In BenDavid Grabinski‘s feature film debut, HAPPILY, a happily married couple (Joel McHale and Kerry Bishé) discover their friends are resentful of their lustful relationship. When a visit from a mysterious stranger (Stephen Root) leads to a dead body, they begin to question the loyalty of their so-called friends.
Recently, Nightmarish Conjurings had the opportunity to chat with BenDavid Grabinski about HAPPILY where they discussed everything from combining two genre types, how Daniel Waters and Bong Joon Ho inspire him, and more!
Congratulations on your first feature film! Can you tell us a little bit about how this story came about?
BenDavid Grabinski: I wanted to combine two genres I l love, one is the off-beat but super romantic movie and the other is movies that feel like episodes of The Twilight Zone. I combined two of those into a premise that I got excited about and I emotionally connected to. I basically wanted to make something that felt like a tense paranoid thriller but was really a dark comedy. Just kind of keeping those two-tone things next to each other because I think they’re very complimentary. I think that comedy, intention, all those things just work really well as complementary elements and this just felt like a great movie to do all of those things with.
The pairing of the couples worked out tremendously with the actors chosen. What was the process like in casting and did you write any of the characters with certain people in mind?
BenDavid Grabinski: One of the biggest lessons I learned making this movie is that you just gotta write it exactly how you want it to be and then figure out who’s available and likes your script that could do a good job (laughs). It’s very pragmatic in that way, where you have a window and you’re like, “I’m shooting in February what actors are available in this city” and then you say, “Oh, that guy would be great for this part, let’s see if they liked the script,” and then you just start mixing and matching those elements. Paul Scheer and Natalie Zea I cast ball first. I had to find an energy that I thought was really interesting across from [Paul], which Natalie Zea felt really fun, and all of [the couples] sort of work in that way. It’s very gut oriented and also just pragmatic. Sometimes you go after somebody and sometimes they come to you. Breckin Meyer read the script and wanted to meet me. Never in my wildest dreams did I think of Breckin Meyer for Richard but the second we sat down I’m like, “That would be great. That’s awesome. You should be Richard.” I met with a lot of actors and at the end of the day, I just try to follow my gut instinct and my feelings about their work and kind of how much it felt like they understood the script. I really am happy with how it all turned out. You have scenes featuring 10 people and if some of the couples didn’t work, then the whole thing kind of falls apart.
There seemed to be a lot of attention to detail in the production design. How involved were you with that? Also, there’s a scene inside a screening room where three of the characters are talking about the films Hudson Hawk and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane. Do those films have special meaning to you?
BenDavid Grabinski: Daniel Waters, who wrote those movies, was one of the biggest inspiration for me. I feel like I don’t want to make anything unless it’s sort of in that ballpark. Growing up I would see something like Batman Returns [among other films he’s written] and be like, “how does this exist? This is so great, and this is so funny, and this is so weird, and this is traumatizing me, but I love it.” I’ll probably have a nod to him in everything, with this one being really overt. In my season of Are You Afraid of the Dark (2019), one of the character’s introduces herself with, “Greetings and Salutations” which is just a really on the nose Heather‘s reference. But when it comes to the details of everything, I’m very obsessive, there’s nothing in the movie that I didn’t approve and a lot of the movie, unfortunately, are very specific details that I told everyone I needed (laughs). It’s a balance of a lot of things, and I’m really glad you liked the production design. One of the biggest reasons why the movie doesn’t feel cheap, even though we didn’t have any money, is because I was really, really, really hard on locations in terms of, I just didn’t want to have any location that didn’t feel really cinematic. I also didn’t want to have any location like I’d seen in another movie before. I felt like one of the best opportunities to make this movie feel bigger than it is and have it feel cinematic was to feel like, “Oh, I’ve never seen a movie in this house.” This house had so much production value.
And the funniest thing was I locked the movie before anyone saw Parasite and I kept seeing all these comments online of people comparing it to Parasite. I’m like, look, Parasite is a masterpiece. I cried when it won at the Oscars, it might be the last time I was ever actually happy, but it has nothing to do with HAPPILY. If I’d seen Parasite before making HAPPILY I might have chickened out because how do you live up to that? Any comparisons to Parasite are purely an accident but I was very, very inspired by the other movies of Bong Joon Ho in terms of combining tone. His movies blow me away because he will have a moment that’s sad next to a moment that’s funny next to a moment that’s satirical next to a moment that’s scary. And the way he navigates those things is just so inspiring for me. I feel like a lot of American movies don’t even really try to do that and I get it because it’s not easy. He’s one of my favorite filmmakers of all time, but I hadn’t seen Parasite when I made this. That’s basically what I’m saying.
There’s a moment in the film where the character, Don Don (John Daley), walks past a shirtless Tom (Joel McHale) and remarks, “Nice tits brah” due to Tom’s bulging pectoral muscles. The way in which it was delivered absolutely murdered me by laughter. That said, was there much room for improv?
BenDavid Grabinski: There are only two improvised lines in the movie. There’s almost no improv, but that [line] I didn’t write (laughs). John Daley is an artist with words and he just said those words and I put them in the edit. There’s a couple of lines that I made up on set and pitched to people, but most of them are spoilers from the ending, but [the movie] is 99.9% written. I guess someone watching it can decide if that was a mistake or not, but for me, it’s a very deliberate and rigid script in terms of a lot of the narrative and thematic elements. You change things on the day based on if they’re sounding good or not, but I didn’t have enough time to riff. It’s also not shot or lit in a way that if people are making stuff up it’ll cut together properly. It’s just a tricky process.
What did you enjoy the most in making this film and what do you hope people will take away from it?
BenDavid Grabinski: Well, there’s a lot of subtext stuff I hope people take away from it, but I also don’t want to say what that is. I like the idea of someone who’s 22 and never has had a serious relationship watching the movie and feeling one way while someone else who’s on their second divorce will feel another way. The movie, to me, is designed to correlate, in a way, to where you are at life and what you’re projecting from your own experience. But having said that and getting all the pretentious stuff out of the way, one element is definitely the way that we compare ourselves to other people and how that impedes our happiness, you know, cause everybody does it, it’s like the most human thing possible. I hadn’t seen a movie that did that in terms of relationships, it’s usually about jobs or finances or class or cliques that people are in. I just wanted to try to capture that and also capture the kind of tumultuous nature of adult couple groups (laughs).
For more on HAPPILY check out our review here. HAPPILY is now in theaters, On Digital and On Demand.