Tom O'Brien's "Manhattan Romance" in The Big Apple
Playing at Film Festival
Tom O'Brien's Manhattan Romance in The Big Apple
(from Sag Harbor Express Online 11/6/14)
By Danny Peary
Modern Romance fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. It hasn’t had its theatrical release yet but it can be seen Sunday night at the Big Apple Festival at the Tribeca Cinema in New York City. This is writer-director-leading man Tom O’Brien’s smart, witty, terrifically-acted follow-up to his critically-acclaimed Fairhaven, which was about three male high school buddies who have a tumultuous reunion in their Massachusetts town. It is about one lonely outcast who finds himself adrift. Danny works at a New York ad agency but on the side tries to finish a documentary he’s been shooting forever about relationships. He hasn’t been able to have a successful relationship himself, other than his strong friendship with Carla (rising star Katherine Waterston), and now finds himself with Theresa (a super Caitlin Fitzgerald of Masters of Sex), who won’t have sex with him and believes in open relationships. Carla tells him he could do better but the only other woman he has strong feelings for is Carla, and she is involved with Emmy (Gaby Hoffmann). He senses she is bisexual but she won’t admit it. He is frustrated in every way. Last Friday I spoke to the amiable actor-filmmaker over breakfast about his second feature.
Danny Peary: Congratulations on being the Opening Night film at the Big Apple Film Festival.
Katherine Waterston and Tom O’Brien in “Manhattan Romance.”
Ton O’Brien: We’re thrilled. It took a while to finish it because of funding, and then we started hoping for a New York premiere. Big Apple is perfect.
DP: You are one of the few athletes who made a successful transition to filmmaking. Are people surprised now to find out that you were once a serious hockey player?
TO: Probably those who just know me from New York as an artist and writer. But people who just look at my height and weight aren’t that surprised.
DP: You were a goalie at Elmira College. How good were you?
TO: I was one of the top Division II players. There was one guy on our team who made it to the Boston Bruins and most of the others guys went to the minor leagues or Europe. I was scouted and could have played in Europe if I wanted, but I thought there was no point in doing that and delaying my life. As soon as my college hockey career ended I needed to find another outlet.
DP: When did you start writing?
TO: I did some writing in high school but nothing really serious. In college I was an English lit major and did a little creative writing. I came to New York when I was about twenty-two to be an actor and started a theater company with Chris Messina and Rosemarie DeWitt. It was called All Seasons Theatre Group and I started writing plays for it. They were all one-acts but for one full-length play called The Group that we put on at the Ensemble Studio Theatre [in summer 1999, with Chris Messina directing]. I wasn’t in the full-length play but I was in some of the one-acts. Most often we’d write for each other and the other people in the company.
DP: What about writing for yourself?
TO: That developed out of the practicality of wanting to get better roles. I wanted to write myself good roles because nobody else was doing that. So Chris and I talked about writing a movie for ourselves. So I wrote the script forFairhaven, which would feature us, and for years, he helped me develop it. [O'Brien would play Jon, an ex-quarterback who is stuck in town, and Messina would play bad-boy Dave, who returns to town for his dad's funeral.] During that whole process of writing a good part for me, I fell in love with writing itself.
DP: Did you prefer from the start to write personal material?
TO: I think so because that’s what I have always been drawn to most when I see films and plays. Relationships, how characters behave. I was interested in writing about characters exposing themselves and being vulnerable and open.
DP: Fairhaven got really good reviews to help it out of the gate.
TO: It did. Stephen Holden gave us an amazing review in the New York Times and that got us into a lot of doors. The roll-out for Manhattan Romance has been more low key and we’ve done the smaller festivals and flown under the radar. It’s nice how it is being done.
DP: Talk about casting this film.
TO: The first person I went after was Katherine Waterston. This was two years ago before she was cast in the lead in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. I knew her from theater and I’d met her socially a couple of times. I thought she was interesting and beautiful in a nontraditional way. Her mom is a supermodel [Lynn Louisa Woodruff] and her dad is Sam Waterston. She’s kind of a combination of the two of them. I talked to Chris about who could play Carla and we concluded we wanted a New York theater actress who felt she needed to be a lead in a movie. I asked Chris, “What about Katherine Waterston?” I think she’d done only one movie, The Babysitters, with John Leguizamo. He went, “She’s perfect!” So he emailed her and I met her and thought she was quirky and funny and reminded me of Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. She was dying to star in a movie and had loved the script so we decided right then to do it together. I didn’t audition her.
DP: Was there one thing in the script that she wanted you to explain to her?
TO: She was really concerned with the believability of Carla leaving her lesbian relationship and going straight. I didn’t have to rewrite anything because it was there in the script but she just wanted me to keep an eye on that as the director.
DP: How did you cast Caitlin Fitzgerald as Theresa?
TO: Ed Burns had seen Fairhaven and asked me to lunch. I told him that I needed a producer to get my second movie made and he said, “I think I know the guy for you, Michael Harrop. I’m meeting him later” At that moment, somebody walked by the restaurant and Ed goes, “That’s Mike!” So he grabbed him and brought him in. Mike had worked with Ed for years and he ended up being my producer. I mentioned to Ed that I was looking for someone to play Theresa. He recommended Caitlin, who starred with him in his film The Newlyweds. He put me in touch with her. So his influence is all over the movie.
DP: Carla and Theresa don’t have any scenes together, so did Katherine and Caitlin ever meet?
TO: They knew each other. Katherine had to leave in the middle of the shoot to do Night Moves with Kelly Reichardt and when she left Caitlin came in to shoot her scenes. Then Katherine came back and we finished. She suggested Gaby Hoffmann to play Emmy. I didn’t know her. It was amazing for Gaby to come in and do a supporting role. She said, “I always wanted to play Katherine Waterston’s girlfriend.” We had her for only four days, but she’s such a pro that I didn’t have to give her a word of direction. I didn’t have to give any of them much direction. It’s the Woody Allen thing–it’s all casting.
DP: Don’t take this the wrong way, but if I didn’t know differently I would have thought you had made Manhattan Romance before Fairhaven.
TO: That’s interesting because that’s sort of the opposite of what we’ve been hearing. Most people who sawFairhaven first think this is a leap forward in terms of the filmmaking. But I can see what you’re saying becauseFairhaven definitely had a bigger budget and the aesthetic was intended to be glossier, with less hand-held shots.
DP: Also I would think you would have wanted to get all the autobiographical material out of your system in your first film before making a movie about three male characters.
TO: Yes, Manhattan Romance is more autobiographical. There’s a lot more of my life in it than in Fairhaven. InFairhaven there was more cover, on this one I feel more exposed. It think of it as a reflection of the solitary, single New York life that I’d lived for so many years.
DP: I know there is much of Jon, the former high school football star who wants to be a writer, and Danny, a striving filmmaker, that is you. So could Jon and Danny be friends?
TO: That’s a good question. I think so. I feel that if Jon got out of Fairhaven and went to New York and became a writer he might be Danny down the road.
DP: Or you. In Fairhaven, Jon tells his therapist that it’s hard being who he is. That seems to be a prevailing theme for you because if Danny went to a therapist I’m sure he’d say the same thing.
TO: You’re right. It’s like what Scorsese says about directors exploring the same themes their whole career. So that’s definitely one theme of mine. Hopefully by the end of the movies Jon and Danny will be closer to stepping into their own selves. Those are the most interesting characters for me. We see Hollywood movies about guys who win the game and win the championship and become everything they dreamed of being. But what about the people who don’t have it that easy? Therein lies the drama. I think it’s a nice juxtaposition when you see someone who should be a heroic character and realize he’s not. Like a one-time star quarterback who once saw him himself as the next Tom Brady. When you really get into his head and his life, you see he’s not heroic after all.
DP: Does Danny miss his father because he has no role model or male figure to talk to?
TO: It’s interesting that you’d ask that because my actor father [who has a small bit as Danny's uncle] has pointed out that in both of my scripts there is an absence of a father for my characters. I think it’s a character thing–how do you become a man without having your father be an example?
DP: Directors have common themes in their movies through their whole careers, but I believe you had to make Manhattan Romance when you are at this age, not ten years down the road.
TO: Absolutely. When I look back at the plays I wrote ten or fifteen years ago, I ask, “Who was that who wrote that?” There are certain things you have to do at certain ages and then move on. I think it’s a film for right now. When I was making Fairhaven it was like me ten years ago, but Manhattan Romance feels like me when I was making it. What’s interesting is that the whole crew was single. My producer, my DP, everyone in the camera departments. I thought, why not make a documentary about this crew? Since I made the film I have a girlfriend. It is life imitating art. Being in a relationship, it would be hard to make this movie today.
DP: I expected Manhattan Romance to be a broader comedy because it won the Audience Award at the New Hampshire Film Festival and I wouldn’t have guessed the audience in Portsmouth would so much appreciate a subtle comedy.
TO: The audience at that festival is very savvy and discriminating. My tone is usually very realistic and I love the bridge between documentary and narrative. I want to feel like I’m watching real lives.
DP: You also have a lot of dead-pan humor.
TO: That’s the kind of humor I grew up with. Bill Murray, the early Chevy Chase, and those kinds of comic actors. I also like awkward comedy
DP: I know Woody Allen is your biggest influence. His movie was Manhattan and your movie is Manhattan Romance, and I think you tried to capture the city as much as he did.
TO: That was the idea. This movie was always meant to be an homage to him. I’ve been in Manhattan for fifteen years now and I’ve always had this experience of it in my head that I wanted to visualize. For instance, there’s a montage scene where my DP Scott Miller just stole some shots of people in the city. I wanted to show cinematically what it’s like to walk down the street in Manhattan. I include early morning scenes when the city wakes up and night scenes when there’s chaos and it’s too stimulating at times. I try to show the whole spectrum. We did a lot of walking through the city and you’ll see many familiar places. Scott and I traded a lot of our New York experiences. He is kind of the quintessential New York DP, so we were lucky to get him. I feel he really captured my internal vision of the city and we were on the same length right from the start.
DP: You could say the “Romance” in the title refers to a romance with the city.
TO: Yeah, it’s the romance between two people, Danny and Carla, but on a bigger scale it’s a romance with the city itself. We wanted the city to be a character.
DP: Also New York is a giant city of more than eight million people, yet you can be lonely in it, as Danny is. That’s the difference in New York of having one person in your life and not having someone in your life.
TO: Exactly, it makes a huge difference We wanted to capture that loneliness and isolation he feels as all these people pass by, crossing into each other’s world’s because it’s so crowded.
DP: Talk about the scene when Danny gets frustrated and starts running through the city, running with no place to go, and the camera impossibly stays on you.
To: It was crazy. They were in a van and my producer was driving and the DP had the door open and was shooting. It was Friday night on Prince Street in SoHo so it was packed and I don’t know how they kept up with me. I was jogging at first and when I realized they were still with me, I ran a little faster and they stayed with me the whole time. For awhile we considered playing that in one shot.
DP: A line you have quoted in interviews is “Truth is best served through fiction.”
TO: I quoted Hemingway. It’s true. I wanted this film to be fiction but have the feel of a documentary. I like the layers of reality there–it’s a film about a filmmaker making a film.
DP: Those are interesting shots when Danny has his interview subjects framed on his camera and meanwhile Scott Miller is shooting him.
TO: It was important to me to shoot like that. A lot of TV shows, like The Office, do those documentary shots of the subjects but I wanted it to be more about this guy making a documentary. So I told Scott at the beginning to always shoot me while Danny is shooting.
DP: Danny seems to understand the couples he shoots but is he capable of understanding himself?
TO: As is often the case, it’s easier to see things in other people than in yourself. I think he’s doing that when making his documentary on relationships. He’s looking at all these other relationships and during the course of making his film he starts to learn more about himself and who he really wants to be with.
DP: So this is a progression for him?
TO: He has been working on his documentary for so long that he needs to finish it before he can move on with the rest of his life. For him to get together with someone in a real way, he needs to figure out something about himself through making the movie.
DP: Is there a revelation moment in regard to his feelings toward Carla while making the movie? I know he looks at the footage of Carla sitting with Emmy on their couch, so does he realize that they don’t fit as well as he and Carla do? Is there something he sees?
TO: I think so. But maybe there’s not one specific moment. That’s the conclusion he’s coming to through watching his footage. Danny is a watcher. He makes this movie that requires him to watch other people in the city. Eventually he says he wants to start dealing, he wants to stop observing and be a participant in his own life. That is the moment when he decides not to sit on the sidelines anymore but be in the game.
DP: Does he think of himself as a supporting character in his own life?
TO: I’d say so. There’s a line in the film about how he realizes he’s watching other people have their lives rather living his own life. He concludes he wants to start living, which he can do after putting the movie away. His relationship with Carla becomes his new project. I’ve constantly had that experience of having unfinished projects get in the way of my life. Fairhaven especially because I worked on it for so long. I could identify with this filmmaker who never makes his film or a writer who never writes his novel. I was someone who couldn’t finish or follow through. Danny couldn’t finish his film in the past, but now he does and realizes that maybe he can be with Carla and live this life that he wants to live.
DP: Does Danny undervalue himself?
TO: Yes. He’s better than he sees himself. Carla tells him that he’s better than to be in his situation with Theresa. Sometimes it takes someone else to show you yourself. That’s what Carla and Danny do for each other. They boost each other. It flips during the movie and he’s telling her that she’s better than to be in her relationship with Emmy. They give that honesty to each other and that’s part of their connection.
DP: When he talks to Carla about his preferring to be alone rather than having a relationship, he talks about the need to make sacrifices in order to have a relationship. I thought that was an odd approach for a person to take. Compromising is part of relationships, but it sounds negative for him to enter a relationship with the attitude that he’s losing something rather than gaining something.
TO: That’s been his experience. He’s been alone so much that he’s kind of fallen in love with his solitude and he wants to stay independent and not sacrifice his alone time. I think there are sacrifices in relationships but there are definitely great things too. It become a trade-off. What do you value more–the freedom to do whatever you want to do or a connection to another person? He tells Carla that he hasn’t met anyone he’d sacrifice his time alone for. But she calls him on that, saying it doesn’t have to be that way.
DP: Does Danny have any male friends?
TO: Well, he has his buddy who he works with at the editing studio. But I think he’s a loner. Carla is his best friend.
DP: Manhattan Romance begins with Danny already involved with a New Agey young woman, Theresa, who believes in open relationships. Jon, your character in Fairhaven, also has a New Age girlfriend who believes in open relationships. Are New Age types part of your world?
TO: Yes. In my other life, I teach yoga so I’ve been around the New Age community a lot. In Fairhaven, Angela, the New Age girlfriend played by Alexie Gilmore, becomes a positive person for Jon, but I didn’t feel she was fully realized on screen as much as I wanted to. I really wanted to explore that more with Theresa. I based Theresa on a real person and Caitlin pretty much is her. Katherine’s character, Carla, is more of an amalgam of different people but Caitlin’s was specific to one person and she nailed her to a T.
DP: Some of the lines Theresa and Danny say to each other as they hug–”innocently” for her but not him–are so funny. Like when he tells her it’s great that they can hug without his feeling sexual. He thinks it’s a good thing when he can tell her, “I feel nothing.”
TO: Yeah, and they are real. Put your life in art, Woody Allen-style.
DP: Is he genuinely interested in open relationships?
TO: He’s interested in some progressive ideas about relationships because he hasn’t had luck in standard relationships. So he’s open to the idea that there is something else. When he’s lying in bed with Carla, she tells him that relationships don’t have to be about one thing. She breaks it down for him, but he thinks it’s all or nothing and if it doesn’t work he’s willing to try something crazy. But I think he’s more in love and seduced by Theresa then he is into open relationships.
DP: There’s a lot of self-deception with all your characters, so does Danny wrongly think he could handle Theresa seeing other guys, too?
TO: Totally. I wanted the audience to understand what he’s going through. She’s a beautiful woman and he is drawn in when she gives him attention, but we know it’s just never going to work. You see that early in the film when Theresa gets up from their table and goes to sit with another guy. That was an example of what it would be like with her. And he’s thrown by it. The idea was interesting but the actuality of it would be hard to do.
DP: We are sure that Danny needs to get away from Theresa. But we can feel a little sympathy for her because there’s some self-deception going on with her and she’s covering up some pain.
TO: I wasn’t looking to make her the total bad guy. I wanted to walk the line. I have seen in the New Age community that there are people who have total self-deception and are a bit crazy, but there are more authentic people who are living the life they want. I wanted her to be in the middle. She might be full of shit but she’s trying to figure her life out and really believes in these ideas.
DP: I’m not sure she really believes in these ideas, I think she wants to believe in them.
TO: Yeah, she’s not 100% there. But there are people who do live those lives.
DP: Like Jarrod, the guy who takes off his shirt and sits on her couch. He comes across as a completely obnoxious, pretentious guy but when challenged he tells Danny, “You don’t know me.” That is his one line that hints there may be something there.
TO: You and my mom are the only two people who have picked up on that line so far. She loved that line because she thought it made him a more well-rounded character.
DP: That one line gives him infinite possibilities. I still wouldn’t want to spend any time with him.
TO: Neither would I. Except the actor is a sweetheart of a guy who happens to be Katherine’s brother-in-law, Louis Candelmi. He’s a really good actor who’s doing a play at the Public Theater right now.
DP: Just as you didn’t want to make Theresa a villain, you don’t set up Emmy as an awful person. She’s very close to being perfect for Carla.
TO: Yeah! I’m glad that came across. In the Hollywood version of this story, Emmy would be a terrible person and there would be no doubt Carla should leave her to be with Danny. But I wanted there to be subtlety and to show that it’s a pretty good relationship between Emmy and Carla. I didn’t want it to be black and white that Carla should need to leave. She’s just not quite what Carla needs.
DP: A theme of yours is that people gravitate toward relationships that they know will have unsatisfying resolutions.
TO: They don’t know that at the time. I don’t think they’d go into it if they knew the outcome. I always tricked myself into thinking that I can fix it or make it work. At some point you have the realization that it’s not going to get better.
DP: Were you trying to resolve such things in your own head by exploring these characters in your film?
TO: Yes. It is interesting that I got a girlfriend after finishing my movie. Like Danny, I finished my movie and was able to be with someone too.
DP: You don’t have to answer this but how close is your girlfriend to Carla?
TO: It’s interesting that she has a lot of the same qualities. She is also grounded and down-to-earth. Maybe in some way I was writing the perfect woman for me and of an idealized version of a relationship.
DP: Do you think Danny and Carla’s odd relationship is in any way specific to Manhattan?
TO: It’s definitely specific to my experience of New York. When I arrived I felt for the first time, “Oh, I’m home, this is where I should be.” It’s the land of misfit toys in a way, where all these people from different places come and find their family and home here. Danny and Carla are misfits at home in New York. So for me their experience rang true.
DP: Among the millions of people, you would think that there would be 100,000 people who would be good matches for Danny or Carla, but they gravitate toward each other. In fact, Danny is attracted to Theresa, and Carla lives with Emmy. But could it be that they are the only match for each other?
TO: I don’t know. I guess that’s a philosophical question having to do with whether there is only one person for each person.
DP: Well, do you, not necessarily personally, but as the director-writer of Manhattan Romance, want to make us believe that Danny and Carla are the only match for each other?
TO: The idea is that these two people have an intense connection. They are friends first but feel something more underneath the friendship. But they don’t know how to define or articulate those feelings, especially with Carla being in a lesbian relationship with Emmy. It is even more confusing for her because of the whole sexuality thing, but neither is consciously aware of what their feelings are.
DP: Your film is interesting in regard to being a viewer. Because when Danny and Carla are both seeming vulnerable and you put the camera close to them, as when she sleeps overnight in his bed, we don’t know if we’re supposed to feel sexual tension between them. We feel guilty for not accepting that they can just be friends and for thinking he can win her over although she’s a lesbian.
TO: It was intentional. I wanted you to feel that you were in bed with them. I love that Scott Miller was invisible and they forgot that he was in the room. At the screening in LA, somebody said, “I was uncomfortable for a lot of the movie.” I took that as a great compliment. I wanted people to feel uncomfortable because it’s all so raw and open and vulnerable. That’s how the characters are. I think the whole movie is based on there being an underlying sexual tension between them. So right from the start, we want you to feel that connection. You’re going on a ride with Danny and feeling his intimacy with Carla.
DP: In the script, you include a reference to a guy in Carla’s past. Danny tells her that he doesn’t want to cross a line with her, but does that guy from her past tell us viewers that she might be bisexual and be worth pursuing?
TO: It is purposeful. If she had never been with men before and had only been in lesbian relationships, for her to suddenly flip and go 180 degrees the other way would a little hard to buy.
DP: Do you want us to root for Danny to win Carla?
TO: Yeah, ultimately that’s what you want. She shows up at the end and it’s a version of the classic movie. He’s just said how he doesn’t like classic movie endings and then he finds himself in one with her.
DP: We like Carla from the start, particularly in comparison to Theresa, and we like Danny but until she has her near breakdown after her breakup with Emmy we don’t really see how good he is for her. Is that when we’re supposed to see he’s good for her too, or earlier?
TO: Different people see it at different times. Many people connect with Danny right from the start and go on his whole ride, and others connect to Carla and then come to appreciate Danny more at the time you mention. Women seem to really like the love story between the two and want them to get together at the end.
DP: Among these characters, do you think sex gets in the way?
TO: For sure. He obviously wants to be with Theresa sexually and she’s giving him the push-pull. He has a genuine connection with Carla but when they are together the sexual tension kind of screws up their relationship. Sex makes them distant from the other rather than enhancing the connection. They are best friends and both think that if they have sex they might jeopardize what they have.
DP: For the intimate scenes between Danny and Carla, Danny and Theresa, and Carla and Emmy, did you rehearse?
TO: We kind of just talked them through. You don’t really want to rehearse those scenes. You don’t want to lose the spontaneity but you also want make sure the actors feel safe and secure enough to do those scenes. You sometimes get actors who hold back to protect themselves. As an actor, you want to feel free to do those scenes. It was more me who was concerned for them. They said, let’s do it, whatever.
DP: Your movie is called Manhattan Romance but the romance actually blossoms outside the city.
TO: We shot in Cold Spring [in Putnam County]. I wanted to give the film a little time jump and some distance geographically. That space was needed for Danny and Carla to come together. It would have felt forced to do it linearly, with them getting together at the end in Manhattan immediately after the previous scene. The two of them needed what had happened between them at Emmy’s Election night party at the bar to sink in.
DP: He tells the audience at his movie’s Q&A that he doesn’t believe movies should have endings where everything is tied up in a bow. And your ending is kind of open-ended.
TO: It’s funny that some people expect the screen to go to black after the Q&A. Even having the final scene with Danny and Carla walking together, it’s not tied up. That was in the script. I love ambiguity in films. Some people may think it has been resolved and they are going to go off and get married and live happily ever after. Some people may think they will spend the weekend together and realize it’s not going to work. So it’s a mix of ambiguity and the classic movie ending.
DP: It’s Bogart and Claude Rains.
TO: I steal from Casablanca a lot.
END SPOILE ALERT
DP: How can people see Manhattan Romance?
TO: For people who miss the Wednesday night opening there will be another screening at 8 pm on Sunday, at the Tribeca Cinema. Then hopefully we’ll get a distributor. We’re talking to distributors and sales agents. Rather than do festivals for a long time, we’d rather just get it out there quickly and capitalize on Katherine also being in Inherent Vice. That comes out December 12 and we’re hoping to ride its coattails. Just since we shot the movie, the careers of Katherine, Caitlin, and Gaby are exploding. Caitlin’s got Masters of Sex, Gaby’s been on Girls and has got Transparent, an Amazon show that’s getting really popular. So the cast and Ed Burns connection will hopefully draw a lot of people to the movie. I hope people see it.