Phil Morrison talks All is Bright and working with Paul Giamatti
Today we’re happy to get to speak with the Director of ALL IS BRIGHT (2013), Phil Morrison. ALL IS BRIGHT is a different sort of holiday movie starring Paul Giamatti and Paul Rudd as best friends and partners in crime (literally) Denis and Rene. Denis has been paroled but when he arrives home his daughter thinks he is dead and his wife is engaged to his “best friend” Rene. Morrison burst onto the public scene with his 2005 feature JUNEBUG, launching the career of then-unknown Amy Adams. Since then he’s been out of the feature film business but he returned with the indie ALL IS BRIGHT. We talk about what he was doing in between, why he came back to features, and what happened to ALL IS BRIGHT during production and post.
Flix 66 – Thanks guys for joining me today for this interview. You burst onto the scene with 2005’s JUNEBUG and then kind of disappeared from the public eye. What have you been up to, besides making some very funny commercials for television?
Phil Morrison (Morrison) – Well that’s, you know, my day job. That’s what the, well, I’ve been happy doing that. After JUNEBUG I really was happy, happy to make JUNEBUG because we’d been trying to do that for like 10 years. We finally figured out a way to do it by doing it really cheaply. And I didn’t see it, exactly, as a launching pad. I didn’t make that movie, I don’t… the notion that you make a movie so you can make more movies, that wasn’t something I was thinking about. To me, each thing is its own thing, and if it is the only time you ever do it, then that’s fine. However, there was another movie after that I really wanted to make. We were going to make, well, the guy who wrote JUNEBUG, Angus MacLachlan, wrote an adaptable of Fathers and Sons, the Turgenev novel, and we were working really hard to make that. We were actually about to make it. I went to Romania to scout it and we were all ready, close-ish to going when the economy fell apart. And an adaptation of a 19th century Russian novel was not something anyone wanted to put money in after that happened. So that was really what I was working on after JUNEBUG.
Flix 66 – And so you went on to do commercials and music videos?
Morrison – That’s funny, because long long ago, like in the ‘90s, I did some music videos. And just recently a couple of bands who I kind of had a relationship with from back then had records out. The subject matter of the records was something really personal to me and to them, mutually, so yeah I did a couple of videos for them recently. For The Yellow Tango and Superchunk.
Flix 66 – When did you know – I think your take on the field is very interesting. You weren’t trying to get a deal to make more movies… it was more about getting a specific story told?
Morrison – Yeah, well it’s also stamina. I don’t think I have the stamina for that. There’s a kind of relentlessness, and everyone kind of is as they are… and I think I might be more of someone who relents. It’s interesting; it’s worth considering as an audience member. We see the work of people who are geniuses, right? And of people who are relentless. If you are relentless or a genius, there is a good chance you are going to make something. But if you’re not one of those two, right, well fortunately we get to see work from people who aren’t geniuses. I think it would suck if the only art that was made was by geniuses, you know?
Flix 66 – Oh yeah. There wouldn’t be any frame of reference.
Morrison – Well, that, and I think they aren’t the only ones out there who’s opinion is valid. So if you’re not one, then, and I think increasingly these days, you need to be someone who just will not take f***ing no for an answer. You know? That’s just the way of the world. So I just had to learn to accept that I might be in a category that is not so likely to get a lot of things made.
Flix 66 – That is incredibly interesting to me because you have an interesting point of view and, I don’t know, your films certainly feel relentless in their detail and subtext…
Morrison – Well, once you’re doing it, you better be. Like once the thing is happening, right, yeah, that’s a distinction I think is important to make. If the movie is occurring then you must be relentless. Yes.
Flix 66 – But once you finish, then, you’re ready to take a break.
Morrison – Yeah, about whether or not, you know, the idea that this thing ‘must exist’… it’s more like if it’s going to exist then you’d better take the point of view about it that it needs to be the best thing that it can be. And certainly we see lots of movies made by people who don’t apply that, you know? I guess I’m talking about being relentless about getting, or the time to convince someone to get the money to make the movie.
Flix 66 – Sure. I see. So what brought you back, what was it about ALL IS BRIGHT?
Morrison – I really related to the experience of Dennis, Paul Giamatti’s character. This notion, and I guess this sort of relates to the fatalistic stuff I’ve been saying to you right now. This idea of being told by the members of… the only people in the world who you really know, right? He’s told by his wife at the beginning of the movie, “No, you are dead. I told our daughter that you are dead.” And, so the idea of a movie about someone who must learn to live with the fact that he is ‘dead’ – what kind of this, sort of, strange contradictory idea, you know? Some many people have said, you know I can’t believe the idea that a father would accept the idea of being dead to his daughter. But unfortunately it’s not really up to him… like what kind of creepy mindf**k would it be to this 11 year old girl if he came back and said guess what? I’m your dad. You mom who’s been taking care of you and nurturing you and doing the best she can for you completely lied to you. You know? That would be a terribly cruel thing to do to his daughter. So even though something cruel has happened to him, he has to accept that to get what he wants… to even claim what he wants, or believe that he deserves, would actually be more cruel. And I loved the idea of him having to learn to accept that fact. It’s, this movie isn’t about the protagonist winning. That’s a little bit of a spoiler, but I don’t mind. It’s not about him winning and getting what he wants, but about accepting that he can’t have it. And I guess, consistent with what I was just talking about, that’s what drew me to this movie. And in the end, to be honest, it made it tough to finish. Because as we were trying to finish the movie, people involved with the movie who had great power weren’t so comfortable with that aspect of it. And it means that certain aspect of the movie aren’t exactly, really, as I intended. But I still hope that the idea, and that core heart of it, which I think is consistent with Christmas, you know, generosity can mean sacrifice. It’s not just quid pro quo. It must be.
Flix 66 – That’s interesting because I’ve seen some other discussions with you where you talk about the layering work you do within the story… the way you bring things through that are universal without maybe seeing it on the surface. I don’t know that people who initially see this at the beginning or even throughout the movie until you step away and see the end… the look on his face. There is definitely still that tension, and that feeling in the pit of your stomach where you wish for more… for more closure for him.
Morrison – Sure. Sure. It has a very happy ending… not for the protagonist. And I think that’s very important. And it’s tricky, because the movie ends with a very happy family… a little girl experiencing the best Christmas she’s ever had. But we’re faced with the fact that it doesn’t necessarily include the person who we were asked to identify with for the whole movie. So I guess it’s meant to be about that happiness, or goodness and reward, they don’t necessarily always go together you know?
Flix 66 – Right, even if they all happen, they just don’t have to happen to you.
Morrison – Exactly. And that’s part of what I accept and understand but is hard for people. It’s not, it’s not a sad ending in the sense that like is, uh, can be very powerful. Like the kind of movies where you say ‘that ending is so sad, it makes me feel so much’… but it’s a happy ending that we are, to a degree, denied a chance to participate in. Convince your friends they’re going to like that movie. “It’s got the great happy ending that you’re denied a chance to participate in!” – but that’s the thing, that’s what I really was compelled by, you know?
Flix 66 – How did you make that happen, then? This is not a world, Hollywood, where this is accepted.
Morrison – You mean how did the movie come to exist?
Flix 66 – How did you keep that heart, which is obviously crucial to the story?
Morrison – Well, I’m glad that you feel like we did. That’s where the relentlessness comes through. That’s why you see it in the version of the movie that one can see now… it’s a movie that experienced a kind of tug of war. And that’s why, it might… I think that the reason the movie I described was allowed to exist was because it was mistaken for “Paul Rudd and Paul Giamatti sell Christmas trees!”
Flix 66 – Right.
Morrison – So I swear to god… I begged people to let everyone know in advance that it’s really ‘Paul Giamatti is declared dead and must come to terms with that idea. You know? And so in the end it’s this weird hybrid of those two things, for better and for worse, you know? But I think that kind of makes it cool, in that way.
Flix 66 – It’s another layer. And it adds a layer… but there are certain moments where you start to root even more strongly for Dennis, maybe even more strongly than you would have… not having seen the original cut of the movie. Dennis and Rene kind of start to switch roles and Rene falls apart…
Morrison – That’s another thing that is kind of happening… the extent to which these guys are trying to deal with living in an honest economy rather than being thieves. That’s another separate element of the story. Rene is a romantic… though he’s earned the right to be the father in this family; he still has romantic ideas about how all that will go. Giamatti’s character, Dennis, is forced to be more pragmatic about how to live in a non-seething world. I think that’s why Rene breaks down. He wants to believe that the world will be automatically good to him, and then he sees that isn’t necessarily the case.
Flix 66 – Thank you so much for your time today. Finally, our signature question – What is your favorite movie of all time and why?
Morrison – Oh man! Well, I’m sure everybody you ask always gives the caveat of “if you asked me 10 minutes from now I’d pick something different. But I’m going to pick THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP. For kind of similar reasons to what we’ve been talking about. It kind of beautifully explores what it’s like to live in a world where there is much beautiful about it, but it’s not dependent on getting what you want. That happens a lot and I think that movie conveys that beautifully. So I pick that one.
Flix 66 – Thank you. I really appreciate your time.
Morrison – Thank you Aaron.
ALL IS BRIGHT was being released on DVD and Blu-ray by Anchor Bay Entertainment on Nov. 19th and stars Paul Rudd, Paul Giamatti, Sally Hawkins, and Amy Landecker.