THE BIG WEDDING
Join This Family in Holy Matrimonial Mayhem
Modern weddings seem to bring out the crazy in people like no other life event; perhaps in part because modern families bring with them to the big day so many amusingly complicated twists on love: from divorce to re-marriage to families that go well beyond the nuclear. This is the quirky contemporary reality that screenwriter-director Justin Zackham taps into with The Big Wedding, a story of some very knotted nuptials. . . and a family who will do the most outlandish things for one another's happiness.
Zackham, who previously wrote the screenplay for Rob Reiner's The Bucket List, set out to combine classic elements of screwball comedy -- the barbed dialogue, the outrageous situations, the mix of sincerity and slapstick -- with characters and family dilemmas that are strongly identifiable right now. But he never imagined that his script would bring him together with a star-studded cast mixing Oscar, Tony and Golden Globe winners with fresh-faced newcomers -- all of them ready, much like their characters, to go to hilarious lengths for love.
It all started when Zackham saw the French-Swiss comedy Mon Frere Se Marie (My Brother Is Getting Married). The comic possibilities of the film's concept -- a long-divorced couple is asked by their adopted son to pretend to still be happily married for the sake of his biological mother -- hit home instantly with Zackham. He loved the circular idea that the harder a divided family tries to keep up the appearance of blissful perfection, the more their conflicts start bubbling to the surface . . . and the more you get to really see what really holds them together underneath all the friction.
Zackham was already well acquainted with how weddings can push perfectly ordinary people to the edge. He recalls that his own wedding hit a snafu when his then-fiancee refused to elope because "it would upset her mother" and instead spent a year and a half in a mind-boggling planning frenzy. So he began re-imagining Mon Frere Se Marie as it might play out on his home turf in the fashionable suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut, where many Manhattanites escape from the city to raise their families. While bucolic on the outside, Zackham was well aware that Greenwich is filled with charmingly eccentric clans of all kinds.
"I grew up watching all these crazy but wonderful families interacting -- and I saw them both falling apart and coming together and that was something I always wanted to write about," he says. "So with The Big Wedding, I saw a chance to do a comedy that is not only a lot of fun but also has some real emotional truth to it -- real anger, real surprise and most of all real love between family members who are very different kinds of people. I like comedy that comes out of characters wanting something so badly that they put themselves in strange and unnatural positions. That's what happens to the Griffin family when Don and Ellie have to pretend to be married -- yet they do it because they truly love their son."
That motivation was the key to Zackham's screenplay. Because as outrageously dysfunctional and disjointed as the Griffins might be underneath their harmoniously married "act," Zackham also saw the family as bound together at their roots. "When Robin Williams asks Diane Keaton 'Which kind of love are you feeling right now?' she says 'All of them,'" he points out. "And that idea was as important to me as the humor -- that there's a real affection between these people and for this one weekend, they are going to find a way to be a family, whatever it takes. In the middle of it all, you see all the different kinds of love that are work in any modern family."
When Zackham's childhood friend and long-time producing partner Clay Pecorin read the screenplay, he was moved by the recognizable characters, but found a great deal of humor in it as well. "It's a very funny script," Pecorin says. "I'm married, and have been to several weddings, so I know how they can become train wrecks. Everybody gets freaked out. You're putting together families who don't know each other, who might not really like each other, but they all have to figure out how to be together, and all of that comes out in a hilarious way in this story."
Producer Richard Salvatore had a similar reaction: "When I read the script, I laughed out loud on every page which is very rare. You've got three levels of comedy going on -- with the marriage, the reunion of Don and Ellie and then Lyla's story -- and it's all very funny and silly but also heartfelt and loving. I'd done other comedies but this really had so much heart, I felt we'd be able to put together a very strong cast."
That proved to be very much the case when Diane Keaton came aboard early on, then brought Robert De Niro along, starting a kind of domino effect of casting coups. "Diane really liked the script and was amazing in helping us put the film together," recalls Pecorin. "Then Bob [De Niro] came on and suddenly everybody wanted to work with them and be a part of this project. We were pinching ourselves; we never expected to be this fortunate."
Continues Salvatore: "We all felt Bob would be the perfect Don to hook up with Diane and that opened the floodgates. Then Katherine Heigl said she would be interested in working with Bob and she met Justin and the love fest started to grow."
That love fest, Salvatore notes, was sustained by Zackham throughout the production. "The tone on the set starts at the top and if you have a director who cares about his actors, then the actors care more about the movie. Justin was always able to convey his passion for the project and every person on the movie brought their A game."
Once on the set, Zackham could have been intimidated by a cast this diverse and accomplished, but he says the opposite was true: their talent set him at ease. "Everyone from Bob, Diane and Susan to Katie, Amanda, Ben and Ana were so prepared and feeding off each other, that I realized the most important part of my job was just not to screw that energy up," the screenwriter-director muses. "I've never had so much fun in my life."
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