A Discussion of Objects

Feature and interviews by Carlo Cavagna


The Safety of Objects

The Safety of Objects

USA, 2002. Rated R. 120 minutes.

Cast: Glenn Close, Dermot Mulroney, Patricia Clarkson, Jessica Campbell, Moira Kelly, Mary Kay Place, Timothy Olyphant, Kristen Stewart, Joshua Jackson, Alex House, Charlotte Arnold, Andrew Airlie
Writer: Rose Troche, based on the book of stories by A.M. Homes
Director: Rose Troche

• Carlo's review of The Safety of Objects
• Related materials and links

Unlike most adapted screenplays, which are drawn from a single written source, The Safety of Objects was inspired by numerous short stories as well as the real-life suburban experiences of writer/director Rose Troche (Bedrooms and Hallways, Go Fish). Recognizing a common thread in the critically acclaimed short stories by A.M. Homes, Troche was inspired to write a script incorporating them into a single narrative. This proved to be challenging because the seven stories chosen by Troche had different characters and settings. A year and a half later, Troche finally had the stories combined into a unified narrative supporting one main theme, that people avoid painful emotions by seeking refuge in material things. For Troche, all her characters "have invested their emotions, their sense of self in the wrong things. They have come to define themselves either by the things around them or by their job. During the film the characters learn that they need to redefine themselves in order to keep going--to live."

With producers Christine Vachon (Boys Don't Cry, Far from Heaven) and Dorothy Berwin (The Wisdom of Crocodiles, Bedrooms and Hallways), and a completed screenplay, Troche attracted an accomplished cast to The Safety of Objects, including Glenn Close (Fatal Attraction), Dermot Mulroney (About Schmidt, My Best Friend's Wedding), Jessica Campbell (Tammy Metzler in Election), Patricia Clarkson (Far from Heaven, The Untouchables), Joshua Jackson (TV's Dawson Creek), Moira Kelly (The Cutting Edge, Chaplin), Robert Klein (Primary Colors and his own HBO comedy hours), Timothy Olyphant (Go, Dreamcatcher), Kristen Stewart (Jodie Foster's daughter in Panic Room), and Mary Kay Place (The Big Chill, TV's Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman). On February 18, 2003, four cast members fielded questions from reporters in two separate roundtables at a Beverly Hills hotel. Mulroney and Campbell participated in one, and Place and Kelly in the other. The following is an edited transcript that combines their answers to the questions posed.
Dermot Mulroney

Dermot Mulroney in
The Safety of Objects

Question: How did The Safety of Objects come to you?

Place & Kelly: Through our agents.

Campbell: I was at an international law diplomacy camp, and I got the script--my manager sent it to me--so I read it. They said, "Okay, if you like it you've got to hop a train--because I was in D.C.--and meet Rose, and read on tape, and it really won't be a big deal." So I flipped through the script, really liked it, hopped a train, skipped a day of camp, and met Rose, and we really clicked. I guess she liked me. I guess she'd seen me in Election, and since I did well, I guess, in the audition, she cast me.

Mulroney: Rose relentlessly pursued me, to be honest with you. I think that she just saw me in this part. I loved the script and was hoping to do it, but there was scheduling. She just really stuck with me, stuck me into it. She won me over. She was interested in me in this part in that I hadn't really played a father of a family, that it would be different for me in that regard, with a young family. I knew that she wanted to see that.

Question: Were you familiar with the A.M. Homes book of short stories?

Campbell: I have to admit, no.

Mulroney: No, I wasn't either. I read it as soon as I got cast. Great stories.

Campbell: I'm terrible about that.

Mulroney: Jessica has not read the book at all.
Jessica Campbell

Jessica Campbell in
The Safety of Objects

Campbell: Sssh!

Mulroney: I have a copy that's marked up with circles and arrows and underlines and highlights and stuff. I really studied the book, largely because in a contemporary story it's so hard to have any other resource to prepare, other than your imagination, really, which is what you're being called to do anyway. I ended up reading most of A.M. Homes's books, because I love the way she wrote. It's also fascinating to see how Rose puzzled this script together. Jim is two characters. There's a Jim Train in one of the stories, but then the catcher, the car contest thing was added on to the rest of Jim's story. It's from two short stories. [Rose] really picked up the best pieces of [the book]. For me it was more about mood, really. I might have suggested to add one line. I don't know if it remained in the film, though. I think she took it out after all. That's about it. Everything else that was circled or underlined was because it was already in the script, so it's just that I'm seeing it in a different place. She did an extraordinary job.

Campbell: I think the problem is--and I do have a reason I haven't read it, it's not just that I'm lazy--

Mulroney: Yeah, hardly. This is not a lazy woman.

Campbell: When I read a story, the characters become something else for me. For me to have read Julie before trying to be Julie would have been much more difficult. It's very difficult for me to embody a character that I've already seen as a separate entity. Although, I think probably the time has come for me to read those stories.

Kelly: I read the book prior, so I was a fan of the book. I was really surprised that they had made of script of it, so I was excited by it. I didn't know how they were going to bring all those stories into one script and how it was going to play.

Place: I still have not read the short stories. I had to get this whole experience over with, and then I was going to read the short stories. I was just looking at what I had in front of me and then I used my imagination.

Question: Is that easier for you than to read a character in a book?

Place: It depends. I usually ask if they think I should benefit from the book. I mean, I know some people that have just been fouled up by the book because the author would just go so far afield. So in this case I just used my imagination.

Question: Do you feel that this script is a faithful and effective adaptation?

Moira Kelly in
The Safety of Objects

Kelly: It's always hard. You read the book and have your own ideas of how things should be. It's different, but it's got its good points.

Mulroney: Very much so. It's even smarter than that. My character was based on two of these stories, two separate guys, so she made them into one. Roughly speaking, each of the families is a separate story, but it's beautifully combined. That was a tough job, I think, to adapt these stories to a cohesive script.

Question: How well did each of you personally relate to your characters? What reasons did you have for accepting the roles of your characters?

Kelly: I was just interested in playing this woman. I was recently married before I read the script so I was kind of fascinated by the idea of playing a woman who had been married for awhile, and dealing with the relationship with her husband, so that interested me.

Campbell: I very much sympathized with that sending off anger--trying to disguise what's really sadness and what's really guilt--one might say depression. I can understand being angry and confusing those two emotions. When I read this role I sympathized because this thing has happened [to my character] that no one else knows about. She has to hide it and deny it, and at the same time she's upset about the results. I just liked how complicated the character was. I feel that's very similar to my own life. I feel torn in multiple directions at once.

Mulroney: I just liked Jim Train. The good thing is you get a glimpse of how bland he is, what a simple life he's leading until this 'normal thing' becomes a catastrophe for him. The Trains are new to this neighborhood, so some of the film you see from their perspective as they're learning about the other families. They don't know yet what the tragedy was that they all shared.

Place: I just thought it was interesting that all these wounded people are sleepwalking in this robotic way, and that they all shake themselves out of the numbness that they're living in. I think [my character] has always tried to live this good healthy life and do the right thing, and be as good a mother as she can, and eat the right way. No one's appreciating her. She just feels like everybody takes her for granted. They expect that she's going to make the meals and clean the room, because that has been her big, big reason for being. And she's just not happy. It's just not happening. She shocks herself by going off with this guy, and doing something that's totally out of character for her. And I think she's been thinking about it for a while, because everything is dead. And so she shocks herself, and the good thing is that once she's there, she doesn't need to do it. It was enough that she even put herself in that situation.

Question: Do you know people like that?

Place: Well, I don't know people who live like that in this moment, but who have gone through phases of that, including high-powered executive women. It doesn't really matter if you're a housewife or whatever; it's when your routine gets to a certain place. I just think we all need to be shaken up at times, and come at our life from another point of view so that we suddenly appreciate things in a whole new way.

Question: Jessica, you said that being pulled in many directions is something you identified with. Is that acting and international law?
Mary Kay Place

Mary Kay Place in
The Safety of Objects

Campbell: Well, for instance when I was in high school there was a very big pull between, "Okay, am I going to take these three months off and go film this, or am I going to stay in school and try to graduate at the top of my class? What do I do?"

Mulroney: You did both, though, didn't you?

Campbell: Well, I did both. [facetiously] Not the top, top of my class, though, see? But it's things like that and decisions that you have to make every day in your life. If that opportunity calls, sometimes it's really agonizing trying to decide which one you want to take and which emotion you want to feel, because I don't think anybody can go through a day and feel just one way. I think we are presented with these situations; there are multiple reactions we could have, and choosing between them is so hard. There you go.

Question: Let me ask you about your character. He goes so off the deep end. He has such an extreme reaction to not getting the promotion. As an actor, what kind of back story did you give him that would justify that kind of reaction for you, that would make it easy for you to play that?

Mulroney: Really, all of my answers were in the script and in the book. All of the good stuff was in the script. Take a look closely at the family, certainly with a son like that, you know there's gotta be some brain chemistry situation in that household. I just thought he was a closet obsessive compulsive, in that he had it in check when he had an identity that he attached to his job and knew who he was. When all of that just went away, madness kicked in, kind of. It's an extreme reaction because of how little reaction he has in the rest of his life up until that point. With a lot of these characters you get to see them a moment before reality kicks in. In Jim Train's case he needed to have a purpose, which also tells you a little bit about how that mind would work, if so much is resting on being productive or purposeful. I see this as early onset mid-life crisis.

Kelly: I think with Dermot's character, I'm not sure whether he did go so off the deep end. For me, I think that people who deal with a lot of stress in their lives, they have to release it in some way, in some fashion. He didn't shoot someone on the road, or go and shoot up a restaurant. To me, that would be off the deep end. He needed to re-identify himself, and find himself, almost like a mid-life crisis, I imagine, when people go out and buy cars when they're feeling that they're getting past the age of sexy, or whatever else they do--divorce their wives and get mistresses. No, I didn't think it was too off the deep end--but then what does that say about me?

Question: As the wife of the guy who goes to the mall and goes nuts and the son who has all his sexual hang-ups about a doll, how did you approach that in your part? Did you consider it partly her fault?

Kelly: I don't think she's one hundred percent aware of it. I think she's lost in her own idea of what she wants her life and her family to be. I think she's wrapped up in that and doesn't have a clue that her son is sleeping with and having a relationship with the Barbie doll. That I think will be Safety of Objects 2, when we return to the 'hood, and see what everyone's up to.

Questions just for Dermot Mulroney

Question: Dermot, it sounds as though you had great fun playing your character in About Schmidt. We barely recognized you.

Mulroney: That was definitely a lot of fun. It was tough to figure out how to pull off. See, [writer/director] Alexander [Payne] and [writer] Jim Taylor wrote the character to look like that [i.e., with a receding hairline and a mullet], so it wasn't like I had come up with that on my own. But I was determined not to have too much with that, really take it so you could respect this guy. [When] I step out of the trailer first time, the crew's laughing and pointing, and I'm just trying to hold it, just maintain it, give him some dignity. I maintained it throughout. I knew, too, that Alexander just loved this character. He just thought he was so sweet and true and funny. So I knew I had him won over already, so I didn't have to try to impress the director. I just loved him the same way the director did. But it was a blast.

Question: Did you compare notes with Jessica Campbell about what it was like to work with Alexander Payne?

Mulroney: We discussed it. Actually, I hadn't done it yet. [to Campbell] But I remember asking you about him, maybe because I loved Election so much. We had a conversation or two about that movie anyway. About Schmidt was shot after [The Safety of Objects].

Question: You're so versatile in what you do that I'm sure Hollywood has a hard time pigeonholing you. How does that affect you with getting parts? You get a lot of parts, but a Dermot Mulroney part--you can't really define it.

Mulroney: Well, I don't know. They don't hire me for most of their stuff. So they're confused [laughs], or they don't care. Either of which is fine with me because I end up doing films like this. [But yeah,] I've dabbled in the mainstream.

Question: You sound as though you're amused by it.

Mulroney: I'm amused now, but I've definitely gone through phases of being completely perplexed or mystified or some kind of short-shrifted. You make these scenarios in your mind, and then when they don't come true, you're like, "Whaaa?" I'm moved beyond that to simple robust acceptance.

Question: Dermot, I understand you're going to be in the new David Gordon Green [George Washington, All the Real Girls] movie. Are you looking forward to that?

Mulroney: Oh, yeah, you bet. I'm just getting to know him now, but it's a great script. It's a small part, really. I don't really make it past page 35, not to ruin it for you. But it's an important part, and I think he's an important filmmaker, so I was thrilled when he contacted me for that.

Question: How do you think overall The Safety of Objects is going to affect you professionally? Where do you see yourself in the future?

Mulroney: I've never been in a movie that had anything to do with any other movie after that… I mean… that's not that accurate. Really what I mean is, a lot of times somebody will say, or you get the idea, "Well, this is going to lead to that." It leads to something else every time, but there's no predicting it. Beyond that, it's mostly up to somebody else anyway.


Questions just for Mary Kay Place

Question: You and Moira Kelly have both been on West Wing… can you tell me what you did on the show?

Place: I was the surgeon general. It was delightful. I had a great time. It was really challenging, because it was a great deal of dialogue, and it has to be letter perfect. So I really had a fantastic time.

Question: As a veteran of the TV industry, how do you feel about television today? We'll keep The West Wing out of the picture because that's a rather exceptional show. Do you watch much television? Do you like what you see?

Place: I love 24! I watch that--I couldn't be more thrilled about it. I must say I've watched a few [reality shows]. This summer I watched American Idol, and I have to tell you I was so nervous for those kids when they had to sing. I know what that's like, and I just couldn't believe that they were out there. But that's as far as I go in the reality world… But no, I think there are some good shows. My friend wrote Mister Sterling, which talks about the Senate. He was the chief of staff for Patrick Moynihan for years, and he knows how the Senate works. I think it's a great way of learning about government. It's not as densely written as the The West Wing, in terms of dialogue per square inch on the page. It still gives the average person a real inside look at the dynamics of the Senate and how things get done, how bills get passed, and all the politicking and all the weird intricate negotiations that go on. And I think that's interesting. I'm grateful for that peek… I miss Once and Again, the Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz show. Those guys have shows that I always like… And then there's plenty of the same old cookie-cutter set-up, pay-off, and a-one-two-three. Set-up, payoff, and a-one-two-three. A lot of sitcoms I'm not that crazy about because I think they're totally formulaic and totally unoriginal and not funny at all.

Question: What stuff comes your way, and has Hollywood had a hard time pigeonholing you?

Place: Well, after Mary Hartman, I used to get all country/western singers or people from Texas. You go through phases, you know? There will always be mother roles; I will always be a mother. I'm so excited when I'm not a mother, even though I love being a mother. There are many mothers I choose not to be, but then there's some interesting ones like this one [in Safety of Objects]. So I was perfectly thrilled to be a mother. It just depends. But let's face it, if you look at all the scripts in the United States of America and the world, for women there just aren't that many options, and particularly for women my age. I feel very grateful to God that there's any part that I find interesting or funny or emotionally challenging, or whatever. I just thank God that I'm still getting scripts at all that aren't stupid. Because there are a lot of stupid ones, that you really think, "Oh gee. Okay, could I possibly muster up--"

Moira Kelly: You wonder how they got greenlighted to begin with.

Place: It's shocking. You just can't imagine.

Question: If Moira was just starting out and you know what you know, what would you tell her? What advice would you give her?

Kelly: Run awaaay!

Place: No, I wouldn't say that, because I know-- [to Kelly] I don't even know you that well--but I know she's smart, so I would just say, "You will know if you will continue to be interested in doing this, with your family and husband and all that." It becomes very clear. With all actors that are very good and have an emotional truth to offer, it's exciting. It's fun work. If you've gotten to this point, really, it's not a question of are you going to do it, it's how could you stop doing it? It's great! It's not a nine-to-five, 365 day a year job, so you can actually have a full life and get to do this really interesting work. It would only be a less intelligent person that I would have a lot more advice for. [laughs]

Question: You did direct some TV episodes. Are you planning to direct a feature film, an independent film?

Place: Yes, I worked for three years on an independent feature, and for two and a half we were with Regent Films, and then before the writers' strike and the stock market crash and everything, they gave us half the budget at the last minute. So the whole thing fell apart. It would have been done by now. I have to start over again. But one of these days.

Question: How about TV?

Place: You know, I've been on location a lot in the last couple years. I was in Atlanta for three months during the TV season. So, once you fall out of that loop, you have to climb back in on the directing side. It's really hard for women to get directing gigs, and especially if I go off and act. So, I don't have any lined up. But I'll get back into it. I really want to work on another independent film.

Question: Are you going to continue with both directing and acting?

Place: Well, you know, whatever opportunity is the most appealing that comes my way, that's what I do. The directing is certainly something I'm interested in, but it's very difficult to get that going. Like I said, three and half years down the drain. So I have to take a little break and then start up again. But also I've been really acting a lot. I just take the most interesting thing that comes my way at the time.

Question: Including singing?

Place: That I only do in the shower, or with friends in my living room.


Questions just for Moira Kelly

Question: I remember seeing Chaplin with a great deal of anticipation, and I thought possibly the film didn't do as well as it might have done because they try to pack his whole life into two hours and fifteen minutes. You played a key character [Oona, Chaplin's fourth wife]. What did you feel about that?

Kelly: It was one of my earliest projects, so I was very excited to be working on it, and I love period pieces, so that was a joy. I hadn't read too much about Chaplin and his life. I knew of his films, so for me it was discovering Chaplin and research of him and Oona. But I do agree. He's such a fascinating man, and everything that he had experienced, from his poverty as a child to his filmmaking, and then to being exiled from the States because of his political stance, even though he wasn't really taking a political stance. It was fascinating. It was a lot of information for people who don't know of Chaplin to try to assess and absorb. I truly think that Robert [Downey Jr.] did an amazing job. He was for me the only one I could see playing that role. It was fantastic, and even as the older Chaplin, I think he captured a lot of his beauty and his sadness and a melancholy. He just did a great job with it. It was a great joy to work with him and, of course, with Richard Attenborough.

Question: Did you marry an actor, by the way?

Kelly: I did not marry an actor, no. He's from Texas.

Question: A normal person?

Kelly: He is a normal everyday Joe, and he's gotten himself in for it now. I've dragged him back to California.

Question: How do you think the relationships between people and objects become so important? How do you think objects characterize certain aspects of humanity and the film as a whole? What do you think audiences are going to come away with after seeing this film?

Campbell: I think, at worst, people are going to walk away thinking, "What was that? What was the connection between the title and the film?" But at least they'll be thinking about it. I think what Rose was trying to get across is that people project their insecurities and the things they might want out of life onto something that they know they can have, something that's safe, like the doll. That could be intimacy; that could be friendship; that could be companionship. But it's nothing that he has to actually exert himself to get. It's his, and he has it. And, okay, maybe it's a little bit of a delusion, but it's something that he has. For me, for my character, the car is like, "My mother is going to work to get me this object that represents all the love and affection and attention that I never got, that she always gave to my brother. But if she gets me that car it will all be okay, because that car is a manifestation of everything I don't have but want." I think in the end they give up their objects, and that's the point that they move beyond these things that they've focused on falsely, and gotten to the core of what the real problem is, of what they really want.

Mulroney: Wow, that's exactly right. I wish I'd put it that way. And for Jim, it's as simple as a catcher's mitt. When the last time you really smelled a catcher's mitt? Because it'll take you right back. In our story, that's all he needed to be reminded that he was a human that had been a child, that had been happy once, that had a fulfilling life, and then he sees he does have it in his family.

Kelly: I think sometimes when people are trying to deal with tragedy or sadness or a traumatic experience in their life, they project it onto an object, because they don't know how to deal with it themselves or identify it, and so it becomes safer to remove it from yourself and project it onto something inanimate. Letting go of that object, I imagine, occurs when you finally realize that the problem is within. No material thing is going to make it better, to solve the problem, so that you have to let it go, which is the scene at the end when we're all handing our junk over to the new neighbors. These things, they don't matter anymore. What it was that was hurting us or bothering us has already surfaced, and we now have to face it and deal with it. It's a real thing. It's not a piece of plastic, or a Barbie doll, or a car. My [character's] husband's attempt to win this car was his attempt to try to deal with his changing in life, his position, his place. He needed to feel that maybe he could give, that he could still provide, if not for his own family, then this woman, this neighbor.

Place: I think that's an excellent answer. It says everything. I think everybody does that all the time. Maybe not in so blatant ways, but in subtle ways. You feel bad, you go out and buy an outfit, or you--

Kelly: --eat some ice cream--

Place: Yeah.

Question: Is that the safety of objects, though, or the comfort of objects? Would there be a difference?

Kelly: Interesting…

Place: That is an interesting--

Kelly: Can we feel comfort when we're safe? Can the two go hand in hand?

Question: Well, that's what--

Kelly: Oh, you're asking me? [laughs] I'm asking you.

Place: [laughs] What do you think?

Kelly: Pass the microphone!

Place: Well, I think comfort and safety are pretty close. But, like I said, I think that's real common. I think we're such a materialistic society that it doesn't stop. We just get more and more that way. With advertising and the media and everything, I don't see any end in sight. I don't know about you guys.

Kelly: Sometimes with the safety of an object, you really don't have to look at the truth. If it's comfort with an object, you're comfortable with yourself. It just brings you comfort. It doesn't hide you. It's not a safe place to disappear or escape to, and maybe that's where the difference is.

Place: Or just the numbness, this feeling of just numbing out. I got a new car--there's this elated feeling of joy… It's like the running away from whatever--whether it's being busy all the time, or obsessing over your flower bed or whatever.

Kelly: Or the guitar. Like Glenn Close and the guitar. That guitar was her son and it was safe for her to protect that guitar and try to keep it divided from her daughter, because it was safer to deal with the guitar than actually to expose herself to her daughter, or have to hear what her daughter has to say about her, and what she's going through.

Place: As we all know, this is all a process, this grieving, healing, dealing with any kind of anything--any change of any kind. And who wants to do it? Nobody wants to do it initially. It's only when you go, "Okay, this is really messed up now. I really gotta deal with this stuff." Because everybody avoids it. And so how do you avoid it? What things do you pick? What activities? What objects? What do you pick until finally you can't avoid it anymore? And then, it comes to a head.

Kelly: And that's actually when you start feeling better.

Question: What was your object in this?

Kelly: I think it was suburbia as whole. That house, that neighborhood, the idea of what you want, the perfect family, the perfect flowers planted perfectly in the front yard that he rips out. That whole house, that whole dwelling was her project; it's what she was trying to pour herself into. Because doing that she thought would make everyone happy. It didn't.

Question: Did either of you have an object in the past, and felt like if you lost it the whole world would come to an end?

Kelly: Yeah, but I don't know if I want to divulge. [laughs] Could be a little embarrassing. I'm going to let you go first on that.

Place: I don't think I have. Maybe I have and just don't know at this moment. I must have, but nothing that sticks out. I didn't have a blanket or anything like that. But I do think it's interesting that these people all are tied together by this tragic occurrence, and as I said earlier, I think that they're all in a sleepwalking mode. They're just in a post-traumatic stress syndrome state of being. And they all wake up in this particular time that the film takes place. And that's the great thing about films and stories--everybody can do it at the same time. [laughs]

Campbell: Oh yeah. Oh my gosh. I actually did lose it, too, that was the worst part.. It was this little baby pillow I had. It was called Squishy Pillow. That was its name, Squishy Pillow. I took it with me everywhere. I had it since I was a baby, and I managed to lose it on a trip. I thought I was going to die. I crieeeed. I cried. I was nine. It meant a lot to me. But in a way, it's almost good to lose those things because you realize after the initial horror that, "Okay, well I guess it wasn't that big of a deal after all." You just have to get past the first shock.

Mulroney: I don't know. Not so much. I didn't have a Squishy Pillow. My brother had a blanket though, that over the course of six or eight years he ate.

Kelly: Mine is my violin, actually. My father's a violinist, and at a very young age he gave me my instrument. He had chosen for me that that's what I would do; I would follow in his footsteps. To this day, I am not even close to being what he had hoped and dreamed. So I picture one day taking it and throwing it off a cliff of the Palisades, or somewhere. I'll have to find a mountain. But one day letting it go. I hold onto it and play it occasionally, but I think I hold onto it because it was his dream for me. It connects me to him, but it's also a crutch, because until I let it go, I'll always in some way see myself [as] less in my father's eyes. So there you go.

Question: Jessica, what was it like working with Glenn? Did you learn anything from her?

Campbell: I was a little scared, to be honest, when I heard I was going to be working with Glenn. I was intimidated. I guess I was expecting some sort of prima donna attitude. I was very, very wrong. She's one of the kindest people I've ever met. I was really impressed by her attitude throughout the filming. She never took the high and mighty road. She never acted like she was better than anybody else.

Mulroney: And this was a hard movie to make. There was a lot to get done in a little amount of time. Look at the number of characters and the number of scenes and then the number of locations. It was really high stress to get everything shot.

Campbell: Yeah, and the hours at the mall? We had to shoot overnight at a mall when it was shut down. She just kept her head about her the whole time. I was very impressed.

Question: You've all done both independent and big-budget films. What's the difference, and what do you prefer?

Place: I like the speed of an independent film. I get really restless on a big budget movie--

Kelly: --sitting around, makeup itching on your face--

Place: --when they're just putting a light over here, putting a light over there… I'm like [snapping fingers], "Let's go!" You get a rhythm on an independent film, and it's fast, and you've got all this stuff cooking and going, and it's great to keep that momentum up. I love it. I think it's so much more interesting to work quickly like that.

Kelly: It's wonderful to watch people do problem solving, too, on an independent budget. You really get the sense of grassroots filmmaking. You don't have the money for a cherry picker, so you hang a guy from a tree, whatever you need to do to make that shot interesting. It may not be what you wanted it to be, but you're going to be able to convey the same emotion, the same sense, from that scene, by the minds coming together, and going, "Okay we can't do this, but we can do this and still have that same effect." I think that's really exciting for independent film.

Place: On Being John Malkovich they had a platform made out of plywood and they would just push people off when they came out of his brain, on the freeway, New Jersey whatever… [laughs] They just pushed people off.

Mulroney: Well, this film maybe was a little bit too much, but I do like to work more quickly. So, if you have less money and less time, then you have to work faster. That way you can just maintain your character. It's amazing the things that you accomplish on big movies in your trailer… learn how to play the guitar… all the time in the world. It's nice when you actually don't have time in between. That to me is the biggest bonus--that you can work at a speed that helps an actor instead of hinders him.

Question: Do you find, not having more time to think about what you're going to be doing, that there's more spontaneity?

Mulroney: Partially that, partially just boredom. That can be very corrosive to the creative mind. Really it boils down to not having anything to do while you're waiting. Then you do start over-thinking it. You have this one big scene in this whole huge shooting schedule. The day comes to do your big scene, and it just drags on. It can really affect your mood, which affects your ability to access your feelings.

Campbell: Actually, when we were shooting Election, it didn't feel like a big-budget movie at all. It felt very small budget. But I did notice that there was quite a bit more tension on Safety on the set, because there was this constant underlying panic of, "Oh my god, we gotta get this done, oh my god, we can't afford not to get this done---aaaa!" I just remember there were a couple times when we would have to adjust the camera, and something would be wrong. Normally, I think on a larger movie it wouldn't have been such a big deal, but for this, where time was so pressing, people really started to panic. That's the only difference I've noticed.

Mulroney: Well, I panicked. I took Rose aside and I gave her such a talking to! I'm like, "Look you da-da-da, you can't da-da-da!" It was terrible. She stood up to it like a champ. It was really horribly timed, and I love her. It was great. I couldn't have picked a worse day to fight with the director.

Question: Rose had not done many films before, so what was it like working through that?

Mulroney: Well, right from our first conversations on the phone, I just thought she was dynamite, really sharp, and having written this script as well as she did. She was so specific. She'd always have a conversation with you before each scene. The first couple days, I was like, "Whoa, what do you want? We're about to shoot." But then she'd be really subtle and really private with you. If she had one thing to think about while you were acting the scene, or making sure you get this, whichever it was, she was always really subtle, but so clear. I'm sorry she couldn't be here because she's a really fascinating person.

Question: She's still angry you yelled at her.

Mulroney: [laughs] No, that's the thing, I think we both just needed a little purge, and went about our day. In fact, I think that's the day that the first AD [i.e., assistant director] and the script coordinator walked off.

Campbell: This must have been earlier.

Mulroney: This was earlier. This was over at the Trains' house. So I acted as first AD for the next couple hours until they found somebody in Toronto to come. So I made up for it, believe me. I'm like, "Rolling." These were other people's scenes, you know. I was like, "Somebody's gotta help out this production."

Question: Was it the stress that made them walk off?

Mulroney: Yeah, I think. I really do think it was almost too hard to do. You look at the script--I think I remember there being scene numbers, and they numbered up to 230 different scenes. We parked the trucks in the neighborhood, and then we'd do four people's houses on the same day. Three or four major locations, and shuttle vans going every which direction.

Campbell: I think sometimes communication was a problem. Remember when we all flew back after the picnic scene? We all flew home and fly back the next day. You didn't have to do that?

Mulroney: I don't think I did. I remember you did. I stayed the night.

Campbell: A whole bunch of us had to do that. It was a mess. Sometimes the communication was a little bit lacking. Could have been better.

Mulroney: But it was going to be a hard movie to make regardless, and that's just how it goes sometimes. You have to get through it, and while you're in it, at least it's exciting.

Kelly: I try not to get mixed up in any of the tension. I do my job. I'm paid to come in, bring that character with me, and then go home. You develop relationships with people you work with, but for me it's always been smart to stay out of the politics of it, stay out of any of the tension of it. If it's a situation that requires a meeting of everyone involved, to try to come up with an answer to a situation, then I'll involve myself, but if it's something that's out of my, let's say, department, then I try to let them figure it out and work it out.

Question: Why do you think that suburban weirdness or alienation is such a popular topic for movies?

Mulroney: I don't know. Yeah, there are filmmakers who specialize in it. You go back to Blue Velvet, it's been going on for years and years. I suppose you're referring to American Beauty? It's not like there's a whole--maybe there's a subgenre--it's not like there's dozens of them. When we started shooting this, it was closer to when American Beauty had come out, so I made that reference in my mind. You learn what's really going on in the suburbs--that's similar. But I don't think there's that many of these movies.

Campbell: Well, to me, Election is kind of suburban. I feel like in cinema for a very long time there was a theme of not really focusing on real people, or on what we're used to experiencing, like glamour, or war, or something a little bit bigger. I think right now we're rejoicing in the fact that there's no such thing as normal. So we're pointing it out every chance we get. Because the suburbs still maintain a little bit of that Fifties, "Oo, this is the perfect life and everybody's happy." Well, they're not. Nobody is. Nobody is normal. I guess that's the point. Nobody's normal.

Place: Because it's just assumed that since it's such a nice clean orderly atmosphere that everything must be nice and clean and orderly. But--

Kelly: It's all an illusion.

Question: Are there any happy people in the suburbs, do you think?

Place: I do, I think there are.

Kelly: My parents are happy in the suburbs.

Place: But I also think that we all have the same problems, and it just gets manifested--the pattern is pretty much the same. And it's all a spiritual problem now, isn't it? [laughs] Ultimately, it's a soul problem. It comes in all different ways to different people, but it's gonna come. [laughs] Unless you have an early death, it is going to come.

Question: Everybody knows wounded people and there's a certain peeping Tom attitude for people going to the movies and seeing that there are lives that are falling apart.

Place: I don't know that it's so much "peeping Tom." I think it's more connective tissue. Even though your experience is not that experience whatsoever, there's an emotional truth that you connect to, that somehow hooks into something you do know about. I think it's part of being a human being, this emotional vocabulary that we all experience through specific things that happen to each individual, but the emotional vocabulary translates across to all, so that you come away thinking, "Yeah, I know that's true. I understand that, even though I've never experienced that particular thing. And you know what? I feel better that I understand it." If it's good, that's what you hope for.

Interviews © March 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2002 Renaissance Films. All Rights Reserved.

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