First time filmmakers often struggle to assemble a noteworthy cast, especially if they’re working with a limited budget and a small-concept, character-driven script.
Not so for Judy Greer, whose directorial debut, “A Happening of Monumental Proportions,” which premieres at the Bentonville Film Festival Friday in Arkansas, features an enviable roster of high-profile names, from Allison Janney and Jennifer Garner to Common and Bradley Whitford.
“I had never worked with Bradley, I’d never met him, and he’d always been someone as an actor I’d wanted to work with my entire career,” says Greer, who stars in the FXX series “Archer” and in the upcoming summer release, “War for the Planet of the Apes.” “I was like, f**k it, I’m putting him in my movie because if I can’t work with him as an actor I’m putting him in as a director.”
Greer also had no desire to act in a movie that she was going to direct.
“I do not have that kind of self-esteem to stare at myself in the editing room all day long,” she says. “You have to watch yourself for months, all day, and I didn’t want to do that. So my manager found me this script by Gary Lundy and, luckily, I immediately attached people way more famous than me to be in it so I didn’t have to be in it. I literally have no more favors to calls in because I used all of them up on this movie.”
Produced by Paul and Chris Weitz — who worked with Greer on the Lily Tomlin comedy “Grandma” — “A Happening of Monumental Proportions” is an absurdist portrait of a day in the life of an L.A. private school in which the students and teachers intersect with everything from a dead body to marital infidelity. The film is in turns both funny and philosophical, presenting a world in which kids are smarter and more insightful than the parents attempting to raise them.
“I wanted to tell a story where adults act like kids and kids act like adults,” says Greer. “As I age I’m noticing that more and more, as we see our kids pointing things out to us that we really should know ourselves, you start to realize that you and your adult friends are king of acting like idiots sometimes. We’re regressing, clawing at the walls as if to say, I don’t want to grow up.”
Directing, it turns out, provided Greer with some invaluable lessons on workplace maturity, including how to be “a better actor.”
“I feel different on set now,” she says. “The first movie I did after I directed — an independent movie called ‘Public Schooled’ — I was probably really annoying to my poor director,” she says. “But I noticed that when you’re doing a low budget indie, you really need to keep your actors nearby all the time, because when one actor wanders away to craft services or the bathroom, they all scatter. And you are on a time crunch and a lighting crunch, and it’s all about money, time and light—so you’ve got to keep everyone nearby. I didn’t realize that as an actor that when I wander off to get, like, a banana, that can cost an important shot.”
Greer also admits that in order to draw out the performances she wanted, she didn’t have to push her actors very hard.
“I wish I could take more credit,” she says. “I didn’t have to do much. I think I learned that from Alexander Payne and doing ‘The Descendants.’ I auditioned but didn’t start shooting for six months afterward, and I remember saying to him, what do you want me to do? And he just said, do what you did in your audition. He said, I cast people that are going to do the role the way I want them to. So that’s what I did.”
As for advice she’d give to other tyro helmers searching for their own story to tell, whether they’re already in the biz or not, Greer urges them “to just start writing.”
“Create your own content,” she says. “Start writing and start living in the world, because the stories are in front of you every single day. The more you shelter yourself, the less you travel, the less you read, the less you’re out in the world. Don’t make an appointment at the DMV — stand in line to get your drivers license renewed, and watch everyone around you. Take the time to sit in the train, take public transportation. The stories are all there.”