At the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, I sit with a group of other writers around a table as the audible antics begin approaching outside the door. SNL veterans Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, along with director Craig Johnson, are splitting each others’ sides with jokes and voices. They are tired and somewhat giddy from a day of press, supporting their incredible new film, The Skeleton Twins, and they loosely greet us with smiles and how ya dos. Bill chucks a muffin from that morning down the hallway, comically screaming ‘This BETTER BE GOOD!’. Bill and Kristen feed off each other’s energy, a polite and friendly Craig Johnson between them, and they all take a deep breath and search around the table for who’s first to dive in…
Craig, you co-wrote the script with Mark Heyman, and I heard he’d been working on the script for eight years. How did the final cut of the film differentiate from the original script?
Craig Johnson: Well, we actually had a couple versions of it that were unfinished that were all over the place. We had one where Milo was a drag queen. (To Bill) I haven’t even told you about these versions of it. There was a road trip element.
Kristen Wiig: Maggie was a cat. (laughing)
Bill Hader: Maggie was a cat! And we’re still twins. (begins making creepy cat talking noises)
CJ: They’re joking but it wasn’t that too far off. And then Mark and I just said, What are we doing? What kind of movie do we want to make? We wanted to make something that was tonally down-to-earth, bittersweet, sad, reflective. The movies that we liked, movies by Hal Ashby and old Milos Forman. More recently, Alexander Payne’s movies. So then that draft was much more similar to how the final movie ended up. The eight years in between were very inconsistent and we did a lot of work to make it better and better.
(Kristen and Bill begin impersonating a script wanting to be submitted to the WGA — ‘Submit me to the WGA! I haven’t eaten in yeeaaars.’)
I’m already looking forward to transcribing this. (laughing)
CJ: You got us at the end of the day.
For Kristen and Bill, you’ve obviously worked together for years and you have a dynamic you already established with each other. Now that you’re doing these intense dramatic scenes, does the dynamic feel different?
BH/KW: No. Not really.
BH: You work with each other for so long. You’re still acting as actors. I feel very privileged and was very lucky to come up with Kristen at Saturday Night Live and you work together and you fail together and you learn from each other. Kristen, any time she was performing we’d go on the floor to watch it because she’s such a good performer. You learn from everybody. Something like this…it’s a different style of acting but its the same thing where you’re thinking about your character and the night before you go over your script and you show up having done your homework.
KW: Yeah, the outcome is different but you still want to get to the best place with it. At SNL, yes, we’d be in crazy wigs and doing crazy characters but we knew the job was ‘hey, we have to make the sketch funny and make it work’. With this, now, we’re these two people and we have to make this believable and real.
BH: It was more for me. I was going over the material constantly. You need to be confident about it when you show up on the day.
Did you ever feel challenged, tonally, to keep the film in check because the subject matter gets quite touchy at times.
BH: We were all over the place with the tone of the movie, which is a really really hard tone to achieve, and Craig and Jenny, the editor, did an amazing job. Because there was tons of stuff that we did that was really really funny and some things that were incredibly bleak and hard to watch and Craig was disciplined enough to say ‘this is what’s right for the movie and this needs to be put on the side.’
CJ: Getting the tone right in a movie like this was critical. It was everything. We knew that that was marching order #1. There’s so many things that factor into that — where the performances are pitched. How comedic do we go? How dark do we go? Music is huge. Music is really important to me so finding the right pieces of music, from the score to the source music, was critical. And it’s intuitive. It’s hard to say when you’ve got it, there’s just a feeling when it’s starting to feel right and we screen rough cuts of it for feedback.
It had a fantastic tone throughout.
CJ/BH: Thank you.
CJ: It has so much to do with gut-checking yourself. ‘Are we being honest? Are we being truthful?’ ‘Am I leaving this in (the film) just because it makes me laugh even though it doesn’t quite feel like what the characters would do?’
KW: And it is interesting that people say that it is such a different tone because it doesn’t fall into total comedy or total drama, which is so funny because that’s what life is – both. And it’s just funny that we all watch these stories about people’s lives and it’s not all just one thing…
CJ: Movies are ruled by genre, so often…
CJ: And things become binary and black and white pretty quickly. And then many movies don’t! There’s a whole tradition of wonderful movies that are similar in tone to this one. I just re-watched The Ice Storm, the Ang Lee movie, and that’s in a similar world. I mean, not to compare myself to Ang Lee (laughter).
BH: (1930s news reporter voice) ‘Craig Johnson compares himself to Ang Lee! What do you think?! He implies he’s even better! (laughing) Ang Lee, angry, responds.’
KW: (1930s news reporter voice) ‘Craig Johnson’s body found.’
BH: (still in character) ‘Craig Johnson’s body found eaten by a tiger bought by Ang Lee’ (erupting laughter)
CJ: Eaten by a CGI tiger.
BH: (still in character) ‘Eaten by a CGI tiger. Sources, Ang Lee missing.’
When you’re doing the sing-a-long, I was surprised that you ended up doing the whole thing. And that was in my head the next five days.
CJ: You’re welcome!
BH: It’s still in our heads.
CJ: (To Bill) When you first saw that scene you said to me ‘you really go punk rock on that Starship scene’!
BH: Yeah, ’cause you keep going.
CJ: Yeah, and I like to think we can get away with it. It was never written to be that song. When we found that song, which was a duet, and it became all about Milo trying to get Maggie to sing, it naturally sort of filled up the time a little bit more and became more of a showpiece.
On that same subject, having just gone through a debate on which is more craptastic — Steve Miller Band or Starship — how did you arrive on that particular song?
CJ: “We Built This City” is definitely on top of that ‘Worst Songs of All Time’ sort of thing, but it’s an era. We all know it. We all sing it.
BH: (Pretending to be from Starship) ‘That craptastic paid for all of this!’ (motioning to an imaginary vastness behind him)
CJ: I knew that I wanted a song from the mid 80s, a song that they would’ve grooved on as little kids and probably did that routine as little kids. So I just listened to a ton of 80s and mid 80s kind of hokey ballads and sang them in front of the mirror and lipsynched them just to see what ones worked and that one…I just remembered it, you know, the love theme from Mannequin. It had the right amount of uplift and back-and-forth and it was just a no brainer.
Being that this is your first dramatic leading role, Bill, and I read that you had asked for a dramatic role, what made Milo stand out?
BH: I had always wanted to do something like this. Avy Kaufman, the casting director, had seen me in a table read for a drama. She thought I was really good and recommended me to Craig and I read the script and it was the first script I ever received that was like this. Everything I had received up to this was either in tone to SNL or Judd Apatow type of stuff, which isn’t bad, but it’s nice to have…I like a lot of different types of movies. It was cool. From that opening scene, and going ‘I’d love to be able to do something like this and pull it off’ and Craig had a lot of faith in me. And it was just great when Kristen was brought on. Because I was anxious and because Kristen is such an amazing actor and just the security of that and knowing we’re working together. It’s very effortless and doesn’t feel like the crew is there. It’s what I needed to do my job.
CJ: To stay on that topic, you (Bill) and Ty (Burrell) have some really intense scenes in the film. This being your first dramatic role, that’s really heavy stuff there. How was that dynamic? What was your chemistry with him?
BH: Those were the first three days of shooting. And it was great because he totally set the tone for the movie.
CJ: Had you guys ever met or worked together?
BH: No. I mean, I was a huge fan of his. I think we may have met briefly once at a party, one of those where you see each other across the room and I was like ‘you’re awesome!’ He was so nice and just set the tone for me. Having him there kind of going ‘this is really cool man, what you’re doing’ and that just meant the world to me. And those scenes were some of the toughest scenes, subject-wise, with everything kind of going on.
CJ: And it was the first three days so we were all finding our footing. I was finding my footing. I remember at the end of those three days I was breathing these sighs of relief because things felt right. The tone was right. Ty and Bill had great chemistry.
BH: The last scene we shot was that scene, our last scene together. Ty’s last scene in the movie when he’s talking to me on the couch. And he improvised the line…
CJ: Yeah, when Bill says ‘What do I mean to him’, ‘am I just a blow-up doll?’, ‘what do I mean to you?’ and then Ty says ‘I treated you terribly but it’s not because I don’t care about you, don’t respect you, or don’t love you’, and ‘don’t love you’ was improvised. He just said it one take, the take we used.
BH: And you could feel it. The whole room and the whole camera crew went <<hush>> And we got up and it was just dead silent and when he says ‘Did you get a chance to read my script?’ you could just feel the whole room go <<winces>>. The crew was in it.
CJ: That was a huge moment for me. I could just see the heartbeat of this movie at that moment. And it’s a testament. I just love working with actors that are willing to improvise. I’m very specific when I write the script but I always like it when there’s a little bit of wiggle room when the actors are into it.
BH: Yeah, he saw something. He felt something. I don’t know if he planned it but in the moment he just said it. It’s that thing we talk about when others make you look better…that gave me something to make my reaction. It sparked something in me because it wasn’t something I was anticipating…that’s just being an awesome actor.
What are some of your favorite comedian-turned-dramatic actor roles?
KW: I don’t know. I don’t like to list favorites when it comes to actors or comedians.
CJ: I like what Adam Sandler does in Punch Drunk Love.
KW: Peter Sellers, I would say, is up there.
CJ: Peter Sellers.
BH: I don’t know. The guy in Captain Phillips was really funny (laughing). Yeah, the main guy, he’s a good standup. To me it’s just hard to pick and it’s just like being put in a box, not to say it’s wrong to answer that question, but it’s just…I like people who swerve and can do all those things. I always liked Jeff Bridges because you never knew what you were going to get from him.
It’s inspiring from the audience standpoint, to see someone branch out because we only see a certain amount of an actor.
KW: Of course.
BH: Yeah, that’s true. That’s 100% true and I think I always lose sight of that. Because you sit at home going ‘I can do all these things. I can do anything’. No, you can’t. And you quickly find out on SNL ‘oh no, I can’t do anything’. But yeah, those are the actors I’ve always liked. Lately, I’ve loved the stuff that Bryan Cranston did in Breaking Bad and knowing him from Malcolm in the Middle. Seeing him in Breaking Bad and you’re like ‘WOW’.
As the movie started and we see Milo look at the picture (of Kristen and Luke Wilson), and in my mind I was thinking ‘Oh we’re going to dislike Lance by the end of the movie’ but that never happened. How did you approach your relationship with him, given that we the audience are kind of on his side, to an extent.
KW: Yeah, well just because something looks good on paper doesn’t meet it’s right for you. I think that’s one of the reasons why she, Maggie, and people stay in situations or with people that may not be the best thing for them. It’s hard to talk yourself out of it. ‘There’s this and this and this’ so what’s my problem? And, I think she felt something was wrong with her because she wasn’t being fulfilled by this seemingly great person. I think that sort of added to her depression a little bit. When you wake up every morning thinking, ‘What’s wrong with me?’, it gets tiring. But I think that when she and the audience, I hope, realizes that maybe it’s just not a fit, and when you release something or someone, you’re also doing them a favor because he needs to be with someone he thinks is really great and wants to do the things he wants to do.
CJ: That’s interesting because when we were writing that relationship and working on it, that because Lance is somewhat of an innocent, somewhat of a victim, it was important that we see how racked with guilt and pain Maggie is about her behavior. And that it’s killing her. I think that put it on a more balanced level.
KW: It’s hard not to immediately take sides. ‘He’s so great, what’s her problem?’ And you do feel that way at times in the movie. But when you see that she’s just not satisfied and it’s just not for her, you kind of understand it.
CJ: We tried to make it hard to judge each character.
This is one of the best movies I’ve seen about showing how family dysfunction is a generational thing, and what you have is that you see the mother and you have hints of the father, but did you guys make any backstory for what the dynamic actually was within the family?
BH: We talked about it once, you (Craig) and I, right when we got Kristen on. We walked around my neighborhood. We got coffee and you just told me the whole backstory. It was really helpful.
KW: I never got that (laughter).
CJ: I think if you go back on a timeline thinking about who the mother is and when she left the family in relation to when the father died, you can start piecing together timelines and those types of dynamics.
BH: You told me they were pod people.
CJ: They are. That’s what I wanted.
BH: Oh, you know who was really good and now I’m totally backtracking on my big righteous thing — John Candy in Planes, Trains & Automobiles.
CJ: Oh, he is!
BH: It breaks my heart, that movie. And he’s really funny, and it breaks my heart.
Thank you for backtracking.
BH: I was thinking ‘that was so righteous and stupid, there has to be someone!’…
The Skeleton Twins opens in select bay area theaters September 12th and more theaters September 19th.