Among comedy nerds of the world, Michael Showalter is probably best known as a founding member of the alternative comedy groups Stella and The State and for co-writing and starring in 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer – a cult comedy he revisited for a Netflix series in 2015. But on the flipside of the absurd and the funny, Showalter shows the range of his talent with more subdued, peculiar, yet heartfelt films like The Baxter and his most recent feature, HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS.
Academy Award-winning actress Sally Field plays the title character who dresses with an eccentric eye and keeps to herself after her mother passes. Her life takes a turn when she meets her handsome, younger co-worker John (Max Greenfield). After developing a crush on him, she begins to have a second youth as she develops a friendship with him that she thinks could go further.
Surrounded by actors and comedians in the alt comedy camp, you might think Field would be out of place — and she is, in the best way possible. She stands out and delivers an endearing and awkwardly comedic performance among hipsters in this late-in-life coming-of-age story.
We had the chance to speak with Showalter about the inspiration behind Doris, working in TV vs. film, and what makes a good story worth telling.
Where did the idea for Doris come from?
My co-writer Laura Terruso was a student at NYU Graduate Film School. I was teaching there — she wasn’t in my class. She had made a short film called Doris and the Intern, which tells the story of a somewhat kooky older lady who works in an office who gets a romantic infatuation with a 19-year-old intern. That movie really centers around just the romantic infatuation. It’s completely not requited at all. They don’t really get to know each other. He’s just kind of a sexy younger guy.
The character seemed really like an archetype of a protagonist that I’d not seen before and really thought, “Wow, this is someone you could create a whole story around.” From that short film, we invented the whole story, the character and made the movie.
Did you use anyone in your life to inform the character of Doris?
No — I mean there’s references there. There’s real people from the other movies or documentaries or people — like Edie from Grey Gardens or Chauncey Gardner in the movie Being There, if you’re familiar with that movie. There’s definitely some mental illness of some kind going on with her — mental issues she’s got to work out. A lot of it was just us kind of imagining this character and inventing her out of whole cloth.
When you write a story or a screenplay, do you automatically think of actors who you would want to film the roles or do you just kind of let that be. What’s the process in that in the casting?
I’m not thinking of the actors at all. I’m really just thinking about the creation of the characters themselves because so often you don’t get the actor you think of. You’re thinking of an actor and then that person either doesn’t want to do it or is unavailable or whatever. Over time, I think I’ve just become accustomed to not getting my heart set on any actor as much as just making sure that it’s a great part. I’m a big believer in whatever’s meant to be will be, so I don’t think about that.
You have a wide range of work. You directed this and The Baxter which are a little more quiet. Then you are part of The State and worked on projects like Wet Hot American Summer which are fun and absurd. When you write or direct your projects, does it reflect where you are in your life at the moment?
You know, my career, there’s probably three significant versions of it. There’s my own projects, The Baxter and Doris as you mentioned; my collaborations with David Wain and then my collaborations with Michael Ian Black and David Wain. I think each one are different shades of myself. The Wet Hot American Summer or Stella are very much the bi-product of the collaborations that I’m doing with these other people. So yeah, when I’m left to my own devices, it is going to be a little quieter. That’s not reflective of that moment. When I’m doing it by myself, it’s almost always going to be quieter. The other projects are exactly reflective of what comes out of a collaboration with those specific people. Left to my own devices, I would almost always make something that would feel smaller or quieter, as you said.
In addition to working on movies, you directed an episode of Grace and Frankie and did the Wet Hot American Summer series for Netflix. How is it like jumping from TV and film? Do you like working in one medium more than the other?
There’s definitely a difference. I don’t really think of it in terms of, “Oh, I’m doing this TV show.” Each project has different people involved, different actors involved, different producers involved, different Network involved. The people are different and the material is different. That’s it.
As a writer and creator, you probably have tons of ideas coming out of your head. How do you when a story is worth telling?
A lot of times I don’t know. You know, this was this short film that inspired me. I’m doing a lot of collaborating with other people and sort of jumping onto an idea. It’s hard to know, “Is this the one? Is that the one?” It’s hard to know that. There are certain ideas that I keep coming back to and those usually are the ones that I think, “Oh, that’s probably the one you should focus on.” I might have 20 things that seem interesting to me but it’s the ones that I’ll be driving down the road and just go, “Oh, I just had an idea for that thing,” that makes me think like that’s probably the one I should focus on. It’s kind of a gut feeling.
Dino-Ray Ramos | Staff Writer