/Film Interview: ‘A.C.O.D.’ Director Stu Zicherman Talks Sundance Troubles, Deleted Characters and Steve Martin
Posted on Friday, October 4th, 2013 by Germain Lussier
When a first-time director can bring together a hugely impressive cast, it’s pretty obvious the movie is something special. If it wasn’t, why would actors like Adam Scott, Richard Jenkins, Catherine O’Hara, Amy Poehler, Clark Duke, Jessica Alba, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Jane Lynch all line up to be part of it?
The movie is A.C.O.D and the director is Stu Zicherman. “A.C.O.D.” stands for “Adult Children of Divorce “and the film explores the fact that adults of today are part of the first generation to grow up with divorce as the norm. Zicherman co-wrote the script with Ben Karlin (Modern Family, The Daily Show). It focuses on Carter (Scott) a seemingly well put together adult, who still deals with the brutal divorce of his parents (Jenkins, O’Hara). When he realizes his childhood therapy sessions were actually research for a book, just as his brother (Duke) gets engaged, Carter’s life is flipped on its head and he’s forced to deal with deep-seated issues. It was my favorite movie of Sundance 2013.
A.C.O.D. opens on a limited basis October 4 then expands October 11, and we recently spoke to the co-writer/director about the film. We talked about balancing tones, the time it took to get a distributor, and a character who was completely cut out. We also discussed topics such as letting comedic actors do their thing, writing with Steve Martin, and how working with J.J. Abrams helped Zicherman get to A.C.O.D. Read more below, and check back next week for our interview with star Adam Scott.
/Film: The movie is tight; there’s not a scene or piece of dialogue that’s wasted. How long did you guys work on the script to get it that tight?
Stu Zicherman: We worked on the script forever. I’d say about two months before we started prepping the movie it was at 110 pages and we took out a whole character arc to try and get it down. We got it down to ninety-eight pages and we just kept going. My TV experience and being a show runner on TV, I won’t go into the shoot if I don’t feel like we can get it in eight days, because if you think you won’t get it, you won’t get. So I just kept cutting it down until it fit the schedule. The edit process did a lot to get it to what you are talking about, because the edit was very precise. We also did eight or ten audience screenings where we would test it and that was really an amazing process, because we learned so much about the tone and about getting it to the right place and what seemed extraneous and what seemed too silly. The first cut of the movie was two hours and ten minutes and now I think it’s like eighty-nine.
What was the character that was cut out?
Her name was Chloe. She’s one of my favorite characters I ever wrote. She was the step sister. So there was Carter’s mother, a step mother, and then a new step mother. She was Elka’s [Richard Jenkins’ second wife] daughter and he had basically grown up with her and he was still best friends with her, but his father didn’t know about it.
Who was the first actor to sign on and did that get the ball rolling for the rest of the cast?
Yeah. The first actor who signed on was Adam. We were playing that game you always have to play where like “if you can get one of these five actors, the movie will get made” and finally we just gave up on it, because it was just so frustrating and the financiers said “Who’s the guy you want the most?” I said, “Adam Scott” and we went to Adam and I met him and I thought he was perfect. Once we had Adam I could start going to people like Richard… Jane had worked with Adam and loved Adam. So Adam was first and Richard was second and Jane came on board and then Catherine. Once you start getting those actors, your phone starts ringing like crazy and you’re like “Really? She wants to be in my movie?” Adam Pally called and was like “I’ll fly myself to Atlanta. I want to do the movie.” It’s great.
The thing I like the most about the movie is it demands a little bit more of the audience. It’s a comedy and it’s a drama, but a lot of the jokes and the payoffs are not highlighted in a big way. Is that your style or is it unintentional?
No, it’s pretty intentional. I mean I would say it’s hard to have a style after one movie, but I would say I’d like that to be my style. I wanted the movie to feel real, so whether it was funny or dramatic, I wanted things to feel real and there are moments in the movie that just aren’t real, that pushed the boundaries of real and I felt like if we could even do those scenes in a real way that it would pay off.
It’s not a broad comedy and broad comedies tend to hit you over the head with certain things. I thought I’d love the audience to get certain things and, it’s funny, there are things I loved audiences just didn’t pick up on. Like dad being the guy who says everything’s “the greatest.” You know like “This hat’s the greatest.” “This wife is the greatest.” “You are the greatest.” We had like three or four times in the movie and the audience doesn’t ever pick up on it, but the street sign, they pick up on that. You take a gamble.
Now you talked a little about this in the first question and just now, it’s hard as this is your first feature to sort of know what you want the movie to be. So how do you come into a movie like this as your first feature? Especially when it is such a delicate balance of tone where the awkward stuff is played funny and dramatic.
I have to say that I learned from running my first show – which ended up not being a success, we failed – that doing something like show running or directing, there’s a huge learning curve and my whole thing with directing this movie was “Don’t let the learning curve beat you.” The way to do that is to be humble about what you know and don’t know and try not to do too much. So the one thing I set my mind to doing was tone, nailing the tone. I felt like if the tone wasn’t right, the movie was going to fail. It was going to fall flat on its face and so that’s what I focused on.
What that meant was there were times where the actors would improv something and it didn’t feel like the movie to me. I would say, “Let’s get this. Let’s get what’s on the page and then at the end of that take let’s go and do the improv.” In the editing room I had the opportunity to play around with it and figure it out, but I just tried to stick to tone, which to me was honesty. With people like Jane, who is so wickedly funny… She could take that character and play it so over the top. She and I agreed we are not going to go there, like “Let’s stay grounded.” This is a character, I get all the funny lines, she’s desperate. “Let’s keep focusing on that.” and it worked.
How much of the movie would you say is the script?
Every single setup I would get what I wanted, then I’d say “Let’s do one for free” and we would just throw the script out, they would just do something. There were moments of absolute hilarity that are in there, like Amy running in saying “The house is on fire.” I don’t even remember what the scripted line was, but she’s like “I have a bunch of ideas here” and I’d just let the camera roll. She would run out, run back in like “The house is on fire. My cellphone won’t work.” “House on fire. Carter did it.” “This place is a dump.” “House for sale.” You just don’t get in the way of that.
Why do you think it took a while for the film to get picked up? The cast and the comedy would seem to be all you need for a quick sale.
I think, and I’ve been told by other executives… We screened late. We screened on Wednesday [at Sundance]. Had we screened over the weekend when all the buyers hadn’t spent all their money, I think it would have happened differently. But I think there are challenges with this movie and especially with Adam Scott as the lead. I think people don’t think of him as that. I know all the background. I know all the companies that were involved in bidding and all this stuff, so there were a lot of people interested in it, but I think a lot of it had to do with the timing of the screening and I think some of it had to do with “Is Adam Scott a leading man? Can you promote a movie around him?” There’s no doubt to me that he could be a leading man, you know?
Has the movie changed at all since Sundance or was it ready and nailed down at that point?
Yeah, I don’t think there’s money to go back in and do anything.
I also read you’re going to work on The Americans after this. TV sounds like your bread and butter, but do you want to keep doing movies?
I really want to make more movies. I would love to direct another movie. I love TV and for me at this point… You spend so many years… I wrote action movies for ten years. I mean embarrassing shit and you get to a point where finally I’m being offered stuff that I want to write, so I’m just going to do whatever comes my way that I want to do. The Americans is a show that I watched season one and loved it so much. I admired it as a show about marriage and so when they came calling, I was like “I will absolutely work on this.” At the same time I’m co-writing a movie with Steve Martin, this Disney rewrite. I love this idea and he’s so… He’s a hero of mine…
What is the status on that?
Yeah, we’re like… We’re on page 70… So I want to keep making movies, but it’s more important to me to keep working on stuff that I believe in.
You read about your action movies but your bio doesn’t say any specific titles, and the only thing on IMDB is Elektra. What else did you work on?
Well I did rewrites on Rush Hour 2.
I like Rush Hour 2!
Yeah, we wrote the whole ending to that. I was in the Jackie Chan business for a while. I think the IMDB page says “Year 2000 action movie from China.” That was originally a Warner Brothers movie I was doing with Akiva Goldsman and that movie didn’t get made and then Jackie’s company in China bought it, but I worked on a Method Man/Redman movie, like the sequel to How High. I worked on all of these action movies and then the reason I got into TV was through JJ Abrams and six degrees, because it was a chance to write about stuff I felt like I knew, which was people.
At what point did you decide to write this movie?
I started this back when I was writing action movies. I started writing this movie in 2001 maybe. Gosh man, I sold my first movie fifteen years ago and I could honestly tell you this is the first thing I’ve made or the first thing I’ve done where it’s the first thing that feels like me. It feels like my personality, my pace, my energy, it’s my tone. It takes that long and that’s why I started writing it so long ago, because I knew this might be a way for me to get to do that.
A detail question: what is up with Clark Duke’s bandanas in this movie? Why does he have those bandanas around his neck?
[Laughs] Full credit goes to David Robinson who is the costume designer. He does all the Jason Reitman movies. He’s a brilliant guy. He wears a kilt. And he just came in one day and showed me as we were doing the wardrobe walk through and he showed me Clark’s outfit and he showed me the bandanas and I’m like “That’s going to go around his face?”
“Is he going to rob a bank or something?”
“No, just trust me.” He showed up on set the first day and I was like “That is just so funny. It’s so funny.” Then we just kept using it.