Laughter and Tears: Chris Kelly finds comedy in what happens to ‘Other People’

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A decade ago, For Your Consideration offered up for Academy consideration the performance of one Catherine O’Hara, who played an actress named Marilyn Hack, then seeking—I mean, really, truly, actively seeking—Academy consideration for her performance of the dying matriarch in something called Home for Purim—and, in that odd way of life-imitating-art-imitating-life, O’Hara was denied a nomination.

The poor baby was just ahead of her time, that’s all. “Her time” came earlier this year when an epidemic of dying mothers begging for Academy Award consideration seemed to be breaking out all over Sundance—well, two anyway: Molly Shannon in Chris Kelly’s Other People, and Margo Martindale in John Krasinski’s The Hollars.

“You’re right!” hollars Kelly, quickly surrendering. “I made the whole thing up.”

If only. Other People recounts the story that usually happens to other people but, actually and achingly, happened to him seven years ago: the death of his mother.

“I guess everyone goes through that terminal-sickness-with-a-family-member thing,” he now realizes. “Back then, I was so obsessed with the fact that it was my own personal story, wrestling with ‘Should I tell this?’ or not, that I couldn’t see how relatable it was. One of the most overwhelmingly sweet parts of making this movie and taking it to these film festivals is how people come up to me afterward and say, ‘My mother passed away from cancer’ or ‘One of my family members is also sick.’ It is so brave that so many wanted to see a movie that might hit too close to home.”

The hints of universality started even before his camera made a single revolution, when he was putting together his cast and film crew. “One of the first things that people said to me was ‘You know, I’ve been in that situation. It happened to me.’

“In many ways, this was insane that I got to do this and everybody supported me. I felt very grateful that it was even happening and that I was allowed to direct it. I personally had a good handle on what I wanted it to be and what tone I wanted it to have. I had a very clear vision of that, obviously, since I wrote it—and lived it.

“Nobody directs a movie alone,” Kelly concedes. “My producers—Adam Scott [the actor] and his wife, Naomi—were amazing. They got the tone right away. Vibes were coming off the gate. They were positive every day and just so hands-on. My DP, Brian Burgoyne, and my editor, Patrick Colman—everyone involved had a similar mindset and the same vision of the film. We just worked really well together.”

Having everybody around you on the same page is no doubt helpful when you are a 31-year-old writer-director making your feature-film debut—and, more crucially, working for the first time in pretty heavy-duty drama. Kelly comes from comedy—from the short, satirical, Peabody Award-winning web videos he did for The Onion News Network through Funny or Die and “Broad City”to his current Emmy-contending position as a head writer for “Saturday Night Live.” In short, the man knows funny.

Drama is another and distant country—especially the dangerous, close-to-the-bone, autobiographical kind. But in Kelly’s world, as in life, comedy and drama mercifully co-exist and complement each other. That human harmony distinguishes this film.

“One of the things I took away from the experience of that time when my mom was sick was that—yes, obviously, it was sad and devastating, but my mom was funny. My family is funny. Everyone in my family, in fact, has a good sense of humor. When someone’s dying, you’re not weeping and talking about how sad you are 24/7. There are moments of levity that bring you out of it. That’s how I remember going through the experience. You’d get up to days that were impossibly sad, and the next day you’d be lighthearted and laughing and forget the horribleness of the situation. Then you’d be back to crying again. That’s how I felt, and that’s what I wanted to create.”

Kelly doesn’t waste a second to lower the boom. Shannon arrives in the film D.O.A., and her family—husband, son, two daughters—are clustered around the deathbed, crying. Then, something jarring and sublimely ill-timed happens—something of great comic inconsequence—that shatters the family’s collective sorrow.

That would be Kelly signing in directorially. “It starts very horribly, but then there is also a comedic element to the scene. I wanted to set the tone of the movie—to let the audience know, comically and dramatically, what they were in for, basically.”

Starting with a death in the family cues the movie ahead in another way, too. “I wanted it not to be a will-she-or-won’t-she-die movie. The movie isn’t about whether or not she dies. It’s about what the characters do leading up to that.

“I remember when my mom was very sick and she was in hospice and we knew for a fact that it was going to happen, it was such a weird space to be in—to know for a fact that someone was going to die and that there was nothing you could do about—so all you could do is say, ‘OK, how do you fill the time until she dies? How do you make the most of this?’ I wanted the audience to feel that same way—just knowing that this is going to happen and wondering what are these characters going to do.”

In keeping with these dramedy demands, Kelly cast the dying mother with an actress best known for her comedy work on pre-Kelly “SNL” (albeit, she played the mother of the dying girl in last year’s sleeper Me and Earl and the Dying Girl).

“I’d never met Molly before, but I’ve always been a fan of hers,” Kelly admits. “She’s mostly done comedic work, but I’ve seen her do some dramas here and there, and I knew she had it in her. In this movie, she’s a full package. I’m just lucky she’s in it.”

Playing an ailing person in a progressively downward spiral requires much skill and nuance, and Shannon’s painfully exact efforts at this are the best since the very slow fade of Vanessa Redgrave’s fragile aristocrat in the first quarter of Howard’s End.

Like Redgrave, Shannon seems to be headed for the same Best Supporting Actress category. “I can’t say enough good things about her performance, but I personally can’t let my brain go Oscar,” confesses Kelly. “She is truly incredible in this movie.

“We developed such a close relationship while filming. I mean, you have to, if someone is playing a version of your mother. It’s a strange intimacy. We wanted to make sure we got the performance right in terms of the decline—all the health struggles that the character went through and all the physical transformations.

“I just pulled from what I’d experienced with my mother. I think she pulled from some experiences she had had in her life with people, and we just talked a lot. We talked about what I remembered feeling like as this was happening. Molly met and spoke on the phone with my mom’s best friend to get somebody else’s point of view, because I knew my mother as a son, and she was like, ‘That’s great, but I also want to know what her friends thought of her, what she was like when she wasn’t around her kids and what her values were.’ That took a lot of conversations.”

Kelly found his cinematic facsimile in Jesse Plemons, a 28-year-old Dallas native who resembles an embryonic Philip Seymour Hoffman and, accordingly, acts chameleon-like. “I first saw him in ‘Friday Night Lights’as one of the high-school students who wasn’t originally on the football team, then is. He was a villain in ‘Breaking Bad’ and a Midwestern husband in Fargo. He’s very versatile. I feel like every part that he chooses is the correct one from the previous role. I think he’s an actor who’s very thoughtful and likes to take on different characters. It was very cool to watch him.”

Like John Krasinski in The Hollars, Plemons plays an unsuccessful creative in NYC who is pulled back to his small-town roots by the impending death of his mother (which, in the case of Other People, is a year-long sentence). In addition to the heartache in the center ring and his work worries off to the side, he has just come to the end of a five-year gay relationship and now feels like a stranger in that strange land called home.

“It’s such a tricky thing when you write something that’s so autobiographical or partly autobiographical. I can’t stress enough how much not everything is true. There are certain things in the movie that didn’t happen. There’s a moment where the character of the father refuses to meet his son’s boyfriend. That would never have happened to me. It’s a weird thing. I wanted to capture a time and a feel in my life—what it was like then to be home with my family. They’re a bit conservative, have strong religious backgrounds, and were concerned about me being gay.

“I hope people seeing the movie will see the father as someone who’s warm and loving and only has issues with his son’s sexuality because of his religious beliefs. I’m not telling the story of exactly how my father reacted, exactly how my mother reacted, how I acted. I have a great relationship with my dad, and he’s a wonderful person. It’s just a tricky thing when you’re writing something autobiographical.

“The same thing with myself, writing a version of myself. I don’t think I make myself always look wonderful. When you’re writing this script, you have to put yourself in the mindset you were in seven years ago. You have to ask yourself, ‘What were my strengths and weaknesses back then?’ What were my worries? What were my fears? What were my insecurities? What were my shortcomings? You’re trying to write in the voice of yourself seven years ago. It’s kind of like an out-of-body experience.”

Bradley Whitford rounds off some of the sharp edges of the father’s stubborn stance. In the sisters slot are Madisen Beaty and Maude Apatow (Judd’s daughter). The presence of Paul Dooley and June Squibb as grandparents lightens the proceedings immensely, and John Early as Plemons’ lone hometown bud gives the audience some easy-breathing room from the central drama-trauma. “We truly lucked out,” Kelly beams. “We had so many great people who came in and really hit their marks.”

He’s particularly proud of the two-scene thievery of J.J. Totah, who plays Early’s gay teenage brother. “He’s a fantastic actor,” insists Kelly. “If you’ve not seen him before, you will definitely see him again. I really was excited about casting him, because that role was so important to me. I actually rewrote the script a lot after casting him.

“My character’s sexuality is not the leading storyline in the movie, but it’s definitely a part of it,” Kelly says. “Back in those days, I was sheltered, almost homophobic. I grew up thinking that it was wrong to be gay for so long that, even when I was coming out in my late 20s, I was still not fully comfortable with my own sexuality. I don’t feel that way now, but looking back on it, I was so sad, and it hurt so much.

“That’s why there’s another gay character in the film who is exactly the opposite of my character. There’s this drag scene where my character is taken aback by this kid’s show of confidence and sexuality and he laughs because the kid is so flamboyant. Then my friend, his big brother, says, ‘You’re just laughing because you’re so uncomfortable. He’s way more confident than you’ll ever be.’ It’s sort of that moment of ‘Oh, right. I’m only laughing because I’m uncomfortable with myself.’”

Early’s character also underlines why Other People is the perfect title for this film. “This may be a little ‘film school’ to say, but I like the title for a couple of reasons. At one point, the main character—in parenthesis, me—says, ‘This feels like something that happens to other people,’ and his friend is, like, ‘Well, now you’re other people to other people.’ I remember feeling like that all the time back in those days. Like, I’ve seen movies about cancer. I’ve known friends of friends who’ve gone through this, but it’s happening to me? What? You’re a real live person, and it’s happening to you. It happens to everybody. I was just so used to it happening to other people.”

Other People, which Vertical Entertainment opens on Sept. 9, nabbed a Grand Jury Prize nomination when it opened Sundance’s 2016 fest. At the one in Nantucket, it won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature—and Molly Shannon received something called the Golden Compass acting award. Maybe she’ll use that compass to direct herself to the Oscar podium on Feb. 26.