For writer-director Don Roos, who began his career as a TV staff writer in the 1980s, the success of his dark 1998 feature comedy “The Opposite of Sex” got him into the big leagues. But his 2000 follow-up, the drama “Bounce” with Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck, had a disappointing reception. That led to a considerable hiatus before he undertook his third film, “Happy Endings.” As Roos explained in a recent Dallas interview, “I only direct what I write, so I had to come up with an idea. The only thing is, I don’t make money from directing, I make money from script polishing and script doctoring. I spent two years doing that after ‘Bounce’ came out.”
Roos explained the genesis of the “Endings” screenplay: “I originally wanted to do a story about three sisters, and I don’t know what happened, but somehow it ended up as a step-brother and step-sister. And I knew I wanted to do a movie with multiple stories, so I would have something to cut to, to give the audience a chance to breathe. So I’m going to have many, many stories, so that if I get bored with one, or there’s a point in the story that the audience has to see but it’s kind of shoe leather, I don’t have to show that–I’ll go to another story and then I’ll come back to that story, and the audience will have assumed things have happened, and I can move that story quicker and just use the good parts.” He noted, though, that all the interlocking plot threads–one about the step-sister’s long-lost son, whom an aspiring filmmaker promises to reunite her with if she’ll help him with his project; another about her lover, an illegal alien who works as a masseuse and uses his sexual charm on his clients; a third about the step-brother, a gay man trying to prove that the son being raised by a lesbian couple was actually sired by his partner; a fourth about one of his employees, a young gay man who’s seduced by a free-spirited gold-digger, who soon shifts her attention to the boy’s father–had common elements. One is the centrality of family, and especially parenthood. “For me sex, especially straight sex with the possibility of the creation of consciousness, is such a big deal [that] I don’t know why when I go out in the street more people just don’t have a look of amazement on their face that they can create consciousness. Straight people should be, like, shocked all the time: ‘We can create consciousness! I can’t get over it!’ It’s a big deal, that you can introduce that into the universe. So that’s always been a big, important theme in all my work.” And there’s a second common thread as well. “All of the stories are about a schemer,” Roos said, “somebody who manipulates people, or tries to manipulate people, for their own purposes. Each story has multiple secrets. It’s very soapoperatic, because I love soap operas, with adopted kids and liaisons that should not have happened, and blackmail–all manner of highjinks. (There should have been evil twins–I left that out, next movie.) But then I like to play the scenes themselves very real, very matter-of-fact and not operatic at all. There’s only a couple of times where characters lose their temper. I like them to play it counter to the melodrama of the actual plot.” He made a special effort to give the characters nuance. “The problem with a lot of American movies,” he said, “is that the characters seem to have lived only a day before the movie starts. The general back story for a male star is that he’s a cop and previous to the movie beginning his partner died–maybe it was his fault. And if you’re a girl, your back story is, you were never the pretty one, and you love food, even though you’re rail-thin, you’re a little disorganized and when you’re sad, you eat ice-cream out of a carton in front of the TV. That kind of crap–you’re a little clumsy and people think you’re not that pretty even though you’re gorgeous. I like to tell the audience a little more and have a complicated back story for every character.” One of the ways he accomplished this in “Happy Endings” was to use title cards to provide information not easily inserted into the dialogue. “Title cards are great because you can play with your movie after it’s done, and fix all the stuff you were too stupid to catch [while shooting],” he explained with a self-deprecating smile.
Writing the script and defining the tone, however, proved easy beside finding someone who would bankroll the filming. “It did take me twenty months after I wrote the script to get it made–almost two years,” Roos said. “Which was humiliating, because I thought after ‘The Opposite of Sex’ I’ll write a new spec script and there’ll be this feeding frenzy. I’ll put another phone line in the house to handle all the calls. Well, it was a feeding frenzy that no one showed up to. I was very disappointed that no one seemed to want to do it, and it took twenty months before the cameras finally rolled. And that’s a humiliating period. We started with a $17 million budget, which went down to $13 million. ‘Well, if you don’t like it at $13 million, do you like it at $11 million? If you don’t like it at $11 million, do you like it at $8 million?’ Finally they said, we like it under $5 million,’ and only one place liked it under $5 million, and that was Lions Gate. They had a previous relationship with our producer Holly.” He added: “I took it very personally when it wouldn’t get made. And I realize now it’s just about the business. [But then] I really thought my career was over, that I’d had my shot.”
But funding, however modest, did come, and Roos turned to casting. He’d written the role of the step-sister with Lisa Kudrow, who’d starred in “The Opposite of Sex,” in mind and that of Frank, the rich suburban dad, for Tom Arnold, but filling the other parts was more challenging. “You look at your characters, and you have to see what the pitfalls are, why the audience might not adhere to them, and then cast to take care of those problems,” he explained. “Casting is a bit of a seduction of the audience, you know. You try to get them to like characters that they otherwise might not–to get them to follow characters they otherwise might not.” He used the figure of Nicky, the would-be film student played by Jesse Bradford, as an example. “It was a tough part to cast, because he’s a blackmailer,” Roos said. “And I had to make sure that the audience didn’t hate him right away. So I had to cast an actor who was personable, very innocent. Even though he does some bad things, Jesse is a very innocent-looking guy, and good-looking, which is very important.” The character of Jude, the girl who seduces both Frank and his son, was a special case–Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays the role, was cast at the last minute, after two other actresses had dropped out. “She’s very confident, fulls of ideas and a joy to work with,” Roos enthused. Once the cast was assembled, shooting proceeded piecemeal, with each story being filmed in full before moving on to the next and all then reassembled in the editing room. “When you’re paying actors so little, you can’t really tie them up for the whole thirty days,” Roos explained. “So there would be a whole new family to get used to [every week]. But we got close very quickly. Because on this movie the actors were always on the set; because they were always working, we all bonded very quickly.” The tight shooting schedule, which allowed the actors relatively little prep time, actually jibed with Roos’ directorial inclinations. “I don’t like rehearsals,” he said, “because I find them embarrassing. I think the script always sounds terrible in a rehearsal. Film is so much about what’s in the characters’ eyes–film really sees what a character’s thinking. So I don’t like [the actors] to be too well-oiled, too well-rehearsed.” He added, “My job as a director is really to plant the thinking of the character in the actor’s head,” and noted, “You’ve got a lot of responsibility [as a director], but you’ve got a hundred people whose job it is to make you look good. Whereas as a writer, is anyone trying to make you look good? They’re just trying to criticize and change what you’re doing and give you notes. As a director they’ll be fired if they don’t make you look good.”
Roos admitted, “I prefer writing to directing. But the treatment is great as a director!”