From director Stephanie Laing, the Netflix original movie Irreplaceable You is a beautiful and beautifully heartbreaking story about the romance between Abbie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Sam (Michiel Huisman), who have been best friends since childhood and who are engaged to be married when Abbie receives an unexpected and life-altering diagnosis. Faced with the uncertain reality of mortality, Abbie turns to a support group to help her learn how to focus on living while dying and to figure out the best way to say goodbye.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Stephanie Laing talked about why she knew Irreplaceable You had to be her first feature, as a director, what led her to want to direct, her working relationship with producer Jonathan Tropper (who she worked with on the Cinemax series Banshee), what she learned from directing episodes of HBO’s Veep, finding the perfect lead actors, putting together such a great supporting cast, wanting to show a different side of New York, making sure that your voice is heard, as a female filmmaker in a predominantly male industry, and what she’s focused on next, in film and TV.
Collider: You’ve said that this was one of several scripts that came your way and that you knew, just a few pages into it, that it would be the one you took on, as your first feature. What was it about the script that led you to know that, so early into reading it?
STEPHANIE LAING: It was definitely the tone and definitely that, within a few pages, I had already laughed and cried. It was such a powerful script that Bess Wohl wrote, writing emotion that quickly, and I was hooked. I was also surprised. At the end, I knew she was dead, but it just snuck up on me. It’s so rare that a script surprises you and the words surprise you. I got lost in the story, and I think that’s 100% why I thought that I had to make this. Everybody has a personal connection to this kind of story, whether it’s the love story aspect or someone dealing with loss and dying. We’re all just trying to live.
You’ve worked on a wide variety of projects, as a producer. Had you always wanted to or hoped to make the leap to directing, at some point, or did that develop out of your work, as a producer?
LAING: It definitely developed out of my work, as a producer. I loved that job, and I still do. It wasn’t until I was on Veep that I had a lightbulb moment on the pilot where they needed a second unit director and I thought, “You know what? I’m gonna do it.” From that moment on, it just became clear to me that all of this producing was actually leading to the directing.
You worked as a producer on Banshee and, in turn, Jonathan Tropper was a producer on your film. How did that happen, and what have you learned from working and collaborating with him?
LAING: He’s a fantastic collaborator. We have another project we’re working on together right now that I can’t talk about yet. I came into Banshee and we just hit it off, creatively. His movies, and even Banshee, deal with tricky tone. Also, it seems like everything he writes is about someone dying. So, I sent him the script and said, “You have to do this movie with me. I hope you love the script as much as I do.” That’s how it happened.
You directed episodes of Veep, prior to directing this. What did you learn from that, and how different did you find the experience of directing a film?
LAING: With Veep, I was the first American director and I really was entrusted with making sure that (show creator) Armando Iannuci’s vision was intact. You’re bringing something to the table, creatively, but really, you’re there to make sure that every episode flows seamlessly, from one to another, and doesn’t go off the rails. For the film, it’s definitely my baby. I got the script, I pulled in Jonathan [Tropper], and it’s much more me. I pushed the project through. I turned down a producing job. As a single parent with three kids, there was a moment of, “Oh, my god, what am I doing turning down this safety net to go do this thing? But, I have to tell this story!” I called the casting director, Sherry Thomas, who’s incredible. She cast The Handmaid’s Tale, Breaking Bad, and a lot of things that I’ve worked on, and she’s so terrific. I sent her the script with two words that said, “Read this.” She basically came back to me and said, “I’m in!” We went about strategically trying to get the right cast and kept pushing it forward. We were willing it to happen, no matter what. This was too important a story to tell right now. With everything else that’s out there, this is just celebrating life.
So much of the emotion of this film relies on the chemistry between your lead characters, Abbie and Sam. How challenging was it to cast those roles? How did you come to Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Michiel Huisman?
LAING: Gugu was Sherry’s idea. As soon as she said her name, I was like, “That’s it. We have to have her!” I had seen her movie Belle and had been following her career, and she’s such an incredible dramatic actress with such range and emotion. I just think she’s extremely talented. Thankfully, she responded to the story and jumped in and became Abbie. And Michiel was also someone whose career I followed. We Skyped and, on the Skype, he was just Sam. We talked about making sure he had not such a great hair-cut and that he didn’t look like the guy from Game of Thrones. We modeled him a little bit after Ryan O’Neal in Love Story. He’s incredible in this movie. A lot of people have told me that they don’t recognize him.
Your supporting cast includes names like Christopher Walken, Steve Coogan and Kate McKinnon, who are all terrific in this. How did that happen?
LAING: I did a lot of research with cancer support groups and I modeled a lot of these characters after people that I met in some of those groups. Steve Coogan and I developed this character together. I knew he would make Mitch very grounded, and he’s very understated. It started with the great script and great story, and then everyone found a connection to it. With Kate McKinnon, her character didn’t really have any dialogue when we first approached her, but she felt a connection to the story, so I said, “Look, I just want you to be the person that’s always positive, and then has a meltdown, towards the end.” It was also really important to me that you love all of these characters in the group, and one of the things you need, in order to love them, is to understand their arc. Everybody has their moment, in the group. And Christopher Walken is so sweet, funny and endearing in this movie. He was the sweetest, loveliest man. I can’t say enough good things about working with him and having him in this role. He was a dream. I’m so excited about people seeing him as Myron.
How was the experience of shooting in New York and showing another side of the city that audiences might not be as familiar with?
LAING: I’m so glad you asked that question because that is exactly what we wanted to do. We wanted to showcase that part of New York that’s not the tourist part and that people don’t know. We wanted to show Sam and Abbie’s New York. We filmed mostly in Bushwick and we shot over 19 days, which is insane. It was also really important to me that New York made up the color pallette. New York in the winter is beautiful, so we just went with those colors. That’s why Abbie is wearing that blue coat. There’s Abbie Blue in every frame of the movie, so much so that the props people were like, “How about this in Abbie Blue?” New York definitely created a color pallette for us.
There were a lot of women involved with this film, behind the scenes. Was that something you intentionally set out to make happen?
LAING: That was absolutely intentional, even down to our composer. We had Lesley Barber come in to do the thematic score, and that was definitely one of the areas where there aren’t enough women. I was so glad that Lesley felt a connection to the story and came in and worked on cohesively putting the music together. There’s nothing worse than watching a movie where the movie is just plopped on and doesn’t connect. She created such beautiful themes for Sam and Abbie, so we were really happy to have Lesley. Every woman that was involved was very intentional. We had some guys, too. We had to balance it out.
As a woman in a predominantly male industry, have you felt that your voice has always been heard and taken seriously, or did it take you some time to get to that point?
LAING: Sometimes you just have to talk louder. I can remember certain instances, not on this film but in other cases, where you have to just call it for what it is when you see it and don’t be mansplained. It can happen. For me, the key is really surrounding yourself with people that are supportive of your vision, from both sexes. For instance, Jonathan Tropper has been incredibly supportive. You just have to know the right people to surround yourself with, and then focus on the work and on telling the story.
Do you know what you’d like to do next, as a director?
LAING: Yeah, I’m attached to a New York Times article about a modern love story. I can’t say which one it is yet, but I’m excited about that. We’re just in script phase, right now. I’ll definitely be focusing on features, but I want to do TV, as well. There’s such great opportunities in television right now, with people doing really amazing, really fun and inventive shows. Hulu is doing some really interesting things.
What are the challenges in taking something that’s just an article and making a feature film out of it?
LAING: We’ll see. The key is surrounding yourself with the right creative team that can shepherd the project through and share your vision. I’m really excited to do that.
Where are things at with the Hulu pilot you’re doing with Kat Dennings (called Dollface)?
LAING: We’re in the middle of that whole process right now. I’m really looking forward to that process.
What made Kat Dennings the right lead for that show?
LAING: She’s just a tremendous comedic actress. I think she’s got such range and such talent. The idea of working with her is very exciting. It’s the same, working with Margot Robbie (who’s producing the series) and the people at LuckyChap. That’s very exciting to me. And Jordan Weiss, who wrote it, is such a young voice, but such an interesting voice. I’m sure she’ll be a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood, someday soon. It’s been really great to go into it with Jordan and Margot, and really plan what this series will be. That’s really exciting.
Irreplaceable You is available to stream at Netflix.