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Queerty: Director Nicol Paone on bringing gaiety and gayness to the holidays in the hilarious ‘Friendsgiving’


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Nicol Paone on set for FRIENDSGIVING

Readers may not know Nicol Paone’s name, but they probably recognize her face.

The leggy brunette boasts more than 30 credits in television and film, with roles in 30 Rock, Trophy Wife, This is 40 and The Big Gay Sketch Show. Originally from New Jersey, Paone studied with the prestigious The Groundlings comedy troupe, which boasts famous alumni including Jimmy Fallon, Lisa Kudrow, Jillian Bell, Patrick Bristow, Phil Hartman and Cassandra Peterson. Now Paone employs her full acumen to wade into the world of directing with the Thanksgiving-themed comedy Friendsgiving.

Friendsgiving follows a group of Los Angeles friends over a Thanksgiving that goes way off the rails. Action movie star Molly (Malin Akerman) tries to adjust to single motherhood while entertaining her “philanthropist” boyfriend, Jeff (Jack Donnelly), who has an allergy to wearing clothes. Joining  Molly and Jeff is Abby (Kat Dennings), her lesbian best friend just getting over a break-up of her own. Other guests arrive including Lauren (Aisha Tyler) and her husband & kids, Gunnar (Ryan Hansen), Molly’s ex, a troupe of butch lesbians with eyes set on Abby, and Helen (Jane Seymour), Molly’s horny, party girl mom. Hijinks ensue as tensions rise and the guests drain the wine…along with some hallucinogenic mushrooms. Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho and Fortune Feimster also star as a triad of drug-induced Fairy Gay Mothers. Ben Stiller executive produces.

Queerty caught up with Paone just ahead of the streaming-on-demand debut of Friendsgiving on October 23.

Why a holiday comedy to announce your arrival as a director?

Great question. This movie was so personal to me it’s sort of based on a true story.

Oh?

Loosely. Malin is a very good friend of mine, and we were both going through break-ups on Thanksgiving. We both had different ways of dealing with it. I wanted to wallow and eat pecan pie, and Malin wanted to celebrate life and forget about her divorce. So it jumped off from that point. I just felt like if there was one movie to make my directorial debut, it should be this one. It’s so personal to me. It’s not a crazy action movie. It’s all in one house. I’m a big fan of improv. And we did that throughout the process.

Malin Åkerman and Kat Dennings in a scene from FRIENDSGIVING

It’s funny you say that. We tend to think of big, action blockbusters as being “harder” movies to make, in that they’re more expensive and require larger crews. But screwball comedy is really tough. Screwball comedy is so hard to do and you’re a first time director. How do you find the right rhythm to a scene?

There are so many layers to that. We had a table read to hear what works and what doesn’t. You hope that by the time the actors get the script the voice and the tone are more pronounced. And even during a table read, you reach out and say “You can play in this scene.” There are some scenes I knew we would improvise a bit more. The challenge of this movie was that we had three weeks to prep it and three weeks to shoot it. I had to quickly communicate with the actors. And look at this cast—I just had to get out of their way. If somebody was maybe too big or acting too “charactery,” I would just bring him down and get a varied performance out of people. Then, in the editing room, you have a lot of choices. It taught me a lot about acting. Some of these actors come from improv, some come from stand up, others are just comic actors. It’s like a master class.

You already mention that Malin’s character is loosely based on her, or was at least written for her, which is wonderful. She doesn’t get enough credit as a terrific comedienne.

Yes. Yes she is. Can I just say how lucky I am to get to work with Malin? She’s a great friend, and so underrated and underappreciated comedically. She’s incredible. She was the driving force as producer. And she and I were the hosts of this movie, along with Nicky Weinstock. To watch the blooper reel, to watch people bust out laughing, or the fact that the cast wasn’t running off to their trailers between takes…everybody was in it. It creates great memories.

Related: Margaret Cho’s new web series follows a queer Asian BDSM sex worker

How did you arrive at Kat Dennings for the role of Abby? Was the role written for her?

I didn’t have anyone in mind. I was just sort of writing from my truest voice. Then, when you discuss actresses, our producer Nicky Weinstock, knew Kat very well. He said “I can send her the script tonight.” So I said yes. Kat read it in hour in a half and said yes. It was a no-brainer. She’s incredible.

They’re both very good in the film, and it helps that you surround them with such a varied, talented cast. The gay element of the film is so welcome, in the sense that Abby’s storyline—her insecurity over feeling dumped—is so relatable. It’s a welcome thing to see so many gay characters in a film where they’re just dealing with life and are included at the table, quite literally. I hesitate to ask about sexuality in interviews–

Yes. Yes I am a gay woman.

Jack Donnelly and Andrew Santino in a scene from FRIENDSGIVING

Fantastic. We’re happy to have you on the team.

[Laughter]

Happy to be welcomed. I feel that so many—you know, I don’t want to call it gay content. I want to call it a movie, not a gay movie. I feel like we get pigeonholed and shoved in boxes. Then, in those boxes, we oversexualize ourselves because that’s what society thinks of us, or that is what we are living. I’m tired of seeing “lesbian stories” be depicted that they’re wrong, or there has to be a tantalizing sex scene. Can’t you just go through a break-up and eating turkey on a holiday?

[Laughter]

Does it have to be Blue is the Warmest Color? Can’t you just have a sore heart over pecan pie? There are 10 gay characters in this movie played by nine gay actors, without it being a “gay movie.” I’m proud of that.

That’s wonderful. But, let’s talk about that. Labeling anything as queer content is tricky, because you don’t want to pigeonhole anything, but at the same time, there is this hunger from our people to see different kinds of queer characters.

Yes.

When you include these kind of gay characters in a movie, how hard does that make it for you to get the film financed or distributed?

Everyone was very receptive. I think I maybe put pressure on myself in the beginning. I started writing in 2014. I thought—and I’m embarrassed to even admit this, but I will because it’s important for people to hear—I thought about making the character straight to make the script more sellable. Then I thought, absolutely not. This is what makes the film special. Ben Stiller called me and just said “Follow your instincts at every turn.” Having Ben Stiller say that to you, you’d be a fool not to listen. He’s a genius. And that stuck with me.

I suppose whenever Ben Stiller calls, you automatically listen anyway. He’s Ben Stiller, and also a wonderful director, which he doesn’t ever get credit for.

I know. Brilliant. Reality Bites, Tropic Thunder, I was honored. He was open and available to me 100% of the time.

Jane Seymour

So I’m dying to ask about my favorite character in the film. How do you get Jane Seymour to play this boozy floozy character? I’ve never seen her display this level of comic timing. I honestly think it’s the most I’ve ever enjoyed her in anything.

That was one of my favorite characters to write. We were [making offers] to a lot of women, and Jane Seymour responded first, and with such passion for the role. We had lunch together, and during lunch, it was pouring outside. I remember bringing this janky umbrella that I had. It was falling apart. We were in this lovely place. I sat down with Jayne who was drinking chardonnay. And she was hilarious and grounded, but she had so much heart to her. I hate to overuse the term “national treasure” but she really is. Just the lunch alone was on my life highlight reel.

I would imagine.

Getting to work with her was so fun. She’s up for anything. That is really her on Ryan Hansen’s shoulders. She didn’t have a double. She was up there spinning around. And she’s giving. And she’s lovely. I’m happy to call her a friend now.

Give her a spin-off. I’d watch that movie. So I always like to ask first-time directors, because making a film is such an undertaking…what did you learn about yourself?

Kind of what Ben Stiller said to me: it’s ok to trust myself and to listen to my inner voice. That’s what’s guiding me. I can see it on screen. The times I did not follow my instincts, or if I was indifferent when someone was pushing me on a decision, I can see it. And it bothers me. Fortunately, it’s not a lot of scenes or choices. But you only have your inner voice. You have to listen. When you do, you have no one to blame. You get to make the movie you want. And that’s the goal. Truly, from writing to directing to editing, I got to make the movie I wanted for the most part. And I’m proud of it.

Jane Seymour and Ryan Hansen in a scene from FRIENDSGIVING

Wonderful.

Just that it’s coming out—because it was based on a personal, true story, and because I got to make it with such great people… You know, I can watch the blooper reel over and over, and it makes me laugh to this day. I’m going to try not to read reviews. Some people will love it, some won’t. But it’s not about people’s reactions. It’s that I got to make this special little film that’s part of my friendship with Malin, and part of my history. The fact that we got to make a movie about that moment is pretty special.

It’s a celebration of joy for sure.

Friendsgiving opens in theatres and streams on-demand October 23.

Queerty