Welcome to Happiness is a wildly entertaining metaphysical drama about a children’s book author, Woody (American Sniper’s Kyle Gallner), who is the secret gatekeeper to a magical door in his closet. Strangers show up at his apartment and go through a series of questions and tests, provided to Woody by an old dot matrix printer that seems to work autonomously, letting him determine whether or not they are worthy to pass through the door. Where they are headed and what they will encounter on the other side, however, is a mystery. Oliver Thompson’s first feature is one of the most refreshingly original films that I’ve seen in a long time. It had a jam-packed screening last night at the 18th Annual Dances With Films festival in Hollywood and recently won the Outstanding Achievement in Filmmaking Award at the 2015 Newport Beach Film Festival. Welcome to Happiness boasts an impressive cast including Nick Offerman, Paget Brewster, Frances Conroy, Brendan Sexton III, Olivia Thirlby, Molly C. Quinn, Keegan Michael-Key, and Josh Brener. Just before the film’s Los Angeles premiere, I sat down with writer/director Oliver Thompson, producer Bay Dariz, and cast members Paget Brewster and Brendan Sexton III.
Danny Miller: I loved this movie but as I was watching it I kept thinking that no studio would have allowed you to make it. They probably would have forced a lot of changes on you because they wouldn’t have trusted that audiences would “get it.”
Oliver Thompson: Oh, they absolutely would have, yes.
Paget Brewster: This could never have been a studio film.
Oliver: I mean, those are absolutely necessary people who are just doing their jobs.
But are they absolutely necessary? I guess I’m thinking of the 22-year-old studio executives giving you pages and pages of insane notes to make the film less “challenging.”
Ooh, that’s pretty accurate.
What I love about movies like this is that they’re like Rorschach tests — I doubt two people seeing it will have the same impression of what’s going on.
Brendan Dean Sexton III: We’ve certainly heard from people who completely identify with different characters.
Brendan, I think I identified most with your character, Nyles, I’m a little terrified to admit.
Bay Dariz: When you say “challenging,” I think that’s true in the sense that the movie challenges the way audience members look at life, but I don’t think it’s some weird art film that’s inaccessible.
Right. It’s more challenging for studio executives who think moviegoers need to always have the answers and know what’s happening.
Brendan: Yeah, I think “challenging” is a good word to use. The characters in the film are challenged to make some decisions after they walk through the door and the film challenges you in terms of how you think about humanity and the meaning of life.
I loved that we didn’t see what happened when they went through that door. Oliver did you ever consider showing that more explicitly?
Oliver: Never! It was suggested to me one time by a producer but I really think that would have wrecked the film.
Paget: I had worked with Kyle and Molly before. Molly sent me the script and my first thought was, “Ugh, first-time indie director — oh man, I don’t know!” And then I read it and instantly fell in love with the story. I’ve never read anything like it. So I emailed Molly back right away and said, “What do I have to do to get on this film?”
Bay: Molly showed us that email, by the way, did you know that? We all said, “Whaaat?! Paget Brewster is excited about US?”
Paget: Oh my God, really? But it was such an evocative script and I think the movie came together even more beautifully than what you see on the page. The themes are just extraordinary, you don’t find that very often.
Brendan: Yeah, I thought it was a visually compelling literary script that moved really well. Not only was it a great role and a great script, it also tackled big things. Just reading a great script is such a rare thing — getting a chance to be involved with one is an even rarer treat, especially a film that really tackles the human condition.
I love all the little touches like making Kyle Gallner’s Woody a children’s book author.
Oliver: I wanted him to have a certain innocence about him. I used to be a music teacher at a small private school in Michigan — I wanted to have him involved with kids in some way. I toyed with the idea of making him a teacher or even a nanny, but then I went with a more literary approach.
I love that you showed all those children’s books that he wrote. I know they weren’t real but I so wanted them!
What’s crazy is that there’s so much more to those fake books that what you see on the screen. We show the cool front covers but they all have back covers, too, with a photo of Woody, a bio, bar codes, even prices for the U.S. and Canada. Some of those books were completely written and illustrated by Bay!
I love that attention to detail, you should really sell them! How has it been showing the film to audiences?
Before Dances With Films, we only screened it at the Newport Beach Film Festival so far. The audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive — it was just fantastic, better than we could have ever imagined.
It’s crazy that you don’t have a distributor yet but I’m sure that will change very shortly.
We’ve had some people from that world sit down with us and try to prepare us for what we’ll probably hear: “You have to cut the film down to 90 minutes! Change the title! What were you thinking starting your title with a ‘W’?!”
Why is that bad?
Because when you’re on HBO GO, it’ll come up at the end of the alphabetical list.
Oy. Do audience members try to get you to tell them what the film means?
At Newport Beach, we had a phenomenal Q&A after the film. People asked very meaningful questions about things we couldn’t even believe they noticed. We went so long that the theater finally had to kick us out because they were turning off the lights. As far as what the film is about, I don’t think I’m in a place yet to pull the David Lynch “you figure it out on your own” card, but I’d love to get to that place. I think I have to be a little more giving but to tell the truth, it’s fun to talk about that.
You should give wildly different answers every time someone asks you to explain the film.
(Laughs.) That would be great. Did you see that documentary Room 237 about all the supposed meanings behind Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining?
Paget: Oh, that was great! All these conspiracy theorists saying that Kubrick was trying to tell us that we faked the moon landing.
Oliver: Yeah, they presented several different crazy theories including that it was really about the genocide of Native Americans!
You want it to be like that Marshall McLuhan scene in Annie Hall when McLuhan appears in that movie line to tell the pretentious blowhard that all of his theories about his film were total bullshit!
Oliver: I haven’t heard any crazy theories about Welcome to Happiness yet, but who knows?
Brendan: I think the world Oliver created here is so rich and compelling it could lead to crazy theories. I think it would make a great TV show, too.
Oliver: Well, two of my biggest influences for this film were Twin Peaks and Lost. They were buzzing around my head when I wrote this script.
Brendan: You could have a new case every week or maybe focus on three different characters each season who go through the door and see how they intertwine.
Bay: Sshhh! It’s been discussed!
Just promise me you’ll have a series finale that’s less aggravating than the one on Lost!
Oliver: I don’t know. I realize that ending didn’t really answer a lot of questions but I was pretty moved by it. In my opinion, people think they want all the answers, but they really don’t.
Paget: And we’re still talking about that finale five years after the show went off the air! I think that kind of response is a lot better than an ending that is just “meh.”
Oliver: I heard director Nicolas Winding Refn say that if you’ve made something that half the people love and half the people hate, you’ve made something great. But if you make something that everyone loves or everyone hates, you probably haven’t succeeded because it didn’t really penetrate.
He doesn’t have to worry about the lack of people hating his most recent film!
The truth is, I’m very aware that this movie is not for everyone. But look at how many viewers Lost had each week. There was never a more challenging hour on TV! “What did I just watch? I have no idea what’s going on!” And yet people tuned in. I really believe there’s an audience for that kind of stuff. People are smart — they like to think. It’s just that a lot of people controlling the money don’t always realize that people like to be engaged or challenged with thought-provoking material.
Bay: One thing I noticed about our Q&As is that we don’t get a lot of those typical film festival questions.
Oliver: Right. “What did you shoot it on? How long was your shoot?”
Ugh. Who gives a shit?
That’s the thing. In this case, people got right to the heart of the film and wanted to talk about the characters and the themes. People were so engaged by what was on the screen that they didn’t care about what was behind the screen.