Written and directed by Jocelyn Towne, the indie drama I Am I is equal parts touching and heartbreaking, as it tells the story of a young woman named Rachael (also played by Towne), who meets her estranged father, Gene (Kevin Tighe), at her mother’s funeral. Eager to get to know her father, Rachael tracks him down at an assisted living home, only to realize that Gene suffers from memory loss and not only thinks that he is still a young man, but is convinced that Rachael is actually her mother. And if she wants to really get to know him, she has to play along.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Jason Ritter (who plays Gene’s caretaker) talked about how he got involved with the project, the nerves over reading a friend’s script, the aspects of the story that resonated with him the most, why the Kickstarter campaign was so successful, working with Jocelyn Towne as both an actor and a director, being a part of Simon Helberg’s directorial debut We’ll Never Have Paris, and whether he wants to do any directing himself. He also talked about what happened with his Fox TV series Us & Them, also starring Alexis Bledel, which Fox just announced it wouldn’t be airing, and his hope that it might be available online, at some point. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
JASON RITTER: Yeah, that’s basically how it first came around. I’ve been friends with Simon since I was 12, or something like that. And I’m known Jocelyn [Towne] for years, as well. They came up to me and told me that Jocelyn has written a script. I had never read anything that Jocelyn had written before and, to be honest, I was a little nervous, just because of how close we all are. There was a part of me that was like, “Oh, gosh, I’m gonna end up doing this anyway, even if I hate it.” And then, when I read the script, it was so beautiful and so unique and so strange, and unlike anything I had ever read before. By the time I finished it, I had tears in my eyes. That last scene really got me. So, I was extremely relieved, excited and honored that they had asked me to be a part of it. I was so excited. I love this movie. I’m so happy that it’s coming out.
When a friend gives you a script and asks you to be in their film, do you give them an honest opinion, if you really don’t like it, or do you just go along with it and do it?
RITTER: Well, you can try to give notes, or something, to try to help it out. I do try to be honest. I’ve definitely, and especially in the last couple of years, tried not to just do things as favors. I try to do things that I enjoy. But that’s usually an acquaintance, or someone I’ve known for awhile, or someone I’ve met a couple of times, and not someone this close to me. I don’t know what I would have done, if I didn’t like this. I’m sure I just would have said, “It’s not right for me,” and we all would have moved on, as friends. But, I was so excited. By the time I read the script, I was like, “Wherever this came from, I’d want to be a part of it.” I thought it was so beautiful.
This is such an emotionally touching and heartbreaking story. What were the aspects of it that resonated the most with you?
RITTER: The thing that touched me the most about it were the parent-child themes. We grow up with these parents who are so close to us, but there are also elements of them that are mysteries, and will always remain mysteries. If they’re half-way decent, parents try to make sure that they raise you right, but they’re not necessarily always driven to reveal every aspect of their lives to you. Parents protect their children, in that way, a lot of the time. A lot of kids grow up and want to see the person behind the curtain, and they want to get to know them as not only their dad or their mom, but as a human being. That was one of the things that really moved me about the script. This woman goes so far to just try to get to know her father and try to get him to acknowledge her existence. There are elements of mental illness in my family and extended family, and that also moved me a lot with the film. When someone’s mind is not working like the majority of people’s minds, how can you get through to them and communicate with them and have a real moment?
This movie used Kickstarter to raise the financing for this, before Kickstarter was something that people so readily thought of. Why do you think it succeeded in raising the money it needed? Do you think it was having a video that really gave people an idea of who Jocelyn is and the type of movie she’d be making?
RITTER: I think the video was a huge part of that. At that point, I think I’d done a couple of things on Kickstarter. To me, it always made the most sense for musicians who need help producing their album. You just say, “Hey, here’s my $20. I want to buy the album. I’m buying it before, so you have the money.” It always made so much sense, that way. But that was $10,000 or $20,000 or $30,000 that those people were looking for. They were looking for $100,000, so I wasn’t sure that it would work, but Jocelyn is so smart. The thing that she did that was really incredible was that she made a video that was fun and interesting enough for people to share, just as a video. I think it showed a side of Jocelyn that said, “I’m responsible and I’m trying to make things that people want to see. I’m not sitting in a room and saying, ‘Please give me money because I want it.’ I think about it.” The video was well thought-out and choreographed and had a little element of magic to it, and I think it helped people trust someone who hadn’t made a movie before. It made people trust her with their money, which was really helpful. It was really early on with Kickstarter, and I had never seen anyone ask for that much money with Kickstarter. Now, they ask for million of dollars, like for the Veronica Mars movie.
You were involved with the film before it had financing, since you were in the Kickstarter video. So, was everyone glued to their computers, watching to see if it raised the money?
RITTER: Yeah. Jocelyn and Simon really were. I, obviously, wanted the movie to be made and I was supporting them. I try to, in general, put on an optimist’s face to cover what’s somewhat of a pessimist. I try to protect myself from getting my hopes up for things like that, but I wasn’t going to share with them that I was nervous about that. But then, as it started getting closer and closer to the final day, it started to be a realistic thing. I think they even raised $10,000 or $20,000 more than what they asked for. It was so incredible that people wanted to be a part of the movie so bad. With all of the promises of gifts and DVDs, and things like that, people were like, “Okay, I see that you’ve reached your goal, but I still want to be a part of this family.” I think Jocelyn also did a good job, after the Kickstarter campaign, with updates to tell people where they were with things. I also was a Kickstarter backer, and I got an email the other day about DVDs coming. I’m close friends with them, so the tone of the emails are not surprising to me, but these emails are so personal and grateful and thankful were going to everybody who donated anything. She did a really good job of making everyone who donated to the movie feel like they were a part of this family who had helped a dream come true.
RITTER: That was really fun. I think I had only acted with Jocelyn once before, in a short movie that her brother had written and directed in college. Her brother and I were in college, at the same time, with Simon, and he did this short student project that was a heist movie, called The Octopus Complex. So, we worked together then, but that was probably 10 years before. It was really fun and exciting. She was really great, and did a good job. That’s another worry, getting into something like this. You go, “Oh, my gosh, I have trouble concentrating on my one job. You’re the writer, the director, the producer and the actor? That’s a lot.” But Jocelyn just seemed to fluidly be able to move between all of the roles. And she had really done a lot of prep work with the D.P. There wasn’t a lot of figuring it out, as we went. There was a huge infrastructure put in place, before we even started shooting. So, when we had to step into the scenes, she could let all of that go, trusting that the work had been done and she could just play around with me, in the scene. And it helps that she’s a wonderful actress.
Well, it must have worked out well, since you then went on to do We’ll Never Have Paris with them, which was Simon Helberg’s directorial debut.
RITTER: Yeah, I did. That was really fun, as well. That was a whole different ball of wax ‘cause that was based on a true story about the two of them, and I knew everyone involved. In that movie, I played her brother, who was the guy that directed that short film. That was so much fun. Simon was around, every single day, on I Am I, but it was fun to get to see the difference between Jocelyn’s movie, and then Simon’s movie, that he had written. It was so exciting. And I was much more relaxed, the second time.
Have these experiences inspired you to want to do any directing, yourself?
RITTER: It has been really inspiring. In our little group of friends, we all were trying to make it happen and we were auditioning. At a certain point, my girlfriend at the time, Marianna Palka, wrote and directed this movie, Good Dick, and we decided to fun it and make it ourselves. Then, it got into Sundance and it had a whole life. It inspired our little group of friends to be like, “Oh, wait, we can just try to tell the stories that we want to tell, instead of trying to fit into some bigger scheme of things.” That being said, I’m not 100% sure that I could write something and direct. I’ve thought about it and I have ideas, but I get very easily distracted. But, I’ve been so impressed with Simon and Jocelyn. In the middle of their busy lives and raising two kids, they’ve been able to write and direct and produce, and make it all happen. In the meantime, I’ve just been doing the regular acting thing of being hired by other people.
Not to rub salt in the wound, but it was recently announced that Fox won’t be airing Us & Them, at all. What do you think happened with that show, and do you still hope that there would be some way that those episodes will get seen?
RITTER: I have no idea. Anytime I’ve thought I understood the inner workings of television, putting shows on, and renewing or cancelling, it’s revealed that I am completely wrong and have no idea. And this was one of those things. I thought I was completely aware of all of the danger zones of when and how a TV show can get cancelled. There are all of these steps before it even gets made where you could get fired, or the show doesn’t get picked up. There are all of these potential heartbreak periods that we made it through. So, I thought, “Okay, we’re shooting. And then, the next one is when it starts to air. Then, you look at the numbers and start to bite your nails again. I had never been in a situation where, in the middle of production without any audience seeing it, it just gets shut down. It was pretty heartbreaking. And we saw the first four episodes. Initially, we thought, “Gosh, what went wrong? Are we that awful of a show?” And when we saw the four episodes, we were like, “No, that is really sweet and nice.” You could feel the love between all the characters, and it really worked.
It was one of those decisions that I don’t understand. I did hear that they might try to put it online somewhere, so at least all of the work that everybody in the cast and crew did for those months will get seen, at some point. So, I’m still hoping that that will at least be seen. That way, people can form their own opinions and either be like, “That was a good decision. We don’t want that anymore,” or they can go, “That would have been fine on TV. We would have loved that.” So, we’ll see. I had a great time working with Alexis [Bledel], Ashlie [Atkinson] and Dustin [Ybarra], and working with three members of The State, which was a show that Simon and I and our little group of friends were obsessed with, growing up, and that shaped our senses of humor, in an intense way.
I Am I is now playing in theaters and on VOD.