“I get a lot of ‘you-look-familiars,'” Clea DuVall explains when asked if the long-time actress is often recognized on the street. Maybe that will change after her charming Sundance premiere, “The Intervention,” starts rolling out on VOD, thanks to a freshly signed deal with Paramount Home Media.
The film is DuVall’s debut as a filmmaker, and she serves as writer, director, executive producer and star on the funny feature, which joins some of DuVall’s real-life best pals (including Melanie Lynskey and Natasha Lyonne) with some newfound friends (like Vincent Piazza and Cobie Smulders) and indie stalwarts (Jason Ritter, Alia Shawkat, Ben Schwartz) for what’s been compared to “The Big Chill” for a new generation.
Led by Lynskey’s Annie, “The Intervention” revolves around a group of long-time friends who attempt to stage a “relationship intervention” for Smulders’ Ruby and Piazza’s Peter, convinced that the pair’s marriage has turned toxic and it’s only their friends who can pull them out of it. Along the way, the rest of the group is forced to encounter some hard truths about their own problems, a storyline that DuVall and her cast manage to balance with authenticity and a hell of a lot of humor.
Indiewire sat down with DuVall at the festival, where she explained why this movie now, her desire to do right by her cast and why she still thinks it’s little weird to call herself a director.
I can’t even tell you how excited I am. It happened immediately after the screening. They reached out to us that night. They really got it. It feels like a really good fit. Throughout entire process, I’ve had this approach of like the right people will come, we’ll find the right crew and the right cast. It seems like that trend is continuing.
You’ve been in this industry for a long time. Why this movie now? Why directing now?
When I was in my twenties, I wanted to direct, but I didn’t really know how to do that and I didn’t really know what that meant. I just knew that I loved being on sets and working with crews, and I loved being there through all of it. I kind of set this goal for myself of directing a movie before I was 30, which didn’t happen, mainly because I took zero steps to do that.
But I did start writing when I was in my twenties, just as an exercise, and I’ve got so many incredible friends who are writers and filmmakers. I really started writing as an exercise to learn about story structure, because I didn’t do very well in school. I didn’t go to college. I never learned how to learn. I’ve always learned by doing, getting out there and failing. I would just write scripts, get notes and then rewrite them. I’d try to make them better, but sometimes they were stories that will never get better and they were never going to be good, but it was really just for me.
I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, saying that I was a little creatively frustrated. Being an actor is such a weird thing, because you have to rely on so many other people to get to the place where you are able to express yourself creatively. We were talking about just making stuff on our own, but then it’s hard, you need financing and things are expensive. I had written this other script that I really liked, but it would have been too pricey. No one was going to five million dollars to make a movie. So I had this really simple idea and I told to him the idea for this movie, the premise of friends who do a relationship intervention, and he thought it was a funny idea. He encouraged me to go home and write it, and I just wrote it.
I was really only going to do an outline for it, find friends and do improv, which is weird, because I’ve never done improv in my life. I don’t know why I thought this would have been a good idea for me. But I sat down and I wrote the outline, and I found that the story was there for me. So then I wrote the script, and then over the course of a couple years, developed it and really started falling in love with these characters. As I started to find myself, the more I was able to find the characters and make them more honest and whole. I finally convinced myself that I could direct.
You’re in this movie, as are some of your closest friends, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped you from writing characters that, although lovable, are packed with flaws.
Alia was a person who was involved very early on because that character was sort of like the more stereotypical version of it, and I never wanted that. I think to me, Alia is one of the most interesting, special and talented actresses in her age group, and also a really cool and interesting person. I knew she would bring so much depth to the character. So I sent the script to her and she, thankfully, liked it and was able to do it.
The cast kind of shifted around a lot. It’s hard to get eight actors in the same place at the same time for any extended period of time. It changed a lot; there were a lot of different versions of it.
I had seen some of Vincent Piazza’s work and just thought he was so interesting and so different, which was also a different way to go for that character. I really wanted to hire actors for the roles to do things that I knew they could do but they didn’t really get the opportunities to do, especially with Natasha.
She’s always working it seems, but this is something different for her.
That was exciting to me, and it was also an opportunity that I don’t always get as an actor. I wanted to be able to give that to my cast. I really trusted them and they really trusted me. I think everyone is so incredible. They all did such a phenomenal job in difficult circumstances, not a lot of takes and no perks. It was kind of like rough-and-tumble.
You also wrote yourself a very complex character. Did you always know you were going to play that part?
Yeah, I wrote the role for myself with the intention of not directing it. If I had known from the start that I would be directing it, I wouldn’t have written myself a part. But then once I was in it, I only had a flash of thinking that maybe I should hire someone else, but then I didn’t. I knew that I would watch the movie, be jealous and want to be in it.
I wrote a part that was very close to myself, because I don’t really get to do that very often, which I feel like is the opposite for everyone else. So many actors are playing themselves all the time and I never get to play myself. So I was excited, even though it was harder than I thought it would be. I really wanted to be a supporting character in the true sense of the word, because I knew I wouldn’t have the mental energy to do anything that challenging for me.
All I wanted to do was show up for the other people. I think because I have such close personal relationships with a lot of them, and then really connected with the people I didn’t know, it was really easy for me to have a lot to give to me and be there for them. That was all I was really focusing on.
When the premiere let out, there were a number of tweets about Melanie’s performance, a lot of the same sentiment, which was “Melanie Lynskey for president.”
Oh, yeah! I totally agree. She’s not an American, but I still think we should go for it.
It’s exciting to see her in something like this, especially with such a layered, tricky character.
I think Melanie is such a genius. I know that people say that word all the time and it doesn’t really mean anything anymore, but she really is so brilliant.
She is the kind of actor that you are born with it. You can’t learn that in school. Nobody can teach you how to be that. She just blows my mind. Every take would be different. She was always playing around, trying new things and discovering things that I’ve never thought of, having stared at these words for three years. To have her come in and make it totally fresh and new was exciting.
When I was watching her in the editing room, I would turn to the editor all the time and say, “Can you fucking believe this person? She’s unreal.” My biggest concern was being able to do justice to her performance. I almost feel like you can tell watching the movie how much I love her and how much I admire her. It was amazing to be at the premiere and hear the audience’s response to her. All I care about is that she feels that too.
You’ve been at Sundance over the years as an actor, but I imagine the call that this film got into competition must have felt a little bit different.
I was in New York when Mel Eslyn, one of our producers, called me and she was frantic; it sounded like she was having a heart attack. She said to me, “I just got this call from Sundance. I got a message, you have to call this lady. Call her right now!” I was in wardrobe because I was in a pilot. I was in wardrobe fitting, they’re pinning me in this dress that is so tight and my boobs are hanging out while I’m on the phone. There was this guy manipulating the outfit and I thought, “What is going on in my life right now?”
I got voicemail and left them a message. I called Mel, she asked what happened and I told her that I left them a message. She told me to call them back, and I said no because they would think I was a crazy person. I was afraid they would change their minds. You don’t know what that call is and you don’t know what to say.
Two hours went by before I talked to someone and finally when we connected, she said we got into the competition. I cried. I started out as an actor at the Sundance Filmmakers Lab. Sundance has always been really good to me. As a person who didn’t really go to high school or college, this institution is my college. It was really nice to be accepted by Sundance and continues to make me emotional.
When John Cooper introduced the film at the premiere, he noted that you were the last competition film to premiere. Do you think that ended up being a good thing?
I do. I was worried about it, because the [other] movies are so intense. I made a movie that I wanted people to connect to and I wanted to make them feel good. I really appreciate going into a movie, laughing and feeling nice. I always asked whether or not it should be more serious.
I was driving to the premiere and thinking, “God, it’s so silly! Everybody’s kissing everybody!” Going to the premiere and hearing that response felt really nice, and it does make sense. Just to go into a theater and hopefully spend some time with characters who are really enjoyable.
Do you get recognized a lot?
I get a lot of “you-look-familiars,” which I still never know how to respond to, even after all this time. It’s just someone grabbing me, stopping me and making a statement. Then they stare at me and wait for me to say something. It’s the character actress thing. People ask me if we went to high school together.
But now you can be writer-director-character actress-filmmaker.
It’s still hard for me to really absorb because I view filmmaking as such a collaborative experience. Everyone came onto this and really did amazing work. I’m so proud of everybody. I still don’t know if I’ve really earned the title of director. I still kind of feel like an actor who directed a movie. I want to be given the opportunity to earn that title, because it’s huge.
READ MORE: The 2016 Indiewire Sundance Bible: All the Reviews, Interviews and News Posted During The Festival