Sibling rivalry: Craig Johnson directs ‘SNL’ alums Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader as estranged ‘Skeleton Twins’

When Craig Johnson first attempted to secure distribution for his debut feature, True Adolescents, following its well-regarded premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2009, he found himself listening to the proverbial crickets. Potential buyers “weren’t quite sure where it sat,” he remembers. The film, starring indie mainstay Mark Duplass as an immature thirty-something forced to reckon with adult responsibility, “felt a little too classical, I would say, to be embraced by a super indie art crowd. But then, it was too scrappy for the mainstream. And the difference, honestly, was movie stars.”

Duplass, for all that he may be “very, very beloved in the industry, and deservedly so,” doesn’t have the mainstream pull of, say, a “Saturday Night Live” alum like Bill Hader, or an “SNL” alum with a blockbuster credit like Bridesmaids to her name such as Kristen Wiig. Johnson credits the involvement of these two celebrities with assuaging the doubts and thus opening the wallets of potential investors in his second feature, The Skeleton Twins, out Sept. 12 via Roadside Attractions. “The answer is Kristen and Bill,” he says without hesitating. “Actors just always act as a wonderful insurance policy. [They] just helped everyone, producers, financiers, breathe easy at night. Basically because they think, ‘Well, if the movie doesn’t work, I think people still might go see it just because they love these actors so much. We really hope it does work, but if it doesn’t, we might be able to make our money back.’”

Wiig and Hader play Maggie and Milo, the titular siblings about which The Skeleton Twins’ “non-romantic love story” revolves. Brother and sister have been estranged for ten years when a crisis prompts Maggie to invite the depressed Milo for an extended stay. Not that Maggie is herself of robust mental health: Married to an indefatigably upbeat landscaper (Luke Wilson), and still living in the twins’ upstate New York hometown, she has for some time been indulging her own dark tendencies. Once reunited, the pair engages in macabre, heartfelt and dryly funny bonding.

“You never know how these things are going to turn out when you’re balancing tone, and I always knew it really walked the line between comedy and drama,” Johnson says. Because his film resists easy categorization, it proved a challenging sell: “We sent the script to everybody in town. And almost had the same universal response, which was, ‘We love this script! It’s dark and weird and funny and offbeat. We love it! We’re not going to make it. It’s a little too dark and weird and funny and offbeat for us. But we just love it. We know it’ll get made someday.’”

Largely thanks to producer Jacob Pechenik, late of Richard Linklater’s acclaimed Before Midnight, that day proved imminent, leaving Johnson free to cast his “offbeat” film. As it happened, the tonal ambiguity that made so many in Hollywood wary proved nicely calibrated to a certain type of Hollywood star. “I think comedy’s harder, actually, than drama. I also find comedic actors are in touch with their own dark places. And so they can transition easier to dramatic material,” Johnson explains of his decision to cast two comedians as his unhappy siblings. “You know, there’s a huge tradition of it, from Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People, or Peter Sellers, and more recently, something like Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love. I love those movies that take an iconic comedic presence and then re-contextualizes them in something different and more dramatic.”

Johnson credits veteran casting director Avy Kaufman (Lincoln) with bringing Hader to his attention. “I had only seen him in ‘Saturday Night Live’ and only seen him do kind of broad impressions and caricatures, and so was not sure if he could do something subtle, moving and heartbreaking. And Avy had seen him actually in a dramatic reading of a movie opposite, like, Kate Winslet, and Bradley Cooper, and Paul Dano. And she said out of all those actors, he was the most moving and heartbreaking.” The director agreed to an informal meet-up, where, after finding in Hader a fellow film nerd, and after jawing over a few beers, he cast the performer: “I didn’t even have him read from the script.”

Wiig’s name came up later, “as we were just sort of thinking about it. And then when the idea for Kristen hit me, it was just like a no-brainer.” Although the actress has assumed several dramatic roles in films like Hateship Loveship and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty since playing one of the more relatable female leads in recent memory, Bridesmaids’ Annie Walker, “even watching her on ‘SNL’ before she did any of that, I always thought there was something sad about her goofy characters. And I think that’s what makes Kristen so funny, is that everything comes from a very real place, often a kind of sad, dark place.”

Johnson was worried the erstwhile “SNL” Emmy nominee and current movie star would be a difficult get, but luckily, Wiig and Hader share both an agent and a manager, rendering the actress more accessible. It helped, too, that Wiig, who had previously co-starred in Adventureland and Paul, not to mention lending her vocal talents to Her and How to Train Your Dragon, alongside Hader, “ended up being excited about working with Bill. They’re very dear friends in real life.”

The duo’s chemistry is particularly apparent during a mid-film high point, “the lip-syncing scene.” Prominently featured in the film’s trailer, “the lip-syncing scene” sees first Hader and then Wiig jazz-handing and mugging their way through an alternately deadpan and campy rendition of “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship. The scales have shifted at this point in the story, and it is now Maggie whose mood needs a boost from her brother. “It was a different song in the script,” says Johnson, explaining he had originally intended the sequence to play as a solo number for Milo, instead of the two-hander with Maggie it became. The director’s first choice? “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips. “Which actually figures very prominently in the movie Bridesmaids,” he says ruefully, referring to the film’s wedding scene in which “they literally invite the band Wilson Phillips up to sing that song.

“This is long before Kristen was involved in my film. My producer went and saw Bridesmaids and was like, ‘Ah! They use “Hold On” in Bridesmaids, we can’t do it!’ And I remember thinking, shaking my fist at the heavens, ‘Ah, Bridesmaids, how dare you!’” Johnson laughs. “So I spent an awesome, nerdy 24 hours listening to every mid-’80s cheesy pop ballad known to man. Lip-syncing them myself in front of the mirror, just to see which songs might work. The great thing about ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ by Starship is that it’s a duet. So the scene suddenly expanded into this much bigger set-piece, because you had, baked into the song, you had drama. You could make it all about Bill trying to get Kristen to sing the Grace Slick part.”

“The lip-syncing scene” was a collaborative effort (“We choreographed it out pretty specifically… When Kristen would start singing reluctantly, when Luke Wilson would come in, when Bill would jump up on the furniture”), as is, of course, filmmaking as a process. Johnson speaks highly of his DP Reed Morano (Frozen River, Kill Your Darlings), with whom he “had lots of conversations about shooting in our aspect ratio, our 2:35 aspect ratio. We really wanted it to feel like cinema and not television. It’s a movie that largely takes place with characters inside a house, but we still wanted it to feel cinematic and rich and a little, gently heightened.” The duo watched Godard’s Contempt for inspiration, as well as Arnaud Desplachin’s A Christmas Tale, “which was really inspiring in terms of how you make people talking in a house dynamic and beautiful.”

Johnson collaborated on the script for The Skeleton Twins with co-writer Mark Heyman, a friend from grad school best known for producing Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and writing the director’s Black Swan, or the movie for which Natalie Portman won her Oscar. “Co-writing is a marriage and it all depends on who you select to be your spouse,” the director laughs. The two wrote their first screenplay together while attending NYU film school, “basically like a Will Ferrell, Anchorman broad comedy thing.” It was something he admits they had to get “out of our systems,” after which, “we said, OK, let’s now write a movie that really reflects the kinds of movies we really like, and a movie we could potentially get made ourselves.” Each writer drew from his own life to produce this early version of The Skeleton Twins, Johnson from the close bond he enjoys with his sister, and Heyman from memories of a transgressive relationship he watched unfold while in high school. The latter element would become an important component of Milo’s backstory. “In the earlier draft, the student-teacher relationship was very prominent. And that actually was the spark of the idea of the whole movie for us… We thought that was sort of fertile ground.”

The pair, who were “obsessed with getting into the Sundance writer’s lab,” used the submission deadline for the festival’s workshop, The Screenwriters Lab, as motivation for finishing Twins. “We applied and did not get in. And we were totally bummed. But they liked it and gave us some feedback, some thoughts about the script. So we implemented those thoughts, reapplied. Did not get in again. And we’re like, ‘Well, that’s it for Sundance.’ We were totally, kind of crushed.” Years passed; Heyman went to work for Aronofsky, while Johnson filmed True Adolescents and was one of 12 accepted into 20th Century Fox’s inaugural writer’s studio. Then, one day, “I dug the script out after I’d done True Adolescents and dusted it off and reread it and thought, ‘Whoa, this thing has some legs. It has potential.’”

Seeking a second opinion, Johnson sent the newly Lazarized Twins to Duplass, whom he refers to as “my little film guru sitting on my shoulder. I guess gurus don’t sit on your shoulder, but you know what I mean.” Duplass liked the script so much he agreed to produce, and was even briefly attached to play the role that would eventually go to Luke Wilson, that of Maggie’s ultimate nice-guy husband, Lance. Unfortunately, that ultimate Hollywood roadblock, a scheduling conflict, prevented Duplass from co-starring in The Skeleton Twins, although he would still produce the film soon to enjoy “the ultimate irony. We did not get into the Sundance lab twice. We got rejected twice. But we ended up winning the screenwriting award at Sundance this year. Which we thought was sweet justice.”

Among the changes Johnson implemented after resurrecting his script from its drawer-tomb was one concerned with the film’s location. Twins was initially set in Heyman’s hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and featured a “Day of the Dead theme woven through.” Once the director learned shooting was to take place in upstate New York, however, he felt this theme was no longer appropriate, and instead reworked the story to incorporate the new locale. “I really profoundly believe in a sense of place,” he explains, admitting, “I’m scared—I’m sure someday I’ll shoot a movie that is set somewhere, but shot somewhere else. ’Cause most movies are. But so far, I’ve shot both my movies exactly where they take place.” He found “Halloween suddenly resonated” in the Eastern region of Sleepy Hollow and fall pumpkins, “and then obviously, we could pull back in our whole skeleton theme.”

The rewrite was a creative decision that seemingly testifies to the filmmaker’s evolving capabilities. “The experience has been very, very different” from True Adolescents, Johnson muses. “In the way the movie has been embraced. And it helps having the actors I have. But also, I think I have a little bit more sense of what I’m doing and I think I took a few more risks with this movie. So I won’t give all the credit to the actors."