Compellingly making a female driven comedy that chronicles the complexity of their relationships in both a funny and meaningful way can be an equally daunting and liberating task. But the new independent movie ‘Addicted to Fresno,’ which was directed by Jamie Babbit and written by television scribe Karey Dornetto, comically and meaningfully chronicles how families enable each other to continue destructive patterns. But they ultimately realize they must ultimately separate in order to grow. Also emphasizing the vulnerability of two distinct sisters, as well as the prospect of redeeming their mistakes, despite their reluctance to change their bad choices, proves that the filmmakers know how to create relatable characters who the audience will never give up on.
‘Addicted to Fresno,’ which is set to open in select theaters this Friday, and is also now available On Demand and on iTunes, follows two co-dependent sisters who have distinct and contrasting views on the potential of their lives and futures in the title California city. Shannon (Judy Greer) has just finished a stint in sex rehab when her younger, overly optimistic lesbian sister, Martha (Natasha Lyonne), lands her a job as a maid at the local hotel, Fresno Suites. The two siblings largely rely on each other for emotional support, as their parents have both died, but the financially and emotionally secure Martha is often pressured to provide stability for her older sister.
So when Shannon jeopardizes her fresh start by accidentally killing a hotel guest, Boris Lipka (Jon Daly), after a post-rehab relapse, Martha goes to great lengths to help her sister cover up the crime. The two go so far as to agree to pay the local veterinarian, Gerald (Fred Armisen), who they’ve known for years, if he’ll cremate the body and help them hide the evidence of their crime.
In the process of trying to conceal her crime, Shannon finally learns to take responsibility for her actions. She realizes that she shouldn’t have interrupted the marriage of her rehab therapist, Edwin (Ron Livingston), and that Martha should be able to focus on her other relationships, including a potential romance with her gym instructor, Kelly (Aubrey Plaza). As a result, the sisters finally begin to resolve their tortured relationship.
Babbit and Dornetto generously took the time to talk about directing and writing ‘Addicted to Fresno’ at the Loews Regency Hotel in New York City. Among other things, the helmer and scribe discussed how Dornetto decided to write her first feature film script when she and Babbit agreed to collaborate on the comedy together, and how they became interested in crafting a story about co-dependent sisters that they could feature the great comedic actresses they have previously worked with in; how they decided to cast Greer and Lyonne as the two sisters, as the director has previously worked with both actresses, and admires their complex range of emotions that they can bring to their roles; and how they embraced filming the movie independently as it allowed them to include the dark humor that they both felt was necessary to feature in the story.
ShockYa (SY): Karey, you wrote the screenplay for the new comedy, ‘Addicted to Fresno.’ What was the process of coming up with the idea for the story, and collaborating with Jamie on the script?
Karey Dornetto (KD): Well, I had never written a script for a feature before. Jamie and I are a couple, so I wanted to write something for her to direct. So we collaborated on the script from the very beginning.
I came up the idea of these two sisters who are working in a hotel together, because I have an older sister. The film’s story is based on my relationship with my sister, and Jamie liked that idea, so we went from there.
Jamie Babbit (JB): Karey had pitched me a bunch of ideas, and I really liked her concept of creating two co-dependent sisters for the film. So one sister is an out-of-control addict, and the other sister is enabling her, even though she hates doing so.
We also wanted to make a movie for all the great comedic comedy actresses who we’re friends with. I had worked with Natasha Lyonne on ‘But I’m a Cheerleader,’ and had also collaborated with Judy Greer on her FX show, ‘Married.’ I also wanted to make a movie where I could use Jessica St. Clair and all of these other great women who I have previously worked with.
I feel like there are so many movies where the guys get to be funny, and the girls only have one scene. So I really wanted to make a movie where all the women were cast as the funny leads.
KD: That was a conscious choice that I made in my writing. I wanted to feature women in what would typically be a male role. I thought, Molly Shannon can be in this role, and all of the roles in general could be created for funny ladies, because we know so many of them.
SY: Jamie, since you were involved in the shaping of the comedy’s story, how did that experience influence the way you approached directing ‘Addicted to Fresno?’
JB: As the director, it definitely did help to be involved with developing the story and script, because I knew what every emotional beat was there for. Since I really understood the movement of the story, I knew how to move the camera.
One of the things that I really like about directing movies is that you’re involved in the process from the ground up. But with TV, you come in at the same second. That’s probably why making independent films is better for directors-you become more involved in the process.
SY: Like you just mentioned, since you previously directed both Natasha and Judy on several of your previous projects, what was the casting process like for ‘Addicted to Fresno?’ How did you get them to sign on a the two lead sisters in the comedy?
KD: With Natasha, I looked back on my notes, and saw that I had written her name from the very beginning. I loved ‘But I’m a Cheerleader’ even before I met Jamie, so casting Natasha jut seemed right.
JB: In real life, Natasha is very different from her character in ‘But I’m a Cheerleader.’ But she did such a great job of playing that sunny, enabling cheerleader-type. There’s something very dark and layered about Natasha, and she has a real depth, so she brings so much of that depth to these bubbly characters.
She has been through so much in her life, but she’s one of the brightest actresses I’ve ever worked with, in terms of mental brainpower-she’s so smart. So to have that kind of depth in her eyes, while also bringing this bubbliness, made (Megan in ‘But I’m a Cheerleader) a more nuanced character. So I wanted to cast her in that type of character again.
Then with Judy, she’s so likable. She’s very Midwestern and sweet, which I knew she naturally had in her. So for her to play an unlikable character like Shannon would make her less hateful.
KD: Yes, we needed someone like Judy to bring that feeling to Shannon.
JB: Casting someone really dark in that part wouldn’t make the film funny. It’s always about mixing the heavy elements with the funny moments.
SY: Natasha and Judy’s characters in ‘Addicted to Fresno’ are atypical to how they’re traditionally cast; Natasha usually plays characters who are emotionally struggling, while Judy typically portrays levelheaded characters. Did you feel the actress’ role reversals emphasized the film’s message that people aren’t who they initially appear to be, and often struggle with their identities?
JB: Yes, I really wanted that reversec casting. I needed to bring lightness to the Shannon part and darkness to the Martha part. If I didn’t cast against type, I wouldn’t get those kinds of layers. But they’re both phenomenal actors, so I knew that they would embrace their parts. There was also the comfort level with the both of them, since I had worked with both of them for a large amount of time.
SY: What was the process of discussing and planning the often times strained dynamics and relationship between Shannon and Martha with Natasha and Judy before you began filming the comedy-drama?
JB: We had some rehearsals before we began filming. We also went to the hotel where we shot the movie and observed the maids, including how they stripped the beds, changed the pillowcases and cleaned the bathrooms. Natasha and Judy had never thought about the actual steps involved in working in housekeeping. In the process of actually doing research of what happens behind-the-scenes at a hotel, they were also able to get to know each other. We also did readings, and changed some aspects of the script.
SY: Once you began filming, did you encourage Natasha, Judy and the rest of the cast to improvise?
JB: We did allow the cast to improv. But we did have very specific story points that we had to hit in each scene, because the movie has a lot of story. But we definitely always told the actors that after we got what we needed from the script, they could do what they wanted.
A lot of times, they would also improvise things that had absolutely nothing to do with their characters and the story. But in the process of being playful, they would come up with very genius lines, and a lot of those lines are in the movie.
KD: I’m a writer on ‘Portlandia,’ and that show’s heavily improvised, too. So I was very comfortable with saying, “As long as we can get what we have written, and then see what they can do, I’ll be happy.” So I’m a fan of seeing what the actors can come up with.
JB: Fred Armisen (who also stars on ‘Portlandia’) improvized all of his scenes in the movie.
KD: They began improvising so much that they forgot some plot points. We were like, “We have to go back.”
JB: We’d tell them, “You guys have to talk about Detroit! Remember, you want to move to Detroit?” (laughs)
KD: Sometimes you do get bored with the script you have written, so you’re excited to see what the actors come up with. But sometimes you still have to get important story and plot points that you need in with their improvising.
SY: Why was incorporating the dark humor into the story also an important aspect for both of you?
JB: The dark comedy element was very important. During pre-production, I would watch ‘Fargo’ and other Coen brothers films and crime comedies, so that I could see how they keep things funny while the characters are killing people.
One of the questions people had during pre-production was, “How much blood should we have?” But it’s not funny when there’s a ton of blood. So I was constantly trying to find the sweet spot in the tone, so that the film remained a dark comedy, but didn’t become too dark that it becomes too edgy.
SY: The comedy is set in the title city of Fresno, a location you both chose because it seemed like it was a place people wanted to get away from. Why did you also feel it was important to incorporate such a city into the film, and showcase that people are so eager to leave their hometown that they feel has trapped them?
KD: I think part of the big thing in the film is that Natasha’s character, Martha, is slightly in denial about how good her life is. But part of her character is to be positive about everything. So we wanted to put the sisters in a town that most people would like to get out of, and Fresno’s one of those towns.
JB: I think being gay people who grew up in smaller towns like we did, we always had the feeling of wanting to leave. But I would say that 90 percent of the people I went to high school with still live in their hometown. So that’s something that we wanted to talk about.
Karey’s sister also still lives in her hometown, about ten minutes from their parents, while Karey lives in L.A. So we were really speaking to the truth about her relationship with her sister.
KD: So with the Shannon character leaving their hometown so that she can be different and better, and then being forced to move back, is why she’s so angry. She doesn’t want to be there-she tried to leave, and she failed, which I think happens to a lot of people.
JB: Meanwhile, Martha owns her own home. If you’re a housekeeper at a hotel, you’re not making a great amount of money. But she’s saved her money all these years so that she can buy a home, which is something. Martha’s very responsible and good at taking care of other people. She’s good at taking care of herself in some ways, but in other ways, she can’t take care of herself at all.
SY: You shot ‘Addicted to Fresno’ throughout Los Angeles. How did you choose the places where you wanted to film the comedy? Do you prefer filming on location, as opposed to a soundstage?
JB: Well, we went to a lot of different hotels in L.A., because we knew that the hotel was our main location. We were all going to be living in, and shooting at, the hotel. But we also wanted to find a hotel in L.A., so that it would be easier for the cast and crew to commute. We knew we wanted to shoot some of the movie in Fresno, but most of it was shot in L.A. We found a great location that could also accommodate a Bar Mitzvah and a softball convention
KD: We didn’t want a super swanky hotel; we wanted something that was the middle of the road, and would make sense to be in Fresno and have all of these events. Some of the hotels we went to did have the space to hold Bar Mitzvahs and Rotary Clubs. Some of them were a little too fancy, but the one we choose was perfect.
JB: We also spent a lot of time driving around Fresno, so that we could find out what the gay vibe was there. We also wanted to see what the CrossFit gym was like there. We also went to a pet cemetery in Fresno.
SY: What was the process of shooting the comedy independently? How did the process influence your overall creative process as the director and writer, both while you were filming and during pre- and post-production?
KD: Filming the movie independently definitely did influence the process. I had originally written a lot of scenes where they were out in the streets and riding the bus. But we couldn’t end up including those elements, because we didn’t have the money to do all that stuff.
JB: We had to take out a lot of the bigger technical scenes that required a lot of permits and extras that we couldn’t afford. But what was great about making the movie independently is that the script was very edgy, and we were able to keep that humor. I think if we made the film through a studio, they wouldn’t have let us do some of the jokes that we wanted to do that aren’t in the vein of typical Hollywood comedies.
SY: Jamie, besides ‘Married,’ you have also helmed episodes for such diverse television series as ‘Girls’ and ‘United States of Tara.’ What is it about television that you also enjoy directing episodes for different shows? How does the process compare and contrast to helming movies?
JB: Well, the great think about making independent films is that you’re not under as much time pressure as television. You can make a television episode in only five days, so that’s really hard. You’re also part of a corporate machine. So there’s something nice about busting out and doing something you think is great.
SY: ‘Addicted to Fresno’s distribution rights were acquired by Gravitas Ventures, which released the comedy through Video On Demand on September 1, and will also unveil it in select theaters (this Friday, October 2). Are you personally a fan of watching movies On Demand? Why do you think the platform is beneficial for independent films like this one?
JB: Yes, we definitely think VOD is beneficial. We’re parents, so we don’t go out that much at night, so we’re constantly watching things on VOD. So the fact that the movie is also on iTunes is awesome.
SY: ‘Addicted to Fresno’ had its world premiere at this year’s SXSW, and also screened at L.A.’s Outfest, the Toronto LGBT Film Festival, the Frameline Film Festival and the Edinburgh International Film Festival. What has the experience of taking the comedy on the festival circuit been like for both of you? How did audiences react to the movie during its premiere?
KD: It’s been fun. SXSW was great-every screening was sold out, and it seemed like people were really into the movie.
JB: I think people who go to film festivals are real movie lovers, and they’re excited about the experience. Doing the Q&As, and being interactive with the audience, is a fun, great experience.
Written by: Karen Benardello