The Mary Sue Interview: Goodbye to All That‘s Writer & Director, Angus MacLachlan
In 2005, playwright Angus MacLachlan made a remarkable feature film debut with the motion picture Junebug, which earned Amy Adams her first Oscar nomination. Almost a decade later, MacLachlan took a seat behind the camera for his film as a director with Goodbye to All That, which follows a man going through a divorce and attempting to alter his relationships with women – especially his pre-teen daughter.
Indie actor-screenwriter Paul Schneider (Bright Star, All the Real Girls, Lars and the Real Girl) earned the Best Actor Award at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival for his role as Otto, and he stars opposite Melanie Lynskey, Anna Camp, Heather Graham, Ashley Hinshaw, Heather Lawless, Amy Sedaris, and 12 year old Audrey P. Scott (better known the younger version of Amy Poehler’s Leslie in Parks and Recreation). Although he initially planned to give the film over to a more experienced director, MacLachlan ultimately took on Goodbye to All That as a labor of love.
Lesley Coffin (TMS): What made you decide not only to write the film, but also to take on the responsibilities of a director?
Angus MacLachlan: It came about through friends of mine who had gone through divorces and told me stories which were strange, and funny, and sad. And I thought, maybe I’ll write something about divorce. And one friend went through a particularly painful divorce. And then when I wrote it, I gave it to Phil Morris, who had directed my first film Junebug, and he said, “The central emotional component of the film is the story of the father and the daughter, and I don’t have children. But you do, so you should direct it.” And I thought about it and gave it to another friend of mine who is a director, who said the same thing. So by the time I got the producers on board and they said, who do you want direct, I said if we can get someone as good as Phil, that would be great. But I’m also interested in directing. They thought about it and said, let’s try to make it with you.
TMS: I agree that the central relationship in the film is the relationship Otto has with his daughter. And that comes to the surface very slowly in the film, when you realize that is what the movie is really about. What did you want to address about the relationship between fathers and daughters?
MacLachlan: I wanted to show a man who isn’t immature, but he’s just unaware. He has to become conscious, and there is a big theme in the film about being seen and being known. It is what Otto’s wife tells him, about why she was so unhappy in the marriage, and what she wants to teach her daughter, that a woman has the right to be known and be seen and be loved for exactly who she is. And all the characters in the film have that desire.
And what is interesting in the film is that the character of the daughter is sort of the strongest and most feminist character in the film. She tells her father “I don’t want to be the princess, I want to be a queen or kin,g” which comes directly from my daughter who never wanted to be a princess. And she is also the person who worries about her father, because Otto runs into things all the time and there is a robbery at his house. And she finally has to stand up and say, “I love you, but I don’t feel safe. And until you make me feel safe, I can’t be with you.” Which is a really big thing to say. And the point of the whole film is that she is most important female in his life.
And the last bit, during the end credits, is Otto really looking at her when they are sitting in the garden. And you know he is going to really see her, which is such an important thing for everybody, but particularly for young women. My daughter is thirteen, and to see them be these great lively children, and when they get to be in middle school, a lot of girls go under. And I just hope that like her mother, who is a very strong person, she retains that sense that she has the right to want to be the queen and not just the princess.
TMS: There is something very interesting about the influence a father has on his daughter, as the first man to make a mark on how they will view men. Do you think Otto was conscious of how he was presenting himself, as a man, to his daughter?
MacLachlan: I think throughout the process of the film, that is what he needs to realize. At the beginning, right after the divorce, he calls her up and he doesn’t know she does tumbling. And this may sound sexist, but I think that is very common especially for fathers, to be unaware of all the activities they are involved in, if they aren’t the ones driving them. So I think Otto starts to realize the influence he has on his daughter and starts to question whether he is screwing her up. He even says that at one point in the movie. And as a father, I feel the same way sometimes. Because as we grow up, we all have to deal with the spectre of our own parent’s influence on us.
TMS: The wife is a really interesting character because at first audiences really won’t like her, and might even hate her, for the way she asks for a divorce. But as we get to know her and what the marriage was like for her, we get a sense that she isn’t just a stereotype who exists to hurt our protagonist, but this break-up was actually a long time coming. How did you and Melanie develop that character to make sure she had that kind of arc and nuance?
MacLachlan: Well, she is the antagonist of the film, if you break it down. But I really wanted to make sure she didn’t just come across as “the bitch” trying to hurt her husband. And I knew, if I cast someone who was really strong, an Angelina Jolie-type, she might have come across that way. But Melanie is so feminine and vulnerable in real-life herself, so you sense that she was in pain; and even though we don’t see her side of the story, you sense that the film could have been told from her side of the marriage and she could have been the protagonist of another film. We could have told her side of the story in a whole other film, about her marriage to him… how he was never around, and three years ago she wanted to go to counseling but he was never present during those sessions.
I come from a theater background, as a writer and actor, so there wasn’t much improvising on set. But, Melanie and our producers, who are two women, were very conscious of how we portrayed each of the women, but especially her. And our last path through with the script, when she tells Otto “I’m going to talk to my lawyer about custody,” she takes a breath and shows to the audience that this isn’t easy for her to do. So there were little things like that where we tried to give her humanity.
TMS: A friend of mine said after watching the movie (and I loved this idea) that Melanie’s character is almost what she imagines Amy Adams’s character in Junebug might be like ten years down the road. Do you know women who found their strength after getting married and having children?
MacLachlan: Absolutely. And one of my big inspirations was a movie from the 1970s called An Unmarried Woman. And I wanted to see if you could do that kind of story from the perspective of a man. And when An Unmarried Woman was made, it was really about consciousness raising for women during the feminist movement to say, “I can stand on my own and make my own decisions.” And for me, this movie is also about consciousness raising, but for his character. He has to stop just bumping into things, both figuratively and literally. He has to become aware. And each of the different women he encounters are in their own healing. So each of those characters had to be strong and empathetic characters. And the actors had to be aware that none of the characters were intentionally taking advantage of anyone else and they were all working out of their own volitions. They are all adults. And there is a little subtle thing, written into the script, that after every encounter they look each other in the eye. When Heather Graham says “don’t get up,” they look at each other for a second. And even Mildred, they look at each other and she says, “you make me feel pretty.” He is also giving them back something in the way he sees them. And the character of Debbie Spangler, who talks to herself in third person, says “I am Debbie Spangler” because she wants to be seen and known. But she finally gives back to him when she says, “She is crazy, and you’re a very sweet man.”
TMS: One of the interesting things is that the person who has lost the most is also the strongest person in the movie. How did you develop the character of Lara, played by Heather Lawless?
MacLachlan: Well, that character is based on a very dear friend of mine who actually did lose her child, and she is an incredible person. And she has always been an incredible person, I’ve known her since we were both teenagers. But the way she dealt this incredible loss was just amazing and heroic. So I wanted this character to come into Otto’s life who had truly suffered a loss, and contrast what he was going through. He feared losing touch with his child, but she had actually lost her child. And she also tells him, “I don’t know how I did it, I just decided I won’t collapse. But I think about my son all the time.” She isn’t running away from her problems, which is why Otto can’t go away with her. He hasn’t earned the right. He still has problems in his own life, and with his daughter, that he has to fix before he can have the kind of adventure Lara is going to have.
TMS: And Lara is also this instantly sweet person to come into the story. You immediately feel like she was this great mom and is a great person that he is just lucky to have in his life.
MacLachlan: And I wanted them to be old camp friends, and maybe the girl he lost his virginity to. There is something about that time at camp, when you’re fifteen or sixteen at a co-ed camp, when you know each other in a very intimate way, but only for a short time. And casting the role, I had to fight to cast Heather, who is also a stand-up comedian. I needed someone who was a real mensch. Someone with a soulfulness you could believe had lost her child, survived, and found a way of moving forward. And she just has it all. She is slightly funny in the role, but you believe everything she says. And I just loved her performance. Actually Phil Morris suggested her to me.
TMS: And in another movie, you might cast this version of Otto’s dream girl as kind of a stereotypical model type, but Heather has this soft, earthy, old-fashioned quality. And you notice that every woman, even though the movie has a lot of sex in it, has a very distinct look and type. Did you take that into account when casting the film?
MacLachlan: And the one thing I was kind of worried about is the fact that all the girls he dates are kind of blondish. We asked Ashley to tone-down her hair. And Melanie has dark hair, so I was worried about people saying “oh my god, what is he trying to say.” But Lara particularly, that loveliness we see is so connected to her as a person. There is a moment before she leaves when he asks to spend the night, and she says sure, and when he asks if they can fool around, she laughs and you know she thinks that might be fun. She isn’t just a maternal figure to Otto but a woman with a sex life and enjoys the same kind of intimacy.
TMS: How did you cast Audrey Scott?
MacLachlan: We had a great casting director who works a lot with children and found Audrey, who has been working a lot in things like Parks and Recreation and Secretariat. So we Skyped and then she sent in an audition. And I was close to casting another little girl in Raleigh, North Carolina. But she didn’t have any professional experience. And we had so little time, we couldn’t take the risk. And Audrey is a real actor. And I wanted a girl who wasn’t sassy or precocious but you knew was smart and aware, and even angry and scared about her parents breaking up. There is one line in the movie, when she says to Otto, the first night his house, “Mama says she can finally breathe, can you breathe?” And it always gets a laugh, and he says he’s okay. But then you hear her sigh and know, she doesn’t feel like she can breathe, because now she is stressed. And my daughter is just a year older than Audrey, who was on location with her parents and didn’t know anyone, so they became very good friends. They even went trick or treating together.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.