Sundance Preview: 'Skeleton Twins' Reunites Former 'SNL' Co-stars Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig
After his debut “True Adolescents” struggled to find an audience, director Craig Johnson bounces back with name talent and a honed script.
The Sundance Film Festival is a mecca for independent cinema and a pool of fresh filmmaking talent. But with nearly 200 films selected for exhibition, it can be a dizzying game of catch up. So this year, THR decided to do a bit of prep work for you; Here's the who/what/where/when/why on a film worth putting on your radar.
According to writer/director Craig Johnson, his Sundance Competition film The Skeleton Twins evolved from a fictionalized account of a high school math teacher's illicit relationship with a student into a story of estranged fraternal twins dealing with near death experiences. A perfect fit for Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, two former Saturday Night Live veterans? Apparently so.
"It's funny but in a very character-driven kind of way. It walks that funny, sad line. My favorite movies do," Johnson says.
In anticipation of The Skeleton Twins' Sundance premiere on Jan. 18 at the Library Theatre, we look back at Johnson's career, a trajectory that's taken him from micro-budget filmmaking, the studio system, and somewhere in-between:
Background: The Skeleton Twins marks the second feature from Johnson, who holds an MFA in Film New York University's graduate film program. True Adolescents premiered at SXSW in 2009, and slowly crept towards release in 2011. "2009 is commonly known as a crappy year for film distribution and the economy in general," recounts Johnson of True Adolescents lifespan. "In that context, it was kind of a cold comfort but I was like, because directors will always be a little self-flagellating, I blamed me and blamed the film, even though I love the film. I still feel like it's woefully under seen. One of my hopes of Skeleton Twins is that people will go back and watch True Adolescents."
The Road to a Follow-up: While True Adolescents only found a small audience, the movie landed Johnson an agent, a manager, and a gig at Fox's Writers Intensive, a year-long, feature-developing think tank that accepts 12 screenwriters each year. "It was better in theory than in practice," jokes Johnson. "The best thing for me was getting my foot in the door. We were on the lot, we had daily contact with the executives. You got an inside look at how things are made." The writer/director says Fox asked him to come up with weird, crazy versions of the big movies they normally make. He penned two screenplays -- both of which were a little too weird and crazy for the studio.
After the intensive, Johnson returned to a script he had co-written with his writing partner Mark Heyman (who went on to nab a job at Darren Aronofsky's Protozoa Pictures, co-produce The Wrestle, and write Black Swan) eight years prior while still graduate school. Before True Adolescents, Johnson and Heyman and chipped away at The Skeleton Twins in hopes of submitting the screenplay to the Sundance Writer's Lab. After several submission attempts and rejections, the duo put the script aside and pursued other projects. Two years after directing his first feature, Johnson remembered the movie. "I dug it out and I thought, 'This isn't half bad.'"
Getting the Film Off the Ground: To mount Skeleton Twins, Johnson turned to a man with a track record for indie success: Mark Duplass. The Renaissance man had starred in True Adolescents, and Johnson turned to him for an Executive Producer role on Skeleton Twins.
"He's got a P.T. Barnum style to him," Johnson says of Duplass. "The way Mark operates is that you don't set the bar too high. He firmly believes that film is too expensive and they don't need to be. Your limitations can be creatively invigorating. So he's as cheerleader and champion, someone to get everyone riled up. Everyone loves him and wants to work with him. He has good ideas on how to strategize. It wasn't a micro-budget movie. It's not part of the 'mumblecore' world. So we'd have to get actors that people have heard of. Mark agreed and once he came on board, he wanted to get a killer casting director."
Here's a surprise: Skeleton Twins stars Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig didn't come as a package deal. Hader was the first cast, and the search for his character's sister would only come later in the talent search. "There was a mixture of feelings," Johnson says. "Trepidation over their association on SNL, would that be distracting? But then we thought about it for two seconds and we thought it could play off the relationship and recontextualize it."
But recruiting the two comedically-inclined stars was essential to pushing the movie into production. As Duplass told Johnson, certain budgets require familiar faces (and as Johnson puts it, a movie lucks out when the familiar faces are perfect for the roles).
When It All Seemed to Click: The tone of Skeleton Twins was always going to be tricky. If it was too serious, Johnson feared it would devolve into "a lugubrious dirge, the kind of slaggy, indie drama thing I wanted to avoid." If it was too comedic, "It wouldn't feel real or true. Too heightened, too quirky, too goofy." But Johnson quickly found that Hader, Wiig, and his supporting cast knew just the timbre required to make the material work, and he stopped worrying about it.
"The first three days of shooting were the days we did with Bill and Ty Burrell. Ty plays a past love of Bill's character [who's gay] and Bill moves back in with his sister and seeks out Rich, who works at a book store. The end of that third day, Bill and Ty -- who had never worked together before -- played off each other so well, so naturally. I was so happy, there was nuance and real feeling. I had a very specific script written but I encourage ad-libbing and riffing on the dialogue, anything to make it natural. And there were enough little moments that were funny... by the end of that third day, we found the tone. It was feeling right. That continued through the entire 22-day shoot."