Written by Jim Strouse, who debuted another film about domestic troubles with a fun twist, “People Places Things,” at last year’s festival, “The Hollars” stars Krasinski as John Hollar, a New York City transplant who is struggling with problems like a hugely pregnant girlfriend (Anna Kendrick) and a job that doesn’t satisfy his creative urges. When John’s mother (Margo Martingale) is diagnosed with a softball-sized brain tumor, he is forced to go back to his small town, where he must grapple with more issues, including a distraught dad, played by Richard Jenkins, a wacky brother and a still-alluring ex.
Along the way, John learns some big lessons (of course), but the film’s strong performances and heartfelt story make it rise above the festival fray.
Krasinski sat down with Indiewire at the festival to talk about how he’s not afraid of making a “Sundance-y” movie, why the film reflected his own life and if he’s ready to go the Marvel route.
Originally, you were only supposed to star in the film. What changed that made you want to both star in and direct the feature?
I was cast as an actor about five or six years ago. Jim sent me the script and I loved it and, it’s weird because I’m actually lucky enough to come from a really tight-knit family and we’re really close — yet, at the end of this script, I said, “That’s my family.”
This script is about, more often than not, a dysfunctional family, but I saw my family in there and that to me was so powerful. Because what Jim does is, I think, he writes a very real version of things. Family is messy and life is messy, so things don’t happen always when you want them to happen. Your relationships with your family aren’t always what you want them to be, going home is sometimes awesome and sometimes not, and so that’s what I’m really excited for people to see. Whether you have a good relationship with your family or a bad relationship with your family, there’s still a value to your family that is so important that it’s hard to ride that rail between complicated and special. Somewhere in the middle is your family.
Jim did something similar with last year’s “People Places Things,” which debuted at Sundance, too.
I remember watching “The Winning Season” — Margo is in that, actually — but I mean that’s a story, you know, again from a one-liner perspective of like “a drunken girl’s basketball coach learns a lot about his life.” It’s like, well, I don’t know how interesting that sounds, but it’s done well.
I remember there was a writing teacher at my college, and he said, “Let me just cut right to the chase. Everything’s been done before. There’s no story that hasn’t been told, but it’s about how specific and how personal it is to you,” and I thought, “Wow. That’s really powerful.” That’s how I go about storytelling in general.
When you came on board as director, you were personally dealing with some of the issues in the film, too, like becoming a first-time father. Was that a big part of why you wanted to direct it?
Yeah, it came to me because the financier at the time said that they just couldn’t get it together, so he asked if I wanted to buy the rights to the script, which I thought was financially scary since I’d never done that before. But I like challenges, so I took it on. I was highly advised against it and I thought, “No. These are the things I have the opportunity to do with the career that I’ve had and the production company that we have. We can shed light on good stories.” I wanted to put my money where my mouth was, and we did it and then I decided to be the director.
I will say, had I directed the movie six months before, when my daughter hadn’t arrived yet, I probably would have directed a different movie. Once we had our daughter — and I say this in the best way — it holds a mirror up to you that is unavoidable. It’s not like a judgmental or negative mirror, it just puts you in a whole new mindset of appreciation, or questioning, and of hoping that you’re doing the right thing and hoping that you’re the person you want to be.
So four months later, we started doing pre-production, I think we were shooting 5 months later, and I brought a whole new element of understanding of my parents, of my family, of my friends, of what I believed in, of what I wanted and, on top of that, I was extremely emotionally open and more vulnerable. There were a lot more exposed nerves, which I think all the actors really were kind enough to bond to and understand my situation and realize, “Oh, my God. We can make something really personal and poignant.”
In the film, your character John has to deal with a very real fear of what kind of parent he’s going to be. Did that feel really personal to you?
Yeah. Exactly. It’s a realization. Some of the best advice I’ve ever got is true and I live by it every day — anticipate nothing, because it’s always worse in your head. The most helpful thing you can do is just to experience it and try to go with whatever’s happening in the moment. You’re going to make mistakes or it’s going to go great sometimes, but either way it’s happening in the moment. Your version of it is terrifying.
I’ve always wanted to be a dad, and my parents are my heroes, so I just wanted to be a quarter as good of a parent as they are. My fear was, “Oh, my God. Am I going to be a good dad?” Now whether or not I’m a good dad is up for debate still, but what I do know is the commitment level and the level of love that you feel is there, whether you’re ready for it or not. That’s what is so powerful about it.
You’ve got Character Actress Margo Martindale as the big emotional center of your film.
That’s from “Bojack Horseman”! So Margo got a call from Will Arnett, and he said, “Can you be in this show?” and she said, “No, I’m too busy,” and he said, “No, you have to be,” and she said, “No, don’t bully me,” and he goes, “No, you have to be, because we named a character ‘Character Actress Margo Martindale.'” [laughs]
How did Margo come to the project?
When Jim wrote the script, he wrote it with her in mind. I’ve always been a big fan of Margo. Believe it or not, my first job ever was a Marshall’s commercial with Margo Martindale. I was 18 or 19 at Brown University and I just went to an open call for this thing. So I’ve loved and admired her forever.
I don’t know who doesn’t think she’s one of the best actresses around, but she’s been very honest and open about how roles like this sometimes elude her, because it’s more of a character role and this is sort of a very strong leading lady role for her. She crushes it, as you know she would. The funny thing about getting Margo first, and this is all true, Richard Jenkins read the script and he was like, “Yeah, I like the script. If you get Margo Martindale, I’ll do it.” It was just that simple and he was like, “If you don’t, then good luck with the film.” So we got Margo, which means we got Richard, and then when you have those two people who are — as an actor, they’re like catnip. It’s like, if you could be around them — just like even if you could be at craft services while they’re working — that would be great. I think Anna signed on like 30 seconds after knowing about Margo and Richard and the script. After that, the cast assembled really quickly, which was awesome.
Having that sort of cast lined up must have made directing much easier for you.
Yeah, 100 percent. Listen, I forget who it was… was it Scorsese that said like 90 percent of directing is casting, something like that? [Note: It was Robert Altman.] I’m sure I got the number wrong, but it’s true. It’s a lot of stress.
The casting process is terrifying, because if you don’t get your first choice, then all of a sudden it’s starting to become less and less of the movie you had in your head. I luckily got all the people I wanted, so that was huge for me and it does take a great weight off you. Also, you start feeling really comfortable and confident, because this story, that is a smaller story, has much bigger potential. But only if it’s brought to life the way everybody thinks it can be. It could have been a melodramatic version of that story, and the reason why it’s not is because of people like Margo, Richard and my cast.
The film clocks in around 90 minutes, which feels appropriate for this material. Were you always aiming to keep it around that runtime?
You’re responsible on every level. You’re responsible for deciding on clothes and deciding on what the set looks like and what the shot looks like. You have that responsibility and, in the editing process, I think it becomes ten-fold. The editing process is the most important process, because you have to get your movie in there. A movie should be exactly what it needs to be.
If you’re showing me a three-hour movie, it better be because there’s no version of a two-hour movie that would be as good. That’s fine. I feel like with a movie like this, that’s dealing with light-hearted, uplifting stuff, but also some heavy stuff, you don’t want to lose people in the sort of monotony of “this is getting too much or too boring.” You want it to feel exciting and tight and moving fast, so I knew the lower the number we could get without being crazy- If we could get it below 100, certainly, but 90 I think is the sweet spot for this kind of movie.
A movie is a spectacle — you are entertaining. The challenge is not to lose your audience. You have to hold on to them the whole time, and I hope that’s why this movie is so powerful to people, because by the time it’s over you’ve gone through so many rollercoasters of emotions that you go, “That was a good experience.”
Even within that time, the film makes room for a host of different relationships. Another version of this movie would focus only on you and Becca, or you and your mom.
Exactly, but that’s not real life. Emotions and life happen all at once. That’s what’s so great about what Jim did. I credit the script for giving all those moments to all those characters. Even Charlie [Day]’s character could’ve been used as a comic foil, but by the end you kind of feel bad for him, too, because he is fighting for his wife and threatened by me coming home. The script I credit mostly, and the other key element is the performances.
After I saw the film yesterday, I tweeted that I could already predict that some people would deride the film as being “Sundance-y.”
When did that become a bad thing? I feel that’s why we’re here. All these movies wouldn’t be here if “Sundance-y” was a bad thing.
This time of year, audiences have sort of been hammered by these heavy features, but here’s a movie about someone’s mom getting a brain tumor, and it somehow avoids being so heavy and weighty.
I think that’s sort of the responsibility that you have when you’re telling a story, is to believe in it and tell a story that you can stand behind. I think as much as they are so many good movies that are complicated, huge, superhero-y — there are so many different genres. But sometimes these smaller movies are really what you need, because they make you feel good.
I think that words like “sentimental” or “charming” or something like that are not words to shy away from. Those are things that are going to make you feel good and, sometimes on a Friday night, you don’t want to go see a complicated thriller about real life that might be scary to you. You might just want to see a movie about family that makes you think. I always grew up loving those movies. I loved “Terms of Endearment,” and that’s sort of one of the touchstones I was really going for.
Are these the kind of films you want to be keep directing and starring in?
No. I mean, this was a very different movie than “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.” “Brief Interviews” was almost like a cinematic experience, a lot more art-house-y, I’d say, but this was a linear narrative and, like I said, this is a part of me. I love charming, heartwarming and uplifting stories. I also love cutting non-fiction, tell-the-truth kinds of stuff, too, so I think the next one I might jump into another pond.
I would love to do a non-fiction, true story about — you know, I love stories about character and conflict. Not the easy conflict like, “Is he going to defeat the bad guys?” but almost more of like what we did in “Promised Land,” a character who is trying to figure out how he feels about the world as he goes along. So I think I’ll jump into that kind of thing next.
You’re currently starring in “13 Hours,” which is a large-scale action movie from Michael Bay. Did you ever picture yourself as an action star?
I don’t know if I pictured myself as an action star, but I always wanted to do a movie like that. I come from a big military family, and that story, again, for me, it’s not about action or drama or comedy, it’s about where the good story is.
Listen, “The Office” for 10 years was a great story, and I’m so honored to be a part of it, and then in a completely different way, this was a really great story and an important story and something I really believed in and with the political landscape as it was, I said, “I just want the opportunity to tell a story about real heroism aside from politics.” We can always talk about politics, but let’s talk about the human story that’s been overshadowed, and that’s why I wanted to jump into it.
I would love to do more action stuff and bigger stuff. Getting in shape like that is something I was always wanted to do, and I understand that people need to see it. If I said before, “I can be in a Marvel movie,” they’re like, “Ehhh.” Then when you make a transformation like I did for “13 Hours,” then people are like, “Oh, I can actually see it happen.” So hey, here’s hoping.
Your wife also underwent a physical transformation for “Sicario” this year.
She was doing it before me. You know, it’s funny, my wife inspires me in every level of my life, but for that particular instance, I got to see how much hard work and dedication it took. I didn’t have that three week period of like, “Oh, my God. This is so hard.” It was like, “Oh, my God. I got a job to do and I have to do it fast and really work at it.” So she really inspired me and showed me how it works.
“The Hollars” will premiere later this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.