Did you see Bill Hader host Saturday Night Live this weekend? It was so great to see him (and surprise guest Kristen Wiig) back on that show, they are simply two of the funniest people alive. But their recent film, Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins, also shows what gifted dramatic actors they are. The film has been doing very well in limited release over the past month. Hader and Wiig play estranged twins Milo and Maggie who both feel they’re at the end of their ropes. But an unexpected reunion forces them to confront why their lives went so wrong. As the twins reconnect, they realize that they key to fixing their lives may just lie in repairing their relationship to each other. The Skeleton Twins also stars Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, and Joanna Gleason. I talked to writer/director Craig Johnson just before the film opened and recently had the chance to sit down with his co-screenwriter Mark Heyman, no stranger to dark subject matter — he co-wrote the script for the 2010 Darren Aronofsky film Black Swan starring Natalie Portman.
Danny Miller: I’m so glad to see such great word of mouth on this film. I think Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig are so great in these roles but I’m very glad that your distributor didn’t try to sell it as a hilarious comedy.
Mark Heyman: I know, me too! I think it would be really tempting to sell a film with those two as a total comedy but that would be very dangerous. I mean, the very first scene is Bill attempting suicide! I think people would have been horrified. “This isn’t what I paid for!” But when you know you’re going to see a somewhat dark film and it ends up being funny, that’s more of a pleasant surprise.
It’s a very hard tone to achieve but I think you and Craig Johnson really nailed it. Did that take a lot of drafts and reworking?
Oh God, yes. Craig and I went to film school together and we started working on this story about 10 years ago — around the time that Bill and Kristen met, I think. There were a couple of early attempts when we were still students and figuring out how to write. I think we only made it to about page 40 on the first few drafts.
How were those drafts different?
Well, we always had these twins named Maggie and Milo but the story was more of a true romance-style road trip! And then we’d run out of steam by page 40. I learned about the vital importance of outlining working on this screenplay!
I’m surprised by how much discussion there has been on what this film IS — comedy with drama, drama with comedy. It’s a good thing we don’t have to label our own lives in that way!
(Laughs.) To be honest, nothing I’ve done falls neatly into a single genre. I think that jams people’s radar a little bit.
Although I doubt anyone ever called Black Swan a comedy!
No, but even there, it wasn’t quite a thriller, it wasn’t quite a horror movie, it wasn’t quite a dance movie. People definitely had problems figuring out what genre it was.
Who would even want to write something that so neatly fit into one genre — isn’t that the fun of writing?
Yes, I completely agree, that IS the fun of writing! To me, it ends up being more of a marketing issue — not my problem! Of course, in some ways it’s easier to write a straight genre film because there are certain tropes and rules, but it’s so much more fun to break out of those boxes.
You have such an extraordinary cast in this film. I don’t know when Bill and Kristen came onto the scene but did you always imagine using people who came from the comedy world?
I think Craig always had in mind casting people who he knew had comedic abilities — I think it’s easier in a way for comedic people to do serious drama than the reverse. I think it’s way harder for some dramatic actors to be funny, it’s just not a muscle they have.
And, of course, scratch the surface of most comedy and out comes a lot of pain and anguish.
Exactly, and recent sad events certainly point to that. And many comedians naturally have this kind of buoyancy so even if the film is exploring some really dark stuff, there’s a lightness, there’s a spark.
I was surprised to hear from Craig that you had virtually no rehearsal period before you started shooting.
There just wasn’t any time. Bill was still on SNL and Kristen’s schedule was incredibly tight. But sometimes this serendipitous thing happens when you cast people. It was instantly clear to us that the right people were doing these roles. And Bill and Kristen were such pros and such good actors that they were never going to be over the top when it wasn’t appropriate to do so.
I guess the other risk of hiring people who are so good at comedy is that they may be like, “I know you know me for this one thing, but now I am ACTING!” But that never happened here, these are such natural performances.
Yes, they both had a serious amount of restraint which I so admired, they never went in and chewed the scenery. Craig was also great as a director helping them to realize that they didn’t have to do a lot in certain scenes.
I also talked with Craig about how impressed I was with the supporting cast of Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, and Joanna Gleason. Those characters could have been one-note performances but they each had so much depth.
It’s so true, they could have easily gone in a cartoony way. But true actors, which those three certainly are, are driven by a real curiosity. Who is this person? What makes them tick? I was on set the day Joanna did her scenes and she was so thoughtful and knowledgeable about this person.
And so brave in portraying aspects of the mother that were anything but sympathetic.
You get the sense with a lot of these New Age-y people — at least I have in my experience — that they probably lived through some really shitty experiences and that this was their last-ditch attempt to get out of the muck. Joanna’s performance lets you feel that pain simmering underneath.
Black Swan was such an international juggernaut — is your experience with this film very different?
You know, with Black Swan, it’s not like we saw that coming in advance. Before that film opened we were totally prepared for it to fall on its face — I mean, it was very genre-bending, really out there and dark.
Do you tend to read all the stuff written about your movies?
You can’t help but follow it a bit. It’s scary, but with this film, there was this moment when we first screened it at Sundance — it was the first time in front of a proper audience and we had no idea how it was going to work. But during the screening we could immediately feel how it was connecting with the audience and from that moment on, we knew we were going to be okay. I mean, haters are going to hate, but when you’re in a room with total strangers and they’re responding to the film in such a visceral way, you know you’ve succeeded on some level.
Since you tend to write about dark topics, do you find that people think you’re taking some of these situations and neuroses from your own life?
Definitely! After Black Swan came out, people would come up to me and say, “Man, you must really be fucked up!” They assumed that the darkness and weirdness just had to come from me in some way. But it doesn’t. The truth is I’m interested in these topics and it’s partly a way to get to explore such material without having to live it! The Skeleton Twins is pretty tame by comparison, we’ll see what people say. But there were plenty of times where I’d get these messages on Facebook that said, “Dude, I went to see Black Swan. Are you okay?”