In Director Robert McKeon’s dark comedy Wifey Redux, a man struggles to cope with the dual threats of his teenage daughter’s new boyfriend and a cooling marriage, whilst losing himself in the rose-tinted memories of early love. I spoke to Robert about the leap of faith which spurred him to reach out to acclaimed Irish author Kevin Barry, and set up production for his short film thousands of miles from his native Los Angeles, in order to create a faithful adaptation of this story about identity, hypocrisy, and how the ways that we cope can lead us astray.
Wifey Redux is billed as your first film however, it wouldn’t be true to say that this was your first experience on set. What was your background as a filmmaker prior to this project?
Prior to Wifey Redux I had primarily produced and directed commercial content, music videos, and viral sketches. I had fun doing them, and a learned a lot. What differentiates Wifey Redux in my mind is the complexity of the narrative, the scale of the production, and my close personal connection to the project itself, in terms of how I related to the story, and in the sense that it was the first project in a long time that I initiated myself.
How did you discover Kevin Barry’s original short story and what elements jumped out as being ripe for translation to the screen? Was it difficult to gain the adaptation rights?
I happened to read a positive and intriguing review for a dark, deeply human, and brilliantly written collection of short stories, Kevin Barry’s Dark Lies the Island, which contains Wifey Redux, and was quick to check it out. There isn’t a bad story in the book, but Wifey Redux gripped me from the very first line. I proceeded to fall more deeply in love with it page by page, and it was hard not to imagine it playing out on the screen as I read. By the time I finished the story, I was already obsessed with the idea of adapting it into a short film; partially because I thought that it would make for an incredible short, and partially because I was excited by the challenge of translating some of the more precarious elements of the story, and its unusual tone, to the screen.
I wanted to see the film that I saw play in my head when I read the story.
Jonathan the narrator and lead character spends the story dealing with some very uncomfortable issues in his personal life and makes some surprising and disturbing decisions in the process. This meant, I thought, that if the direction of the performances and tone of the film weren’t handled – just – right, it would be incredibly easy to alienate the audience and undermine the film real quick. I wrote a quick adaptation to make sure that the story would translate in the way that I thought it would. It seemed to work, and some friends and family agreed, so I decided to try to move forward with it.
I wanted to make my case directly to Kevin, but I couldn’t find his contact info anywhere, so I tracked down his agent, and through a combination of phone calls and emails told her about my background, about why I loved the story, about why I thought that I could do a great job of translating the story to the screen, and about how I planned on translating it to screen – which included remaining faithful to its Irish roots and shooting it in Ireland with an Irish cast. And amazingly, Kevin was open to it.
How far does Wifey Redux deviate from the source material?
I wanted to see the film that I saw play in my head when I read the story, so for that reason, and out of respect for Kevin’s work, I didn’t make any drastic changes. The story is driven by an unreliable narrator, Jonathan, who not only lies to the audience, but to himself. I loved how this worked with the themes of the story, and so I incorporated the narration in the form of voiceover where it informed the story and the narrator’s internal conflict, or where it worked as a joke in conjunction with the action in the scene.
The unreliability of the narration is a symptom of Jonathan’s inability to fess up to the disfunction in his personal life, and so, in the story, he obsessively details the signs of his material well-being as an implicit, but erroneous, signal of his overall well-being. As much as he tries to convince us that all is well, he completely unravels when his daughter’s new boyfriend arrives on the scene. Jonathan’s material obsession is a sign of the time and place of the story, Ireland during its ‘Celtic Tiger’ economic boom, which I really appreciated, and wanted to maintain (out of respect to the source material, and as a former undergraduate economics major, and author of multiple papers on economic booms and financial crises).
Rather than convey Jonathan’s materialism through voiceover, I wanted to convey it visually and through action. So, for example, we found a gorgeously designed house in which to shoot the film, and we shot it in a beautiful, but cold, clinical way. I also incorporated match shots for scenes from Jonathan’s ‘happy marriage flashback’ into commercials that play while Jonathan and his wife Saoirse sit quietly in the living room, as a weird little way to call into question the sources of and pressures on Jonathan’s self-image. And finally, I put him in an ongoing battle with a bowl of fruit that he tries to keep perfectly arranged, but always seems to find a way to collapse into a mess.
Much of the preparatory work between yourself and Producer Michael Donnelly V took place intercontinentally. How did Michael come on board the project and what challenges did your long distance collaboration present?
Once I had committed myself to the mildly crazy idea of producing and directing a short film in another country, thousands of miles away, I realized that I needed to team up with a local who not only was familiar with the Dublin environment, but shared a vision for the project, and who could help assure that my creative decisions were culturally appropriate to Ireland in the place and times in which the film transpires. And I had all of those things and more in Mike.
I found Mike while clicking through a list of recent short films produced by the Irish Film Board. The trailer for his short film Rockmount (for which he & Writer/Director Dave Tynan won the IFTA / ‘Irish Oscar’ for Best Short Film two days before our start date), and many of his past commercial and music video projects, shared the polished aesthetic, and dark, comedic, sophisticated sensibility that I aspired to achieve with Wifey Redux. So I emailed him the script. He responded favorably. We connected over Skype to get a feel for each other, discuss the script, and talk about how we might move forward. I was impressed by his creative and logistical mind. I could tell that the film would be in good hands with him as a collaborator, and before long we were officially a team.
I was also lucky enough to have another key crew member on board early, US-based Irish Cinematographer Daniel Katz, who was introduced to me by a friend who had met Dan at a party, and remembered Dan mentioning that he was interested in working on a project back in his native country. Mike, Dan, and I started planning in early winter, and quickly decided that it would behoove us to wait until spring/summer to shoot to take advantage of longer days, better weather, and so that we had time to gather our resources, and find the best cast that we could.
The extra time meant that preproduction wasn’t super intense until the final few days. Since the three of us were scattered in any number of places over the majority of preproduction, we communicated primarily via email, with Skype meetings every week or so. I communicated through the same means with other key crew, including Casting Director Louise Kiely, Production Designer Kate Moylan, Costume Designer Sarahjane Ffrench O’Carroll, and Makeup Artist Julie-Ann Ryan – all of whom had collaborated with Mike on past projects.
With the eight-hour LA – Dublin time difference, the beginning of the work day in LA was towards the end of the day for everyone in Dublin. We were generally able to schedule Skype meetings or address anything time-sensitive, during the brief period when we were all at work early in the morning in LA, and late afternoon/early evening in Dublin. Otherwise, Mike was great about finding time in the evening (late morning in LA) to chat. For less urgent matters, the time difference meant that emails from one side might not be seen or addressed until the following day. This meant that some conversations and decisions were stretched over a longer period of time than they might have been if we were all in the same place, but we had enough time to prepare for the shoot that the timezone-induced communications hurdles didn’t pose any major problems.
The cast does a great job of bouncing off each other in that tetchy manner of family. How did you fill the roles?
Thank you. Yeah, I’m really proud of the cast and the amazing work that they all did. We really lucked out with each of them. I say luck, but we also had Louise Kiely, who Mike brought on board, and who is one of the premier casting directors in Ireland. We wanted to aim high with the cast, and she delivered. I could not have imagined that we would end up with such an amazing cast, and now I can’t imagine anyone else in their roles.
I primarily knew Aidan from his work on Mr. Selfridge, and I could tell from his other work that he had the thoughtful intensity and comedic intuition to be the perfect Jonathan. Louise reached out to him with the script, and it turned out that he would just be finishing up a performance in Keane’s The Field at the Gaiety Theater in Dublin a week or two after our proposed start date, so we pushed the shoot to accommodate his schedule. It felt pretty miraculous to have such an amazing and accomplished actor in the lead role.
Angeline Ball is such a legend that I don’t think that anybody thought that she was a realistic option to play Saoirse, the mother. But Louise, the casting director, included her on a list of options, and we thought we might as well give her a shot – so we sent along the script, a little pitch document for the project that I had created a while back, and a personal note – and amazingly, she agreed to join us. (She later said had had fun working with Aidan in the past, and that the Mike, Dan, and I, whose bios she had read in my little pitch document, seemed like an interesting group as well).
Louise and Mike held taped auditions for the rest of the roles in Dublin in the spring. Craig Grainger gave a laugh out loud funny audition for the role of Aodhan, the boyfriend, and it was clear that he was the one. Lauryn Canny was unable to make the audition, but the depth of her other performances that were available to watch indicated that she had what it took to create a character out of Ellie, the daughter.
I thought about how devastating it would be if the film sucked.
Last, but not least, in order to sell Jonathan’s retrospection of his ‘happy marriage’ that opens the film, we needed to find a pair of actors who not only embodied the sexy joie de vivre that Jonathan infuses his recollection with, but who also looked enough like younger versions of the two leads, Aidan and Angeline, to be able to smash cut to them at the end of the flashback sequence without the change in cast being distracting. We were down to the wire, days before the shoot, before we found Wallis Day and Shane O’Meara, and they could not have been better as the young husband and wife. They work so well together and look enough like Aidan and Angeline that a few people thought that there were makeup effects or computer graphics involved.
With everyone in place, what methods did you use to build those engaging performances?
The entire cast is so talented and have such great instincts as actors that I really think that I could have gathered them on set without having had any prior interaction, rolled camera, and they all would have nailed the tone and felt like an authentic family unit. That sounds sycophantic, but it’s true. They are really good at what they do. I had the chance to email, chat over the phone, or meet with everybody before the shoot, though, and we also scheduled a half day of rehearsal. During the rehearsal, we read through the script once or twice and then worked on a couple of key scenes.
Everyone was aware that we were walking a precarious tightrope when it came to the tone of the film, but it was clear that everybody had a good feel for the tone from the very first read-through, and we were able to further hone in on something that felt right as we continued to rehearse. I worked directly with Angeline and Aidan on their scenes first, since their scenes make up the bulk of the film, while Lauryn and Craig did some acting exercises to help them get comfortable with each other as ‘boyfriend and girlfriend’.
Towards the end of the day, there was a question about how to handle a particular moment in a pivotal and challenging confrontation scene in between the father and daughter, Aidan and Lauryn. We focused on the moment in question, but then ran out of time for the rehearsal day, and didn’t have a chance to tackle the entire scene. The scene in question marks the major turning point in the story, and the success of the film hinged on the success of the scene – if you buy what happens in the scene, then the third act of the film works. If not, the film falls apart.
The scene was originally scheduled to be shot earlier in the day, which assured that the cast would be fresh and on top of their game to tackle this tonally challenging performance. But on the day that we were set to shoot the scene, we ended up having to move it to very late at night – and I worried that cast and crew would be exhausted and ready to go home.
As the fact that the most challenging and pivotal scene in the film, the one on which its success most depended on, would shoot late and unrehearsed sunk in, I experienced the first true moment of panic that I felt during the entire production. I looked around at the cast and crew working away, having suddenly lost complete confidence in myself and the film, and I thought about how devastating it would be if the film sucked, and all of the time, emotion, and effort that I and everybody else were contributing to the film ended up being for naught. It was a really scary, disheartening feeling.
In every case I/we thought “What the heck?” reached out, and benefitted for having done so.
The late hour of the father/daughter confrontation scene shoot approached, and we must not have found time to sneak in a rehearsal earlier in the day because I still had no idea how it was going to turn out. We blocked the scene, rolled camera on the rehearsal – and Aidan and Lauryn knocked it out of the park. They were both better than I could have ever hoped. Ever since I first read Kevin Barry’s short story, I had a feeling that Wifey Redux would make a good short film. At the end of that night, thanks to the amazing work by the cast, I knew it.
What did you have to bear in mind during the shoot in order to capture the differing temporal aesthetics and best maintain the balance of tone and comedy?
The film works with two aesthetics. The gauzy, loose, energy of Jonathan’s nostalgic retelling of the beginnings of his marriage, and the more restrained, cold, conservative look and feel that mirrors Jonathan’s psychology in the scenes that depict his dysfunctional present-day state. We initially thought that we could handle the youthful flashback sequence in a relatively nimble, run-and-gun manner. But safety concerns, the 80s period production design, the lighting requirements for some of the indoor scenes, and the unpredictability of some of the blocking for the actors and cinematographer meant that many of the shots in this sequence were among the most time and labor intensive to set up and shoot. I turned to the precise, layered compositions, and locked-down camera of Mike Nichols and David Fincher for inspiration to mirror the cool, polished exterior that the main character tried to put forth in the present-day scenes. This, I hope, creates an interesting tension with the seething anger and frustration that is present in his behavior and in his voiceover.
I tried to be as efficient with the shot list, and pack as much scene into each shot as possible, but we still ended up with a pretty extensive shot list. I knew that I would probably have to make sacrifices and consolidate shots as we hit the inevitable hiccup or two that might throw us off schedule. The crew was incredibly fast and efficient, though, and we rarely exceeded 2-3 takes per setup thanks to the cast and crew being so on point. By the end of the shoot, we didn’t hit any big snags, I only had to sacrifice two or three superfluous inserts, and we completed 199 setups in six and a half days. As far as equipment goes, we went with Cinematographer Dan Katz’s camera of choice, the Arri Alexa studio, which he prefers for the way that its mechanical shutter renders motion. We also had a pretty great lighting package from Teach Solais, which means ‘light house’ in Irish, and I think that’s just a great name for a film lighting supplier.
What lessons do you feel Wifey Redux holds for parents who employ a selective (or some may say, hypocritical) memory of their younger years when dealing with their own children?
I don’t have children, and I would be hesitant to prescribe a lesson to anyone based on a film anyway. I will say that when I originally read the story, I identified with elements of its satirical, but sympathetic, portrayal of a person who is struggling with hypocrisy, and with maintaining boundaries in a relationship, and who maintains a false image of a situation at the expense of confronting an uncomfortable truth. At the risk of a spoiler, the character’s decisions don’t work out for him in the end, so maybe there’s something to be said for that.
You’ve mentioned that in the course of completing this project you’ve learned a lot, could you expand on that thought?
A lot of what I learned were basic things that a lot of filmmakers probably already know, and I was aware of a lot of it, but this experienced served as a good reminder. Basic stuff like, it never hurts to ask. I would have never have predicted that I would get permission from an amazing, award-winning author to adapt one of his stories to a film. Nor would I have thought that I would be able to collaborate with such a notable cast or accomplished crew. But in every case, I/we thought “What the heck?” reached out, and benefitted for having done so. That said, I never expect to align so fortuitously for another project ever again. The stars would never have aligned at all if I didn’t have such a good story to tell thanks to Kevin. It took less coercion to get people involved with this project than anything else I have ever worked on. Everybody was totally on board with it, which made it a really fun and fulfilling shoot, and this experience highlighted just how powerful a good script can be.
What projects do you have planned for the future?
I would have liked to be in some stage of production on a feature by now, but recent developments in current events stopped me in my tracks, and have me questioning what will even be relevant in 2017 and beyond. While I figure that out, I’m producing an animated web series based on an episodic pilot script that a friend and I wrote a couple of years ago. I’m really excited about it. I’d like to keep the concept under wraps for now, but it should be ready by June / July, and I’ll start releasing more information about it soon.