From co-writer/director/producer Ben Falcone, the comedy Life of the Party follows Deanna (co-writer/producer star Melissa McCarthy), a newly single mother who, upon having her life turned upside down, decides to re-enroll in college and finally earn her degree. Having dropped out to raise her daughter, she now finds herself fully immersed in the college experience alongside her, and while mother and daughter get to know each other on a whole new level, Deanna also goes on her own adventure, making new friends and just having some fun.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, writer/director Ben Falcone talked about wanting to make a really sweet comedy about real people, why he likes to create a fun and supportive vibe on set, bringing puppets onto the set and then having them kidnapped and ransomed by one of the actors, what most impresses him about watching his wife (McCarthy) work, how he chooses between versions of jokes for the final cut, and directing Christina Aguilera for her cameo. He also talked about what most excites him about his next film, Superintelligence, an action-comedy about artificial intelligence, and meeting with Elon Musk for research, along with his experience producing The Happytime Murders.
Collider: I thought this movie was just so sweet and fun!
BEN FALCONE: That was our intention, so I’m glad you enjoyed it. We just wanted to make a really sweet comedy about real people – a real mom and daughter – without that playing of, “I can’t stand you!,” and “I think I can almost stand you!” We wanted to make a movie about people who love each other.
When I spoke to Gillian Jacobs about making this movie, she told me that you brought puppets to the set and that she kidnapped them and held them for ransom. So, I’m curious, why did you bring puppets to the set and is that something you do often, and how did she get access to them to hold them for ransom?
FALCONE: First of all, I can corroborate that this all true. I brought puppets to the set because there is a great kids’ store in Atlanta that I would take my kids to on the weekend. We’d go around and I’d get a coffee and we’d get a game ‘cause I like to play a board games with them, on the weekends. So, I saw these puppets, and they were these cheap little puppets, so I brought in an officer. I usually sit next to my script supervisor when we’re shooting, so the officer became Officer Coverage, to make sure we were getting proper coverage. And then, there was a female mermaid puppet, and she became Evelyn Eyeline. Basically, it was just to bother my script supervisor with these puppets, but then, I started giving notes with the puppets. And then, more and more puppets started coming in, as people started to enjoy the idea of all these puppets. Then, Gillian started kidnapping them and our production executive, who loves puppets, would have to go look for these puppets. I had about eight puppets, and she would have to find them when Gillian would have to go to work. She’d go scour Gillian’s trail, find them, and bring them back to safety.
Julie Bowen told me that, on her first day, you faked her out and told her that you weren’t you and that she felt like an asshole for believing that you weren’t you. So, do you just enjoy pranking people?
FALCONE: I guess. It’s less about pranking people because I never want to make someone feel bad, ever, and it’s more that I don’t want to take myself too seriously, or what we’re doing too seriously. I’d rather put down a base layer of bad comedy that I’m trying to attempt with my cast members and crew, so that they all know where I’m coming from, which is that I’m just there to have a good time. I think that if we all have a good time and really get to work and are efficient, it’s gonna be a blast. And I find that, if you start with a formal, “Here’s what I’m looking for,” and “My vision,” when you do a comedy, it gets people bound up, and that’s the opposite of what I wanna do.
What’s the vibe like on set, when you’re directing a movie that you’ve co-written with your wife, Melissa McCarthy, who’s also starring in it?
FALCONE: Every day is super fun. The only people who don’t like it are our kids. They’re like, “Do you have any snacks or are there some crayons somewhere?” They think it’s pretty dull. I’m just completely grateful and happy, every day that I’m there. We surround ourselves with a tremendous, hard-working and nice crew, and then we do the same with our cast. Even if we’re not having the best day for whatever reason, I’m not gonna bring that into work because I know I’ve got 40 days of this job. It’s a dream job, so I’m gonna try my best to have a loving, fun and supportive vibe for everybody, and hopefully expect the same. That’s the vibe we’re really trying to create. You’re basically at summer camp with everyone. You’re usually away from home, so if you’re not gonna enjoy the summer with your camp, why did you go?
You’ve directed your wife a few times now. Since you’ve had a front row seat to watching her work and you’ve acted in scenes opposite her, what most stands out to you about who she is, as an actress?
FALCONE: Well, I think she’s one of the more talented actors that I’ve ever seen, personally, and I know I’m biased, of course. People think that, because she is so funny, she’s not dramatically inclined, but she is, and she’s dramatically trained. She’s got a movie coming out – this beautiful movie called Can You Ever Forgive Me? – directed by Marielle Heller, which is gorgeous and is a straight drama. I think Melissa’s overall ability, her range and her collaboration with the crew, the director and the other actors is really, something great. Something that people are sometimes surprised about is her level of preparation, which is off the charts. She prides herself on being as prepared as anyone else on the set, or more so. People say, “Oh, but doesn’t she make up all her lines?,” and she improvises a lot, but if she’s not completely prepared and doesn’t know every nuance of everything she wants to do, she doesn’t feel free to do the other things that people find so memorable, from time to time.
When people are improvising on set and you have so many funny people, I would imagine that gives you more than one good version to choose from, as far as the jokes go. How do you decide on what will ultimately make the final cut?
FALCONE: Comedy is democracy, so I test the movie a lot of times, and if one thing gets a bigger laugh than the other thing, then it wins, even if I think the other thing had value. If it’s a really similar type of laugh, and one tickles Melissa or I, a little more, for whatever reason, then it wins. So, whatever one works the best wins, and if they’re similar, Melissa and I will pick. At the end of the day, if it’s something she says and it’s very similar, I say that it’s dealer’s choice, and that she should pick because it’s her performance up there.
What was it like to get to direct Christina Aguilera in this film, for the big party sequence, and get to direct her singing and doing her thing?
FALCONE: That was fun! Christina is a good actor. She came in and was so prepared and so ready. I’m a big fan, from way back, as is Melissa and as is the kids. She’s a mega star with all of these beautiful songs and hit songs. We shot that in the middle of the night, in Atlanta, and we had all these cameras ready. We did her scene first, and she nailed her scene, so we had more time than we thought to shoot the concert. And then, that shot really easy too. It was really late at night, but I woke up my girls and I had our wonderful nanny bring the girls out to watch Christina do a little bit of her show. It was a whole family affair, where were all singing and dancing and watching a pop icon perform in the woods in Atlanta.