NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Making an indie film like “The Skeleton Twins” can be very much an exercise in creativity for a director, unencumbered as it is with studio demands and other outside forces. But producing an indie like “The Skeleton Twins”? That’s more like an exercise in endurance, filled with false starts, financing hurdles and tick-tight shooting schedules.
The journey from page to screen takes years, sometimes decades, for smaller productions. Just getting an indie to see the light of day can be a victory all its own.
So New Orleans native and “Skeleton Twins” producer Stephanie Langhoff was a touch excited - maybe even a little relieved - ahead of the nationwide release of director Craig Johnson’s buzz-generating dramatic comedy starring former “Saturday Night Live” mainstays Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader.
“It’s a very typical indie movie story, where it comes together and falls apart, then comes together and falls apart,” Langhoff said. “And then the financing fell through right before we were to start pre-production, but Jacob Pechenik of Venture Forth came in, and it came back together. And then Hurricane Sandy happened while we were in pre-production in New York. It was very much your typical tough road to getting an indie film made.”
But Langhoff hung in there, working with Mark and Jay Duplass - longtime running partners of hers, dating to her days at Mount Carmel Academy and theirs at Jesuit High School - under their Duplass Brothers Productions banner. Now it’s looking more and more like those years of trials and tribulations will pay dividends.
After earning the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and a Grand Jury Prize nomination at January’s Sundance Film Festival, “The Skeleton Twins” made a five-city, 15-screen debut in September, notching an impressive $27,000-plus per screen.
It then expanded to 49 locations with a reported $9,000-plus per-screen average. In late September it expanded to 75 markets including New Orleans.
“You work so hard and for so long on these movies,” she said. “Not that you are totally bummed out if it doesn’t do well. If you have pride in a movie and you think it’s great, then it’s still OK. But for it to do well, obviously, it’s great. Everybody feels a lot happier. So, yeah, we’re really excited and we hope the excitement continues through the expansion.”
The film has had a wealth of positive reviews, with an 87 percent “fresh” rating on movie-review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
Still, as with so many indies, it’s a tricky film to market, even to describe. Sure, it’s got Hader and Wiig in the cast, names that should be familiar to most moviegoers. But while Hader and Wiig get their opportunities to horse around, including in a couple of largely improvised scenes (“You don’t hire two of the best improvisational comedians in the world and not encourage them to use those chops,” Langhoff said), they’re not doing the goofball shtick on which they both built their careers.
Rather, “The Skeleton Twins” is a tightly scripted affair about the relationship between a brother and a sister trying to right their lives after years of living with tragedy and emotional tension. It is also an at-times heavy drama - Hader’s character attempts suicide in the opening minutes - that is enlivened by moments of dark comedy.
In other words, this ain’t “Coneheads.”
“We go back and forth,” Langhoff said when asked to describe the film. “I feel like it’s more of a drama with comedic elements than a comedy with dramatic elements, because it’s about a dysfunctional family. That can be very funny and very sad. Luckily, we have a lot of funny moments to lighten up the drama. That’s why we cast these actors, because I think it’s oftentimes very difficult for a dramatic actor to get the comedic timing right and all of that.”
At the same time, there’s a certain amount of risk there. While Wiig has earned positive notices in a smattering of dramatic-leaning roles she’s taken since leaving “SNL” two years ago, nothing on Hader’s resume suggested he could pull off the emotional role required by Johnson’s film.
But “Skeleton Twins” casting director Avy Kaufman happened to catch Hader during a table read on a different project - not uncommon in Hollywood - and holding his own alongside such dramatic actors as Kate Winslet. He left such an impression that when Kaufman started discussing casting for “The Skeleton Twins” with director Johnson, Hader sprang to mind.
“He just really shone among this great cast of other characters,” Langhoff said. “And obviously he knew the comedy, so I think it wouldn’t have been executed as beautifully if we had had different actors. I think they just did such a great job in kind of riding that line between comedy and drama.”
Hader apparently wanted to do the project as much as Langhoff, Johnson and Kaufman wanted him to do it. As “The Skeleton Twins” was going through its fits and starts, its hurricane delays and financing trials, Hader stuck with it. When it came time to start shooting between Thanksgiving and Christmas 2012, he was busy shooting what would be his final season on “SNL” - but he juggled both rather than give up “The Skeleton Twins.”
Hader proved more than capable of switching back and forth between the broad comedy of that late-night staple and the movie’s far more nuanced moments.
“The first week and the last week, we had him completely because he was on hiatus from ‘SNL,’” Langhoff said. “But the two middle weeks, we had him three days each of those weeks. We shared him with ‘SNL.’ And, bless his heart, he was working nonstop six days a week.”
So what was it that about “The Skeleton Twins” that made him want to make it so badly? And, for that matter, what made Wiig, Langhoff and the Duplass brothers so eager to be involved?
“I think that first and foremost it was just the script was fantastic,” Langhoff said. “I think that’s how we got so many great people involved. We made this for not a lot of money. And so, so many people worked for much less than they usually do because of the love of the material.”
Information from: The Times-Picayune, https://www.nola.com
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