Writer and director Matt Aselton’s first feature-length film “Gigantic,” which took the best narrative feature at the recent AFI Dallas International Film Festival, stars Paul Dano and Zooey Deschanel as Brian Weathersby and Harriet “Happy” Lolly, two lovers who face some strange hurdles in their relationship. Brian, a mattress salesman, is the least successful of three brothers born to a much older father (played by Ed Asner). When he’s not trying to sell top-of-the-line mattresses, he’s working desperately to adopt a Chinese baby. And then there’s the homeless guy (played by Zach Galifianakis) who keeps showing up to attack him.
One of those mattress-buys is Al Lolly (John Goodman), an obnoxious rich man whose slightly batty daughter Happy (Deschanel) falls into Brian’s life when she comes to pick up Al’s mattress and falls asleep on it instead.
Aselton sat down with reporters in New York City to talk about choosing his cast of characters, audience reaction to “Gigantic,” and that confounding homeless guy.
A lot of the dialogue comes across as “quirky.” Was there anyone in real life that came to mind when you were writing it?
MATT ASELTON: Not anybody specifically, I think it’s just listening to people talk, more than anything. You know, the word “quirky” has been coming up so much, and I just find that to be, I don’t know, what does that really mean? You walk down the street and you see how strange it is out there. If you’re not seeing that, I don’t think you’re paying attention, which doesn’t mean that, you know, everybody’s weird and there aren’t normal people, I guess, but I don’t really know many… Who really wants to make a movie about normal people? I guess people do.
Why is Paul Dano’s character Brian so determined to adopt a baby? Especially now that it’s so in vogue for celebrities like Madonna to adopt…
ASELTON: [That] was not something that was [happening] while we were writing it. Madonna wasn’t flying to Africa. So it wasn’t like something I knew was going to happen.
I’m from a family of six and I have a younger brother who, I think he felt a little forsaken in that he was the last boy in the family, and I think he wanted my parents to adopt a baby and he was adamant about it. The scene where Ed Asner’s character says he got Paul a Chrome Mongoose, a bike, for his birthday — my dad did that too. My brother, he was young, and obsessed, for whatever reason — he wanted a baby. He wanted my parents to adopt a baby. He didn’t want a bike.
So that was autobiographical? Is anything else in the movie?
ASELTON: I think that’s kind of the sole element of the whole thing that’s biographical.
Where did the rest come from?
ASELTON: It’s a fairly straight story at face value, right? It’s like, boy meets girl, boys fights [with] girl, maybe they get along, then they wind up together. So I think we wanted to add some dynamics to that and make it a little harder. Adding Ed Asner as Paul’s dad [who’s] fifty years older than Paul puts Paul in the unique position of maybe not having a real childhood and maybe wanting, in some way, create a childhood out of that. And [John] Goodman and Zooey [Deschanel] have an odd relationship that makes them unique. I think with a story like this, it’s better to make it harder to swallow than make it easy to swallow, we felt.
How did you choose the cast?
ASELTON: Paul read the script very early on and I met with him — we had a long conversation, and he understood the script the same way I understood the script. I think as a director you want to meet the lead and both sort of see the trajectory of the character the same [way] — or at least the emotional core of the character the same. And we definitely did. From a film standpoint, I think we like the same movies, and we like the same directors, and we had a lot to talk about with that, so that was very nice… I thought Paul was such an interesting and unique actor already. I loved him in this movie called “L.I.E.,” which he made when he was pretty young, and it was such an original performance that I thought was so great. So that was fortunate.
And after Paul, the next person was Zooey. She seemed to make intellectual sense with Paul. I don’t think you can put any girl with Paul…
So then with that came me calling John Goodman incessantly for, like, 8 months until he finally said yes.
What was with the homeless guy who keeps attacking Paul’s character?
ASELTON: If pushed, I’d say it’s basically just a manifestation of his subconscious and some sort of dark demon that’s chasing him, that he’s got to defeat before he can move on. That’s why he disappears at the end… it’s a figment of [Paul’s character’s] imagination… I realize it’s confounding for some people but I don’t really care. I mean, it’s not that I don’t care, but I would rather people talk about it than not talk about it. If it wasn’t there, it was like, hey we all get together and everything’s fine and we have a baby. Yay!
… Originally, it was going to be Gene Wilder, and then we met Gene Wilder and he’s just writing now, he’s not really acting any more, and he’s also older and frailer and this required a lot of physical violence and stuff like that that wasn’t going to be easy.
John Goodman’s character is very interesting. In some ways, he’s really strong but in some ways he’s incredibly weak, like with his back problems and reliance on his daughter.
ASELTON: I think we wrote it for him, because he does do those two things, and he’s a Jackie Gleason of sorts — he can be so funny but so soft in a moment’s time. I like those kinds of people… He’s blustery and he’s bombastic, anti-Semitic and homophobic yet caring, he loves his daughter and [he’s] apologetic about his own ways.
What about Ed Asner? Was he hard to convince?
ASELTON: He’s Ed Asner. He’s a grump. [laughs] In the best way… You know, he’s 80 years old… We’re in New York, we’re shooting in the woods. It’s not the easiest stuff for him, but he did like the material and I had a nice meeting with him, and he saw the cast and — I think it was a couple of phone calls. It wasn’t so bad. He’s a delightful person to be around; he’s so engaged and energetic and interesting, so we were lucky to have him.
Can you also talk about the scenes in the woods where he and his sons are hallucinating on mushrooms? That’s kind of an interesting family ritual.
ASELTON: I did know a family like that — not necessarily just like that, but… the parents were painters and on New Year’s, they’d all do mushrooms and go swimming in the ocean, which I thought was a crazy family ritual but it was also sweet, in a way…. Aside from that family, I don’t know where that came from. I do remember Ed Asner asking the boys what it was like to trip on mushrooms right before we were shooting, and I was like, “Yes! Tell him, boys!”
How have audiences reacted to “Gigantic?”
ASELTON: I would say that it’s decidedly positive or decidedly negative. As I’ve said before, the people that like the movie are very positive about it because it’s new, it’s different in some ways. They like the actors — I think people go see movies for the actors, personally. Actors and filmmakers…
It’s a frustrating movie for a lot of people… Like the homeless man that people find they can’t get their head around and it’s not explicit and we don’t exactly know why it happened or what this all means… But we just won the Grand Jury Prize in Dallas, which I just found out about, so it gets support, it gets a ton of support, and then I have people like at this one woman after the Toronto Film Festival [screening] who was pissed at me after the movie. She was like, “What the hell is going on? Why did you do this?” And honestly thinking I was trying to manipulate her.
The music was great.
ASELTON: Thanks… When [Paul] first gets beat up by Zach Galifianakis, [he’s listening to a] Masta Killa song, [and] somebody said, “Well, he’s a 28-year-old white guy in Brooklyn; I don’t know if he’s really listening to rap.” It’s like, who do you think listens to it? [laughs] There’s a nice Edith Frost song, and then the Animal Collective song at the end that we were very fortunate to get that song before they became a massive huge sensation. It was scored by Roddy Bottom, who was the keyboardist from Faith No More.
Brooklyn’s in the house.
ASELTON: Yeah, definitely. Well, I lived in Brooklyn for a while. That’s the other thing — I feel like if you’re shooting those things [like street scenes], you better shoot them right, because… people that live there are gonna be like, “That isn’t Brooklyn!”… I love that place.