ScreenPrism talked to Michael Showalter, the comedy giant behind Wet Hot American Summer (2002) and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (2015), about directing his latest film, Hello, My Name is Doris (2016). The movie stars Sally Field as an eccentric Staten Island resident who, after losing her mother, develops a passionate crush on a 30-ish co-worker (Max Greenfield) and befriends his group of Brooklyn hipsters.
We asked Showalter about hipster fashion sense, working with Field, and what his movie has to say about aging.
ScreenPrism: One of the movie’s jokes is that an eccentric older lady has the same aesthetic style as today’s Brooklyn hipsters. Can you talk about how you arrived at the idea of comparing the two demographics?
Michael Showalter: The movie is set in New York City. I lived in Brooklyn for a long time; my co-writer Laura Terruso also is a young, hip, New York person. So we liked the idea that Doris, who, her clothing obviously is such a big part of her character, finds herself sort of as an accidental celebrity in this hipster, artisanal sub-culture of Williamsburg that is so incredible and so vibrant. So we liked the juxtaposition of that, that she's kind of the real article of what they are all in some respects trying to be.
Sally Field in Hello, My Name is Doris (2016)
SP: The film features an older woman as a protagonist and makes her funny, but her age (or her crush on a younger guy) is not the butt of the joke. How did you approach making Doris a strong comic lead while maintaining sympathy and respect for the character?
MS: She's a great comic protagonist in that she's a unique person, a specific kind of person, [and] she wants something very strongly in the movie, which is this guy. And so her pursuit of him, given the limitations of her character as this person who's been very isolated her whole life, creates some really funny scenarios. And she behaves in a way that's not typical to how people who are fully integrated in society would normally behave. She says things and does things that are surprising in a funny way. But we never, ever wanted it to be like, "Oh, isn't that so funny that she's old and he's not?" That was just never, ever something that we were interested in as part of the joke of the movie. In every way, from the casting to the way the movie was directed to the writing, we're never, ever wanting this to be a movie that people feel like is making fun of or at the expense of this character.
SP: Did you use any other cross-generational romances as inspiration?
MS: No, actually. People have mentioned Harold and Maude (1971), and that's certainly a movie that I really like, but the movie is more, in terms of the romance, a little bit more for me about the underdog and the popular person. The templates are more of a Molly Ringwald kind of story, where John is the popular kid, and she's the outsider. And it's sort of about being accepted. Everyone says that she's weird, and he says, "Yeah, she is weird, but she's good weird." It's a kind of a can't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover story.
Max Greenfield, Natasha Lyonne and Sally Field
SP: Even though Hello My Name is Doris is a movie about aging, it feels like a coming-of-age. As you've said, Doris' story of infatuation could be the plot of a teen movie. Does the movie have any lesson to teach about aging or growing up, or both?
MS: If there's a lesson or an idea to that point, it might just be: it's never too late to change. I do kind of believe that, that we're never too old, ever, to change something that could make us better people or happier people. Here is a character who by all accounts should be thinking that her time has run out, and whatever her lot is, that's what it is. But the message is: it's not too late. It's never too late. It's never too late to start again.
SP: Can you talk about the writing process and how you expanded the story from the original short that inspired it?
MS: I wrote the movie with Laura Terruso, who wrote and directed the short film Doris and the Intern, which she made as a student at NYU Graduate Film School, and I was teaching at the grad school — I wasn't her teacher. [Doris and the Intern] is a really funny, quirky, irreverent movie about this character, similar to the one you see in my movie, but we created a whole world and a whole context for her that was fun to develop a whole world that was much more about the hoarding and the family and the hipsters. The short film really centers on just her having the crush on the younger co-worker.
Isabella Acres and Sally Field in Hello My Name is Doris (2016)
SP: What was it like working with Sally Field? Is this a side of the actress we’ve not seen before?
MS: She certainly hasn't done a big comedic role in a while. It's exciting to see Sally doing comedy again and also in a leading role in a movie. Working with her was the great experience of my career thus far — I'm such a huge admirer of her. She's an iconic actress of my generation and many people's generation. So for me, it was just an amazing experience and a huge honor to get the chance to work so closely with her on a project like this.
SP: You’re coming off of the Wet Hot American Summer revival. What did it feel like to reunite with the whole cast after all those years?
MS: It was great. A lot of us are still kind of current with each other, so it wasn't like I hadn't seen any of them in all that time, but it was really fun to all work together again and just be silly and revisit those characters. It was great.
SP: In your current projects, as a director, have your interests and style evolved over the years?
MS: I think I've gravitated more towards maybe material that's got a little more drama in it, which is great. But I also still come from a comedy perspective. Hopefully, I'll continue to evolve forever. Hopefully.