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Seven years ago, Ode to Joy, the Martin Freeman romantic comedy opening this weekend, looked to be a victim of the changing landscape in studio filmmaking.
Director Jason Winer, a co-executive producer and Emmy-nominated director on Modern Family, and producer Mike Falbo thought they’d struck gold when Falbo came across a 2010 This American Life segment about a man suffering from cataplexy, a symptom of narcolepsy that causes muscle weakness or even paralysis when experiencing strong emotions, such as joy.
“It was a compassionate and moving look at the people who were living with this condition where they couldn’t allow themselves to feel, and it was tragic,” Winer tells The Hollywood Reporter. “But it was also the most original obstacle to falling in love that either Mike or myself had heard in years.”
Winer and Falbo took the idea to a number of writers and found Max Werner, a writer for The Colbert Report. They pitched Sony, and in 2011 got the go-ahead for a film from its Columbia Pictures. “And over the course of the year of [Max] writing the script, the business changed,” Winer says. “So, when we turned in the script, Sony said, ‘Oh my god, this is everything you guys promised in the pitch. It’s funny. It’s heartfelt. And we don’t make this budget level movie anymore.’”
Winer and his team had to regroup, and Sony let them take the idea, shop it around and try to make it themselves, which threw them into the struggles of independent filmmaking.
“You’re trying to cultivate fans of the script on the agency side, and then, you’re trying to get those fans to convince their actor clients to read it without a money offer because you don’t have any money behind you,” Winer recalls. “And when you’re not making money offers, you’re not at the top of anybody’s pile. And so, it took a while. Quite a while.”
After some time, it found its way to Freeman and IFC Films, which is releasing the project.
“I actually fell in love with him as kind of a comedic star after I saw him on SNL not only do sketch comedy in an American accent, which is hard enough, but in different idiomatic American accents from sketch-to-sketch,” Winer recalls. “He can play kind of a lovable grouch in the right kind of way.”
Ode to Joy follows Freeman’s Charlie, who suffers from cataplexy and designs a way of living that shields him from joy. But his world is tested when he meets Francesca (Morena Baccarin), and falls in love.
Evoking the experience of cataplexy was a challenge for Winer.
“A lot of people living with this disease described the horror of being conscious while it’s happening,” he explains. “You’re not passing out; you’re losing muscle control. So as [Charlie’s] body reacts to emotion by essentially crumbling, he’s witnessing people’s reaction to him crumbling, which is part of the embarrassment and fear of the whole thing.”
Continues Winer: “So, we tried to give that to you by not only this sort of special ‘Charlie Cam,’ we had nicknamed it, where we would affix a camera to him that would go down with him to the ground, but also to give you a point-of-view shot as he was falling, to blur the colors the way that people described feeling as they were sort of losing control.”
What Winer eventually realized was that he was making a movie that was a reflection of himself, and how he’s dealt with protecting himself from joy.
“It wasn’t until I was in the editing room, watching the first assembly, where I was like, ‘Oh man, I think this is about me,’” Winer says with a laugh. “It’s like weirdly a metaphor for my personality. And I think it’s true with a lot of people.”
It was true to Winer’s experiences making films and television.
“It’s a very useful defense mechanism in the entertainment business in particular, so as not to feel the pain of failure,” he says. “But it’s not a great strategy for life or for relationships, because you miss out on a lot of stuff. And that fear of experiencing and letting yourself feel things is really what the movie is about on a metaphorical basis.”
The setbacks and struggles, however, are what helped shape Ode to Joy, particularly its title. “Ode to Joy” was a poem written by German poet Friedrich Schiller, which was then used in Ludwig van Beethoven’s ninth symphony.
Originally, the film was simply titled Joy, and at one point was called The Pursuit of Unhappiness.
“People were constantly confusing it with the Will Smith movie,” says Winer, adding, “I just felt it was negative and it wasn’t in the spirit of the uplifting story that, ultimately, I think we were trying to tell.”
While planning a sequence where Charlie listens to a funeral dirge while walking to work to moderate his mood, Winer thought, “OK, if this is what he uses to cope, what’s the sound or, more specifically, the soundtrack that he’s trying to drown out. What’s the happiest thing to hear?”
Suddenly, it hit Winer: “Ode to Joy.” He realized that was both the title of the film as well as the key to its end.
“We had the ending written, but I didn’t know what the musical piece was. It all hit me at once. It was the day before the table read, and here we are,” says Winer.
Ode to Joy is opening at a time when national headlines can be difficult to stomach. While Winer emphasizes that he “[doesn’t] want to be pretentious about it,” he hopes that the film can be an antidote of sorts.
“I hope this is the kind of movie that is, on the one hand, a needed escape, because it’s funny and it’s hopeful. But on the other hand, hopefully it has something to say about the nature of emotions, and highs and lows.”
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