'Paddleton' Stars Ray Romano And Mark Duplass Get Personal About Their New Netflix Movie [Interview]

One of the favorites among audiences and critics alike out of this year's Sundance Film Festival was the made-for-Netflix dramedy Paddleton, starring (and co-written by) Mark Duplass and Ray Romano as neighbors and best friends Michael and Andy, who aren't really great at expressing feelings but are forced to do so when Michael is diagnosed with terminal cancer and makes the decision early on that he wants to die via assisted suicide with Andy's help. And somehow Duplass and director/co-writer Alex Lehmann (who worked with Duplass on the 2016 indie Blue Jay) make this potentially oppressive scenario into a sweet and moving comedy about male friendship.

The film incorporates elements of a road movie, a buddy picture and even coming-of-age stories, as the pair hit the road to acquire the drugs necessary to carry out Michael's wishes. If you don't want to know how the film ends, you may not want to read these interviews until you've seen Paddleton, but there's no getting around the fact that the creative team ends things with an emotional wallop that is undeniably powerful and important, with both Romano and Duplass making it clear that just because these characters are in some way stunted in the maturity department that doesn't mean we don't know exactly how they feel about each other.

Just days after the film's debut at Sundance last month, /Film spoke with Duplass and Romano to go over how the idea for the film came together, how Romano took to the largely improvised acting style, and what is so inherently funny and charming about observing two guys who barely know how to communicate with each other. And after that, we spoke with director Alex Lehmann. We've included both interviews below.

The film is currently playing on Netflix, as is Romano's new stand-up special Ray Romano: Right Here, Around the Corner, which marks his first comedy special in 23 years.

In terms of performance, you both have played characters over the years who are expressive in very conventional ways, and I'm wondering what it was like to play these two guys for whom expressing themselves is difficult.

Mark: The biggest challenge for me playing Michael was that I'm a very verbal person, and Michael doesn't use a lot of words—he's very shy—and I'm very forward. I had to learn to be quiet while I was improvising and say less. Even in the editing, we had to really trim down on that to get that right.

Ray: I have more in common than I like to admit with Andy, except for his curmudgeon-ness. I kind of lean the other way and make everybody like me and be nice to everybody, while Andy could do without people. It's lucky he found the one guy he can hang out with.

Mark: Andy is basically you if you didn't have Everybody Loves Raymond—down the bad road.

Ray: If I was bitter? Yeah.

Do you share his feelings on small talk?

Ray: I'm good at small talk, but I'm also insecure that whoever I'm talking do really doesn't want to talk to me. In that sense, it makes me nervous.

Mark: You pull it off, much better than Andy does.

When I spoke with Alex the other day, we had a similar discussion about you, Ray, that I had with Kumail Nanjiani [writer and star of The Big Sick, which co-starred Romano] last year, and we all agreed it's almost not fair that you're good at everything you do. Mark, have you found that to be true?

Mark: Not at all! [laughs]

Ray: You should watch me golf.

Mark: I can probably guess the context that they're talking about, which is that The Big Sick and our movie, Paddleton, do share some similarities. They both have the impossible task of making an incredibly dark subject matter seem at once true and dramatic and real, and also light, funny and enjoyable. And there are very few people who can embody that type of performance and do it well, and I think Ray is definitely one of them.

Ray: Kumail was thinking of Justin Timberlake—he sings, he's funny—have you seen him on SNL? The son of a gun is funny; it pisses me off. He's a good actor and a good golfer, which makes me more annoyed.

Mark, you're credited as a co-writer here. What were the origins of the story for you and Alex?

Mark: Alex and I did movie together called Blue Jay, which I wrote and he directed, and this time he wanted to co-write something with me, which I thought was exciting. He's particularly afraid of death and showing it on film, and I thought that would be an interesting challenge. We knew we wanted to make another in-depth two-hander that was intimate, like we did with Blue Jay. For me, my part of it was, I really wanted to explore plutonic male intimacy on film—not necessarily for any political reasons, although I do think it's nice to model male friendships that are intimate and are about love and need, because you don't really see that. But it's really how I experience a lot of my male relationships, and it's something I really wanted to express.

Ray, how did you react and adapt to Mark and Alex's style of using improv to not just capture humor but also dramatic truths and real emotions?

Ray: I'd one improv in small spurts. I've never done a script that isn't fully written.

Mark: A script that isn't there, you mean?

Ray: Yes. But on things like Parenthood, which was very open to improv, but it was still fully scripted, line for line, and a lot of times we stuck to the script, but we were free to go off it. But I've never had this, where there is no dialogue written. I trusted myself for the comedic scenes and stupid banter at least. I did prepare for it; I sat down and thought "Okay, we're going to be driving. What are some stupid, inane things I can come up with?" Those scenes came a little too easy.

Mark: You had a lot of those.

Ray: The dramatic scenes were a mystery, and I'll be honest, the hot tub scene took a while to find something, and you suggested talking about the hat, and that worked. And then the other big, dramatic scenes, at that point in time, I was so involved with this relationship and this character, it became very organic. When we're in that bed, it was easy to feel the things that Andy was feeling. So that was surprising that it came that easy in that moment.

I don't know if you're talking about the ending or not, but that final sequence, it just happens. You're in it before you realize it's even begun. There's no time to prepare. How long did the three of you work out the staging and timing?

Mark: Yeah, I don't want to say too much about the ending because I don't think it's a given what's going to happen. I think it's fair to say that the ending of the movie is really about Michael and Andy confronting the reality that they may not be able to be together. We shot that in chronological order for that very reason. We wanted to allow enough time and space for that to unfold organically. So rather than chop that up into two- or three-minute scenes, we let them play out long and slowly and organically, so that people could be with them in that moment, and that was something we planned from the front, but we planned very little else. We shot with two cameras so we could be ready. The goal was that if we got it once and it's good then we're good, so we didn't do a lot of takes.

Mark, you've been doing a lot of writing and producer on HBO's Room 104 and some other films, while letting other, younger directors take the reigns from there. Is that the direction you're heading in as as creative person these days?

Mark: It is where I'm heading. Part of it is practical, because as a writer, producer and performer, I get to be involved in lots of different projects. When you direct something, you have to be creatively monogamous to it for multiple years, sometimes. So that allows me to do a lot, which I like to do. I think I spent the first part of my career trying to get my exact movie and vision across, and now I like collaboration with hungrier, younger, up-and-coming directors because I find that they prepare more than I do and end up being better than I would be. I would rather be at home with my kids than editing the first cut of the movie, which is brutal. It's life phase for now; I don't know if it will stay that way.

Ray, I just saw you episode of Crashing last night, and you're even good at playing yourself, so I think Kumail's statement holds true.

Ray: [laughs] Thanks.

Gentlemen, congratulations and best of luck with this.

Mark: Thank you.

Paddleton trailer

/Film caught up with Paddleton director Alex Lehmann at Sundance, where we talked about the creation of the made-up game that gives the film its title, the creative dynamic between he and Duplass, and what is so inherently interesting about capturing two people alone in conversation.

I went to the P&I screening of this the other day, and it was a room full of hardened critics all crying their eyes out during the last 15 minutes.

Alex: Thank you.

What is it about the two-person drama that you find so interesting?

Alex: The two-hander? That's a great question. I don't do well at parties. When I'm at a party, I try to find someone interesting and get off to a corner and talk to them for the next three hours or listen to them for three hours. I love getting to know people, but I don't really love being in a situation where I have to track a whole bunch of conversations in a room. There's something there, where I just like getting to know a person. And it's hard to do a one-hander, so the next best thing is a two-hander [laughs].

In Blue Jay, those two people were so good at expressing themselves and being open. Here, you have these two wonderful guys who are clearly bonding over the fact that they are terrible at expressing themselves. But there's not doubt in our minds that they care about each other.

Alex: They're like kids. And alternate title for the film is Kids With Cancer. I don't think it would do well, but that's the heart of it—dealing with something difficult like that with the emotional willingness of a child.

Was a completely different writing experience to let us know what we need to know about them, but they weren't boing to be the ones to say it out loud?

Alex: I don't think it was tricky because it's laid out for he audience; the audience knows. In Blue Jay, the characters know, but the audience doesn't know until the end. In this movie, we know the whole time what they're going through in a way that they can't express it. We're dying to see them understand it and express it.

Since it's the title of of your film, where did the game of Paddleton come from?

Alex: We just made it up. I hope it catches on. I had to practice it a lot to make sure it was going to work for the movie. If a league started today, I'd be ahead of everyone.

Do you still play?

Alex: I don't. There aren't any drive-in movie theaters around my house.

I had a conversation with Kumail Nanjiani last year about Ray Romano in The Big Sick, and we agreed that it's almost not fair that Ray is good at everything he does. How did you land on him?

Alex: Honestly, The Big Sick was informative. That came out at the perfect time and that was kind of handy. And his character in the sitcom, it's this guy who doesn't know how to face or talk about things, so he mutters and stutters and says funny things and walk away because he's uncomfortable. But seeing him in The Big Sick made us realize that he had the dramatic chops; he's got it all. We felt so lucky when we got him. It made sense right away.

Was there anything you remember that he responded to as a challenge?

Alex: I think he saw that it was a heavily dramatic situation that could be defused with uncomfortable comedy. It was in his wheelhouse, but there were some things that he was going to get to do that he doesn't get to do in other things. It was a perfect combination.

Was Mark always going to play the other character as you were writing it?

Alex: I was hoping he was going to play it [laughs]. I let him ask me, not me ask him. I was like "Do you want to produce this things?" and he said, "I want to act in it." That was a win, for sure.

How does co-writing work with him. As a filmmaker, I know he and Jay [Duplass] don't always write full scripts. Did you write out a full script with him?

Alex: No, we didn't have a full script. We had different treatments and outlines that grew out to about 20-30 pages. We would write, then rehearse, but not like traditional rehearsals like running lines, but the three of us would get together and throw out some ideas about the characters. At one point, Ray said, "I have this halftime speech bit," and we were like "Yes, this fits in thematically. Let's build a scene around that. Let's chase that down and see if there's a payoff." A lot of it was really organic. I was scouting at one point and found a ostrich farm, and I thought "This seems like a great place to go for the great un-roadtrip movie.

That's the best moment, because we think you're setting up a roadtrip movie, and the ostrich farm sucks, so you abandon that idea.

Alex: As soon as I said "roadtrip," I said, "But it can't be a roadtrip." It's The Un-Bucket List. But when I got to the ostrich farm, I called Mark and Ray and said, "I think one of our stops is going to be this ostrich farm," and Ray comes up with that cheetah line after three seconds on the phone. He's a comedic genius. They both do their best dramatic work in this, and they're both very funny. I grew up watching stand-up comedy. I loved watching Comedy Central when they'd just air stand-up specials. Working with a brilliant comedian is a gift.

I discovered Ray through the Dr. Katz animated show on Comedy Central. He did about a half-dozen episodes. Did you watch that?

Alex: Oh yeah. Ray did catch for actual therapy [laughs]. I'm making that up.

Where did the idea come from of building a comedy around a person dying of cancer who wants to take part in an assisted suicide?

Alex: I'm terrible at letting go of things in life, like relationships, everything. That was something I had to face. But the far funnier story that is also true is that, I was at a screening of Blue Jay with Mark, I snuck out after introducing it, went to watch this other movie playing in another theater, came back for the Q&A, and when I came back, he was like "How was it?" And I said, "It was kind of gory, a lot of death." I used to DP a lot of horror movies and I'm so over death. I'm so glad Blue Jay didn't deal with death at all. He just looks at me and says, "Your next movie has to deal with death. You have to face that." So I killed him; if we're going to do death, let's do it.

Can we talk about the ending? It's such a turning point. You're deep into it almost before you realize it has begun. How much did the three of you work on the staging and the pacing of that sequence?

Alex: We wanted that third act to play out as close to possible in real time. We wanted to limit it to that because it's so tense. We've all heard about this process, but you never see it. Even in documentaries about it, you never just hang out in those last moments. We don't want to face that as people, the moments before death. So we wanted to live in it and find a love and joy in the celebration of life before death.

I don't know what made me more tense: Mark starting to hyperventilate as the process begins or how calm Ray was in that moment. Mark even says, "You're doing really good, buddy."

Alex: They only get each other. We knew we wanted to feel that love one way or another, so there were a couple different ways that we shot it.

This film is the definitive statement on smalltalk as well. Are those your beliefs that Ray expresses?

Alex: I hate smalltalk. When people talk to me about weather, I just want to say "It's okay" and leave it at that. Or give them a hug. I fucking know what the weather is. I'm standing next to you and I've got an app on my phone. I'm not mad at anyone that makes smalltalk; I love honestly, and smalltalk is the fear of honesty.

I was so excited to see Kadeem Hardison in the movie. I almost didn't recognize him. He becomes your baseline normal when you put him next to Ray and Mark.

Alex: He's a buddy of mine. You need a litmus, because after a while you adjust and start to think "This is how people are." But then you throw in a "normal" person, and you say "Oh, wait..." I didn't even think about this, but when I was first in L.A., I DP'd a movie for Kadeem. I didn't have that many friends out here, and he would invite me to hang out at his place, and we played video games and eat Indian food. I'm so glad neither of us got sick. That was Paddleton in the making.

I love that they bond over kung-fu movies. Who's the kung-fu guy of you and Mark?

Alex: I love that stuff, yeah yeah. The death punch move is a trope in a lot of those movies, and I always wondered, "What if they didn't take those steps that insure their death? You could avoid the death." So I thought we should make this movie and make it their favorite movie because it totally ties in to the idea of letting go.

You haven't done an episode of Mark's show Room 104 on HBO, have you? That's surprising since Mark writes a lot of them.

Alex: I don't know. Can I tell a story in 22 minutes? I make the feature-length version of that show. I've actually been working on a doc series that I've been working on for a while that we're releasing in April.

What can you say about it?

Alex: It's sort of a continuation of my documentary, Asperger's Are Us. It'll be on HBO as a six-episode series.

Great to meet you, Alex. Best of luck with this.

Alex: You too. Thank you.