Even the most time-honored and celebrated family traditions can ultimately cause tension among people who are unable – or unwilling – to cope with conflict with their relatives. That’s certainly the case for the inhibited siblings in the new comedy, ‘Because We’re Family,’ as they struggle to agree on how to best cope with the aftermath of their mother’s death.
Filmmaker Angela Stern created the strained dynamics between the siblings, as she wrote the script for the project. She and fellow filmmaker, Christine Nyhart, also made their feature film directorial and producing debuts on the project, which they both also starred in.
‘Because We’re Family’ had its World premieres at this year’s 25th Annual Dances With Film festival this past Wednesday, June 15 at the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
‘Because We’re Family’ follows the dysfunctionality that ensues between three siblings who come together to deal with the sudden loss of their mother. While Dallas and Kourtney (Josh Drennen and Nyhart) have been coping with their mother’s death for over a month, their youngest sibling, Belinda (Stern) finally returns from Tibet in time to collectively witness their mother’s cremation. The three then return to their childhood home to live and grieve together for the holidays.
All dressed up to take their kids out for trick or treating on Halloween, Belinda surprises her siblings by announcing that she is planning to take their mother’s ashes to her home country of Trinidad per her final wishes. Dallas and Kourtney are sure she should stay right on the mantle in their family home, and think their sister is up to her usual outlandish ways.
After a few weeks of arguing leads to a Thanksgiving blowout, Dallas kicks Belinda out of the house, and she is forced to spend time down the street, in a run-down hotel, alone. As Christmas approaches, the family realizes that some holiday traditions are just too difficult to digest, but are determined to make peace once and for all.
Stern and Nyhart generously took the time recently to talk about scribing, helming and starring in ‘Because We’re Family’ during an exclusive interview over Zoom. Among other things, the filmmakers discussed how their combined creative backgrounds allowed them to seamlessly work together to make the project together as first-time feature film helmers and co-stars. They also shared their excitement over premiering the comedy at Dances With Films earlier this week.
ShockYa (SY): Angela, you wrote the script for the new comedy, ‘Because We’re Family.’ What was the inspiration in penning the screenplay?
Angela Stern (AS): We started getting the script together in 2014, after my mother passed away. Shortly there after, Christine’s mother also passed away.
At the time, we were working at the same theater, The Ruskin Group Theatre, in Santa Monica. We were doing a fundraising show for the theater – a group of Christmas plays.
For some weird reason, I said, “We’ll write one.” So I wrote this six-minute short play called “Mama’s Eggnog.’ Christine and I were in it, as was Josh Drennen, who played Dallas in this movie.
We had such a blast that I thought, this has teeth to it. So I submitted it to the Samuel French Off Off Broadway (Short Play) Festival, and completely forgot about it.
Then in May of the next year, I was at home, newly divorced and had two kids, and about 11 cents in my bank account. (Stern laughs.) Then I got this email that said, “Congratulations, you’re one of the finalists for the festival.” So we knew the story had some legs.
I always had the screenplay in my head as a full-length movie about these characters. So then I was off to writing the full-length screenplay.
Christine believed in it, so we started workshopping the script. We worked on it until I was able to get it to the final version. So there was a lot of rewriting until it was completed.
Christine Nyhart (CN): There were a number of opportunities to perform the play. We put it on here in L.A., so we were able to get a feel about the audiences’ reactions, and what story points were working and weren’t working. It was a long process, but we were lucky to have that time.
AS: Yes, very much so.
SY: You both also made your feature film directorial debuts on the project together. What was your approach to helming the movie together during the production?
CN: When we originally started planning the production, we actually planned on hiring a director and spoke with a couple. There was one we were particularly looking at. But along the way, we realized that the two of us, since we worked on the script together, really knew the story and characters more than anyone else.
It wasn’t an easy decision, and we really debated it, as we were nervous about the idea of taking on our first film as directors. But in the end, we decided to take the risk and jump into it.
AS: We knew we had different qualities that we could bring to this production. With my creative mind and Christine’s attention to detail, we clicked right away.
Christine and I had the benefit of arguing just enough to make the film better, while agreeing on the really important stuff.
It was still crazy stressful and super long hours. But we had an amazing director of photography (Eric Macey), who knew what we were going for, and helped us get the shots that we wanted. He helped us get these wide frames, so that the viewers feel like they’re in the room with the family. He really helped us bring our vision to life.
CN: I would say the process was very positive. Just like Angela said, we were fortunate enough to have this incredible team; we could never have attempted it without this team. Every piece fell into place, and the universe was looking over us.
SY: You both also star in ‘Because We’re Family’s ensemble cast. How did you decide how you would cast the rest of the actors in the film?
AS: That was an easy process. The other main characters, who are played by Josh Drennen and Tyler Meridith, were in the Meisner program at The Ruskin Group Theatre with Christine and me. There was something about the four of us that clicked and made us say, “We’re going to do something together. We don’t know what it is, but we will.”
We became a family through the process of performing the play. So when we wanted to make the film, we knew that all of these people embodied their characters in the way that we had written them.
Then when we got to casting the role of Peter, we worked with a casting director named Doug Haley. We had a long list of people, and C. Thomas Howell was on that list.
The universe just smiled on us because he got the script from his agent and read it. He happened to be traveling through British Columbia to do reshoots for a project he was on. He said, “I loved the script and really want to do it.”
That was such a magical moment because we were on location about two weeks out from filming when we cast that role. So for him to come on board with that kind of enthusiasm and love for the project was amazing.
Then Victor Wells, who plays Christine’s son was such a blessing. We wanted to get a differently aged actor to play that role. But Doug Haley found Victor, and we changed our minds, as he was perfect for the role.
The other two kids are played by my children, and they were just little naturals on set. They loved it and gave it their best performances.
So we lucked out on the casting; it was one of the easiest parts of the whole process.
CN: That’s definitely true. It was down to the wire, but it was good; we were lucky.
SY: Speaking of the locations, ‘Because We’re Family’ was shot in Portland, Oregon. What was the experience like of deciding where you would shoot the movie, and then filming the project in the city?
CN: While we were filming, we stayed in one house, so we were together 24/7; we were working and cooking together. It was incredible.
We started off wanting to shoot in Ashland, as we loved the idea of shooting in Oregon. We loved the weather, as it helped give the movie more of a holiday feeling that you can’t get in Southern California.
Then when we met Alyssa Roehrenbeck, our producer, and she signed on to work on the film, she lived in Portland. She had worked on a lot of films up there already, so she had a lot of connections there.
I also grew up in Portland, so I thought it would be wonderful to go back there and have the experience of making the movie there.
AS: When we found the house, we thought it was the perfect look and feel for the movie. It has this big upstairs and giant downstairs. So walking onto that set and realizing it was our main location, we knew we had this little gem of a place to call our own and move things around. We could make the kitchen and dining room these unique places. We did a heavy amount of remodeling in that house.
We spent almost six weeks together as a group. To be able to go away as a team, instead of driving to set everyday, changed the game. We felt like we were just in that world, and we were able to give ourselves over to it in a way that we normally wouldn’t get to.
SY: ‘Because We’re Family’ (had) its World Premiere at this month’s Dances With Films Festival. What does it mean to you both that the comedy (premiered) at the festival?
AS: It’s been thrilling. It’s been the culmination of a lot of hard, but also fun, work. Just anticipating being able to watch the film with a large group of people, and finally bringing it to the world, is amazing. Hopefully it will touch some people out there.
The Dances team has been fantastic. They’ve been endlessly informative, and you never have to question anything. You feel very much a part of their family. The pride they take in the festival, and honoring each filmmaker, is phenomenal. We’ve enjoyed working with them so much.