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Tribeca: Courteney Cox On How David Fincher Helped Shape Her Directorial Debut, and Why She Won't Crowdfund

Indiewire By Melina Gills | Indiewire April 28, 2014 at 12:24PM

Courteney Cox sat down with Indiewire to discuss the surprising ease of shooting her directorial debut, working with the writers on "Friends" and "Cougar Town," and the changing face of television over the past twenty years.

Ever since becoming a household name as Monica on the hit sitcom "Friends," Courteney Cox has been a persistent screen presence, most notably in film for her recurring role as the feisty survivor Gale Weathers in the "Scream" franchise. She currently enjoys a devoted fan base for starring in the TV comedy "Cougar Town," for which she also produces and often directs. It is no surprise, then, that Cox has now turned to filmmaking, with first the Lifetime movie "TalhotBlond" and most recently her theatrical feature debut, "Just Before I Go," which premiered last week at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. 

The film follows Ted (Seann William Scott) as he returns to his hometown to settle some unfinished business before committing suicide. Comedy ensues, as he develops new relationships and becomes more involved in the lives of his family -- particularly his unfiltered policeman older brother (Garret Dillahunt) and teenage nephew (Kyle Gallner), a closet homosexual with a knack for drawing penises. It's a family comedy that few, if any, families will sit down to watch together, but Cox would not have it any other way, smiling as she told audiences at the premiere that it would "for sure" be given an R rating.

Cox sat down with Indiewire to discuss the surprising ease of shooting her directorial debut, working with the writers on "Friends" and "Cougar Town," and the changing face of television over the past twenty years.

What made you nervous at last night’s premiere?

Going up there and seeing people watch the movie at a festival where they’re expecting something. I don’t know; I just got really nervous. I just introduced it again and got nervous again. I meant to say that Coco [my daughter] sang the opening song, but I forgot!

What made this the script with which to make your directorial debut?

It kind of shows that when you think that something is going on with you, you realize, as you look out, that everyone is struggling and we have all have our issues. I was also drawn to the hilarity and subversive humor. Between the heartfelt stuff and the crazy obscure humor -- it was perfect for my personality. It's grounded yet outrageous.

"Usually suicide and cunt jokes don’t really go together."

Did you add anything?

No. Yes -- we worked on it. The script was written, but we had many different meetings with David Flebotte. We continued to work on it until we shot it, and even afterwards, trying to find the tone for people to understand that it's okay to follow Seann William Scott's life as he wants to end it. To have sympathy for him but know it's okay to laugh. Usually suicide and cunt jokes don’t really go together. When you know that something is funny, and you’re okay with telling that kind of offensive humor, then you push the envelope. There were few times when we thought to cover it a different way. The Garret line about the "retard"-- it's terrible, but it fits with this character that doesn't really realize the place he's in and how he comes across until other people let him know. He learns; at the end of the movie, he comes full circle, but he's still going to say it how it is in his mind without realizing that it's offensive.

He’s very funny in the film.

He's great. I love him. Garret Dillahunt. I worked with him on "TalhotBlond." [Until then,] I don't think he's ever had a part where he's in every scene in the movie. He plays a character Thomas Montgomery, and to see him transform himself was crazy. There are very few actors where you can say, with surprise, "That guy was that guy?" He was the guy on "Dead Wood" who played two different characters. You just get lost. I will always work with him.

How did you meet?

My manager said I should check him out. He was in "The Assassination of Jesse James." It was a very small part, but when he came on screen, he nailed it.

What most surprised you about directing?

What surprised me was that it didn't make me nervous. I was more nervous the first time directing "Cougar Town" thinking about how I was going to bring something different and be as fast as possible. Nobody wants to be there longer than you have to. You just want to do your job. It becomes not necessarily a nine to five job, but something you're used to doing. No one is looking to reinvent the wheel; you just try to be funny and go home.

[With "Just Before"] I feel like there's so much freedom with telling your own story. I didn't have anyone to answer to. I knew what I wanted to do and just did it, and it came naturally to me.

You had mentioned in an earlier interview that you received notes from David Fincher. Can you share some?

I sent him the movie. First of all, he helped me a lot with "TalhotBlond," with getting me to focus on what I wanted it to look like. He puts things simply so you go in with a really strong vision. That was the first time I had directed, so that was really an important four hour dinner that he had with me. I sent him this movie, and he was very encouraging, but it was about tone. So I ended up doing some reshoots -- just one day, in my backyard, just to try to condense it and not give so much background. It was too dramatic, and there wasn't as much humor at the beginning of the movie. So I tried to condense it and tell the story as fast as possible but still giving you a sense of his living in the middle, without passion or aspirations. [Fincher] was very helpful with asking me, "What do you want the audience to feel right now, at this moment?"

On "Friends," what role did you play in defining Monica?

Monica is pretty defined. She's extremely competitive, extremely neurotic, and extremely neat.

Did you put any of that in?

Marta Kauffman, one of the creators, was very similar to Monica, so she was created around what she considered herself to be like. You end up hanging out a lot with the writers, and then they write to your strengths and what they see. The same thing with "Cougar Town." Bill Lawrence came over my house, and I poured him a glass of wine, and he said he had to walk like this [mimics sticking her hands out very far to hold the glass] because the glass was so high, so now Jules drinks wine, and I give a blessing every Sunday with all my friends. Every time there's a Thanksgiving show, she's always giving a blessing. There's always someone going, "Oh my God. Stop saying a blessing," just like [Lawrence] would. Writers always notice things and take from their own life as well as the person who is playing them. Monica was developing over the years, and then she became very clear. Our lines were not really interchangeable on that show. That's always important; you don't want a character where anyone can say the line on the show.

So not much improvisation?

On "Friends," not so much. Those writers were amazing. Of course we would have pitches, but we would pitch it and then it would go into the script. It wouldn't just be a free for all that night. The writers were there, when we had the audience, and they would come in between takes and say, "Try this line, try this line." It was very free, but free within a structure.

Did you want to direct then?

No, not back then. David Schwimmer directed a few episodes, but that didn't appeal to me -- doing four-camera. I don't know why. I just wasn't interested then. I suffer from acute awareness. I really notice my surroundings. Design is really important to me, and I love the way people live. I think that doing a film is so important to me to be able to take part in the set design, wardrobe, makeup, and acting. All of it was something I was obsessed with anyway. It was very hands on.

How has the TV landscape changed from "Friends" until now?

Someone was saying that the twentieth anniversary of "Friends" is in May. We had 52 million viewers. 52 million viewers! We're happy on "Cougar Town" if we get a million something. It's crazy. The landscape has changed because there are so many things, so many opportunities, which is the great part, but there's also so much competition. Now, it's tough. Things just go on the air and off the air. I've been lucky to have two television series that lasted --"Cougar Town" has been on for five years and "Friends" was on for ten. I did "Dirt" for two years. I kind of think that the show would have gone longer had there not been a writers’ strike in the middle of the second season. I think we were just getting our stride, and then there was a writers’ strike and no one could work.

What was the change like when "Cougar Town" switched from ABC to TBS?

We had a little more freedom, with content and everything. It felt like a fresh start, and I loved it. I loved the change. I think TBS is great -- they're open, they really supported us, they promoted it. It was really great. I don't know what's going to happen now, if it's going to get picked up or not. We're waiting. If not, I'll probably develop another series for myself and hopefully shoot something next year. And if it is picked up, I'm excited about that, and I'll go back to work in August. But either way, I'm going to direct something next year for sure.

A movie

Oh yeah.

Did you ever consider crowd sourcing?

No. I'm not comfortable taking things from people. However, investors would have been nice. I did get an investor at the end when I was already filming it. It helped out with the musical stuff, which costs much more than you expect. I lucked out and got three original Snow Patrol songs in the movie. That was so nice.  I just didn't feel comfortable raising money in that way. I think it's great for people, but I would have had too much pressure on myself.

"Friends" was my Kickstarter.

You're still friends with your "Friends" costars? Will you ever direct them?

I don't know. They're all great actors. I'm really close with Jennifer [Anniston] and Lisa [Kudrow]. I've worked with Matthew [Perry], who came to do an episode of "Cougar Town." [Matt] LeBlanc I've seen a lot. They're all great. I haven't seen [David] Schwimmer a lot, but that's because he lives in New York.

Would you consider doing a horror comedy like "Scream"?

I don't know about a horror one. I don't know if I could do that; maybe I could try to learn. But I think a psychological thriller that had comedic stuff would be great. I love thrillers. "Scream" was great. Wes Craven did such a great job. I love that movie.

Did you get pointers from him when you decided to direct?

No, not for this movie. But, I would. He's just a master at so many things and a great person. 

There's such a lack of female directors. Do you think that is changing? 

I don't know why there's a lack. There's a lack of a lot of things that women have not had the opportunity to do, but times really are changing. I think in the way we raise our children now. They're raised with such confidence and drive, so different, so hopefully that will change. I hope there are more women directors. I know I'm really sensitive and detailed. If women want to direct, they should be out doing it because it sure is fulfilling.

This article is related to: Courteney Cox, Interviews, Tribeca Film Festival, Tribeca 2014, Television, Just Before I Go