When people often attempt to find the most compatible person to their lifestyle, the person they least expect to find happiness with in a personal relationship may just be the one who most positively changes their lives. That’s certainly the case with the main characters, Liv and Nate, as well as the director and scribe, Matthew Watts, and one of his co-writers, Amy Higgins, of the new independent comedy, ‘Mutual Friends.’ Much like Watts and Higgins, who also produced the movie, Liv and Nate began to realize that their relationship ran deeper than they initially thought, which helped instill the comedy with an emotional genuineness.
‘Mutual Friends’ follows Liv (Caitlin Fitzgerald) as she plans a birthday party for her fiancé Christoph (Cheyenne Jackson). As she tries to finish the day’s harried preparations, including handling cake and catering crises, and accidentally inviting a friend-of-a-friend who turns out to be Christoph’s long-term ex-girlfriend, her siblings and friends are having their own troubles.
Beatrice (Christina Cole) has gotten pregnant and doesn’t realize how freaked out this makes her husband. Sammy (Ross Partridge), who senses that his wife is cheating on him, has his assistant, Chernus (Michael Chernus), go on a stakeout to prove her infidelity. Thomas (Devin Burnam), who was given a very specific party-prep chore to do, instead spends the day with a stripper buying party favors that won’t appeal to the party’s serious guest. Nate (Peter Scanavino), Liv’s best friend, wants to discuss their ill-advised night together last Labor Day.
Watts and Higgins generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Mutual Friends’ over the phone. Among other things, the co-writers discussed how they not only hired some of their friends for the ensemble cast, but also found such pertinent actors as Fitzgerald and Jackson through the help of talent agency ICM; how they rehearsed with Fitzgerald and Scanavino, as well as spoke with the other actors, to help build their characters’ arcs, backstories and bonds with each other before they began filming; and how some of the actors, including Fitzgerald, Chernus and Cole, who are natural improvisers who naturally helped create laughs and build their characters’ personalities, regularly put their own words and ideas into their scenes.
Question (Q): The comedy follows a group of ten New Yorkers whose very different lives all come together at a surprise party that goes wrong. Since each story is composed from a different viewpoint, how did you find actors, such as Caitlin Fitzgerald, Cheyenne Jackson, Peter Scanavino and Michael Stahl-David who perfectly captured the essence of each character?
Amy Higgins (AH): Well, we liked Caitlin from the beginning, and had her in mind. She played the big role, so we needed someone who could be that character, so she was a big casting for us.
Matthew Watts (MW): But she was actually one of the last roles we cast. We had a lot of friends who were involved from the start, and Ross Partridge was one of them. He was one of the film’s writers, and he wrote his own part. He also wrote the part for Michael Chernus, who was phenomenal. We also had some other parts we cast with friends.
We also had ICM, who’s Ross’ agent, helping us. They’re the ones who gave us a list of people, even though we were only looking to cast the roles of Nate and Liv, the two main characters. But Cheyenne Jackson was on the list, and I thought he wouldn’t be the right fit for Nate. But I thought he’d be perfect for Christoph, so I said, “Let’s go after him.”
Caitlin was also on the list, and like Amy said, she was someone we had wanted to work with for a long time. Once we knew she was with ICM, we asked if she would be interested in doing the film.
Q: Were you able to have any rehearsals with the cast, or speak with them at all, before you began filming to help build their bonds?
MW: With Caitlin and Peter, we did rehearse for almost an entire day. We went through all the scenes in full depth, and really talked about them. We also did a little improv during that time.
With the rest of the actors, since we only had a couple days on set with them, we only spent an hour or two with each character. We went through all of their scenes and discussed what they wanted and their histories, just to figure things out. All our conversations were very informative for me and them. The actors were all professionals, and everyone came prepared. The conversations allowed us all to get on the same page, without having an actual rehearsal time.
Q: Speaking of the improv, did you encourage the cast to improvise while you were shooting the movie, or offer suggestions on their characters’ arcs and backstories?
MW: Some of the scenes we filmed as written, verbatim. We did that for several reasons, including the fact that they worked and were good. Also, some actors prefer to say what’s on paper. They’ll bring different things to the scenes, and will often times make them much better.
But there are other actors who find their way by putting in their own words, and do the scenes a little differently every time. Some of them are amazing at it, like Michael Chernus and Vanessa Ray.
AH: Michael Stahl-David was also great at improvising. There was one scene in the office where he’s smoking weed in the office. He had great ideas and funny lines for that scene.
MW: Michael’s also a great physical comedian. There’s one scene where Christina Cole, who played Beatrice, said to him, “10 steps behind me.” She then starts walking away, and he then physically starts counting out the steps in his mind. He doesn’t say anything, but it was great.
Caitlin is also a great improviser. She did things in the movie that weren’t scripted at all. I feel like Caitlin and Chernus have the ability to improv while also moving the story further, which I’m always blown away by.
One example of Caitlin’s great improv work is when Liv’s bother Thomas enters the bathroom, and she’s in the shower. She tells him, “Get out of here!” He’s like, “Wait, why?” She responds by saying, “I’m taking a shower and you’re my brother.” She’s being funny, but also letting the audience know why this is a bizarre moment.
Another great improv moment is when Chernus and Sammy, who’s played by Ross, are heading out to the woods. Chernus says, “Wait, I’ve got a whole camping wardrobe I’ve got to put on!” It was a funny line, but he was also doing it because he knew he’d be wearing a different outfit in the next scene, and he didn’t want people to be confused. I don’t think anyone would have been confused, but he’s that kind of actor who wants to point out what people should be paying attention to throughout the film.
Q: You shot the comedy independently. Did that pose any challenges or difficulties while making the film, or do you feel it helped with the movie’s creativity?
MW: I think it did help with the creativity. Even on independent films, the filmmakers still need to answer to the investors. Depending on where the money’s coming from, the producers often do have a lot of say, in regards to the final script, accounting decisions and the big things that happen.
We were lucky enough to have an executive producer, Mike Tannen, who fund-raised and spearheaded that process. He was very much in favor of me having creative control on this movie, which was extremely rare on many levels, whether on independent or studio films. That control is more common in independent films, but I only hope to have that much control on my next movies.
Q: Do you both have any projects lined up, whether together or solo, that you can discuss?
AH: Matt has some films coming up that I’m helping on a little, which are very exciting.
MW: I have two movies, and one is a noir dark comedy that takes place in contemporary L.A., and it’s called ‘Creed.’ It takes place in a film preservation community. I also have a psychological thriller called ‘I’m Gone.’ Both of them are in the final stages of development. I’m also directing and executive producing a documentary for television.
Amy’s also writing for a Disney show, and she’s sold a couple other shows. But our most important project to date is our seven-month-old son, Henry. He outshines anything else we’re talking about. (laughs)