Jonathan Scott Chinn (Director), Richard Lovejoy (Writer, Actor)
by Amy Gillman
Where did you get inspiration to tell this story?
Richard Lovejoy, Writer / Actor: I’ve had this script in my head since my early twenties, and made several abortive attempts to write it, because the idea came to me before I was ready to actually tackle it. The Widowers was the first feature I ever tried to write. After I failed to write it, I finished multiple other screenplays before picking it back up when I was at a place in my life where I could actually tell the story. Many films use grief in a slapdash fashion to create instant character depth, and I wanted – needed – to push back against that.
Jonathan Scott Chinn, Director: Essentially, Rich and I are both interested in exploring that area between people’s intentions and the reality of who they are and what they end up doing. Failure, in other words, and the multitude of ways that failure is funny, sad, and universal.
Lovejoy: I’d say we’re also both incredibly drawn to questions that don’t have easy answers. Society presents a narrative where you find a partner, and then you live happily ever after. But that doesn’t happen a whole heck of a lot in real life. Relationships ebb and flow. It isn’t just a film about grief, it is also a film about relationships and the incongruity between how the relationship is defined in theory versus what it is in practice.
Your decision to tell a story of grief and loss through the lens of comedy gives it a unique edge. What inspired you to choose to tell this story in the form of a dark comedy instead of a drama?
Chinn: To me, the difference between comedy and drama in life is way more ambiguous than it is typically portrayed in films. The way we are expected to grieve in 21st century America doesn’t make a lot of sense…culturally, we’re only recently starting to think about how the goals of “moving on” and “healing” maybe aren’t effective ways to cope with tragic loss. So there was certainly an interest in satirizing some of the more inane aspects of grief therapy, for one thing. But in a larger sense, we wanted to get at what the long-term process of grieving is really like. And at every turn, even in the darkest moments, an abiding aspect of grief is absurdity: People’s well-intentioned but awful responses and awkward gestures, your own inability to participate in polite society like you’re supposed to, the basic incongruity of mundane reality and its petty annoyances…existing each moment alongside a pain and confusion that feels like it will obliterate you. We wanted to capture that absurdity, and let it exist alongside the deep pain the same way it does in life.
Widowers features unique, quirky and unforgettable characters whose on screen chemistry pulls together the entire film. How did you come up with ideas for these characters?
Lovejoy: It was important to me to create a film where grief existed as a mundane force. All of the characters had to be in different stages, and be handling wherever they were in a fashion that was appropriate to who they were. There are certainly broad characters in the film, but each character’s grief is very specific. I’m interested in characters with rough edges, and I love to play with putting someone’s best and worst self on display, often within the same scene. In all of my writing, I do my best to not judge any of my characters, or enforce my private judgments on the audience.
The engine that drives the whole thing is Pam. I don’t think you see characters like that in film and TV, largely because people are afraid to make compelling female anti-heroes. The cynic in me thinks that if Walter White and Skyler on Breaking Bad had switched roles (if she was the chemistry teacher who got diagnosed with cancer and become a criminal mastermind, and he was the long suffering husband) that a lot of people would have found it “hard to swallow” or “not believable.” My instincts tend to push me to challenge those cultural problems. There are enough female characters who are only love interests or victims, and not nearly enough anti-heroes. Pam is an absolutely terrifying character, who makes questionable choices throughout the film… But at the same time she’s an incredibly sympathetic character, arguably well-intentioned, whose pain is real. One of our crew members, when reading the script for the first time, told me there was one moment where something Pam did was so horrible and surprising that he actually hurled the script across the room.
Chinn: Yeah, I’ve always said that if this was a horror movie, Pam would be the monster. That’s the narrative function she serves, and of course in many ways the monster is the key to making the whole thing work; it defines everything else, including the protagonists’ journey. Jennifer Laine Williams was an old acquaintance of Rich, and he ran into her one day by chance during our almost year-long casting process. He invited her to come read for us, and I’m so glad he did, because she really blew us away. We had seen a lot of great actors play the role in a lot of different ways, but Jennifer was the first one who could effortlessly deliver the broad, manic, comedic beats while grounding herself in believable depths of pain. She took a character that was, on the page, risky and somewhat conceptual, and turned her into a real human being. She also made me super uncomfortable, right from the first audition, which I knew was a good sign.
How did you discover members of your filmmaking team and what makes for a fruitful collaboration?
Chinn: The core filmmaking team is Rich and myself, plus our co-producer/partner/co-star Kent Meister, and our producer, costume designer, and conscience Ms. Katie Irish. We’ve been working together as Charred Oak Films for six years now, and The Widowers isn’t our first film, it’s just the first one we’ve managed to finish. We are a great team because we each bring something different to the table, and between the four of us we can get within hailing distance of wisdom. But on the whole, the film works because of all the amazing cast and crew we were able to convince to work long hours for deferred pay, with dodgy food and no guarantees other than an understanding we were telling a good story, with a polished script ready to shoot. Which frankly, is the key thing and surprisingly rare in low-budget indie filmmaking. Kent and Rich have roots in the Off-Broadway theater world, Katie works in commercial theater and TV, and I have produced advertising as my day job for a decade. So, between us, we had access to an unusually talented pool of actors and crew who were nevertheless somewhat new to filmmaking. This is my first feature film, it’s our DP Christine Ng’s first narrative feature, it’s Rich’s first produced feature script, and there were countless other first-timers. Given that we also shot the majority of the film in a 15-day stretch in a remote rural location, there was a distinct sense of “movie camp” that really pulled everyone together. Since we were lucky to work with people we really loved and respected, the forced intimacy and intense schedule really worked in our favor.
What was your process in getting your script ready to shoot? How did you know your story was finished?
Chinn: We believe in shooting with a tight script, storyboarded. So we worked with Rich for many months on a process of increasingly detailed revisions to hone the story and each scene, especially after our cast came together and we wanted to write to the actors a bit. We even rehearsed a little bit. That said, the detailed advance work is done so that you can chase inspiration and respond to unexpected moments while you’re shooting. On a micro-budget production like ours, where you’re trying to shoot 6, 7, sometimes 8 pages a day, you absolutely have to have that tight framework to hold it all together…but the goal is always to use that heavy preparation as a tool to change course with confidence and efficiency when inspiration strikes on-set, or, conversely, when you realize that something isn’t working the way you wanted it to. On this film, it was actually a never-ending process to “finish” the story. We spent more than a year revising the script and thought we went in very tight, with scenes ending before they overstayed their welcome, getting rid of anything that felt like exposition, etc. And yet…in the edit we ended up cutting huge chunks of what we shot, losing some scenes, cutting others much shorter. Furthermore, we shot the film in two sections, almost a year apart, owing to budget challenges. By the time we shot our last scenes, the overall budget had been cut way down, even though it was tiny to begin with. We had to totally re-envision some expensive opening sequences, generally making them shorter, simpler, and a bit more ambiguous. In the end, it was lucky, because I think the film is actually stronger because of those limitations. Although I was initially reluctant to let our big opening set-piece go, I now realize that what we have in the film is exactly what should be there.
For more information about the film visit:
Screening: Saturday August 9th at 2:30PM (TICKETS AVAILABLE HERE)