Joshua Stecker is a freelance entertainment journalist based in Los Angeles. His bylines include The Hollywood Reporter and Death & Taxes Magazine. Stecker is the former west coast/web editor of Script Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @joshuastecker.
If you ask Sophie Goodhart, she'll admit she had an amazing stroke of luck for her feature directorial debut, even if it took 13 years to make it happen.
The writer/director of My Blind Brother, a critical and audience favorite at this year's South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Conference and Festival, originally developed the indie comedy as a short film that premiered at SXSW in 2003 (it also screened later that year at Cannes, where it was nominated for the Palme d’Or).
A writer by trade, Goodhart spent the ensuing years in typical Hollywood fashion, writing screenplays for films that would eventually fall through (though one of her scripts, The Locksmith, was produced in 2010). Always tinkering with ideas, one day Goodhart had an epiphany. What if she combined an original story she'd been working on with her My Blind Brother short and develop it into a feature? The idea worked, and the feature version of My Blind Brother was born.
The logline was simple: Love for the same woman creates a rift between an over-achieving blind athlete and his resentful brother. The comedy follows Robbie (Adam Scott) a handsome yet cocky blind athlete who loves the spotlight, and Bill (Nick Kroll), his schlubby, guilt-ridden brother who serves as Robbie's eyes during all of his athletic achievements. Jenny Slate plays Rose, the woman both brothers quickly fall for, and the story devolves into hysterics from there. Zoe Kazan and Charlie Hewson round out the cast.
Script caught up with Goodhart at this year's SXSW festival where she discussed, among other things, the conception of the film, how she scored a top notch comedy cast, and why shooting on water is so damn expensive.
Note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from?
Sophie Goodhart: I'm from London, England, and I came out to the States in 1999. I directed documentaries. That's what I did in England throughout my 20s. Then in my 30s, I went to grad school at New York University. I stayed in New York until 2005, came home to London, wrote for people in England, then came back to the States to do another movie in 2008, which fell through. I kept on having films fall through (laughs). But I ended up meeting an American man at a bar, had a couple of American babies and now I live here (laughs).
My Blind Brother started out first as a short film, correct? Take me through the process of when you decided that the short could actually become a feature?
Yes. OK, I wrote the short film (released in 2003) and then I wrote some other things, including something about Rose (Jenny Slate's character), about this woman who is dumping her boyfriend and he gets hit by a bus and killed. About the guilt, shame, disappointment, and how she goes from being someone who's this sweet victim but then turns into this shitty, main villain. Then I realized if I put Rose's character and story into the My Blind Brother story, suddenly this story becomes even more complicated and delirious (laughs). I've been working on it for six or seven years, maybe longer. I'm a slow writer. I mean, I write quickly. I think it's done. I want to show everyone. Then, luckily, I show a few people and they go no, it's not ready. So I tend to have a few scripts percolating and gestating for a while. So it took a few years to write and to show itself, to appear as it is now. Then I sent it out. And it's really hard to get actors to read. If you haven't made anything and the last short you made [was years ago], I'd written for other people, but the last short I made was in 2003, people aren't queuing up to say, 'let me work with her.'
Fortunately, I had Tory Tunnell, who is one of the two producers, and she sent it everywhere. Then it took actually getting Jenny, Nick and Adam. And once they were attached, it was like, I'm gonna get to make this! It happened super quick. But trying to get the right people to read is incredibly tough.
You mentioned during the Q&A after the SXSW screening that your family inspired this film. Can you explain how your personal experience influenced the story?
Yes, absolutely. When I was around 23, my sister was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). I have three siblings. And I adore my sister, by the way. Her name is Alice. In the beginning, I was shocked and really upset, and then I started to have these flashes of realizing like, wow, I'm a bit jealous that she is this kind of heroic figure now. And she is! Every day, she has to get through much more shit than I do. Just her base point is harder. And I was like, wow, I'm lazy, I'm flaky, I find day-to-day life really complicated. If I'm tired, it's like a war has happened. And yet, she's having pain and can't walk or whatever. So I wanted to look at that delicious combination of shame and jealousy and resentment, and work through my experience with those emotions. Because I think in the end, Bill (Kroll) discovers that it's really his own head that's in his way, rather than any imagined reality of what his relationship is like with his brother (Scott).
What made you change the condition from multiple sclerosis to blindness for the script? What was behind that choice?
It's visually more interesting to play with. You can have the actors react on screen. So I don't have to write Bill's feelings all the time, because I can see them because Robbie can't see. So that gave me an opportunity to not write too much. As you can see in this interview, I tend to ramble (laughs). So I have to make sure that I don't ramble in scripts. [This choice] stopped me rambling. Also, I'd read a story before I did the short, I was writing something much more clearly to do with my sister, and then I read a story about a blind swimmer, swimming from Nantucket to Martha's Vineyard, with a sighted guy guiding him in a rowboat, and I was like, that's it!
Your decision to not have Robbie's character have multiple sclerosis certainly saved you a lot of exposition in having to explain the disease to the audience. Blindness, by comparison, made things a lot simpler and allowed you more freedom to drive the narrative forward, correct?
Absolutely. [Had I stuck with MS], we'd be 10 pages in still talking about [the disease].
Let's talk about casting. This is your first feature film, and you're both the writer and director. How does one secure a top-notch comedy cast like this one in their first go around?
I know. I got really lucky. I mean, I did wait for about a quarter of a century (laughs). I got really lucky but it took fucking ages, because you can't get it done without an A-list cast, actually. Because shooting on water, you can't shoot that with a $100,000 budget. You just can't do it. So it suddenly becomes more expensive because you need three boats and you need all the camera equipment to have water housing, and all the lights, and so suddenly your budget goes from tiny to fat.
So yeah, I needed an A-list cast. I got insanely lucky. Also, the fact that Jenny and Nick already had this great chemistry. I think I was quite scared to work with actors. I've been writing in my kitchen for 12 years, and I write for other people. I hadn't worked with actors in a long, long time. So to have the opportunity to work with people who had the relationships, but were also so good at what they do, it meant that I could kind of chill out a bit and try to stop the crazy demons in my head. They knew what they were doing. I could just concentrate on what shots I was getting and everyone was fine.
When you're on set, did the writer hat get taken off and were you wearing the director's hat full time? Or were you always tinkering a bit with the screenplay, even through shooting?
I think I like directing if I really understand what the ideas are, and I think that means the writer is always the person I'm using to make the director feel confident. I feel like I know exactly why everyone's doing what they're doing, because I wrote it. So if an actor asks me a question, I can say, 'oh wait, this is why.' So the writer stays with me the whole time. Also, my directing style is pretty simple. It's not super stylized. So for me, I want the writing to do most of the work, and I want the actors to be given the space to do what they need to do to get the words across.
You're working with four incredibly funny, comedic actors who could easily riff and improvise and explore different aspects of a scene. Was there any improvisation on set, and if so, how did you work with it?
We sometimes improvised in and out of scenes. But the writing… It took me a long time to write it by the time it's done, so I'm like no, it took me a while to come up with that. (laughs) There's a lot of discomfort in this film, which sets a certain tone, and you can't fill up space with chat, because it suddenly takes the kind of painful torture out of it. It's not taut anymore. It's just kind of blah because people are having a joke. But there are a few moments. There are some moments in the restaurant scene that Adam put in, that if he hadn't put in the film, the scene would not have worked. It definitely worked itself out in the edit room. I mean, what a gift I had working with Adam, Nick and Jenny, who could tell instinctively when my writing wasn't enough to cover it. They just knew to put shit in.
My Blind Brother will be released in theaters and VOD later this year. Follow @MyBlindBrother on Twitter.
- More articles and interviews by Joshua Stecker
- SXSW 2016: Mike Birbiglia Proves Life Isn't Fair In His Latest Feature, 'Don't Think Twice'
- FREE Downloads of Screenwriting Resources
Get tips on writing indie films in Robert Borris' webinar
Writing the Low-Budget Independent Film