At once a work that is both highly personal and universal in its celebration of all people who are looking for special friendships and connections in their lives, the comedic-drama Paper Man marks the first directorial effort from husband-and-wife screenwriting team Michele and Kieran Mulroney. The film centers on the unlikely bond that develops between a middle-aged writer (Jeff Daniels) who’s struggling with writer’s block and the demands of adulthood and a 17-year-old girl (Emma Stone) who’s suppressing a family secret that has stolen away her youth and its joy. The cast also includes Lisa Kudrow, Ryan Reynolds and Kieran Culkin.
Michele and Kieran talked to us about the challenges of directing their first feature film and how the Sundance Institute helped them develop their project. They also updated us on the Sherlock Holmes sequel — how they got the writing assignment, their love of the character, their favorite Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes story, and their thoughts on Brad Pitt possibly playing Professor Moriarty.
The Mulroneys previous writing credits include Justice League: Mortal, The Sleeping Father and Equals, all for Warner Bros. Previously, they spent a season writing for the Emmy-nominated PBS series Wishbone. They have also worked as script doctors on numerous films, including Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Poseidon, The Lakehouse and Mirrors. Here’s the interview:
Michele Mulroney: Exhilarating and stressful are words that come to mind. It had been a very long road getting there as it often is with independent films. I think there was a lot of gratitude too. We were smart enough to surround ourselves with brilliant, very experienced people in our department heads and our crew. We had a nice safety net but it was crazy. It was a crazy ride.
Kieran Mulroney: It was, but we were lucky enough to have a wonderful crew who were too glad to show up to work every day and just made it as painless as it could be.
MM: It was a great time.
Q: What’s your working dynamic when you’re directing? How do you divide the responsibilities?
KM: Mostly fighting badly. (Laughs) No, we went in thinking that we would split the job a little bit – sort of one with the camera and one with the actors – and it didn’t end up working that way at all.
MM: It was pretty fluid actually.
KM: It was.
MM: It was very seat of the pants every day. We would just get there and one of us would have a feel for the scene we were doing and one of us would be connecting well with one of the actors that day, so we would just do that. The other person had a vision for “well, let’s put the camera over there.” I mean, it was really not as organized as we intended it to be, but I think in that way it worked well. We stayed pretty nimble and flexible about who had the best idea or the most stamina or could shout louder.
KM: It’s probably a question better asked of the crew and cast to see whether that’s how it came across. It may not have. It may have just been us going “Blah, blah, blah.”
MM: (Laughs) “Those Mulroneys! Oh God!”
KM: “I wish they’d shut up between the two of them.” It was really a fluid thing which was nice.
Q: You had a lot of experience coming into this after writing together for years.
KM: We did. We’ve been doing that for many, many years which is another complicated process. But also, it works in a very fluid way where we sometimes work together sitting next to each other, sometimes we work separately and edit one another, sometimes we’ll write and rewrite one another. And, depending on almost the day, even on a single project, it can switch and change, so we try and stay flexible.
MM: We just have to keep it interesting. We don’t want to get into too many ruts, otherwise it can drive you crazy.
Q: Can you talk about the casting process and how you assembled such a great group of actors?
MM: Boy, did we win the lottery or what? I don’t even know.
KM: We were so lucky.
MM: There was a pretty extensive audition process for some of the roles — the Abby role that we ended up finding the amazing Emma Stone for and Kieran Culkin had been a fan of the project for years. He might even say that he’d been stalking us in the most adorable way.
KM: He actually found it very early and demanded a meeting with us years and years ago when he was much younger. And when we came to finally doing it, we met a lot of young guys for the part and it had been almost 6 years probably. We just thought Kieran will be too old now. And then, when we were in New York, he demanded another meeting and he wasn’t and he was lovely, and so he hung in with us and really pursued it.
MM: He did. I think Ryan Reynolds was with the project for about 3 years through the ups and downs of financing and all the typical independent roller coaster. Ryan was such a sweet, loyal friend to the project. He has a lot of opportunities and he really was determined he was going to make this movie with us. So we’re very grateful for that.
KM: I think his agent was …
MM: …less determined. (Laughs) It’s not a payday.
KM: He was angry with us because, to his great credit, Ryan turned down some things that were much bigger in order to free up this little piece of time for him to do this movie when we finally found ourselves making it.
MM: We met Jeff on another project. We were meeting Jeff for something else and got to know him a little bit and then when Paper Man came around, I mean, he’s just one of our favorite actors. He’d always been on our little short list or fantasy list for Richard and he is a writer himself in real life, and he just connected so easily with that person and that character. And then, Lisa was just kind of a gift. We met her for lunch and we kicked each other under the table after about 10 seconds of being with Lisa Kudrow.
KM: It was actually Michele who kicked me. I think I still have the bruise. We’d met a lot of actors for that role as well, and when she sat down with us, within seconds Michele went bam! I know, I know, I’m with you. I got it. She’s perfect.
MM: They were great. They really respected one another and they worked great as a team. Everybody. It was a little bit too good to be true. We should be so lucky to have that cast.
KM: I don’t know if we’ll get that lucky again – not in terms of talent, I hope we always get that lucky – but their generosity and willingness to work with us and to be part of a team and to take direction and solicit direction and want us to describe what we saw in these people every day was just generous across the board, and well prepared and brilliant. All of them were great.
Q: What inspired you to write this and what was it about the characters and the themes that really resonated with you?
MM: Failure inspired us to write this actually. Complete despair and failure. We’d kind of hit a really big wall in our screenwriting career and we weren’t going where we wanted to go. We weren’t even sure why we were doing it anymore. We were doing okay but we weren’t getting movies made. We just got very frustrated and we took ourselves out of the business for a couple years.
KM: Someone said that we got kicked out of the business. It depends on who you ask. (Laughs)
MM: It depends on how you look at it, but we sort of checked out and during that time we wrote some stuff and Paper Man was one of the scripts we wrote. It just came out of that feeling of here we are getting towards our middle years and we are creative people. This is what we love to do but is it what we should be doing? Is this an adult thing to be doing with your time? Are we goofy? Are we nuts? A lot of our friends were going through the “should we have kids, should we not have kids, should we get divorced, should we stay married?” Big adult things were happening around us and to us and we wanted to reflect some of that so we wrote Paper Man. We wanted to write about these adult things, but we also wanted it to be a fun ride, which is how we ended up with superheroes and imaginary friends, some of the funnier parts of the story. But it wasn’t something we planned or outlined or thought about. It was very stream of consciousness kind of writing for us reflecting a period of our lives when we were relating a little bit to that Jeff Daniels character who was stark and feeling a bit insecure.
KM: It was too something that we really wrote for ourselves. We always knew that we were going to direct it, and it was always something that was purely for us, without any sort of industry expectations. So, there was a freedom to goof off a little bit, not only with the sorts of characters that we wrote, but they ways in which they behaved. Jeff’s character is a little bit odd in the way he talks and thinks about the world, and Emma’s character is also odd in the way she talks and thinks about the world. Then, the superhero shows up and goofs off. So, it was really freeing to say we don’t have to have the happy ending and we don’t need a second act inciting incident and we don’t need the screenwriter’s tools of the trade which we use in our other life all the time. But that was a really big part of it too.
MM: It was very freeing.
KM: Let’s just start at the beginning and see where it goes.
MM: We always felt like if we needed to, you know, we wrote it very much with the idea that we could get our credit card out and make it for $50,000 in someone’s house if we needed to and that we would do that.
KM: We now know that we couldn’t have done that. (Laughs)
MM: We now know that would have been hard, but that was the mindset going in. This is for us. We don’t have a big agenda here in terms of career. It was really liberating. You can’t pay the bills doing that too often. But, for that period of time, we just felt that’s what we needed to do.
Q: How did Sundance get involved in helping you develop the project?
MM: Oddly, somebody who we are eternally grateful to and shall remain nameless actually submitted this script without telling us to the Sundance Writers Lab and we got accepted.
KM: It was one of the first people who read it. We didn’t think this was ever going to be anything for anybody else. And a friend read it and passed it on to a friend and she sent it to Michelle Satter at the Sundance Institute and they called us up out of the blue and said “We’d like to invite you to come to the Screenwriters Lab.” In a certain sense, it changed everything really. The experience at Sundance is wonderful and I would encourage everybody and anybody who has any interest in writing to submit and try to get in. It’s wonderful. There’s sort of a stamp of approval that goes with Sundance that I think brought us back into the Hollywood community where a lot of people read it, a lot of people loved it, and after having tried to quit, it’s the thing that dragged us back in. Sundance had a lot to do with that.
MM: They stayed involved right through production. They donated stuff to the movie. I mean, they are the most generous, tenacious people. They make you make your movie. Or they nag you into making your movie. It took us 6 years but they were always on our backs. “C’mon, guys! Make the movie!” So they’re incredibly inspirational and supportive. We’re cult members.
KM: We’re a little bit. We preach the Sundance gospel. It was good for us.
MM: Without any shame. We love it.
Q: You’re currently writing the sequel to Sherlock Holmes?
KM: We are. In fact, we were just doing that this morning.
MM: We were just doing that this morning before we got here. Yes, we are. We’re deep in that and it’s very, very exciting and interesting and a challenge.
KM: It’s going to be a fun movie.
MM: It’s going to be a fun movie. I grew up with those Conan Doyle books. So, for me, to be involved in writing this is so great. These characters have always been part of my childhood. The Watson and Holmes characters are just delicious. Of course, we have those two great actors to bring them to life – Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. It’s a really interesting process we’re neck deep in right now. (Laughs)
Q: How did you get that project?
KM: Paper Man is the completely other side of the scale from what we do. We’ve spent a bunch of years writing studio films. Warner Bros., particularly, has been very good to us. They hire us to do all kinds of things.
MM: A lot of uncredited script doctoring is on our resume so most people don’t know about it. We’ve worked on a lot of fun, big, old fat studio projects for the last 5 years so that’s kind of our day job. It’s what we do and we love to do. It’s a huge challenge and these are smart people we get to work with in the studio system so we love it. You know, they just came to us and said, “Do you want to do the sequel?” and we were like, “Yes.”
Q: The studio came to you?
Q: Do you write the script with a budget in mind or do you write the script and then change it based on the budget?
KM: (Laughs) Here’s what usually happens. After we write our first draft, they always ask us to take $30-$50 million out of it.
MM: We always write too big.
KM: We tend to write big action sequence stuff. It’ll still be a nice big whopping studio film. The story is they offered us the job. We came back to them with a story that they liked. It’s just a process of finding with the director, the actors, the producers, the studio, a place where everybody is happy and wants to go to work. We’re in the middle of that. I think everybody’s happy and I think they all want to go to work. It’s really an intensely collaborative process when you’re in the studio system with a movie that has an expectation of going into production, which is great. We love working with directors. Guy Ritchie is a hoot and I think a really talented visual director who did a wonderful job on the first one.
MM: He’s really great.
Q: Were you writing the sequel while the first one was in post production?
KM: We started before it was released but after they had finished production.
MM: I think there’s always an appetite, if possible, to do more with the stories and the characters because there’s just so much stuff to mine. It’s really fun and the thing that you realize every day is that it’s really no different whether you’re writing Paper Man at $4 million or Sherlock Holmes at a lot more than $4 million.
KM: That’s right.
MM: I mean it’s still story and characters and dialogue. It’s the same process. It’s the same exact process.
KM: Although with a lot more stuff that blows up.
MM: (Laughs) Yeah, and a tiny bit more pressure.
KM: Yes, with a little bit more pressure. (Laughs) Exactly.
MM: A little bit more pressure.
Q: Do you have a favorite Sherlock Holmes story out of all the short stories that Conan Doyle wrote?
KM: I’m a Speckled Band guy.
MM: The Speckled Band is a good, really old school, classic Holmes story.
KM: “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League.” That’s sort of deep in the canon. I love it because it actually has to do with … it’s a theft crime where they’re hiring ginger-haired men. They’re luring people in by sending out notices that say “If you have red hair,” which of course in England is looked down upon still to this day, “then join our club.” And then, that club becomes a front for a criminal enterprise.
MM: It’s very silly.
KM: Yeah. It’s such a bizarre and old fashioned thing. We’re not making a version of The Red-Headed League, by the way. (Laughs)
MM: (Laughs) By the way, don’t worry.
KM: It’s not going to show up in the movie.
MM: The stories are very old school and creaky and weird, but so completely compelling and very inventive. The plots are just really seductive.
Q: What do you think about Brad Pitt possibly playing Professor Moriarty?
MM: Well, of course, we’re gigantic Brad Pitt fans. I think he’s a brilliant actor and a particularly brilliant character actor. And certainly the role that you’re talking about of Professor Moriarty is a big character to bite off. I hope Brad likes it. Let’s leave it at that. To be political, we should say nothing. But, he’s wonderful. We couldn’t be bigger fans of Brad. So, we’ll see what happens. It’s going to be an interesting film to watch. We can say nothing about this.
Q: Can you tell me anything about the story?
KM: No, it’s a little bit of a secret.
MM: It’s under wraps.
Paper Man opens in theaters on April 23rd.