The indie drama stars Blythe Danner, a veteran Tony-winning stage actress who many recognize as the movie mom in the “Meet the Fockers” series –and the real mother of Gwyneth and Jake Paltrow; their father and her husband, producer Bruce Paltrow, died 13 years ago.
In that sense she’s familiar with the widow Carol Peterson in “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” who lives a comfortable but lonely life in Los Angeles with her shaggy old dog, having not kissed another man since the death of her husband 20 years before. When she has to put down her beloved canine companion, she’s shaken and starts to open up, to her depressed young pool man (Martin Starr of “Silicon Valley”), who takes her out to sing karaoke (the former singer is sensational), to her young professional daughter (Marin Akerman) and her bridge group of fun retirees (Mary Kay Place, Rhea Perlman and June Squibb). After one memorable game they toke some medical marijuana and behave like a gaggle of giggling teenagers. It’s at the retirement village that she spots rangy newcomer Bill (Sam Elliott) across a crowded room–and starts an affair with him.
This is just the sort of smart, well-observed dramedy that art house exhibitors are clamoring to sell to their most reliable customers: baby boomers. Look at the numbers on “Philomena,”“Nebraska,”“Last Vegas,” “Calender Girls,”“Enough Said,”“Amour,” and “Enchanted April.” In fact, Fox Searchlight is readying “The Exotic Marigold Hotel 2.” That’s why Bleecker Street picked up the film written by director Haley and Marc Basch and produced by Two Flints’ Rebecca Green and Laura Smith.
I sat down with a Danner and Elliott, who were both jazzed after their standing ovation at the premiere screening at Sundance, where Danner, 71, started off by congratulating Elliott, 70, on his two other Sundance premieres –Joe Swanberg’s “Digging for Fire” and Paul Weitz’s “Grandma,” opposite Lily Tomlin. He in turn praised her non-stop theater work (Broadway’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “The Country House”). Their on-screen chemistry is palpable off-screen as well; you can see that he admires her well-bred elegance, while she responds to his gravelly masculine charm. Amazingly, this marks Danner’s first lead role in a movie.
Anne Thompson: So Blythe, in this movie you get to be the lead.
Blythe Danner: For once in my life!
While Sam, you are the pretty girl.
Sam Elliott: Thank you, I’ll take that!
BD: It’s an exhilarating feeling. I had the chance to do it on stage but never on film.
I saw you in the play “The Seagull” on PBS, I never forgot it.
BD: Long long ago! It was Chekhov. Everybody is talking how much they cried and laughed in this film. It’s only the Chekhovs of the world, they’re very few, who have you laughing one moment and the next crying.
BD: Film has always been hard for me, I’m basically a stage actress. I never felt comfortable in front of the camera until the last couple of years. Here at Sundance I was in “Hello I Must be Going,” in a wonderful supporting role. Brett saw that movie which rekindled the thought of me in a 3-dimensional role rather than a lot of 1-dimensional roles. I asked him, “why aren’t you going to go to someone who will get you your money overnight?” He was a first-time director on a larger film, he’d done one for $4000. It’s harder to get someone on board who’s an A-lister, but he’d seen enough of my work. There’s something about the indies, it makes it an easier journey. There’s not as much tension, even though we shot this in 18 days, it never felt hysterical underneath. I had Sam and everybody in the cast, we just meshed.
This movie makes us fall in love with you, Sam, to see you in a vulnerable way. You are the western guy, the Marlboro man, actors get typecast. Here you get to show another side of yourself.
SE: It was a gift, a chance to play a leading man at 70, again. It’s been a long time since “The Lifeguard” or one of those, back in the 60s and 70s. [He started off in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and later married its star Katharine Ross.] Clearly it’s been a long time since I’ve done a romantic part, it was fun.
BD: Women have been swooning. On one of the last days shooting, “Where’s Sam?” I see him surrounded by lovely girls in their 20s–there are great young people on these indies, full of life, who want to learn– he’s sitting in the middle of it. I had to smile.
SE: I’m living the life, living the fantasy, living the dream!
You two have real chemistry.
SE: It felt right from the get-go.
BD: I was nervous to kiss, I haven’t had a real kiss in 13 years, my husband died that long ago. I asked Brett to talk to Sam: a real juicy kiss I can’t do. He was so lovely. One time was funny, Brett said, “get in bed and cuddle,” so I threw my leg over his leg. “What are you doing?” I already was feeling so comfortable, it was, “here’s Bruce again,” so bizarre. That’s the comfort we felt.
Well, there must have been some overlap in your experience.
BD: It was easy to access that.
Carol seems empowered, she’s someone who is making her life work without a man. What makes her suddenly so receptive?
BD: He says to her–it got a big laugh–“you don’t need all that stuff,” at their first meeting. They’re like-minded, she’s a wise-ass in her way, she has a masculine sensibility. She’ll do OK even without those girls. She’s a loner, she senses an energy that isn’t so dissimilar.
You had a great cast to play off, including those hilarious women.
BD: That was a joy, those girls were hilarious. I was astonished everybody came on board, had this been made in Florida as originally intended, we’d have never got this cast, Sam come down from Malibu, the girls came down.
How did it feel to be singing again?
I was nervous. I used to sing jazz, my first love, Bill Evans was a friend of mine, he wanted to make me a demo, but I freaked out, and never did it. It would have been nice to try, I’m mad that I was a coward. I was cringing when I first saw this.
Is this movie less about age and loss than finding yourself and opening up to the world?
BD: It’s about acceptance. It’s not a film about hope but about acceptance.
Adults are starved for this kind of material, and actors too. Whats’ going on in our culture?
BD: I can’t understand the fixation with reality shows, and the Hollywood wives of somebody or other.
SE: The celebrity culture, people famous for being famous. Katharine and I talk all the time about how fortunate we were to grow up then. (Phone rings, it’s quacking like a duck.) That’s mine (smiles).
BD: I saw the coming attractions at a film in New York; every single one had explosions and was made for 15-year-old boys. It’s a hardening of our culture.
SE: Everyone is so preoccupied by youth. People talk about how the movie business is a microcosm of the bigger picture, or life imitating art, but the business is guilty for getting women out of the way. I live with one of those gals [Katharine Ross] who was on the cover of Vogue when she was at her peak. I live with her now and she’s not working. Once you’re bit and you love this, you don’t want to not work. It’s painful to see that shit, so many of them are about computerized bullshit that has nothing to do with reality, it’s all virtual. Here at Sundance we still have filmmakers, but it’s a handful.
Are so many movie actors returning to the stage because there are fewer good parts?
BD: Bradley Cooper was a Williamstown kid, we’d go there every summer. He’s a real theater person, a lot of people who start out in theater have that discipline. Many movie stars come there and can’t cut it: the energy and command and discipline it takes.
SE: I’m terrified to get on the stage. I did theater before I left Portland, it would terrify me.
BD: You’re a natural.
SE: I’m working on “Justified” on FX, doing the whole last season. I have a romance with Mary Steenburgen, who’s fun to work with, we’re both wacky. Last year was a great year movie-wise. You don’t know what’s around the corner, I’m ever hopeful there is in fact another job looming. TV is the same phenomenon: the indies are soaring above the commercial ranks. You go where the great material is. You’re not going to get a lot of money unless you make the commitment to do a series, unless it’s built around you or you’re producing.
BD: I hear your voice on television every day! (His booming drawl is familiar in voiceovers for car and beer companies.)
SE: That’s the money in the bank that allows me to turn all that shit down.
BD: We are coming into the era of the baby boomers, millions and millions of them, so maybe these movies will do much better.