Meet Chris Kelly, the Director Who Finally Gave Molly Shannon an Oscar-Worthy Role -- and Once Hugged Beyonce!
By John Boone
Chris Kelly breezes into H Coffee House, the Los Feliz joint where we're meeting, and tucks himself into a back table. Over an hour, an iced coffee and a barely picked-at scone, we discuss all the films that have made us cry and never once mention his movie. That's the introduction Chris Kelly and I workshopped together for this piece. It's half true. (Don't overanalyze the scone.) But my cohort in coffee is one of those voice-of-a-generation-types -- my words -- so it's impossible for talk not to turn to his work.
Kelly has written for Funny or Die and Broad City and is six times Emmy nominated for his work on Saturday Night Live, where he and his writing partner, Sarah Schneider, were recently promoted to co-head writers for the upcoming season 42. If you don't know his name, you know his sketches: "(Do It on My) Twin Bed," "Bar Talk" with Hillary Clinton, and "The Beygency" -- the latter of which led to an interaction with Beyoncé that was, he says, like "the end of Titanic." Now, he is breaking away from the pack and into movies with his autobiographical directorial debut, Other People, about a struggling comedy writer, David (Fargo's Jesse Plemons), who returns to his childhood home when his mother (Molly Shannon) is diagnosed with cancer. Kelly wrote the first draft of the script on a break from SNL in the summer of 2012 and, on Sept. 9, it arrives in theaters. Between then, the film has had its world premiere at Sundance, screened at the Nantucket and Seattle International Film Festivals and, when Kelly sat down for a conversation with ET, had just closed out Outfest.
How many times have you seen Other People during screenings? God, it's a lot. It's embarrassing. Maybe, like, 10 or so?
Do you sit through every screening? No. Not every screening at every festival, but I try to see it at least once at each festival. Sometimes I'll be like, "OK, I'm not going to watch it again. I just saw it." But it's still new to me, so I'm still giddy that I even got to make a movie that people are going to see. It's still exciting to me. I think sometimes the festival directors are like, "You're going to watch this again?!" I, like, pretend I'm going to leave and I walk out, I let them see me leave, and then I come back in. [Laughs] Then I'm hooked!
What is the emotional experience of watching the movie for you now, since it is so closely based on your life? It comes in waves. There are times when I watch it where I'm like, "Oh yeah, that's me, I guess. That's weird that I'm watching a movie about myself and my family." Then there are times when I don't. It's turned into this other thing -- I don't know how best to articulate it. It feels weirdly more personal and less personal now that it's finished. It's kind of turned into this other thing now that other people have seen it. I feel like a lot of people have been very nice at these Q&As and these festivals. They come up and they say how they've related to it, whether they have someone who has gone through cancer or they themselves are going through cancer. It's something that I should have [expected], because everybody's gone through it or will, unfortunately. So, it's turned into this other thing where it doesn't necessarily feel like, "Oh, this is my story."
There will be moments where I become super emotional. This is so lame, but there's a scene toward the end where the mother and the son are just talking, like, right at the end, and I wrote it and it's so sad. I got choked up watching it and then I was like, "You can't cry at your own f**king writing in front of all these people!" But sometimes I'm like, "That's my mother talking." There are times where I still hear my mom and so I'm like, "That's so sweet. I love that." And then there are times I watch it and think, "God, Molly is so f**king good," and I'm watching it as a fan.
It's not hard to be a fan of this cast. How did you pull together such a great cast? One of the main things I wanted early on, one of the first things I said was, "Everyone in the movie has to be funny. I want mostly comedians in it. I want people who have improv backgrounds. I prefer funny to, like, a good actor." I mean, we got people who are both! [Laughs]
So you're saying they're terrible-- You should see them! Terrible actors in my movie, but so funny! What's a good way to phrase that? I didn't want someone who was just a good actor but didn't have a sense of humor. I always love when you see a movie where you're surprised by people who you only see do comedy, and then you're like, "Oh my God! They're such amazing dramatic actors as well!" Molly and a lot of the supporting actors, like Paula Pell and Kerri Kenney and Matt Walsh, are legit fantastic actors who are known only as being funny or funny first.
When people said they would do the movie, I was so confused. I was so surprised and grateful, because we cast it one person at a time. Jesse Plemons was the first person to sign on, which was insane. He signed on maybe a year and a half before we even shot the movie. We had coffee and he was like, "I'll do it." And I was like, "What?! Why?!" And then it snowballed, and by the time we had the cast and you saw all the names, suddenly I was like, "Holy s**t! This is a movie!"
Obviously you're not trying to perfectly recreate your family onscreen, but what is the casting process like when you are casting actors to play real people in your life? I wasn't too precious in casting, being like, "Well, my sister looks like this, so we need to get an actress who looks like this." I didn't want to fall into a trap of being overly precious about recreating my life. I just wanted people who could be good and make the characters their own. If Jesse wanted to play the character in a way that became further away from me, I would have been down with that. He didn't want to. He was like, "Can I look at you? Can I mimic you? Can I study you? Can I use you as an example of how to play the role?" I was like, "Oh, you don't have to do that. You can make the character however you want. Don't feel obligated to do that, just because it's theoretically me." He was like, "Well, can it? Because as an actor, it's very rare that the person you're playing is there. It would be helpful to look at your mannerisms and the way you think and talk and move." I was like, "Yes, of course. You can." Then I would get self-conscious, because we are very different people. But I would watch him morph into me, and it was bizarre. On set, I would see sometimes between setups, he would watch me, and one time I noticed that he was watching how I sit and I was like sitting like this [Crosses legs], biting my nails nervously. I saw him look at me, so I spread my legs and I sat like a cool dude. And he saw me and he shouted at me from across set, "You don't sit like that!"
Anyway, I tried to not care about, "Ooo, someone's playing me! They gotta look like me or talk like me." But for my mother, I cared about it -- because that is the movie, and I really wanted to do that justice. I don't want to have made a movie that's ultimately a lot about my mother and then not feel like I see her in there in some way. My mom was very funny, very smart, very strong, very stubborn -- in a good way -- very smart-ass, just very dynamic. It is one of the things that I remember about that time with her. Obviously, it's sad when anybody dies, but I remember somebody who's so funny and who's a storyteller and loud. To watch somebody like that lose her voice and kind of wither away and pass away, when someone is so funny and so full of life and known to be the loudest one in the room and the funniest one in the room, to see that person go through that was extra difficult, and I wanted to make sure I cast someone who captured that.
I thought, in casting someone like Molly, "Oh, it would be nice, because the movie is so sad and there are moments that are tough and difficult, to have someone like Molly be so funny and full of life, who will actually bring levity to those scenes." And it actually does bring levity to the scenes, but it makes the scenes that much worse, because there are some actors or actresses that you expect to see be sick and die on camera -- that's their bread and butter, that's what they do -- but you've only ever seen Molly be so full of life. So, I think to see someone like her go through that in this movie is jarring. In a good way. In a bad way but in a good way, because it felt real to me, at least. In some ways it's not what you want, because it's like, "She's so funny! I don't want to see her die!" And I'm like, "Yeah! I know! It sucks."
But was it ever in the back of your head, like, "My sister is going to care who plays her..." My youngest sister wanted to be played by Jaden Smith, a black boy [laughs], and I was like, "Well...no." She was very like, "OK, it's gotta be someone very hot and cool." As a joke, but she was very into casting and would always send me people she wanted to play her. Then I finally told her, "Maude Apatow is going to play you,” and she was like "What?" Then she screenshot a bunch of pictures of Maude Apatow and sent them to me and was like, "Yes! This is good! I approve."
I feel like I would be bad. I would be so vain, especially if I had to cast myself. I'd be like, "Can we get Jake Gyllenhaal from Prince of Persia on the phone?" I never had a moment of vanity about that. If anything, I would've resisted that. I would have been too self-conscious. As much as I would tell my family that it's not literally actors playing themselves, I think once they saw the movie, they realized that there was a level of remove. They saw our mom, they saw our family and they saw big-picture things, but I don't think they ever saw themselves or anything.
Your family is less narcissistic than I am. Well, my grandparents were. My grandparents cared about who played them.
Was Molly someone that you thought of? Or was her name floated to you? No, I was on the Molly train right away. I love Molly Shannon. When I wrote the script, I just pictured the real people. Once there were very remote conversations like, "What would happen if we made this?" the first person I said was "a Molly Shannon type," because I didn't assume I would get her, necessarily, but that was my example. I loved her in SNL. She was always my favorite, because she was so exuberant and there was such a joy about her character. She was good at playing big and broad, but then all her sketch characters were also rooted in a real emotion.
A lot of her post-SNL work has been so lovely, too, like Enlightened and Year of the Dog. She's done these kind of small, nuanced, dramatic performances. But I was like, "That's not enough! Someone give her a full f**kin'…" I just want her to be in everything. Literally, as a fan, I've always been like, "Come on! Someone give it to her! Put her in more things!" Then I was like, "What if she did this?" And she said yes, and I lost my mind.
She might get the chance to be in more things, now that she is getting early awards season buzz for this movie. Her name has been thrown in the mix.
That's nice. I feel like I can't even comment on that because it feels too crazy, but that's very nice. She's just the best. I mean, I assumed she would be, because I was such a fan of hers. There was a weekend where they were like, "We're going to send her the script." And I think that night or the next night my agents were like, "She's read it and she's going to be calling you sometime soon." Then as soon as they had sent me that email, my phone was already ringing and it was her. We talked and it was a yes right away. We hung up and I started crying and then I called everyone in my family and I was like, "I think this will be good!” And the first day on set, the very first scene we shot, I was like, "Yep. Yep, this is it."
Now that the movie is finished, you'll be back at Saturday Night Live. You and Sarah have already had the opportunity to write sketches for Kate McKinnon's Hillary, but what does it mean to you to be there during an election season? It's so bats**t crazy. We are trying not to get too ahead of ourselves -- and this feels very gross to say, but we've had very many text exchanges where were like, "Don't get ahead of yourself, because -- knock on wood -- anything could happen. What if you-know-who wins…?" And we'll be like, "But! Writing night is on a Tuesday night. The election is on a Tuesday night. The three of us could all be at writing night when she wins and we get to write a sketch about that.” Then we'll just be like, "I'm crying! I'm crying!” Then we'll be like, "Don't get too ahead of yourselves. Because we could also be at writing night on the worst night in America."
But it's very cool. It's good to step back and remind ourselves a lot of times that this is such a very cool thing that we get to be a part of it. I remember watching the 2008 elections when I wasn't at SNL, with the Palin stuff, because I'd just loved SNL forever, and I remember thinking, "God, it would be so fun to be there during something like that!" It's cool to be there now and, like, having Larry David be Bernie Sanders was such a little cherry on top of the whole thing.
In the past year or two, I feel like every sketch of yours goes viral. Especially the ones about Beyoncé. Are you SNL's resident Beyhive member? That's all I write. I don't write any other sketches. I refuse to. [Laughs] We wrote that first "Beygency" one because I was here in L.A. and I was driving and a Beyoncé song was on the radio, and I turned the station to find something else and I immediately heard a cop car behind me, like, the sirens go off. I had a moment where I was like, "Am I getting pulled over for changing the station from Beyoncé?" It was just so fun, because it's nice when you can make fun of something but also have it be positive. There's so many ways to satirize something and have it be inherently negative, but I love that it was making fun of the Beyoncé culture but still being like, "She's amazing."
When we wrote the second one this year, the movie trailer about the day Beyoncé turned black, we were just so excited because we were like, "We figured out another Beyoncé idea!" So, it's Beyoncé first, and then we try to back into a joke about it, because every idea just starts with, "She's great! How do we write about that?"
This can just be for me, selfishly, but I need to hear every detail of it-- No, I would love the interview to start with this, actually! Don't talk about the movie! And then interview her for this, as well. We were at that 40th anniversary party for SNL and she was there. She wasn't at the show, but she was at the party. It was so funny, because it spread like wildfire that she was there. Literally one trillion people were there, and everyone was turned into trash when she walked in. Like, the most famous people in the world were garbage monsters. Everyone was like, "I don't care about all these f**kin' famous people." But literally I found out through my friend Sarah, I got a text and all it said was "She's here." It didn't say who it was, but I was like, "I know what you mean." You could just hear the room, like, ripple. Everyone was suddenly quietly trying to be cool but aware. I told my boyfriend, "She's here." And he knew who "she" was and he was like, "Well, we have to go meet her." And I was like, "Ew...we don't do things like that. That's gross. You'll meet plenty of famous people for the rest of my life. You don't want to be, like, a weird person." He's like, "Go up to her, and if the Beygency sketch comes up, you can say you wrote it." I was like, "How's the Beygency sketch going to come up?" But I was drunk enough and he was like, "I know you don't do this and I don't do this either, but if there's one person we're going to do it to, who is it going to be?" and I was like, "All right, I guess you can drag me over there, and if the sketch comes up..."
So, I thought we were going to casually stand by her. Instead, he marched right up to Beyoncé and said, "Beyoncé, my boyfriend wrote the Beygency!" Truly, just walked right up to her and he wasn't subtle. And she was so nice and was literally like, "You did? Me and my mom love that! We watched it so many times!" She hugged me and I was like, "Cool." I don't know what I said. And then I was like, "Oh, were you at the show tonight?" And she was like, "No, I'm sorry! I couldn't make it, but I'll watch it tomorrow online." And I was like, "You don't have to say you're going to watch it tomorrow online, like my mom or something. It's fine you didn't come to the show." But she's very nice. She's very friendly.
I literally walked away from the experience and there was a receiving line of my friends, almost sort of like at the end of Titanic, when Kate and Jack get together and they walk past everyone in their lives and everyone is applauding for them. That's what it felt like. I felt like everyone was like, "Congratulations, you've done what you've wanted to do." [Laughs] And I just heard, like, a ringing in my ear. I was truly so happy all night long.
[This interview has been edited and condensed.]
As for other Sundance standouts, check out an exclusive clip from Clea DuVall's directorial debut, The Intervention, a Bill Chill-esque dramedy about three couples who arrange a weekend getaway as a guise to stage a marriage intervention for their friends.