People often struggle to better themselves in an effort to prove they can provide for their families, particularly after becoming involved in an ethically and legally wrong situation that was born out of good intentions. Dennis, the main character in writer-director Phil Morrison’s new comedy-drama, ‘All Is Bright,’ misguidedly began stealing in an effort to better support his wife and their young daughter, only to eventually get caught and be sent to jail for four years. Upon his release, he has the best intentions and schemes to once again find a way to support his family. But once he sees them again, Dennis finally begins to realize that the best way to help his family is to allow them to explore their own paths and live their lives freely of any of his deceptions.
‘All Is Bright’ follows two French Canadians who travel to New York City during the holiday season with a get-rich-quick scheme of selling Christmas trees. Dennis (Paul Giamatti) is a no-nonsense, recently released ex-con trying to get his life–and his wife and young daughter–back. Rene (Paul Rudd) is Dennis’s charming, shallow, former partner-in-crime who is now living with Dennis’s estranged wife. Feeling guilty and knowing Dennis needs a job, Rene reluctantly agrees to make Dennis a partner in the scheme. Though the two former friends struggle with each other and an eclectic array of tough New York customers, including the rich Russian immigrant, Olga (Sally Hawkins), they discover much about themselves in the process.
Giamatti and Morrison generously took the time recently to sit down in the Playwright Celtic Pub in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen to talk about filming ‘All Is Bright.’ Among other things, the actor and writer-director discussed how Hawkins joined Giamatti and Rudd in the cast because she was someone Morrison had wanted to work with since she appeared in ‘Happy-Go-Lucky,’ and she was excited about the role; how the two main stars had a lot of discussions and some rehearsal time to help build their on-screen relationship, but the contrast between their two characters was already in the script, which helped build the tension between them; and how the actor and filmmaker both have had extreme road trips of their own, including Giamatti being stranded in Oregon with a friend, and how they stayed with a college rodeo and got drunk on an Indian reservation until they could get their car fixed.
Question (Q): The movie was originally title ‘Almost Christmas,’ before being changed to ‘All is Bright.’ How did the change come about?
Phil Morrison (PM): We knew we wanted a title change.
Paul Giamatti (PG): The movie actually didn’t really have a title. One of the hardest things in the world was trying to find a title for it. We literally had a list of 150 names (laughs), and nobody could settle.
PM: We were actually rooting for ‘Two Thieves,’ which Paul came up with.
PG: Yeah, that wasn’t bad. But everyone would turn it down, it was a big controversial thing.
PM: It’s kind of emblematic of a lot of things about this movie. There were many ever-shifting committees on things to say and decisions to make. (Giamatti laughs.)
‘All Is Bright’ comes from ‘Silent Night.’ I like it as a title because I think that is essentially true. In this movie, it presents all kinds of ways to doubt that idea.
PG: It’s an oblique way of doing Christmas.
Q: Sally Hawkins can do pretty much anything, but isn’t the first person who comes to mind when you think of Eastern European women. Was the character always built that way?
PG: She was always supposed to be Russian. She was your idea as a person, wasn’t she?
PM: I feel like when I brought her up, Liz Giamatti, one of the producers, also had her on a list, is that right?
PM: I always thought of her as someone I was always dying to do something with since ‘Happy-Go-Lucky.’ It didn’t seem likely that we were going to find someone who was Eastern European. Sally was excited about doing to do that. Melissa James Gibson, who wrote the script, who Paul has known for a really long time, has a particular interest in Russians.
PG: She is fascinated with Eastern Europeans and their down-beat attitudes. I figured Sally can do anything; it never occurred to me that she couldn’t. She even learned how to play difficult pieces on the piano.
PM: She also had very little time to think about the Russian accent.
Q: Paul, what kind of research did you do for the role? Did you talk to anyone who was recently released from prison?
PG: No, I didn’t do any research like that.
PM: I imprisoned him. (laughs)
PG: Yeah, in a sense I felt imprisoned by the whole experience. (laughs) I figured I could imagine what it would be like to be in prison. We had to work a little bit on the Canadian accent, which Rudd does better than I do in the movie. It proves to be a much trickier accent then I thought it was going to be. I’d rather do a Russian accent than a Canadian accent. But I was familiar with that part of Quebec. But I could imagine what it would be like to be in prison.
Q: Did you film in Canada at all?
PG: We didn’t shoot in Quebec; we shot in Brooklyn. (laughs) We shot what was supposed to be Canada in upstate New York.
PM: We had conversations about where we knew they were going to end up. This had a super quick shooting schedule and prep, so we felt it would be a fool’s errand to say, these guys should be French Canadians.
PG: It would have been too much to try to do that during the limited amount of time we had.
Q: Paul, how did you play off of Paul Rudd’s character to build the buddy comedy?
PG: Well, the contrast is enough to already get the comedy going. He’s a way better comedic actor than me, so I just went with him and followed his lead. I just had to react to him, for the most part.
We had lots of discussions and some rehearsal time. But the contrast between the two characters is already there, and we know what to do. He’s lighter on his feet, which he should be, especially in this part. He’s just a really good actor, and I like to think I’m okay, so we just figured it out.
It’s hard to say who’s the straight man from one second to the next, and who’s dumber than the other; it actually switches, which I thought was interested. They’re both not very smart.
Q: Speaking of the fact that these two characters aren’t the smartest, can you talk about the emotional intelligence of them both?
PG: It’s interesting, I think my character does have some kind of emotional intelligence. It’s crude, but it gets to a place of expressing something. There’s an irony in the fact that Paul’s character, who you would think has a greater emotional intelligence, isn’t capable of making selfless sacrifices.
PM: Maybe for Paul’s character, it’s always about doing. He thinks, if I’m going to be good, I have to do something. It seems to me that your character’s in a position of accepting things the way they are.
PM: They’re both so misguided in their own ways, that it gives them access to truth and possibility that’s just out of reach. I think Sally’s character for you, Paul, is an example of how to have his attitude while also being happy, or at least function.
Q: Was there any ad-libing while you were shooting, or did you stick to the script?
PG: There was some ad-libing, but Paul’s better at that then I am. He did a lot of stuff when he was selling the trees. But I think the script was constructed in a way that you didn’t want to mess with it, either.
PM: We were doing very few takes. So a decision had to be made of whether we were going to really improvise, or be pretty true to the script. We mainly stuck to the script, though, except when Paul Rudd was selling the trees.
Q: What do you look for in a project-is it script-based, or directed-based?
PG: (I look for the) facial hair. What kind of facial hair will I have? (laughs) I knew this one was a winner, and I would have interesting facial hair. It was real. I went to the school of follicle realism. If I have the hair, I have the character. (laughs)
Generally it’s about the story and whether it’s gripping and character-driven. The characters in this were great. I also have to find the story interesting. The person who is going to be directing can be almost more important. The character consideration comes later, but I do like to play a nice character, too.
I need to be compelled to finish reading it, which is more rare than you’d think. I used to be a very good boy and read the whole script of anything I got, but then I realized I don’t have to keep reading if after 20 pages, I don’t want to keep reading it.
Q: What is the least you’ve ever read, just the title page?
PG: (laughs) No, I don’t think I’m that bad. I generally get into it at least beyond the title page.
Q: The characters you play are so different from each other. Do you need downtime between roles?
PG: I’d like to take more downtime than I get. I should be able to, but sometimes the most pleasurable thing to go from one extreme and catapult to the next. That can actually be easier. If the roles were too similar, that would be harder. To jump to something entirely different is what an actor is supposed to do.
Q: Do you seek those different roles out?
PG: I do, I try to. If I can find things that are different, that is more interesting to me. I have some funny notion that that’s what actors are supposed to do. People should see me and say, “Oh, that guy again. Look, now he’s playing that.” People shouldn’t really be paying attention to that, though. They should be watching the movie.
Q: Was that the case with ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2?’
PG: Yeah, I said, “Sure, that’s great!” That kind of thing is really fun. People asked me, “Man, how are you going to play that?” I said, “I’ve been ready to play this since I was 5-years-old. This is easy. I know how to run around with a machine gun and scream at people and blow stuff up.” (laughs) That was fun and great.
Q: Did you wear prosthetics?
PG: I didn’t have to wear any prosethics, but I did have to wear tattoos, but they weren’t a big deal. But I have a thing that I’m not supposed to talk about it. They’d kill me. (laughs)
Q: Do you have any other upcoming projects lined up?
PG: I just did an episode of ‘Downton Abbey.’ I’m also going to go do a movie version of ‘Madame Bovary’ in France, so that’s where I’ll be. French director Sophie Barthes is directing. She also directed me in the movie ‘Cold Souls.’
I also did a movie called ‘Love & Mercy’ about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. It’s a good script, but a tough story to tell. It’s all about Brian Wilson’s breakdown. It falls into two halves with two different actors. First it’s Paul Dano, and John Cusack is the older one.
I play Dr. Landy, the psychotherapist, and it’s a great character. Brian Wilson had a severe freakout and his family got in touch with a psychotherapist out in L.A. named Eugene Landy who took over. That’s where most of the story comes from, because the doctor was basically insane. He made Brian play in a sandbox, I mean crazy stuff. So I got to play the crazy psychotherapist.
Q: One of the more memorable parts of the film is the road trip Dennis and Rene take. Do you have any road trip stories that informed your character and the way you made the film?
PM: I grew up in North Carolina, and one time in the horrible heat of the summer, rode in the back of an enclosed pick-up truck to see Bob Dylan. I rode with a friend of mine, and I was sick. (laughs)
We went from Winston-Salem to here-Madison Square Garden. It was in the late 1980s, for the tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. My poor friend, Jon Wurster, had to sit in the back with me, so he’s the one who really suffered.
PG: I’ve driven across the country many times. Once with a friend from New York to Seattle, and our car broke down in Oregon. We were stuck in the desert for a week. There was a rodeo, and I had never been to a rodeo before. But this was a college rodeo, so there were a bunch of college cowboys. (laughs) So it was insane to begin with.
But the most interesting part was that there’s an Indian reservation, right next to the town we were in. We spent some time in an Indian bar and left with them to go live on their reservation.
It was a unique experience, but one I couldn’t take after two days. I’ve never drunk that much in my life, and it was crazy. I don’t remember most of it except that it was depressing as hell. (laughs) My friend stayed there for a couple days beyond and I thought, “Am I going to have to go in and get him out?”
Then I was stuck at the motel with the college cowboys, and he was gone with the Indians. There were times when we’d be in a truck with a bunch of guys, and I’d think, “Where the hell are we?” You’d then come to in a weird place. It was intense, and I couldn’t take it after two or three days.
Written by: Karen Benardello