The arrival of “Full Grown Men” in limited release this week marks a belated emergence for a film not unlike the delayed maturity of the film’s downtrodden protagonist. Directed by David Munro, “Full Grown Men” (the winner of this year’s indieWIRE: Undiscovered Gems audience award, sponsored by Sundance Channel and presented by The New York Times and Emerging Pictures) tracks the psychological progress of Alby (Matt McGrath), a thirty-year-old stargazer woefully nostalgic for his salad days. Abandoning his wife before the opening credits, Alby finds his old childhood pal Elias (Judah Friedlander of “30 Rock“) and together they take a road trip that allows both to work through their various neuroses.
Brightly contemplative with wholly believable character arcs, “Full Grown Men” displays a rare form of accessibility in its comedic construction. The character have credible motivations, allowing the story to address a real issue without condescending to it. Munro spoke with indieWIRE about the long two years he spent trying to get the film into theaters, and why he thinks it deserves to be there.
iW: What expectations did you have as far as getting your film noticed on the festival circuit?
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Our hopes dovetailed with the way market has gone for films like ours. When I went to film school in the nineties, I met all these people who were making movies and getting them sold. By the time I got a chance to direct my own movie, the landscape had changed so much in terms of sales. That became increasingly apparent as we had success but were unable to sell the film. After we premiered at Tribeca (in 2006), a lot of industry people saw the movie there and liked it. It was a hard movie to get a consensus on. The way things have gone, it’s almost like Hollywood-lite: Unless you have bankable stars or some other kind of marketing hook, it’s pretty clear that all the specialty studios have become so risk-immersed that they can’t even consider a movie like ours, even if they love it. I can’t tell you how many people said, “We’d have to put a million dollars on your movie just to create some kind of awareness for it.”
iW: So what kept you going?
We believed in the movie, so we kept making sure no stone was unturned. We had an industry screening in L.A., and we kept going out to festivals, and we kept changing our marketing approach and how we positioned the film: Different posters, eight different synopses and log lines. At some point, about a year into our festival run, we started talking about some sort of self-release, and our investors were supportive of that. They understood how things were. That was right around the time (Emerging Pictures CEO) Ira (Deutchman) contacted us and said he wanted it in his film series. We were the last film chosen for that. In so many ways, we feel like we were the last person at the dance to get picked up.
iW: You don’t have huge stars in the film, but Alan Cumming, Amy Sedaris and Judah Friedlander are certainly known for their film and television work. That must have helped on some level.
Yeah, on some level. We would say, “Come on! Amy Sedaris has a huge, rabid fan base!” And they would go, “Really? How did ‘Strangers with Candy‘ do at the box office?” You’re still talking about people who have more cult appeal than mainstream cross-over appeal. What constitutes a name has changed a lot, too.
iW: How important was the support of the community in the film’s progress?
We definitely take a lot of pride in the fact that what ultimately helped us was critics and audiences. I would hope that we’re smarter enough to know if people didn’t like the film and we were flogging a dead horse. From festival to festival, we saw how audiences responded, and people at Q&As going, “Why don’t you have distribution?” Then we got these great reviews.
iW: You started out on the festival circuit the same year as Little Miss Sunshine, a quasi-independent film that became a major hit. Both movies are bittersweet, but yours does a better job of creating that tone.
We feel like we succeeded at that. If it had been a laugh-out-loud, or just outwardly quirky and weird, like “Napoleon Dynamite” or something, it would have helped. Greg Kinnear and Steve Carell helped a lot in the case of “Little Miss Sunshine.” When Fox Searchlight bought that movie, they really marketed it like a big movie. Those yellow posters were everywhere.
iW: Considering the actors you used, it could have been an over-the-top comedy. How did you get comedic actors like Friedlander to restrain their performances?
I think they got it from the script. They were all attached for a long time, and we’d had conversations with them already, so they understood. The structure of the story did a job of framing the scenes that did go over-the-top. It pulled them back in when it needed to. For Amy, I don’t know if that’s possible. She was her outrageous self, and that was great. Judah was attracted to the film because it was more of a dramatic role, and he was excited about the opportunity to flex those muscles. He’s really a wonderful dramatic actor and has great instincts. I wasn’t slamming lids on people left and right.
iW: You could follow these characters on many adventures. Did the personalities come first or did you always know what story you wanted to tell?
It’s a good question. The guys I grew up with, we were very tight. We even knew back then that it wouldn’t always be like this. We wouldn’t always call each other every day and just goof off. We had a sense that life would be different. At the same time, we fantasized that we would keep going like this forever. I drew from that, in terms of creating these characters, and in distilling characters from that group, it made sense that there was one guy who grew up and one guy that didn’t — and the conflict was past versus present.
iW: How much of the film is based on your life?
There was a definite point when the comedy of these two guys who reunite for a return-to-the-past road trip led me to look around and see, in a more socially observant way, how my friends’ lives and mine were different from our fathers. In some ways, we were freer and more creative — the good side of remaining child-like — but in other ways it was kind of pathetic. I think that’s where the bittersweet element came from, and the character of Elias, who is the anti-Alby. It’s not a coincidence we made Elias a teacher of special ability kids; Alby’s a bit of a special ability case himself — stunted, socially challenged, and dependent.
iW: Do you think the film fits into a certain genre?
From the beginning, we’ve had a hard time staying out of the “men who can’t grow up” box. We see the film as being much more about nostalgia, and a generation looking back instead of forward. Our first reviewer, Bilge Ebiri in New York Magazine, said he almost didn’t see the movie because he thought it was going to be “Failure To Launch 2.” He ended up really liking it. Extended adolescence and pathological nostalgia are not unrelated, but Alby’s definitely not the cute Hollywood man-child who charms everyone with his precocious brand of impishness. The road trip ends up being Oz-like in that way, with a dash of “A Christmas Carol.” A second try at the coming-of-age gauntlet. And, of course, Elias’s alternate version of the same history is the truth that finally breaks the spell. Our abiding image for Alby has always been the kid at the birthday party who’s still sitting there in his paper hat blowing a noisemaker long after everyone else went home.