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.

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