While each generation has its own unique struggles to overcome, some basic emotions and actions, such as learning to cope with negligent parents, can resonate with some people in every age group. The struggle to survive the realization that parents are flawed, and a seemingly well-put together family that is falling apart, is the ever important theme in director Julia Dyer‘s new drama The Playroom. Set against the backdrop of the 1970s, the film offers a look behind the disguise of the seemingly perfect American family.
The Playroom follows suburban teenager Maggie Cantwell (Olivia Harris) and her three younger siblings as they spend the night telling each other stories in the attic. Downstairs, their parents, Martin (John Hawkes) and Donna (Molly Parker), are once again entertaining guests. The more the adults drink, the more the artificial civility of the gathering deteriorates. As secrets come to light, the family is forced to confront the truth behind the betrayals of their lives. While Maggie tries to stay strong for her younger sister and brothers, she begins to rely more on her boyfriend Ryan (Cody Linley).
Harris and Dyer recently took the time to sit down with us at New York City’s Hilton Fashion District Hotel during the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. The two discussed why they feel audiences will be able to connect with the characters’ struggles, the limitations an independent film poses while shooting and what it was like working with the Academy Award-nominated Hawkes.
Check it out below.
We Got This Covered: The Playroom is an examination of family life that showcases the inevitable moment when a child comes to realize that her parents are flawed individuals. While the film is set in the 1970s, do you feel that audiences today will still be able to relate to the struggles the characters endure?
Julia Dyer: Yeah, what I think I found, putting it in front of some audiences, is that people who lived through the ’70s, in whatever generation, identify with it strongly. It reflects a lot of aspects of their memory, and what that crazy time was like. It feels authentic to them.
But then younger people, particularly teenagers today, seem to strongly relate to the emotional honesty of what it feels like to be in that position-being a teenager or a kid, and being powerless in a situation that’s beyond your control, and knowing more than you want to know, and hearing more than you want to hear. We’ve had a lot of younger people really grab onto that, and really feel that it reflects their emotional reality, if not the details of their biography.
WGTC: Olivia, what was it about your character, Maggie Cantwell, that you related to? Were you able to relate to any of her struggles?
Olivia Harris: Absolutely, especially my life at the time, and even my life now. I related to the tension of being a kid and being an adult. I think that’s one of the main things about her.
On one hand, she had this life with all of these adults, where she has to deal with adult issues. On the other hand, she’s taking care of her siblings, and she’s one of the kids.
I related to her frustration, the feeling of being stuck. The yearning, and the inability to articulate why, and how to express oneself. She was struggling with that ability, and I definitely relate to that.
WGTC: How did you prepare for your role of Maggie, so that you could relate to her?
OH: Well, I did relate to her very, very much, I just didn’t have any specific situations that were exactly like her that I could draw from. But in terms of the emotion, I really did relate to it.
What was really interesting was that on set, off-camera, I felt that I was Maggie with those kids. We would call each other by our character names on set.
I would feel that way, because I would see John Hawkes and Molly Parker, and I would say, I want to hang out with them, and talk to them about filmmaking and their experiences. I want to soak in their professionalism, and have them tell me about the world. I’m a sophomore in college, I want to know what it feels like.
On the other hand, I was with these three kids, who were like, Olivia, Olivia, or Maggie, Maggie, come play this with us outside in the dirt. I would be like, I don’t want to do that , but I have to, because I want to build a relationship with you. I care about you and your safety, so don’t go across the street like that.
I was actually on set, being pulled in two different directions, physically and emotionally. That was what informed me the most. On set, it just happened for me. I don’t know how I would have done it without that exact group of people.
WGTC: So you had a good working relationship with everyone overall?
OH: Yeah, I did.
WGTC: The Playroom is being released independently by One Mind Productions. Did having a limited budget influence or constrict what you could shoot for the film?
JD: Well, when you’re an independent filmmaker, I think you have to embrace your limitations. We should all take inspiration from the Dogma movement of the ’90s, that said limitations are good, let me embrace them, and let them guide you to the most important thing about the film.
If you can’t choose anything, you have to be more specific and more focused on what you want to do, and what story you want to tell. I think that really held true in this case. Our resources were very small, but the paths that that led us down were so fruitful. It forced us to really hone the script down to its bare bones.
We had to get very focused on the idea that this film was being told from a children’s perspective, and to not shoot every other option that you think you might want in editing. You had to commit to that, and say, I’m only going to shoot that. This is the story we’re telling. We can’t afford to shoot every angle, and have every option in the editing room.
So we did an editing pass on the movie before we shot it. The last draft of the script was a pass that some people might prefer to do in the editing room. But I think it really helped us, because it really helped us make a really strong, artistic commitment. That was a good one, and held true. It makes it more profound and visually interesting.
WGTC: Speaking of the script, your sister, Gretchen, wrote the screenplay for The Playroom. What was your working relationship with her like on the film?
JD: Well, my sister and I were full-on creative partners for 20 years. We worked together as much as we possibly could. We did work with other people, sometimes. But our primary creative working relationship was with each other. We were committed to that.
She was a writer, and I was a director. We felt like there was a 50/50 split. I loved working with her, and I miss her. I think her scripts are unique and original and beautiful and brave. She was brilliant. Of course, I’m her sister, I would say that.
But she had such a sharp intellect and depth of heart. It was a joy to work with her. I know I’ll never have that experience again, but it absolutely shaped me as an artist for 20 years, and I’m incredibly grateful for that.
WGTC: Julia, what was the casting process like for you? How did you know that you wanted to cast Olivia and the rest of the kids?
JD: Everybody has a different story. I definitely take casting very seriously. I sometimes work at it for years. In this case, we worked for years with the casting.
My casting philosophy is that 90 percent of directing is casting the right actor, and then most of my work is done. Then I just have to tell everyone where to stand.
John was someone that we were interested in for years before we got to make the movie. We had approached him, and he was attached to the movie three years before we ended up shooting it.
For Maggie, we were shooting in Texas. We conducted a sate-wide talent search for that role. In the end, it was a year-and-a-half before we ended up shooting. We reached out to everyone we knew who taught younger actors in high school and college, and just conducted a series of auditions.
We found Olivia through that process. She was cast a year-and-a-half before we filmed. She had a lot of time to think about, and get additional training. She ended up going to college, and being in a really good acting program. So that was helpful.
Molly came to us right before we shot. We loved her, we thought she would be great. We were suddenly in a position to reach out to her and send her a script. We were so fortunate that she related to it, and she came on.
WGTC: You mentioned John, who is well-known for his Academy Award-nominated role in Winter’s Bone. What was it like working with him, for the both of you?
JD: Well, the beautiful thing was that John was attached to The Playroom before he ever did Winter’s Bone. So we already had the relationship, he already loved the script, and was committed to that.
In fact, he came to Dallas for the festival, when they showed Winter’s Bone at the Dallas International Film Festival. I was able to see him, and really connect with him. I didn’t know anything about the movie yet, and I saw it with him at the festival. I was blown away.
I obviously already thought John was a great actor, I wouldn’t have gone after him and asked him to be in my movie that far ahead of time if I didn’t. But that role was so great, and I was just like, wow, John. I was already happy to have you in my movie. It was perfectly clear that it was one of those perfect meetings between script and actor and director. I was excited that he was working at his top level.
We were in the middle of awards season while we were shooting our movie. I was grateful that he stayed committed to our movie. We felt strongly enough about it to stay on. He actually got the Oscar nomination about a week after we finished shooting The Playroom. We were thrilled for him.
OH: For me, he was like a mentor in a lot of ways, as was Molly. They were a constant source of reassurance. I felt like I could ask him anything. He would always have something to say that was profound and comforting.
It was my first experience, and it was probably his 50th experience. He was humble and focused and smart and insightful in everything that he said.
I learned a lot about how to be a courteous actor as well. In some scenes, it would be my close-up, and he would say, is there anything else I can do for you, to help you with this scene? Then I started doing that. Often times, it creates a bond between the two actors, so when they’re doing the close-ups, there’s this comfort level.
WGTC: What was your working relationship with Molly like? Was it the same way?
OH: I had a little bit more time to hang out with Molly, I think. It was the same. I think that she was, out of all the actors, she was the one I spoke with the most, and changed me the most, as a mentor.
WGTC: One of the more interesting aspects in the film was that it was Donna who was having the affair, as opposed to Martin. Was that a conscious decision, to have the father more interested in the children, and the mother more interested in her affair?
JD: That’s an interesting question, I never thought of it. (laughs) That’s always been the story. I think the essential core of the story is really about the women. I’ve had a few men complain to me about that, it’s really about the women. I said yeah, what’s your point? Most films are about the men. (laughs)
I think we were interested in telling a story that reflected our experience. Having been in that particular generation, where mothers of that time had a frustration and bitterness that we haven’t really seen before or since.
They followed all the rules, did what they were supposed to. They got married, had their babies, put on their lipstick. Then the women’s movement happened while they were looking the other way. Suddenly they were irrelevant, and left behind.
Then their daughters grew up, and got to have every freedom and opportunity that was never offered to them. Then they had to somehow learn to live with that, or do something to act out against it. Yet they never had the chance to grow up, or mature themselves.
That character of Donna was really fascinating to us. Obviously, she’s very flawed, and makes some terrible choices.
Gretchen and I grew up, having every opportunity. We had a father and mother who believed that we should have every opportunity, and we could do anything. It’s sad to me that not only our mothers couldn’t have that, but they knew that they missed it. They had that bitterness and frustration and regret. That really distorted their lives in a painful way. So that was the story we wanted to tell, we never considered it the other way.
That concludes our interview, but we’d like to thank Julia Dyer and Olivia Harris for taking the time to speak with us. The Playroom had its world premiere during the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday, April 21 at New York City’s Clearview Cinemas Chelsea.