; the more people said “This is my mom.” It’s so funny. To me, she is so specifically Gail. It wasn’t totally conscious. Honestly, because so many people were telling me I was doing it wrong, I sort of just battled those voices in my head. I think they’re wrong. I think other people will see their moms or a situation or just enjoy it. When I was with a former agency and trying to push a rock up a hill and nobody was getting it, I was like “Do you think I just gave you a diary? Do you think I’m asking for millions of dollars to get closure?” They tell you to write what you know and you give them what you really, really know. I sent the script cold to Susan’s agent and got a good response from her and met [her] and had the biggest piece of the puzzle.

Once she’s on board, don’t all the naysayers kind of go away?

They come out of the woodwork and go, “We believed in you all along!” [laughs].

Of course they do.

It was nice. It was really validating. The greatest thing was that she was actor bait. Everyone wanted to work with her. Rose and J.K. The whole cast. I think they were excited to work with her.

So that’s the turning point. Your decision to send it to her agent cold. If that doesn’t happen, you might still be pushing that rock.

Absolutely. That was the way to do it. A movie this size. It kind of required a leap of faith, a shot in the dark like that. Of course, she’s perfect for the role. I pictured her in it for years. Once she came on board … I had Rose in mind and was told not to bother. I finally bothered. I met her and J.K. around the same time.

Does Susan change the script or the story at all? Does she have input?

Nothing got changed really. We shot the script. The only thing was when you get to that last week of editing before locking picture and everybody’s trying to shave seconds, there was 30 seconds taken out of this scene with her and J.K. about the anniversary party that Lori had thrown for her before Joe died and Susan is the one who said [put the scene back]. Thank God, because I was dying for it to be put back and thought I was alone. Susan said she felt like it was really important to who Lori is and understanding this family. We don’t get that many hints as to what things were like before or how she was with her dad. 


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