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In Everybody's Fine, the new adaptation of the 1990 Italian classic Stanno tutti bene (which starred Marcello Mastroianni), Frank Goode (Robert De Niro) is a newly-widowed retiree just trying to keep busy: gardening, vacuuming, doctor's appointments, grocery shopping... On a larger scale, he is trying to reconnect with his grown children (Drew Barrymore, Sam Rockwell, and Kate Beckinsale), and when they won't come to visit him, he sets out on a road trip—via Amtrak and Greyhound—traversing the same country across which he strung telephone lines for forty years.
Writer/director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine, Nanny McPhee) is a Brit, and though his vision seemed ripe for an American road movie, he knew he had to get the lay of the land before writing the script. Cue the cross-country trip, a la Frank himself: countless buses, trains, and cheap motels later, Jones knew he had found his inspiration. The result is a real portrait of a family scattered across the country, floundering after the loss of the anchoring mother. It's obvious they are desperately in need of a recalibration, and Frank's trip is just the catalyst. De Niro is in fine form, and it's a treat to see him in a family drama again (remember Marvin's Room? Falling in Love?). As the kids, Barrymore, Rockwell, and Beckinsale are spot on, in that harried, varied degrees of Dad's-here-now-what-do-we-do kind of way.
Tribeca Film asked Jones to elaborate on his research process, his way of working with actors, and his take on the sorry state of American cross-country transit.
Director Kirk Jones
Tribeca Film: This was your first adaptation. How much did you take away from the source material (Stanno Tutti Bene)?
Kirk Jones: I watched the original three times before committing to the project but haven’t returned to it now for a couple of years. I didn’t want to simply translate the original from the Italian language—I felt that I understood the story and the themes enough to walk away from it and write my own version. I am sure that is what Giuseppe Tornatore, who wrote and directed the original, would have expected of me.
Tribeca: The characters in Everybody’s Fine seem so authentically American. As a Brit, how did you pull that off?
KJ: I was very aware that as an English writer and filmmaker I would need to research the project thoroughly before even attempting to write an American story, so I traveled to New York and took a road trip across the country, very similar to the journey that Robert De Niro’s character takes in the movie. I stayed at cheap motels and traveled on Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains, taking more than 2000 photographs and interviewing 100 people. As a result of this trip, I felt qualified to return to London and start writing.
Kirk Jones, Robert De Niro
Tribeca: Had you spent much time in the flyover states before? What did you learn about the country that surprised you? What’s your take on the public transportation system in the U.S.? Not as convenient as European transit, I imagine…
KJ: I couldn’t have written the script or set the remake in the U.S. without making the road trip myself. I was inspired on a daily basis to include characters and scenes and plot developments simply by looking out of the window of buses and trains. An example of how the trip helped me was in finding an occupation for Frank that had some relevance to his situation. I was on an Amtrak train from St. Louis to Kansas City and looked out of the window to see the telephone wire stretching from pole to pole. It was graphic and poetic, and I loved the irony of Frank spending his life manufacturing wire to help millions of people communicate with each other when he has struggled to communicate with members of his own family.
With regards to the public transport system in this country, I was disappointed that the infrastructure was so fractured. It proved very difficult for me to travel from A to B, especially on the train. My understanding of the railroad history in particular is that there were mostly political reasons that prevented its development—which is a great shame, because this country is filled with the most stunning, varied and inspirational landscapes, and I cannot imagine experiencing it in a more enjoyable, economical and environmentally responsible way than by train.
Tribeca: In particular, how did you create Robert De Niro’s Frank Goode, the quintessential blue-collar (American) retiree? Or is “retiree” a universal state of being?
KJ: Many of the details of Frank’s life—his attention to detail, his tidy backyard, his habit of taking photographs, his need to produce a perfectly cooked turkey, etc.—were directly influenced by my observations of my own father and grandfather. I included these traits in the script, and De Niro took them to another level by adding details, for which he drew on his own experiences.
Robert De Niro, Kirk Jones
Tribeca: Frank was so “everyman.” I kept thinking, “My dad would SO do that in that situation.” Was that your goal?
KJ: That was definitely the intention. I like to make films that—although not overtly commercial—hopefully have a universal appeal, and I was aware that with a central theme of ‘family’ there was a good chance that everyone could relate to the story and to Frank in particular. It amazes me how many people are leaving the theatres declaring that De Niro’s performance is so convincing that they believe his character to be their own father.
Tribeca: It’s been a while since we’ve seen Robert De Niro in a touching drama, and his is a quite remarkable performance. You’ve said he was your first and only choice for the role. What made you envision him as Frank?
KJ: I knew he would understand how important it was to deliver a performance that was based in reality and was essentially underplayed. There are some big emotional scenes in the movie, and in less sensitive hands they could have thrown the audience out of the story. He and I were acutely aware of the importance of underplaying emotion and of taking a long-term view of how the final film would play once everything was in place. I could not be more aware of Bob’s contribution to cinema history, but for all of his experience as an actor, it was his life experience as a father that interested me most. We didn’t have to indulge in lengthy conversations about the character or the story; he has children, and he understood it from the start.
Drew Barrymore, Robert De Niro
Tribeca: The rest of the casting in the film was also exquisite, all the way down to the cameos (Melissa Leo, James Frain, etc.). How do you approach the casting process?
KJ: I make decisions based on instinct, which is all any director has to rely on. With regards to the main family, I didn’t want to be restricted by casting actors who physically resembled De Niro. It is normal for families to look different from one another, [so] I was more interested in the natural dynamics that are shared by many families. I knew, for example, that Kate Beckinsale could play the eldest sister with authority, that Drew Barrymore could reveal a vulnerability as a younger sister, and that Sam Rockwell could naturally settle into a more rebellious role. Time well spent in the casting studio can save hours on set and make life so much easier for a director.
I also cast real people who had not acted before and sat them down next to De Niro to take part in improvised conversations about life and family. I realized that a road trip wasn’t just about taking a visual record of where you had been, but was also about being exposed to the opinions of strangers—opinions that you would not have encountered if you had stayed at home watching TV—and for that reason I was keen to cast real characters.
Tribeca: Everybody’s Fine crosses so many genres—road movie, holiday movie, family drama… Did you consciously set out to make the film fit into so many categories?
KJ: I didn’t think about the market or genre when I started the project; I simply wrote a script that interested me. But the theme of a family trying to get together for the holidays is naturally suited to a December release, and being aware of how important Thanksgiving is in this country, I am confident that it is being released at a time when family relationships are uppermost in people’s minds.
Sam Rockwell, Kate Beckinsale, Robert De Niro
Tribeca: The Goodes seem like refreshingly normal/real people (rather than wisecracking smart-alecks we usually see on screen), with honest-to-goodness family dysfunction. What did you draw upon to write the script? Any stories from your own family you want to share?
KJ: I have three children, so I am aware of the real world of family. I am always very suspicious of families that appear to be perfect—I believe that they are simply better at pretending that “everything is fine.” I believe that children help us to grow and help us learn about ourselves, and that often takes place against a backdrop of complex emotions and chaos. I like presenting stories that are based in reality, and at a time when fantasy and special effects movies are dominating the market, I believe audiences can more readily enter the world of a movie when that world bears some resemblance to their own experiences.
Tribeca: So many of the characters in the film have artistic ambitions—the dancer, the painter, the musician—even the advertiser has a creative job. Did De Niro have any input into the art-world references in the film, seeing as how his own father was a respected abstract impressionist?
KJ: I never discussed the art theme with De Niro, although I was aware of his interest and his father’s work, and I am a fan of what I have seen of his father’s paintings.
Tribeca: How did the Paul McCartney closing credits song come about?
KJ: Paul became involved in the project not because I contacted him but because he saw the movie, related to it and was inspired to write a song. I was thrilled that the process started with him and that I didn’t have to beg him to get involved and put him under pressure to deliver—he took the initiative after seeing the movie, and for that reason his song is very personal and very fitting. I couldn’t imagine closing the movie with anything else.