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.

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