This week, the annual Sundance Film Festival once again overtakes Utah as up-and-coming filmmakers and major names alike ascend to ply their latest projects and find acclaim as well as distribution. And this year, amongst the Hollywood regulars will be one of the indie comics world's most recognizable creative voices: cartoonist Jeffrey Brown.
Best known for his autobiographical comics like "Clumsy" as well as his satirical stories like "The Incredible Change-Bots," Brown wrote the screenplay for the new film "Save The Date" starring Lizzy Caplan of "Mean Girls" and "Party Down" fame as well as "Community's" Alison Brie. The process of making the movie happen took five years where Brown and his screenwriting collaborator Egan Reich worked with producer Jordan Horowitz workshopped the story until passing the script to writer-director Michael Mohan to achieve the final version.
"Save The Date" focuses on two sisters – one of whom is soon to be wed – and the complications that arise from their personal relationships and competition with each other. It debuts for the press today at the famous film festival before opening for public screenings all week long. As a kickoff to our own Sundance coverage, CBR News spoke with Brown about the origins of the movie, his strange connection to his director, his future film and comics work and more.
CBR News: Jeffrey, in reading up on the origins of this film, I saw that the producer just e-mailed you out of the blue and asked if you wanted to write a movie. Had you been thinking about this kind of project or this specific story before that, or was that contact what really started this ball rolling creatively?
Jeffrey Brown: The e-mail really prompted it. In high school, I had a public access show and had dreams of going into sketch comedy, acting and writing for film. So it's always something I've had in the back of my mind that I'd like to try some day. But when he wrote to me, I knew that I didn't want to really do any kind of adaptation of my comics – especially not from my autobiographical books. And I also knew that I wanted to do something along the lines of the feeling those autobio books have. So I guess it just ended up being a semi-autobiographical story? [Laughs]
My real life situation at the time was something like this. At that point, I felt like I'd covered relationships in my comics, and I didn't want to do another relationship comic even though there had been some interesting things in my recent experience. So the film seemed like the right outlet to do some of that stuff. I could move things towards fiction in a way but not such a departure that it moved the story away from my interests in terms of personal life and intimate moments.
You've had a lot of Hollywood experience over the past few years with some of your books being looked at and your directing a video for Death Cab For Cutie, but the final project with "Save The Date" seemed to come together in a very non-Hollywood way. Is it right that the director Michael Mohan asked you to draw something for his own wedding at the same time as his fiance did?
Yes. He e-mailed me first and said "I just wanted to have a short comic for my wedding gift." Not too long after that, I got an e-mail from his now wife, then fiance. I finished reading that, and I thought "Oh, that's funny. Two wedding commissions at the same time." Then I stopped and went "Wait a minute...Kelly and Mike?" And as I was asking for photo reference, they both sent me links to the same blog with photos of them. [Laughs] So I had this little internal debate of whether I was kind of ripping them off because they were really getting the same thing twice. But then I decided that their money was good for me. [Laughs] I totally kept both of them in the dark. Some of their family knew because they'd tell people what they got as a gift. It was just one of those strange things. And so the fact that he ended up directing this movie turns it into one of those things like "Did that really happen?"
Well, did Jordan the producer know about your connection to Mike there when he reached out to him to direct, or did it all come together by happenstance?
What happened was that someone had passed along an earlier draft of the screenplay to Mike. He'd read it a while ago and really liked it, which isn't surprising since he liked my books. Then Joe Swanberg – who's a director that's also here in Chicago and is known for the Mumblecore movement – was on to direct for a while. Joe is a comics fan, and I'd actually borrowed his first film to watch from Paul Hornschemeier. Joe had sent him the movie, and I saw it at Paul's house and said, "Hey, can I borrow that?" Joe wrote to me a little after that, but then with scheduling and other things, he never ended up doing "Save The Date." Filming kept getting delayed, and it got to the point where Joe couldn't set aside the time. He went back to doing his own projects. So when Mike heard Joe was no longer on, that's when he reached out to Jordan. At that point, I'd seen Mike's first feature, and so it made sense to give him a shot at doing a new draft of the screenplay and seeing if we could inject some new life into the project.
Tell me a little bit about the process of writing this. You had a collaborator for the first draft, and then Mike did his version, but like you say, it does draw on your own experience. Considering how much writers use of their own life in fiction and how much of your life you've used in the comics, did it ever become hard to feel like you weren't repeating yourself?
Not yet. There's always something, and one of the nice things about this not being straight autobiographical, there are things where the initial catalyst comes from real life, but then I just follow that train down the road. So, I was at a concert and saw something, and that made me think of something else which made me think of something else, and that's an idea that made it to the film. It's not always taking things straight from life in this project. And when you have two other writers, there's a lot they bring to it. There's a lot of bouncing things off each other, which changes it even more.
The story is about two women, two sisters who are dealing with a lot of the same issues in different ways. How did that initial hook of an idea develop into the story folks will see on screen?
The one half of it is that the one sister is breaking off on old relationship and starting a new one. That's the semi-autobiographical part. And I had two brothers growing up, but my wife had sisters. So this came from seeing where her sister was in life compared to where Jennifer, my wife, was at that time. I was thinking about those expectations where if you're the older sister and you're not married but then your younger sister gets married...well, where are you? Aren't you supposed to be getting married too? What are the expectations that get imposed culturally or from your own perceptions. So dealing with those issues with two sisters seemed like an interesting thing to explore. That's where I started to go further away from real life. Their relationship as sisters isn't anything like my wife's relationship with her sister. If anything, I was thinking about my brothers and I when writing.
And it probably bears repeating that this is also a comedy. I mean, I'm sure it's something different than like a Katherine Heigl movie or something like that...
Yeah, and that's been one of the hard things actually. How do you define this? I guess it's a drama, but it's a very funny drama. When you say "Romantic Comedy" it sets certain expectations in people's minds that aren't in this film.
Well, how has the cast changed your conception of this? I know you've been doing some drawing for the movie as production went along. Did seeing Lizzy Caplan and Alison Brie step into the roles change how you viewed the characters at all?
I think for Mike, when he started writing his draft he started thinking about who he'd like to cast. At that point, who they were looking at changed things in the story a little bit. And then once it was cast, we were tweaking the screenplay a little more considering who we'd be seeing. For the artwork, I pretty much had a month to do all of it, and I did it without seeing any of the film essentially. [Laughs] I had photos from the internet of the actors to work from, and a lot of it came from e-mailing back and forth with the costume designers. I'd ask, "What are they wearing in this scene?" and the answer would sometimes be "We don't know yet." But sometimes it'd be something like "They'll have boots and khaki shorts!" So that was tough. But I approached it the way I approach a lot of my autobiographical comics where it's less about showing exactly real life and more about showing the person behind all those things or whatever subtext is running beneath the scenes. So I think that worked well. And I did a few extra pieces once the film was done, and I got to work with some visual reference there.
Was any of this animated like with the Death Cab video?
No. Lizzy Caplan's character has a sketchbook in the movie, and she's drawing in it all the time. She draws little scenes from life in her sketchbook, and she has a friend who works for a gallery and wants her to show these drawings. So they show up throughout the movie. I filled up a sketchbook for them that had a lot of finished drawings but also a lot of half-finished ones that were just partially penciled and partially inked. So Lizzy's basically inking my pencils in the film. And then I did separate versions of the same drawings for the art show. Lizzy's character is also doing all the art for the band in the film, so all that artwork is mine too. There's not any animation. The opening credits are just a series a of drawings.
Did you fight the urge personally to ask for a cameo and be a guy at the counter eating a waffle or whatever?
I did not ask for a cameo, but other people wanted me to have a cameo. [Laughs] We'll see if I make the final cut. It's definitely not a speaking part.
So you go off to Sundance, they have a bunch of screenings after which Mike will get up and say something, but what do you expect the experience to be like? Will you have a lot of press rounds to do, or will you just get to hang out with famous people all week?
I have no idea. I'm assuming that I'll do some press. I know that a few people I actually know will be there covering things, and so I'll end up talking to some of them. I'm there in order to be available for anyone who wants to talk to me. But for me, a lot of this is just the experience of seeing what the whole thing is like. I've done plenty of comics convention, but I've never done anything like this. Mostly it's for my own experience. I don't know if I'll ever have another film premiering at Sundance. [Laughs] As for hanging out with famous people, we'll see. I don't know. I did see there's a film that has Bruce Willis in it, so maybe we can get together and talk about "Surrogates."
And the goal with these things is to get distribution for the film, but for you personally, after this experience do you want to do more film stuff?
Yeah. One of the things that's good for me is that this was so collaborative as opposed to my comics which is so much just me in a room by myself. I went into it with the expectation that my initial vision would change into something else, and this has become unexpected in a really good way – seeing how other people would approach my ideas or how people would play a character or hit a certain emotional beat in the movie. It's been really informative and fun to do that. And I've actually wanted to write a horror film for a long time, so maybe I'll do that sometime soon. But comics is always going to be the main thing for me.
And "A Matter of Life" is the next autobiographical book to hit. Is that looking for a Father's Day release as it's about you and your son?
Well, we'll see. [Laughs] I'm hoping. I'm only over halfway finished with that right now. It's a book that's drawn in full color, and for someone who has drawn a book about losing his virginity, this might sound weird to say, but this book is maybe the most personal and intimate of anything I've done. Psychologically, it's been a little slower going. So now I'm thinking that book might not be until September.
But the next book I've got coming out will be out by Father's Day, and it's a Star Wars book. It's all official, so I haven't posted much art from it. It's called "Darth Vader And Son," and it's a gag collection of one page comics where some are single panels and some are up to four panels. But they're all of Luke Skywalker as a four-year-old and Darth Vader trying to be a dad while he rules the empire. That's coming out from Chronicle, and it'll be the same size as my cat books from them. It was a lot of fun to draw, and it's also full color. There are lots of being a dad of a four-year-old jokes, but there are also a lot of specific Star Wars references I tried to put in.
Stay tuned this week to CBR News for more on "Save The Date's" Sundance debut.