By Danny Peary
Best Man Down fits my category of Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. Ted Koland’s debut feature, which played at the 2012 Hampton’s International Film Festival, is already available on VOD, prior to its opening in Los Angeles and other select cities this weekend. Justin Long and personal favorite Jess Weixler play Scott and Kristin, a young Minneapolis couple, who have a destination wedding in Phoenix. It goes smoothly, despite the heavy drinking of Scott’s amiable best man, Lumpy (Tyler Labine). Kristin doesn’t understand why Scott is so devoted to the loutish Lumpy or know Lumpy gave Scott money for the honeymoon she craves. But they spend the money on Lumpy’s funeral when he turns up dead the next morning. They discover Lumpy had a secret life, including a friendship with a fifteen-year-old girl, Ramsey (Addison Timlin), who has a troubled home life with a flighty mother who takes drugs (Frances O’Connor) and her dangerous boyfriend. Scott and Kristin meet Ramsey and drive her to the funeral. I didn’t expect much from Best Man Down but was won over by its twisty script, strong dialogue, wit and sweet temperament, and a talented cast who obviously cared about the offbeat characters they played. The film has heart and I recommend it. Recently, another journalist and I conducted the following interview with Minnesota-native Koland, Long (who has a second film opening on VOD, A Case of You), Weixler, Labine, and Addison. I note my questions.
The director and stars of “Best Man Down”: (left to right) Ted Koland, Addison Timlin, Justin Long, Jess Weixler and Tyler Labine.
Danny Peary: Ted, when Best Man Down played at the Hamptons International Film Festival in 2012, it was titled Lumpy. Did you worry about people thinking it was about the character in Leave It to Beaver or a lumpy mattress or something else?
Ted Koland: Actually, the head of Magnolia, our distributor, hated that title. He thought people might think it had something to do with oatmeal!
DP: I confess that I read the synopsis and said, “This isn’t going to be a very good movie.” So it is a big surprise how much I like it. How do you convince people that it’s going to be good?
TK: You’re right that it is hard describing the movie. For me, it’s the surprise of it all that resonates. At the beginning you think you’re in one movie and you’re not. You assume Lumpy is just a nuisance comedy character, but then the night of the wedding he actually dies and sets this whole planes, trains, and automobiles adventure into motion. It’s a totally different story that people didn’t see coming.
Justin Long: When I began reading the script for Best Man Down I assumed it would go the way of all the formulaic romantic comedy scripts I was reading at the time. But then the whole morbid angle of the best man dying at the wedding is introduced and I was intrigued by how different it was.
DP: Did all the actors understand the tone of the film from the start?
JL: It was hard knowing the overall tone because we didn’t have scenes together. In fact the four of us never had a scene together.
Jess Weixler: I found the tone along the way. But I remember doing a funny scene and then watching somebody else do their scene and being surprised it was supersad!
Tyler Lambert: We eventually found the tone. We had our own little sideshows going on. There were lots of days when we’d just hang out and watch other people do their thing.
Addison Timlin: We’d be there at the same time, but Jess might go off and do a scene and the next day I’d go off and do something different. We all had different things going on but I think that was beneficial at the end.
DP: Working that way, did you find consistency to your own characters that made it easier?
JL: We all tried to keep it fairly grounded.
TK: I was trying to keep it grounded and real so it wouldn’t come across as schizophrenic. So I knew that if Justin and Jess’s characters are being too funny, then we were never going to find our way back to Ramsey’s story, which is more serious.
TL: I think the overall note we got from Ted is that we shouldn’t play it too goofy.
Except for the wedding scene when Lumpy is out of control.
TK: Well, Lumpy is superdrunk but still grounded!
TL: It was an intentional misdirect to where you wanted viewers to go.
Q: Since some of you didn’t have many scenes together, how did you bond?
JL: Jess and I got to the set a couple of days early and we hung out and connected very quickly. Then the others arrived.
TL: The first thing we did was go to a zombie bar and drink some chartreuse.
JL: Minnesota has great bars and restaurants.
JW: We ate so much. I felt we were constantly eating.
TL: Jess and I had rooms nearby in the hotel and our doors were always open. It was like summer camp.
AT: Going to a Twins game was really fun.
TL: What Twins game? I wasn’t invited! But we did go see a Prince cover band.
DP: Ted, you come from Minneapolis. Is there a Minneapolis sensibility that pervades through the movie?
TK: It pervades through my life. This film is kind of my postcard to my hometown. Minneapolis–actually Minnesota–is so Scandinavian and I am too, so that comes across. There are just certain things about some of the characters that wouldn’t be as big of a deal if the film took place in New York.
DP: For example?
TK: For example, I don’t think Shelley Long’s character would care so much about someone dying at her daughter’s wedding if she were a New Yorker. She wouldn’t think it was a stain on the family and worry that people were talking about it. But she’s from the Midwest so she can’t get over that her daughter’s perfect wedding was ruined. Shelley is from the Midwest, so she slid into that role very nicely.
DP: I’d say there’s a gentleness found in the four lead characters that can be traced to your being from Minneapolis.
TK: Maybe. Jess, you played your character with a lot of sweetness and you don’t always play sweet characters.
JW: There’s a politeness in Minnesota. You say “Hi!” to strangers and there’s a social etiquette that isn’t everywhere else.
JL: There is a sweetness, you’re right. You see it every day. The people are unbelievably friendly and it can be a little bit disarming when you’ve lived in New York or LA for so long. You think there’s some kind of agenda. “Hello? What do you mean by that?”
TL: I’m from Canada and I think there’s a Canadian-Minnesotan kinship–bearded, hard-drinking, big hearts.
Q: Ted, I know it was rough filming in cold Minnesota, but was it beneficial otherwise?
TK: In Minnesota, you get huge tax incentives and it’s inexpensive to shoot there. And there is no next door neighbor who would fire up his lawnmower and want you to pay him fifty bucks to shut it off! The attitude was so positive. The crew was by and large non-union and after doing a ton of commercial work there they were so excited to be working on a feature film. I just had to choose my cinematographer, editor, and other people carefully. There are so many fantastic, talented people working in the indie world so I never felt I was working on a dime budget.
TL: Neither did the actors.
AT: What really makes a good shoot is when everyone wants to be there and do a good job and is excited to tell the story. I’ve had experiences working on films since making Best Man Down and I look back and say that the budget on that was much lower but it was so much nicer.
DP: Justin, I sense you chose to be in this movie because you were trying to get away from your persona.
JL: Yeah, I usually play a slightly neurotic Everyman who gets the girl after a struggle. I was intrigued about playing a character who isn’t so comedic and is a bit more of a straight man and who keeps a lot more to himself. It was also a challenge to trust the story and not make him boring. I should be more ambitious and deliberate about seeking interesting movie roles, but I did realize this was different.
DP: I found Scott and Kristin’s relationship interesting in that they can continuously bicker about Lumpy and other things but never think of breaking up.
JL: We had to find moments to earn that. Like in the aftermath of the wedding when she’s upset about losing her honeymoon, Scott brings her donuts. We didn’t want to overdo it but we wanted to show that despite the strife and bickering, there is, at the heart, a genuine connection between them. I liked that it wasn’t overwritten and we tried not to overperform it. I sometimes see in my friends that it’s almost romantic and charming how they argue. There’s an underlying affection. So I’m glad that came across to you.
DP: You and Jess seemed so comfortable together that it comes across that Scott and Jess have known each other for years.
JL: It helped that Jess was so easy working with. I was a fan of her work, but she went to Julliard and was a classically-trained actress so I incorrectly assumed that she’d be into the whole rehearsal process and wouldn’t be in the moment. I found that to be completely untrue. She is very loose. We had a natural trust so I didn’t feel I had to do too much.
DP: Jess, what was the appeal of doing this film for you?
JW: On this one it was the script and the cast that appealed to me. I was a fan of everyone’s work in this movie. And it was fun to play a hopped-up Minnesota lady. It’s the only time I’ve played a part like this.
DP: Do you pick quirky parts or do you expect to make them quirky?
JW: That’s a great question. I think it’s a little bit of both, unless I’m just a weirdo. I’m not that interested in playing just the girl next door or the girlfriend. It’s nice when the stakes are high and you don’t know how my character is going to deal with them–I try to play against the obvious choices. It’s fun to push against how people expect my characters to act in certain situations. My character in this movie has a drug problem so making her extra kooky worked.
Q: Jess, talk about Kristin’s use of pills to fly and for other anxieties.
JW: She’s the high-anxiety, high-strung type who can really get attached to something that brings her calm. It made sense to me that for a Minnesota girl a wedding would be the most pressurized time of her life. It was a problem that probably started a year before she got married when she knew she had to do so much preparation.
TL: Jess, I’m curious. How did you choose your level of “highness?” Because you could have made her a highly-functioning drug addict or something else.
JW: I think she’s high-functioning and I based it on whether we see her before or after she takes a pill. The situations she’s in are all so high-strung, and not just the wedding. Being in Ramsey’s house, where her mother’s boyfriend pulls out a gun, would trigger her need to take a pill. Going to Lumpy’s funeral would trigger her need. It would be based on the stress level. But to be honest, I wasn’t always sure if I went too far.
DP: Tyler, I heard you say in an interview that you liked the opportunity to play Lumpy because it allowed you to break away somewhat from your jackass image.
TL: My skill set wasn’t on ample display when I played jackass characters previously. Because you don’t usually get to redeem those kind of characters. My only function was to be a buffoon who makes everyone laugh. When I met with Ted, he told me that Lumpy has a heart and when I read the material it was obvious that there was another side of the coin that people would see. I relished the idea of showing the other side of my character and being a little more tender and sensitive.
TK: There are a lot of actors who could play Lumpy when he’s drinking, but the reason I cast Tyler to play Lumpy is that he can also break your heart. That’s tricky.
TL: A life-of-the-party alcoholic is really more depressing in my opinion than the typical alcoholic because they feel they have to get shit-face drunk and depraved to reach their social obligation.
JL: The first time I met Tyler was when we shot the wedding sequence and I just couldn’t get over the force that he had playing Lumpy as he got increasingly drunk. The hardest thing to do is to play drunk. I know because I’ve done it a few times, and I think unsuccessfully. I loved watching him perform. He had a whole physical routine that he’d do. Even though he was playing a drunken buffoon, there were moments of humanity that you’d see. As funny as Tyler was in that scene, there was something so sad and vulnerable and lost about Lumpy–and I see that in a lot of drunken people. I thought that was so genius about Tyler’s performance. If not for that it would be hard for anyone to invest in the movie. Because at the heart you’re trying unravel this guy Lumpy’s life, and if he were just a drunken asshole, then who would care?
Q: How did opening the film with Lumpy drunk at the wedding establish the relationships of the characters?
TL: I think it establishes these characters’ level of frustration with Lumpy. Also, hopefully the first part of the movie illustrates things about Lumpy that will help viewers answer questions raised later on, including: why was he hanging out with a fifteen-year-old girl?
DP: And Addison, why did you want to be in this movie?
AT (joking): I was in it for a Teen Choice Award.
TL: Which you didn’t win!
AT: Actually, I liked that every character in the movie is multidimensional. Also, having just finished Californication, which was the totally opposite, I wanted to find a character who was sweeter–well maybe not sweeter but who had some innocence. I also liked that Ramsey has so much going on that she is a strong young female.
DP: Ted, your casting of Addison was inspired. I thought she was the same age as Ramsey, but it turns out she was a few years older. I had seen her on Californication but didn’t recognize her.
AT: That’s good. A very impressive transition, right?
TK: She was nineteen playing fifteen going on sixteen, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch. We couldn’t have made the movie with an actress younger than eighteen because of the budget that we were on. We needed her to work twenty-three out of twenty-five days.
AT: I am twenty-one now.
DP: Would you have played Ramsey differently if you were fifteen when you made the movie?
TL: She probably would have sang everything if she had been fifteen!
JL: Addison came from musical theater. She starred in Annie on Broadway.
AT: I grew up in New York and in the “biz.” I was sort of on my own. That was especially true at work, where I was taking care of myself and looking out for myself in a way children need protecting. I had a conversation or maybe a mild disagreement with Ted about the times in which Ramsey needs to feel younger. I felt that she is inherently going to feel older than she is. I think it comes out in the scenes with Lumpy, where there is a more youthful freedom to her because it’s the first time she feel safe, I guess. There’s the “milkshake montage,” and also the scenes in the hotel room with Lumpy wheere she struggles to figure out who she is in that context. She knows he’s an adult and he’s pointing out how young she is. That’s when you see that she’s just fifteen and that outside of her family situation, when she is always wiser than her years, she is young.
TL: There were moments between Lumpy and Ramsey when she seemed to be in her twenties. It’s obvious in the scenes in Lumpy’s hotel room that Ramsey doesn’t know what to do or what her function is.
DP: Ramsey puts her head on Lumpy’s shoulder and it’s evident that she’s seeking comfort, someone to take care of her. She trusts this adult right away.
JL: Yes, that’s very intimate.
DP: She also quickly trusts the other two adults Lumpy was close to. This movie has a parental motif and I believe that the key scene in regard to this was when Scott and Kristin are driving and Ramsey is in back making awkward observations about them. Are they meant to be Ramsey’s surrogate parents and is she the kid they would want to have in fifteen years?
TK: It’s definitely Ramsey’s new family, after she leaves her mom. I had to make the situation at her home bad enough so that Ramsey’s mom, Jaime, would be willing to give her own child away. So absolutely Scott and Kristin are her new family.
AT: When I read the script and first talked with Ted, I saw that Ramsey had really parented herself to that point. She’s very wise for how young she is and is now parenting and protecting her mother, too. She feels that her future is not contingent on someone else being her parental figure. Although, maybe Lumpy in a legal sense takes on that role and helps her with college plans. I think to Ramsey, Justin and Jess’s characters are her first tangible example of normalcy. They have jobs and are nice people. They’re being parental plays a big part in her transition.
DP: What brings your four characters together is that they make good choices in who they like. They have good instincts. For instance, Justin, you make no real effort to make Scott sympathetic but we like him because he has made great choices in the two people he loves and who love him back, Kristin and Lumpy.
JL: It’s interesting that you say that. It was a challenge for my character to just exist. There’s not a lot you know about him other than who he marries and who his best friend is. Ted, would you be okay with someone saying that?
TK: Yes. I don’t know that I processed it that way but that’s how it ended up.
AT: I think what you say is true. You don’t have to know someone but can immediately have a very close relationship with them because you’ve lost someone in common who liked you both. Their death brings you together and you have someone to talk about, sharing memories. That’s what happens with Ramsey, who knew about Scott and Kristin from Lumpy.
DP: Ramsey and Scott realize what a great person Lumpy was, but Kristin takes a while.
JW: She comes around. She learns about Lumpy. One of my favorite things about the movie is suddenly realizing why Lumpy was how he was.
JL: He was socially awkward but…
TL: …he was a hero!
JW (laughing): He was a hero whose heart was too big!
DP: Justin you have a second film being released to VOD at the same time as this. Did you make them simulataneously?
JL: No, we shot Best Man Down about two and a half years ago, and we shot A Case of You a year ago.
DP: You said Best Man Down gave you a chance to do something you’ve never done; but since you cowrote A Case of You, you picked the type of character you wanted to do, which is a man who, after reading a beautiful young woman’s Facebook page, tries to win her love by pretending to be the man she’d written about.
JL: A Case of You is something in my wheelhouse and something I’m comfortable with. We just wanted to tell a nice, simple, authentic romance. We didn’t have very lofty ambitions with it other than to get it made, which we felt was very ambitious..
DP: Were you being cautious because you were a first-time writer?
JL: Maybe subconsciously. I wasn’t deliberately making it simple, but I’m sure that entered into it because it’s scary writing your first screenplay so you want to write what you know. It was a bit of an experiment. My friend Keir O’Donnell, who cowrote and produced it with me, and I were going through break-ups at the same time and there was something therapeutic about writing the script. It was a gradual thing where we’d get together every once in awhile and write a little bit more. It materialized eventually into this script which we’d have readings of. The more people whose creative input we trusted responded to it the more we thought we should pursue it in a real way. Several incarnations later, we finally ended up making it with Kit Coiro as director.
Q: Were you precious about your script or were you okay with adlibbing?
JL: I wrote it with Keir and my brother [Christian Long] and it was a fairly loose process. It was our first script so we had to be as open as possible and we embraced anything people we trusted had to say about it. So we weren’t precious at all about our script. We were fortunate that we had such great actors play the parts, including Evan Rachel Wood, Sam Rockwell, and Vince Vaughn. Maybe I’m biased because I’m an actor but I think actors can always make it better. In fact I’ve been on many films where they realized the script wasn’t strong at the time we started shooting so they kind of encouraged me to adlib. But on A Case of You, I’m proud to say that even with the funny stuff with Sam we stayed fairly close to the script. However, Vince came in and in the best way changed some things.
Q: Are you interested in getting back into television?
JL: I’m dying to. I’m trying to be as thoughtful as possible because it’s a huge commitment. I’m really afraid of creative commitments like that–it’s six years for a successful series. I’ve done arcs on a few shows, like New Girl. That kind of inspired me because I saw how much fun those guys were having. Zoey talked to me about what it has done for her creatively and where she had been creatively before doing the show. I felt like I could commiserate with her and look for something like that. So I’m writing something with my brother for NBC and we’re hoping it comes to fruition.
DP: Meanwhile, are Best Man Down and A Case of You part of your career plan?
JL: I don’t really have a game plan. I just feel lucky to be working at all. I still haven’t gotten over thinking that to do a movie at all is such a novelty. For a couple of years I was just doing everything that I could. I was relishing the idea of getting to be in a movie at all. Each one I was offered, I’d get excited and say, “Of course, I’ll do that.” Some were good and some were bad. My mom was a theater actress who would do commercials to supplement that so I grew up with this mentality that you just go wherever the jobs are. So it took me awhile to get over that to a large degree. I can now be a little more deliberate about what I do and make better choices, as with these films.