Certainty opened this week in New York City for a week-long run at The Quad cinema (purchase tickets here). It can also be purchased on iTunes, and is currently available on demand, and Amazon Instant Video.
The premiere was a lot of fun, with QAs following both screenings, on Friday and Saturday. Mike was there, as well as director Peter Askin, producer Will Battersby, production designer Dara Wishingrad, and actors Giancarlo Esposito, Tom Lipinski, and Kristen Connolly. They answered questions from the audience and the moderators. At one point during the screening of the film on Saturday, two people in the row ahead of me leaned forward at the same time. It was an intense moment in the film and it was a thrill to watch two random people engage so totally that they had to lean forward. Yes, you want to lean in to this film.
Look out when O’Malleys get tribal. I am very proud of my cousin Mike, he has worked so hard, and it’s a thrill to watch this film in a packed house and hear both the uproarious laughter from the crowd as well as the total silence of an audience engaged with this material.
There were two QAs, and I have put together some of the questions and answers tackled below. I hope you enjoy it, and please seek out Certainty!
PETER ASKIN (director): Mike and I worked on it first as a play. We always thought it should be a film. It took a while to get through the process of adapting the play into a screenplay. A while being 5 or 6 years. Originally, we did a very small production of it in Los Angeles. We decided to take the script around to pitch it and that was interesting.
MIKE O’MALLEY: Yeah, you can imagine what the pitch for this story sounds like: “There’s this couple, and there’s a pre-Cana – do you know what pre-Cana is? There are 40 million Catholics in this country … then there’s a brother-in-law and he gets lost at the Javits Center …” It was a 45-minute pitch. It didn’t go well. We had an opportunity to sell it to Universal but Peter and I really enjoyed working on the play together and we knew that if we were to sell the script – we’d been around long enough to know that we wouldn’t have been involved at the end. The biggest part of the process was getting it adapted from the play into a screenplay.
PETER ASKIN: In some ways it’s harder when you have the script exist in a different form because you get locked into certain things. The play begins with the engagement and then jumps six months later to the pre-Cana. But we didn’t have the second act between the engagement and the revelation of Deb reading the journal. I’ve worked on enough screenplays by now to know that if something doesn’t work you’re going to find out in the second act. And it took quite a while to find out what the second act was.
MIKE O’MALLEY: In the play, there was no acting teacher, there were no other couples at pre-Cana, there was no mother in the play, and the Roddy character was a lot bigger. We so lucked out in getting Giancarlo Esposito to play the priest. Anybody who’s been around independent film knows that we had an immense amount of material to shoot and a very small amount of time. And many of the younger actors in the film are great but they hadn’t done movie after movie after movie. Now they’ve gone on, all of them, to do a lot more but I was very nervous because Peter and I had gone over every ellipses in the script, and I didn’t want any ad-lib, improvisation, or paraphrasing. And so Giancarlo shows up and is not blowing any takes, is not dropping any lines, not dropping any words – and it really put the other actors on their game. In a movie like this, you often have a lot of people goofing around, chit-chatting in between takes, but these actors really put their nose to the grindstone and it’s because of Giancarlo and the tone he set.
PETER ASKIN: I had seen this material work onstage but it really wasn’t until we started shooting and Giancarlo had that opening scene in the chapel where there was a sense of relief that this would work as a film, too.
GIANCARLO ESPOSITO: For me, it’s always very important to honor what the writer has written and give that all of my heart and soul, to allow the writer and the director to hear a voice put to those words, to give them an opportunity to hear it and know if it works, before I take any liberty to try to put my ego into it, or my brain even into it. I had experience with the Catholic church, some good, a lot bad, in my growing up, but it was all truthful in the script. If it’s truthful on the page, then I know it will be truthful inside of me. Seeing the movie again tonight really moved me because we’re all on a journey to discover where we connect, not only through our spiritual or religious beliefs, but where we connect to ourselves. There is a deep connection that resounds in this film. I think it’s a beautiful film, beautifully directed and beautifully written.
MIKE O’MALLEY: I didn’t necessarily have the negative Catholic upbringing but you cannot have been alive in the last 15 years and not have a somewhat negative point of view for how much of the Catholic church has run itself and how it has behaved, all of their well-noted despicable behavior. That being said, you are raised in a certain faith, and it is the cornerstone of all you have experienced. So it was very important for me to have at the center of this film a character like Father Heery who was not unlike several priests that I knew, who got involved with the church because they had a religious experience, and their job was to help people in their struggles and to be there for people in their triumphs and losses. There are those people out there and I wanted to give tribute to those kinds of men. They’re still there nowadays, even though they’re painted with the brush that some of their brethren have been painted with, but they’re still showing up, trying to do their work, and live their beliefs. I just wanted to show a guy who was still trying to do that, trying to help people. I love in the film where he leans in to the couple and he says, “It’s okay to try hard and it’s okay to feel like you’re trying hard.” Ultimately, that is what the film is about and what I wanted it to be about. You’re able to say to someone, “Yeah, you’re having a tough time right now. That’s okay. Just because you’re having a tough time and you’re working hard on your relationship, don’t think it’s not worth continuing to work on it.” It doesn’t mean that everything should always be easy.
Audience: What was the inspiration for the script?
MIKE O’MALLEY: My sister went to her pre-Cana and she said, “You gotta write a play about this.” There’s a lot of inter-faith couples that go to Engagement Encounters so she was there at her pre-Cana with a couple – the guy was Catholic, the woman was not, and the woman was like, “What is with all the crosses? It’s creeping me out!” The pre-Cana takes place 2 or 3 months before a couple gets married and this woman doesn’t even know what a crucifix is. Maybe this is stuff you should talk about as a couple! I love the Awareness game in the film where it starts off with a question about how you squeeze the tube of toothpaste, but then it graduates to: “Would you be willing to move to advance your spouse’s career?” This happens all the time to couples: what is more important, the relationship or your work? And it always has to come down to the relationship. And sometimes somebody has to give and somebody has to take. That was the germ of the idea.
Audience: About the lighter elements coming in: How as writers, directors, actors – how do you navigate these moments of lightness, of humor, versus maintaining the integrity of this very critical issue that you’re dealing with, of love, of dedication, of faith?
MIKE O’MALLEY: There are four different lines that are the essence of the story for me.
One of them is when Giancarlo says, “It’s okay to try hard and it’s okay to feel like you’re trying hard.”
Another one is the question that Betsy [Kristen Connolly] asks, “How do you go from a vow to a shrug?” It’s certainly a valid question and one I want to avoid in my own marriage.
Then there is also the fact that wanting love and wanting something that lasts and wanting something that’s true is a worthwhile yearning, it’s worthwhile to talk about, it’s worthwhile to talk to your friends about it, it’s not stupid shit, it’s not “angst”, it’s not bad to want to talk it out.
And then when Dom says at the end of the movie, “I don’t want to be the same old story.” I think that’s what all of us feel. We don’t want to be someone who allows anything that’s emotional in our lives to up-end our lives, or anything that’s adolescent or juvenile or not well thought-out to lead our lives to some self-inflicted mistake that if we just pasued a few minutes more, or paused a couple weeks and thought about it, our lives would be happier. The hardest parts about life as you get older are the self-inflicted wounds.
GIANCARLO ESPOSITO: How did we get to that from the comedy question?
Audience: That’s what I’m saying! You have this thing you want to tackle as a writer or a filmmaker and you go: “How do I do this? How do I put it in a context that’s palatable?”
PETER ASKIN: I know I certainly listen better where there’s humor. The best material, the most serious subjects, the most heartfelt things – the most effective way of delivering that material is often interlaced with humor. It gives you a chance to breathe through it. There are moments towards the end, like with the old lady in the physical therapy pool. That scene wasn’t there, originally. It came much earlier, but that moment with Dom and Deb is so relentlessly sad, in a way, that you can feel it in the audience. There is a palpable sense of relief when the old lady says, “Let’s get this shit over with.” Also, that’s where she is in her life as well. For young people, self-absorption or concerns for the future, is age-appropriate but as soon as you get to my age and older, you just want to get the exercise and live another day.
I want to mention something else about this material which has been here from the very beginning. There is something that I love about Mike’s material here which is the discussion about faith, and I’m not just talking about religious faith. There’s a secular faith where Dom asks Deb, “Why can’t you have faith in me?” Dom is someone who has given up on religious faith and built his own house of faith based on good works. If I try hard enough, if I can do enough good for other people, that should be enough. And what he finally learns, which is the most hopeful thing in the film, try as hard as he will, you can’t control other people’s feelings. So when he says at the end, “I don’t know”, it is probably the most hopeful thing he has said in the film. Maybe they will have a chance because he is going to stop trying to control everything.
Audience: I thought that the cast was amazing and I just wanted to know a bit about the casting process, how you guys found all of these young people. They were awesome, everyone was awesome.
PETER ASKIN: Obviously, with someone like Giancarlo, you make the offer and you hope. Giancarlo’s involvement was a light shining on the production. But the rest of the cast were just auditions. Some people we know, as good New York working actors. The other people – like Tom Lipinski – we found through an audition. Adelaide Clemens, I saw a tape of something else she had done. Kristen Connolly and Will Rogers – again, auditions.
MIKE O’MALLEY: Doug Aibel cast it and Will Battersby is one of the producers, he’s here tonight, and he is a big big part of everything that has to do with this film.
Audience: One of the most awesome things about the film is that it’s funny, but it’s also poignant and profound, and I remember when I saw it – one of my favorite lines is when she says, “How do you go from a vow to a shrug?” There is a comedic element but at the same time it’s so profound. I wanted to ask you what your writing process was like with this film and how you were able to balance the profundity and comedy.
MIKE O’MALLEY: Peter did such a great job. I was only on the set for two of the days that we shot this film. You just picked out my favorite line. When I saw the dailies of Kristen’s performance of that line, it really struck me. At the heart of it, that’s really what I wanted to get at: How do you go from a vow to a shrug? It’s like when the priest asks the question at the beginning of the movie: “Who here has said ‘I love you’ to someone other than the person you’re getting married to?” And only one couple raises their hands. People yearn for marriage and companionship and long-term commitment with someone, and they love that feeling of being in love with someone. You go through your life and you’re going to be challenged, it’s going to be difficult. So I was thinking, If two individuals can’t make a commitment to one another, and if they can’t find a way to make that commitment work, then we’re screwed. Then the community can’t do that, the city, the country…. Peter is really really good at comedy and also getting to the root of what I was trying to get at. The cast is terrific. What was really nice about this screening today for me is – I’ve seen screenings of the film in different parts of the country, and there is a very East Coast way that people banter with one another, and the actors kept it so real. It’s a thrill.
Audience: Peter, can you talk a little bit about what made you decide this is the story I want to tell, and these are the people I want to tell it with.
PETER ASKIN: I think the thing for me what I like about Mike and his writing is the humanity. He tackles weighty subjects. But he does it in a very authentic way. Maybe Tom can speak to this. It’s easy for actors to say Mike’s lines, because it rings as authentic. There’s an argument that Dom and Debbie have, where Dom says, “Why can’t you have faith in me?” This distinction between faith and trust and truth has always come back to me as the heart of the film. You can see in their argument that they both have valid points of view. When I have watched screenings of this, and I watch audiences go out, you can see that there’s a conversation that’s gonna be had after this material has been seen. Dom is someone whose faith had betrayed him, so he constructed his own secular house of faith built on good works. He takes care of his sister, he gives her money for acting lessons, he gives his brother-in-law good advice, he worries about his mother, he gets a job helping people. Why doesn’t this add up for him as someone who is deserving to be trusted? There’s a lot in Mike’s work that rings really true in people’s lives.
Audience: Was that scary for you as actors? The words are fantastic and there is a great authenticity in them but when you’re an actor, sometimes portraying authenticity is scary. Can you talk a little bit about that?
TOM LIPINSKI: When we were filming this, I had been dating my girlfriend at the time for four years, and I am now married … to said woman. [Laughter] It wasn’t that far afield from what anybody our age, or anybody of any age really, goes through when they’re in a relationship. About what Mike said about how it was adapted from a play: I think that was what really attracted me to these characters and to the script. When relationship films are shot now, arguments are usually a one-liner here, one-liner there, and maybe some cuts of glowering – but this – the arguments are borne out and the issues are elucidated and you see all sides. Arguments aren’t one person’s right and the other person’s wrong. Certainty is more truthful in terms of what’s going on in these people’s lives. And that makes an actor’s job very easy.
KRISTEN CONNOLLY: There are so many scripts you read, especially as a young actor, about relationships, that are either really gross, or over-simplified, and that don’t give credence to what people are really going through or working through at this time in our lives. I grew up Catholic and when I read the script, a lot of it was very familiar to me. I was just so excited to see so many roles that felt so real and were treated so respectfully by the writer. It’s wonderful to see it onscreen. This is the first time I’ve seen it. When I read it I remember feeling, “Wow, this is a real movie about real people” and I was so excited to be involved in it.
Audience: (to Dara Wishingrad, production designer) Could you talk about how the script informed how you did the production design?
DARA WISHINGRAD: For me, it’s always about the characters and the story. That’s what drives me and inspires me. Working with the locations, and working with Peter and what his visual storytelling was about and how we would develop the characters – there were lots of happy accidents. The beautiful magic that happens, the synchronicity that happens with films.
PETER ASKIN: Dara had extraordinary challenges. When you talk about a house having to be beautiful, we couldn’t afford beautiful.
MIKE O’MALLEY: Dom’s mother’s house is out in Fort Totten. This house, when I walked into it – it was like –
TOM LIPINSKI: Baron van Helsing’s house.
MIKE O’MALLEY: Raccoons were living there. You cannot believe what Dara did with that house. She is spectacular.
Audience: I love the location stuff. How did you determine where to shoot it? Where was the church, the dormitories?
MIKE O’MALLEY: Our producer Will Battersby is the reason this thing got done. He can answer that.
WILL BATTERSBY: Basically I said to the line producer: we need one place where we can shoot Rhode Island, New York City, we can do Christmas, we need the house, we need the campus – and he actually said, “I know the perfect place.”The first place he took us to was Fort Totten, which is a Civil War army base in Queens. It’s a public park. There’s a church on the grounds, there are all the old officers’ houses. We gave Dara a derelict house to rebuild as the mother’s house. The hall Deb’s parents take them to was the basement of a building there. We had no money to move around and find different locations, so that’s how we did it.
Audience: My question is for Mike. You are a busy man, I can imagine. When did you have time to sit down with this idea and write the screenplay?
MIKE O’MALLEY: Between the time that we finished the play and the time that we started shooting the film – a 6 or 7 year period – my wife and I had three kids. So it was really just whenever I had time. It was hard. Peter was very patient. The problem with adapting a piece that you really care about is that it’s very hard for you to let go of material that you already know works. Roddy was a much bigger character in the play. As was Melissa. So their storyline was bigger. Now that I’ve written my first screenplay, it’s less hard to cut stuff, and I get it. I think the very difficult thing about writing is that until you’re given a hard deadline, really all the drafts mean is that you’re going to have to write it over again. It’s exasperating. Every time I pass a script in, I expect someone will say, “Great. Don’t change a thing!”
Audience: How much cost-cutting happened – editorially?
PETER ASKIN: Quite a bit. We deconstructed the story. For example, as I mentioned, when Dom leaves pre-Cana, we had shot that scene with the old lady in the swimming pool. It came much earlier originally, it had been placed chronologically. But Mike had these glimpses written in, some of which were kept, some of which didn’t make it, and others which we moved around. A lot of it was about finding the rhythm. It can get pretty emotional, so at the end when Dom is on the bus, we cut back to the old lady, bringing her back in, and giving us a laugh at a point where we needed to breathe a bit. Also, there was this whole idea that Dom was infatuated with someone else and there we get a glimpse of what did or didn’t happen – after the fact, when it’s too late except for us to know emotionally what might be true. And once we had the structure of pre-Cana, we had the liberty of cutting away from it, and jumping back in time.
Audience: About Giancarlo’s performance. I did 12 years of Catholic school and my experience was not good. Any time I have to see any kind of treatment of the Catholic church my back goes up. This is the second time I’ve seen the film and Giancarlo, your performance was such a relief – it was such a relief to watch someone who was really in it for real. You got it. Were you brought up Catholic?
GIANCARLO ESPOSITO: I was. I was an altar boy at a young age. My father is from Italy and he eventually became an agnostic. I wound up going to the Vatican with him and he’s a great history buff and he told me all about the Swiss Guards, but he didn’t want to come inside. I said, “You gotta come in, I flew us both over, you gotta come to the Vatican.” He said, [thick Italian accent] “Oh Giancarlo, no, I’m not coming in …” He knew I had a great devotion to spirituality and religion all of my life but he had sort of dropped out of that. Eventually I did get him inside.
I’ve studied a lot of other faiths. I believe that they’re all connected. I believe we’re on one path. It was a breath of fresh air to play this character. I believe in the truth of these words and the truth of what was being passed on. I have observed, as we all have, what’s gone on in the Catholic church over the years, and it’s a great sadness to me, but it doesn’t take away the underlying lesson of connection that we get.
We’re all in different places in every moment of our life, every day, and today I got sucked in again because there was something for me, tonight, right now, that’s present in my life that I needed to see again. Some things that really resounded for me tonight in watching the film were moments that Mike has already mentioned. It’s okay if it’s hard, it’s okay, you don’t have to run from that. Part of me is a runner, part of me does not want to confront my own self, or being confronted with those big issues.
After that scene with the priest, Dom goes back up and gets that booklet again and starts over. Isn’t that what our lives are all about all the time? He hands her a booklet, he takes one, he starts all over again. That was really something that I am going to take away tonight. It’s okay to start over. It doesn’t mean you failed, it doesn’t mean you need to stuff it under the rug. It means that you can look forward again. I’m just telling you what I got from it and I’m in the damn movie! It’s pretty fabulous to me.
I believed in this material and I believed in the natural flow in which it is put out there. I also believe in the lighter element of what’s happening here. “How are we fucking up your shit?” the priest says to Dom. That’s a great moment, it gives a human-ness to us all that allows us to be available for each other. It’s displayed, it’s palpable onscreen. So this is one of my favorite movies of all time.
Additionally, it can be viewed on demand, as well as purchased on iTunes. Or you can view it on Amazon Instant Video.
Here is my review of Certainty.
Here is my QA with cousin Mike O’Malley about Certainty.