Asked if there was anything cut from Noël Wells’ lovely directorial debut Mr. Roosevelt that premiered at the SXSW Conference this past weekend, costar Andre Hyland joked there was supposed to be a big spaceship scene. Wells went on to say the alien landing just didn’t make the cut. It just didn’t fit.
Of course, this was just two actors riffing with each other — a showcase of their natural charm and chemistry together. It’s part of the reason Mr. Roosevelt works so well. Wells, more than anything, wanted her debut to feel as authentic and unique as possible. From the casting process to shooting on location in Austin with 35mm film, she boldly went against some Hollywood conventions with a great payoff.
But as great Wells and her cast-mates are at the gift of gab, the production stayed mostly true to the fictionalized version of her life, finding Wells back in Austin as Emily, coming to the aid of a family emergency.
“It was very tightly scripted. But we were working with such great comedic actors they can’t help but put in a button that’s usually pretty brilliant,” Wells said. “That’s the most rewarding part of the whole process is like we have this script, we have this story and then every once and awhile somebody projects something I could never have come up with on my own.”
Finding a cast that naturally fit their roles was an important step, and that came with needing to mix up the audition.
“I think the auction process is such a dumb thing. It’s so painful and people just get so nervous and their best selves can’t come out,” Wells elaborated about her relationship with casting. “When I audition people for things, I just want it to feel comfortable and that they can make mistakes and that they don’t have to worry about impressing me and can just be themselves.”
Hyland said his audition was one of his favorites in his career- a 90-minute conversation with Wells after grabbing quesadillas had him sold. Nick Thune’s casting as Emily’s ex-boyfriend Eric came later in the process but was an offer he said was a “no-brainer” to take. Eric’s new girlfriend Celeste that Emily has a contentious relationship was given to Britt Lower has shared the same agent since 2011 with Wells.
While it might be a bit of typecasting for Lower, similar to characters she’s played on Man Seeking Woman or Casual, Wells’ script spoke deeply to her and had to come on board.
“I believe this is such a feminist film, because it celebrates looking at one’s self in a pure way and not jumping to the conclusion that this is the other woman’s fault,” Lower said about seeing the film through the lens of Celeste. “We’re all our own protagonists.”
Emily sees Celeste as the ultimate antagonist in her life and places the blame on others around her when things go awry. She’s her own protagonist, but unknowingly antagonizes herself in her journey to better understand the women around her she initially feels threatened by, something Lower really appreciated about Wells’ layered script.
“I’m very interested in complex female relationships and how we try to understand one another,” Lower said, looking at the relationships’ arcs throughout the film. “More nuance.”
But for that nuance to shine through, the direction had to follow the same path as the writing Wells’ pen took. For a first time director, it was a unique experience for all involved, as Wells was directing the film while also acting. At first, Thune wasn’t thrilled about this, but it became “weirdly comforting,” and Thune appreciated watching Wells build this world of hers on set even more. Lower also said she just learned to “trust Noël” while Hyland found more immediate comfort.
“It felt like ‘Oh, we’re making a thing,’” Hyland remarked. “Not just ‘Oh, I’m in someone’s movie. I hope I don’t fuck their thing up.’ Like ‘Oh, this is fun.’”
Adding to the nerves of some was Wells’decision to shoot on film. A comfortable medium for her— having developed experience with it while studying film at the University of Texas. Wells said shooting on film was important to her not only for her own comfort, but since a lot of indie films the past few years use the “exact same camera, to me they all look exactly the same.”
Shooting on film helped create an undeniably distinctive look — ethereal when needed and grounded in others. It also helped Wells to know exactly what it would look like and rely less on the camera department compared to shooting digitally. That’s a surprising but welcomed mindset, but it didn’t come without some hurdles.
“I think there was a little bit more pressure on the actors starting out, but at the end of the day, I think we shot as much as we would normally shoot even digitally,” Wells said. “There just wasn’t a lot of room for riffing.”
That’s not to say there wasn’t any improv. Wells said a scene where she and Hyland get out of bed together had a lot of Hyland going off script, and Wells just rolled with it. For the most part though, the goal was to stick to Wells’ script she had been reworking over the years.
“I think it’s become this lazy thing in comedy where the script is okay, but I’ll just hire a comedian to basically improvise my movie for me,” Wells said. “You want to be a performer and do the best you can but also, it needs to be contained and then sort of explore that container.”
Ultimately, Mr. Roosevelt is Wells’ greatest step to confronting the “dinosaur” of comedy. Hopefully, it doesn’t take as long to pull the next project together.
“We’re tired of mediocrity…this machine that just gives things to people,” Wells said. “Art needs to happen and it can’t happen through the old paradigms.”
Is Mr. Roosevelt a paradigm shift to a new era? Without distribution yet, not quite but Wells is certainly leading the charge for change and will continue to be if people like Thune, Lower, and Hyland keep making their marks as well.