Mike O’Malley is well-known to television audiences for his long-running sitcom Yes, Dear, his Emmy-nominated performance as Burt Hummel on Glee, the short-lived but well-loved series My Own Worst Enemy (and, to a couple of friends of mine of a certain age, for his role as the host of “GUTS” back in the day). What may not be as well-known is his vibrant second career as a writer. Currently, he is a staff writer on the hit series Shameless, but his writing resume is long. He has written three plays, which have been produced, Three Years from Thirty, Diverting Devotion, and Searching for Certainty. To those of you out there bemoaning the lack of intelligent romantic comedies or, even rarer, romantic dramas, let me introduce you to the work of Mike O’Malley. The current cliches in romantic stories (man-boys and bro-mances and uptight bitches and whining princesses) not only do not interest him, but they are foreign to his world. His three plays are sensitive, hilarious and sometimes brutal excavations of the dynamic between men and women, and once you’ve heard a Mike O’Malley monologue full-throttle, you’ll never forget it. It’s a unique voice.
His third play, Searching for Certainty, tells the story of a young engaged couple who go to a Catholic “Engagement Encounter”, i.e.: Pre-Cana, a requirement if you want to get married in the Catholic Church. Over the course of a weekend retreat, things start to fracture and fall apart as difficult truths are revealed. The two main characters operate in a busy social world, with friends and siblings and future in-laws, who all have relationship issues as well, because … don’t we all. Friendship is very important to Mike O’Malley, in life and in his work. Searching for Certainty the play has now become Certainty the movie, directed by Peter Askin, with a phenomenal cast of up-and-coming hot young actors, as well as Giancarlo Esposito, of Breaking Bad fame, and the marvelous Valerie Harper.
Currently making the rounds at the festival circuit, Certainty is screening on October 11 (tomorrow), the opening night of the New Hampshire Film Festival (Mike’s home state). If you live in the area, you can purchase tickets here. I’ve seen the film multiple times now. I reviewed it after its triumphant screening at the Boston Film Festival, where it won Best Editing, Best Ensemble Cast and Best Screenplay.
Mike and I go way back. Naturally. We are cousins. He has been hugely helpful to me in my own work as a writer, instrumental in helping me get a lot of stuff to the next level. He’s an incredible editor. I would trust him with a first draft, and that’s saying something.
Mike has been in a whirlwind these days, what with his busy schedule of Glee, Shameless, writing TV pilots, raising three kids with his awesome wife, Lisa, and promoting Certainty as it travels around the country to festivals, but he graciously took the time to talk with me over the phone about the film, his career as a writer, and, oh yeah, all things Catholic.
I am pleased to present our conversation.
Sheila O’Malley: The advice that you often give to young actors is that they need to be writing, as well as acting. I was interested in when you came to that realization yourself. I know you started writing early.
Mike O’Malley: One of the biggest frustrations young actors have is that they see actors getting parts that they think they could get, yet they have no connections, they don’t know anybody, they went to a college that doesn’t necessarily have a huge network of people they can connect with when they move to New York or LA. And back when I was starting out, in my 20s in New York, it was the late 80s, early 90s, it wasn’t feasible like it is now to make something and put it up on the Web. The way in which you could be ambitious was to pull together some money, rent out a theatre, and put on a play. One of the things that I wanted to do is what a lot of actors want: Okay, people don’t see me as an actor in the way that I want them to see me, and I have an interest in doing this kind of work. The only way I’m going to do it is to write a part for myself.
At the time when I was living in New York, there were these new theatre companies getting press. One was called Malaparte, and Ethan Hawke was involved in it. Matthew Broderick and Rob Morrow and Marisa Tomei were in a theatre company called Naked Angels. I didn’t know anybody in those theatre companies, and so I couldn’t get work there. I decided to write my own play with some friends that I had met at the acting school that I went to which is no longer around – Gately-Poole Acting Studio.
I never really fancied myself as a writer, but my freshman English teacher in college was a guy named Tom Newkirk. It was a class everyone had to take and he made it amazing. Honestly, other than a book about the Red Sox, I never read a book I wasn’t assigned before I went to college. And Tom Newkirk really fostered in me a love of reading and writing that then turned into playwriting. So when I sat down to write my first play (Three Years From Thirty), my operating principle was: how do I write a play where everyone leaves thinking the play is good, not just that I was good.
While I was writing Three Years From Thirty, I was in my mid-20s and at that time you really start to see these markers happen in people’s lives, where some of your friends are settling down, others are having more success and financial security than you, and how does that change your friendships?
M: In college you all pretty much have the same struggles. You’ve got schoolwork to get done, you’re poor, and you want to have a good time and make lasting friendships. But then you get out into the work force, and things change. It’s a very difficult time because you’re really out on your own. I also think that in terms of love relationships … Heartbreak is one of those things that you can only go through by yourself. Though your friends can help prop you up, it’s the most profound pain that people have to go through alone. Processing heartbreak is completely debilitating to some people. If it was a real love that has disassembled for whatever reason, that can be so searing to some people, and I wanted to write about that.
S: Your first play was Three Years From Thirty. And then you wrote Diverting Devotion. These plays had some success.
M: Three Years From Thirty got published by Samuel French, and it had a small limited run in New York, but there’s something about being able to hold up a bound copy of a printed play to somebody that confers legitimacy upon your writing endeavors. As a result of that, I then began writing my second play. Also, as a result of having been in Three Years from Thirty, there were some casting directors who came to see that play and took me under their wing, because I was playing a part that showed some range. I mean, but let’s be honest, I wasn’t doing Daniel Day-Lewis up there, I was playing a guy from Boston, in his 20s, who loved his friends and wanted to make a life for himself. We’re not talking groundbreaking material.
S: But it was truthful and deep as opposed to the more schticky cliched stuff that you may have been going out for.
M: One of the things that I do believe is – and I think theatre has forsaken this group of people – every audience needs to go see plays that are in a vernacular that’s familiar to them, and every generation needs their own plays about certain stories. That was my motivating principle when I was writing it. I was like, “There’s a lot of people I know who are going through this, and if I could write a play that is about all of these things – if I was to really work hard on it and get to some essential truths about life (regardless of whether or not those truths were already known by older people – they weren’t necessarily known by people going through it in their 20s) – that could be a worthwhile thing to do.” We sold out every show, we extended it, it was a very thrilling experience. There’s a vitality to theatre, and there’s a real visceral experience that you have if it goes well … and that builds your confidence.
S: So let’s talk about Certainty. Obviously it’s about a couple attending Pre-Cana, or the Catholic Engagement Encounter.
M: The first germ of the idea for Certainty started in 1998, when my sister came back from her Engagement Encounter and said to me, “You have got to write a play about this.”
S: For people who don’t know, what is Pre-Cana?
M: If you want to get married in the Catholic church you have to go through this program, even though marriage is the only sacrament a priest doesn’t administer, it’s a sacrament that the couple administers to one another. In the script, Father Heery says, “The Catholic Church got a lot of things wrong in its past. But this is one of the things that we got right.”
It’s basically a program where a couple goes away for the weekend with other couples to a retreat center and they are guided through some thoughts about marriage, what to expect, and they hear talks on a variety of subjects related to marriage that are given by volunteer married couples.
M: So the engaged couple listens to a talk, and then they have a workbook with questions to ask themselves about the topic in question. Each persons goes off and writes about his or her feelings and fears and questions on the subject, and then they come together and share what they wrote with one another. It’s designed to bring people closer by revealing to one another things they have in common, and identify areas that might bring up conflict. So, if you really immerse yourself in the work, it can be rewarding – and scary!
M: You’re really talking about the things that need to be talked about that are going to come up in a marriage. So often when people are dating one another they are just trying to present to the other person someone who would seem to be worthy of someone else’s vow and that kind of commitment. So when you’re dating, you’re trying to show yourself as a perfect person, you’re trying to show that “nothing ruffles me”. Yet what’s hard about marriage is that when we finally do show what we’re afraid of, or what our flaws are, or what our full humanity is, it can be very scary to the other person. But it’s almost more important that you show that before you get married so you know what you’re up against. Inherent in the marriage vow is that truth.
M: Everyone would agree that if you’re gonna get married, you should love the other person. But then you walk down the aisle, and when you get to the front of the church, they tell you right away in the vow: Throw that out the window, that feeling, because you’re gonna leave here and no matter what the feeling is, there are going to be things that challenge you along the way and there’s got to be something that binds you together more than just the feeling, and what’s going to bind you is this promise to one another. I think it’s a very grave thing. By the time I got married, I already had friends whose weddings I’d gone to who had divorced.
In the film, the priest says, “If the person sitting next to you is the first person you said ‘I love you’ to – love in a romantic and physical and emotional way – raise your hand.” And out of 50 people 2 people raise their hands.
M: The priest says, “Okay, so what’s that tell you? That tells you you have been 100% in love, you can’t live without the other person, and that relationship ended. So what is it gonna be about this person who is next to you in this room at this engagement encounter – how is this love different? You better have an idea about how it’s going to be different – and what you intend to bring to it – rather than just leaving it up to fate or your feelings.”
And so my sister had gone to her Pre-Cana, and this one moment she told me about ended up being in the film: this one woman who was there was saying during a break, “What is it with this guy on the cross and the blood and the thorns, it’s creeping me out, they’re everywhere.” And my sister didn’t say anything because when you’re at your engagement encounter you’re really only engaged with the person that you’re with, but she was like, “These people have got some issues to talk about!” Here’s a woman at this event, and Catholicism is obviously important to her fiance, and yet she doesn’t know the first bit about Catholicism.
M: When I was at my Pre-Cana, one of the things that the priest said was, “If everyone knows the statistic that 1 out 2 marriages fail, what do you think the U.S. Census statistic is for couples who practice religion in the home, and outside the home? They go to church, synagogue, mosque, and also bring religion of some sort into their home? What is that number? It’s 1 in 1100.” People were floored. But I think what it points to is in those marriages, people not only share values, but they share, essentially through practice, the attempt to share the SAME values. What binds you together? Couples have an idea about who they are as a couple, but then you go to a place outside of your house and you say, “This is important to me, too.”
[Suddenly calling to his kids in the other room.]
Hey, guys, you know how I feel about the balls, I don’t want you hitting them all over the place. Put your shoes on, please.
[Long pause, as Mike waits to see that shoes are put on, and balls are not thrown.]
So my sister gave me the idea, and I thought I would really love to write about a conflict in a couple that had to do with that. There is a person – Dom [Tom Lipinski]- who is getting married, and he is a good guy, and he’s lost his religion.
M: He’s lost his religion for good reason and the reason that many people lose their religion, because the older he gets and the more he examines the religion the more he realizes there are too many questions that don’t add up. Every time he raises a question, because he’s a reasonable guy, people tell him, “Just have faith.” And to him “have faith” just seems more often than not to be a phrase that means: “Well, we haven’t really covered that. So you just have to believe us. Now shut up, will ya?” Dom is absolutely in love with Debbie [Adelaide Clemens], and Debbie has lost her way in life a bit – like many people in their twenties nowadays, she’s in a city with a college degree, without a job, and without any prospects for one – through really no fault of her own – she’s just hit an unlucky streak.
M: But she’s trying to right her emotional ship, and one of the ways she is trying to re-find her way is to re-discover her religion. This is something that has messed him up. What happens when a couple who love one another has this fracture? And how does that fracture then begin to raise other questions that people have about what exactly their expectations are for their spouse? Can their spouse ever have a moment of doubt? About questioning the relationship? Questioning themselves in the relationship? Questioning if they chose the right person? Or if they’ve become a person no longer worthy or willing to be in the relationship? Because it happens all the time. People don’t begin relationships with the intention of hurting one another or themselves. They do it because they yearn for that connection and intimacy and comfort that can be found inside being in a couple.
M: I wanted to look at how we are so hell-bent on presenting to one another the perfect version of ourselves that we inflame little things to mean more than they are. It’s not to say that we don’t pursue the wrong things sometimes, but let’s say you’re working with somebody and you feel an attraction to that person. And you interpret this feeling as something “special” or destined – and you then begin to doubt all your other commitments, rather than just saying, “This is just biology working as it should, this is just the way men and women are built which is to be attracted to one another.” You cannot just rely on feelings. You need something else. Because feelings are fleeting, they ebb and flow, and you see this happen all the time, people upending their lives for fleeting things.
M: If you inject into every moment of attraction you feel towards someone of the opposite sex (or same sex) a lot of meaning, it will completely derail your life. Because it’s not profound. It just means that your body is working the way it’s designed to work. And the reason that there are vows, the reason that society says, “Avoid these pitfalls” is because it is the trickle-down wisdom of people who have made mistakes. But it’s also important to recognize that some people change! Some people can’t stick it out because they’ve married somebody that they no longer love. It’s not having some holier-than-thou attitude about having to stay married. People marry the wrong person, sometimes you just gotta say “Uncle”. But at the core of this relationship in Certainty is what everybody is striving for in love, and that is to have a connection with another human being that can only be found for those who stick it out, have longevity, stick together no matter what. That’s the goal anyway.
S: When you started writing it, did you know how deep it went? The film really touches on many elements that mainstream films never touch on. Not just the importance of religion, but the questioning aspect of it. Was that something that you were aware of, going into it?
M: Yeah, because in my own life I have had that. I wear a St. Jude necklace and in times of despair I retreat to seeking his solace and solace from God. That was the way I was raised, and also it works for me. And yet I feel somewhat hypocritical because there are questions that don’t add up for me. And things in the church that I want to call bullshit on. And do! Yet it is who I am. I am Irish Catholic. But sometimes the only solace that you can find is that this is all adding up to something that you don’t necessarily understand, the belief that there is a spirit world where all will be revealed to you. Buried at the core of my belief system, at the core of being a Catholic is: the purpose of life is not to enjoy it all the time, the purpose of life is to get to heaven, whatever you think heaven is. The purpose of a life is to get to heaven so you can’t have fun all the time. Even though I’m like everyone else – I want to be having fun all the time, too.
S: It was interesting at the QA after the screening at the Boston Film Festival, the first question was from this woman – actually, it wasn’t even a question – all she said was, “I guess I wasn’t aware that you were so super-Catholic.”
M: Yeah, I remember that.
S: As we both know, for some very good reasons, Catholics are a punching bag right now. Your film really isn’t about that aspect of Catholicism, though. I wondered if you had other responses to Certainty similar to that one.
M: What’s very difficult about being a Catholic now is that the hierarchy and some horrible men have brought incredible shame upon anyone who is Catholic. Whereas before it was, “This is what we believe in, it’s about trying to adhere to a life modeled after a really good man who some believe is the son of God”, now you’re forced to defend continuing to associate in any manner with that church. And it’s hard to argue. The chronic abuse stuff – makes me sick to even enter a church sometimes. It’s like with Abu Ghraib: suddenly you’re ashamed to be American because of how some individuals – even powerful ones – behaved. Or when you live in a city like New York or LA and there’s a story about the police inflicting injustice to other citizens – it makes you ashamed to be from those cities when people in authority behave in a reprehensible manner that you can’t defend. But with your faith – that you’re already struggling with – this is supposed to be led by the best of the best. This is supposed to be the honorable “clergy.” And you just think to yourself, “How the hell does this happen?” It’s an absolute shit show. No other way to put it. Tragic. The church should sell everything they got, keep enough to leave the lights on and then give the proceeds to the afflicted and poor and start over.
M: All the people who go to church still, basically are just trying to be good people. For the most part, sitting in church on Sunday morning everyone’s thinking, “How can I be better? Here’s what I’m sorry I’ve done that I regret. How can I be a better human being?” It’s about how do you reconcile yourself with an institution that in so many cases has caused injury to people, and you weren’t even exposed to that injury until you were an adult. So you’ve grown up in the Catholic church, and had very real experiences of prayer and reconciliation and those are hard chains to break especially when you’re not necessarily sure you want to break them. Still – alongside those despicable human beings – people in the church who did the abuse or hid the abuse – are some good men who are just trying to live a good life and be of service to other people. There are a lot of good men and women who have been painted with that bad brush, but then again, that’s the way it goes.
S: Back to the script. You did a couple workshops of Certainty. Tell me the history of the script and how it eventually became a movie.
M: Yes, and then we had a production in Los Angeles and we were lucky to have so many great actors: Jennifer Dundas, who had starred in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia when it premiered on Broadway, and Jeffrey Donovan, who had done so many original plays in New York before he had his success in films like Clint Eastwood’s The Changeling and TV shows like Burn Notice.
M: Peter Askin directed it. We had limited time for rehearsal but it was a great production and it got a lot of attention for my writing. It really kind of launched my writing career, even though I had written plays and co-written some television pilots, this was something that helped me get another pilot for TBS which then helped me get on Shameless. I knew I had a point of view that if people were in a room, and it was dark and the lighting was done right, and the actors were great, the script would connect with people. And that’s what happened. I was doing Yes, Dear at the time and so I didn’t have a lot of time to devote to the screenplay, so we went around and tried to pitch it. We had an opportunity to sell it. But I wanted Peter to direct the film, and I didn’t want the film to be taken over by someone else. That’s the risk that happens, if you sell the project. It was very dear to me. I had been with this story for a long time. One of the biggest challenges was: In the play, we have this moment at Christmas where they get engaged and then we leap forward to the engagement encounter experience where much of what has happened in between Christmas and June was buried in dialogue. It wasn’t seen. So in the movie, I basically had to flesh out six months between Christmas when the couple get engaged and the engagement encounter in June.
S: Did you work with Peter on that?
M: Yes. Peter is great. He is really good on structure. He hammered me. I wrote a lot of drafts, trying to find what the structure was going to be. It was very difficult to let go of material that I knew worked, and that I liked, and then replace that with all this new stuff.
S: So many characters, too.
M: Right. Seven characters. Originally we were on a tiny stage and it was a very kitchen-sink kind of play. It wasn’t direct-address to the audience, although the priest does talk to the audience as though he is talking to the congregation. Here’s a scene between people, they’re finding out the information in the scene as the audience is finding out, and then that scene propels you into the next scene. The structure was straight-forward in that way. It all takes place over one night and how do you intertwine all these people together.
S: It’s amazing. I loved the structure of the script, because it’s very complex. You have to keep so many balls in the air, all of these different couples. It’s not just the main couple at the Pre-Cana, it’s all of their friends, their family members. It’s such a filled story, with the mother and the friends and the sister, and all of them have their own journeys, which is so unique.
M: One of the things that I think the film is about is: How much of our happiness we attach to other people loving us. I mean, that’s really what it’s about.
S: Can we talk about casting and how you got this amazing cast?
M: There was a time, about 2006, when Bradley Cooper and Jeff Donovan wanted to do the movie, and they’re in my backyard, reading scenes from it, but I couldn’t raise the money. And now, of course, Brad Cooper is one of the biggest stars there is, and Jeff Donovan is one of the biggest television stars there is.
M: I have to give credit to producer Will Battersby in terms of casting Giancarlo Esposito as Father Heery. Because the guy the priest character is named after was a priest who baptized me, and gave me my first communion. My mother grew up next to a rectory, and my grandparents were oftentimes the place where some of these young priests would come and have a family experience or a family meal. Priests had a very elevated status still in the 50s and 60s, in terms of who they were in a community. And Father Heery was just a really good man. I wanted to pay my respects to him. He was just a guy who wanted to do good. Priests sit in a dark room and listen to people express the worst of their own behavior and they have to come up and say, “Go and sin no more. Try and do better.” It’s hard to be recipients of that kind of suffering. They are constantly engaged with people in good moments – marriages and births – or giving Last Rites to people; they are there when people die, they are there at people’s lowest moments when they’re trying to dust themselves off. So I would have cast Robert Prosky as Father Heery. And then Will Battersby said, “I sent this to Giancarlo Esposito and I think he’d be perfect.” Giancarlo had been to an Engagement Encounter himself when he was young, and he really responded to the script. At first I had to get my head around it, because he was so different from what I had pictured as Father Heery, but he was just tremendous in the part.
M: The rest of the casting was done by Doug Aibel who runs the Vineyard Theatre. Some of the original cast members had small parts, but by the time the movie got done, most of the people that I knew were too old for the parts. So we had to rely on auditions for the rest of the cast, and that’s how we found Tom Lipinski. I went back and looked at his audition and thought, “This guy is great.” And Will Rogers, same thing. His audition was just really good.
M: Adelaide Clemens is an Australian actress and we had seen her audition for another project that Doug Aibel was casting and I was mesmerized by her. She just seemed so real. Even though she was a little bit younger than how I had written the part of Debbie, we asked her to audition and she prepared the material and she just crushed it.
M: The budget was under a million. You’ve got to get people who are experienced enough who can carry this thing, and handle the sheer volume of work they were going to have to do. I had spent so much time painstakingly choosing every word that I was worried with the short production window that people would start winging it and paraphrasing. That terrified me. I was working on Shameless at the time and wasn’t going to be able to be on set, so I struck the fear of God in them that I really needed them to bust their tails on learning this dialogue.
S: Your dialogue is challenging. It’s deceptively simple. It seems casual on the face of it, but once you start to delve into it, you see how complex it is.
M: They were up for it. They really worked hard.
S: I really felt the relationships. You really sensed that these guys have known each other forever. The sister, Tammy Blanchard, was amazing.
M: Oh, she was tremendous! And they’ve all gone on to have more success since we’ve shot the film. Tom Lipinski is playing a younger version of Josh Brolin in Jason Reitman‘s new movie. Adelaide Clemens is starring in Parade’s End, the BBC‘s new adaptation of a Ford Madox Ford book. And Tammy Blanchard has gone on to have a bunch of success. She just headlined in Of Two Minds, a Lifetime movie. Kristen Connolly was in a The Cabin in the Woods, big Joss Whedon movie that just came out. And Bobby Moynihan, of course, got to do something in Certainty with the character of “Roddy” that he would never have had the opportunity to do on Saturday Night Live. And, since we shot the movie, Giancarlo has gone on to his tremendous success in Breaking Bad, which he was just getting started on when we shot it.
M: It’s been incredibly rewarding. The thing that works about being able to cast these actors who, other than Giancarlo, are not really known at this point, is that you just believe them to be who they say they are. There’s nothing attached to them yet.
S: How did Valerie Harper get involved?
M: She just read it and loved it. She’s great. She’s so deep. I wish we could have given her more to do. I am so glad she responded to it.
S: Her moment at the midnight mass, when Dom joins them, and she looks up, a private moment to herself …
M: I know! She’s modeled somewhat after my mother who has a really strong faith and she knows what that faith has done for her and the anchor it’s given her in her life, and she only wants her kids to have an anchor. And if it’s the anchor that she knows, great. By the way, I have never discussed this with my mother, it’s just how I see her. My mother has always been there for anyone who needs help. She has lived a life that you would want to model yourself after, in terms of her kindness and how she lives, and I think a lot of that has to do with her faith. My father, too.
There’s a line Dom says in the film to his mother where he says, “I never coulda got a gal like Deb without having been raised by a Mom like you.” And I think that is so so true. Mothers have everything to do with imparting to their sons how to be a good man. More power than they sometimes acknowledge or embrace.
S: I said that to your mother at the party after the screening in Boston. Your mother is to me an example of what it means to live your faith. The Catholics have always been out in the world, social work, helping people, all of that is a huge part of the Catholic tradition and your mother embodies that. It is very difficult to describe to someone who doesn’t know what it is already.
M: Right. I know.
S: I felt that all of that was really represented in Valerie Harper’s beautiful performance. I’m curious about the logistics of the shoot. The locations were terrific. Who were the producers of Certainty and did they handle all of that stuff for you?
M: Getting all of those locations was a bit of a struggle as there are a lot of locations in the film and moving the company around costs time and money, the two things we didn’t have. So we had to find locations in the same place or within a very short distance. We shot in Queens at a place called Fort Totten which was originally a Civil War army base and is now run by the FDNY and Parks Department. We used Manhattan for the various apartments, diner and city exteriors and New Jersey for some of the exteriors of Rhode Island. Sorry about that, Sheila.
M: Will Battersby was the force behind the film. He’s one of those dudes whose work is seen in every frame of the film, and yet you’d have to have walked his path or watched him walk it to understand that. He did what every great producer does: infuses the production with belief and effort and then is tireless in executing what needs to be done. He did this for YEARS. And then he works every second of every day to make it happen. Per Melita was also a producer who, along with Will, was doing all these things that have to do with making a film great, yet are logistical, frustrating, complicated, tedious, and take great patience and interpersonal skill. These two men were – not overstating it – Titans of energy, focus and effort. An independent film cannot be made without these kinds of people. They make it so all the hard work is done before the creative recording of that work begins. And then they keep going after wrap.
S: Dom’s childhood home, too, was fantastic. Who was the production designer? That house just totally came to life.
M: Dara Wishingrad was the production designer. She completely immersed herself in the project along with her art department and set decorators and they were amazing in how they were able to create so much with so little. This experience reminded me of how hard people are working and want to work to bring a film to life, and how you need all people doing their jobs with as much passion and focus as you’ve done yours for it to happen. The locations of the house and the church were in New York at a city park – seriously! They turned those places into unreal locations.
S: Could you talk to me about working with Peter Askin as director? I love the look and feel of the film, its flow, its confidence.
M: This is Peter Askin’s film. I wrote it and he patiently guided me through bad and good versions until we got it to a place that seemed shootable. But he directed it. He MADE it. And he shot everything I wrote – but he took it to this other emotional place that as a writer you can only hope for. The way in which he directed the actors, the way he worked with the cinematographer, Sean Kirby, to paint the film, the music, the production design, it’s so incredibly rewarding for me.
M: We’ve all seen good plays performed badly. I could have worked very hard on this and it would all be for naught if it was directed badly. But Peter takes such exquisite care with the text and with the process that actors and others go through that he just draws out the best of them. He certainly did with me. I can’t say enough positive things about him. I think of Peter not only as a real friend to me as a person, but as a gift, almost like a patron saint, who’s been there, looking out for me, and making my life better by injecting it with meaning and purpose and fulfillment. And to direct this film, to help mount it with Will and Per and myself – but really to be the driving force behind every single frame – I just can’t believe my good fortune that I met him.
S: I’m curious about audience response to the film so far.
M: So many people – smart, reasonable, educated people – from all walks of life – experience in a deep way a connection with other human beings and they want it to be about more than just here. They want to be reunited in the future with people that they’ve loved, and they want to feel that all the pain that they’ve gone through – they want to feel as if there’s a place in which that pain is removed and the reason they had to go through that pain and the reason why they struggled will be revealed to them. And I think that if you’re not necessarily raised with some kind of existential faith, it’s hard to adopt one later on. It’s not what you know. Doesn’t mean people don’t leave religion behind, and do it all the time – but I think at the core of Catholicism is “HOW CAN I BE GOOD?” And “Why was I made in a manner that makes that so difficult?” I’m not even talking seven deadly sins stuff – I’m talking being just patient, kind, not a gossip, not a fault-finder or grudge-holder, not someone who judges or leaps to emotional conclusions – just trying to be good.
S: Catholicism is the background and environment of your script. While the sins of the Catholic Church are certainly addressed, the people in the film are just people going about living their lives, trying to have faith. Anyone who is Catholic will understand that, although it may be difficult for others.
M: The Catholic Church is like any other institution. When you have power that is absolute, there is a chance that that power will be corrupted. Dom says, “This church fucked me up. I get punched in the head because I dropped a communion wafer?” That’s one of the lines that Dom says that only Catholics get. Anyone who was an altar boy growing up knows that the one thing you don’t do is let someone drop a communion wafer. Dom dropped one when he was a kid and he got cuffed in the head by a priest, to his eternal bafflement. He thinks, “You can’t drop one, but you can put it in your mouth and eat it?” As if to say “Dropping it is disrespecting it, but chewing it up and swallowing it is sacred?” You can see how confused a young Catholic who takes things literally could be. Debbie is saying to him, “Look, I’m lost. I need to find myself. I’m asking for help from God. I don’t have all the answers, and if that is baffling to you, then we are going to have an issue here.” Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of plays and movies where Catholics are handled even-handedly.
S: That’s what is new and different about your script.
M: I don’t think that people even understand that there is such a thing as Pre-Cana. That’s one of the reasons why I was excited to write it. There’s 40 million Catholics in this country. You can’t get married in the Catholic Church unless you go through this program. It’s a setting in which a lot of people think it’s going to be Mother Church telling you you can’t get married to this person because of this, that, and the other thing, when in fact it has nothing to do with that. I think most people don’t even understand what the Catholic ceremony is all about, and if they understood what the mass was about they would be blown away by how simple and beautiful it is. I’m not out beating the bushes for new converts or anything, and Lord knows, I’ve been to some excruciatingly boring masses led by sleep-inducing priests.
M: However: This is basically a Catholic mass: People go on Sunday, they start off with a prayer saying, “I’ve sinned this week, I did these things wrong, please, my brothers and sisters, help me be a better person.” Then we do a reading from the Old Testament, a reading from the New Testament, a gospel about this guy who we think is God who lived a really great life, a homily about how you can apply how the guy lived to your own life, and then we essentially re-do the breaking of bread on the night before this man died. And when we do that, the bread is transformed into Eucharist. It’s all trippy stuff. But the idea as I understand it is that the Eucharist reminds us of what we believe and it can sustain us over the week until we can have communion again. At the core of it is: How can I be a better person? How can I cope with who I am and how I’m made? How can I cope with my propensity for sin in all its forms? Sin is something that takes us away from our best selves. For the longest time, I thought of sin as: “You’re bad, stop sinning” but then I went to a mass once and the priest said, “Lemme just tell you about this word ‘sin’. It’s from Greek. It’s a term from archery. It means ‘Missing the mark’. The archer wants to hit the bullseye. And when we sin, we ‘miss the mark’. That’s what sinning is about. We all know when we’ve sinned, because we’ve missed the mark of who we want to be.”
M: Essentially, what Jesus is saying is: I am going to give you the opportunity to acknowledge those sins, acknowledge the ways in which you have missed the mark, and now go, and try to be better, try not to miss the mark next time. Recognize that you’re missing the mark. Recognize that you’re failing at your only goal in life which is to be the best you that you can be. To be kind, to be good, to be thoughtful, to be unselfish, and to not let the deadly sins drive you away from your happiness. And hopefully the more that you recognize that, the better you that you will be. And by being the better you, you will be closer to God.
S: So it’s a comedy.
M: [laughing] You know, though, because you’re Irish and you come from a Catholic background! I had none of the negative Catholic upbringing. I had one nun who pulled my hair when I was in sixth grade. Her name was Sister Irmalita. I probably was acting up in class and deserved it. And even if I didn’t, the poor woman had to go through life with the name Irmalita – so, I blame her parents.
M: Back when our parents were growing up, they essentially only hung out with other Irish Catholic people. Even going over to the Italian Catholic church was a big stretch. And forget about the Lithuanian Catholic Church, I mean maybe if they had a late Sunday mass would you go there! In the town where I grew up, Nashua, New Hampshire, there was an Irish Catholic Church, there was an Italian Catholic Church, there was a Lithuanian Catholic Church, there was a Polish Catholic Church, there was a French-Canadian Catholic Church. This was in a town of 40,000 people! It’s ridiculous! You get the comfort of it, Sheila, yet you also understand the absurdity of some of the things that are connected to it.
S: As I was preparing to interview you, I found myself thinking more and more about Roddy’s monologue about the “sentinels” standing around a marriage. First of all, it is just such a great example of what you do best as a writer. Giancarlo Esposito said at the QA in Boston that he thinks that monologue is a masterpiece, and I agree. Bobby Moynihan did it so brilliantly in the film. But the more I thought about that monologue and the more I thought about the script and all of these characters – is that that’s what I really felt as I got to know all of these people: These people really are all sentinels for one another, in a way. Roddy is wasted in that scene when he says that monologue, so you could kind of write him off, but that’s the point of the whole thing. Who’s going to be his sentinel? He’s falling apart.
M: He hopes that Dom will be his sentinel and unfortunately when Dom has the opportunity to be that, he’s so messed up in his own life that he can’t be, which is what is so crushing for Roddy.
S: It’s devastating.
M: Usually by the time someone comes to another person and says, “I’m having trouble in my marriage”, they’re already out the door. Really what I want to show in this film and what I try to show in all of my writing about relationships is: The purpose of drama is what? So you can emotionally experience people behaving in good and bad ways so that you can experience either the pain of making a bad decision, so it cautions you from doing it in real life, or the joy of doing something so you strive to be the best you. That’s really the purpose of drama, and I mean that in a completely non-denominational way. Here is a character making a choice. Is that choice good or bad? Regardless of what you think about those choices. You are witnessing a character go through pain or joy as a result of those choices, and are you more likely to mimic those choices and that behavior or stay away from that behavior? That’s up to you. But when it really succeeds, you’ve connected with people emotionally so much so that they take from those stories an experience that’s visceral and applicable in their own life.
S: What were some of your struggles as a writer?
M: So many people, when they talk in everyday language they say, “Yeah, I don’t know, I don’t know…” and I realized as I carved out the dialogue for Dom that when someone comes to him with a question, he never says, “I don’t know”, he always has an answer. He’s trying to be a sentinel. Debbie says she’s feeling low, and he says “You’re great, we can fix this.” It’s all well-intentioned. Peter Askin was great about this when I was working on the drafts, reminding me of this aspect.
Dom has a worthy wall of principles that he is trying to build to protect him from the disappointments of life and yet what he’s done in this situation, unbeknownst to himself, is to present to his fiance a person who will not show a crevice of doubt and uncertainty to her, and so she doesn’t feel like he is her equal. At the end of the movie, he says, “I don’t want to be the same old story. I’m trying to be someone who is not the same old story. I’m afraid that if I reveal to you the places where I doubt myself, the places where I’m broken, that then you will not see me as the person who is trying to be the great guy. When I want to be the great guy, you’ll be like, ‘I know where you’re stitched up, I know you’re held together with spit and glue. You’re not everything you’re striving to be.’”
I think that’s the great thing about men and women: when a woman gets to see a man in a way that only she gets to see, and yet he needs to know that she will then allow him to be all the man he is striving to be.
S: She won’t throw his low moments back in his face.
M: Right. If a woman can love him in that way, then he’s off to the races. Because men are human. They’re awesome when they’re trying to be the best that they can be. And when they have moments of fear or frailty and they can’t bounce back from that or need to be reminded of it – if the woman says, “Well, you’re just a coward” – it ain’t gonna survive. Men want women to say, “Hey man, I get it, I know that life is difficult and I appreciate that there are times when you are uncertain of who you are and where you want to be, and I admire your need to try to put that in the past and be the best person you can be for the sake of us and our family.” When Debbie says at the end of the film, “How are we gonna be?” and Dom starts to try to answer it but he finally says, “I don’t know”, that’s a joyous moment if I’ve told the story correctly.
Michael Rosenberg, who ran the Drama Department off-Broadway for a long time, and is now at the La Jolla Playhouse, came to see a screening of the film and sent me the best email I ever got. He said the ending really walloped him, and I thought, “God, this is a real triumph for me.” Because he understood: Here’s Dom, a guy who’s trying to have the answers for everybody, and he never says “I don’t know”, and it’s not in some arrogant way. He’s trying to be the best man he can be, trying to be that guy for everybody. But at the end he recognizes that they are at a crossroads and he doesn’t know necessarily if they’re going to be okay.
M: And that is a moment of moving forward, that is a moment of, if not joy, then hope for them. Because he is, at the end of this story, changed. He is not saying to her, or himself, that he has the answers. He doesn’t know if they’re going to be okay. There is a lot of hope in Dom’s uncertainty.
Certainty screens Thursday, October 11 (tomorrow), the opening night of the New Hampshire Film Festival. Screening starts at 8:10 p.m. The venue is the Portsmouth Music Hall, 28 Chestnut Street Portsmouth, NH. If you live in the area, you can purchase tickets here.