Rob Burnett is set to return to the director's chair with his new film The Fundamentals of Caring, which is set to be launched on Netflix on 24th June.
The Fundamentals of Caring is a big screen adaptation of the novel by Jonathan Evison and sees Barnett pen the screenplay as well as being in the director's chair.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about the film, what drew him to Evison's novel and how he brought his talented cast together.
- The Fundamentals of Caring is your latest film, can you tell me a bit about it?
The Fundamentals of Caring is a lovely story that is based on a book by Jonathan Evison that follows the journey of two broken people; one paralysed physical and one paralysed emotionally. Paul Rudd plays Ben, a guy in his forties who has suffered the worst of tragedies after losing his child. Out of desperation, he takes a job as a caregiver and starts to care for eighteen-year-old Trevor, played by Craig Roberts, who suffers from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.
It sounds sad and depressing and it certainly is a story that is bathed in tragedy, but it is told in a comedic way. These two are very funny and bond through humour. I think that one of the things that drew me to this story, was that the usual version of this that I have seen - to great effect - is that the caregiver is the energetic guy who breathes life into the ill/injured and gets him back to living; French film The Intouchables did that beautifully. What interested me about this movie, was the fact that the caregiver is every bit as damaged as the injured and the two of them have to breathe life into each other. It was a great challenge because this story really takes place in the aftermath of all of the drama; they are two guys who are just living with very difficult cards to play.
At first, neither of them have any particular interest in helping the other, which is great, and they manage to bond through humour. By the end of the film, they are both a little bit alive and there is something so inspirational and heroic about the smallness of that, for me. In some ways, it resonates with everybody's life and not just those who have been dealt bad cards because all we really have are these small victories.
- The movie sees you back in the director's chair and you have penned the screenplay, so where did this project start for you? And what was the appeal of Jonathan Evison's novel?
It is funny, my agency CAA started sending me novels to potentially adapt; this is the first one that they sent me and I just fell in love with it. However, you cannot just take the first one because you will look dumb. I read twenty more. When I was done, I called them back and told them that I wanted the first one and there was a little bit of silence at the other end of the phone. They were like 'Really? We sent you twenty books and you want to buy the one about the guy whose kid has died and takes care of another kid with muscular dystrophy? That is your commercial movie?' And I said 'I know that this will probably never be a movie, but I just love this and it resonates so strongly with me.'
One of my best childhood friends passed away about seven or eight years ago from A.L.S. It was the closest that I have come to seeing this kind of thing up close in my life; I watched a man deteriorate physically while his mental acuity was complete. Most of the time, you see disease portrayed in film in a very dramatic way - of course there is something very dramatic about it but there is also something very interesting about the fact that you have got this disease, you are dying, but here's today. What are you going to do on this day? Some days you watch television, some days you hug your kids. Not every day is precious and I think that there is something very interesting about that. From that moment, is that any different from the rest of us? Not wishing to be corny but we are all dying day by day and there is a lot of mundanity in all of our lives. All of these ideas together I found very compelling and I thought that if would could get the right cast, we could maybe do something that would be interesting.
Additionally, most of the dramedies that I have seen - and I love them - the comedy is delightful, amusing and it makes you smile, but it doesn't make you laugh out loud. This film - and I don't want to jinx anything ahead of the Edinburgh International Film Festival - so far in our screenings, it has been provoking big laughs from our audience. That is really satisfying for a film of this type because there's nothing wacky about it, it's not The Hangover, and no one is getting hit in the groin or slipping on banana skin. It is a very small character piece but it is provoking really big laughs from the audience and that is really really nice.
- This film does tackle the very serious subjects and yet, there's wonderful comedy weaved throughout. How did you find striking that balance?
It is very tricky and you are largely relying on your actors. Both Paul Rudd... and you know that Paul Rudd is going to be amazing. Craig Roberts was part of a giant search as we went through 250 actors before we settled on him. What you need from them, is the ability to play things completely real at all time. This material is so delicate that if you lean into it in any way - the comedy or the drama - it just turns into powder and disintegrates in your hands. It is a real testament to these two that they were able to pull this off the way that they did.
- Paul Rudd takes on the role of Ben and I read that he is the actor that you really wanted for this role. What did you see in Rudd that you thought would be perfect for this character? How tricky was it getting him on board?
The amazing thing about Paul Rudd that people may not realise is that he's a classically trained actor; he just happens to be one of the funniest humans on earth (laughs). He is trained as an actor and he is very very good. There are many guys who are funny and there are many guys who are good actors, but to get someone who can do both is really difficult. It really is a very short list. When I was writing the script, I couldn't help but think of Paul. I reached out to him directly when I finished the script.
I use to work for the David Letterman Show and while Paul and I didn't know each other, we had probably met a couple of times and we know a lot of the same people as we are from New York and in the comedy world. I really just reached out directly to him and was like 'hey, I have written this thing and I can't help but think of you for this.' We met for coffee, I described it to him, gave him the script and he responded to it and said he would do it. Once Paul Rudd says he is going to be in your movie, everything starts to happen. You hang on tight because then you have a movie (laughs). It was really thrilling for me.
- Craig Roberts, Selena Gomez, and Jennifer Ehle are just some of the other names on board, so can you talk a bit about bringing the cast together?
Selena was a funny story. Paul's manager is a woman called Aleen Keshishian, who also manages Selena. She had been a great champion of the script and called me up and said 'I have got someone great for the character of Dot'. And I was like 'fantastic, who is it?' And she said: 'I am not going to tell you.' And I was like 'I love you and I trust you but I can't put someone in the movie without knowing who it is.' She said 'I am going to set up a meeting for you but I won't tell you who it is because I don't want you to have an preconceived ideas. All I will tell you is that she is extremely famous, she has twelve movie offers and yours is the only one she wants to do.'
There was a knock on my door a couple of weeks later and there was Selena Gomez. I hit it off with her instantly. She is a great kid, hardworking, no ego. She showed up with no entourage and we met for about two hours to talk about the part. Someone of her stature could have refused to audition; she auditioned three times. There were no airs or graces about her. To see a twenty three year old kid - she was younger then - navigate her situation, her fame, and her fans with such elegance and grace is really unusual. I have been around a lot of famous people and she is what famous people should inspire to be.
- The Fundamentals of Caring is another original film project from Netflix, so how have you found making a film this way? Are we going to see more and more films made in this
way going forward?
In our case, we were an independent film and Netflix did not come into the frame until they were buying the film. As a distribution partner they have been amazing. They really know what they are doing. This is a tiny little film and, on June 24th, this little film is going to be in 190 countries, in front of 81 million people, in twelve languages. That is a sentence that I am going to try and say as much as I can because it is so thrilling to me. As a filmmaker, you want your film to be seen by as many people as possible and in today's world, I don't know anyone that can do that better than Netflix.
- The Fundamentals of Caring received its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, so how did you find your whole Sundance experience?
I can tell you that Sundance for a filmmaker is an experience like no other because it is the one time that you - the dweeby guy behind the camera - is the star. It is very strange. They treat the filmmakers with such respect and love at Sundance. I really had one of the most pleasant show business experiences I have ever had in my life there; I really enjoyed it. We were the closing night film and we played at the Echo Theatre, which is this giant auditorium that seats around 1,250 people. It had beautiful sound and beautiful picture and it was really thrilling to see the film in that venue with 1,200 people who love movies.
I would highly recommend going to festivals in general. I have never been to Edinburgh International Film Festival before, but I am very excited about it. We were at Sundance, We were the opening night film at the Atlanta Film Festival, which was also lovely. Last night in the States, we had a film festival in Greenwich, Connecticut, which is a small festival but it is my hometown. We were in an auditorium of 1,200 and I knew 700 people; including my third grade teacher. There is pressure everywhere, but no pressure like that. Frankly, as much as I want to succeed here in your lovely country, if I bomb, I can get on a plane and go home. If I bomb there, I have to go into a witness protection programme (laughs).
- How have you been finding the response to the film so far - it does seem overwhelmingly positive?
It has been overwhelming. It has been so satisfying. There are different kinds of movies; there are some movies that are challenging to audiences in some way, that are polarising to audiences and they can be great films. I saw a film at Sundance called Swiss Army Man and this is a film that, by design, that is not made for everyone to like - it is just not. I was at the opening night of this film in Sundance and a bunch of people walked out of the theatre but that doesn't make it a bad film.
When you test a movie, you have to fill out these huge questionnaires. the first question is the big one 'how do you rate the film?' and you have the options of excellent, very good, good, fair, and poor. Over the years they have learnt that if the film is 'good' you have nothing. The film has to be 'excellent' or 'very good' - that is what they are looking for. They give you a score based on what percentage of the audience rates the film in these top two boxes. I was told that the average was 55%, if you can get in the 70% range that's fine and if you get in the 80% range you can pop champagne corks.
This film got 91% and people were just looking at me. I had no idea and was like 'what happened to the other nine per cent who didn't like it?. What was going on with that?' From that moment on, what this movie has had is enormous playability. Again, I put all the credit to the cast because they are just so good. You either want to spend time with Paul, Craig, Selena and Jennifer, or you don't. If you do, you will have a fun time. So far, people really do.
- Finally, what's next for you?
I am deciding what to do next. Coming off of this experience, I have been getting a lot of scripts to possibly direct. I may start this process again and try to find something that resonates with me, write again and do another indie film; I really would love to do that because this was such a positive experience. On the other hand, if I could find a movie that was close and I could re-write and then jump in and direct, I would do that.
I had a meeting about a big film out in Los Angeles last week actually - but I can't tell you what that is. What I can tell you is that it's amazing... I don't think that I will end up getting to direct this movie, but it is amazing to be in the conversation. It really is a new world for me and hopefully the momentum will continue as we come out on Netflix and the film will do well.
The Fundamentals of Caring is launched on Netflix on 24th June.