At the Tribeca film festival this year, actor Joel David Moore made his directing debut with the feature film Youth in Oregon. A Portland, Oregon native himself, his film addresses Oregon’s “right to die” laws through the lens of a family dramedy. Frank Langella plays Raymond, an ill man from the same state who is insistent with his family that he wants to choose euthanasia. Living with his daughter (Christina Applegate), his son-in-law (Billy Crudup) agrees to drive Raymond and his wife Estelle (Mary Kay Place) to Oregon, after a quick detour to see their estranged son (Josh Lucas). I spoke with Joel and Mary Kay, a veteran writer-director-actress herself, about their collaboration.
Lesley Coffin (TMS): Did you two know each other before working on this film?
Joel David Moore: No, we just fell in love on the set. Actually, we talked quite a bit about the role beforehand. She has one of the more complicated roles in the film because of everyone around her. You have the curmudgeon of the group in Frank Langella and Billy Crudup’s character trying to make things right and stay positive. And then Mary Kay’s character has to just float between them. She won’t say her husband shouldn’t or won’t take this step, but she is going to take the trip and be with him. And she tops off any anxiety she might have with libations. But when I talked about this character and how complicated she was, I felt the heavens open up when I was sent this woman. I have to admit, I wasn’t as familiar with her career as I should have been. I know her big stuff, but didn’t know about her smaller indie work.
TMS: What was the appeal for you of this character?
Mary Kay Place: I liked that she’s a drinker, because I never played that before. And there was a germ of something in the script that I thought would be really interesting to play, which is the reason we changed something in the script. And I always like playing both comedy and drama. I thought of her as a funny woman, even though she’s dealing with a lot of tragedy and pain. I immediately saw where the comedy would come in and how funny she was.
TMS: Did you feel their marriage had gone through a change before the film started that altered their dynamic?
Place: I did, and I think that’s when she became a heavy drinker. Because he was withdrawing and becoming angrier and more isolated. And that was infuriating to her, because I image them being a solid couple and had been true partners. And that partnership started dissolving as he became more isolated and cranky. Well, I think he’s always been cranky, but now he’s become crankier than ever. And it’s been difficult on my character, because she felt as if she’d lost her partner before he died. He had already slipped away.
Moore: See why I love her? She put so much thought and work into her character’s backstory. I know people talk a lot about a cast coming together, but they became an offset family. But that’s because of the amount of work they all put into developing their backstories. Frank would sit everyone down and say “before we film, let’s discuss.” And eventually that just became the rhythm we had on set. We would sit and talk through the scene a few times before we ever rehearsed and filmed. So we had a familiar atmosphere on set. I’ll take those lessons I learned about the work and preparations they put in to any project. I like the way you said germ of an idea, because we did make changes as we worked with the actors.
Place: Maybe I should have said there was a seed of an idea, not a germ.
Moore: No, germ’s a good word.
TMS: Was it hard to build that family tension on screen when you getting along so well on set?
Place: No, once you get into the imagination and were on location, it was pretty easy to just dive into it. We just had to run through the scene a couple of times, and our imaginations just took off. But I always do histories of each of the characters, my relationship with them. So I created a history for my relationship with Josh’s character Danny, and that was a pretty long history because his bad relationship with his father fractured my relationship with my son. And I wrote a long one regarding my relationship with Frank’s character, how we met, when we got married, and our whole life up to that point. So I didn’t have to figure that out on set, I came to set knowing what her life had been like with these people around her.
TMS: Do you share those backstories with your costars?
Place: No, but I shared them with Joel.
Moore: I still have a long email thread with those histories, and I can’t tell you how important those were. There’s only so much you can do as a director. Directors aren’t puppet masters, or at least I don’t want to be one, because I want an actor to bring something of themselves to set with them. The words are there on the page, but they don’t have depth and they don’t reach an audience, without the kind of work Mary Kay and the other cast members brought with them. I challenged all the cast members to do their work and bring something of themselves, but Mary Kay and I have a special bond because of how much extra work she put in from the very beginning. It’s a challenging role to go head to head with Frank Langella and be the foil to Billy’s character.
TMS: Anytime you film in a car, that’s a hard thing to pull off. And that car looked pretty small. How did you logistically manage?
Place: I had a great time. Frank has a million stories about Hollywood. He wrote a great memoir. So he told all those stories in the car. But I’m used to filming in cars, and I don’t mind, but we used a lot of different techniques on this film to drive and film that I hadn’t seen. It was oddly not claustrophobic or annoying.
Moore: They had AC the whole time.
Place: Well, between shots we had AC. When we were filming we had to turn it off because of the sound, and it got kind of hot.
Moore: That’s true, it did get hot. And considering I had them in that car filming for 8 to 10 hours, I almost never heard one of them say they needed a break or had to get out of the car. They kept themselves entertained. It was funny, because I had three walkie-talkies, one for the cast, two for the camera guys. And I’d switch between the two, trying to avoid interrupting the actors. But on hold, I can hear them in the car. And I still don’t know if it’s because they knew I could hear, but they were on their best behavior.
Place: We forgot you could hear us.
Moore: Yeah, you didn’t care about me overhearing you. But what was happening in that car, what I heard, was truly an inspiration. Not only did they take breaks and then pop right back into character, but a lot of their conversations were about the film or the scene or characters they were playing. They would talking about their own families or stories they’d heard about a similar situation. They could improv enter scenes in that car without having to regroup. And it was a lot more fun when it came time for me to sit down at the edit bay and pick and choose.
TMS: Do you like improvising scenes?
Place: I love it. But I also respect the script and there are times when it’s just not appropriate to improvise. So it depends entirely on the set. When I made New York New York, we improvised until the cows came home, probably every single scene. On Big Love, I don’t think we changed a line.
Moore: TV’s a different animal because of the time you have.
Place: But I did a show for Netflix and we improvised a lot. It depends on the writer. You would never improvise on West Wing, because you have enough dialogue to kill a horse and you wouldn’t have room or time to improvise. And some writers take offense. But I enjoy doing it when I have the opportunity.
TMS: The subject matter regarding euthanasia comes up gradually in the film. And we never know how your character feels about the subject. Did people talk about their own personal views?
Place: No, we really didn’t.
Moore: The movie has a backdrop of this political agenda, but it’s never in the foreground and we bend both ways. A lot of people are endured to his plight and want to see him have that right to choose. But you’re equally endeared to the family who didn’t want to lose their patriarch, especially while there’s still time. There are things which need to be resolved. One of the things I think I succeeded at was ending a movie about euthanasia which kept the family still out of harmony. They had to rise to a point of conflict, but we don’t resolve that tension. And a lot of the notes we got in test screenings have been about that, and some people wanted more of a resolution.
Place: Personally, I think they’ll resolve things after the movie ends. They have come to a new consciousness, even if they haven’t resolved things. Frank needed to come to new understanding about what this meant.
Moore: I think that it’s important to show that at the end of an old man’s life, a man who was strong and opinionated, finding himself capable of being malleable and having a change of heart is important growth. But back to the original point. I was born and raised in Oregon, and it was the first state to legalize euthanasia after Kevorkian. And the people who advocated for that law showed real compassion for people who wanted the right to die. But I don’t think they, or we, have figured out how to deal with that yet. When my grandfather was dying of pancreatic cancer in 1997, there we discussions in our family. It was so new that he choose not to do it, and I’m pretty sure my family would have freaked out if he had. But we’ve just seen that issue grow and become a huge political-social issue in the past 20 years. It’s kind of the next gay marriage, and we all know that took too long to pass. So that’s what I wanted this to be about. How does a man like Raymond find peace and harmony, and how does he give that to those around him, if he’s determined to make that decision to leave this earth. Take the politics out and think about what you do for those around you and for yourself so you can leave this world in a harmonious state.
Place: He needed to realize that it’s not all about him. He was so focused on his own pain and anger, he didn’t think about his family. He’d been blind to how this would affect them.
TMS: One of the things in the film that I hadn’t seen, or even realized about the laws, is the need to have a second person that takes on the responsibility to provide the dosage. And the impact on that person is so rarely taken into account, and that scene with Maryann Plunkett and Josh is really emotional. Did you feel that needed to be included to show the impact this would have on a family, and question if Raymond has a family member willing to do that for him?
Place: Josh’s character might have been able to. Danny comes to new consciousness about this to. He thinks his father completely rejected him, only to discover, his father has been proud and talked to his friends about his non-profit medical work. There is new understanding between both of them, about themselves and about each other.
Moore: There’s obviously a lot of contention between father and son, because I wanted to see them growing. At the end of the movie, they still don’t get along, but Danny at least understands his plight and wants to give his own father the thing his father never gave him; the freedom to make a choice about his life. As a gay son to someone who didn’t understand what his life was like, that was hard for him to do. But in the end, he’s learned they have more in common in this moment than they initially thought, and more in common than anyone else in the family. Danny becomes a kind of messenger. That’s why his character leaves the story before the film’s ending.
TMS: Being a writer (and director) yourself, does that affect the way you approach scripts? Are you a more critical reader of scripts?
Place: I am critical, in my own unique way. Having directed and written, I think about them differently. I know how hard they are to write. I’ve written material that I’d appear in, such as when I wrote for MASH and appeared in an episode, and I realized that I hadn’t connected all the dots for the characters. I’m very sensitive to that, as both a writer and actress, because I had to act from a script I didn’t get totally right. But it gives you more respect for others jobs, not just writers and directors but the crew members, and appreciation of how they all work together to make something.
TMS: With a film like this, or TV you worked on like MASH and All in the Family, how important is it to address these hot button topics with humor?
Place: Essential. I basically attended the Norman Lear graduate school, working on Maude and All in the Family. And he was the first person to make those shows mainstream and talk about prejudice and issues…abortion, divorce, everything, openly on TV. And he got a lot of flak for it, CBS fought with him all the time, but he stood firm and made sure to have an excellent writing so he could stand tall.
Moore: You can talk about this particular issue in a lot of ways, but we certainly picked a story which allowed us to infuse comedy and drama. If you’re laughing and endeared to these characters at the beginning, you will cry at the end. And you have to find that certain sweet spot. But that also makes the film a little polarizing. Some people don’t want to laugh during euthanasia story…but I think you should.
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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