Interview: Don Roos
by Carlo Cavagna
LEFT: The slightly risqué poster of writer/director Don Roos's latest film, Happy Endings.
Roos was a writer long before he became a director, though—since college in fact, when he took an undergraduate screenwriting course at Notre Dame. In the Eighties he toiled in television on such shows as Hart to Hart, Paper Dolls, and the Dynasty spin-off The Colbys. In the Nineties, he finally graduated to writing feature films, as the sole credited screenwriter on Single White Female, Love Field, Boys on the Side, and the less-than-acclaimed remake of Diabolique.
What these films all have in common is strong female characters. The men are generally unremarkable or incidental. After the critical success of The Opposite of Sex, Roos tried his hand at his first feature-film male protagonist in Bounce, which he wrote and directed for Miramax. A dark drama that according to Roos, became a romantic comedy only after poor test screenings, Bounce was not a success. Since then he has continued working as a hired-gun writer brought in to fix problems on big-budget studio films.
Now Roos returns to the big screen with another cast of memorable female characters in Happy Endings. Multiple storylines unfold, following Mamie (Lisa Kudrow) as she is blackmailed by a young documentarian wannabe, Nicky (Jesse Bradford), who claims to know the whereabouts of the son she gave up for adoption, but insists on filming the reunion. In another, an opportunist named Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal) seduces a homosexual young man, Otis (Jason Ritter), much as Didi does in The Opposite of Sex, then sets her eyes on the father (Tom Arnold) and his money. The third storyline does have a male protagonist, Charley (Steve Coogan), who becomes convinced that his boyfriend (David Sutcliffe) is the real father of the child being raised by a lesbian couple (Laura Dern and Sarah Clarke). As in The Opposite of Sex, Roos's world is populated by impulsively compulsive characters, for whom he has great affection despite all their flaws.
Throughout the film, Roos shares his distinctive perspective via humorous captions that provide insights that would not otherwise be available in a straightforward depiction of the story. Before the film's release in July, Roos also shared his distinctive perspective with a group of reporters in Los Angeles, commenting on his sources of inspiration, describing in detail how the Hollywood machine attempts to create “likeable” characters, and speculating on where Christina Ricci's Didi is today.
[Note: The following interview contains spoilers for Happy Endings.]
Question: How did you decide when to use text on screen?
Roos: I decided to use it when I would introduce a new story or a bunch of new characters, and I wanted you to know more about them than I could tell you in the scene—I used it then. If I was coming back to a character, and I thought maybe you needed some re-introduction or reminding where that story was when we left off—I used it there. Mainly I used it to give another layer in the film, both in terms of subtext—because it's different if you think Tom Arnold is playing just a guy who likes younger women, or if you know that he's been overly generous all his life with women, and that his wife died, and he'd always been faithful to her—that makes the experience of watching Tom different. So I used it to give a different layer to the film. I also wanted a kind of godlike figure that would unite all of these stories and have a point view about something.
Question: Did you come up with any text that you later took out?
Roos: Yeah, I took out some smart-alecky stuff that I thought was not the personality of the voice of the text, that was maybe more me.
Question: What's the challenge of doing a film like this, to make it all flow together? You're looking a number of different characters and their lives—how do you make it all click?
Roos: Well, the real answer is I don't know. But, probably since it comes out of me, it's all unified with my tone and my perspective. So certain things wouldn't find their way into the movie that would be jarring, because it's all coming through me. So I think a lot of the unification happened automatically. But again, a lot of it too was [that] there was a storyteller in the titles. A storyteller unifies [everything]. It's still the same voice introducing you to different characters. So I think that subconsciously helped a lot with the audience.
Question: It's been awhile since your last film. Have you spent all the time writing this one?
Roos: No, no, no. This one I wrote in four months, but it took two years to get it made. I also do script polishing, and production polishing for movies that have been decided— They're going to make the movie, but they've realize that the script isn't where they want it to be. And they have like, six weeks until the cameras roll, and they call me in and I try to help them. So I do that mostly for the money, for my living, because I can't live in the way I want to live just directing. We all get paid scale on this movie. It's just not where the money is, not independent film anyway.
Question: You wrote this script for Lisa and Tom both?
Roos: I wrote it for Lisa Kudrow and Tom Arnold, yeah.
Question: What is it about Tom that made you say, "This is a guy that can pull off a fairly straight dramatic role, or at least more subtle comedy?"
Roos: Well, the character of Frank is very much who Tom Arnold is. He's impulsively generous. He's not cynical enough to be on planet Earth. He's very trusting. His good intentions and his desire to help people lead him into trouble all the time. He's a very generous, affable guy, and that's who Frank is. It hadn't really been shown to the audience in his other roles, and I just wanted to show people who Tom Arnold really was. Although it didn't make the acting any easier for him. It's very hard to portray someone—particularly hard to play someone close to yourself.
AboutFilm: Where do the other characters come from?
Roos: Where do they come from? I mean, I hope I've never met anyone like Jude. I guess Otis—that character is very close to me. I was certainly a young man struggling with my gayness, so that didn't seem to be much of an invention. I don't know. The gay male couple reminds me a lot of me and my boyfriend and our conversations, especially that scene where he's saying, “I'm going to tell you something, but I have to be the boss of it,” and all that kind of thing. It was very much lifted from our life. But most of the characters, if you're a writer, they just sort of come to you. I can't really describe where they come from. Not from life, though. Not from people that I'm like, “Oh, I want to put you in a movie.”
Question: You've done studio movies, though. Is that a path that you will continue taking?
Roos: It's the rare studio movie that you can talk about the things I want to talk about. You can have gay characters in a studio movie, but it has to be about them being gay, or else they're the sidekick, like Eve Arden used to be. The sidekick. You can't really talk about the love life of a gay man, like I did in The Opposite of Sex . You can't talk about that in a studio film. They cost so much money, and the studios are corporations that have to watch every penny, so what happens is that the movies get watered down and watered down, because they can't afford to alienate any voters. They can't afford to alienate that preview audience they test them in front of. So it's a whole game that I don't want to play.
Question: Do you feel that happened on Bounce?
Roos: Yeah. Oh yeah, definitely. Bounce was a much edgier, darker film. It wasn't necessarily a romantic—whatever they thought it was—a great love story. It was really the story of a man's disintegration. So, it went differently once the preview audience saw it. They're like, “Oh I don't like that character. He makes me uncomfortable.” Then we had to change it to get people to like him more. The problem is you never really make a better movie that way.
AboutFilm: Is that where the caption about Lisa Kudrow's character comes from?
AboutFilm: Is it inspired by your experience on Bounce ? The one where you say—
Roos: The one where I say, “Don't worry if you don't like her”? Yeah. You know, that's not really inspired by Bounce in particular, but about Hollywood in general. In a Hollywood movie you have to like the girl heroine instantly. How they do that is: Sandra Bullock comes home to her apartment, because she lives alone, because she's single, even though she's beautiful and thin and charming. She struggles up the stairs with groceries. The phone is ringing. She manages to get into her apartment. The groceries [fall]. The cat screeches at her. She misses the call, or it's her mom or something, and her sweater pops open a button. And we all like her, because she's clumsy and dumb and non-threatening. The main thing a woman has to be in film is non-threatening. And then the audience will accept her. Guys have it easier. They don't have to do anything in a film, and the audience likes them. All they have to do is have a partner who died several years before, in a crime, and maybe they feel guilty. That's their entire backstory.
You know, they're rides, really. And the main characters are vehicles that you have to climb aboard to have the ride. So they have to be likeable, or instantly identifiable. You can write those characters in your head. The male lead always goes against the grain. He goes against the rules. He doesn't play by the rules. He bucks up against authority. Always. Every time. There's never a leading character who plays by the rules, ever. They're always the same kind of outlaw, maverick, does-it-his-way kind of guy, who's a loner. And the woman is always gorgeous and thin, but no one will date her, and when she's sad she overeats. But she's thin. She's like, twelve pounds.
Question: The news right now is the box office slump, and a lot of people are point to films like Crash as the solutions. They can hold over for more weeks.
Roos: Well, it's a more complex movie. There's more to it. You can see it and think about it, and then tell people the next week, “There's a really interesting movie that you ought to see.” I think these other rides—if you like the ride, great, and maybe you'll tell somebody else you liked the ride. But if you don't it's over. So these other movies last for a weekend, and then people move on.
Question: Are movies like Happy Endings and Crash the solution to that slump?
Roos: No, I don't think so. I think that industry is what it is. It really is about entertaining people on a Friday night. I think they'll just find a better way of doing what they've always done. I don't think they're suddenly going to be like, “Give me your ensemble dramas that deal with alienation and homosexuality and abortion! That's what we want to see! That'll bring them back!” I don't think they're going to do that. I can't imagine them doing that.
Question: Will you hook back up with the Weinsteins pretty soon?
Roos: I liked Harvey a lot. He was very passionate about film. For him, he loves movies, and they are things to tinker with, to see if you do this, where does the audience go? He's very interested in the audience and his films. I don't think there's anything that I didn't like about him. I didn't like making a studio movie. But I'm sure, working with them, at least the guy at the top loves movies. A lot of these studios, they don't care about movies. They really think of them as a product. Harvey thinks of them as something else. And he's made wonderful movies. I offered them this and they were like, “Mmm…No thank you.” They weren't that interested in this.
Question: How do you continue to get polishing work when people know that this is your real voice in these little films?
Roos: Well, because first of all, once you do it and you solve some problems for people, it's a very small town. The kind of things that you learn doing the kind of movies you love, they do translate. You do have to understand about structure. A lot of the stories, the multiple stories in Happy Endings —they're very conventional in terms of what happens next. The Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tom Arnold, and Jason [Ritter] story is very conventional in its moves. The girl meets the boy, she changes her mind, she attaches herself to the father, she blackmails the boy to keep silent, she finds out in the meantime she's fallen in love with the father, she's exposed, she has to give him up. That's basically the story of Bounce , where there's a secret. Something starts in a bad way, and you keep it a secret, you fall in love with the person even though you started it in a different way, and then they're exposed, and then you lose out.
Question: Would you revisit any of these characters at some point in the future?
Roos: Yeah, I would. I would like to. They're interesting to me. Although I kind of wrap them up a little. So it's hard to see how I could get the audience to feel that they were in as much jeopardy as they were at the beginning of this film. It's one of the reasons I don't like television, because television at the end of the week you have to return characters basically to where you found them. I like to have my way with them and then leave them.
Question: There was a line though that made it sound like Otis had a story. Is that something that you're thinking about with Jason Ritter?
Roos: When I was writing the script I put it in there because I was aware of Otis getting beaten up so often by Jude and his dad. I didn't want to do a poor-gay-boy story. I wanted to make sure the audience understood, “Don't feel sorry for him. He's happier than you are, losers.” That's really what I wanted to write. I felt bad about beating him up so much. But then I got a crush on Jason and now maybe he will be in my next movie, I'm sure.
AboutFilm: And where is Christina Ricci's character from Opposite of Sex [Didi] today?
Roos: Christina Ricci's character is… unmarried, and she's probably had a relationship for five years, and she might be a manager at Wal-Mart. And on the point of blowing her brains out. Or yours.
Question: Do you think Jude is a slightly happier variation on her?
Roos: Oh, Jude is much happier, much happier than Didi. Didi does not have anywhere near the maturity and the grasp of deep human emotion that Jude does. Jude knows what she's missing. Didi just kind of glimpses there might be something to this love thing. Jude makes a huge sacrifice, and gives up her child, and gives up the man she loves, because she's afraid of what she's going to do to this family. She doesn't think it's right to wreck it. She's already much more mature than Christina's character would ever be.
Question: Why is Jude's is the one story where you say in the film that you can't see the ending to it?
Roos: Because she gave up so much, I wanted to give her a little bit more mystery, and not just kind of, “Here's where she is.” I wanted you to miss her more, so I wanted to tell you less about her. I thought she deserved that, after I had punished her so badly. And Nicky, Nicky I also didn't give the greatest happy ending to, but he's married. And so, he's as happy as those married people are.
Question: Both Jude and Didi are young female temptresses what get a gay man to sleep with them. Is that an idea that—?
Roos: That's true. Yeah, no one ever bothered to get me to sleep with them. So, it's wish fulfillment. [laughs] Thanks guys. Appreciate it.
[Read the AboutFilm review of Happy Endings]
Feature and Interviews © July 2005 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
HAPPY ENDINGS images © 2005 Lions Gate Films. All Rights Reserved.
THE OPPOSITE OF SEX image © 1998 Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc.
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