This holiday season, you can celebrate family at the movies with The Guilt Trip, which tells the story of Andy Brewster (Seth Rogen), as he embarks on a cross-country road trip with his mother, Joyce (Barbra Streisand), to turn one of his inventions into a success. With both funny and poignant moments on their mother-son adventure, each realizes that they just want the other to be happy.
At the film’s press day, director Anne Fletcher (The Proposal, Step Up) spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about what appealed to her about the script, the courting process to get Barbra Streisand to sign on, why the mother-son relationship isn’t often explored on film, how the test screening process helped shape the tone and jokes, and the biggest challenges of doing a movie about a cross-country road trip when you never actually leave Los Angeles. She also talked about what else she currently has in development, the challenges of doing a holiday movie (Alone for the Holidays) that you hope people will want to return to every year, her desire to reunite with Sandra Bullock for a couple different projects, and how her background as a dancer and choreographer has worked to her benefit. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
ANNE FLETCHER: I definitely identified with this script, immensely, because it is my relationship with my mom and her relationship with my brother. But, it was Barbra and Seth that I saw, when reading this script. I didn’t really see my mom. A lot of the characters in the script were already in my head. When you read something, people just start popping up. I hate when I get a script and I can’t see who the people are. It almost feels like I’m John Edwards, the psychic, and I’m trying to get a letter, but it’s not right. I’m like, “My god, I can’t figure it out!” But, that was easy with this. What was hard was trying to convince Barbra to do the movie, which Seth was waiting for, and convincing the studio. They were excited about the pairing, but they had to stay with it because it took so long. I didn’t have any back-up. This was it, or I couldn’t make the movie. I just didn’t see it any other way.
Was there ever a time when you really thought it might not actually happen?
FLETCHER: Barbra will say that she said no. She turned the movie down later on, way fully into the year, but never came to me. In her mind, she thought she said no, but I was still calling and going, “Hi, so what’s happening?” I think there was one moment where they were like, “We don’t think this is going to happen.” And I was like, “That’s impossible! I haven’t come this far for it to not happen. It just does not make any sense.” It just felt like all of the pieces were in the right place, so how is that possible? But then, that was fleeting, thank god!
Was it just coincidental that screenwriter Dan Fogelman was also hoping for Barbra Streisand to be in the film?
FLETCHER: It was all at the same time, basically. It really was. I didn’t meet Dan, when I first got the movie. I met him later, down the road. It’s been over three years now, since I was hired, so I can’t remember [exactly how it happened]. I feel like Barbra was thrown out there, as an idea, when I first got the script. I didn’t know how I felt about that until I read the script, and then it just all fell into place and I was like, “There is just no other way to do the movie!”
Why do you think it is that mother-son relationships never seem to be explored in film?
FLETCHER: I don’t know. That’s a really good question. I think you could take a mom and make her really over-the-top and shrill, and the stereotype of what most moms are. I thought Albert Brooks did a fantastic job with his mother with Debbie Reynolds, called Mother. I thought that was an awesome film. I watched all these road trip movies and anything that was mom oriented, before doing this movie, and I was like, “God, this movie is so funny!” I had completely forgotten about it, and I think he’s a genius. Maybe people don’t think moms are cool. I don’t know what to say about it. I don’t know. Romantic comedies aren’t for everybody, so maybe mom movies aren’t for everybody. I think that Dan wrote such a great script and it was important, all the way through, for me to stay true to it and keep it grounded in a real place. We don’t need to make moms more over-the-top. They already are over-the-top. They are overbearing and they suffocate us and they push our buttons like no other human being on earth, but there’s not another person on earth that will love you more than she does. I really wanted to walk that line, but more based in reality and not go over-the-top. I think the subtlety is where the genius is and where the reality is, with Seth and Barbra.
Was it important to you to make sure that, no matter how upset this mother and son get with each other, it still all comes from a place of love?
FLETCHER: Yeah. We played with all the different levels of how far you could go and how little you could go, just so that, in the cutting room, I had all the options. It’s all based on their relationship and the words and their growth and what they learn about each other. We don’t have any flashy scenes or any set pieces. It’s a journey within a journey. So, we had to figure out how we were going to tell a story where he’s not a total jerk and she’s not an irritating character. They have to be lovable. You have to route for both of them.
How much did the test screening process affect the tone and the way you wanted the jokes to play?
FLETCHER: You have your own sensibility and you know what you like, and that’s always the first thing. That’s why people hire you to do it. But, I like to make movies for audiences to come see. So, if the audience is telling me that the Andy character is too mean to his mom or she’s too over-the-top, I’m going to take that note to heart. I want people to come see the movie, and I want them to love it and have a great experience. Out of 300 people, if two people say that they think Andy is too over-the-top, I’m not going to listen to it. It’s the general note where you go, “Okay, I have to listen to the audience because I want them to love it. This is easy for me to do, and I know how to address this and make it work.” With the testing, you shape and you shave and you discover and you come up with great things for the final product. I love putting any of my movies in front of audiences because they will tell you how they feel, and you have to suck it up. Without any ego, you go, “I’m making movies for people to watch.” What else are we doing it for?! Is it just for three people to love my film? That doesn’t make any sense. You get it super clear, what’s working and what’s not, from test screenings. And then, you go, “Check. Got it. It’s gone.” I love that experience.
FLETCHER: Everything is a challenge. Even with The Proposal, it was meant to be in Alaska and we shot the whole thing in Massachusetts. Those things aren’t very scary to me. If the content of the film is enough, which this script was, then I can fake it and be fine. I can do movie magic and put it in front of a green screen. Our time was limited for shooting, just in general. There would have been a lot more cinematic choices that I would have made, had I had more of an ability to do so. However, the other side of the cinematic experience that I got to do was faking the audience out with green screen and just trying to be as interesting as possible. It’s very difficult. There’s only a handful of angles that you can do with a camera and green screen. It is challenging, but it’s the content of the film and the journey that they take, emotionally. That is the thing that you get sucked into and, hopefully, you’re not taken out. The only goal is to not take the audience out of this movie magic that we did.
Do you know which of the projects you have in development will be the one you shoot next?
FLETCHER: I don’t. That’s a good question. You have a couple plates in the air, whether it’s the development of the script and turning that in at a certain time or trying to get the right actors for the movie, if they’re not working. At the end of the day, as boring as it is, it’s part of my job. You don’t know when the plate is going to fall. I’m like, “Which one is going to happen next? I don’t have a clue.” At this moment, I don’t know yet, but that’s kind of fun. I’m closing the year off with this movie that has been a part of my life for so long, and starting the new year not knowing what I’m doing. That’s kind of nice. It’s just clean. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next. I literally live by the thought that the right project will come to you at the right time. I know that sounds so spiritually freaky, but that is the truth. You can’t push it. You have to just stay in the moment, and you’ll know when it’s the right movie.
You have a Christmas movie in development, with Alone for the Holidays. What are the additional challenges in making a movie that you ideally want people to revisit, every holiday season?
FLETCHER: That’s a really good question, and it’s very difficult. You keep saying that you want it to be a classic and you want it to be something that people want to see on the holidays, every year. It’s hard. Those movies are so special and unique, and they have a tone and heart about them that makes you keep coming back. It’s constantly in your mind because you don’t want people to only watch it one time. You’re always thinking about that because you want people to not only see it in the theater, but own it and love it.
FLETCHER: I don’t know. It’s a great adoration and admiration. Sandy and I like to say that we were separated at birth. We’re very, very similar, in spooky ways. I’m equally as beautiful and thin. No. But, we are similar. She’s a dancer in her soul, no question, and I love the physical comedy. As a dancer, I was always the physical comedy girl. I love it so much. We just click, in that way, and we click in life. I see her, all the time. I think she’s amazing. I don’t know. You vibe with different people and really connect sometimes. There’s a real connection there. I have that with Dan Fogelman. I wish that I could work with him on every project under the sun, but he’s about to take us all down with his TV empire, and he’s about to direct his first film. His brain is so amazing. He blows me away, all the time.
Step Up really launched your career, as a director. Do you feel like your background, as a dancer and choreographer, has been really invaluable, in dealing with the chaos of a movie set?
FLETCHER: I think so. There’s the staging element that is part of anything. All of my background on any set with choreography, was having to learn how to stage and choreograph things for the camera. That’s very different that stage or video, and it becomes another character in the piece and is very story driven. Cutting scenes, listening to the way people talk and listening to the way people move is all rhythm and dance, to me. When I come onto a set, I have to stage every scene physically and do the physicality. If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t right, and I think that is my dance background. I’m always open to somebody else having a better idea, but I feel like, if it feels real, then people aren’t thinking about it and they’re just doing the acting of it. But, all of it comes from dance. For me, I’m a dancer first. I could be the President of the United States, and I will always be a dancer, first and foremost.
The Guilt Trip is now playing in theaters.