Movies

Stephen Basilone On Turning Personal Trauma Into Sci-Fi And Comedy In ‘Long Weekend’

Long Weekend, opening in theaters this week, is, according to writer/director Stephen Basilone, “a rom-com with a twist.” It’s a tricky film to describe, because basically the entire trick of it is that it comes on as a movie you’ve seen and then gradually reveals itself as something different. It’s a unicorn disguised as a horse — a movie we’re forced to describe in abstractions to keep from spoiling.

Long Weekend is such a smart, off-beat riff on love, and on movies about love, that I never would’ve guessed that it’s also autobiographical. Yet Basilone, a veteran TV writer (Happy Endings, Community, The Michael J. Fox Show, The Goldbergs) assures me that this is the case. His film stars Finn Wittrock as Bart, a down-on-his-luck writer coming off a break-up, who meets a mysterious stranger named Vienna, played by Zoe Chao.

Down-on-his-luck-failing-artist-coming-off-a-traumatic-break-up is a stock romance premise at this point, basically going back to Romeo and Juliet (which was already a “classic” premise in the 16th century). But it’s a stock-premise that Basilone was living. He says the film was inspired by a time in his life when he was coming off a divorce, getting over a life-threatening illness, and the deaths of his mother and grandmother. As if that weren’t enough, some cursory Googling reveals that his divorce was from Orange is the New Black actress Lauren Morelli, who started shooting the show just months after their wedding and soon realized that she was gay.

Being able to experience the joy of a new romance amidst all of this was what inspired Basilone to create Bart and Vienna in Long Weekend. Yet even amidst great trauma and great joy, any intelligent person has to realize that they’re not the first person ever to experience these feelings. I mean there’s nothing cornier than falling in love.

Basilone utilizes the fantastic to explore new love in ways that haven’t already been done to death, all the while subtextually assuring us that, “Yes, I know you think you’ve seen something like this before, but this is different…” It’s an incredibly deft dance, but Long Weekend manages it shockingly well.

And now he faces an equally stiff challenge: selling a movie that succeeds by being slightly different, mostly in ways that it would spoil the movie to explain. All while opening it in theaters at a time when most people aren’t quite sold on returning to movie theaters quite yet. I spoke to Basilone this week about why he seems to love a challenge.

I guess the obvious question, these days at least, is when did you guys shoot this, and how much did COVID affect getting all together?

Well, I finished writing it about four years ago, this time around 2017. We shot it in July, August 2019. We were relatively safe. Most of the edit was done by the time we all headed inside. The difficult part was doing remote color correction, final mixing, and doing ADR, where we had to send skits around, and I had to zoom with people while they were huddled away in their closet doing ADR (additional dialogue recording), which was very bizarre but still fun. It was just the getting to the finish line before we sent it out, which was the most complicated, but that was in April, May. It was nice to have, it gave me a little bit of structure, even if it was just sitting in my chair, talking to people. I think weirdly, fortuitously, the timing that this is coming out is nice and appropriate, even though I don’t know who’s going to theaters, but I’m excited about it.

Do people do less ADR now?

I think it depends. I think the technology has gotten good enough that you just notice it less. But I know in TV, we’re always doing something just to like, “Oh, we just need to pace up this scene.” Or, “We need to get some information that didn’t come across in this other joke,” or whatever. There wasn’t much here, but most of it that was there, was just doing that, taking a cut out of a scene and just making a gap for it. It wasn’t a ton, but it was enough to keep us busy.

Sony Pictures

What was your inspiration for the story?

It came out of a period that Bart’s character, or Finn’s character, is very much a conduit for myself. It’s autobiographical. I had just gone through a divorce, and I had just gotten over being sick for the better part of a decade. My grandmother and my mother had died, and while my mother was in hospice, I met somebody who was a real bright spot in an otherwise very sad and heavy period. It was this weird dichotomy of spending all day in a hospital then occasionally at night going out and having this very hedonistic experience, of sneaking into college parties and feeling like a teenager making out in my stepdad’s car. It was just a nice reminder that there’s light in even in the darkest of situations, and that you can find hope and a bit of romance, even when you’re not expecting it, and when everything else circumstantially is bad. Just, life is long and we’re very fragile, but also incredibly resilient.

What was your sickness for a decade?

I had this chronic immuno disease called ulcerative colitis. If you ever want a tour of Los Angeles’ greatest bathrooms, I can give it to you. At my height, or I guess my valley, I weighed 88 pounds and was knocking on the door to the great beyond. But, I made it through, and everything’s groovy.

This is the kind of movie that doesn’t work if the leads don’t pull it off. What was the casting process like?

I could not agree with you more. If you don’t buy into their romance, you don’t buy into their chemistry, if you’re not in Finn’s headspace, it does not work at all. I was lucky enough in all the ancillary roles that those were all friends. It was like the greatest hits of all the shows I’ve worked on, which was lovely that people came out and were willing to give their time. It just made the set very comfortable, and also just so talented. But Zoe was like… I knew her through friends of friends. As soon as she read for it, she was based in New York at the time, and as soon as she read it, I said, “That’s it. I will fall on my sword for this.”

She just brings such levity and nuance, and also emotion and depth to the performance. If you don’t have that, it’s not going to work. Then Finn — so I’m, I believe the technical term is, a big, big fraidy cat. I don’t like scary shit. I knew Finn’s worked from Beale Street and The Big Short, and what else? Oh. Stupid and Futile Gesture, but I was not familiar with his stuff, the big splashy stuff, that he’d been nominated for Emmys for [Ed. note: American Horror Story]. He was somebody that a producer suggested, and I was like, “Sure.” As soon as I met with him, he was just so pleasant, calm, excited, had just great thoughts and seemed like a great collaborator. Then as soon as the two of them read, they immediately had the chemistry where I thought, we might be able to pull this sucker off. It was that way the first day. The first day we shot was the first scene. It was just Bart alone. Then the scene with Wendi, that was all well and good, but it was just getting the machine oiled and running. Then the second day, Zoe came in and we did a lot of that cute bedroom montage stuff. Then as soon as we just started rolling the cameras, you could just see it. Everybody got very excited, because they were just coming alive with each other.

You mentioned Bart’s headspace, and the audience being inside of it. The movie seems like it’s aware of the audience’s expectations for a movie like this, with Bart referencing the manic pixie dream girl and whatnot. Why do you think that acknowledging those expectations was important for the story?

I think it’s important for the story for a couple of reasons. A, because I am aware of my station, of being a straight white dude, yet wanting to tell a personal story, and cognizant of where we are societally, I also just wanted to tell a story that hopefully goes against all of the cliché male jerk off fantasies. Also, I don’t know, I just think, when I’m with my peers, you speak in cultural touchstones. You reference things, you make jokes about things, and I like that. You can’t do that too much, then it’ll start to feel dated, but I think because that’s the way I speak, that’s the way I’m going to put it in my writing. To not call that out, I think, would almost feel like a dearth in the story. Also, I just think it was a little bit of a safeguard. Like, “I know. I know what you’re thinking, but hold on, hang on, there’s more to this than that. I understand what you think this may be, but stick with me. There’s more to it.”

Initially, in the script and what we shot, Vienna has more to say about that. She talks about, “Do you think that negates the fact that I’m a person with wants and needs, and desires?” How dare you think that, “Oh. I’m just here to fucking save you.” But I think ultimately my producers are like, “We don’t need all that. Let’s just get to it faster.”

I think that’s largely the trick of the movie, that it’s coming at you in the guise of something you think is conventional, and then gradually revealing that it’s not. But in terms of that, how do you sell this movie without spoiling it in that way?

Initially, when I was cutting this, we had several different editors for a myriad of reasons, because an editor who was a friend works with Zoe Lister-Jones, a lot of times, she was running off to do The Craft in their limited amount of time. Then, everybody just brought a new layer to it, and it’s made it sharper and tighter. But the first day there, I was working with a woman named Libby Cuenin. Now, we were talking about just moving that reveal, the [REDACTED] reveal up, because initially it was 45 minutes in. But it was just like, “What are we watching?” If we don’t know what the movie is, you’re like, “What? This is a nice ride, but what’s happening?”

We just wanted to move that up as much as possible. I think to Sony’s credit, they didn’t want to give away the reveal, but I was like, “You know what? In all honesty, I assume whoever markets this is probably going to give that away.” The real reveals are later on anyway.

It’s more about the intrigue, and it’s more about Bart’s journey, the reality of who this person is, “Is this real,” all those things. Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I think it is more fun, if you don’t know much going into it. That’s the way I feel about most movies. I love reading a review, but I don’t do it until after I see a movie. Because… what was the name of that? You remember the “We’re smart sharks movie?” Deep Blue Sea or something?

Deep Blue Sea, yeah.

There’s that scene, where Sam Jackson gives that rallying cry monologue and then the shark just comes and fucking eats him out of nowhere? I remember reading a review, that was the best part of the movie, and that was given away in a review. After that, I was like, “I’m done with this.” I like going into it as much of a blank slate as possible.

I mean, my instinct was to not spoil the [REDACTED] angle in a review, but then I was also like, “How do you tell people that this movie isn’t what they assume it is?”

I know. It’s been interesting, because just for press stuff, Sony’s been avoiding that, but in the reviews, there’s only so much they can do. They can’t control that narrative. Some people have spoiled it thus far. I don’t know. I mean, I personally like it when you go in knowing enough to be excited, but not enough to be expecting things, because your mind does that subconsciously anyways.

I feel a lot of the time, the goals in making a movie and the goals and selling and marketing a movie are directly at odds.

Yes, exactly. I mean, it’s like, sometimes it’s a bummer when you’re watching a trailer. Like, “That’s trailer looks good, but why do I need to see the movie?” Sometimes, my favorite trailers are the ones that are just tone poems to some degree.

I mean, now I’m asking you to do the thing that I just said is at odds with making a movie, but what’s the what’s the pitch for this movie?

The pitch? The pitch is a rom-com with a twist. It’s the movies I like. I like all rom-coms, I’m a big softie, who doesn’t like scary things. I love You’ve Got Mail. It’s great, but the things I really respond to are the things that subvert and add another layer to the genre, like in Eternal Sunshine, Groundhog Day, or Stranger Than Fiction, About Time, or even to a lesser degree, Beginners. Those are the things that I really love and stick with me more. It’s a rom-com in that vein. It’s a character study. There’s a reason why the main character is named Vienna. It’s definitely a bit of an homage to the Linklater Before Sunrise trilogy. I think it’s just a rom-com with the twist, that hopefully, serves as a little bit of a break in the storm from this last fucking, garbage, chaotic year.

‘Long Weekend’ hits theaters on Friday, March 12th.

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