Writer/Director Liz Tuccillo debuted her feature romantic comedy Take Care at SXSW, and we really enjoyed it. Liz was a writer and story editor on Sex and the City, as well as the co-author of the book He’s Just Not That Into You, which received a feature treatment in 2009. Take Care is her first feature film in the director’s chair, and she was kind enough to chat with me about creating the story and some of the adventures of directing.
WARNING – this interview does contain some spoilers for Take Care, which is still seeking distribution. A little primer: the film stars Leslie Bibb (Iron Man) as Frannie, who has just gotten out of the hospital after being hit by a car, but still requires significant assistance as she deals with continuing physical ailments. After her friends and sister prove incapable of providing the kind of care she needs, she half-cons her ex-boyfriend, Devon (played by The Newsroom‘s Thomas Sadoski), into caring for her, much to the unease of Devon’s jealous girlfriend.
And we’re in.
Tim: This movie doesn’t really work if you can’t sell that Frannie’s options are pretty much exhausted in terms of caregivers, and that Devon agrees to help. I thought the movie did that, and I’m curious what you were conscious of, specifically, going into the shoot to make that work.
Liz: Oh my god, I was obsessed with that, it was one of the single biggest concerns of the whole film. Basically the biggest challenge was to really make the audience understand that she was at the end of her rope. At the same time, you wanted to get to Devon’s entrance as quickly as possible, because the feeling is that’s when the story kind of starts, when it kicks in. So there was a constant balance of how much story you need to tell to earn Devon coming without it being so long that you feel like you’re in a different movie when he shows up.
Tim: Sure, and part of what went into that was Frannie’s friend Leila getting the call and having the breakup over the phone. That was a really funny scene, was there a story behind that scene making it into the movie, or writing the scene in the first place?
Liz: We shot a lot of scenes that were either completely cut or really edited down just for time that had nothing to do with the performances of the actors. That scene was really a tour de force performance by [Marin Ireland] that was really a three or four page scene that was basically her talking. It was so great. And that day, I wanted to give her an award, it was so fantastic. But then when we cut it together, we realized that with the full version it felt like the whole film kind of stopped for a moment in a way that wasn’t great for the pacing and drive. We really went for it with that scene. That was one of the more difficult scenes to figure out.
Tim: Did you write the screenplay differently knowing you were going to be directing this film?
Liz: Yeah, I did. I knew that there was some dialogue that if maybe I didn’t love, I knew the actors could make better if I got the right actors. I knew that there was some dialogue that would have to be almost fitted to the actors, so I kind of let some stuff sit where maybe I might not have normally. And then I make it very technically simple, simple locations, because I knew it was going to be my first film.
Tim: You’ve been around sets before for both TV and movies, and you talked a little bit about this at the [post-screening] Q&A last night. Was there a moment where you went, Oh my god, I’m the director now, what the hell am I supposed to be doing?
Liz: Yeah. Every day. Every day when I woke up I was like, what is happening? Literally every day I went, this is all on me. It was terrifying.
Tim: But a happy experience overall?
Liz: You know, I wouldn’t say happy to be quite honest, but I’d say thrilling. And I would say super-satisfying. But happy? I don’t know. It was a little too stressful for me to say “happy.” But it was really thrilling, and really satisfying. I really do love actors, and I love getting the chance to work with them directly in a way you really don’t when you’re a writer. So that was really fun. And I’m trying to think of one particular moment when I thought, What the hell is happening, but I can’t right now. But the day after I finished shooting, when we had wrapped, the morning after I woke up and for a moment I thought I had to go on set. And I was seized with this incredible anxiety and panic, and then I realized that we weren’t shooting anymore. It really made me realize what level of stress I was under because of how I shot up out of bed in that moment of panic. So I was like, wow, that’s actually how I’ve been living for the past three weeks.
Tim: Near the end of the movie there’s the scene where Devon and Frannie finally get together, and it’s super, super funny because Devon’s having to deal with all these injuries that Frannie has, but what really struck me was the reservation of that whole sequence. A lot of similar movies have, I think, the tendency to make sex a major feature of the characters’ relationships, and while it’s important here, we only see them intimate briefly. Instead of having an extended affair, there’s this one sex scene that’s the climax of the movie, but most of the focus is on the rest of how the characters relate to one another. Could you talk about that decision both as a writer and as a director.
Liz: Well, I think that in a way it was a relationship sort of in reverse. It was a romantic comedy in reverse a little bit in that usually the couple are meeting and seeing each other at their best and most beautiful and then getting together. So therefore the sex is emphasized because it’s the culmination of this incredibly romanticized dance that’s been going on. In this situation, the couple are sort of at their worst, and they’ve already been together. There’s a bigger mountain to climb, in a sense. When they have sex, it’s still sort of tainted by the fact that [Devon] actually has a girlfriend. It was actually quite tricky to figure out how to make something that was romantic, that you’re rooting for, but at the same time you don’t hate anybody involved. It had to have a sort of abandon for your to believe that they could not think about his girlfriend in the moment but at the same time, afterwards, you know reality is going to sink in. So it was sort of a tricky dance. That’s also why it’s not super graphic, because you just wanted to see enough to know that they were getting carried away. The more you stayed on it, the more you’d probably start feeling bad for his girlfriend.
Tim: And you’re still able to pull for these characters because Devon goes and tells his girlfriend right away.
Liz: Exactly. And when we talked ab0ut the sex scene, I remember saying to our DP that I wanted it to be romantic, and awkward, and sexy, and funny. So that was what I was trying to get at, trying to touch all the bases.
Tim: Related to all that, this is a romantic comedy, and that’s something that you have experience with both in TV and in books, but was there any sort of a genre trapping that you made a point of staying away from with Take Care?
Liz: The main thing about romantic comedies, I find, is that the characters have become so unbelievable, and the situations that they’re put in are so unbelievable. For the bigger budget romantic comedies, everyone is now so cute. Locations are so gorgeous, so cute in some way that there’s no believability any more. So my whole goal was that I wanted to make a love story that was funny but really believable, and that every moment was really earned. That was sort of the main impulse, was that I wanted you to feel like you were really watching a couple close up, falling in love in this little apartment.
Tim: Speaking of the little apartment, Frannie at one point says she’s sort of getting cabin fever from being on the couch for so long. Did that ever happen to either Leslie Bibb or the crew, having to shoot on that same location every single day?
Liz: Yeah, I though – silly me – that it was going to be just so relaxing to shoot in the same place every day, to know where you’re going, and how smart it was for just a small budget film to shoot in the same space. And that was all true. But at the same time, everybody got a cold. We were immediately all sick together because we were in this closed space together. Leslie was pumping vitamin C into all of us because actually she and Tom were the ones who didn’t get sick. Yeah, every day the space got smaller and smaller-feeling. And coupled with that was the big issue that it was the apartment of a friend of mine, and she was a new friend which made it even more stressful, she wasn’t and old friend. And she gave me her apartment while she was away. So I was just really worried that we would trash the apartment, as film crews do in apartments. Really the longer you’re somewhere, the less careful you are. So in the beginning everybody was so careful, but after, like, week two, no one was careful, so I had to get even more mindful of that as well. So it did sort of stress me out a little, like we were being closed in, like the walls were closing in.
Tim: That’s kind of incredible that you got the camera and lights and crew and everything in an apartment like that.
Liz: Yeah, and again, that’s just the beauty of being naive. I was like what’s wrong? Of course there’s room! What’s the big deal? And my producers, who are much more experienced than me, sort of looked at the space and were like, “Okay…..I think we can do this….” We were spilling out into the hallway and spilling out onto the street. Craft services was on the street. At one time one of our costume assistants was out in the street with a sewing machine in Harlem at midnight getting the costumes ready for the next day. And I was like, oh, so we really are taking over the neighborhood.
Tim: That’s incredible. So I guess last question, changing gears quite a bit. I think a lot of people in the audience were curious about how Devon and Jodie met, and the history that led to that. I don’t think it’s something the film really goes into, and isn’t necessarily part of the story between Devon and Frannie, but did you ever write out how Devon and Jodie met?
Liz: Yeah, there are actually some lines in the scene where they’re all together, but we cut it out. She says something like, “Oh, well, we met at a party, and if I hadn’t been at that party there would have been no Jodie and Devon.” In my mind, they had been to some fancy party at the same time, and she looked gorgeous, and she was cute and funny. And the rest was history.