Past and present collide in this supernaturally funny buddy comedy when stoner-slacker Hannah (Melanie Lynskey) is hired to portray Lady Wadsworth (Judy Greer), a Southern belle who died in 1875, in a tour at Wadsworth Manor. Hannah, a hot mess, figures she can fake it — until the ghost of Lady Wadsworth appears! Lady Wadsworth tells Hannah it’s time to change her wild ways — and she’ll haunt her until she does — in this hilarious movie costarring Justin Long and Ryan Phillippe.
Lady of the Manor is a knee-slapping comedy that carries the spirit of many great 80s and 90s comedy films that have come before that carry a moral message at the surface, like Uncle Buck and Trading Places. I had a wonderful time speaking with filmmakers and brothers Christian and Justin Long about the impetus for this story, their creative collaboration, sneaking in a Trojan horse for comedy and subtle social commentary, and working with their cast and crew.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Great movie. It's light. It's sincere. You have the historical element, ghosts, and fart jokes. What more can you ask for?
Justin Long: [laughs] The whole spectrum of it. Well, that was our goal, it's like the Trojan horse of comedy. How do we sneak in some fart jokes?
Christian Long: Yeah, how do we combine civil war with farts?
Justin: They definitely farted back then. [laughs] Yeah, thanks for saying that, Sadie.
Sadie: Yeah, of course. So, where did this idea come from for this script?
Christian: We had an idea…what if we made or someone made, preferably us, a comedic version of Psycho, where the mother character didn't drive her son to murder people. But instead, she was just really naggy.
Justin: Really overbearing.
Christian: And annoying. So obviously, it turned into something other than that, but that was that dynamic of a ghost who is haunting someone in an obnoxious way, kind of set this idea in motion.
Justin: Because we had to keep an eye on the budget, we were looking to set it mostly in one location. We were working with kids from the Ringling school to make this web series in Sarasota and having the best experience meeting such inspiring crew members and people who we later worked with on this movie, but we found this great location, there were all these like abandoned motels in a row on this road. And we thought, ‘Oh, we could set it there.’ And that became the comedic Psycho, but then we married that with our desire to make an Odd Couple comedy, like a classic. I'm not saying our movie is classic, but like that.
Christian: Not yet! [laughs]
Justin: [laughs] Yeah. But that setup, we've always loved like two very different people not getting along. And so that was that - it was that combination.
Sadie: Speaking of location, where did you guys shoot and where did you find this house? And did it come fully dressed?
Justin: So, so, the opposite.
Christian: Yeah, the movie takes place in Savannah, because we love Savannah, and it has a lot of ghost history and civil history. We wanted to shoot in Savannah, and it just didn't work out budget wise, and our producers sold us on Tampa, St. Petersburg area and we were dubious - that's not going to look like Savannah. But amazingly it did. I mean, there's so much history down there too.
Justin: We were so surprised but Tampa is I guess the second oldest city in Florida. And I didn't know that there was a whole section of Tampa that was really old-world looking. I mean, it looks just like you would imagine parts of Savannah and New Orleans and it had the great Spanish moss. And so, we got lucky there. But then the house itself, which is such, as you know, it's like a character in and of itself. The house on the outside looked appropriate for the time period, it was that style. But inside it was a modern living space and our production designer, Shawn and his whole crew, within a matter of like days transformed that place. They did such a number on it. It was incredible. We were so floored by what they did to that place and in such a short amount of time. It's funny, we keep talking about what a low budget it is and it was it was a low budget movie, but because of people like Shawn and that crew, it looks a lot more expensive. And obviously, getting actors like Melanie and Judy and Ryan Phillippe, hopefully it looks…
Christian: It looks legit. [laughs]
Sadie: You guys did it. Congratulations, it’s on its way to becoming a classic and we will have it on Criterion in 10 years.
Justin: 10 years? 10 days! [laughs]
Sadie: 10 days, OK, I can get behind that. So, talking about characters and Hannah's character, I love that line that she early on, “It’s all just a misunderstanding,” and that carries through each central character, they're kind of like chickens with their heads cut off and are still trying to figure things out. But the payoff is just so wonderful. Plus, the historical context again, and also kind of hinting at current social commentary too, which I thought was really nicely done.
Justin: Well, again, we want to we wanted to also Trojan horse in some of the commentary.
Christian: Yeah, we didn't want to hit anyone over the head with it. But there's definitely, as you said, there's definitely some common social commentary about, among other things, what it means to be a woman now versus back then and so many things have changed.
Justin: We were reading as much literature as we could, that was written during that time period, just to get Judy's voice down in the vernacular. And we wanted to be as specific as possible and real about how she spoke and so we've got to know this book, The American Woman's Home by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which we referenced in the movie, and there was a part in it that really struck us which we kind of like stole a little bit for the movie, where she basically, I'm paraphrasing, it was a very progressive book at the time and very popular book and she says, “Women have come so far now, a woman's place is no longer just in the kitchen, but her duties extends all over the house, and she could go anywhere else in this house.” Not still relegated to her being a homemaker and so we just thought, ‘God, how far things have come.’
In terms of the comedic value, that happened to characters with such different points of view. We thought that might be an interesting thing to explore comedically, funny and interesting.
Christian: Hopefully more funny than interesting.
Sadie: You got both. In terms of the screenplay, how did you two decide that this was the one you were going to collaborate on? And then make this your feature directing debut together? Especially as brothers, that's a whole other thing - you have a lot of writing partners or spouses - I'd love to hear your guys' process.
Christian: I would just say that this became the first one because people let us make it. It’s kind of as simple as that. We have another script that it's in development, but didn't come together. But this, we found producers who were willing to make it.
Justin: And again, a lot of it had to do with the budget.
Christian: That's why we tried to write it from a practical point of view. Originally the goal was to make it all in one location to save money. And we didn't totally succeed in doing that. But a lot of the movie takes place in that one location. We were trying to think of ways to make a low-budget movie that was our version of one of these great comedies that we grew up watching.
Justin: Right, also accessible, though, we wanted to make it more commercial. The idea itself felt more commercial. And we wanted like you mentioned some of the broader elements of it, our ambition was just to have a fun, enjoyable, experience and something that we would have enjoyed watching. We loved the process of writing so much that I think it was to just make something that we wrote. And what's the easiest way to make this thing that we've enjoyed writing. It was that simple, I think.
Sadie: And then in terms of the characters, I love Melanie's and Judy’s characters, did you write those roles specifically for those actors, or just lucked out getting a really stellar cast?
Christian: The ladder. We got very lucky. We wrote them more with people in our own lives in mind. Not necessarily actors. Justin suggested Melanie Lynskey and I love her as an actress, she's so good, but I can admit this now that I think she's worked out so well, she's so great in the movie, but my initial reaction to it was like, ‘Oh, I can't imagine her in a broad comedy like that.’ She does these amazing, dramatic roles. But he had worked with her and said how funny she was as a person. And you were just so convinced that she could do it and right, and you were so right.
Justin: Yeah. And had I not worked with her and gotten to know her, I probably wouldn't have thought of her in that capacity either. We had done this drama together, wasn't at all a funny movie, but in between takes we laughed so much. I think she's one of the funniest people I've ever met. And we connected so immediately. I knew that she would have a take on this script. I knew she'd appreciate even some of the broader elements. Because it had some broader elements and you know, there's fart jokes, and dick jokes, and pot smoking, and we wanted actors who would ground it and wouldn't necessarily play the comedy because then it would just be cartoonish. There's nobody better at grounding something, both of them, Judy, Melanie, and Ryan Phillippe. They come from such a truthful place in their acting, that was important to the script. And it also helped eliminate any of the areas of the script that were written that were not written well, I guess.
Christian: It's also the type of comedy we like. Comedy that's more truthful, comedy that's not played for the comedy, you know, when the acting is just more real, those are the type of movies we grew up watching and liking. I think that was our attempt to make our version of one of those movies we grew up watching, that was our goal, you know, and a huge part of accomplishing that goal is, like you said, getting these actors who are more than capable of playing the reality of the comedy, you know?
Sadie: Yeah, absolutely. And then from a directing standpoint, when Justin was in front of the camera, Christian, were you taking the reins or were you going back and forth?
Christian: That's kind of how it worked. He was more of the communicator when he wasn't he wasn't on camera. But we would huddle and talk, it was pretty balanced.
Justin: It was. I think you're a lot better at cutting to the chase because we were limited on time and we were talking about this the other day, Christian and I do this podcast, Life is Short, Melanie the guest coming up and we were joking about our dynamic as directors with Melanie specifically and with Judy where I would get so excited, but we are both so excited by what they were doing. But I would come and just be like very effusive like, “You did this and it was great!”
Christian: A little good cop bad cop, “It was great, but we have to do one more take because you didn't say this line.” Melanie started seeing more of the taskmaster.
Justin: Not really. She trusted him, she just started going right to Christian You could get a real answer from Christian. That's kind of how it developed. You had mentioned about like husband and wife teams and how rare it is for siblings and people often say, “Dow did you work with your brother?” I can't imagine working with anyone else. I trust him. I trust his sensibility and he's the funniest person I know.
Christian: Aw, likewise.
Justin: Now it's gonna sound arrogant, comedically, we're on the same page. [laughs]
Christian: Oh, you're on the same page as the funniest person? [laughs]
Justin: The most brilliant. [laughs]
Sadie: [laughs] I saw that you had some carryover from crew on your short film that you guys did. Just a quick story, but Justin, years ago I worked on a commercial you were in and I remember you taking the time to address every crew member and learn their names, and I was totally blown away by that – it’s so rare on sets in this industry. I can only imagine you surround yourself with really good team members on your set. When you're looking for your team, what are you looking for in your crew?
Justin: Yeah, that's a good question. Well, like you said, we had met a bunch of really talented people down there in Florida who have worked at the Ringling school. Christian and I made this web series called The Real Stephen Blatt and we did it mostly with students. And they were so inspiring. Their enthusiasm was really inspiring, you know, when you're around, I'm going to sound old now, but like, when you're around younger folks they remind you of what that felt like when the world was just full of potential and there was such an excitement to making movies, and they all had that. Whatever they lacked in experience they totally made up for in their drive.
Christian: A lot of it's just lucky. It's just people who we were presented with. They had relationships, and many of whom we were meeting for the first time and we got lucky in that the crew was so professional, and we learned so much technically from a lot of them. But also, they were really kind and patient with us. They were like, really the combination of very talented, creative people, but also, really nice people, easy to be around. And it made the whole experience fun. And you know, there's no drama or any attitudes on set, everyone just really seemed really into it.
Justin: Yeah, and Sadie I'm glad you have that memory because I love meeting and getting to know people, and I do love interacting with the crew. And certainly, on a commercial, that’s the joy -doing it with other people. The gratitude that we felt for anyone who was going to come and spend their precious time working on this thing that we had written, it meant so much to us. We have a deep sense of gratitude for the crew. And I think they felt that we were all kind of doing something together, it was a real sense of community and we're doing this fun thing together, and there'd be a lot of laughter on set, like the whole crew would join in and they'd have ideas, and you know, we’d get ideas from like the gaffer or from a wardrobe person.
Christian: It was collaborative.
Justin: Yeah. And we learned to just listen. My favorite directors, like Sam Raimi, would listen to everyone, “So, what do you think, sir?” There’d be a grip carrying a light and he would ask their opinion, and a PA and that was really inspiring to me. And so that's how we kind of were, just naturally open to any ideas.
Sadie: I think that’s awesome. Well guys, thank you so much for your time, and congrats on the movie. I hope you guys do more together.
Justin: I hope so too.
Christian: Thanks so much.
Sadie: Make some more classics for us.
Justin: [laughs] We're on it.
Lady of the Manor is available in Select Theaters, on Digital and On Demand September 17th, and available on Blu-ray and DVD September 21st.