They say that pain plus time equals comedy. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria turned the loss of her father, and her mother’s subsequent move from the East Coast to join her in Los Angeles, into laughter with her new film “The Meddler,” opening Friday in the District.
“I think what she did was really brave, moving 3,000 miles away to start your life over. And yeah, she drove me crazy,” Ms. Scafaria told The Washington Times of the real-life inspiration for her film.
Oscar winner Susan Sarandon stars in “The Meddler” as Marnie, the sixty-something widow who invades her daughter Lori’s (Rose Byrne) L.A. life, which is not only upset by the loss of her father but also thanks to a romantic breakup.
“We were in grief in really different ways,” Ms. Scafaria recalls of her real-life loss. “[My mother] was kind of grieving very beautifully and optimistically, and I was not. I was just in anger and depression.”
Ms. Scafaria, who grew up in New Jersey, spent years in Hollywood writing and pitching screenplays before “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” made it to the big screen in 2008. (“It’s weird how long you can have a career in writing without actually having a movie made,” she said of the fickle nature of the movie biz.) The teen comedy’s success allowed her to then start directing.
For “The Meddler,” Ms. Scafaria took on the difficult situation of losing a parent, combined with the surviving spouse’s need to move on, and the burden such can place on her adult child.
“I think that there’s a year of magical thinking that takes place after you lose somebody,” the director said. “Sort of like magic in the air and you think they’re [still] around, and then from year 1 to year 2, it doesn’t feel like there’s any magic anymore.
“But I really wanted it to be about her side of the story: Somebody loses their partner of 40 years and has a grown daughter who is trying to … put one foot in front of the other.”
For Marnie, Ms. Scafaria’s fictional version of her own mother, she was delighted that Miss Sarandon was interested. While known primarily for acting as a Southerner in so many films, Miss Sarandon is in fact a native New Yorker raised in New Jersey, just like Ms. Scafaria’s own mother.
“She said this dialect was harder for her to take on, and she had a coach and she had all my mother’s voicemails and stuff,” Ms. Scafaria said of her star.
Ms. Scafaria’s mother was thrilled that Miss Sarandon would play her onscreen. Meeting with her inspiration helped the actress to better get into character and master the regional dialect needed for the shoot.
Since the film is called “The Meddler,” Ms. Scafaria said it was paramount to get the dynamic correct of the mother poking in the life of her adult daughter following her husband’s death.
“How much of it comes from loneliness, how much comes from just having a lot of love to give and not knowing what to do with it?” she said. “You’re not needed in the same ways anymore [and it’s] not exactly the kind of help the mom was dying to offer,” the director said with a laugh.
“In the same way, it does happen in real life. Some people are more receptive to that kind of meddling. My intentions were coming from a good place as much as my mother’s were.”
When asked what her mother’s reaction to the film was, Ms. Scafaria smiled and said her mother “loves it.”
“I think that she appreciated not just being honest about how annoying she can be sometimes, but how mean and how unappreciative I could be,” she said with a laugh, adding that many of Miss Sarandon’s props and clothing in the film came from her mother’s wardrobe.
The film co-stars fellow Oscar winner J.K. Simmons as a potential love interest for Marnie. Ms. Scafaria was thankful to have such a talented cast, and said that the shoot was so brisk — 23 days — that she didn’t have the luxury of second-guessing herself when it came to directing such established actors.
“I know it sounds silly to say, but I wasn’t that intimidated,” she said, recalling that her previous film as director, “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” starred Steve Carell and Keira Knightley.
“It’s always surreal that [movie stars] are willing to come out for [a film that is] so small,” she said.
In phallocentric Hollywood, Ms. Scafaria says it is incumbent upon fellow female filmmakers to continue to push women’s stories to the silver screen.
“I’m so much more concerned with women’s stories not being treated respectfully or with any weight to them” than with the dearth of female directors, she said. “Films where women are even the lead character aren’t necessarily the films where female characters speak the most. That scares me a little.”
Sexism and misogyny in the film business is so systemic, she says, that it is incumbent not only on women to hire other women to work on their movies but also to diversify writers rooms that are “just so white and male.”
“Sometimes I wonder how much goes into other female directors’ decision making,” she said. “For every one that says ‘I’m not going to do this,’ there are probably nine [males] that say” they will.
Furthermore, Ms. Scafaria says that Hollywood is also ageist, often shying away from films about “women of a certain age,” such as Marnie, who is played by the 69-year-old Miss Sarandon.
“People wanted me to make the characters younger,” she said. “I refused because it went against the whole point of the movie.
“Hopefully people just go to see it, and Hollywood will pay attention and make more movies like this.”