It’s a situation we can all relate to: You agree to attend a get-together as a favor to your significant other. You dread it the entire way there, and once you arrive you end up feeling outcast, drifting around the outskirts of conversations, seemingly invisible to everyone else around you. That’s the premise of Fits and Starts, a new comedy by writer/director Laura Terruso (writer of Hello, My Name is Doris) that made its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival over the weekend.
Jennifer (Greta Lee) is an up-and-coming writer who gets invited to a party at her publicist’s house. She brings along her husband, David (Wyatt Cenac). David’s also a writer but is struggling to find anyone interested in his unpublished manuscript while finding himself increasingly frustrated the more he becomes overshadowed by his wife’s success. On the way to the party, a series of misunderstandings causes them to be separated, and David finds himself stuck all alone, surrounded by people he doesn’t know (or like), with his wife nowhere to be found.
We got the chance to sit down and talk to both Wyatt Cenac and Greta Lee while they were attending SXSW last weekend. They explained what it was like for them to develop the rapport of a married couple that may be on the verge of a crisis in their relationship.
You guys really have the married couple argument down. And not just an ‘old, married couple’ kind of way, but a specific moment in this couples’ life together. How did you guys build that rapport?
Wyatt Cenac: I feel like there was a general sense of play between Greta and I that was very sort of…
Greta Lee: It was instant.
Cenac: The first time that we met, Laura and one the producers had put together a little get-together for us.
Lee: A dinner.
Cenac: …and I accidentally showed up two hours late.
Lee: Two hours late. Two hours late. It’s almost been two years, I’m still very much not over it. Very much. Every day. Every day, I still think about that.
Cenac: And I thought it started at eight, and it started at seven. And so that’s why…
Lee: He was two hours late.
Cenac: I was an hour late. And then the second hour, that I can’t…
Lee: But, do you hear his explanation! It’s not even explaining why he was two hours. He’s like, “Well, the first hour…”
Cenac: The first hour I just was I misread an email.
Lee: Anyway, so pretty quickly, that set the tone for our relationship.
Was the party filled with a bunch of artsy, liberal New Englanders to ready you for the set?
Cenac: No, it was just the four of us, so they had been waiting to dinner until, like they were for me so they could eat dinner. And I was just-
Lee: So rude.
Cenac: I didn’t realize and just kind of, like, “Oh, shit! Oh, yeah, okay, I gotta come from Brooklyn, and the train…”
So, it wasn’t just late, it was awkward, uncomfortable late.
Cenac: There was an awkwardness, but I didn’t know any of them that well.
Lee: It was the first time we were meeting.
Slowly backing away from the topic of that dinner, how did you both get involved with the project?
Lee: Well, they approached Wyatt, and Laura sent you the script.
Cenac: Yeah. Laura sent me the script.
Lee: You guys met, right?
Cenac: We sat and talked about it because I don’t really do a lot of movie stuff. So it was one of those things where in talking to her and getting a sense of what she wanted to do, and everything like that. It seemed like something that I felt like I would be safe in this environment. I think I’ve done five or six movies at this point, I’ve got to say, only three of them I’ve enjoyed, and three I’ve vehemently hated. So, in that way I’ve become very gun shy about doing stuff like this. So, meeting her [and] talking to her, definitely helped to kind of assuage the fears and the ill feelings that I’ve had in other situations.
Lee: And then I had worked with Laura on High Maintenance. She was a DP, our very first season that we shot that show, before it went onto Vimeo and when it was just a very, very small endeavor. And we really hit it off. I thought she was really great, when at that time I wasn’t familiar with her work outside of that. And then I read the script and met with her and was really interested in the story and she’s very passionate about this project. And happy to hear that this guy was involved.
So much of the story you guys tell as your characters is through your facial expressions, and just how one of you will roll your eyes or look a certain way. How much of that was on the page and how much of that is…
Lee: Naturally just rolling our eyes at each other?
Cenac: Yeah. I feel it was a fair amount of just sort of natural eye rolling. And I think there there was a lot of… you know, so much of our time while making this, it was a lot of us, sort of, being together. And whether it’s being stuck in a car in the middle of a Connecticut street for hours, or going to… breaking for lunch and sort of going through the lunch line and chatting, or in the time that they were shooting other stuff without us, that it’d be us kind of hanging out.
Lee: Until we naturally built up that rapport of naturally just rolling our eyes at each other, constantly.
So you guys used it for the cameras.
Cenac: But I feel like a lot of that is that time that you get to spend with another person and that rapport. That it’s that thing that you have that you kind of create, even in a short amount of time, [the], whatever, 14 days that we had to shoot this, we could kind of create our own little shorthand and have our little sort of jokes and bits that we could do with one another that, while they weren’t necessarily directly on page, the spirit of them made their way on screen.
Lee: Yeah, and being the very serious actors that we are, it’s sort of like, if you think of that movie Blue Valentine with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, where they were holed up in that cabin together to their build their rapport and their common bases. It was pretty much exactly like that, wouldn’t you say?
Cenac: I never saw that movie.
Lee: Well… there are other people out there who maybe have seen your…
Cenac: I saw My Blue Heaven with Steve Martin.
Lee: Okay, well, yeah, different.
There’s really not a bad time to bring up My Blue Heaven, honestly.
Cenac: Yeah. Fun movie.
One of Steve Martin’s only turns at playing the heavy outside of Little Shop of Horrors, I think.
Cenac: Oh right, yeah.
Lee: Oh, really?
Cenac: He’s a mob guy who’s been put in the witness protection program.
As actors and creative people by profession, does playing someone like a writer come differently or easier than another character as far as an internal monologue, or getting to know that person for that stretch of days?
Lee: I feel like there are definitely differences, but I felt like there are more similarities and I was surprised to find that. I think as an actor or writer, I can definitely relate to this feeling of trying to become a part of the inner circle, so to speak. That feeling as an artist of wanting to be accepted so desperately, for better or for worse. And the good and the bad things that can come from that desire was something that I could relate to in both the characters, in David, but also Jennifer.
Wyatt, you’ve already mentioned your general apprehension about making movies. Did that help with this film, with your character being stuck alone at the party you didn’t want to go to in the first place?
Cenac: No, not really because it’s honestly I didn’t necessarily mean the just movies. I think, in general, I’ve never really sought out being an actor. I think I’ve always seen acting as one of those things that if I write something, I’ll act in it, or something like that. And that I would have to do those things for myself because that’s how I’m most comfortable but I also never expected anybody to write anything with me in mind. So whether it’s a movie or a television show, it’s still kind of like, oh yeah, this is a weird thing. But, I feel like in making this, and part of why I did it was that Laura created an environment where I felt comfortable. It’s similar to what it was like working with Barry Jenkins on Medicine for Melancholy.
I think the sign of a good director is creating an environment where people feel comfortable and safe and I think they both did that very well and, at least to me and for me, and so I didn’t necessarily have any thoughts as far as, “Oh, I don’t want to be here.” It was kind of like, “Okay, everybody here is really passionate about this thing and I want to help as best I can to make sure that we get the best product at the end of the day.” And that I think winds up more the mindset.
You said the shoot was only 14 days, and this was mentioned in the film, but you had a magnificent beard through most of it. But in the beginning, those flashback sequences, you’re beardless. Did you have the beard going in before you shaved it for those scenes after the fact?
Cenac: Yeah, those were some of the later scenes that we shot.
Was that difficult, to be at the end of your shoot before filming the honeymoon phase of your characters’ relationship at the very end?
Cenac: Not really, it’s super rare to shoot things in sequence.
Lee: I mean, it’s just harder to look at your face without the beard.
Cenac: No, it’s true! The beard is the one doing all the work.
You also sport a half-shaven face for a few scenes. How long did you have to go with the half-beard in real life?
Cenac: I think only like a day or two.
That’s not too bad.
Cenac: I don’t think it was that long. But I do remember not leaving the house.
Lee: All kidding aside, I feel like you’ve always have a beard, right?
Cenac: Most of the time, yeah.
Lee: Yeah. It’s like a very rare and special thing to not.
Cenac: Well, that I hadn’t shaved in years.
Lee: You look nice without a beard.
Lee: See, we like each other.
It’s like what you watch on the screen carries over to real life.
Cenac: She’s going to go through my closet and make me throw out certain clothes. And this hat.
And tear things out of magazines for “suggestions?”
Lee: Exactly. Weed out the socks with the holes, you know.
My fianceé does that sometimes.
Cenac: I guess it’s better though that she shows you, versus coming home and just finding your closet filled with “Here’s your new look”. Now, do you ever rip out a page in a magazine and like, “Hey, here you go.”
I don’t feel like that would go over well.
Cenac: Really? I feel like you couldn’t just like, “Hey, this is a really cool outfit. What do you think of this?” I mean, it depends on what it is.
Lee: Oh my God. Yeah, no.