Interview: Filmmaker and Actor James Morosini on Getting Weird (and Getting Patton Oswalt) for I Love My Dad

Writer/director/actor James Morosini had something happen to him when he was slightly younger, involving his father, that was so disturbing and memorable that rather than erase it from his memory, he turned it into his second feature film, the darkly comedic I Love My Dad. Assuming that most of what we see in the movie actually happened, the story involves the 20-something Franklin (Morosini, essentially playing himself) who has not only survived a suicide attempt but is estranged from his largely absentee father, Chuck (Patton Oswalt), who has been a constant source of disappointment to him since he was a kid being raised by a single mom (Amy Landecker). Having been completely blocked on social media by his son, Chuck unwisely decides to keep tabs on Franklin through more devious means by creating a fake Facebook profile using images from the page of a young, attractive waitress (Claudia Sulewski) that he sees at a diner near where he lives. He integrates himself into Franklin’s life, but before long, the son starts to have feelings for this woman, meaning that Chuck has inadvertently catfished his son, and things only get more twisted from there.

I Love My Dad also stars Lil Rel Howery as Chuck’s disapproving best friend and Rachel Dratch as his slightly nutty sometime girlfriend, who sometimes helps him with his catfishing (even though she’s largely unaware of what he’s up to). The film may sound wildly inappropriate, and it is, but it’s also a surprising crowd-pleaser with a lot of laughs, even more cringes, twists and turns, and a message about doing the wrong thing for the right reason. It’s also about how the experience impacted Morosini forever—his dad’s behavior may have been wrong, but without it, this great little film wouldn’t exist. On the festival circuit, the movie won the Narrative Feature Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW (where it premiered), and it even won the Audience Award at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, during which I moderated a post-screening Q&A with Morosini, Oswalt, Landecker, and Sulewski.

More recently, I spoke with Morosini about the film and finding (and bending) the line between acceptable behavior and creating a character in Chuck that some people might genuinely hate for the duration of the movie. The film walks the line and is careful when to step over it. It’s a sometimes shocking work, but the film isn’t just about its shocks. It’s about the father-son relationship that is on the verge of becoming irretrievable. The film is now available on VOD, and it’s well worth checking out. Please enjoy my conversation with James Morosini…

It’s good to see you again.

Dude, it’s good to see you. [Chicago] was one of my favorite screenings of all.

As an update, what is the relationship like now between you and your dad? Has he seen the film, and what does he think of it?

Yeah, my dad saw it for the first time at SXSW, in an audience of almost 600 people. I was really nervous; I was hoping he would get the movie, and he did. He laughed a lot, cried at the end. I think he loves the movie and has also been a good sport about the whole thing. He doesn’t take himself too seriously and is able to laugh at himself, and that’s allowed us to have a stronger connection through this whole experience.

Looking back at the whole scenario, did any part of this experience actually help you in any way?

It’s funny, as a storyteller, you need stuff to go wrong in your life in order to have a point of view. In a weird way, I’m grateful it happened because otherwise, I wouldn’t have had this movie to make. Both of my parents are very smart but unusual and eclectic, and I’m grateful that I’ve had parents that are not super-normal or traditional. I think it’s made me a weird person, and the movie kind of celebrates that weirdness.

Was Patton Oswalt always your first choice for this? What was it that you saw him in that made you think he’d be good in this role?

I’ve been a fan of Patton’s for as long as I remember. I think the guy is a comedic genius and he also has a massive heart and brings that heart to everything he does. That was the combination of sensibilities that I knew this part was going to require. And what he brought to the whole thing, this sense of humor but also his ability to emotionally invest in the character of Chuck and really put his heart into the story. His voice was very present as I was writing it, so I was so happy that he connected with the material and that he and I were really able to get each other and share the same take of what we wanted this to be.

In those early conversations with him, what did you two talk about? Did you focus on the character? What sort of questions did he have for you?

He and I are both huge cinephiles, so a lot of our early conversations were just about movies we love and geeking out together. Really, it was a matter of working through the script and talking about each moment and getting on the same page about how I wanted to tell the story and how he was envisioning Chuck in each moment. We were aligning ourselves from the jump so that we were intending to make the movie in the same way.

Because you have so many jobs on this film, was there ever a consideration of anyone else playing Franklin?

I actually saw some really great actors for the role and I met some people I really admire who would potentially play the role. But then I had partners who were encouraging me to play the role. I also wanted to. I’ve made other films where I’m acting, writing, and directing, and it’s just the way I’ve made a lot of my work, so it was the thing I was most comfortable doing in a sense. Patton and I put a scene on camera, and I liked the way it worked, and it seemed like that was going to be the most personal version of this movie. I was able to be the person who’d gone through some of this before, and that made it all the more exciting and risky and weird and fun.

Was there something cathartic about getting to reenact these parts of your life?

I think it allowed me to have a greater sense of humor about the whole thing, because I could not take it that seriously. And that’s impacted other parts of my life because I’m able to wear my other life experiences in a more loose way. It’s allowed me to make fun of myself in a way I wasn’t able to before.

The film feels like you wrote it and then someone dared you to actually make it. Was that person you, who said “I dare you to make this”?

That’s such a cool way to put it. I love that. One-hundred percent. I feel like everything I make I want to feel like I don’t know if we should do it. But it needs to have that daring quality to it, otherwise, it doesn’t feel worth it to me. I want to be challenged and afraid by whatever I’m making. I think that’s where you learn the most creatively and when it’s the most exciting, when there’s a real challenge and risk of embarrassment. That to me gives it this energy that I’m excited by.

A lot of the emphasis has been on the more shocking aspects of the film, but this is also a true emotional journey. Were there any scenes where the emotions were so intense that it made it difficult for you to direct?

There’s a moment when Patton is on the ground, and he’s reckoning with his role as a father and the way Franklin fits into his life. And the way Patton connected emotionally to that particular conversation really struck me in a deep way and made it difficult for both of us to shoot the scene, because we were both affected by that part of the story. There were many other moments where I was caught off guard by how connected some of my cast was to what they were saying and how real they were making it for themselves. I felt very affected being opposite them, and it made my job a lot easier in some ways.

I won’t give anything away, but the scene near the end in the diner. I’ve seen the movie twice now, and both times I wondered how you could have directed the scene as your character was also melting down. Was that a tough one?

That required a lot of planning ahead of time because I knew that I wanted to approach that performance in a way that felt real. I really wanted to be having those realizations in real time; I wanted to allow myself to collapse. That was my intent from a very early stage, so it was matter of getting my team around me to really be on the same page to get exactly what we wanted to accomplish on those few days. There are a lot of moving parts, there’s a lot of movement and also it’s high intensity. So we all just had to be on the same page about what we were looking for, and then I had to transition from total emotional destruction to going back and putting on my director’s hat to make sure we’re getting what we need in order to tell this story.

Claudia’s character is probably the most complex one because she’s actually playing multiple versions of the same person—she’s playing the real waitress, one is Franklin’s dream girl, and one is Chuck’s version of a young woman. Can you talk about directing her through those different versions of the characters, and did you have visual language that you gave each version so the audience could keep it straight?

We were very detailed in outlining who she was in each of these moments. Is she Franklin’s imagination, his perfect girl? Or is she cunningly aware that she’s actually Chuck in this moment? We found it through a lot of rehearsal ahead of time, and sometimes I would do rehearsals with Patton and Claudia, where I would have them agree on a certain body language, so that when we were cutting back and forth, Patton may have a look that then I could have Claudia have the same look, or she might be crossing her arms in the same way Patton is. I wanted their performances to feel weirdly integrated in a way, and sometimes I would have Claudia watch Patton’s rehearsals or his coverage, so she had a sense of how he was approaching it and she could emulate it. I would actually do that in both directions.ere

Now that you’re finished with the festival circuit part of this, have there been any reactions from audiences that have surprised you or been out of the ordinary that stand out?

There have been a few people who have approached me after screenings and said “I haven’t talked to my dad in five years, but I’m going to call him this afternoon.” That’s meant a great deal to me. Also, sitting in the backs of these theaters and having people physically squirming, trying to deal with their anxiety and laughing with their friends and giggling. That has been really satisfying to me.

At a certain point, you had to realize that there were going to be some people who just never get comfortable with what goes on in the movie or people who are never going to like Chuck. Are you okay with that?

I think I came to that conclusion pretty early on this year. I want to be pushing the envelope. I’m interested in making films that appeal to a wide audience, but I want to do it on my terms with what makes me laugh and cry and feel things, and not everyone is going to be cool with that. But I think the more specific it is to my taste, the more people who love it will really love it. The last thing I want is a lukewarm reaction to anything I do. I’d rather have people hate it and never want anything to do with it than have everyone go “I guess that was fun.”

I think the big question the film asks is, is it okay to do the wrong thing for the right reason? Do you find yourself looking for that line while you were writing it? “Is this too far? Do we need to go further?”

I was very aware of that line as I was writing it. I needed to be clear at every moment that I could at least get behind what Chuck was doing. When he and Franklin…I don’t want to spoil it…but when things get more intimate, it needed to be clear that he’s doing this because he’s worried if he doesn’t that Franklin might go off the deep end. When he starts talking with Franklin, he’s doing it because he’s trying to check in on Franklin’s state of mind because he’s worried. As long as there is that intent from Chuck, we would follow him anywhere. And then we have characters like Lil Rel’s character and Rachel Dratch who provide a gate check at certain moments throughout the story, who call him out and say to him what the audience wishes they could say to Chuck. Then it also gives Chuck the opportunity to defend his behavior to us as the audience and the other characters in the film.

With the reaction to this film, what is tugging at you more creatively: writing/directing or acting? Or do you want to keep doing both?

I’m interested in telling great stories with great people, so it comes down to I have some of my own stories that I’m really keen on and that I’m working to put into the world, and then I’m also being sent material both other writers and directors who I love and respect. I just know that anything I commit to, I want to commit my entire being to, which is a pretty high bar. I don’t ever want to be doing stuff to take a job; I want to love what I’m doing. I’m navigating with that as my compass at this moment in my life.

I was going to ask if you’d ever consider directing something that you didn’t have a hand in creating from the ground up. Would you need something to be as personal as this?

I think in order to tell a story, you need a degree of narrative authority around it, whether that’s a really strong perspective on how the story needs to be told or a personal connection or a great wealth of knowledge around a subject that the movie deals with. To me, it comes down to whether I have a burning desire to tell a story, because making a movie is difficult, and in order to make a good one, you have to be willing to do a lot of problem-solving and really care about the story you’re telling to shepherd it to the finish. That’s my benchmark.

Do you have a notion what you might do next?

Yeah, I’m always continually moving my own stories forward. I like subverting genre. I’m interested in telling stories on big canvases, but doing it in a way that interests me. There are a couple stories I’m really passionate about, that I’ve written, some that I’m developing. Then if something comes up and I need to pivot, I will and then go back to my own efforts. That’s the way I see myself being able to stay excited about doing this for the long run.

I can’t wait to see what you do going forward. Best of luck; I can’t wait for people to see it.

Thanks. I’ll see you soon, brother.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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