Sundance: How ‘SNL’ Writer Chris Kelly Turned His Personal Pain Into a Festival Opener

Sundance: How 'SNL' Writer Chris Kelly Turned His Personal Pain Into a Festival Opener

READ MORE: The 2016 Indiewire Sundance Bible: All the Reviews, Interviews and News Posted During The Festival

Chris Kelly is a comedy guy, but that’s not all there is to the newly minted feature film writer and director. The longtime “SNL” writer (he first joined the show in 2011 after three attempts) has crafted some of the sketch comedy show’s best bits — most recently, he helped write this winter’s smash hit Adele sketch —and he’s even penned a pair of “Broad City” episodes, but for his first film, Kelly went a bit more serious.

In “Other People,” which opened Sundance as part of their Day One premieres, Kelly adapts his own life to the big screen, and the feature sees Jesse Plemons playing a version of Kelly (in the film, he’s known as David, but Kelly is fiercely honest about how much he pulled from his own life for the film) who is dealing with the impending death of his mother (played, incidentally, by “SNL” alum Molly Shannon). The film blends fact and fiction, humor and drama with some very moving (and funny! it’s still funny!) results.

For Kelly, it might just have been the best way to write through his own pain and make something better in the process. 

Indiewire sat down with Kelly at the festival to talk about the funny way he found out he’d snagged a Sundance spot, how he adapted his own life and the mixed emotions that came with (finally) being picked to write for “Saturday Night Live.”

How did you find out you got into Sundance?

It was crazy. I heard from Naomi Scott and Adam Scott,
my producers, and Adam was on the call. Naomi called me to ask some dumb
question about post-production minutiae, and I was like, “Why are they both on
this call?” But then they were like, “No, we’re just kidding, you got into Sundance.”

It was so cool. I really tried not to think about it because everything has
been a nice surprise, so I didn’t want to think about this like an end goal. Then
when we found out we got to open [the festival], I felt embarrassed.

You’re a full-time writer on “Saturday Night Live” and you’ve done work on “Broad City.” How did you find the time to make your first feature? 

Just forcing myself. I wrote a really rough draft version
of it with no intension of, “I’m going to make a movie now.” I wanted to force myself to write something
longer and more sustained. Also, I’m a comedy writer, but I never
intended to only do comedy, so I wanted to write something more tonally serious
where the comedy comes from sadness.

Did you want to subvert the kind of expectations that come with being an “SNL” writer for this film?

I never went out of my way to trick people, but when
people would do pre-screening write-ups they would say, “Oh, this is going to be a
fun comedy,” which is fine, I don’t mind that. It was interesting surprising a
lot of people. And there is comedy [in the film] at times, but that last 20 minutes, there
are no jokes there, folks.

You do open the film with Molly Shannon’s character dying, so it’s obvious from the get-go that there is going to be some tough stuff here.

I wanted that death scene first for two reasons. One, because
it sets up the tone, so people know that this is what you can expect. I also wanted
everyone to know that she dies because I didn’t want the movie to be about, “Well, does she or doesn’t she?” I always like when I see movies with that sad irony
and all the characters are scrambling because you know it’s going to happen, so
what do you do until the end?

I liked the movie starting very realistically,
and having this broader comedy element to it, and then immediately smash
cutting to other people. You’re seeing
the movie through the eyes of a comedy writer and as someone who “escaped” a
small town to New York City, [who has] the tendency to see other people as jokes
or punchlines. The quirky aunt, the woman who called at the wrong time, the
grandparents who are funny…

The goal was to start a little broader
and to have the audience view other people as funny and then, by the end, it
turns out everyone is sad, too, and everyone else is a real person, and if the
main character bothered to pay attention to them more you would see that they
aren’t just funny, but they are full people with their own stories. I’m not saying the main character is a selfish a
piece of shit, but there is that selfishness like, “I can’t believe this is
happening to me. I’m a with-it person. This happens to other people,” which is
insane to think.

I know this is a
personal story for you. How soon after your mother passed away did you start writing this?

My mom past away in September 2009 and I wrote the first
draft of this in the summer of 2012. It didn’t just happen and instantly I was
like “I’m going to write a movie about this.” It was when I decided I wanted to try
to write a feature. I wanted to write something I felt I could do in a truthful
way.

You assembled a pretty great cast for this. How did you snag Molly Shannon?

I knew I wanted Molly Shannon. I would say to my managers, “God, I would love Molly Shannon to be in this,” and they were like, “You know
you don’t have producers and you just finished script.” But I was like, “Could
you imagine if she was in it!”

On “SNL,” she was always my favorite. She’s so funny
and so sad. It’s loosely autobiographical, but I don’t look at the movie and
see my dad as that, or myself, or my sisters, but I do see my mom, and it was
kind of accidental. She’s very similar to my mom and so funny and a smartass
and very strong. It was hard to direct her, because I do feel like I’m with my
mom a bit now.

Do you feel like
you got a lot of your sense of humor from your mom?

Oh, for sure, and I hope that element is in there. Even
the scene with the grandparents who are funny storytellers; he’s telling all
these exaggerated stories that he’s clearly making up, but he’s making them up
for comedic effect. My grandpa who would tell stories that were 90% lies because
he’s like, “That’s a good story.” My mom was a storyteller and kind of a smartass. 

What do your
sisters think about the film?

When my sister first read it, she was crying because she was
like, “I never really knew all the things that you were thinking.” It’s probably
a very surreal experience to see something like that through the lens of
someone else. They’ve been nothing but supportive. It’s probably very weird
for them, but in a good way.

You had to miss “Saturday Night Live” this week to be here. That must have been very weird.

It’s so funny, because I missed the show this week, but I weirdly had sketches in
it because I was there for the writing nights, but I didn’t know anything else
going into the show. I watched the sketches on Sunday morning and guessed who
wrote which and I was right on all of them because they have such distinct
voices. I can’t believe they still managed to put it on. [Laughs]

I always kind of wish that the credits included who wrote which sketches.

Yeah, I always think that, but also it’s such a collaborative
thing it would be a little bit of a lie. Because you take it to a table read
and then people give you such great jokes. You know some people have real
ownership over sketches, but it changes so much throughout the week it would be
rude to say, “Only I wrote this one, you know.” 

How did you
become an “SNL” writer?

Well, you follow one job after another, and it’s only been
comedy, which I love. I worked at The Onion before that, then I worked at
Funny or Die for a couple months.

It was
my third year applying. I had applied two times before and didn’t get it. I
had just moved to LA to work for Funny or Die and bought a car and then I got it.
I interviewed with Seth Meyers and John Mulaney, and then they just told me to
wait.

Then I got a call saying Lorne [Michaels] wanted to meet with me and I was too
nervous. I was like, “Just tell me yes or no.” But he was in LA and I was in LA
and he wanted to have a drink. He was so nice and he told me I already had the
job and he just wanted to meet. But I had so envisioned the moment of getting
it and like dropping to my knees and sobbing, but then I had to politely eat
dinner. [Laughs]

“Other People” premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution. 

READ MORE: ‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: The Force is Strong With Adam Driver in His Hosting Debut

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