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INDIE SPOTLIGHT: Interview with ‘Together Together’ Writer/Director Nikole Beckwith

Script's Editor, Sadie Dean, interviews 'Together Together' writer/director Nikole Beckwith, about her background from stage to writing and directing films, her love of working with actors and tapping into vulnerabilities, and she offers advice in finding and honing your voice as a writer.

Together Together is a love story like no other – it’s not a love story. It’s a story about people building authentic relationships all premised around building an unlikely family. This movie is full of dynamic characters, depth and a lot of humor. It’s rare we see a film that flips the status quo so effortlessly, thanks to the writing and direction by maestro Nikole Beckwith and performances from leads Patti Harrison and Ed Helms.

Ed Helms (left), Patti Harrison (right) Credit: Tiffany Roohani / Bleecker Street

Ed Helms (left), Patti Harrison (right) Credit: Tiffany Roohani / Bleecker Street

When young loner Anna is hired as the gestational surrogate for Matt, a single man in his 40s who wants a child, the two strangers come to realize this unexpected relationship will quickly challenge their perceptions of connection, boundaries and the particulars of love.

Nikole Beckwith is a self-taught filmmaker with a background in theater, who made her feature film debut with Stockholm, Pennsylvania, which she directed from her own Black List recognized script. The film, which starred Saoirse Ronan, Cynthia Nixon and Jason Isaacs and premiered at Sundance in 2015, was not only Nikole’s first as a writer and director, it was the first time she ever stepped foot on a film set. After premiering at Sundance, Stockholm, Pennsylvania was acquired by Lifetime and went on to earn numerous accolades including a Critics' Choice Television Award nomination for “Best Movie”. Her theater work has been developed and/or performed with The Public Theater, Clubbed Thumb, Playwrights Horizons, Ensemble Studio Theatre and Ars Nova. Other residencies and fellowships include The Public Theater, Ensemble Studio Theater, Playwrights Foundation, Sundance Institute, San Francisco Film Society, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Nicholl Fellowship.

It's safe to say that Nikole is an actor’s director, as she has a nuanced understanding of creating and bringing characters to life. We had a great conversation about her background from stage to writing and directing films, her love of working with actors and tapping into vulnerabilities, and she offers advice in finding and honing your voice as a writer.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: How much of your background in improv and being a playwright has influenced your screenwriting, as well as directing?

Nikole Beckwith: I mean, I think it's all very connected. It’s just been such an organic evolution. Starting with performing and then moving into playwriting, and then the first film I wrote was an adaptation of one of my plays Stockholm, Pennsylvania, and then now this. So yeah, I mean, I think it definitely has a lot to do with like, why my film structure doesn't necessarily adhere to, quote unquote, film structure. So that's like an easy thing to point to. But yeah, I think it's all connected.

I really love actors. I love writing for actors. I love working with actors and like moving a script around with an actor. And that definitely comes from those things from having started as a performer, and then in theater, which is very performer focused, it's like everything rests on the performer. And it's like a living, breathing organism - a play. When I'm writing a play, I try to make like really fun things for the actors, like lots of quick changes, stuff that's really hard, but that is so gratifying for the theater. Like having someone play three characters and has an insanely fast quick change, just to come in and be like, “Oh, you dropped this” and then has to leave and then enter and as the [other] character, and it's just such an audience pleaser. And so, it’s such a fun, crazy thing for an actor to do and like a way to wink at the audience. And so yeah, I think that it's I just love the actors.

Nikole Beckwith

Nikole Beckwith

Sadie: I like that, especially the idea of in writing, giving your character something to do. That’s definitely a key element in writing, don't make your characters boring and super passive.

Nikole: Yes. And try not to have things just like, I think a lot of times, especially for women, it's just like things are happening, not even to them just like on them. [laughs] I try to always be kind, I'm not gonna say never, but it's like, I don't want to make anyone stand in the rain. I try to keep it comfortable and like subtle. I think actors enjoy subtleties and space to make things around. So, I try to do that, too.

Sadie: You have such a melting pot of talent on screen. And a lot of those actors do come from theater or the improv world. As a director, how did that work for you? Did you let them kind of explore that world or you're just like, “here's the guidelines and do it like this”?

Nikole: Well, so for both of my films, I shot Stockholm, Pennsylvania in 18 days. I shot the bulk of Together Together in 17 days, and then a day and a half of pickup exteriors in San Francisco. So, we don't have a ton of time. [laughs] Ed was like, “What about make ‘em ups? Like, how do you feel about that?” And I was like, “I don't want to be a downer, but no.” Obviously, there are things in the movie that came from like riffs and then I would say, “Oh, quick, we have to like backup and pick that up from this side,” if we could, you know, and just being very selective about the improvs. Like, something great happened, then it's like, when we turn the camera around, it's like, OK, let's revisit. The, “Do you have a receipt?” moment in the coffee shop, that came from riffing, and then we're like, “Let's do that.” And so that was fun. And so when you have a bunch of comic geniuses, you want to give them that room. But, because you're so short on time, you can't be like, so crazy, but I think that's also part of the benefit.

I took time to go over the script with Ed and Patti to be like, “Does anything feel clunky in your mouth?” “Is anything not the way you would say it?” Because I learned in theater, if an actor keeps bumping a line, there's two things that it's because of - it's because you wrote it weird, or because what they're saying is like triggering a subconscious thing for them. And as an actor, I've experienced both performing moments where it's just like, I can't deliver a line and then when I really get into it, I just start crying, and I'm like, ‘Oh, I didn't realize that I have that issue.’ [laughs] And so you just talk about it and if it's like, clunky, easy rewrite. If it's something deeper, then you get into that conversation and then that generally you know, both help the scene. I want to know that stuff when I can before we're rolling.

[INDIE SPOTLIGHT: Interview with 'Palmer' Screenwriter Cheryl Guerriero]

Sadie: I can only imagine how much of that you went through, at least that process especially with them improvising on the spot and then turning to your script supervisor, “OK, which take was this line?” [laughs]

Nikole: [laughs] Elizabeth Seaford, what an amazing scripty, thank you! Yeah. Because also, I get so wrapped up, as I'm crossing the room to go talk to her, I'm like, “I forget what I was going to tell you,” because I also reset a lot, I don’t cut a lot. Partly for time, and partly just because I think you take a little bit of air out, then you have to like build that air backup. So, I just want to I reset as much as they can. And I'm like, shoulder to shoulder with the DP and camera operator in every shot of the film, I'm just out of frame basically. [laughs] And so obviously, scripty is not right there. So, it's like, that's also super annoying for them. [laughs] I have to like back track, I have to like unfurl myself from like cords from wherever I’m hiding, and then by the time I do it, three people have asked me a question and then I get over there and I'm like, “I totally forgot what I was gonna say. I liked one of those the best and I don't remember which one. Thanks, Elizabeth.” But she was great.

Sadie: Being a playwright, you also have a background in doing TV as well. What do you think it is about TV rooms being welcoming to playwrights?

Nikole: I think both theatre and television are like a writer's medium. I think that's mainly it. I mean, on television, you generally, sometimes not as much now, but more often than not, it's a different director every week. And so, it is the writers that are kind of like anchoring the tone, the feeling, and the actors and a continuity.

For me, it's like the mystery of why film is so different. Like, I have no idea. No idea. That was like weird funny when I first started doing my water bottle tours or whatever, was like, ‘Oh, it seems like maybe screenwriters aren't invited to set?’ That seems so strange. And that's why I was like, ‘I have to direct’ because I can't just hand something over. I have, but if it's like coming from my spirit, I can't just hand it to somebody. I guess that's like the real question for me is, ‘Why isn't film a writer’s medium?’ I don't know. Because writing is so important. I feel like it's rude for me to say this, but it's like, you don't have anything if you don’t have a script. [laughs] You just don't have anything if you don't have a script, so it so boggles my mind. I totally understand film being like a director's medium, there's so much that goes into that and the camera, I get it. [laughs]

Sadie: Your film Together Together, the character stereotype flip that you do with Matt and Anna, I think it's really rare. Usually, you see the woman being middle aged and wants kids, but it's always been career first and then here comes the good guy. And you flip that, and I think that's just a breath of fresh air. What was the inspiration behind creating these characters for this story?

Nikole: I had a friend, I still have a friend Matt [laughs] who, when we were talking when we first met, there's a maybe just under 10 years between us, and he had just started experiencing his, like, male biological clock. So, we were just talking about it and was like, I'd never heard about that before. And he's an actor and it's like, yeah, you have to put career [first]. It's that's just one of those jobs that demands a ton of focus. And so, he was just kind of talking about that he has a son now. But I just was like, ‘Oh, that's interesting that we don't talk about that’ and that I hadn't heard about it, you know, and I think when we were having those conversations, I was like 28, or 30 or something. And it was like, ‘What?’ And I do think part of feminist representation is also changing the way we represent men, not just women. I think that it's a whole holistic thing. I feel like men don't think about that a lot, because it's like, “Yeah, I'm a feminist, for that stuff over there,” But it is like “Feminism benefits you!” [laughs] “It will do you a world of good dudes.”

I think it's detrimental to only be showing in pop culture, to only be showing men dragged into fatherhood by the arms of a demanding wife, or having to, like, handle it or deal with it once the test turns pink or whatever the fuck. You know, and then just being like, “I'm in crisis, I’m in crisis.” And then all of our female narratives are like, “I just want to have a baby so bad. And I'm gonna do whatever it takes to have babies,” and it's like, this is terrible. Or even, like, in the case of accidental pregnancy narratives, it's like, “Well, I guess I'll rise to the occasion and let my identity become eclipsed as I deal with this.” And then the man is like, “You're ruining my life.” And it's like, OK, well, we've done a ton of damage by like, perpetuating these narratives and stories and these roles that people get stuffed into and it's also like, you know, depictions of fathers and fatherhood is like, dad picks up a kid once, and everyone's like, “Oh my god, what an amazing dad, get out of here. Did you see that dad over there picking up their kid one time? I would die to have that man.” [laughs] And then like the mom has picked up the kid 363 days out of the year or whatever. And they're just like, “Cupcakes are lopsided this this week, Betty.” You know? Yeah. So, that is terrible. And so just part of changing that I just wanted to hear a story of a man who wanted to be a dad, and a woman who was pregnant, and it didn't completely overturn her entire sense of self. Hey, wow.

Ed Helms (left), Patti Harrison (right) Credit: Tiffany Roohani / Bleecker Street

Ed Helms (left), Patti Harrison (right) Credit: Tiffany Roohani / Bleecker Street

Sadie: The way you depict it and handle it, I think is really great. And it just seems more real than not, especially in this day and age. For Patti's character, where it's more of her eye on the prize is just her future and her education. It's just a business transaction. And she's not there for anything else. She's not looking to fall in love with this guy or take more. Just leave me alone. I don't want a relationship. Stop it with your feelings.

Nikole: [laughs] But also yeah, I think like, another trope or trap for that kind of dynamic would be like, ‘She teaches him something amazing that is life’ and she's like, sprinkling manic pixie dream girl fairy dust everywhere. And he's like, “She totally changed my whatever, this lady imparted on me.” And then she just like flitzes off into plot. She took care of her heavy lifting and that's just to teach the dude some stuff. So that was also like, I wanted to be like a fully equal exchange of like emotionality or understanding between them, and to also make it like, subtle, which some people like and some people don't. [laughs] Not everything is like mind blowing, you know, and people actually don't change that easily. Change is a hard one. And that's also part of the story. So anyway, I feel like I was just like anemic for these things and wanted to get the vitamins out there. [laughs]

[Interview with Amazon's 'Them' Creator, Showrunner, EP and Writer Little Marvin]

Sadie: [laughs] Well you did it. You’re onto something great just like your Loner App, which I think if this whole filmmaking thing doesn't work out for you, which I think it will, but you have the Loner App to lean on.

Nikole: Thanks, I do like that app. I'm like, “Can we make it for the release or something?” Like, I don't know. But like, I also I'm like, “I don't know how to do that. What I'm really saying is can someone make this for me for the release?” And everyone's like, “We're busy.” I feel like people are going to be lonely for a long time. It's cool. I have time. [laughs] It’ll still be relevant.

Sadie: [laughs] 100%. And as for working with Patti, I feel like Patti is such a unicorn. She's in all these great things. But what is it just like working with Patti and getting her into this character? And what did she bring to it that opened up your eyes as a filmmaker or just even for this character?

Nikole: Well, Patti is so dear to me, I love her so much. She really is like a sister. Now we've become very close in the almost two years since we made the movie, which seems crazy. Where did 2020 go? For a part like this, especially because it's so internal and especially for Patti who at the at the moment, like when we were meeting about it and talking about it, had never occupied the screen so much in one thing. Had never driven a film or show and had also never been asked for an earnest performance. So that's a lot all at once. And then also for me to be like, “Plus we’ll be strapping weighted pregnancy bellies to your body.”

We shot the film very quickly. I think this is true, like all the time, you have to weirdly develop a shorthand, but you don't actually have any time to develop shorthand, organically, until you have to accelerate this process, which started when I would get together with her an Ed to talk over the script, look over the script. Sometimes it was both of them, but then a lot of time Patti and I were just meeting on the weekends and stuff because I think she was shooting Shrill and so just emailing and talking about stuff. We would go over the script and stuff for like an hour, an hour and a half and then for like two hours or two and a half hours, we were just like talking, getting to know each other and just being very candid and very open. We’re about to do this thing where we're going to be shoulder to shoulder for like 16 hours in a day, and let's just get it all out there. And just creating trust. I mean, if you want someone to be vulnerable with you, you have to be vulnerable with them and Patti and I also just really click. She's incredible. She's incredibly thoughtful.

Patti Harrison (left), Ed Helms (middle), Nikole Beckwith (middle), Crew Member (right) Credit: Tiffany Roohani / Bleecker Street

Patti Harrison (left), Ed Helms (middle), Nikole Beckwith (middle), Crew Member (right) Credit: Tiffany Roohani / Bleecker Street

In the writing, you know, I give a little of myself to each character. I'm always gifting every character a story from my childhood or object that I have a relationship to or like something an idea that I hold precious. And then for the Anna character, obviously there's like a little bit more in there. Like, she's the young woman in the movie, I was once a young woman, and she does have a kind have, like wryness, like I describe Anna the way I have sometimes described myself to various therapists, which is, “I'm an open book, but I'm also a slippery fish.” [laughs] And it's a very strange quality. And that is a lot of what Anna has, I didn't set out to write her that way. But in putting myself or my heart in that position, and trying to get to not trying to spin this yarn or whatever, that's just where a lot of my instincts came from. And so you can't necessarily like direct that. Patti has a magnetism to her and a magnetism, which would be an openness, and then like, you want to watch her, and then a little bit of a salty, too close, don't read the fine print. And, and that's just the things that I was watching. I'm not making a statement about her person. But I mean, it's like just turning the volume down a little bit on her Shrill character, you know.

And so that's a quality, like a duality that she has a real handle on. And so that was part of what originally drew me to her for the role. And then it was just about building off of that. She did, like embarrassingly observe me a little bit like when we would be talking about things, then she'd be like, “Oh, yes, well, I was thinking about those in the script. But also, when you were talking, I picked up on this, this and this,” and then I would be like, [laughs] ‘That’s embarrassing.’ I wouldn't even have realized that I'd like imbued the character with that. But because she had a more objective view of both me and the character, she's like,” Oh, look at look at that.” And I was like, well, that's humiliating. And Saoirse did similar things with me on Stockholm, Pennsylvania and I would be like, ‘Be quiet. I don't want to be seen, I’m behind the camera.’

It was just about being able to call up that intimacy, that the observations we've made about the script about the character about each other about ourselves and each other's company. And the fact that I'm laying right out of frame for everything, breathing that air, I'm like a vapor as I'm directing everywhere. And it really worked. I know that she was nervous. I think in an interview she said she was like, terrified, but she was also very fearless in doing it. Like, I don't think being fearless is actually not having any fear. I think being fearless is just like pushing past it. And that's what she did. She just like very quickly, and deeply rose to the occasion of traversing a lot of ground that she'd never done before, all at once. With a lot of eyes on her as she was doing it, which is super admirable.

It was also a different genre for me film wise, because my first film was different, I mean genre, but tone and feeling. I was also doing a little something new, you know, and also cast the movie in such a way where it was like, yeah, this script is funny. I was the most funny person, and then now I'm the least funny person. So, we are constantly just exchanging vulnerabilities forever and ever and still to this day, which is really nice.

[INDIE SPOTLIGHT: Interview with 'Phobias' writer/director Maritte Lee Go]

Sadie: That's incredible. I still have not seen your first film which I plan to, but is the Rosalind Chao character a crossover character?

Nikole: Nice call. No, it's an Easter egg though. So, in Stockholm, Pennsylvania, Rosalind plays an incredible Dr. Andrews who is the state-appointed psychologist working with Saoirse Ronan's character as she's returned to her biological family. And in Together Together Dr. Andrews is the OBGYN who delivers the baby. And so, the character wasn't Dr. Andrews in the script, but then I called Ros and was like, “Will you do this?” Because I knew the birth scene was the last thing that we shot in those 17 days, and I knew it was gonna be emotional and vulnerable. And I was like, ‘Who better to, like deliver us to that space than Ros?’ She's such an incredible person. So, I was like, “Do you want to do this? Also, like, I never want to make a movie without you in it Ros.” And then when she was like, “Yeah, OK,” and then I was like, “Great. I'm changing the character name to Dr. Andrews,” as a little like weird wink. [laughs] And I do kind of like want to just keep writing Dr. Andrews characters in every movie for the rest of time. Like you won't even know. We'll do a period drama, Ros will be the star of this period drama, and we will just never mention that she has a doctorate in history. And then it turns out, she's Dr. Andrews. It's basically a favor, she did me a kindness by doing that. And she was the perfect person to have there and anchor. She's so supportive and brilliant. And just her voice. I just hear her voice --

Sadie: So soothing.

Nikole: Yeah, soothing. And she is one of the most present supportive people I've ever known. When she signed on, I was like, ‘How many other scenes can I get Dr. Andrews into? Can she come to the baby shower? That's going to be a tricky scene to shoot. Can Ros come to the baby shower?’ And then I was like, ‘Calm down, Nikole.’ But yeah, she's just like peering out the window. As she's walking by, it's just like with her groceries. I just have her everywhere. Because I don't want to be without her.

Sadie: Yeah, she's like the Hitchcock to all of your films now, just random appearances.

Nikole: [laughs] Yes.

Sadie: I'll watch all your movies for that. So last question for you, there's a lot of budding writers out there who are still trying to find and hone their voice on the page. What is some advice you can share in navigating in honing your craft as a writer?

Nikole: I think I will say when I was sat down to write my very first screenplay, I like got that how to write a screenplay book or whatever, the famous ones. I don't want to throw shade, so I'm not gonna say which one it was, but I was reading it and making notes in the margin and then after a certain point, I realized all my notes were like, ‘This is dumb’ and like frowny faces and like crossing things out and being like, ‘Really? Seriously?’ Because it was like one of those things where it was like, “15 pages in your inciting incident has to happen in this” and “think about a movie star.” I was like, ‘This is terrible advice.’ I don't know, for all I know, everyone has followed it and now they're Spielberg or whatever. But when my experience of taking in that information was ‘This sucks’ and felt counterintuitive to me, and yes, the book is right, when you watch most movies, you can time it. Yes. They had pages and pages about you can time it, I'm right, great. You're right. But that doesn't matter. My inciting incidents happen on page one, I do not have the patience to write 15 pages. So, there are no rules, I think is something to remember. And that if there are rules, it's only because somebody made them up. And then other people agreed. So like, who cares? And that's the best way to like advocate for your own voice. And, you know, once other cooks get in the kitchen and cooks will get in the kitchen, deal with that then you're not going to have a leg to stand on, if you've already invited invisible cooks into your private kitchen while you're writing. That's your private time.

And the better your relationship is with the script during that time, the stronger you'll be when all these other cooks come in, so you can maintain your voice and really know what's what. So, does that count as advice?

Sadie: Yeah, I love that. I think a lot of writers, especially those that are starting out, they all want to follow structure to a tee. With your characters, you flipped those character stereotypes. Some rules were meant to be broken and that's how you stand out.

Nikole: Yeah. Basically, every rule almost 99.9% of these life rules, are terrible. That's undeniable to like everything. Everything's terrible. You ruined that, move on.

It's just like the other people who wrote these movies were laughed out of rooms, or you know, the wrong cooks got in the kitchen. But I won't drag anybody, but you know what I mean? I don't think I'm like reinventing a wheel. I'm just like, stubborn. And also, younger generations are becoming the consumers and they're hungry for change. It's like, yeah, we're bored. And I'm not even that young. But like, yeah, we're bored. Hundreds of years of the same archetypes. You know, I mean as we've learned, through all of quarantine, we want to see different things happening. And like literally every corner of every institution of everything that we consume.

Sadie: Nikole, thank you so much for your time. I really enjoyed your movie. I wish you much success and I look forward to seeing Dr. Andrews in more movies.

Nikole: [laughs] Thank you very much. 

Together Together is now in Theaters and available On Digital May 11, 2021.

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