'The Perfect Family' Roundtable Discussion with Cast
I recently participated in a roundtable discussion with cast and crew for The Perfect Family, a new Comedy / Drama that follows traditional Catholic supermom Eileen Cleary as she pursues the vaunted Catholic Woman of the Year award from her local parish while struggling to accept her heterodox family. As we sat in Sunset Avenue penthouse, watching helicopters fly by, myself and a several other journalists questioned first director Anne Renton and cast-member Jason Ritter and then the star of the picture, Kathleen Turner. Read on for selections from the discussion.
One of the first and most important tasks in getting a feature film made is developing and bringing on board a great cast. Anne Renton and Jason Ritter had a few thoughts on that process in The Perfect Family:
Director Anne Renton: I have to save, when I first decided that this was a project that I wanted to pursue, I was very aware that the protagonist was a woman in her fifties, and felt like, or hoped, that that was a very castable role. Obviously, that wasn't the reason that I picked it, but it was a bonus. We found out pretty early on that the casting director had a relationship with Kathleen Turner's agent. We found out early on that she was interested and was willing to get on the phone with me to have a discussion about the script.
There were elements that were missing for her. She liked the story, but had notes. I of course immediately said, “We'll rewrite according to your notes.” On top of that, the notes that she gave were very much aligned with our intentions for the script. It wasn't like they were so left field and I'm going to change this whole thing just to get her. They were very smart, intelligent, and totally aligned with what we were going for. They just weren't on the page enough for her. Se we went back into a rewrite specifically for her, which took two to three months, because we knew we had to get it right. If we gave it back to her, it was out last chance. In that period of time, I found out she was going to be in LA, so we had a breakfast meeting, which went well. We talked about the the script and sort of got to know each other a bit better. After that, she said, “If I like this rewrite, I'll do it.” So then that pressure was really on. So we got it back to her, and she said yes.
I feel like she was the catalyst for everything. Our producers had worked with her before.
Jason Ritter: I think [Jennifer Dubin and Cora Olson] are really great producers. They sent me the script. I loved the script, and I was really excited about the prospect of working with Kathleen.
Emily [Deschanel] and I were calling each other. I've known her for years. I was like, “Are you going to do it? I want to do it.”
Renton: That was nice, to have both of them. The same for Emily. She was interested in working with Kathleen and liked the script. The fact that she and Jason had a preexisting relationship was an added bonus as well.
Then, I have to say all the other casts mostly came in to audition, and if not to audition, to have a meeting. Richard Chamberlain's agent contacted us. What happened with Richard is he'd been living in Hawaii and had just recently come back to LA and decided he wanted to get back working again. So I think it was just timing, that he found this script that Kathleen was attached to, which drew him, and he was willing to do this indie project because he was getting going again. So it came through his agent. When our casting director said Richard Chamberlain, I was like, “What!? Yes we'll meet with him!” He's a great guy.
I feel so blessed by the cast. Not only are they just terrific actors and performers, but just really good people, goodhearted people. We had a beautiful time on set. It was a really great experience.
On how the film explores and showcases the idea of "family":
Ritter: One of the things that this movie did for me in script form, and then also in the way that it came out is that it sort of talks about acceptance on all levels, that you can have something that drives you crazy about a family member, and this family is very good a driving each other crazy... You can lose a relationship with a family member over things like this. What I loved about this movie is that they end up showing up for each other. I think that is what's the most important thing. That's what I thought was beautiful about this script. Everyone's flawed. No one's perfect. Everyone has their things, but as long as you continue to show up for each other, that's how you get closer to being an actually perfect family, is by acknowledging all of the imperfections and all of the mess that you and your family members create. So that's what I took from it.
Generally, my beliefs all revolve around The Golden Rule, do unto others, and you...You know. Be nice. Everything revolves around that for me. If you are kind and loving, you won't go wrong.
Catholicism has a strong presence in the film. And with one of the takeaway moments in the film being when an exacerbated Eileen (played by star Kathleen Turner) exclaims "I don't have to think! I'm Catholic!", there's a potential for controversy. Anne and Jason had this to say about what the film is trying to say about Catholicism, or faith in general, and what role it can play in a family:
Renton: It's not necessarily the film's job to say anything, but to tell a story and allow the audience members to have their own experience. I will say that Catholicism is the backdrop to the film, and a lot of the tenants of Catholicism I think people know, so that was a religion where it's very broad. To me, it could be any organized religion, or anything where people become so ingrained in this group thought or what is passed down from some of the higher ups where they loose their own individual thought. So I definitely think that the film may question that: Where does that live in individuals, about being willing to individuate and find out what works for you from any kind of organized religion and what doesn't work.
Ritter: I think that line for me, the way that Kathleen delivered it, what it's saying is not necessarily that people that practice are unthinking people, but that what they respond to is that if you have a moral question, it's all there. What the Pope says is what is. So that's what she's falling back on, is that, “It's not up to me to make these decisions. They've been made, and I followed it. This is what I believe.” So I think in an exasperated moment, she's saying, “I subscribe to these things. Don't make the mistake in thinking that I am saying these things. This is The Word, and it's very important to me.” I always felt like that was what the thing was.
Renton: I have to say, it was the family subject [that drew me to the film], but I definitely understand what it's like to grow up in something that's pretty regimented, and how coming into adulthood really individuating and really being able express that individuation to your parents where it may not actually fit into their belief system, how challenging that can be. I feel like that part of it is the universality of the script. Even if it's not the specific issues that are going on in that script, I think that we all have these aspects of really wanting to please our parents and wanting them to proud of us... I feel like a lot of people have had those experiences. It's a tough one to navigate going into adulthood. Even the "kids" in the film are in adulthood, they've found their own lives, they just haven't expressed it.
Because the four principal actors in the film, Kathleen Tuner, Jason Ritter, Emily Deschanel, and Michael McGrady, collectively portray a family of four, getting the family dynamic right was very important to both cast and crew:
Ritter: There was a rehearsal process that was really, really helpful. For me, that's always the hardest thing to do, is create a sense of history with someone that you just met, especially if you don't have a rehearsal process and you just show up. I remember seeing Y Tu Mamá También and being blown away by the relationships that those guys had, until I found out that they were really best friends. So I was like, “That's where you really got the sense of their history. They had inside jokes and all that stuff." So that made me really want to always have some kind of specific relationship so it's not just generally like, “Oh. You're my mom,” but, “You're my mom, these are the little things you do that I love. These are the little things you do that drive me crazy,” and make it specific to that actor, not just a generic sense of family. So it was really helpful to just get to know them and get to see who they are as people and watch them become their characters and figure all that out.
Renton: This is an independent film on a very modest budget, but I fought to get rehearsal time. Then I had to decide, “Okay, I don't have enough time to rehearse everything,” so I felt like the family, that was the most important thing. If we could create a believable family, then the rest of the film would fall into place. So our rehearsal time was all about family. We worked together as a family and then had Kathleen work with each individual as well. What I also did was work with Emily and Angelique's characters to really work on their relationship as well. Obviously it's all important, but when you really have to narrow it down for rehearsal, that's what we decided to focus on.
Ritter: I think the movie wouldn't work at all if you didn't get a sense of through all the difficulties and the pain, there is love there. We have love for each other, it's just that we're at odds. That's what makes a family. Otherwise, if we all hated each other, then who cares? We all just separate to our own lives and no one has to see each other again, but we want each other and we need each other and we love each other, and are having a difficult time remaining a core family.
Renton: The essence is that you commit to making it work, even though it gets very messy.
A few examples of things Kathleen Turner wanted to change from the script:
Renton: She felt that we didn't understand the character's struggle enough. There were snippets of it, but it wasn't deep enough. So she felt there were aspects that were a little bit glossed over so she seemed like this nagging mother and you didn't really get to feel her depth. That was the primary note. There was a lot more that kind of breathed life into her overall character.
Renton offered up some further ideas about how the concepts of “family” and “catholic” combine to create the concept of “catholic family.”
Renton: I think that “family” is inherent in Catholicism. That was the piece that made it make sense to me...this whole dynamic in how they want to stick together, but also have such messiness going on. It makes sense that they're not going to part their ways. I was just in Korea, and in both the screenings, someone stood up and told me, “Did you know Korean mothers are just like this too?”, because in Korean culture, family is very, very important, and also their religion is very important. So I just thought that was really interesting, the universality of this whole thing about family.
After Anne and Jason were off, Kathleen Turner took her turn in the hot seat. She first briefly spoke about her role as a producer on the film, and whether it was her first time producing:
Turner: First time I get credit for it, I'll say that. But I do have to say that I can't take much credit for it. Really, truly, once we get into the making of the film, I don't have a brain for anything else but the acting. I can help with the prep, and I can help with some decisions after, but during the filming itself, I can't take any credit for producing.
On whether she would be interested in producing again:
Turner: Yes, because it's a a privilege. This is something that comes from years of experiences and also of being part of developing the script and making choices as to what do you want this to say, "Why are we doing this?". Those kind of choices are fantastic to be a part of.
In considering what attracted her to the project, Kathleen spoke about the character of Eileen Cleary, the woman she would be tasked to portray.
Turner: I don't understand how this woman can accept this incredibly rigid formula for living and expect to live in the real world. There seems to me to be an impossible task. Then to have so much of her private world, her family, all three members of her family, be so far outside of what she believes in. How does this woman survive? I think every character has to change, has to go through a stage of growth to be interesting, period. If she doesn't change, then I'm not interested in doing her.
And I was very attracted to the compassion that's inherent in the film. It doesn't have to be Catholicism. It can be any organized and rigid religion. It could be Judaism. I could be Islam. Any religion that says, “This is the only way God approves of you,” is fine as a structure for this concept. Catholicism simply is I think the most familiar, the most workable here.
I wanted to figure out how she survived.
In the film, the recipient of the Catholic Woman of the Year award receives The Blessing of Absolution, which forgives all previous sins. To a non-Catholic, this may seem like a gimmick or a prize, but for Eileen, it's much more important and much deeper than that. (Warning: The following paragraph has a few major spoilers.)
Turner: Every religion has a get out of jail free card. They all do. To her, it was more than a prize. To her, it was necessary. What I learned in studying up on the Catholic religion, because I knew nothing of it, essentially, when I started, is if you have committed a mortal sin and never confess it, then every confession you have made thereafter, no matter how many years, is invalid. It doesn't count if you've got an unconfessed mortal sin on your soul. She's been uncofessed for twenty years [Turner's character had an abortion many years ago that she has kept secret]. Imagine how that weighs on her. This is what drives her, why she wants it so desperately, at the possible cost of her family. What she realized is ultimately nothing is worth that cost. But that's why she is so driven towards it.
On what's important for a family, and what makes the concept of "family" so precious:
Turner: Support. To support each other. I have two brothers and a sister, and my mother, who is still very well and very strong. We haven't lived in the same worlds for years and years. One brother lives in Idaho, one lives in New Zealand. My sister lives in Missouri. We see each other maybe once a year, maybe twice a year, but if they called and said, “I need you, would you do this?”, I would say yes. There would be no question of “Why?”, or, “Really?” And I believe they would do the same for me. They're family.
I believe that I would die for my daughter. That would be the most important thing on Earth to me, more important than my own life. Absolutely. I believe to never knowingly cause harm to someone, or to profit from some else's harm is the Golden Rule, and if I follow that, then that would be the best way I can live; To not cause harm and not to profit from someone's harm I think is my golden rule. If I can be true to that, then I think I will be a good person. That's about as doctrinaire as I get.
Like Anne and Jason, Kathleen shared some of the process they all went through to create a believable family on screen:
Turner: We did a lot of improv. For example, the four of us would be a in a room, and I would say, “Jason, I want you to do the dishes after supper. It's your turn to do them.” “Oh, Mom, I don't want to...” You pull people in my their position and their duty within the family, and the expectations that you have of each other, and all this stuff. Then you start really sounding like mothers and kids, and husbands and wives, and you just jump in.
All these actors are willing to just do it. They're not the kind of actors that talk about it and have to beat it to death with words, who are willing to get up and do it. That's my kind of acting. So we were fine together.
On woking with director Anne Renton:
Turner: I was impressed with her intelligence and grasp of the body of material, how she talked about laying out the filming, given our resources that I knew we had, or didn't have. She was very calm and very well planned I thought. Reasonable. She doesn't talk in terms of hyperbole or something. You got the sense that she doesn't misrepresent anything. Very accurate. So all of this made me feel that she would be very good to work with and didn't have the kind of ego that would get in the way of the work, because that actually happens a lot of times.
Finally, Kathleen offered up a few comments on working with actor Richard Chamberlain, who was a teen heart throb in the 60's and 70's and played Father Murphy in the film, :
I had a crush [on him] since I was 16. I saw him on stage in London when I was 15, 16. I gushed, the first time I met him. I told him I went to see The Lady’s Not for Burning, which was the play he was in, and he was this swashbuckling pirate kind of guy. Head over heals. That was the firs thing I told him, of course. He was so bemused.
That black cassock... What man doesn't look good in that?
We were all too soon out of time, and Kathleen had to hurry to her next appointment. The Perfect Family opens in select theaters and via Video On Demand May 4th.