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Other People: Chris Kelly Interview

3 June 2016 | Nick Chen

Comedy is often said to equal tragedy plus time, but few get to prove it with a semi-autobiographical movie at Sundance London. Chris Kelly will do just that at this year’s festival with Other People, a sombre comedy (he prefers the term “sombredy” to “dramedy”) that combines wit and pathos with such confidence, audiences will be surprised to learn it’s a directorial debut. Just 32 years old, Kelly is already a major TV writer whose credits include Saturday Night Live, Broad City and Onion News Network. But with Other People, he enters James L. Brooks territory with a poignant story about laughing in the face of death.

Frustrated comedy writer David (Jesse Plemons) returns to his hometown of Sacramento when his mother (Molly Shannon) contracts a serious form of cancer that gets worse and worse. Hiding a recent breakup with his boyfriend (Zach Woods), David reconvenes with his sisters (Maude Apatow, Madisen Beaty), while handling a father (Bradley Whitford) who struggles to accept his son’s sexuality. In other words, it’s not the joke riot you’d expect from an SNL staff writer – it’s actually more substantial, mixing humour with raw emotions that come from a personal place.
 

London Calling: You’re already a busy writer with SNL, Broad City and a regularly updated Twitter feed. You didn’t need a bigger workload. What was your driving inspiration to make Other People?

Chris Kelly: Professionally, I was very interested in writing something different than I ever had before. I've only ever written comedy, and primarily sketch, and I wanted to try my hand at a longer narrative, and something more tonally different. Something that was half comedy, half drama. And then personally, it was a story I just really wanted to tell. The film is loosely based on the year I spent at home with my family as my mother was sick with cancer. And every time I thought about what I wanted to write about, I came back to that year.
 

LC: Was the writing and filming process therapeutic, or like recreating the trauma? And now masses of strangers are watching it, do you regret any personal details?

CK: Haha, it is very weird and surreal to have a version of my personal life so public. When I wrote it, it was very therapeutic, and I had no dreams that it would actually get made. It just felt nice to write. And then years went by before we actually shot it, so I thought that directing it wouldn't be so emotional, but boy oh boy, it was. It was a very out-of-body experience. And now that people are seeing it, there's nothing I regret. The movie feels weirdly more and less personal now that it's a finished thing. I used my life as a jumping off point when writing it, but I don't watch the movie now and think "oh, that is my sister up there" or "oh, that is my dad". I think what's more on screen is the stuff my mom taught me, the big takeaways from the experience, and not so much every single detail about every single person.


LC: Starting the film with the mother’s death is a really interesting dramatic choice. Can you tell me about this decision?

CK: I didn't want the movie to be about "WILL SHE DIE?" but instead "What do you do until a person dies, knowing that they for-sure die?" It was something I thought a lot about when my mom was sick. There was a clear point where we knew "she is going to die". And I remember telling a friend that "the waiting is excruciating" and he shot back with "then don't just be waiting". So to me, the movie is more about that awful, weird, sort of beautiful, horrible, funny interim when you know it's over but it's not quite yet. 
 

LC: Sundance has a history of comedy writer/directors casting themselves as the lead. Why did you pick Jesse Plemons for the character that – rightly or wrongly – many will assume is the “Chris Kelly” character?

CK: Because he is literally one of the very best actors working right now, and I am so so so lucky that he wanted to do this. He is so interesting to watch on screen and so versatile, and so subtle. God, I just love him! I also like that every role he plays is a complete 180 from the role before. And even though he and I are very different on the surface, and seem like we don't have a tonne in common, we do. It was fun working with him and exploring how we are different, but weirdly, how we are very, very similar in many ways.
 

LC: SNL writers like John Mulaney and Hannibal Buress went on to launch their own TV shows. What interests you about film as a medium?

CK: Well, that's my next goal! Haha. If I am so lucky. But yes, TV is a medium I love as well, and I would be thrilled to get to do my own show one day. But I love movies and I specifically love small character study movies. I love slice-of-life movies where you're just dropped into a world for 90 minutes, and that's all you get. There's something sort of romantic and lovely to me about that. To only get to see a little sliver of these people's lives, and then you'll never see them again, and it's up to you to imagine what next. 
 

LC: Who are your filmmaking heroes, and how did they inspire Other People?

CK: I am really drawn to sombre comedies. Sombredies, as I have just coined them. Not dramedies. That term is played out. But I love comedies where the humour is rooted in sadness or darkness. I like character-based comedies. So I'm drawn to the work of Mike White, who did Year of the Dog and Enlightened. God, I love the tone he creates in his work! His stuff is so funny and so sad and he has such empathy for his characters even as the audience is occasionally laughing at how ridiculous they are being. I also love Alexander Payne, Kenneth Lonergan. All the greats.
 

LC: Molly Shannon usually plays goofy parts, but here she’s heartbreaking as a dying mother. As a comedy person and first-time director, how was it directing the dramatic moments?

CK: It was occasionally weird and intense, only because I was directing really sad, sombre moments from my own life. So it got surreal, and there were many times where I would get a little choked up between takes. But the actors made it so easy. Everyone, specifically the core family of Molly, Jesse, Bradley Whitford, Maude Apatow, and Madisen Beaty, were just amazing. There were such hard, heavy days for them on set, and they all were so invested and lovely and committed to the movie. Honestly, some of the times I got choked up on set was not because I was sad but because I was so happy and grateful to how wonderfully and sensitively the actors were portraying a really difficult moment in my life.
 

Other People has two screenings at this year’s Sundance Film Festival: London on Friday 3 June and Saturday 4 June at Picturehouse Central. More information can be found online.

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