From first-time feature director Courteney Cox, the off-center dramedy Just Before I Go follows Ted Morgan (Seann William Scott), who has been treading water for most of his life. After his wife leaves him, Ted decides to go home and face or confront the people he feels are responsible for turning him into who he has become. But the more he tries to get closure from his demons, the more he realizes that everything isn’t always what it seems.
At the film’s press day, Courteney Cox spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about wanting to tell a story that provokes extreme emotions, the challenges of making this film, getting great filmmaking advice from both David Fincher and Gus Van Sant, why the editing process comes easy for her, how her background in acting helps her as a director, and how fortunate she feels about being in the position she’s in, in the industry now.
COURTENEY COX: Oh, yeah. The script, from the beginning, was completely off-center. You think it’s going to be one thing, about a guy who’s life is about to end because of all of his struggles, and then it turns into a really heartfelt movie where you see the changes in a lot of people in the movie, but in the meantime, you’re laughing your ass off. Definitely one of the struggles was getting people to understand the tone. You don’t know what you’re getting into, but that’s what I love about it. I love that you can be laughing one minute and crying the next, and then be shocked the next. I like things that provoke emotions to such extremes.
This story addresses some really serious issues. Was it important to have the raunchy humor to off-set that?
COX: I think so. A lot of times, things that are really offensive make me laugh because I like things that push the envelope, go out on a limb, and are bold. There’s a character in the movie named Lucky, played by Garret Dillahunt, and he is absolutely an ignorant person, but he’s real. And then, you can see his transformation, and you see his heart, through all of it. So much of our lives are where we come from. We have our own triggers and our own things. You see in this movie that this person wrongly mistreated somebody else, but they were also mistreated, and there are reasons for why they did it. The moral of this movie is that everyone has problems. When you think you want to end your life, maybe you could be there for someone else and can learn something.
Knowing what you would have to do to bring your vision to life for this, what did you think the challenges would be, going into it, and did the reality measure up to that or were the challenges different from what you expected?
COX: At the beginning, the challenges were to get the money and to be able to shoot it. The budget was small and we only had 23 days. That was the first challenge. But then, you hire amazing actors and they’re prepared, and I was prepared. I was very clear about my vision and what I wanted, so that ended up not being so challenging. It was just more fun and exciting. I had to be open. And then, I thought it would be challenging to shoot underwater. Seann [William Scott] is not a fan of being underwater, and no one is. It just wasn’t working out. I had laryngitis that day. I was like, “People look silly with their hair sticking straight up. That might take people out of the movie. Oh, no! What am I going to do?” I had to think on my feet and go, “Okay, I’ll put the scene that’s supposed to be underwater in a boat.” There’s a new challenge every day, in making a movie. And then, you finish the movie and you’re like, “Okay, the music is too serious,” so you have to redo it to make sure people know it’s a comedy and not a drama. That was great advice given to me by Gus Van Sant. He watched the film and was so helpful to me, in changing the tone for the audience. It was not for me. I understood. I knew the story that I was telling, but I wanted people to relax and not think that it was going to be a dark situation about a guy who wants to kill himself because it’s not. It’s much more than that. There were always challenges. What makes things exciting in life is to overcome your challenges and get creative and think outside of the box.
How did Gus Van Sant end up screening the film?
COX: I have some mentors that I’ve been lucky enough to learn from. I’m really good friends with David Fincher. He’s one of my mentors, but he’s also a great friend. He helped me a lot and gave me a lot of advice. But Gus Van Sant and I have the same agent, and I’m just such a huge fan of his. My agent said, “Let me send it to Gus and see what he says,” and he was really gracious with his time. He helped me a lot with the music and the tone. Not the Snow Patrol stuff, but the score. How do you get people to want to believe in this guy’s life and want to go on this journey with him, but not think it’s a depressing movie? So, you have to start, right out of the gate, with letting them know that it’s okay to laugh.
How long was your first cut of the film, and how long did it take you to get it to what we see now?
COX: I’m not a long movie person. I have a very short attention span. If you give me a 90-minute movie, that’s perfect. When it gets to be two hours, that’s a little bit too long for me. This movie was never really any longer than an hour and 50 minutes, and I knew that I could get it down to an hour and 30 minutes. I’m not precious, at all. I would like to do a movie where the moments could be extended and you could have the freedom of that, but I’m not precious, if it moves the story and doesn’t take away from it.
Did finishing this movie inspire you to jump back in right away and find the next one you want to direct, or did it make you want to take some time and really search for the next one?
COX: I want to search for the next one, but I want to search now. I’m ready to do it. I read a lot of things that just don’t speak to me. You know that you’re going to invest so much of your time on a movie when you direct it that it’s something that just really has to jump out at you and pull at your heart, and nothing has. I’m anxious to find something, though, because I can’t wait to do it again.
You’ve certainly had plenty of experience with reading scripts. Do you instinctually know, right away, if something works for you?
COX: Yeah, I have a terrible attention span, so if something can keep my attention, I know that that’s at least a great start.
Did this experience give you any new insight into directing that you’ll apply to your future projects?
COX: Oh, yeah, I learned so much. Even when I watched the movie now, I see so many things that I’m proud of, and then I see things that I could do differently next time. I can’t wait to do something different that has a whole other look to it and a whole other feel. There’s always so much to learn.
Do you feel that your previous directing experience, doing 10 episodes of Cougar Town and the Lifetime movie TalhotBlond, helped you, in this instance, and did your experience in front of the camera also help you, when it came time to step behind the camera?
COX: I love working with actors, and it’s great that I’m an actor myself. I know how I like to be directed and how I like to be talked to. I’m a real people person and I’m very sensitive, and I’ve just noticed how other actors that I’ve worked with, as an actor, take direction from people. I don’t like to be directed before I have a chance to put it on its feet. And then, I want to be directed from what I’ve brought to it, and not necessarily before it happens, especially on television when I know the character so well. I understand how to read people, and nurture them and guide them, and let them be free to do what they want to do, as long as it’s something that I was looking for, for the story that I’m telling. And variations are really important, especially when you don’t have a lot of money or time. When you only have three takes, you don’t know what you’re going to lift out of a movie and it all has to make sense. You’ve gotta have your bases covered.
There are clearly a different set of standards for women, in this industry, that are different from the men, and there are obviously nowhere near as many female directors as there should be. How do you deal with all of that and find a place for yourself that satisfies you, creatively?
COX: I’ve been fortunate because I’ve had so many jobs that have been consistent. I financed this film, so I don’t know if I would have gotten the opportunity. Who knows? I was raising money for it, but couldn’t raise it fast enough for the time off that I had, in between seasons. I’ve been fortunate enough to say, “I don’t want to have anything hold me back. If the opportunity is not going to come to me, fuck it, I’ll just make the opportunity happen.” It actually challenges me to not let anything stand in my way. And this is a bit of a bold move, just because this movie can offend people. I’ve gotten some reviews that have been absolutely terrific, but then I’ve gotten some that are scathing. I’m sure a lot of people are like, “Woah, I don’t want to see a bigot.” Some of the stuff is inappropriate, but it’s also real. There are people out there like that, so let’s tell the real story. Everyone has a journey. It still touches me, every time I see it.
Just Before I Go is now playing in theaters. It will be available on iTunes, Blu-ray/DVD and On Demand on May 12th.