Director Michael Paul Stephenson On How ‘Girlfriend’s Day’ Is Bob Odenkirk’s Personal ‘Chinatown’

As the clock struck midnight on Valentine’s Day, Netflix released its latest original offering, Girlfriend’s Day, an offbeat, neo-noir starring Bob Odenkirk (who also co-wrote and produced) as Ray, a once-renowned greeting card writer who’s lost his creative spark. After more than five years in development, the film takes us into the seedy underbelly of the multi-billion dollar greeting card industry. Directed by Michael Paul Stephenson, best known for his documentaries Best Worst Movie and The American Scream, the film’s tone is as unique and unconventional as the premise behind it.

We got the chance to talk to Stephenson about the creating a believably absurd world, the freedom working outside of the studio system, and what collaborating with a comedy giant like Odenkirk was like.

There’s a very pulp feel to Girlfriend’s Day. What were some of the influences that you took into production?

Bob’s oftentimes has said this is sort of his version of Chinatown. Other references that we talked about early on [were] films that I love that tend to be a little more absurd, like Being There, [which] is an absurd movie. It continues to push that absurdity, but it’s played very, very straight and very real. Coen brothers were obviously a touchstone in so many ways because their characters are elevated, they’re heightened. Reading it on the page, it had the potential to be very just silly, and Bob and I both recognized that early on.

I didn’t go into it thinking we need to try to make people laugh at all. It was how do we actually make it so that this is memorable and that this world feels like there are real stakes in it? How do we create some sort of real sense of stakes within a world that’s ridiculous and absurd? It was fun.

When you say you weren’t worried about making people laugh, is that because the comedy was already guaranteed in the writing?

Yeah, it’s coming from some of the best comedic writers ever. Eric Hoffman was one of the original writers from Mr. Show, Bob, obviously, [and] Philip Zlotorynski. When I read it, I laughed out loud. The tone of the comedy was there. You have things like Detective Miller (Kevin O’Grady) saying he was “killed to death,” you know. There’s this humor that’s very wonderful because it’s strange. I guess what I got excited about, or what I focused on, was playing that humor straight. No irony. No sort of winking, that this isn’t a joke. That sort of thing.

You assembled a pretty impressive ensemble cast for this.

It was a benefit of having four years of just talking about this movie with Bob and being like “What about this guy?” From the beginning, it was “Okay, we need to make sure that our cast is balanced so that it’s not all colored with just comedy. We need people who can play this straight and who are actors.”

We took the process very formally for every role. We had ideas, there were sparks. To show you the type of collaborator that Bob is, he was like “Look, this is my idea, but you should meet with them and make sure. You need to own this.”

Did that spirit of collaboration carry over into the day to day production?

Yeah, Bob is always supportive and very “make it yours, create your vision, and I trust you.” This all came together fairly quickly. We shot the movie in 20 days, Bob literally got right off of Better Call Saul and walked right into this. Throughout that entire process, one of the things I think that was different about this versus my documentaries is just continuing to communicate your vision with every department every step of the way. Bob created this environment of ideas. You step into this as a first time narrative filmmaker, it’s intimidating. There’s pressure. You’re like “It’s got to be perfect.” Bob immediately is that person who is so genuine and honest, who’s like “It doesn’t matter if you mess up. Try things. Push.” He was always encouraging.

Is that how you landed on the film’s tone?

I went into it with a plan because I knew this is the sort of movie that you just have to commit to its tone from start to finish, not a “we’ll figure it out on the day.” You go in with a plan. I spent a lot of time with my director of photography and my production designer up front, just putting together [that] plan. What Bob did is, when we came to shoot, say “This is great. This is a wonderful plan, but let’s keep ourself open to ideas and sparks that happen.” That’s the thing where you go into it and you feel really great. Then, there’s something that you didn’t think of, there’s something that sparks in the moment with the performance or whatnot. I think that’s the trick with collaboration, knowing when to listen, and to recognize those because they ultimately make it better.

Looking at your past documentaries like Best Worst Movie, was there anything that you learned from those productions that helped you out here?

I’m drawn towards strange, weird, wonderful stories about strange, weird, wonderful people for whatever reason, on the doc side, and with the narrative. I didn’t want my first narrative opportunity to just feel like a natural progression of doc. I went into it like “Here’s a chance to exercise complete formalism all the way down. Stay totally away from naturalism. Push everything very formal and very controlled.”

It was fun because I hadn’t had that chance to do it on the doc. You’re so in the moment, so focused on character and story. This was a great chance to really push, I guess, design. What carried over, I think, is just stepping into it with sincerity and, again, no irony — just respect. I love the people. I genuinely love the people that are in my docs. I can find ways to relate and genuinely love every character that’s in this weird movie that they wrote. It’s fun to find unexpected moments of humanity in both spaces.

Did you always intend on going with Netflix as a distributor?

For me, right after I read the script, and this was five years ago, I had the immediate impression [that this would be perfect] for Netflix. Probably just because they had been so supportive of my docs. It was like “Hey, maybe this would be a great place for it.” I came to learn that Bob had actually given an early draft to [Netflix CCO] Ted Sarandos years before they were making movies. When I thought of Netflix, you know, they weren’t making movies either. Then, what happened is this project continued to gain steam right as Netflix started making more and more original content and more and more original films, and all of a sudden, Better Call Saul was a success.

There was this window, this confluence of those things in that time that created that momentum. Thankfully it did because without Netflix I don’t think this movie would have gotten made. You know what I mean? You’re working with somebody where you don’t feel like you have rules and there doesn’t have to be a certain thing. It doesn’t have to be a certain length. It doesn’t have to command a box office. They couldn’t have been a better creative partner.

Did it ever feel intimidating to have such a long leash like that, creatively speaking?

It’s freeing. The spirit of support that comes from them, for some reason, they have such trust and support, and you also feel like you have a great responsibility. To know that ultimately they’re supportive of you making what you want to make is great. They’re not beholden to this or that. I think that’s why they’re going to continue. I think you’ll see over the coming years they’re going to keep making more distinct, original stuff because they see value in just offering something that’s different.

Girlfriend’s Day is streaming now on Netflix.