Below director Dennis Lee shares one of his favorite scenes from his debut feature “Fireflies in the Garden,” starring Ryan Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Willem Dafoe and Emily Watson. The film opens in limited release Friday, October 14.
To an outsider, the Taylors are the very picture of the successful American family: Charles (Willem Dafoe) is a tenured professor on track to become university president, son Michael (Ryan Reynolds) is a prolific and well-known romance novelist, daughter Ryne (Shannon Lucio) is poised to enter a prestigious law school, and on the day we are introduced to them, matriarch Lisa (Julia Roberts) will graduate from college–decades after leaving to raise her children. But when a serious accident interrupts the celebration, the far more nuanced reality of this Midwestern family’s history and relationships come to light. [Synopsis courtesy of FSI]
The scene we’ve chosen takes place after Michael (played by Cayden Boyd) has been kicked out of his father’s car to walk home alone in the pouring rain. Charlie (played by Willem Dafoe) and Lisa (played by Julia Roberts) later arrive home to find a soaking shivering Michael sitting on the porch steps. Michael’s ushered into the bathroom where his mother draws a warm bath for a son who has long drawn his own bath water. This scene between Lisa and Michael, mother and son, is one of the few scenes in the domestic cut that’s a cut-and-paste from the international cut. When blessed with the opportunity to recut the film, this is one scene that we really didn’t touch. It worked then. It works now.
We shot the scene on location in a small bathroom. Given its physical limitations, the shots are very straightforward. Nothing fancy with the camera. There’s a dolly that holds on a wide master, a couple of over the shoulders, singles, and that’s it. Because of the quiet, intimate nature of the scene, we minimized the machinery in order to let the actors do what they do best. And both Julia and Cayden are remarkable in this scene.
Their exchange tells you everything you need to know about Lisa’s backstory, about her relationship with her husband, and above all, about the love she has for Michael. She tells him how lucky she is to have a son. How fortunate. And then, as usual, she defends her husband’s abhorrent behavior. She tries to explain it away, reassuring Michael that his father does love him. That things will soon be better. She tries to keep the peace and maintain the status quo even as she hopes for change. But Michael knows that nothing will change unless he challenges his father. I should explain that when and where I was growing up, parents didn’t get divorced. If mom and dad were in an unhappy marriage, they stuck it out, for better or for worse, more often the latter. You stuck it out for your children, out of fear, out of embarrassment, and you hoped that things would change. But they rarely ever did.
Ultimately, Lisa and Cayden have an exchange that they’ve shared since he was a little boy. When she tells him, “I love you big,” Michael knows that his mother is asking for forgiveness. Please forgive me for not protecting you. After letting her dangle for a long silence, Michael forgives her by responding, “I love you bigger.” There’s a certain truth to the adage that you should write about what you know. My mother always told me how lucky she was to have a son. It’s not until now that I realize that I never told her just how lucky I was to have her for my mother. Now that she’s gone, I tell her just that every time the digits on my watch line up. Yes, “Fireflies in the Garden” is film about family. It’s also about the relationship between father and son. But at its core, at its heart, it’s a story about mother and son.
I’ve been asked how I feel about the film’s domestic release having taken four long years. My response is that it’s a blessing. Four years ago, there were too many compromises that resulted in the international cut. But we’ve had the opportunity to take our film back and re-cut it to tell the story that we originally wanted to tell. I’ve also been asked, “What studio is distributing this film?” We are. Friends and family. How much more independent can you get than that? [For more on the film’s delayed trip to the screen go here.]