ABOVE: THOMAS HADEN CHURCH AND TONI COLLETTE. PHOTO COURTESY OF IFC FILMS.
For Seattle music journalist Ellie Klug, time stopped 11 years ago. Throughout her adolescence and young adulthood, Ellie’s boyfriend and best friend was a musician named Matthew Smith. As Matthew’s fame grew, his public image became their shared identity: he was an intelligent, introspective, old-soul mix between Kurt Cobain and Jeff Buckley; she was the girl he loved. When Matthew committed suicide, Ellie became the girl he had loved—but not enough.
Now in her late 30s, Ellie lives alone with her pet seahorses Kurt and Courtney. She frequents the same clubs, dates the same type of person (20-something struggling musicians), and writes for the same esoteric music magazine. After a series of missed deadlines, her editor gives her an ultimatum: write an article about Matthew Smith, or never write another article again.
Written by Emily Wachtel and directed by Megan Griffiths, Lucky Them premiered last September at the Toronto Film Festival and is currently screening at Tribeca. Toni Collette stars as Ellie, with Thomas Haden Church playing Charlie, her hilarious benefactor and partner in her search for Matthew, and Ryan Eggold as one of her 20-something musician friends, Lucas.
“I love the idea that Ellie gets an assignment she doesn’t want,” explains Wachtel, who drew heavily on her own experiences as a writer and actress. “She gets forced into a 12-step program that she doesn’t want to sign up for, but it’s her ass if she doesn’t do it, and so she’s forced to examine herself.”
EMMA BROWN: Obviously you have great actors in the leading roles, but I was surprised at how many hidden gems there were among your supporting cast: Nina Arianda, Oliver Platt, Amy Seimetz, Ahna O’Reilly, Lynn Shelton. Did you already know all of these people? How did you end up casting them?
MEGAN GRIFFITHS: Nina came about because our executive producer Peer Pedersen was sort of obsessed with her, and he kept showing us her work. I wasn’t familiar with Nina before this movie, [but] we just fell in love with her, she is so brilliant. Then we talked to her via Skype and it was a total—
EMILY WACHTEL: Done deal.
GRIFFITHS: Her energy was so fantastic. We were looking for people who would be able to support that first 15 minutes of the movie before Tom [Haden Church] walks in. His character is so funny, we knew he would support the comedy through the movie, but before him, we wanted to make sure we were casting people who had that kind of energy and lightness so that the beginning of the film wouldn’t feel too heavy. Amy Seimetz was Emily’s idea, of all things, because we were trying to find the right person to play that character.
WACHTEL: I was on the phone with you and I was watching The Off Hours (2011), and I was like, where is this girl?
GRIFFITHS: She’s the lead in my feature The Off Hours, and I’m good friends with her. She said yes before even reading the script. She loved the idea of coming up and doing it even before she knew she was in her scenes with. Then Lynn Shelton lives in Seattle and is a good friend, so she came and did that small role. Ahna was someone that was suggested by my agency, WME, and I liked her take on the character. What did she say?
WACHTEL: She said, “I think she believes she’s going to save these souls.”
GRIFFITHS: Yeah, she believes she’s a saver of souls. Her take on it was just so earnest, and she really sympathized with this character who a lot of people probably wouldn’t have. She’s not the most likeable character. She’s kind of a zany character.
BROWN: It’s always nice to have a supporting cast that’s as good as the main cast.
GRIFFITHS: Yeah, every role is so key. I was happy to have so many great Seattle actors in the film, too, because you don’t want to have that bad note. That first scene where she’s being broken up with by the guy in the bed—
WACHTEL: That happened. [laughs]
GRIFFITHS: That was a Seattle actor named Louis Hobson. We needed somebody really strong for that scene because they’re starting the film and we can’t start on an off note.
WACHTEL: When I found Megan to direct, I had worked on [Lucky Them] for 11 years and she was like, “I know how hard this must be.” [to Megan] That was the first thing you said, “I know how hard this must be for you to trust me with it.” I immediately liked her because that’s a person who has an understanding of what it’s like to be the other person.
GRIFFITHS: Well, I worked on a film for 10 years. My film The Off Hours took a really long time to make, and I was just imagining what it would have been like at the end of that process to hand off the reins. Kudos to Emily for being willing and able to trust somebody else with the material.
BROWN: How did you discover Megan, then Emily?
WACHTEL: I am friends with a director named Colin Trevorrow, who did Safety Not Guaranteed (2012). He really liked the movie, so he said, “I’m going to look for a director for you to do this.” Because I’m not a director. He had me meet with few people, but they weren’t right. Then he called me, he was in Seattle, and he was like, “I have someone who I really think is the right person. Her other movies are very different from this movie, but I know that if you meet her, you’re going to want her to do the movie.” He’s very definitive about what his beliefs are. I spoke to Megan on the phone, she was great, and so we got on the plane to meet her.
GRIFFITHS: I gave them a little location and crew tour. I introduced them to a bunch of people who I have on my team usually, because I live in Seattle. It was written to be shot in New York, and we reset it in Seattle, so I was showing them areas I thought could capture the vibe in the script. We hit it off, and I think they were sufficiently convinced that Seattle could be a good spot.
WACHTEL: How could you not like Megan? She’s lovable.
BROWN: Emily, were you on set when the movie was being filmed?
WACHTEL: Are you kidding? I didn’t move. Poor Megan. I was there the whole time and I was talking to the script supervisor. I really didn’t miss much. And I couldn’t. I spent 11 years doing it.
GRIFFITHS: But I have to say, she wasn’t invasive.
WACHTEL: I tried not to be.
GRIFFITHS: We were very much in cahoots on the casting, and a lot of the creative decision-making, but when we were on set I never felt like my toes were being stepped on. When she had an opinion about something, she would tell me about it. She didn’t go around me and try to take over.
WACHTEL: No, I didn’t do that. I was respectful. Somebody said, “Was it everything you thought it would be?” And it really was.
BROWN: In the film, Matthew Smith is this mythologized, super-human figure and it’s easy to draw comparisons between him and someone like Kurt Cobain or Jimi Hendrix. When you were both teenagers, who was your Matthew Smith? Did you have one?
GRIFFITHS: I was obsessed for Eddie Vedder for a while. I lived in the Northwest, so the grunge thing was my world and I was a big Pearl Jam fan.
WACHTEL: I had a younger musician, who shall go unnamed, that I had a thing with, that’s more of the Lucas character. Matthew Smith based on my father a little bit—the missing man. It’s more metaphorical. But I certainly dated a lot of musicians.
WACHTEL: Because I was an unemployed actress and I saw a lot of music, so I was available. [laughs] Anyone want to date a drummer? Me! I drank a lot; I was having fun.
BROWN: The press notes describe the film as “semiautobiographical.” Is that true?
WACHTEL: Yes. Some of it is semi and some of it as direct. [Griffiths laughs] Some of it is figurative; some of it is literal…
GRIFFITHS: Some people are based on composite characters. I don’t think there’s a lot of “This is this person specifically.”
WACHTEL: Well, the break-up guy at the beginning…
GRIFFITHS: [laughs] You know who you are, sir.
WACHTEL: A lot of my ex-boyfriends read it though, some were actors and some of them weren’t, and they were all like, “This is about me, this is about me!” “It’s not about any of you…” [laughs]
GRIFFITHS: Carly Simon “You’re So Vain” plays through your head.
WACHTEL: [laughs] Exactly.
BROWN: I love the detail that Ellie first met Matthew at fat camp.
WACHTEL: Thank you. Fat camp graduate here—Camp Camelot. I almost did a comedy troupe called Camp Camelot, because it was such a bad name.
GRIFFITHS: I think the nice thing about that detail is that they both met when they were a little bit vulnerable. They weren’t established in who they were as people. They were sort of hiding together, and I feel like that would bond them more. That’s why I liked it and wanted to keep it in the movie throughout the iterations—the idea that something really tied them together at the very beginning.
WACHTEL: I like it because I’m a graduate. [laughs] I have a diploma.
BROWN: It also humanizes Matthew. Who was the first person you showed the film to when it was finished?
GRIFFITHS: Joanne Woodward. We had a screening for her specifically in the screening room that Paul [Newman] had created. There were some friends of the family there too, but once it was finished that was the first place we took it. And she really liked it, which was a relief.
BROWN: Emily, you mentioned that you had known Joanne and Paul for a long time.
WACHTEL: I grew up with them. They were like my godparents. I know… But that said, it’s still so hard to get a movie made. Paul was originally involved—he sent notes [to people], but not everybody read [the script]. I can’t imagine getting a note from Paul Newman and being like, “No. I don’t think I want to read what he’s recommending.” He wrote a very funny note—”A quick read would keep a lot of people off the sauce.” That’s what he sent to Tom. [laughs]
BROWN: I won’t spoil it, but a great actor appears towards the end of the film.
GRIFFITHS: It’s amazing how well that secret’s been kept, honestly. We tried to keep it until the Toronto premiere, and then we were just going to kind of let it be out there, but most press didn’t say it.
BROWN: It was so great—before he appeared, I was thinking how he would be the perfect person to play that role.
WACHTEL: I always thought it was going to be him. Didn’t I always say that?
GRIFFITHS: She did. Our first phone call she said him, and I was like, that would be great!
WACHTEL: No one believed me.
GRIFFITHS: I was like, if you can get him, I sign off!
WACHTEL: It’s the first time that I think positive thinking really [helped]. I just couldn’t accept that it was going to be somebody else. And it happened.
BROWN: Was it difficult to convince him?
WACHTEL: He’s a fan of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, who were big supporters of the film. They had written a note, but it was a while back. I think he really liked the part, and he liked the people that were involved.
GRIFFITHS: The hardest thing was getting it to him. He’s so protected because otherwise he’d be buried in scripts.
WACHTEL: He’s like a fortress—Fort Knox.
GRIFFITHS: By the time he got it, it was only two weeks before we shot it.
WACHTEL: I got an email from his sister, and she was like, “My brother’s really excited to do this.” I hung up the phone—we were in the middle of a freezing field in Seattle—and I said, “That’s the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me.” The other producer, Adam [Gibbs], he’s 26, [and he said], “That’s the biggest thing that’s every happened to me and I’m only standing next to you.” They always said they liked the script and it was a no-brainer that he would like to do the part, but I never had any direct contact until—
GRIFFITHS: He walked onto our set!
WACHTEL: Until we sat in the trailer with him. And then I French kissed him. [laughs] No, just kidding.
GRIFFITHS: We’re trying to figure out if we should keep it a secret anymore.
WACHTEL: I think they don’t need to know what part he played. I hate the word “cameo.” I really hate that word. The whole movie talks about him and his essence what he does and what he is, so he’s there [throughout the film].
GRIFFITHS: His character is pervasive.
WACHTEL: That’s why he is a movie star—the way he played that part.
GRIFFITHS: Yeah, he’s so rooted, too.
WACHTEL: He’s like a tree.
GRIFFITHS: It just felt like he got the character so intrinsically.
GRIFFITHS: He just absolutely understood, better than Emily or I could for sure. He just got the guy, and played it that way.
WACHTEL: We knew he would get it.
GRIFFITHS: He’s so similar to it.
WACHTEL: But then there he was and it was like, Holy shit, he gets it.
LUCKY THEM IS CURRENTLY SCREENING AT THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL AND WILL OPEN IN L.A. AND NEW YORK ON MAY 30.