Drew Barrymore and her real-life on-and-off boyfriend Justin Long appear together in a very contemporary romantic comedy called “Going the Distance.” I spoke to director Nanette Burstein about why it had to be R-rated, working with actors who have their own romantic history, and why they changed the early version of the script to make the characters older.
Sometimes real-life couples don’t come across well on screen, but this time it seemed that the off-screen chemistry of Drew Barrymore and Justin Long really came across through their characters. How did you know that would work and what was it like to work with them?
I spent time with both of them. You could see why they really enjoy each other’s company and feel so comfortable together. They have such strong chemistry onscreen it was a huge advantage for the movie. Drew is enormously charming, which is why we all fall in love with her on screen. And she’s a total professional, incredibly experienced, who has been doing this since she was a baby, so she knows the business very well and is a great collaborator. Fifty percent of the humor of the movie was improvised, based on the comic abilities of the actors.
I also loved Christina Applegate in the film as Drew Barrymore’s sister.
She is such an enormously talented actress and a great comic actress. Not only would she work well as Drew’s sister — they look like they could be sisters — she was perfect for the part and brought so much to it.
Did you make any important changes to the original script?
The very first script the characters were younger, in their 20’s. We made them a little older because the stakes are so much higher at that age. The issue of your career and love live become even more intense if you haven’t figured it out by then.
What decisions did you make about the look of the film?
I wanted the film to be very honest. Economics is definitely an issue. I wanted the production design to show the kind of real life they have. Often in romantic comedies and TV shows people don’t have a lot of money and they have these fabulous apartments. I wanted it to look like the places these people would live. And Christina’s character is very organized, meticulous character and the house needed to reflect that as well.
Most romantic comedies are a PG-13. Why did this need to be an R?
We wanted to be really funny and really honest. The reference would be “Knocked Up,” not a fairy tale romantic comedy but a really honest romantic comedy.
One thing that works very well in the film is the interplay between the guys. Was that a challenge for you as a woman?
I hang out with a lot of guys and my husband’s my best friend. It wasn’t a problem at all. It’s the same way men direct women and can make them honest and realistic. And sometimes we understand men better than they understand themselves.
What movies inspired you to become a film-maker?
I grew up watching the movies of the 70’s, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola. The funny honest, character movies are the ones I love the most.
What do you think is funny?
When we make fun of our own frailties or vulnerabilities, anything can be comedy in the right hands. There is a scale and you have to find just the right note to make each scene work. Some you have to play a little over the top and some you have to be more subtle to make it funnier. It isn’t until you block it that you find out which way it will work.
What do you look for in the projects you work on?
It’s important for me in the films I make, whether documentary or fiction, that the characters are likable, so the audience can root for them. That’s not always true of movies. A lot of times in romantic comedies the female character can be uptight and neurotic and kind of repelling. They can be flawed, but I want to be able to fall in love with them and root for them.
Madeline Carroll (now 14) and Callan McAuliffe (now 15) star in a sweet story of first love called “Flipped,” based on the popular book by Wendelin Van Draanen. I spoke to them about acting in a story set three decades before they were born, what movies they like to watch, and what it was like to work with one of Hollywood’s top directors, Rob Reiner. The biggest surprise was Callan’s accent. He’s Australian!
Did you have to learn about life in the 1960’s to play those characters?
Callan: I watched some old movies and TV shows but it wasn’t too hard. They dressed us up and did our hair so it was easy to feel so we were in the moment as soon as we got on the set.
Madeline: The set made you feel like you were in the 1960’s, the hair and clothes.
What is the biggest difference between the 1960’s and now?
Callan: Technology. They don’t have video games, internet, Twitter.
Madeline: IM, Facebook…
Did you have a favorite of the old-fashioned clothes you had to wear?
Callan: I hated them all!
Madeline: They were good for the movie but made me feel really awkward. They were actually old clothes so they were kind of stiff.
Do kids today behave differently?
Callan: I reckon it’s pretty similar. Hair and clothes and internet aside, it’s pretty similar.
Madeline: I think they’re pretty similar, too, but more — mean girls are meaner. Same feelings, but maybe they show it more.
What did Juli learn from the visit to her uncle?
Madeline: She became closer to her family and her dad. She didn’t care what Bryce thought anymore. She saw that her uncle was so kind and innocent, why would she want to fit in with with kids at school who were mean. It was another piece of the puzzle. She didn’t really care what Bryce thought after she saw her uncle. If Bryce would have had the sickly uncle, he would have been more embarrassed about it because of the way his dad acted. He would not have been proud; he would have been more embarrassed and not wanted him around.
What advice did the director, Rob Reiner, give you?
Callan: He gave me the script and said, “Do what you can and if you suck, I’ll tell you.”
Madeline: He would just say, “How would you do it?”
Did you have fun playing with the other kids in the movie between scenes?
Madeline: Yes, it was really fun. In other things that I’ve worked on, there haven’t been many other kids. We had so many extras in this big huge room and we’d go in and play games and cards and stuff.
What are you doing next?
Madeline: I just finished a movie with Gerard Butler in Michigan. [“Machine Gun Preacher”]
Callan: I just finished an action film with Steven Spielberg in Pittsburgh. It was loads of fun. It’s called “I am Number Four.”
Madeline: That’s so funny that this movie was based on a book and both of us are working on new movies based on books. You have to be very careful because there are fans of the book and they get mad if you shorten a lot of stuff.
Callan: I also did an Australian miniseries based on a book. When there’s a book, you have to be careful because there are true fans of the book like “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” who will get annoyed about the little nuances. Like I don’t have blue eyes but in the book Bryce does.
Would you ever like to direct a film?
Madeline: I think it’s really cool when people direct themselves in a movie.
Callan: There’d be a lot more work but you could do everything you wanted to do with it, make it your own.
What movies do you like best?
Madeline: “Phantom of the Opera,” Misery, which was directed by Rob. I told him if he ever makes another scary movie, I want to be in it! I like the Japanese horror films that are supposed to be scary but the dubbing is so bad they are funny. My brothers and I watched one called “Hair Extensions.” It was supposed to be scary but it was so funny!
Callan: I can do the “Chain Saw Massacre”-type things where it’s just some psycho going around killing everyone, but I can’t watch the supernatural ones, like when there’s a girl walking down the corridor with the lights flickering, I just run and hide! After seeing “The Ring,” I couldn’t look in the mirror for about a month.
What should people know about “Flipped?”
Madeline: People can take their whole family to it.
Callan: There’s no hair extensions in this film!
Madeline: Rob Reiner’s made so many films people still watch today. I hope this one will be a movie people will watch for a long time because it makes them feel good.
On the first day of the first school, thousands of years ago, some student probably complained about math and said he’d never have to use it because he had an abacus. But we do use math all the time and as the financial meltdown and climate change science show us, it can be disastrous if we get it wrong. A great reminder of the ways we use math is found in these movies. And parents of younger children should take a look at this terrific blog about teaching math and science skills with an emphasis on integrating literature through the curriculum.