Funny Story is a tragicomedy you never saw coming and serves as the Opening Night Film at this year’s Hells Half Mile Film Festival. Official selection of the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival, it also won the Audience Award at the 2018 Sonoma International Film festival, as well as the Grand Jury Prize at the Barcelona International Film Festival. Filled with memorable characters and top-notch performances, Funny Story teaches us about the destructive power of narcissism, the healing power of forgiveness, and our willingness to do karaoke after consuming enough tequila.
The plotline centers around a middle-aged former TV star whose self-absorption is exceeded only by his irresistible attraction to younger women; who after years of being a neglectful father, decides to crash his estranged daughter’s vacation in Big Sur.
According to director/producer Michael Gallagher, the genesis for this film was to create a simple character based story with a modest enough budget to afford the luxury of sneaking off to shoot whenever inspiration struck. “At first I wanted to do a completely improvised movie, just working off of a basic beat sheet; but as we got closer to making it, the ideas for dialogue and characters became more and more specific.”
“Co-producer Jana Winternitz and I came up with the initial concept and I brought it to co-writer Steve Greene and we fleshed it out further and wrote the script. We wanted to make a funny movie but one that dealt with real issues and most importantly had heart. Also, as a director, I had only been telling stories that were very youth oriented and aimed at the teen / pre-teen audience. I wanted to make a film for grownups.”
The biggest challenge with the film was meeting each day’s goals. “We only had 15 days of principal photography,” he adds, “with little time and little money, which means there is almost no room for error or to second guess decisions. Luckily, we work with an extremely talented and dedicated crew that we constantly collaborate with on other productions. This gave us the short hand to move quickly. We all came in with a very clear game plan of how to shoot the film and the actors were all at the top of their game and would deliver amazing performances on take one and two. Matthew Glave, Emily Bett Rickards and Jana Winternitz all are such pros they make me look like I know what I’m doing.”
When asked about the influences that inspire his work, Gallagher points to the late Mike Nichols as a huge influence. “The Graduate is one of the best films ever made. I studied the comedy in it, how he would block a scene and give the actors plenty of room to breathe. The way the anamorphic frames can carry many actors at once so you can observe their body language was a huge help for me. I also love the work of Woody Allen, Alexander Payne, Lynn Shelton, Nancy Meyers, Albert Brooks, and Nicole Holofcener. They make wickedly funny movies— humanistic stories with moral dilemmas that feature characters who aren’t always doing the right thing.”
For Jana Winternitz, several factors drew her to portraying the pivotal character of Nic. “I was originally set to play the role of Kim, but when the project was Greenlit, a few years after being written, Michael wanted to mix it up and have me play Nic. The benefit of this was I got to know both characters prior to filming. I love Nic’s honesty. She is a complex woman who is working through a host of familial affairs, but despite all the chaos, she always returns to a pretty level head. Every part has it’s rolodex of challenges, but I understood Nic’s objectives from the get-go and that seed of connection made embodying her fairly seamless. However, the hurt she endures did take a while to shake off after we wrapped production.”
“Same as you and I, no character is completely objective about themselves,” she continues. So the trick with playing any role is to never judge them. Nic is someone who I admire for her comfortability in her own skin and ability to open her heart after having it smashed to bits. Despite all of the mounting tension around her, it was crucial to play Nic as genuine as possible in every scene so the dramatic irony would work.”
When asked what she feels distinguishes Funny Story and makes it a unique experience for audiences, Jana references the synthesis that wraps surprise into familiarity. “Funny Story strikes a fun balance and who doesn’t love watching baking soda and vinegar interact!,” she jibes. “I’ve seen the film numerous times now and still get sucked into the plight of these characters. The film has been met with a variety of reactions, but people leave the theatre moved and eager to discuss it. Everyone is someone’s son or daughter, if not having kids of their own. Even if you haven’t been through this exact set of circumstances it becomes a very relatable film. The themes of family drama, our pursuit for personal identity, the yearning for love and asking ourselves if we have the capacity to forgive are all innately human.”
As for actor Matthew Glave, he says it’s difficult to say what attracted him to the role of Water Campbell. “After a recent screening of Funny Story a few months back, two middle-aged men approached me and proclaimed, one after the other, “ I am Walter”. It’s was both a revelation and a confession. They were as surprised as me. There was a vulnerability there that reminded me why I do this for a living. I love a good story. I love the way stories affect people. For me, it's story first and character second. If I am engaged in the story I can see the path of the character.”
“I could see Walter clearly, and I had an idea how to get him where he was going,” reflects Matthew.
“My biggest challenge was not getting in the way of Walter. He is clumsy. He meanders through life bumping into the furniture and causing damage to people without knowing it. No malice, just thoughtlessness. I didn’t want to overemphasize his persona. What would you do if you could do whatever you wanted without compromise? Depending upon your character, whatever you want.
Bad people will do the worst things. Good people will stray and be deep into the weeds without knowing it. Walter is in the weeds.”
“Funny Story is a simple story,” he concludes. “There are rich turns in this film that come quite by surprise. The less an audience knows about the plot, the better. This, of course, is the challenge in coming up with a trailer that gives nothing away. If I had my way, everyone would see this film without knowing anything about it.”
Funny Story will open the 13th Annual Hells Half Mile Film Festival at 8:15 PM on Thursday, September 27th at The State Theatre.
9th February, 2024