Marc Menchaca wrote and co-directed “This Is Where We Live,” as well as starring in it as Noah, a troubled handyman in a small central Texas town who befriends Gus (Tobias Segal), a young man with cerebral palsy. The film, which was well received at screenings at Austin’s South By Southwest and the Dallas International Film Festival, is making its way across the country city by city, and Menchaca visited Dallas in conjunction with its opening at the Angelika Theatre.
Menchaca based his script very loosely on his own friendship with a victim of CP. “My buddy Tom, I met him probably fourteen or fifteen years ago,” he explained. “And I ended up becoming his caregiver—just like Noah, I’d hang out with him. Basically my relationship with him was the impetus for this script, just because I found it to be such a special relationship. I knew nothing going into it about cerebral palsy, and just that process of seeing that he had a point of view about everything—he couldn’t speak, but he did have something to say, though it wasn’t through word. He does, like August in the film, says ‘Yeah,’ the one word. It kind of amazed me how much he could say with one word, as opposed to these long sentences that I put together to convey one thing. In the end, I wanted August to be seen as a person with every feeling and point of view and thought that any of us would have.
“I originally met [Thomas] because I was working with some underprivileged kids, and his mother was a therapist, and I was kind of like the guinea pig of this organization—where I was like a mentor to these kids,” Menchaca continued. “And she ended up through our working together with these families asking me to come out and meet Thomas. He was about to graduate high school, and there were going to need someone around, because they were working.” In the film, Gus’ mother asks Noah to stay with her son while she and her husband Bob (Ron Hayden), who’s suffering from early-onset Alzheimer, go to work at the local grocery.
Joining Menchaca in Dallas was disability consultant Christine Bruno and producer Benjamin Fuqua. Bruno, an actress who also has a small part in the picture as a restaurant cashier, explained that she joined the project “because I have cerebral palsy as well. And Ben and I met working on another film, and he told me that he and Marc were working on this film, and asked me to come on and consult on the script, making sure that the way he was describing it was authentic and that it was respectful of the person with the disability. And that sort of snowballed into this, three years later.”
Segal doesn’t have CP, but his performance as Gus is remarkably convincing. “I met Tobias on another film and got to know him and I really thought he was a great actor,” Menchaca said. “And he looked physically like what I wanted. We originally saw actors with CP for the role, but for several reasons—mainly from a physical standpoint, they lift weights and are bigger than me—it just didn’t work out. And I ended up asking Tobias to do it.
“I hadn’t seen him do anything with it until the day before we started shooting. And he had done his own homework—he’d watched videos, and we’d brought him down a week early or so, and he spent four or five days with my buddy Thomas while we were in Austin. They just got to bond together…and I just trusted that Tobias got the physicality of it down. I was blown away when I saw what he’d come up with.”
Bruno agreed. “It was so interesting for me to come and see what he’d done,” she said. “I was on set for five days, just as a watchful eye. He had already met the real McCoy in Thomas, so I didn’t need to do anything. It was extraordinary.”
But Gus isn’t the only member of the Sutton family who comes across in the film as a fully rounded character. So do Diane and Bob, as well as their troubled daughter Lainey (Frankie Shaw). But despite all the difficulties they face, the Suttons soldier on.
“I grew up in San Angelo, a smaller town,” Menchaca said. “And you see families that deal with a lot of things that my family didn’t deal with. I don’t know how this family came about, to tell you the truth. It just came about in the process of writing it. And then I wanted to give respect to that family. At no point do they feel sorry for themselves. That’s what their life is, and that’s how they live. There’s no pity party. And I know a lot of families—they don’t go around saying ‘My life sucks, I’ve got to do this, and this, and this.’ That’s what they deal with, and from the outside we feel sorry. Trying to put yourself in their position, you’re like, ‘I don’t think I’d want to do that,’ or ‘I don’t think I could do that.’ But when you’re in that situation, you just deal with it.”
The writing is key to the family portrait, but the script had to be brought to life by the actors. “I knew a lot of the cast [apart from Segal],” Menchaca explained. “The mother, CK McFarland, was an old acting teacher of mine, and in the process of writing it, as the family was coming together, I thought she would be perfect for this part. And so at that point I started writing for her without her knowledge. And then she read the script and agreed to come on and do it. The same thing with the dad. He was an old acting coach of mine in Austin. He doesn’t really act anymore, he moved up into the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He’s an incredible teacher and actor. And I called him up and he said, ‘Yeah. Just tell me where to be and when, and I’ll do it.’ Those people, I did write with them in mind.”
McFarland, Menchaca recalled, “was worried that the mother was going to come off as kind of a grouch and whiney, and she isn’t at all. And Hayden, Fuqua noted, “was a totally method guy. He was Bob the entire time.” Menchaca, who said that “Ron has a very special place in my heart,” recalled that immediately on coming to the shoot, Hayden ensconced himself in the truck Bob was no longer allowed to drive to work his way into the part. “He was out in the truck for hours,” he said. “And some of the crew came and said, ‘There’s some guy just sitting in the truck.’ Nobody knew who he was. ‘There’s some dude just hanging out in the truck over there.’ And I said, ‘Oh, that’s Ron. Don’t worry about it, he’s working.’”
Fuqua joined the project as producer early on. “I knew Marc prior to the project,” he explained, “and he had this idea, and we rode the road together. He was reading books on how to write screenplays while he was writing the screenplay, and I’d wanted to produce something, and working with Marc was a joy because he was a good friend and I believed in the story because I knew his friend Thomas already, and so we partnered and hit the road.” He acknowledged that his job was made somewhat easier as a result of Menchaca’s connections. The Sutton house, for instance, was the residence of “one of my old football coaches,” Menchaca said. “His family let us use their house…the house where the family lives. They gave us free rein.”
One of the remarkable aspects of “This Is Where We Live” is that in spite of the subject matter, it never becomes mawkish or cloying. “We never wanted to hit anybody over the head with anything in this film,” Menchaca emphasized. “And my co-director, Josh Barrett, did a wonderful job of pulling the reins back so we wouldn’t do that.
“We worked together very well—it was kind of seamless. I brought Josh on, because it was my first screenplay and first film, and I started getting cold feet. I was like, ‘I don’t even think I should act in this.’ We met on ‘Generation Kills,’ the HBO series, some years ago, and have been good friends since then. So I trusted him.”
Like Menchaca, Barrett and Fuqua, this was the first feature for virtually all the key crew members as well, including cinematographer Ryan Booth. “We were a first-time bunch,” Menchaca said.
In reflecting on the film again, Menchaca returned to his friend Thomas. “If I were him, how would I want other people to see my life?” he said “We never wanted him to be portrayed as a saint, or pitied.” And referring to Gus’ occasional bursts of pique, he said of Thomas, “If he wants to be a jerk, he can be a jerk. We get pissed off at each other, and I’ll be like, ‘Stop it.’”
Bruno seized on the point. “Even though it might not have been Marc’s overt intention, for me as a disabled person, that’s an important thing that the film does unconsciously, because it’s such a beautiful portrait of Thomas, and of the relationship that Marc has with Thomas…rather than hitting you over the head with an agenda.”
As a self-distributed film, “This Is Where I Live” has to be searched out by viewers. But it’s worth the trouble.