Interview: Chris Kelly on "Other People", favorite actresses, and the best NYC party he’s ever been to
You may be familiar with Chris Kelly from his work as a writer on Broad City and Saturday Night Live. Other People marks his feature debut as a writer and director, it premiered earlier this year at Sundance, creating awards buzz for Molly Shannon's supporting performance. A semi autobiographical story, the film is about a struggling comedy writer (Jesse Plemons),who moves back home to help his sick mother (Shannon) who’s in the final stages of cancer. Living with his conservative father (Bradley Whitford) and younger sisters (Maude Apatow and Madisen Beaty), David feels like a stranger in his childhood home. He is supported by his ex (Zach Woods) and best friend (John Early) as his mother worsens, all the while trying to convince everyone, including himself, that he’s “doing okay". Other People is a an assured and funny debut that goes deep into familial relationships and comes up potent in its depiction of grief, gay friendships and what it means to be a good son and brother.
Our conversation with Kelly is after the jump:
Murtada: I wanted to start at the beginning. The opening scene sets the film so well. The movie is about somebody who dies from cancer, the opening scene while about that, is also very funny.
Chris Kelly: I showed the opening scene for two reasons. One as you said she’s passed away when the movie begins. That was important to me because I didn't want the movie to be about will she or won't she die. I wanted it to be more about what do these people scramble to do in the interim before she dies. Which is something I personally felt a lot when I was going through this experience in real life. When it becomes perfectly clear that the person is not going to survive, it's this weird awful interim of so it's for sure going to happen, what do we do, how do we do it? So I wanted the audience to feel that way throughout the movie. To your question about the comedy, the scene starts very dramatically and then there's a comedic moment and I really wanted the audience to know that this is the tone that they are in for.
Murtada: You did
Chris Kelly: Well that's good because I wanted the audience to know that's how the movie is going to be; kind of rough and jarring throughout. Many times in this movie you feel, or at least hopefully you do that the rug is pulled out from under you. You are having a lighthearted moment and someone cries at the drop of a hat, or the opposite happens. That's how I felt going through the experience and I wanted to replicate that as best as possible.
Murtada: You mentioned that this is partly autobiographical. It must have hard to write so openly about such a personal loss, why did you do it?
Chris Kelly: It’s loosely autobiographical, it’s not 100% true. There are full scenes that are invented. I was really hesitant to write about this time in my life. Do I want to write something that is this personal? Also this is not the first “cancer movie”. I was nervous for a bunch of reasons, and every time I made up an excuse I kept getting beat up about why I wanted to write it, so I just shut all that stuff out. It was tricky because I wasn't trying to recreate exactly what happened when my mom was sick. Instead I was trying to remember big takeaways from the experience. I tried to put myself back in the position of how I felt when I was going through it. What were my worries, my insecurities, shortcomings? I tried to create a story around that.
The way it’s autobiographical, sometimes it's verbatim sentences that I remember my mother saying to me, but what’s around it is completely invented but supports the true thing that she said.
Jesse plays David who is your surrogate, how was it finding someone to play you?
I just wanted the best actor for the role. For all of these roles I wasn't precious about this person needs to look like me or act like me. I wanted an actor to read the role from the page and respond to it and make it their own. Jesse asked to pull from me a little bit which I was fine with. It was definitely surreal at times.
I liked Jesse’s nervous tics like smoothing his hair?
I think that's me unfortunately. Also the nail biting. The way I walked and moved and played with my hair, he just stole that stuff from me.
The family dynamics felt real, did you rehearse with actors?
Honestly it’s just because all those actors are great. We had no time, it’s a tiny indie movie. So any chemistry that they had together was because they are incredible actors. The very first scene we shot was this long 6 minute scene of Molly and Jessie laying in bed talking. It’s in the middle of the movie and we shot it on the first day. They were so good and immediately felt like mother and son. Such real chemistry and intimacy.
Let's talk about Molly, did you guys meet when she was at SNL?
No we did not overlap at all. SNL is just a little coincidence. I’ve always been a fan of hers. She's truly one of my all time favorites on SNL. I’m also a fan of a lot of her dramatic work, in Year of the Dog and Enlightened. People know her more as a comedic actor, it was more exciting to bring her dramatic side to the forefront. She’s so funny in this movie but this is not a comedy. She has a lot of awful, wrenching subtle dramatic scenes and she’s just the goddamn best.
The next two questions contain SPOILERS. Skip ahead to avoid.
One of my favorite things in the movie is how David gradually realizes that he’ll always see his mother in his sisters.
To me that is really what the movie is about. Writing this movie was tricky because there were certain ideas and themes that I wanted to get across. But I wanted to make sure they were done subtly. I come from a comedy background so I've never written drama before, my biggest struggle was trying to make sure the movie had gravity and the characters moved in the direction of learning something, but doing it in a way where the audience didn't feel like “oh here comes the lesson”. The movie to me is about the title - other people. When my mom was sick, I remember my first questions were always how is she gonna die? Where is she gonna die? Morning or night ? I hope I'm there with her when it happens. But also I had other questions. What happens to me? What is my job situation? Don't think that those questions or fears are unreasonable. It’s still important to look around and notice that other people are going through all the things that you are going through in a different way. Writing the movie was me trying to unpack that. This idea of other people - and hopefully doing it in a way that felt right and universal and not overwrought.
David is embarrassed by this young gay guy he meets but the movie is affectionate towards him.
The main character has a friend Gabe whose much younger brother is much more confident in his skin and very flamboyant. He is only 12 but miles ahead of the main character in being comfortable in his own sexuality. He does this dance, wearing provocative clothing he made himself. The main character is laughing because he's nervous, the dance is sexual for a little kid. His best friend says, this kid is 100 times more confident than you'll ever be. And that's the point. When I was my mid 20s I was out but I still had some post coming out homophobia about myself and other people. I was not comfortable in my own skin. A dance like this happened in real life and I remember being uncomfortable because I was dealing with my own shit, projecting it into this little kid. The actor J.J. Totah is incredible.
The friendship between David and Gabe was lovely to see.
Again all these people are loosely based on real people in my life. That’s my really good friend who’d occasionally be in town when I was home. He was such a savior for me. A nice outlet, a person outside the family to talk to. The actor who plays him, John Early, is funny and wonderful.
You gave Molly Shannon a showcase part in Other People, what other actresses would you like to write for?
This is the best question I ever got! Julia Louis Dreyfus. Laura Dern. Catherine Keener. These are all great actresses who work in this space between comedy and drama. I like THAT a lot. I just realized I listed a lot of people who worked with Nicole Holofcener. That's what I like. That's my jam. That vibe, that corner of the world inspires me.
This space between comedy and drama is where you see yourself working in the future?
I think so. It’s all down to the story but I wouldn’t know how to write a DRAMA, with no humor whatsoever, whether autobiographical or not. I don't relate to experiences that are only dramatic, but I am excited to continue writing things that are not just strictly comedies. It's been great to be able to do this and write for SNL. Writing sketch comedy is so cool and fulfilling. It’s my dream job. Then to be able to do this other thing using another muscle, something that's tonally so different. As long as I can swing that combination.
You also wrote for Broad City. What was your favorite episode that you wrote for that show?
It's weird taking credit because sitcom writing is a group effort. That first season when we were figuring out what the show was we all had such similar overlap. So many fun shared experiences. There was one episode in the second season, it was called Hashtag FOMO. Basically Abbi went to a party without Ilana one night and had a really good time. The next night they go from party to party trying to find the best party and every time after 5 mins they leave because they think they can do better. Then there is one party that was the ideal, in the East Village, on a rooftop. It's crazy and shut down by the cops. I mentioned a rooftop party that my friend Lee hosted a couple of years ago. Everyone in that writer's room was at that party, but didn't know the others were. That's a good example of the show. Good friends writing from a shared experience. That's what makes the show cool and special and real. Abbi and Ilana are literally the fucking best.
Other People is currently in select theaters and on iTunes.