Opening this weekend is Boundaries, the latest from writer/director Shana Feste, a filmmaker who has specialized lately in more romantically inclined works, including Country Strong and the 2014 remake of Endless Love. But with Boundaries, she returns to a more personal brand of storytelling that began with her debut movie, The Greatest.
Boundaries concerns a thinly veiled version of her own relationship with her father, with Vera Farmiga (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Feste) taking on the role of Laura, a dog rescuer who attempts to manage her own life while her awkward 14-year-old son Henry (Lewis MacDougall, the Scottish-born actor from A Monster Calls) gets in trouble at school for drawing all manner of inappropriate subjects. The two are forced to step out of their day-to-day lives to drive Laura’s elderly father Jack (Christopher Plummer) across the country after he is kicked out of the most recent of many nursing homes.
The film is another in a long line of recent cinematic stories about grown offspring having to cope with their trouble-making parents, but Jack might be the worst of them all, as he’s a full-on criminal, con artist, and pot dealer to whom lying is second nature. Boundaries co-stars Bobby Cannavale, Christopher Lloyd, Peter Fonda, and Kristen Schaal, and it’s a welcome return for Feste to writing what she knows, seeing her real-life father for the man he truly is.
I sat down with Feste and MacDougall recently for a chat about Boundaries, which is currently in theaters around Chicago. We were joined by Feste’s dog Loretta, who plays one of the many canines that joins the family on their car trip. Please enjoy…
I always assume when I see a writer/director make a film about family that there’s something very personal about it. How personal was this for you?
Shana Feste: Very personal. Christopher Plummer is playing my father—he was wildly charismatic; he was married six times and had six kids; and was in and out of prison most of his life, all for non-violent crimes—trafficking marijuana, beating casinos, smuggling diamonds from Liberia in the brim of his cowboy hat. Women, animals and children love my father. When my father was around growing up, it was the best thing ever. It was going to Chinese restaurants and ordering everything off the menu. When he was gone, it left a huge hole. So it was very cathartic writing this, because I was trying to understand my father. Why didn’t he stay? What was so important that he had to leave during my childhood? And this film really allowed me to see my father for who he really was.
Were things revealed to you about your father during the writing? What were some of those revelations?
SF: He had so many relationships that told me so much about his other sides that I just didn’t know. That’s always really illuminating, when you see your father through other people’s eyes. Ultimately, the most important thing was his relationship with my son. My son is five, so what you see in the film is a little aspirational, but in real life, my father moved in with us for his last three years of life, and he adored my son. He was a parent that he should have been for me with my son, and I saw him do that and it was amazing, and that’s what I wanted to touch on in this film.
That always seems to be the case even with slightly more present grandparents, that they’re better with the grandkids than maybe they were with their own kids.
SF: “You got the good version of them.” Totally.
Lewis, how did you get involved in this? And what was your first reaction to reading about your character?
Lewis MacDougall: When I read the script, Henry came across to me as really cool, to be honest, and not conventionally cool—he’s a bit of a misfit—but when you see his drawings, you can tell he’s a really talented artist. There were all of these little things that made him unique. That’s what really attracted me to him.
He does have that outsider artist persona locked down at such a young age. Could you identify with him on that level, felling a little bit out of place amongst your peers?
LM: I think everybody at some point in their life can feel like that, so I’m guessing people watching the movie can relate to what Henry is feeling at different points in the film. I can relate to some aspect of that, and I could use some things in my own life to help me be empathetic to what Henry’s going through.
There are people who will see this movie and come out thinking they haven’t seen any examples of good parenting. You run that risk when you have characters like this. But I’m guessing single parents may recognize a bit more of what Vera’s character is going through, that struggle and just holding it all together.
SF: Everybody in this movie is doing the best they can and making the best decisions they can at the moment. With Christopher Plummer, if I told you about my father on paper, you would say, “You got a horrible dad. You got screwed in the parent department.” But if you met him, sat down with him, and he told you a story and you saw how women and children and animals adore him, you might not judge him as harshly. And that’s what I hope, that people don’t judge these characters harshly. I think they’re human and flawed, and that’s okay. As a filmmaker, I forgave them and I hope the audience does as well.
This isn’t the first time you’ve written about your family. When you’re casting actors who are playing real people in your life, is it a different process than maybe something else?
SF: I try to put that all aside. My biggest fear is being that director on set that was like “No no no, Christopher, my dad would never do it like that. He stood like this and walked like that.” So after I finished the script, I kind of let go of the real people and said, “I’m going to cast this to my best ability,” and I got to work with my first choices, which never happens on a studio film. There were no other cooks in the kitchen telling me who I had to hire. And I said, “Chris, this is you now. This is not my father; you are not playing my father. You see the words on the page, but let’s do it through your eyes.”
When you have someone playing a version of you, how hard is that to let go of?
SF: I think I was totally in denial that she was playing a version of me until I looked at her in costume and said, “Oh, she dresses exactly like me too. How did I do that?” But when Vera is playing you and making everything honest and great and charming, it feels very good.
Lewis, when you’re working with these two actors who are the best of the best, do you feel like you have to up your game? Do they make you better just by you watching them?
LM: Working with them forces everyone to be at their best at all times. I learned so much from being around them. I feel very privileged to have gotten to work with them. And not only them but other people we had coming in, like Christopher Lloyd and Peter Fonda, keeping it fresh. So yeah, I feel like I learned a lot from being around them
Even in these smaller supporting parts, you have these terrific actors adding so much to the mix. Again, was the casting process for those roles different than the primary ones.
SF: What was amazing was that once we got Vera and Chris, it was actor bait. We knew we could say to Peter Fonda, “Hey, you want to go to Vancouver for a few days and work opposite Vera and Chris?” And he’s like “Of course!” They made casting so much easier. Bobby Cannavale, first choice. All of these actors just wanted to work with this cast. Kristen Schaal, as far as any character in the film who is closest to the real-life person they’re playing, it’s her. If you went to my sister’s house right now, you would see a framed picture of a mother dog with her baby crossing a stream. That was very much from my sister’s own life.
Speaking of dogs, I don’t think there was a frame of this film where I wan’t wondering how the hell you could work with that many animals, especially in that cramped car space. For both of you, was that a nightmare or was it fairly painless? How was that different than what you’d done before?
SF: Wildly different. It adds a ton of people, and I like as few people on set as possible. So all of the sudden, each animals has their own wrangler. So there are five wranglers off-camera looking at the dogs with a treat. So that changes the entire dynamic of the process. For Lewis, he had an animal wrangler at his feet in the car—two actually—just scrunched up. And that must have changed things.
LM: Yeah, I had four dogs piled on top of me in the back of the car. I think the great thing about having the animals is that they’re so unpredictable and you never know what they’re going to do, so they force you to adapt to what they want and where they want the scene to go. It was calming to have them on set. I love dogs and I know a lot of people working on the film love dogs as well, so it was really great to have them there.
Are there moments where the reactions to the animals we see in the film are genuine and unscripted?
SF: Oh yeah. A lot of the stuff with Lewis, we just kept the camera rolling on him when he was interacting with dogs. One of my favorite moments with Lewis is when you’re in the back seat and you’re driving to California, and you’re looking at [one of the dogs] like this. And that was just a stolen moment of him and the dogs. What was really interesting about having dogs on set is that they pick up on human emotion. In the scenes where Vera and Chris are fighting on the side of the road, or Bobby Cannavale and Vera were fighting, they started crying, especially Loretta. They were whimpering and scared, and that was amazing to see and it surprised all of us.
Lewis, this is only your third film. Are you still enjoying that thrill of discovering new genre and seeing what comes your way? What is it like for you to suddenly get so many scripts and have choices?
LM: Yeah, it’s great. This film is a lot different to the last film I did, and that’s great for me because it means I get to do so many different types of films, different tones. There’s not a lot of screaming and crying in this one. That’s really refreshing for me. This film, I really enjoyed filming—of course, I enjoy filming all of them—but sometimes I think on the other films, it was stressful at times. But this film I really enjoyed doing it.
SF: You got to do comedy!
Why was this kid from Scotland the right one to play this role?
SF: There’s a lot about Lewis that made him right for this role. Working with young actors is my favorite process. It’s my favorite part of this. On The Greatest, I worked with Carey Mulligan and Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Zoe Kravitz before they had really every done anything. And with Lewis, we auditioned hundreds of young actors in L.A. and New York, and I got a tape of Lewis, and the minute I watched it, I leaned in. That’s the first sign, and I was like “What is going on here?” There was something behind his eyes that I hadn’t seen with some of the American actors. There was a wisdom and hurt and empathy. I was so taken by his performance.
And I’d never done this, but we actually hired Lewis having never met him, which is a huge risk. I’d never seen him in person before he came to shoot. When he came in, we were meeting for the first time, which is incredibly scary. And I knew this movie wouldn’t work if this character didn’t play. There’s a version of Lewis’s character that could go very jazz-handy, kid actor, which I was so terrified of. But Lewis is just so grounded in reality and brought such a naturalistic approach to the part that I was blown away.
Was this your first American accent?
Did you work with somebody on it, or did you have one at the ready?
LM: Like you were saying before, I’ve done a lot of different types of films, and every single film I’ve done, I’ve done a different accent. So that’s quite unique. I did a London cockney accent in the first film [Pan]; then I did English; and this one I did an American one. I’d like to think I’m okay at doing accents. I had a couple of weeks before [filming], training with a dialect coach every day after school. That was really helpful. What also helped is that I like watching a lot of American TV and imitating that. But I also think being on a set with Americans and Canadians and being immersed in that, where all you’re hearing all day is American accents, that’s quite helpful.
Shana, you know what you’re doing next, correct?
SF: I bought the life rights to Afghanistan’s first female rapper.
I love that.
SF: [laughs] It just seems like the natural next movie after Boundaries, right? It’s a hip-hop musical that we’re budgeting out now.
So the script is done?
And Lewis, you have another film coming out this year, right?
LM: I have an Irish film called The Belly of the Whale, with some really great Irish actors like Pat Shortt and Michael Smiley.
So another new accent?
LM: Luckily, I got to use my own this time. It’s great.
It’s great to meet you both. Thanks.
SF: Thank you very much.