Funny Story, or A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to Big Sur…
We all know the age old ‘funny story’: boy meets girl, boy saves girl from disaster, boy sleeps with girl, boy finds out girl is his daughter’s fiance- wait. This is no standard fairy tale. This is Funny Story, Michael Gallagher’s latest work that treads the line between comedy and drama while still keeping its characters multi-dimensional.
Funny Story is the tale of seasoned actor Walter Campbell (Matthew Glave), and his journey to find himself despite himself. He floats through life in a haze of privilege until he meets his match in Kim (Emily Bett Rickards), a self destructive millennial hellbent on exposing Walter to his own truth.
Through a set of “save the cat” circumstances, Walter and Kim engage in a night that will change the course of both of their lives. (Don’t worry, this review won’t contain any plot specific spoilers that aren’t present in the trailer.)
I had the pleasure of speaking with Matthew and Emily about their characters and their view of the way Funny Story came together.
What drew you to the movie and to your character?
Emily: As soon as I read [the script] I thought it was a wonderful piece of writing and these characters were authentic and raw and real. And that was sort of the lens that we wanted to talk through and I believe that translated quite well. The script is very close to what you see on the screen. The characters were -for lack of a better word- real. Honest in their dishonesty.
Matthew: I read the script and I just saw it very clearly. I found it to be very sad to me; it’s a sad movie that’s funny. It’s my favorite kind of funny, where people do stupid things and it’s played in real time, but interesting. Nothing lingers, it’s a lean film, you stay with the film because nothing hangs on too long. I love that about the story.
Though the run-time is a mere 1hr 27min, the movie is so well paced that it doesn’t feel rushed or incomplete. A lot of care and thoughtfulness went into a project that was constantly under the wire.
Matthew: Michael had 15 days to shoot the film and it was under a half million dollar budget. We had a lot to get in, from all the scenes in Big Sur to Young Blood. He had such a short time and I was so impressed at how confident Michael and the crew were. Jana, who play Nic was producing. So it’s an independent film in every single way and the amount of production value that was squeezed out of it is so impressive.
The setting is truly idyllic. Broad sweeping bluffs and quaint B&B’s set an atmosphere of casual privilege overall, but little markers allow the scenery to inform the characters as well. We see Kim’s nomadic lifestyle on display as she appears as a mere stranger at her mother’s funeral. Contact is either through Facebook or not at all as her “friends” tease her pretty meanly considering the circumstances of their gathering. Throughout the movie, she seems slightly out of place.
With the community [Nic and her friends] have built and what we know of Kim, I don’t know that was 100% her “scene”. And I wondered how you felt about the way she ingratiated herself to them.
Emily: I think what happens with inauthentic people is that they crave authenticity. Every single one of those women around that table were 100% themselves all the time. And if you can play the part, I think [Kim] can think “fake it till you make it”, but if you’re keeping a bunch of secrets behind, they’re going to blow up in your face. And you have to come clean, because if you do, you can be one of those authentic people. But nobody craves authenticity more than inauthentic people and I think that’s why Kim was sitting at the table.
To continue with atmosphere, Funny Story opens on a scene with Walter attempting to break-up with his girlfriend. They’re in a fancy restaurant and his girlfriend is Instagram ready as he dresses her down in typical fashion. He seems very at home in his surroundings, like someone who can adapt perhaps too easily to a situation. This really comes into play when later in the film he faces a decision that will upend his comfortable life. Before that, he moves with an ease that is earned by living a life of few cares. We see him at home in his chef grade kitchen, then he stays overnight in a bed and breakfast with a stellar karaoke night. He takes to the stage like a pro and wows the audience with a charming rendition of Unchained Melody.
Then he arrives at Big Sur, finding fans and navigating the waters of a kid who came of age in the mid-’70s, wanting to stay “hip” in the age of Millennials. He has an ease- until he suddenly doesn’t. Do you think Walter has that kind of self-awareness?
Matthew: You know it’s funny, I don’t know that Walter has that kind of self-awareness. It comes crashing down halfway into the movie when they arrive in Big Sur. That is the full weight and breadth of the ramifications of [his] actions. That’s when he starts to really look at choices. As opposed to enjoying his choices up until that point, for all the damage it’s caused. Then he suddenly understands the ramifications of his choices, and his realization begins there.
Additionally, we have Nic (played by Jana Winternitz). Jana’s environment is shared by friends in Big Sur, often used as a spiritual retreat for those who want to commune more closely to nature. She’s a young woman who has craved normalcy and has instead found peace in defining her own normal. As serene as the stunning mountain views are, this is how we see Nic attempting to live: peaceful, beautiful, quiet and strong. The friends she surrounds herself with seem to be in contrast not only with her estranged father, Walter, but also with the person she’s chosen to love in Kim.
The story is really about Nic and about how she was really trying to reconcile ‘I’m living my life away from these people” -mostly Walter and his drama- but then she kind of falls in love with “those people” and gets screwed over by them in the same way.
Matthew: It’s so funny because we see Kim and we draw a feeling about Kim, and we see Walter and draw a feeling about him. But then when Jana shows up as Nic, we realize that she’s the purity of the film. She’s trying to live her life honestly and carve something out, and she never really made Walter pay for not being there. She’s just made the best of her life and is trying to move forward. I don’t want to call her a victim because she’s more like an innocent who’s been done wrong that stayed strong. She’s been done wrong by trust, but she’s not giving up on trust, so it’s about her own strength and forgiveness. Once Nic arrives on screen, we realize it’s about her.
The weaving of these environments and the overlapping between scenes give Funny Story a feeling of connection and movement. The momentum isn’t jarring, but eases you into the climax of the film, like the moment at the top of a roller coaster before plummeting down. There’s enough of a pause to catch your breath before the reveal so when it hits, it lays with you. It’s a movie that waits for you to react and gives you time to contemplate while also still moving. With the glut of loud action films lately, it’s nice to have a movie that doesn’t require you to lower your heart rate, but still pulls none of the emotional punches.
The impropriety of Walter and Kim’s actions are neither the start nor the end of what the film is actually about, it’s simply a breaking point. One that allows you to fill in the context without being overwhelmed.
One thing I loved were all the little ways Funny Story showed the kinship between Walter and Kim. They showed Walter’s cracked phone screen and later Kim’s cracked screen. I feel like there are two types of people in this world, people who have cracked screens and people who don’t. In what ways do you think Walter and Kim relate?
Emily: I think both are battling with the human condition of projection. Kim has learned so much about Walter through Nic and she’d already decided she didn’t like him or who he was because of his actions. And then Walter knew absolutely nothing about Kim except she was a friend of his daughters, but was able to call her out right away on all of her walls and how she had barricaded herself inside. And it comes from two extremes of the spectrum that bring them closer together. You’re not looking at a straight line, you’re looking at circles that are side by side. And inadvertently there’s where you start looking at yourself in a mirror and it becomes very scary. If you stand in front of that mirror and think “I’ve spent all this time avoiding this”, you’re going to do whatever you can to light it on fire and hope that it will disappear. And that’s what Kim and Walter were trying to do.
It’s kind of that moment when you think you’re looking out of a window, when in fact you’re looking in a mirror.
Emily: It’s Mulan when she looked into the water!
Matthew: Walter and Kim have a great chemistry despite themselves. He’s not nearly as aggressive as her, yet they’re both in their own way, they’re own kind of narcissists and out for themselves and that’s what they have in common- they want their own pleasure.
That pleasure is tested, exploited, and then ruined when Walter makes a mistake that might wreck his only happiness.
Matthew: Walter was always alone and didn’t know it. But now he’s going to lose someone he was never around, but he knows that he took them for granted. You can get away with doing something wrong for a long time and then all of a sudden you’re aware that it’s wrong. You can keep doing it, but now you can never say you didn’t know. And now everything you do is peppered with a voice that says “now you know you shouldn’t be doing that!”. So that flavor of remorse and new wisdom, is the flavor of how he proceeds the rest of the film.
Each character’s journey is lightly nuanced. Both actors remarked how everything was on the page and there’s never a ton of exposition. We’re drawn into scenes not only because of the characters, but because of the relatability to their circumstances.
It’s true that we’re not all daughters of former television sci-fi stars who unwittingly hook-up with our fiances, but… we’ve all had that moment where we couldn’t stand our dads. Where we didn’t understand them outside of “dad”. Or we had a grievance with our childhood that we could never express. We’ve all had that tinge of bitterness that made our hearts stale and hard, if only for a moment. This story isn’t just about the betrayal, but about everything that leads up to and follows it. The love that makes the pain of betrayal possible, and the forgiveness that creates resolution. It may not look the same to us individually, but the connective thread of being human is woven intricately through the film.
In Michael Gallagher’s film, there are no two dimensional characters. Even the the vapid Hollywood socialite that Walter is dating has a story. Our engagement with her is based on Matthew’s feelings and not necessarily her being forgotten. She’s a presence even off-screen and has a part in helping us understand the embattled actor. We even get an outsider’s point of view from Reginald VelJohnson (Family Matters) as he reminds Walter not only of who he is, but how he is seen and the impact he has. There’s even a mostly comedic, but still telling performance from Pete Gardner (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) who plays Walter’s enabling bestie. After just a few moments, you understand him completely and you don’t need more to pull him in comfortably.
I can’t stress enough the relatability. Even the moments I found to be cliche, served to ground the film and make it accessible. In any other film, Kim’s character would be easy to vilify, but there’s something about her and Emily’s portrayal that makes her… not charming necessarily, but sympathetic. I found myself becoming endeared to Kim without casting her as the villain.
Emily: I think unfortunately she’s relatable! We’re all humans and the only thing you can pretend not to be is you. Everyone is growing through something and you’re watching someone who is resisting growth and I think everyone can relate to that.
Additionally, the same mercy is given to Walter. [Referring to an enlightening scene with Reginald VelJohnson] It helped because your character isn’t a “monster”, there’s a little bit of vapidness, but it’s mostly environmental. He’s not running around being extra, he’s very interactive and engaged, but also fell into that lifestyle of chasing his happiness and getting it at any expense. He’s got a blindspot. The conversation kind of resets that for him.
Matthew: Walter is where he is because of himself. He was not done wrong by anyone, he’s the victim of his own actions and the sum total of the choices he’s made. The cameo by Reginald VelJohnson is the only voice of reason. There’s such a quite poignancy that he has. It’s just one more reality rap on the head that really drives it home.
Besides Emily and Matthew (and thanks to them for their time!), Funny Story is bolstered by a cast of talented supporting characters who add texture to the film. A bit of comic relief is provided by Lily Holleman’s (Shameless) Moon. Moon is both present and comically absent. She knows when to pull it together and Lily’s performance was admired by both actors. Hopefully we can get some deleted scenes with her outtakes!
Something I didn’t even realize I never spoke about with Matthew and Emily were the queer elements in the film. Nic and Emily are communing over the weekend with a group of queer women. I barely noticed except for the requisite parts where Walter’s out of touch nature was put on display, but otherwise, the story was so engaging and inclusive that I naturally accepted it. These weren’t women being exploited for their sexualities, just people living their lives and sharing their stories.
That’s not to say the representation wasn’t clear. It’s more that it was seamless. Each woman identified differently and showed us several sides of what most people consider to be a two-sided coin. Michael’s vision was clear and confident, and his talent and passion for the project shows in the all around quality of this feature.
There’s additionally a running gag showing scenes of Walter’s former show Young Blood. They even found a way to make that an integral part of the narrative while adding a bit of levity to the dampened mood.
I highly recommend you check out Funny Story!
Funny Story will be available in select theaters and OnDemand, Friday, May 24th. Check out funnystorymovie.com for more information.
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