The Perfect Family is a comedy about Eileen Cleary (Kathleen Turner), who is nominated for Catholic Woman of the Year by her Monsignor (Richard Chamberlain). Eileen’s problems start when she finds out her married son Frank Jr. (Jason Ritter) is having an affair with a beauty therapist, and her daughter Shannon (Emily Deschanel) is lesbian, pregnant, and about to get married to her girlfriend. The film is a funny and heartfelt exploration of the importance of family, and what it means when our beliefs come into conflict with our emotions. Kathleen Turner and Emily Deschanel head a really impressive cast, which includes Sharon Lawrence as Eileen’s nemesis, Agnes Dunne, and Michael McGrady as her recovering alcoholic husband, Frank Cleary.
The Perfect Family was one the highlights of the BFI 26th London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. It is also playing in the Torino GLBT Film Festival on April 24. After the screening, I had a conversation with the director, Anne Renton, the executive producer, Connie Cummings, and the two producers from Present Pictures, Cora Olson and Jennifer Dubin. We talked about the work that went into the script, the spectacular cast, and the importance of independent films.
I was really interested in the Q&A to hear you talking so much about the script, and how much work went into it. When did that process start?
Anne: It started about five years ago. It was in 2007 when I first read the script, but it took another six months to option it and convince the writer we’d somehow make her movie. I’m not a writer myself, and I knew I wanted to make a feature so I wanted to find the right story. There’s a site in the States called Inktip where writers post their scripts. I put a call out on Inktip, and I had a tonne of synopses sent; when I read this script it made me laugh and it made me cry. I was on a plane when I reading it. I realised that if I was having these emotions in such a public place that was a good thing. I felt like it was something that needed to be made. Then I sent the script to Connie and got her on board.
Connie: We knew we would need to update it, but it was a good foundation.
Anne: It had been written a while ago. We worked with the writer on it for about 18 months, and then that’s when I felt it was ready. I didn’t want to start approaching producers until the script felt it was a least close to being finished, because you only get one shot. Cora had found out about the script about a year before that but it wasn’t ready then.
Cora: A colleague of ours had met Anne at the IFP, the Independent Filmmaker Project, in LA, and said she was looking for producers. I had Anne in my periphery, so when she reached out to us I remembered that introduction.
Anne: And it was perfect timing, as a year earlier Present Pictures was working on a film. Everything lined up.
Jennifer: That was March 2009.
Cora: And we started shooting in May 2010.
Anne: We worked on the script for a while, then Kathleen indicated that she was interested, and she wanted some re-writes before she would say yes. Well, she didn’t ask, we said we would because we wanted her. Her notes on the script were very intelligent, and they fit with our vision for the film.
Cora: We were really excited when we heard that Kathleen was looking to do an independent project. She’s such a huge movie star, and such fantastic actress. We talk about this all the time: independent film gives that level of an actor something to do that they would not normally get to do within the studio system. We would have worked until our fingers bled to get her on board.
Anne: The other great thing is that she is good with comedy and drama.
Cora: And her notes on the script rang so true. It was a great fit.
How did Kathleen Turner first get involved?
Anne: Our casting director, Ronnie Yeskel, knew Kathleen’s agent, and so she got the script to the agent to see if she would be interested. And she was interested enough to have a phone call, which is how it started.
It’s an incredible cast with big names, and not one you would necessarily expect to see in an independent film. How do you feel about that, Cora and Jennifer, as producers?
Cora: We aim as high as we can. The finances were ready, and we wanted to put together something that would go out to as wide an audience as possible. Kathleen was a magnet once she joined the project. Jennifer and I had a loose social acquaintance with Emily, so we wrote to her and said we’re doing this movie, it’s a great script, you know the director, and Kathleen’s doing it. And she wrote back and said ‘I love Kathleen’. This gave it a level of legitimacy that got it attention. We’d worked with Jason before, and it was a similar thing, he’d heard that Kathleen and Emily were interested, so it snowballed. We were floored when we saw that Elizabeth Peña and Sharon Lawrence were interested.
Anne: High-level actors came in to audition for the roles we hadn’t filled. It was tiny project in Hollywood standards that all these actors were interested in.
Jennifer: I think that we also got a lot of good feedback because of the script. People felt like it was about something. It wasn’t just another filler, or movie where people were killing people, or whatever. There was a lot of good energy surrounding the project.
It was refreshing to hear you talk about how much effort went into the script, because with so many films, especially mainstream ones, it’s almost as if the script is incidental.
Connie: Or they’re shooting and it’s not even been finished, yeah.
How did you deal with the issues of religion in the rewriting process? The reason I ask is that the issues are very timely.
Anne: One part we wrestled with, particularly earlier on, is the scene where Eileen meets with Father Joe. We were asking how it could be done so he’s not actually preaching to her, so it feels like you’re preaching to the audience. How can we have this moment that is really authentic, yet he’s still offering her support but not in an over-doctrinated way. We worked on that a lot to get it right.
In terms of the religion overall, the essence of how religion is treated was in the original script. It was about representing religion in such a way that you’re not trying to make a point, you’re just trying to tell a story. It’s not about having an agenda. I met this heterosexual Jewish couple who said they related to it. It’s presenting a feel of how any organised religion can affect someone, and how they struggle to find their own identity in that.
There are so many more liberal churches now. If people are backed off from religion they don’t necessarily have exposure to that.
Cora: I grew up Catholic, and we definitely had different priests with varying degrees of attitude. Often when someone is religious, and they have a connection with a priest or a rabbi, they have that connection for a reason, there is a shared understanding and shared values.
Connie: If you get a group of people together to discuss religion there are so many opinions. You see that in the audience. Everyone has different experiences and viewpoints. It’s the nature of doing a story around religion, it triggers people, people have very strong reactions and feelings. We’ve seen that, where people want to make a statement about religion, where we were trying to talk about family and love.
Anne: I do think most people get that. Obviously there are a handful where they’ve had an experience of religion that doesn’t line up.
Connie: We didn’t want to take cheap shots, or villainise anyone. It’s an easy out to make one person over-the-top, to vilify them. We wanted to bring out the humanity in the characters, we didn’t want to polarise. We don’t need more polarisation.
I think it helped to have Richard Chamberlain in the role of Eileen’s Monsignor, because in the back of your mind you know things about him. I read that it was his agent that came to you.
Anne: That’s right. We were so excited. He has the energy of someone in their 60s. He loved the story, and had a great conversation with us.
Cora: And he was so handsome.
Connie: And fun.
It’s such a strong cast of actors in every role. How did Jason Ritter get on board?
Connie: Jason and Emily are friends.
Anne: They were childhood friends, they both knew they were interested in it, and were texting each other.
I love Emily Deschanel. I’ve only ever seen her in Bones, though.
Jennifer: Someone came up to me after the screening and said she took the train from Paris today to see the movie because she liked Emily, and she didn’t know if the film would make it to France.
Anne: That’s so sweet!
What are the plans for the release in cinemas and on disc?
Anne: Our theatrical and video-on-demand release are going to be simultaneous. May 4 we open in New York, and May 11 in Los Angeles as a theatrical. Our DVD release is June 26 in the US, and we’re still making plans for the international.
Is there anything you think it’s important to get across an interviewthat we haven’t talked about, or anything you’d like people to know?
Anne: We have a Facebook page that we’d love people to join. We’re posting for people to ask Emily and Jason questions, and we’ll pick a few and film that, and that’ll go up on the Facebook page.
Cora: I think it’s good for audiences to know that when independent films are made it’s often a labour of love, and it’s not about the huge pay check. The best way to support the projects is to go and see it and spread the word. That helps the independent filmmaker.