Last week I had the monumental pleasure of being part of Austin Film festival, otherwise known as the writer’s festival. The one panel I was set on attending and signed up for in advance was Jenny Lumet’s script to screen on RACHEL GETTING MARRIED. I had personal reasons for this but ended up being so engrossed as a writer and filmmaker that I feel compelled to break it down for all of you.
If you’re not familiar with the film, it was released in 2008 to critical acclaim, even though it did not roll in the dough – a good point to be aware of when you want to write good stories vs. commercial stories. The story itself is a true to life family dysfunction/function drama. But what makes it remarkable and so raw is the way it was shot, which was not at all planned when Jenny wrote it – BUT 99 % of what we see on screen started on the page! Which makes the synergy that much more fascinating. Directed by Jonathan Demme and filmed in a verite´ style that garnered star, Anne Hathaway an Oscar nomination. If you haven’t seen it, it’s streaming on Netflix. A trailer and a fairly late version of the script is here.
I’m including two YouTube links to scenes Jenny wanted to talk about, and there are some more in a link at the end, so no need to jump and watch the whole thing if you’ve seen it (but I highly recommend watching it at some point).
Jenny prefaced her breakdown with a fun story about how she got Jonathan Demme attached. Yes, she’s the daughter of legendary director Sydney Lumet, but that didn’t guarantee her an easy in. She was so obsessed with getting the script to Demme she confessed she searched absolutely everything about him, stopping just short of stalking. When she was finally able to set a meeting with him at his house in NY, that research came in handy. Demme’s dog, Olive came bounding down the steps and took an immediate liking to Jenny – something she doesn’t normally do, so naturally Demme was intrigued. The trick was, Jenny had bacon treats in her pocket, because she knew Demme had a dog. After the meeting, he was really flat about doing the film, but Jenny sent Olive a haiku thank you note. Later when she followed up and asked if Olive got the note, he told her that it was hanging on the fridge. So she knew that everyday when Jonathan Demme reached for orange juice, he saw her note and she knew she succeeded. Olive in fact, is the dog Olive in the movie.
The trajectory of the script is this, she said she did 4 drafts before sending it to him, it was the 5th script she wrote but the first produced, and they worked together A LOT on revisions before shooting. There are also some amazing moments that came from the actors themselves. One is noted below. The core of the story she wanted to tell was about the raw shit of families and how every member contributes to the dynamic even if the ugly stuff is discussed outright it explodes when there is no where else for it to go, usually at the worst and most unexpected time possible.
I love the fact that race was never an issue and Jenny never wanted it to be one, it looks like her house and it’s the stuff of life that families with real issues don’t dwell on. In fact the ‘color’ of the characters isn’t mentioned in their introductory descriptions although Kym does say ‘you’re black’ when she first meets Sidney – but it quickly moves on.
*page numbers indicated are the pdf page count (not the script).
The first clip she chose to discuss is the one of Rachel getting home, from pages 7-10
You can see right away the writing sets the tone, the mood and the personalities of the cast. What Jenny wanted to point out about the scene is how Kym is a stranger in her own home, and yet it’s clear that she knows every bit of the terrain and how the camera almost feels like it could be the little brother following her around. Once she gets to Rachel in the room, the dialogue explodes and it’s clear that the sisters love each other but even more clear, is what is not being said. (The clip for this can be seen in the collider link below, it cuts short of the last bit we saw…) When Kym has that moment of her last drag in the bathroom, it’s the breather she needs to go in for another round.
Next up was the dinner toast (PG 38)
Demme’s verite style meant that the cast had to be on as soon as they were out of make up; they never knew when the camera would eavesdrop on reactions or dialogue. When it came to the dinner toast, Kym had to grab the mic when she had the opportunity, just as you would in a real setting. Though forewarned, the panel moderator at the conference was so uncomfortable with this clip; he could barely bring himself to ask about it. How’s that for good filmmaking?
The main thing Jenny was going after, was that nearly everyone else had their indiscretions
To laugh about during their toasts, but when Kym did it, it was anything but okay. Part of this is the spectacular performance of Hathaway, (IMO her best) and part is the style of the shoot, but the words — they are all there on the page. Here’s how it starts:
When I was looking for these clips on youtube I couldn’t help but notice the amount of actors using Kym’s monologue for demo reels – THAT’S a true testament to the writing, right up there with Tennessee Williams’ A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE.
The scene that immediately follows (PG 40-46) is when Rachel jumps at Kym for apologizing during the toast, her big psychological dialogue comes out and Dad the constant provider gets thrown under the bus just trying to calm the storm. When he gets to finally ask his daughters, “girls, what’s this about?” Rachel turns the entire scene by saying she’s pregnant (the reason they are getting married). Kym’s reaction is priceless – “it’s so not fair,” now the attention is back in Rachel’s court. (This last portion is also a clip on the collider link below)
It’s this zest and rapid fire dialogue that is so layered you cannot turn away that makes this stand out from any other dysfunctional family drama as one that really gets it right.
The interesting trivia on this is that The Amazing Debra Winger came up with the bit, ‘because you were your best with him’
Jenny admitted she was at a loss for the question Kym (Anne Hathaway) asked, “why did you leave your son with a drug addict?”
Winger’s solution really ups the emotional turmoil of the entire family.
The final scene we went into was the dishwasher scene. Jenny pulled this from a memory of her 10 year-old self; watching her director father and Bob Fosse, have a similar session about loading the dishwasher. The most impactful moment of course, in this clip is the plate. Other attendees told Jenny, that they refused to have plates with names on them in their own houses because of that scene. (PG 62)
Here’s how it was written and just look at what the actors and the verite direction brings to it:
Demme’s direction makes us all feel like gawkers of a car wreck (a multi-car pile up) in so many ways – a brilliant decision that supports the film’s narrative and theme. This is when filmmaking is firing on all cylinders by fair and substantive contributions from the entire cast and crew. The even got real musicians to play the parts of the pervasive ambience another brilliant choice.
Collider did a nice coverage piece when the film first came out, if you don’t have Netflix, there are a few clips on there too – the ones discussed about here that you can find there are the 1st, coming home scene and the ‘I’m pregnant’ scene.
Do yourself a favor, read the script, watch the movie – this is a perfect example of filmmaking firing on all cylinders.