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MOVIE 43

"Homeschooled" as told by Will Graham
Homeschooled
Directed by: Will Graham
Cast: Liev Schrieber, Naomi Watts, Jeremy Allen White
A look back by director Will Graham:

Charlie Wessler appeared out of nowhere, like a comedy genie conjured out of some tin can I probably kicked on my way into work at THE ONION. I was starting the Onion News Network, the web video and now TV branch of the venerable satire newspaper. It was 2008. Did you know that sometimes movies take a long time to get made?

Anyway, we were in our second year at ONN, in the thick of covering voting machines electing one of their own in the 2008 election and the other important fake news of the day, when one day Charlie e-mailed me out of the blue. Like many of Charlie's e-mails, I think this one was less than 10 words long. It might have been, "I am Charlie Wessler. Get on phone?"

We did, and it led to one of the most fun experiences I've ever had. Charlie had seen an ONN piece we made, the headline of which was "Use of 'N-word' May End Porn Stars Career," and he had a strange offer: he and Peter Farelly (whom I had worshipped since I was 10) were making a movie consisting of what Charlie described as "just the funniest shit we can think of." Of course I agreed to do it while I was on the phone with him, even as I was still feverishly Googling to make sure this 'Charlie Wessler' was a real person and not my Dad doing a 'relaxed dude' voice.

I reached out to Jack Kukoda, an incredibly talented writer from our group at THE ONION. Jack wrote about 96,000 ideas for various different shorts, which he and I culled down to a list of approximately 36,000 that we sent to Charlie. He latched onto one about a pair of extremely well intentioned parents who homeschool their son, but are trying to do it in the most authentic way possible, so that he had every experience that normal kids do -- getting beat up, being shut out of the cool kids party, and so on.

Working at THE ONION totally desensitizes you to jokes that are offensive or dark, because we do so many of them. When I'm working on something else, I always have to remind myself "how would a normal person react to this?" Except when we were writing this script. We kept coming up with ideas that made us laugh, like the kid having a horrible first kiss forced on him by his mom, and we were like "yeah, there's no way they're going to let us actually do this." But those were the jokes that Peter and Charlie loved -- they'd keep saying "go further" -- and that was the moment I knew we'd found real kindred spirits.

That was also the fun of making this idea as a short. If it was a feature, it would be an incredibly depressing drama about parents torturing their offspring. As a short, you just pop in, see how awful this kids life is, laugh (hopefully), and then cruise on to the next tragedy.

I like comedy that's crazy or silly but feels very real. That's what I tried to do in directing the short -- take something that could have felt like a zany sketch and instead just treat it as completely pragmatic and real world. The thing I was most worried about getting across was the idea that these parents aren't evil -- they're really trying to do what they think is the best thing for their kid, and wind up completely fucking him up, as all parents do (except mine, if they ever read this).

Enter Naomi and Liev. When Charlie first brought them up as a possibility, I was immediately like "they would be perfect." They have so much credibility because of their amazing dramatic work, that I knew they'd bring a perfect seriousness to the comedy. I was also like, "Yeah, there's no chance that they'd ever do this." But Charlie and Peter worked their weird voodoo magic, and a few days or months or years later Charlie told me Naomi had read and liked the script and was going to call me in the next couple of days. There was no specific time.

So of course that Friday evening I was in Times Square showing my cousins from Wisconsin how we have Barnes and Nobles in New York too when my phone rang and it was Naomi. And I was like, "Oh boy." So I talked to Naomi about the script and tried to convince her that I was a person she'd like to work with while pushing my cousins through a mob of screaming Chinese and Italian tourists in the most crowded and loudest six blocks in the world. A couple of times Naomi very politely said, "I can't quite hear you," probably because I was getting run over by a bus. I might not have said any complete sentences for the entire conversation, but I don't know for sure because I've blacked out the whole interchange except I remember that a lady was trying to throw a piece of pretzel to some pigeons but hit me in the neck instead. Somehow, Naomi agreed to do it, and she dragged in her husband as well.

The other thing I really wanted to make sure of was that you really felt this kid's pain, that you understood his parents weren't just playing wacky pranks on him, they were detonating his soul into a million particles of atomic mist. Enter Jeremy Allen White, who I was lucky to get to work with just before he moved to LA to join the cast of SHAMELESS. We saw a ton of different actors for the part, but there was just something about Jeremy's hollow stare and weird monotone that made me laugh through his whole audition. Also, he seemed like he had a lot of confidence, which was good because as an eighteen year old, he was going to have to make out with Naomi Watts.

Shooting was a blast and a heart attack, as always. The script has a lot of short scenes, so we could improv and goof around, which I think was fun for Naomi and Liev because I'm guessing they didn't do much improv in KING KONG or WOLVERINE, maybe? Anyway, a lot of fun things happened:

-- Naomi, Liev and Jeremy were willing to try anything. This was especially true when we were shooting the "first kiss" scene. There are about eighty different versions of that scene, including one where Liev grabbed Jeremy's face and made out with him so hard that they fell off the bed. Jeremy didn't look surprised, which says something about him as a person but I'm not sure what.

-- Naomi and Liev really like to dance. See those sweat stains on Liev's shirt in the scene where they're throwing a crazy high school party and not inviting their son? Those are real. Also, Liev is extremely detail oriented. He asked for a few extra takes of the shot where he has to lower his face into that high school girl's boobs, because he wanted to make sure he got it exactly right.

-- There was an alternate ending for the script where Jeremy put on a weird helmet with a taxidermied crow attached to it and told the neighbors that it let him control birds. Or something like that. Yeah, we didn't use that one. But, as a result of that ending, I now have pictures of the entire cast wearing that helmet on my iPhone. If you buy me a drink, I will show them to you sometime.

-- It was August, and I sweat a lot, so I remember spending the whole two days feeling like someone had just dumped a cooler of lukewarm Gatorade over my head. When we finished the last shot, Naomi came over and gave me a big hug. I remember thinking that for her it must have been like hugging a golden retriever who just got out of a pond of sweat. Anyway, Naomi is a very nice lady.

The very talented Paul Zucker edited the short, and thanks to his skills, what's in the finished movie is very similar to the first cut, except that we tried all eighty different versions of the "first kiss" and we cut the weird bird helmet from the ending. I'll always be a little sad about that, but completely happy about every other minute I spent working on MOVIE 43.

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