Cast: Rose Byrne, Jason Bateman, Abigail Spencer, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Dax Shepard, Ben Schwartz
Director: Shawn Levy
Running Time: 103 minutes
Synopsis: A Jewish family that isn't used to observing their faith's traditions is forced to fulfill their father's final wish and sit Shivah together and confront their problems.
This Is Where I Leave You
Release Date: October 23rd, 2014
Welcome Home. Get Uncomfortable.
'Your father had one dying wish and we're going to honor it. It's going to be hard. We're going to get on each other's nerves. But for the next seven days you are all my children again. And you are all grounded." - Hilary Altman
Filmmaker Shawn Levy's response to This is Where I Leave You was heartfelt and immediate. 'I loved it," Shawn Levy recalls of his first time reading Jonathan Tropper's richly entertaining, best-selling novel about love, loss, family, growing up, and getting on with the business of life. 'It resonated for me in ways that were both comedic and deeply moving. There was something in its blend of humanity, warmth and humor that rang true, and I knew it was a movie I wanted to make, a story I wanted to share."
It may seem like something of a departure for Shawn Levy, best known by moviegoers around the world for the blockbuster 'Night at the Museum" films. 'At the time, I was doing bigger, broader comedy, whereas this is more character-based and nuanced in its detail, so it had to be drawn with a finer brush," he says.
'This is Where I Leave You" finds Shawn Levy still very much in the business of making people laugh, but this time those laughs spring from a more intimate place, as the film holds up a mirror to the kinds of emotional entanglements, conflicts and secrets, pitfalls, pratfalls and second chances in life that we can all relate to, as the ties that bind often tie us up in knots. 'It's a grounded, honest story about human behavior and connections that I think is as comfortable being funny as it is being poignant," he adds.
It was these elements that originally attracted producers Paula Weinstein and Jeffrey Levine to the project. Paula Weinstein, long a fan of Jonathon Tropper's work, recounts how they learned of the story while it was still in process. 'Jonathan Tropper came into the office and told us about this new novel he was in the middle of, and I thought, -Oh, do I love this idea,'" she says. 'It sounded like a fun, funny, empathetic and irreverent story about family and divorce and betrayal and love that brings out the best and the worst in everyone, with a real take-no-prisoners kind of family. There's no getting away with not telling the truth. I've always appreciated Jonathan Tropper's mix of humor and pathos. He does it brilliantly."
Paula Weinstein and Shawn Levy hired Jonathan Tropper to write the screenplay for 'This is Where I Leave You," marking the first time the author has adapted his own work for the screen. He became an integral part of the filmmaking team"also serving, with Mary McLaglen, as an executive producer.
In its opening beats, 'This is Where I Leave You" deals its hero a series of gut punches in rapid succession. Judd Altman, a presumably happily married and successfully employed radio producer with a comfortable and tastefully furnished New York City apartment, comes home one day to find his perfect wife in bed with his perfectly loathsome boss, and is rendered loveless, jobless and homeless in one lightning bolt of misery. His resulting downward spiral is only interrupted, days later, by the news that his father has passed away. Still shell-shocked, Judd Altman is summoned back to his childhood home to reconnect with his three contentious adult siblings and their unapologetically outspoken mother, who insists they all spend the next seven days together"and won't take no for an answer. On its surface, perhaps, not the likeliest scenario for a laugh-out-loud experience and yet, wherever there are momentous, life-altering events, there is family. And where there is family, well… 'It's a breeding ground for dysfunction," offers Jason Bateman, who stars as the stressed-out Judd. 'You have people who are very passionate about their positions, be they practical or emotional or ethical, and there's all that shared history with its resentments and unresolved issues. So it's not difficult to find these characters in a situation where their dignity starts to unravel and their vulnerability is at such a place where they do and say things that are heartwarmingly hilarious to witness."
Considering all that Judd has already endured, this sounds like the last thing in the world he needs but, in fact, may be exactly what he needs most. Because sometimes you have to go home to find out where you got lost.
'Shawn Levy did a great job of balancing the tone so you get something real and sophisticated without being precious, and emotional without being sappy," says Jason Bateman. 'At its core, it's about people trying to deal with one another and be honest about what they're going through."
Tina Fey, who stars as Judd's fiercely supportive but undeniably bossy big sister, Wendy, concurs. 'Death, the implosion of a marriage, people cheating on each other, all those dire situations that put people under pressure can inspire some weird behavior. The thing about families is that you're at your most comfortable with them in some ways, but they also have the most damaging goods on you. When they're stuck together with no escape, it all erupts."
Still, notes Shawn Levy, 'For all their snark and wit, they're also deeply loyal to one another, and when the chips are down they will stand by each other and hold each other up. These are, after all, the people who knew you before life had its way with you, back when you were nothing but potential. They are arguably the ones who know and love you best, so there's something about reconnecting with them, however awkward or uncomfortable, that's renewing and redemptive.
'With so much focus on the dynamics and the relationships, the cast was everything," he emphasizes. Shawn Levy assembled a true"and truly stellar"ensemble for 'This is Where I Leave You." In addition to Jason Bateman and Tina Fey, Corey Stoll stars as stolid big-brother Paul Altman, and Adam Driver as the perpetual baby of the family, Phillip. They are presided over by their devoted but proudly unconventional mother, Hilary, a celebrated child psychologist and author, played by Jane Fonda.
Representing the Altmans' romantic entanglements"past, present and potential"are Rose Byrne as Penny, a hometown girl who's carried a torch for Judd since high school; Kathryn Hahn as Paul's wife, Annie, whose dating history with Judd remains a bone of contention between the brothers; Connie Britton as Phillip's unexpected and unexpectedly accomplished fiancée, Tracy; Timothy Olyphant as Wendy's sweet lost love, Horry; and Abigail Spencer as Judd's estranged wife, Quinn. Also on board are Dax Shepard as Judd's shameless boss, talk show star and frat-boy icon Wade Beaufort; Debra Monk as Linda, a longtime neighborhood friend; and Ben Schwartz as Rabbi Grodner"aka Boner, a moniker he's been trying to shake for years.
Audiences may see a bit of themselves or their loved ones in some of these characters. 'The ecology of any family is complex, and who's to say what normal is?" says Jane Fonda. 'Everyone has their own issues and there are all kinds of tensions, rivalries, jealousies and misunderstandings, which is just the nature of families. It's easy to identify with, and great material for storytelling."
Says Jonathan Tropper, 'Working with Shawn Levy and the producers, seeing other people get invested in these characters in a different way, and then seeing the actors make them their own; it's been an exciting process."
For those who loved the story and will be rediscovering it on the big screen, he adds, 'I've always been a big movie fan and I look at movies as a very different animal, so it wasn't really hard to take apart the book and find the movie inside of it. It's the same message and the same story. The hardest part was finding the balance between what people would find fun and entertaining and, at the same time, wanting them to be touched by its underlying themes."
Throughout, Jonathan Tropper worked closely with Shawn Levy, who felt, 'It was my job to honor the novel. Much of my process was reminding Jonathan Tropper of the beauty of his prose and importing ideas, or lines, or whole scenes from the novel.
'I don't know that I've ever followed my gut as faithfully as I did in the pursuit of this book, and this story, and really in every decision I made during the making of this movie," the director continues. 'The reason I wanted to make it was because it's so inspirational and warm-hearted and redeeming in ways that I like movies to be."
Three months ago I had a great job and a nice apartment and I was in love with my wife. - Judd Altman
There's a lot going on in 'This is Where I Leave You," but the narrative thread begins and ends with Judd. 'He's a fairly happy guy," Jason Bateman says of his character just before the bottom drops out of everything. 'He produces a popular radio show, and even though he'd really rather be doing something else, he puts up with it because it allows him this perfect life he'd mapped out for himself. Judd doesn't have a huge tolerance for complications and spontaneity. And then things start to go sideways"his marriage falls apart, there's a death in the family"and it knocks him off balance."
Jonathan Tropper conceived of Judd as a man always on the straight and narrow. 'He plays it safe so everything will work out the way he's planned. But when he's plunged into a state of crisis, Judd starts to feel that all the assumptions he had growing up, and on which he based his entire life, may have been faulty, and maybe he should have been less determined to control the outcome and more invested in discovering his true self."
Citing the 'self-deprecating self-awareness, wit and wisdom that Jason Bateman brings to the role," Jonathan Tropper sees Judd's reaction to his wife's infidelity as 'a great slow burn, which you see him quietly processing for days until it finally explodes."
'Jason Bateman's performance is a microcosm of the film's tone as he pivots in the same second from funny to touching," adds Shawn Levy.
Says Jason Bateman, 'Judd's journey is to figure out if he's pointed in the right direction, and try to get a clue, or two or three, which he receives through some of the circumstances he goes through and some of the people he interacts with in the film"most of whom are going through much the same exercise."
Among these is the effervescent, independent Penny, a character Jason Bateman describes with appropriate ambiguity as 'an old girlfriend of Judd's… well, not really a girlfriend. There was an attraction there for a minute, but it was sort of a childhood thing."
Rose Byrne, who stars as Penny, says, 'Penny is Judd's past flame from high school. Now, through circumstances of her own, she's also back in the old neighborhood and she's a skating coach at the local rink. She's in a little bit of a time warp when he runs into her, and they reconnect in an unexpected way."
Whether or not Penny represents Judd's future, she certainly represents something he's spent his entire life avoiding: complication. Possibly the right girl at the wrong time? A not-so-subtle reminder of the road not taken? But, notes Paula Weinstein, that's entirely the point. 'It's all part of Judd's coming to the realisation that life will hand you surprises, regardless, so you may as well take some risks and feel the exhilaration that comes from jumping off and not knowing where you're going to land."
You guys are idiots. But you're my idiots. - Wendy Altman
'As the only girl in the family, Wendy has attempted to mother her two younger brothers, but she's especially close to Judd," says Tina Fey. 'At first, she's the only one who knows how Judd is living and that he's left his wife and his job, and she's a confidant to him even when he doesn't want her as a confidant. She pulls the truth out of him like only an older sister can do, and they annoy each other in the way that only brothers and sisters can."
Shawn Levy drew upon his relationship with his own sister in helping to develop the rapport between the two leads, saying, 'I knew that the Wendy-and-Judd scenes would be the heart of the movie so we bolstered them and spent a lot of time focused on them in the writing and the performances. Tina Fey and Jason Bateman, who didn't know each other prior to production, created a wonderfully intimate bond that is so authentic on screen.
'Tina Fey brings all her sharpness and biting wit into play, but where Wendy's story is also touched with pain she had to convey that sadness and vulnerability too," Shawn Levy continues. 'She took that leap and she absolutely soars."
Tough as nails when she has to be"don't cross her or anyone she loves"Wendy is the wise, warm, big sister with the awesome left hook. 'She's married to a workaholic," offers Tina Fey. 'On paper, he's everything she would be into: smart, successful, handsome…but he's also a bit of a tool, like rolling calls at her father's funeral. They have two young children so they're also dealing with the stress and strain of that, but you get the feeling that maybe they weren't the greatest couple even before that."
All of this is thrown into perspective when Wendy comes home and catches sight of Horry Callen, the boy she left behind.
Timothy Olyphant stars as the strong yet touchingly fragile Horry, whose setbacks have not dampened his sense of humor so much as lent it a certain philosophic edge. 'Horry and Wendy were in love," Timothy Olyphant explains. 'They were high school sweethearts and it was a lovely thing, but then a tragic accident happened and Horry became incapable of having the kind of life and relationship Wendy would have wanted"and that he wanted for her. So she got on with life and married someone else. But when she comes home and sees him, it's an opportunity for a time out. It's as if that relationship and that love still exists for both of them in some kind of timeless bubble."
Likening it in some ways to the connection that sparks between Judd and Penny, Jonathan Tropper observes, 'You can't always choose where love finds you, or whether it will be the kind of love that takes you to happily-ever-after. Maybe you take it whenever it comes and in whatever form, rather than trying to bend it to your schedule or rules or expectations."
I used to be fun…right? - Paul Altman
'Paul, the eldest, is the responsible brother who stayed behind to run his dad's business. He's like a hundred guys we all know who are performing the thankless task of being the good son while their siblings go off to follow their own dreams," Levy acknowledges. 'It's a noble path and I chose Corey Stoll because of the way he projects that good, solid, honest-man vibe."
Beneath all that nobility, though, runs a wicked current of resentment that people underestimate at their own risk. Corey Stoll suggests, 'Paul likes to see himself as the one who's holding the family together, but I think it suddenly sort of smacks him in the face that maybe he's just been playing that role to get some kind of credit, and, now that his father's gone, his motives may not have been as altruistic as he thought."
Adding to this stress is his wife's incessant drumbeat about getting pregnant, a project which so far has proven unsuccessful, despite a punishing schedule of ovulation alarms. 'She wants a family of her own with Paul," says Kathryn Hahn, who portrays Annie Altman. 'And you know how it is whenever there's any kind of family gathering"people always ask, -When are you having kids?,' -Why don't you have any children yet?' So that's very much on her mind. Plus, there are suddenly Wendy's beautiful kids underfoot and everywhere she looks there's family, and it takes her to some pretty desperate places."
If all this kindling seems primed for a match, that match is struck the instant Paul imagines that his wife and his brother, Judd, whom she briefly dated before him, are getting a little too cozy"even though their brief affair is ancient history and the relationship between Judd and Annie has long ago eased into a sweet, familial bond. Corey Stoll says, 'Suddenly old wounds open and Paul's jealousy is unleashed. And it's only a matter of time before that jealousy spills over into physical confrontation. Does it reach that point? Of course.
'Families are people you otherwise might not have anything to do with if you weren't biologically and legally connected," he adds. 'And you're connected for life. You can be a thousand miles away and you can't escape them. The lengths that some people go to get away from their inheritance, in terms of nature and nurture, can be pretty hilarious. And I love the way adult children regress when they come back home. It's certainly true for me and my brother. We immediately lose 20 years and 50 IQ points."
Look, you're on one end and I'm on the other, and somewhere between us is the guy who gets it right. - Phillip Atlman
Long on looks, wit, charm, and natural smarts, the youngest Altman brother has always been a little short on maturity, sliding in and out of trouble so rapidly that his siblings have given up keeping track of him. It's anyone's guess as to how he makes a living or even where he is on any given day.
He also has a remarkable talent for pushing everyone's buttons. Intentionally. He just enjoys the fireworks.
'Phillip is the hot mess of the family," says Shawn Levy.
'He's the kid everyone indulged," notes Adam Driver, who stars as Phillip. 'He was raised around a lot of adult conversations and he missed out on playmates his own age, so he grew up fast in some ways, but it taught him how to grab people's attention."
It also taught Phillip about people's behavior and motives, which makes for some spot-on insights he casually rolls out through the course of the story. Ironically, though, that doesn't necessarily help him suss out his own motives. Case in point: his girlfriend, Tracy, an accomplished, sophisticated, straightforward woman considerably older than him…and bearing some rather unsettling similarities to his mother.
Conversely, 'Tracy's a seemingly a very put-together woman in a relationship that's probably not the best thing for her," says Connie Britton, who stars as the person Phillip proudly introduces as his former therapist and current fiancée. 'Apart from the age difference, there's the fact that she's a psychologist, just like Phillip's mother, and actually idolizes her, and it all starts to feel a bit incestuous."
Says Adam Driver, 'Phillip is trying to identify himself in a new way and wants his siblings to see him as older, changed, more mature, but that's hard when people are used to teaching you how to blow your nose. And Tracy may be a part of that. Maybe on some level he thinks that by being involved with her, by association, people will see him differently."
As effectively as Adam Driver captures the character, he nearly didn't get the chance, due to his shooting schedule on 'Girls," Shawn Levy recalls. 'He loved the role and I loved him and we all wanted him to do the movie. We worked it out and it was absolutely worth it. As Phillip, Adam Driver is all instinct and charisma, and never a dishonest note, which is exactly what we needed."
We made love on our first date. I don't mind telling you, the man was hung. - Hilary Altman
As complex and combustible as the kids' bonds are with each other, they pale in comparison to their relationship with their mother, the simultaneously regal and earthy Hilary, portrayed by the legendary Jane Fonda.
Says Shawn Levy, 'Hilary loves her kids fiercely and she's bigger than life. I needed someone who was not only a great actress but could project a certain grandness as the matriarch of this family. Needless to say, Jane Fonda blew us all away."
'I've done many comedies in my career but the style was different," says Jane Fonda. 'Back in the good old days we didn't do much exploring alternative ways to say something; we stuck to the script. So it was a learning experience for me, and something that interests me very much, this kind of comedy, as well as working with all these fabulously talented performers that Shawn Levy brought together."
'I really love this character," she continues. 'Hilary's a woman with a touch of narcissism, who loves her children very much but is not much aware of boundaries. For the book she wrote on child-rearing 25 years ago, she used her own children as examples. It got pretty personal, and they still resent it."
A best-selling author, herself, Jane Fonda jokes, 'I've written my own books and my children cringe, too, so I understand it well."
Whether in print or conversation, nothing is off-limits for Hilary, from her kids' potty training to their adolescent awakenings, to her own sexual history with their father, which makes for some exceedingly awkward moments at the reunion"especially when company is over. And now that she's preparing for the 25th anniversary edition of her book with a publicity tour, they can look forward not only to the humiliation of her sharing their secrets anew, but of her doing it while showcasing a set of what Judd can only call 'bionic breasts."
Says Paula Weinstein, 'She's as inappropriate as a mother can be. Whatever is in her head comes out of her mouth. She feels that life is full of passion and drama and everything, and you must engage and embrace it. Consequently, Hilary has been an embarrassment to her children their entire lives. But, to her, there is no cause for embarrassment: people are just who they are."
Among those rounding out the main cast in key supporting roles, Dax Shepard cuts loose as Judd's boss, reigning shock-talk radio host Wade Beaufort, whose over-the-top rants have earned him a ton of money and a fleet of fast cars, as well as a get-out-of-jail-free card for incredibly obnoxious behavior. As the longtime producer of his show, Judd may not exactly get Wade's appeal, but knows it's good for business.
It was apparently also good for Judd's likely-to-be ex-wife, Quinn, played by Abigail Spencer, who has succumbed to Wade's inexplicable charm to the tune of a year-long affair the two have been carrying on under Judd's nose. It's Judd's discovery of this betrayal that sets the story in motion but it doesn't end there, as he, Wade and the conflicted Quinn have unforeseen business yet to hash out.
Back on the home front, Debra Monk plays close family friend Linda Callen, Horry's mom, who has lived across the street from the Altmans for decades and has become more a member of the family than any of the returning siblings realise.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Charles Grodner, played by Ben Schwartz, attempts to officiate the proceedings and offer counsel. The problem is, no mere rabbinic ordination can replace the Altman's memories of him as the pot-smoking dweeb they knew as Boner. Tropper explains, 'I thought it would be cool for him to be a guy they grew up with, who they couldn't possibly view as a spiritual leader because they knew what a jerk he'd been as a kid. No matter how much he wants them to stop calling him that, his childhood nickname has stuck, and it's very difficult to preside over a congregation when people are calling you Boner."
Have you had your man parts checked, because you may have emptied them over the years. My room was next to yours… My room was next to yours. - Wendy Altman
'This is Where I Leave You" was filmed largely on location in and around Long Island, New York. Its main set piece, the suburban two-storey Altman home, was an existing house on a spacious tree-lined street in Great Neck, where cast and crew made camp for the approximately month-long shoot and became a part of the neighborhood: chatting, taking photos, and sometimes sharing a bite from the catering truck with the locals.
'I wanted it to feel authentic and not palatial or magnificently done, so it wasn't big," Shawn Levy states. 'It was a medium-sized house, and we were on top of each other working in it." Scenes between Judd and Penny at the ice rink where Penny works were captured at a rink in Bellmore, Long Island, which the production rented. To confidently play the part of a professional skating instructor, Byrne was coached by local skater Jessica Renée Huot, who also doubled for the actress in some of the more challenging executions.
'The tough part is acting on ice, which is cold and hard," Jason Bateman says about those scenes, in which he did more falling and lying down than actual skating. 'You don't even want to be standing on it for long because your toes get cold and I like to be warm. So, no, I don't believe I'll be doing a hockey movie anytime soon."
Other practical locations included New York City's famed 2 Pennsylvania Plaza, where offices and studio space housing radio stations WABC, WNSH and WPLJ accommodated the fictional ratings juggernaut 'The Man Up Show, with Wade Beaufort."
Three sets were constructed on sound stages: Judd's apartment, which his sister refers to as 'perfect," with its clean lines, tasteful art and generous windows; the Hebrew School classroom where Judd, Paul and Phillip unexpectedly convene for a cleansing"if borderline blasphemous"blast from the past; and the cluttered Altman basement, where poor Judd is forced to bunk on a sofa-bed that only folds out three-quarters of the way, because all the rooms upstairs are spoken for.
It proved important for Shawn Levy to shoot not only the exterior but the interior action between the literal four walls of the house in Great Neck, which replicated the experience the Altmans were having as adult children trying to stuff themselves and their messy, grown-up lives back into the rooms and corridors they shared as children. 'What was unique about making this movie was that we were in this house together for the better part of a month," he says.
'We hung out as a family and, when we weren't shooting, we were upstairs in the master bedroom, lying on the bed and either talking about the scene or about life. The close quarters made for some discomfort, but also a great togetherness. There was a beautiful modesty in the scale of the film, which I believe really comes across on screen. There was a real feeling of bonding and family because we were all together under one roof making the movie. I'm so happy it worked out that way."
'It's a fun movie, but it's authentic, and it might bring up some authentic responses from audiences," Paula Weinstein suggests. Addressing Judd's dilemma and the crux of the story, she says, 'You can plan everything you want and still end up exactly where you didn't want to go because that's life, and it just happens. I'd like to feel that people will come away from this movie with a smile, and maybe think, -I'm just going to live my life and love my crazy family, and just go for it.'"
'I would hope that all of my movies are unified by a certain kind of positivity and lack of cynicism," Shawn Levy concludes. 'When you're sitting in the dark with an audience and hear that wave of laughter sort of envelop you, it's awesome. But as satisfying as it is to hear those big laughs, hearing the occasional hush and maybe some sniffling is equally satisfying, and I hope that's as much a part of what audiences will get out of this movie as the laughter."
This Is Where I Leave You
Release Date: October 23rd, 2014