Pushing 'Boundaries': Shana Feste explores her own family dynamics in new comedy-drama

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Through iconic, larger-than-life characters—types rather than real people—the great comedies from the ’40s offered poignant insights into the human condition. Shana Feste’s Boundaries delivers the same kind of insights with the same kind of icons, but what makes the film remarkable is that these icons come straight out of real life: writer-director Shana Feste’s real life. Christopher Plummer is more magnificent than ever as Shana’s dope-dealing, freewheeling, deadbeat dad; Vera Farmiga is sometimes heartbreaking and always beautiful as Shana Feste herself; and Kristen Schaal is wacky and wonderful as Shana’s sister. Peter Fonda, Christopher Lloyd and Lewis MacDougall co-star. The difference between Boundaries and other contemporary comedies is subtle, but its effect is real and bountiful. Feste discussed her new film with Director Talk.

Director Talk: In comedies from the ’40s, like You Can’t Take It With You, Sullivan’s Travels, Shop Around the Corner, the characters are more like icons than people from real life, but at the same time, these films say an enormous amount about the human condition. I was wondering if those comedies served as a model for your film.

Shana Feste:The truth is those characters were all real characters. They weren’t larger than life to me. That was my father [played by Christopher Plummer]. I really wrote him. That is his dialogue. That is how he speaks, that is how he acts. My sister—if you go to her house, you will see a framed picture of a momma dog with her pup crossing a stream. Jed [played by Halldor Bjarnason] is a real-life character. I probably exaggerated myself the most, because when you write yourself you’re usually the most boring character on the screen. I’m a total recluse and I’m happy never talking to anybody; I don’t really make the best protagonist, so I take the most liberties with myself. But about what you said at the end: I hope my film says something larger about forgiveness and seeing your parent for who they really are and what that journey is, ultimately not with a happy, hopeful ending but an ending of honesty, where I can say, OK, I don’t know where this is going to go. I see you now for who you are, I’ve accepted that, and who knows where we go from here?

DT: The sequence of faces at the end was an interesting choice.

SF: It started because we were thinking about how to open the movie. I thought I’d love to do some animal portraits and show these funky-looking animals that are all flawed—that are missing something that would make them cuter, whether it’s an ear, fur, an eye—and shoot a really beautiful portrait of them and try to capture their essence, and that’s how I’ll start the film. Once I shot those portraits, Sara Mishara, who’s our DP, and I fell in love with them, and we said, what if we shot portraits of the other characters in the movie and bookended it? Originally we were going to bookend it with all of Henry’s new friends at school, so we shot portraits of all of these misfit kids who were really beautiful. But then we started shooting portraits of our main characters. Sometimes I would take six or seven minutes with a camera on them and just wait until I got that one moment when I thought, That’s you. Sometimes I would talk and ask questions, otherwise I’d just shoot and they would do whatever they were doing and I would wait until I got that moment.

DT: We always prioritize everything we do—that’s just life. Does working with such great actors affect your priorities on set? In other words, do you shoot differently when you’re working with actors of that caliber?

SF: When you’re working with actors of this caliber, your direction has to be totally articulate. If you’re being sloppy, and you haven’t really thought out the scene and you just say, “OK, I guess I want it to be funny, so what would be funny, let’s do this scene as if you’re punishing her,” Christopher Plummer will punish her. He will get that exactly right. So if you haven’t totally thought about your direction, you’re not going to get what you want, because he can play anything and the slightest adjustment is a huge difference in his performance. So maybe you thought about punishing her but he’s really punishing her and it’s really intense and it’s not funny at all. So maybe I’ll say, “Let’s try and make her feel guilty.” Then he makes her feel guilty and that’s not funny enough, maybe it’s hitting too close to home. Every direction has to be completely thought out with actors like Chris and Vera.

DT: The scene with Christopher Plummer and Peter Fonda was hysterical. Was it improvised at all?

SF: When we first shot that scene it was about ten minutes. They were goofing off, they were ad-libbing, they were laughing, having fun. I thought, “This movie is only an hour and a half, I cannot be in this room for ten minutes,”as amazing as it was to watch these two icons in this scene together. So we kept making adjustments to pick up the pace and take out some of the improvisation, leave some of it in. I would have been happy with a ten-minute scene, because just watching them work was all kind of magic to me.

DT: Sure.

SF: They had a real chemistry, they had a real bond. They were friends before we made this picture, so they had this natural ease. When Peter Fonda answered the door and embraced Christopher Plummer, I thought, “My God, Peter Fonda’s either an amazing actor or they really genuinely like each other.” It was a little bit of both.

DT: Talk a little more about working with the actors, because the acting was huge.

SF: That’s what excites me as a director, because I’m a writer. I write roles that I think actors are going to want to play and that can attract the best actors. When I get on set, sometimes it’s difficult for me to even see anything besides the actors, because that is why I do what I do. I love working with actors, so when I have Chris [Plummer] and Vera [Farmiga] and Lewis [MacDougall] and Peter [Fonda], I could spend hours directing them and not thinking about anything else—where the camera is, what they’re wearing.

I think that one of my biggest challenges as a director is to force myself to see the big picture and get out of my utopia of my actors’ world. But with this film it was fun again; it was really fun to see how much the scene could change with different direction and with different blocking. I could have spent days shooting one scene with them, because every time we did it with the slightest adjustment it would mean something completely different. I was constantly being surprised by their choices, so creating a space for actors to play like that, especially when every one of them… It was like going to camp—guess who’s coming on Thursday, Bobby Carnavale! And Monday we’re going to meet Christopher Lloyd! It was such a gift for a director who loves working with actors, because literally every three days I got someone new that totally changed the energy of the set.

DT: I wonder if the vitality of the acting would have changed had you been more concerned about camera angles and setup.

SF: It’s my least favorite part of the job anyways, so that’s why I always work with a DP I know I can trust and rely on. I say to my DPs upfront, “I’m going to get lost in the performances sometimes. That’s where I’m going to be, so I really need you to be my eyes.” We have a lot of discussions and prep about photography and ways we want to shoot, because once I get on set, they have to tear me away from the actors.

DT: That’s not a bad thing. As a writer-director, how does the director in you respond when the writing gets off course, when people start improvising and taking it in a direction you don’t want it to go?

SF: Sometimes it’s amazing. When Kristen Schaal starts to improv, I’m thinking, “Keep going, because you make me sound like a comedy writer.” She would take my material and make it a hundred times funnier. What was interesting was watching her and Christopher Plummer work together, because Christopher Plummer is trained in the theatre, so he sticks to the page, he sticks to the dialogue. He has every single line memorized, and he doesn’t do a lot of improvisation. Kristen Schaal is all improvisation, so having those two characters come together was very much like the real characters in real life, it was kind of hit-and-miss, but when they came together… There was a scene where they’re looking at that painting and Kristen Schaal says—this was an improv line—“Guess how much I paid for this painting? You’ll never guess.” That wasn’t a line, that was improv, so Christopher Plummer wasn’t going to respond. She didn’t have the right line, so he just sat there. They all just sat there, and no one answered, which made her improv another line, which was “That’s right. It was free.” It was this perfect moment where these two different styles came up against each other and created something funny.

DT: It’s hard to believe this was a fairly low-budget film. How did you make it look so good?

SF: We shot in Vancouver. Everywhere you go there’s a film production shooting, so you’re thinking, “Where am I going to find a location that’s not been overshot and seen in a million Canadian Hallmark movies?” That’s where our production designer came in. He scoured Vancouver for locations we’d never seen before, like Stanley’s house, which was architecturally really interesting, with cool lines. Just finding these amazing locations made the budget seem much bigger.

And shooting anamorphically. We shot with older lenses from the ’60s that gave it more of an appearance of film, because I wanted to shoot on film but obviously we couldn’t afford to do that. And then fighting for things that gave us a lot of production value: a lot of animals constantly, a lot of driving scenes, a lot of broken-down Rolls Royces, and a huge ensemble cast. It was a labor of love for a lot of people.

DT: Can you talk about the dangers of working with autobiographical material?

SF: There are some days I wish I’d gone a little deeper in this film, and I think that’s always a challenge. How deep can I go? How honest can I go? And am I really being honest? I wrote the first draft of the script and really thought it was OK. I wanted to make a movie about some anger I’m feeling toward my father, and I wrote the first draft of the script, and there was no anger. None of it. I was in such denial of my own anger that I couldn’t even put it on the page when I was trying to put it on the page. I think the danger is taking something that’s totally authentic and true to you and it ends up not being authentic because you’re scared of where the material might go. You’re scared of who’s going to watch it. I was scared of what my father would think when he watched the film, what my brothers would think, what my sister thought of the movie, how I would possibly be perceived. All of that fear is really hard. It gets in the way of writing honestly.

DT: That’s interesting, because that’s not how the film comes across.

SF: I hope not, but I can’t even watch it. I’ve never watched a film I’ve made. I always watch mistakes. It’s like watching yourself naked on the screen. I’ve had three children, so I can’t watch that, I can never watch that again. I just see all the things I should have done differently whenever I watch a movie afterwards.

DT: How cathartic can art ultimately be?

SF: I think that’s why I’m a screenwriter, because anyone with a childhood trauma can rewrite their own happy endings. My first film was about grief [The Greatest]. My father lost a child before I was born. It would have been my brother Mark. He talked about it one time on one road trip with me. He told me, “You would have had a brother.” He told me how he died; I’m 42, and he never mentioned it again, never spoke about it. So my first film was about the death of a son, it was all about grief. Every single member of the family was talking about it. They had open discussions about it. It was a way for me to explore what it was like to grow up with a grieving parent. So for me writing is incredibly cathartic, because I get to work out so many of the things I’m going through at the moment. With Boundaries it was working with what it was like to be a misfit growing up and what it was like to feel like you didn’t belong, and how hard it is to come to terms with your own anger as a woman, because I have such a resistance to anger in my own life. It’s really hard for me to get in touch with, and this film was a real exercise—a cathartic exercise— in how to embrace my own anger, just like I embrace all my other emotions.

DT: Ultimately your character was successful, the same way you’re successful. So is the anger getting lost, is the anger being sublimated? Where is the anger? That’s what struck me about the film: there was so little anger in a situation that should have been enraging.

SF: Sometimes I think maybe there should have been more. Maybe i should have… Maybe it wasn’t enough…  I wanted to make a movie where we could laugh about childhood trauma. Sometimes I feel like I should have erred more on the anger side, but ultimately the truth is, my dad did change, and as much as I never thought he would, ultimately he did change. He moved in with my family when he was sick, and he spent the last three years of his life with us, and I saw him parent my son in the way he probably should have parented me. He said to me—and I’ll never forget it—he said, “Bean, you didn’t get the father you deserved.”  Once he said that, that’s an anger melter. I just said OK. I think it’s the gaslighting, the thinking, not knowing if you deserve love or if you didn’t deserve love, or why they were gone, but when he actually took onus and said, “No, it was me, you didn’t get the father you deserved,” it allowed me to completely forgive him.

DT: What do you want audiences to take away from the film?

SF: The real reason I wrote it is that I was in the Lacy Street animal shelter, where I rescue animals, and I had just found a home for a pit bull, which are incredibly hard to place. I was coming back into the shelter, and I saw people turning in their family dogs, I saw abused animals, and I felt so overwhelmed. What I’m doing—and I think I’m doing a tremendous amount, because it’s taking up almost 75 percent of my life, rescuing animals two or three times a month—I’m doing this huge thing in my own life, it’s making a huge impact on me, and then I go to the shelters and I feel like it’s totally fruitless. It’s this ongoing problem. I thought, “Is there a way I could incorporate this into my film and shine a bigger light on animal rescue?”I really wanted this film at its heart to be about animals that really are incapable of hurting you, and to shine a light on something that’s so important in my own life, which is rescue. So what do I want people to take away from it? I would love people to be inspired to adopt a pet after watching this film. Nothing would make me happier. The highlight of my day is when I rescue a dog for someone and two years later they send me a picture of the dog having a good time. So nothing would make me happier than if I got a call and someone said, “I saw Boundaries and I went to the shelter and got this amazing ten-year-old cat.”

A Sony Pictures Classics release, Boundariesopens in New York and Los Angeles on June 22. Click here for trailer and theatre listings. The author thanks Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview. This interview is published here courtesy of Director Talk. Copyright © Director Talk 2018