Michael Showalter is best known as one of the creators and stars of the cult classic Wet Hot American Summer and its prequel, the hilarious 2015 Netflix series, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.
He’s a veteran of legendary comedy troupes The State and Stella. In 2014, he co-wrote the funny rom-com spoof They Came Together, co-starring Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler; it was co-written and directed by his fellow State and Stella alumnus, David Wain.
In 2005, he made his feature-directing debut with The Baxter, a criminally underrated and charming comedy starring himself, Elizabeth Banks, Michelle Williams and Justin Theroux.
Now, 11 years later comes his sophomore feature-directing effort, Hello, My Name Is Doris, starring the one and only Sally Field.
Field plays the title character, an oddly dressed cubicle-dweller who falls in love with a much-younger man (Max Greenfield) at the workplace. This results in strange workplace fantasies and a gloriously awkward friendship between the two.
Showalter recently took the time to talk about working with Sally Field, the future of Wet Hot, and what it’s been like to work with other screen legends.
Doris started as a short film. Doris and the Intern, by Laura Terruso, who went on to write the feature script with you. Did Laura always intend for the Doris character to have a feature film? Was this a sort of Whiplash situation, where a director makes a short as a pitch for a feature?
No … no. I was teaching screenwriting at the NYU (Tisch School for the Arts) graduate film school, and Laura was a student—not one of mine, but she was around. She made the short film, and I just thought the main character was really funny. We became friends and started talking about writing something together. After much trial and error with other ideas, we actually came back to: “What if we expanded Doris into a feature?” It wasn’t at all Laura’s initial intent to make Doris into a feature, but I started to see the feature version in my mind. She created that character, and then we took that character and ran with it.
The short is a little darker and sillier than the eventual feature.
In the short, Doris is just kind of a kooky old lady who gets a crush on a younger guy. For the feature, we added the friendships, and the hoarding, the whole hipster angle and the mother and brother. We imagined a whole new world around her and a new story.
At what stage in the production did Sally Field get involved? Did you write the expanded Doris part with someone like her, or her specifically, in mind?
Not her specifically, and only because I would never have assumed she would do the movie. She’s a Hollywood icon. You don’t assume someone like her would do a little movie like this. I mean, she’s not someone who does a lot of independent film. She’s never done one, as far as I know. During the process, we did feel like, “Wouldn’t it be unbelievable if Sally Field could play this part?” because it’s perfect for her. The Doris character is this amalgamation of so many qualities that Sally Field possesses. So we sent the script to her agent, thinking nothing would come of it, and then this amazing thing happened in that she read it and responded to the material. The rest is history.
I was looking back at Sally Field’s career. She hasn’t really headlined a comedy since 1991’s Soapdish.
Yeah, I know.
Doris has a lot of dramatic punch to go with the laughs. Did the script always have that strong dramatic element, or was it an adjustment you made after Sally got involved, knowing that she could knock the dramatic stuff out of the park?
The script always had the dramatic scenes in there. It was always written to be funny and sad. Getting an actress like Sally really made the movie everything it could possibly be. She took the role and ran with it. If it was going to be a great actress, but not one necessarily of Sally’s caliber, then it was going to be more about making a great movie that people really like, but maybe that character wouldn’t be loved as much as it will be now that Sally is in the role. When Sally said she would do the movie, immediately, my role was to just give her everything she needs to do her work. My job as director was to help her, and give her whatever support she needed to deliver the performance she wanted to give and was capable of giving.
There is one scene in particular featuring Sally and Stephen Root as her brother, where Doris has a bit of a meltdown. That’s a real turning point in the movie. It’s a pretty brutal moment for a comedy.
Yeah, we liked the idea that the audience would be convinced the brother was a bad guy. And then Stephen gets to show that the character has this different side to him, and all of the sudden, you realize that nothing in the film is quite as it seems, and nobody is exactly how we think they are. That scene is kind of the scene that sets up how the movie is going to end: Doris is going to have to get herself out of that house, and out of her situation somehow.
Max Greenfield, hilarious as the brother in They Came Together, plays John, the object of Doris’ office crush. Was his involvement in Together what got him involved in Doris?
Yes! I met Max while making Together. Obviously, he’s a kind of hotshot young actor. It was great when we got him for that film, and he and I became quite friendly. At the time we were making Together, I was writing Doris, and he was just perfect for the John character. Max actually was the first person to sign on for Doris.
He has terrific chemistry with Sally Field. You believe that two people who are three decades apart actually might have a shot romantically. Now, I get a sense that Sally Field must bring an amazing, positive energy to any film set she is on.
Completely. I mean, she’s a hard-worker, and she’s a no B.S. kind of person. It’s not like she’s George Clooney, pranking everybody on set. She’s all business, and she’s very serious about the work. And she expects the same of everybody else.
I think I’ve had a crush on her since I was about 10 years old, up until … well, let me think … now. I still have a crush on her now.
Yeah, me too. Me too. When you were saying the relationship between her and Max is convincing, it’s, like, not very hard to act like you could have a crush on Sally Field.
The cast also includes Tyne Daly, Natasha Lyonne, Peter Gallagher and SNL’s Kyle Mooney. You also have musician Jack Antonoff (of Fun., Bleachers and Taylor Swift fame) making his feature-acting debut as Baby Goya of the fictional band Baby Goya and the Nuclear Winters. Is the music he plays in the film specifically created for it?
Yes. Laura and I wrote the song titles and created the character of Baby Goya and then cast Jack. We basically asked Jack if he would consider writing songs, based on these song titles, in the character of Baby Goya. So you hear two songs in the film by Baby Goya and the Nuclear Winters. One is “Dance, Rascal, Dance” and the other one is called “Lasers and Lace.” He wrote those songs with his band Bleachers, and that’s his band Bleachers in the movie with him.
You are doing a lot of directing jobs besides Doris. I just watched the episode of Love, the new comedy show from Judd Apatow, which you directed for the Netflix series. What is it with Netflix all of the sudden? Four years ago, you would be lucky to find Phantasm 17 streaming on a Saturday night, and now it’s the comedy hub of the universe.
With your episode of Love; The Baxter movie, Coop’s troublesome plight in Wet Hot American Summer; They Came Together; and now Doris, you are becoming the king, modern architect of awkward romantic comedies.
Oh, thank you.
You also got to direct yet another project for Netflix, an episode of Grace and Frankie, starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda.
Yes, and I think Sally Field helped me get that job. She’s friends with Jane Fonda. I told her I was up for the gig, and she said, “OK, let me e mail Jane right away.” So Sally e mails Jane Fonda and says, “He’s great; you should work with him!”
Just like that, you’ve found yourself working with three legendary screen actresses in the last couple of years. Did you get to show Lily Tomlin your incredible re-enactment of her epic I Heart Huckabees battle with director David O. Russell? The shockingly authentic one you did with Paul Rudd on your Internet series The Michael Showalter Showalter?
Funny you should ask, because I didn’t even think about doing that. No, I was just too intimidated to barely say anything. All of these great actresses are so intimidating, even though they are all very nice people. They are completely humble in every sense, but they just don’t realize that for someone like mem who grew up watching them and fantasizing about one day being in the industry, they just don’t know they are intimidating. And why should they? They’re just people. It’s so exciting to work with all of them. They are just so fantastic.
I have to ask a Wet Hot American Summer question. The prequel, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp came out last year on Netflix and was a resounding success. Do you think there could be more?
100 percent … I think it’s going to happen.
99.9 percent I think it’s going to happen.
Uh oh … that’s less than 100 percent! Maybe another prequel where you are all in your deep 50s playing teenagers? Do you think it will happen quickly, like, in a year? Or will it take more than a decade like the last time?
You can take this however you want, but I have no comment on how long it’s going to take.
Do you have any parting words regarding Doris?
I hope people see it. I think it’s a good movie, and I’m really proud of it. I think it’s something everybody can enjoy. Sally Field gives an amazing performance that nobody should miss.
Given the dramatic undertones in Doris, can we expect a more purely dramatic effort from you?
I would love to do that.
Hello, My Name Is Doris is now playing at four theaters across the valley.