The Mary Sue Interview: IRL Couple Don Argott & Sheena Joyce On Their Hilarious Tribeca Debut, Slow Learners
LOLing and love in spring break from the teachers' perspective.
Philadelphia couple Don Argott and Sheena Joyce are best known in Hollywood for the documentaries, like Rock School, 2 Days in April, The Art of the Steal, and Last Days Here. While Don directs with editor Demian Fenton, Sheena has typically produced – until stepping behind the camera as co-director of The Atomic States of America and As The Palaces Burn. A married couple in real-life, they made their narrative directing debut with the comedy Slow Learners, starring Sarah Burns and Adam Pally, with costars Reid Scott, Catherine Reitman, Mary Grill, Bobby Moynihan, Cecily Strong, Kate Flannery, Kevin Dunn, and their daughter Maeve. We spoke with the couple about their jump to narrative filmmaking and their hilarious new flick.
The Mary Sue (Lesley Coffin): How did you find out about this script?
Sheena Joyce: A group of local producers had optioned the script and were familiar with our work. And we loved the idea of approaching spring break from the teachers’ perspective. And we are married, but we did start out as friends and fell in love after about four years. And we liked the idea, and so did our producers, of approaching the film from a male/female perspective. But from the very beginning we knew that the film should star actors with experience in improv, because as great at the source material was, we wanted actors who could just take that and run with it and truly make it their own.
TMS: Were the writers okay with you approaching the film as an improv-heavy film?
Don Argott: I don’t know. But what it comes down to is, this is a director’s medium, so whatever the material is, when a director is brought on, they bring their approach to the material. And one of the things our producers brought to use early which was such an asset was our casting director Allison Jones.
Joyce: She’s doing the Ghostbusters movie.
Argott: The pool of talent she had at her disposal, it would have been a mistake not find actors of their caliber that could improvise the way Sarah and Adam are capable of. But going off of what you said, we were upfront from the beginning what our approach to the material would be. And were are primarily documentary filmmakers, and we wanted to ground everything in reality, so no matter how ridiculous the situation may be in the film, the characters had to seem believable.
TMS: So the actors had to seem as funny as the actual characters.
Argott: Yeah, absolutely. When we were working on the characters with Adam and Sarah, we had to guide them to make the characters as believable as possible. Because you’ve seen this movie before.
Joyce: There is no twist ending, we aren’t trying to reinvent the genre.
Argott: So the key to making the film successful was it has to be consistently funny and give our actors the freedom to play and try. Because we know that when really good improv actors get into bigger movies, they can hold back. They stick to the script for a few takes and then are finally allowed to improv. Whereas we did the inverse and let them improv in the first takes and we would figure out what came out of that, before the improv goes off the rails, which can happen because people have the tendency to just keep going and going.
TMS: Did you have that a few times when you had to stop and restart?
Joyce: Oh sure, but that isn’t a bad thing. It’s just the nature of improv.
Argott: And that is where we come in as directors. To tell them what worked and felt authentic.
TMS: And then you had to edit all these scenes together.
Joyce: And that is where our skills as documentarians really paid off with this film. We are used to having hundreds of hours of footage and having to make a story out of that. Here, we already knew what the beginning, middle, and end was so it seemed easy. It felt like a miracle to have this kind of finite space where things had to go.
TMS: Do you do your own edits?
Argott: Our longtime editor is Demian Fenton, and he and I have actually co-directed a film together. The three of us really are a team, and that is really where the film comes together for us, documentary or narrative.
Joyce: We really are not afraid to take risks in the edit and make things long or short. At one point we had an 82-minute cut, but before that we had a two hour cut that seemed too long.
Argott: Yeah, and we kept trying to see where we could shave off a few minutes from scenes, and then we decided we just didn’t need a couple of scenes. Because we really wanted to refine the film in the edit, but it always has to be funny on the set, or it just isn’t working.
Joyce: You are not saving a movie in the edit, you really are just refining it.
TMS: When you were editing and dealing with that two hour version, were you thinking about the theory that comedy should typically be shorter than a drama because it has to have a faster pace?
Argott: Every one of our films, we like to stick to the 90-minute mark. But as with any art, your decisions shouldn’t be dictated by the time.
Joyce: You shouldn’t even be aware of the time. If you are looking at the watch or counting down, it is too long.
Argott: But you also don’t want to take anything crucial out of the film that might confuse the audience.
Joyce: And there are 2 hour films that just fly by, but there are also 70-minute films that feel really long. It’s all about pacing.
Argott: This is a 93-minute movie with three minutes of credits.
TMS: Were you looking for an opportunity to move into narrative filmmaking?
Argott: It was a combination of being open to the new experience and looking for them. We aren’t at the point where we want to write and generate all our own ideas, so we are looking at things that come to us. And we are fortunate that they do come to us. We had wanted to break out of docs for a long time, and just not gotten the opportunity until now. The problem was, people don’t like to give you the opportunity until you’ve done it, but how do you get to do it if no one will give you the chance?
Joyce: At the base, it really is the desire to tell stories, whether it is about making people laugh or find truth is stranger than fiction stories.
Argott: And while we are known for making docs, we primarily like comedies. That is all we really watch at home. Our go to movies as a couple are things like Stepbrothers and Bridesmaids, the Adam McKay and Judd Apatow stuff. And I can literally quote the Breakfast Club from start to finish. I used to tape record the audio from comedies and listen to the quotes over and over again. Remember that film Just One of the Guys? I did that with that movie. I love movies that are just quotably funny.
Joyce: Yeah, we could talk all day about our love of SNL and how I was raised listening to comedy albums and that we bond over John Hughes movies.
TMS: Were there rom-coms that you looked at for inspiration?
Joyce: We thought about Sixteen Candles a lot. And people will see a nod to that. But we looked at comedies we loved because our first priority was to make people laugh and feel good. And it would be great to have it be a quotable movie too. We wanted the film version of comfort food.
Argott: But when comedies fall flat, they are hard to watch, and I can honestly say, we’ve watched this movie close to a hundred times and we still laugh out loud and quote lines from it.
TMS: How was it directing your own baby?
Joyce: She needed very little direction. That kid has a sense of comic timing.
Argott: Once we got her to not focus on the boom mic, she was in the scene. And she never once looked at the camera. We have extras who would stare at the camera, but she never did.
Joyce: She was amazing. She would look at the actors and seemed to follow the conversations. It was awesome. But we got the script before I was pregnant, so it just worked out because she was only seven months at the time.
TMS: When you direct together, do you split the responsibilities, or do you collaborate on every scene.
Argott: I think we collaborate on every scene. I shoot all of our docs, so I probably took the lead on that part of it, but it was totally equal.
Joyce: And we bring a male-female perspective to the film, but it wasn’t as if we were trading off.
TMS: Was that male-female perspective what drew you to the film? The fact that you have a male and female protagonist of equal importance?
Argott: Yeah, and I think it was one of the reason we were ultimately hired. We could bring that perspective to the film.
Joyce: And being a real-life couple that started out as friends
Argott: We could make that evolution believable. It actually does happen.
TMS: How did you two first meet?
Joyce: My first job out of college was for the Philadelphia Film Office, and Don and I met at a party at the office, hit it off, and just became buddies. And just hung out for years. But things changed.
TMS: When did you two begin working together?
Argott: It started out that she would produce the films I directed, but it wasn’t until 2012, when we had a film at Sundance, that she began directing as well. And based off of that experience, it felt natural. And when we were interviewing for this job, they liked the idea of us directing together.
Joyce: But it changes from job to job. I automatically go into producer mood for all our projects, whether I’m the producer or not. My instinct is to want to do those kinds of roles.
TMS: How did you cast Adam and Sarah? They’ve been in tones of stuff, but never really had lead roles in movies.
Argott: Well that is why our casting directing was so important. Allison has her finger on the pulse and said “they’re amazing.”
Joyce: And there is no one more talented than Adam or Sarah. And we trust Allison completely so we knew anyone she brought in would be great, but they were perfect for the roles.
TMS: And they have good chemistry.
Argott: Well, they have history together, they’re friends and have worked together. But that was key for us. To find actors that had chemistry as friends and romantic chemistry. It had to be genuine chemistry that wasn’t forced.
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.
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