After several cast changes and an eight-year journey to the screen, Matthew Weiner’s feature directorial Are You Here finally made its Hollywood premiere last night at the Arclight on Sunset Blvd. This Friday, Millennium Entertainment will unspool the film, which stars Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis and Amy Poehler, in limited theaters as well as on DVD.
“Like most of what I do, this is a genre-less film,” Weiner told the audience before the projector rolled, “Laugh where you want to laugh.”
Despite his reputation for creating the monumental, award-winning period TV drama Mad Men, Weiner’s uphill battle to get Are You Here made further underscores the challenges of getting adult feature dramas off the ground. With its comedic star wattage cast and a set-up that involves a crazed stoner (Galifianakis) inheriting a farm after his father’s death with his weatherman philandering friend along for the ride (Wilson); critics are classifying Are You Here as a comedy, and unkindly assessing the film according to their laugh meters. It’s an oversight on their part, because at it’s core, Are You Here is a complex adult drama with hints of Hal Ashby and James L. Brooks’ cinematic tones. It’s the type of film the studios use to make during the 1970s and 80s.
While Weiner wrote the film during his days on The Sopranos, circulating the script among the major studios was never part of the plan, even after his stock rose on Mad Men. “Everyone always knew it was an independent film, and everyone knew I had to have control over it. So, we did what everyone (indie filmmakers) does: We sought to secure talent,” Weiner told Deadline at the Are You Here after party.
And thus ensued the typical dilemma which many indie films contend with: In order for Weiner to secure financing, he needed talent; and for talent to sign on, agents needed to know that his financing was in place. Weiner, while working on Sopranos, found an early champion in the project with producer Gary Gilbert (The Kids Are All Right), who promised to commit to Are You Here when Weiner assembled the right cast. “I was driving around town, showing up at agent offices for various actors, saying ‘Gary won’t do it unless your client does it.’ You hope the talent will commit; then everyone does and something called money is brought up, and you got to ride that out. I had a short window and the movie was dying over and over again,” added Weiner, who after assembling a star trio, would watch them fall out due to scheduling. “Every hiatus from Mad Men, we tried to get together and make the movie,” said Gilbert. In 2009, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Aniston and Zach Galifianakis were attached to star. By the end of of Mad Men season 4 the following year, the rotation was Jack Black, Matt Dillon and Renee Zellweger. “It took me eight years to get Owen Wilson,” exclaimed Weiner who wrote the part of swaggering, philosophical weather man Steve Dallas with the actor in mind. Upon learning that Wilson was a fan of Mad Men, serendipity occurred for Weiner over dinner when he pitched the project to Wilson. Weiner was drawn to Wilson’s ability to play pathos, much like Bill Murray does in his dramedy feature turns.
Early on Gilbert secured Lionsgate International to handle foreign sales. After Lionsgate sold a certain percentage of territories, Gilbert agreed to make up the gap to move Are You Here forward. Galifianakis was heavily suggested to Weiner by Mad Men leading actor Jon Hamm. “Zach was the first of three (in the recent cast to commit), then Amy (Poehler) and last Owen (Wilson). Once we had Owen, everything fell into place,” explained Gilbert.
The film was shot in North Carolina, conveniently located 45 minutes from Galifianakis’ Sparta farm. “Gary was willing for me to do the movie, and then wait to do post on it after I finished a season of the show,” said Weiner who tapped a bulk of his Mad Men crew to work on the flim. Technically speaking in regards to Weiner’s canon, Are You Here is his second feature following a post college film he did in 1996 for $12,000 called What Do You Do All Day? The film starred his wife, Linda Brettler, (one of Hollywood’s leading architects who designed the offices of Odenkirk Provissiero Entertainment among other clients) and followed the story of a screenwriter who wants to write, but can’t get off the couch and turn off the TV.
Last fall, Are You Here landed a spot at the Toronto Film Festival, a feat that immediately raised speculation as to whether the title would play into awards season, however, the film received a tepid response from critics.
“What’s weird about Toronto is that the film actually played great there, and I’m so hypersensitive (to reception)” said Weiner, “People were coming up to me on the street. There were four reviews — two from the trades and two independent reviewers. None of them were at the premiere. They saw the film at a press screening. I wanted them to see it with an audience because the tone of the film is pretty complex. I wasn’t done with the movie, and then what became a factor following the festival was that distributors weren’t clawing over each other to get the movie. That was the part that surprised everyone, and for me, the film wasn’t complete yet.” In April, Millennium Entertainment finally announced the acquisition of Are You Here.
In the wake of the Toronto Film Festival premiere, Weiner explains that he changed Are You Here “quite a bit.”
“There’s a lot less music in it and the movie is longer. I slowed it down a little bit. It seems like one would want the movie to move faster, but I embrace the fact that this is a film that is an emotionally-layered, heavy story. In addition, when your composer (Mad Men‘s David Carbonara) says that there’s too much music in the movie, you should listen,” said Weiner.
While Weiner is known to rip a page or two from his child memory of the 1960s for Mad Men, one wonders about his personal connection to a story that involves a bipolar stoner (Galifianakis), his uptight sister (Poehler), their hippie stepmom (Laura Ramsey) and a self-centered weatherman (Wilson).
“In ways I don’t want to reveal, I’m vicerally connected to the story. I don’t have their problems, but I know people who have their problems. There’s a lot of me in them, including Amy and Laura’s characters. I try not to judge my characters, and there are four who are very flawed,” said Weiner.
Nonetheless, the director writer isn’t bruised by the long haul with Are You Here, and could potentially direct another feature again. But for the time being, with Mad Men‘s season 7.2 already in the can, Weiner is focusing on post for that series’ last set of fireworks.