Stephen Karam’s claustrophobic family drama “The Humans” takes place in what, to a non-New Yorker, might resemble the most terrifying and uninhabitable apartment on the market: The paint’s peeling, light fixtures dangle precariously from the ceiling, and the only natural light seeps in through dirty windows looking out on the most depressing airshaft of all time. It makes Catherine Deneuve’s flat in “Repulsion” look like a luxury condo.
But the two-story, ground-level duplex is actually a pretty cush Lower East Side unit, and for Karam, who wrote and directed the film from his own 2016 play, it’s not so bad. That’s because he more or less lived in this place during his starving-artist days in New York City.
“The reason I was able to afford it as a playwright [with a] day job working as an assistant [was because] I lived in the basement. My roommate lived on the ground floor. The only thing I could see from my floor was the concrete, the drain, the cigarette butts that would get thrown,” said Karam in a Zoom interview out of a Central Park hotel room, a far cry from the space seen in the movie.
“It was an incredible space, but with a total lack of light,” he said. “Even the film cheats, there’s a little bit more [light], because I wanted the lighting to feel very filtered and natural and get to that delicious Gordon Willis ‘are they there or are they not there’ darkness. But I agree that it’s a great apartment. I’ll take all the water damage, all the peeling paint, and cockroaches.”
The movie centers on a family convening in the lower Manhattan apartment for the Thanksgiving holiday, as struggling avant-garde composer Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) plays hosts to her family (Richard Jenkins as the father, Jayne Houdyshell as her mother, Amy Schumer as her sister, and June Squibb as her dementia-addled grandmother) as a way of introducing them to her new boyfriend, Richard (Steven Yeun). But while each of these figures gets plenty of space to reveal themselves over the course of a fraught evening where buried truths are spilled and the specter of September 11 hangs over all, the main character in the film turns out to be the apartment itself.
In pitching the film to A24, Karam presented an exhaustive lookbook laying out his visual intentions, influences, and the structure of the decaying apartment itself, to then be recreated on a soundstage. (In the original Broadway production, the two floors of the apartment were stacked on top of each other, and visible to the audience.)
“The lookbook did involve a literal two-level diagram of the set. Think of it as… like a ‘Clue’ game board,” he said. “I didn’t know how to write the story without geographically orienting myself.” So he enlisted the help of Oscar-nominated production designer David Gropman (“Life of Pi,” “The Cider House Rules”), who “took what was useful about that, and in our talks, he started to think more literally. Because I actually knew the apartment that I lived in so well, he had a friend that had a very similar apartment, and a lot of the specific set that you see, including dimensions of the hallways, the exact type of arches that are in the spaces, ceiling height, my preoccupation with condensation on windows and dirt… I want to credit him… because he was as obsessive as I was.”
Prior to shooting in New York in September 2019, Karam had just one week with his cast to rehearse and block out how they would navigate the space. “The block is really informed by, when you’re in one space, the limitations of where the actors’ bodies can be,” Karam said. “I think I had them for four hours [a day], which goes by quickly, but in film, you’re grateful if everybody can say hi to each other before you start making the movie.”
He also said that kind of rehearsal time made him yearn for the bygone days when actors could really sink into the vibe of a movie, unfettered from busy schedules and other Hollywood chores. “I was reading Mike Nichols’ biography, when you read about these three weeks on ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ they were having dinner every night. You feel it in those performances in that movie. Where have those days gone?”
Karam said in the lead-up to the movie that he did wrestle over whether or not to direct the film, which he shaped out of his Tony Award-winning one-act Broadway play, but he said ultimately, “I did think I was the only person that could direct the version that I thought was the truth. So much of the story is this deeply naturalistic, ordinary thing that also has these elements of very quietly gleaming something bigger.”
He confessed that once he decided to direct, “that meant the budget shrunk,” and that in adapting the play, “a third of the dialogue went away” from the source material. “I have enough friends who are really incredible directors who were like, ‘You’re a director. You need to direct this.’ You see it, in other words. When you’re a first-time director, you don’t know when that threshold is. When should you start? Is it too late? I made movies when I was in eighth grade with abandon with my parents’ handheld camera, but just kind of stopped… in this case, I felt I could make a movie I thought was really in-tune with the guts of the thing.”
Bringing a stage-bound script to life with a camera also meant that Karam could more deeply channel his fascination for the little things that make the movie tick, and via hyper close-ups: “The way the cube of sugar is melting in [a cup of] of coffee, Richard seeing the Christmas lights in his cup of water. As somebody who loves absorbing stories, I was trying to connect the visual language to what I was feeling. It was this combination of just knowing the story well enough… to start to think about what’s the relationship of a frame or a picture that might get close to this thing that worked so well in this totally different medium that you can’t recreate, where everyone has a different vantage point.”
As for his cast, Karam said it was really a “dream set of actors.” That was aided in part by the return of Jayne Houdyshell, who reprised the role of matriarch Deirdre that won her a Tony. “She couldn’t recreate her performance, even though she had 600, 900 performances in her body of what she knew to be true about Deirdre. She had a new family, a new husband, new daughters, and she’s just too good an actress… that information just changes so much.”
He said, “The experience for me in getting a new family, as scary as it was, is also what helped the film feel like his own thing. They’re the kind of six people who have superpowers: They’re rangy, but they also have these magical qualities.”
“The Humans” is now in theaters and streaming on Showtime from A24.
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