With the cancellation of the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, many of the filmmakers in its lineup were left wondering what might have been. Historically, SXSW tends to be a major platform for comedies that play well in the room, and in that vein, Kris Rey’s “I Used to Go Here” had serious potential.
The movie, which UTA planned to premiere as a sales title at the festival, has all the hallmarks of a breakout. Boasting a producing team that includes the Lonely Island trifecta of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone, “I Used to Go Here” stars Gillian Jacobs as a young novelist who returns to her alma mater to promote her work. Once there, she resurrects a complicated relationship with her old professor (a seedy Jemaine Clement), bonds with a boisterous group of undergraduates, and wrestles with the bumpy road to success that didn’t quite pan out as she’d hoped.
A charming character study doused in playful irony and bittersweet asides, “I Used to Go Here” was poised to hit big at the festival, fomenting an exciting new stage for the latest SXSW alumni on a trajectory toward telling stories on a larger scale. Her journey up to this point sits on a continuum with a generation of American filmmakers growing up and broadening their interests in the process.
Needless to say, it yielded a learning curve for Rey, who spent the last three years writing and gathering the resources for this new phase. “It wasn’t so premeditated, like, I want to write a commercial comedy,” she said in a phone interview from Chicago, but acknowledged the obvious. “As an individual, it doesn’t become financially sustainable to make independent films and that’s it.”
“I Used to Go Here” is certainly more of a Hollywood calling card than the category of microbudget, lo-fi filmmaking Rey brought to at SXSW over a decade ago, with her 2009 debut “It Was Great, But I Was Ready to Go Home.” That project, an hour-long drama made during an improvised trip to Costa Rica and self-financed for $10,000, co-starred the filmmaker and “Marriage Story” production designer Jade Healy. Needless to say, it suggested a very different sensibility.
The movie arrived within the deluge of microbudget American cinema stemming from SXSW’s ecosystem at the time, alongside work from the Andrew Bujalski, Barry Jenkins, Greta Gerwig, the Duplass brothers, Lena Dunham, and Rey’s ex-husband, Joe Swanberg. (The term “mumblecore,” while misleading, became a unifying descriptor for the scene.)
At the time, Rey relished the freedom of character-based filmmaking that prioritized texture over plot. Now, the Chicago-based filmmaker’s fourth feature is a striking contrast to her minimalist debut, and her sophomore effort, “Empire Builder,” from 2014. “I found making improvised films satisfying — it was fun to make something really collaborative — but I also found it really stressful, because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” she said with a laugh. “My first movie didn’t even have a third act! It was so frustrating to realize that I didn’t have the story figured out.”
By the time she made her third feature, the 2015 Sundance entry “Unexpected,” Rey’s interests had started to evolve. That movie, an insightful dramedy about an inner city schoolteacher who bonds with her teen student when they both get pregnant, generated minimal buzz at the festival — but it launched her on a journey that inspired the premise of her followup. “Playing Sundance and having a movie there is an incredible experience, but it’s not like my life changed overnight,” Rey said. “That’s the experience a lot of filmmakers have when they play Sundance — holy shit, my life’s about to change — and then you more or less go back to normal.”
Rey toured the festival circuit with the movie and made a stop at her alma mater, the Southern University of Illinois in Carbondale, where “I Used to Go Here” would take place. She found herself confronting an unusual dichotomy. “I’d talk to all these kids and realized they thought I’d fucking made it,” she said. “It allowed me to pretend that I was a really successful filmmaker whose dreams had come true. I started to wonder what it would be like to let yourself exist in that for a while.” That became the gist of the plot in “I Used to Go Here.”
However, the Sundance experience did work out for Rey in one classic way — it scored her an agent at UTA, and she sent him the first draft of the project. As Rey finished touring the circuit with “Unexpected,” she was whisked off to L.A. to meet with potential producers. Rey admitted that her experiences in the independent film community made her wary of making the rounds in Hollywood. “I had this impression that I’d be walking into a bunch of offices and meeting with a bunch of middle-aged white guys who didn’t get me,” she said. She was also wary of getting pigeonholed as a comedy director, and bristled when her agent included Party Over Here — the Lonely Island production shingle named after the comedy trio’s old late-night program — on the schedule.
“I was like, ‘yeah, I dunno, these guys make really silly stuff,'” Rey said. “I love it, but this is not ‘MacGruber.’ I wasn’t sure if this made sense.” That changed when Rey sat down with Becky Sloviter, the former Endeavor agent and television producer who had recently started as the Lonely Island’s head of production and development. By then, the Lonely Island had started exploring more sophisticated terrain than the dopey YouTube videos that put them on the map, with tonally sophisticated work like the 2017 dark Sundance entry “Brigsby Bear” and the nostalgic teen coming-of-age series “PEN15” for Hulu. (The company also produced the 2020 Sundance hit “Palm Springs,” which stars Samberg and sold to NEON and Hulu at the festival for a record-breaking $22 million.)
Sloviter said she was used to navigating expectations — and turning a lot of comedies down. “Anything that comes to us in the vein of Lonely Island is easy to pass on,” she said. “Nobody does what they do better than them.”
Instead, the team had been looking for sensibilities they couldn’t replicate, and hoped to support a female filmmaker. “They’re all great feminists and wanted to tell a different kind of story,” Sloviter said, adding that she saw potential in “I Used to Go Here” because it evaded obvious punchlines. “The story was powerful without being heavy-handed, which is Kris’ superpower. She’s such a natural filmmaker. Everything feels so real — it was never heightened or cheesy.”
The “superpower,” however, stemmed from the specificity of Rey’s background — first as a fledgling documentary filmmaker, and then as the director of low-budget movies devoid of artifice. “From starting in this super-naturalistic landscape of my first two features, it’s been this kind of slow transition to traditional narrative,” she said. “I’m always thinking of what a real person would say or do in this situation. Even though this movie has these funny, outlandish moments, for me, it had to be grounded in naturalism — people who feel like real people.”
The premise of “I Used to Go Here” looked pretty standard on paper, so Rey and Sloviter struggled to find financial support for the project, but eventually found it with Jordan Yale Levine and Jordan Beckerman from Yale Productions. Sloviter said that route ended up being more constructive than trying to position “I Used to Go Here” in a studio context. “With any independent film being made, it’s an uphill battle to get the movie financed,” Sloviter said. “But without the parameters of working at a studio or making it big and expensive, Kris could have more freedom.”
Rey declined to disclose the final budget, but said it was still low enough to make her want to chase bigger opportunities. “I worked on this movie for three years and made a one-year teacher’s salary,” she said. “I can’t do that and nothing else.”
However, she added that her view on the potential of working in the studio system had evolved for other reasons as well. “Everyone wants something new and different and hot, but they’re afraid to pull the trigger,” she said. “That’s why, in theory, they would want to hire someone from the independent film world.” She has passed on a lot of scripts, though she had signed on direct an episode of an upcoming TV project. “I’m more or less writing stuff that’s way more grounded, and about experiences that I would go through,” she said.
“I Used to Go Here” was set to premiere at SXSW on March 14, with a regional premiere at the Vail Festival in Colorado set to take place later in the month. Those are both off the table, but UTA continues to screen the movie for potential buyers. “Let’s hope that I have a public screening of this movie,” she said, and sighed. “I would really like that, at some point.”