'I'll See You in My Dreams': Blythe Danner, Writer-Director Brett Haley Talk Personal Connections to Loss, Karaoke

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
'I'll See You in my Dreams'

Haley, Danner and co-star Rhea Perlman discuss what drew them to the septuagenarian story, Danner's first starring role, and how Gwyneth Paltrow's mom ended up singing "Cry Me a River" instead of another, much more expensive song.

[Warning: Spoilers ahead for I'll See You in My Dreams.]

Writer-director Brett Haley's second feature film, I'll See You in My Dreams, centers around a widow in her early 70s (Blythe Danner), her friendships with a group of girlfriends her age and two unexpected relationships: a friendship with a young man almost 30 years her junior (Martin Starr) as well as a whirlwind romance with a man her own age (Sam Elliott's Bill). But the inspiration for this septuagenarian story came from a number of issues the much younger Haley was experiencing in his own life.

"It came to me from a series of questions that I was having about life and the inevitability of life. You know the kind of ups and downs that we go through as we walk through this world," Haley tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I think I was writing almost from a place of fear, fear of loss, fear of death, fear of failure, fear of not having a connection. And to me the best vessel for these themes was an older character, specifically a woman. [That character was able to help me] navigate through these questions and discover them and shine some light onto them. I didn't think too long about it. There was just something in me that said I need to tell this story. It was almost like a bit of therapy for me. And it's really a story that was written from a place of curiosity and empathy and me just wanting to put myself in someone else's shoes for a little while and see what happens."

Although Haley didn't write the lead role of Carol with star Danner in mind, she was able to easily embody the part, drawing on her own life.

"She brings a lot of her experience and her loss to the role," Haley said. "She told me she didn't have to go to weird places to do this. She felt very comfortable in the role and seemed at ease with it, frankly. ... It was great to see her just exist. She wasn't acting."

Danner concurs that the part — her first leading role after acting for 50 years, she points out — came naturally to her.

"It was the first time I've ever played a role like this," she tells THR. "There were a lot of parallels to my life in this character. I'm always amazed that it was one of the easiest jobs I've had because I always thought with the emotional requirements that it would be rough."

In terms of similarities between her and the character, Danner says, "I've had to go through losing dogs and people and parents and my one wonderful husband. I think it's about a human being's capacity to handle loss and I think the longer you live, the more you lose, and that's the price of being a survivor."

She also had experience singing "Cry Me a River," which Carol croons in a memorable karaoke scene with her young friend, Lloyd (Starr).

"I did it when I was in college. I was part of a group that was a jazz group. We did a lot of standards and we would get together and have these jam sessions, and that was always one of my favorites," Danner explains. "When Brett said I have Carol singing, I said, 'Isn't that ironic? Because I like to sing, and I haven't done it in years. I don't know how well I'll do it, but I'd love to give it a go.' "

It was Danner who also suggested Carol sing "Cry Me a RIver," after the initial song Haley wanted to use, The Carpenters' "Superstar," cost too much money.

"That song ended up being outrageously expensive, like the cost of our entire music budget," Haley says. "So we started [thinking about] 'What're we going to do?' and a few things were getting thrown around, and Blythe eventually said, 'What about 'Cry Me a River'?' That was in her repertoire. I looked at the different versions, and I had somebody do a version for her and she nailed it. [The lyrics are] not too on the nose, but they somehow fit, they somehow work. That really came from her."

Even though that wasn't the song he initially had in the script, he thinks it was meant to be.

"I'm happy the Carpenters cost a lot of money," he adds.

As for Lloyd's humorous choice of a Tiffany hit, that selection also came from the actor playing the role.

Haley explains that he sent Starr a list of about 10 affordable possibilities from the film's music supervisor and let him choose the song he wanted to sing. Starr immediately picked "I Think We're Alone Now."

Haley says, "I thought that was very funny, so we went with it."

Carol's relationship with Lloyd is just a friendship, but over the course of the movie she also embarks on a romantic relationship that ends abruptly when the man she'd just started seeing yet felt a real connection with dies unexpectedly.

"He almost seems too good to be true and in a way he is, but I think that's how people start their relationships. When there's a real connection, people do seem too good to be true. They never really got to know each other," Haley says of Bill and his relationship with Carol. "And I think that's the sort of sad part of this is you never know when your time is going to be, and I think for Bill on the one hand he was ready and on the other hand he wasn't. It's unexpected, it's sudden, and I think it just speaks to the nature of life that things can change in an instant. People's lives can change in an instant."

He also felt that having Bill die was necessary to tell this story.

"This is a real character study, it's a character piece about Carol. And the journey she takes is one of acceptance, it's one of not walking through this world in fear of something bad happening. I think fear is ever present in our society and in the news and in our lives. We're always scared of everything, and there's a point to be made that she just sort of accepts the fear and embraces it and wants to keep living, keep going, keep connecting," he says. "I think that without what happens to Bill there's no clear message of the film, so I think it has to take that turn."

Haley tells THR he felt he needed an older character to properly write a movie about loss.

"If I'm going to write a movie about loss, what it means to go through this journey, it would seem foolish of me to write it about someone my age," he says. "And seeing the weight and history of it through an older character, you know, through all their experiences and various losses, because at 70 you will invariably have experienced way more than you would have at 30. And I think a lot of movies about older people are about looking back … with regret … and I wanted to make a movie about older characters where they're looking forward. They're not done yet, and they have a lot more left to live and they have a lot more left to give. ... I don't think that's been seen too often."

Indeed, co-star Rhea Perlman says she "loved" that the movie centered around older characters.

"I love that there were parts for us older dames. It's very rare to see something where you're not like the grandma, and that's your job, being the grandma," she says. "It's rare that people write for older women, it really is."

Perlman, who plays one of Carol's group of friends, said she also appreciated the "girlfriends dynamic" in the movie.

"That's a really important thing in my life and I think that's what takes you through your life as a woman, whether you're with a guy or not, from the time you're young until forever," Perlman says. "That's what the four [female friends in the movie] are as a group." She says she also related to her character, Sally, being "an instigator of things."

"I like to go places. I like to do things," she says. "And I think Sally is that kind of a lady."

Although Hollywood doesn't often make movies centered around older characters —  particularly films in which they're portrayed this way, Haley argues — Danner thinks that's "changing somewhat with the baby boomers coming along."

"There's going to be a demand for more films like this," she says. "How many shoot 'em ups and explosions can you tolerate?"