After rescuing a stray dog from the side of the freeway, sixty-something empty-nester Beth Winter decides to adopt the homeless canine over the objections of her husband Joseph, a successful but self-involved surgeon. Following their daughter’s wedding at the Winters’ mountain cabin in the High Rockies, Joseph takes the dog—now aptly named Freeway—for a walk in the woods. While the distracted doctor chats on his cell phone, Freeway runs off after a deer and is lost. Furious at her husband for letting Freeway get away, a determined Beth enlists family, friends, and neighbors in an extensive search for her beloved pet. As they lead the search, Beth and Joseph realize that their once close and loving marriage has grown tense and testy. Continuing to look for Freeway, they also look for a way to reconnect with one another and rekindle their lost love.
The Winters’ odyssey is chronicled in Darling Companion, the new comedy/drama from Lawrence Kasdan, the acclaimed screenwriter of Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Bodyguard, and the writer/co-writer/director of Body Heat, The Big Chill, Silverado, and The Accidental Tourist. Kasdan directed Darling Companion and co wrote the screenplay with his wife of forty-one years, Meg Kasdan, with whom he previously collaborated on the Academy Award-nominated for Grand Canyon.
The idea for Darling Companion sprang from a real-life incident. As Meg Kasdan recently told Script: “We lost our dog in the mountains in Colorado. We had actually left him with a friend—we had to go out of town for a wedding—and she was with him on a mountain trail, and a mountain biker came down behind them and spooked him and he took off. She ran after him, but he just disappeared. And that started a big search that actually took place over three weeks. And we found him—after three weeks, he showed up. It was unbelievable.”
It was Meg who first saw the cinematic potential in the adventure: “I had said to Larry ‘We’ve got to write a movie about this.’ Not wanting to write an autobiographical script, Lawrence was initially reluctant, but, Meg recalls, “when it came to us that the key to a story was that the husband would lose the dog; then we had what we considered a story.”
Suitably inspired, the couple set to work. Unlike some teams that prefer to divvy up the work, the Kasdans like to write together: “We sit in a room together and do everything,” explains Lawrence. “Meg sits in a comfortable chair and I sit at the keyboard and we go back and forth. She’ll come up with ideas and I’ll come up with ideas and we negotiate differences—whoever feels more strongly usually wins, although the next week you might come back and reconsider the same thing again and come out differently.”
They began by writing a detailed outline, a process that Lawrence finds difficult, but indispensable: “The outlining is always the worst for me, the hardest. That’s how I started out—everything on cards, and then bigger cards—and it was a great way to work. It was very successful for me. But you get arrogant, and, after a certain number of years, I stopped making outlines and I’d do it sort of by instinct. Which can work to an extent, but there’s no substitute for [a good outline] because the experience every morning is always the same for everybody: ‘Oh my god. Here we go again. Why do I want to do this? This is terrible. The page is blank.’ And when you have a good outline, it gets you over that first hump. You can say ‘I don’t know if what I’m about to write is any good, but I know it takes place in a gas station. And I know that the gas station attendant comes out. And I know my guy talks to him.’ And you’re started.”
The Kasdans spent months constructing their outline. The result of their efforts was a story about companionship in all of its forms: one that explores not just the frayed relationship between Beth and Joseph, but also the courtship-leading-to-marriage of their daughter, Grace, and Sam, the handsome veterinarian who cares for Freeway after Beth first rescues him; the relationship between Joseph and his free-spirit sister Penny; between Penny and her new beau, the overbearing and possibly duplicitous Russell, which causes friction in Penny’s relationship with her adult son, Bryan; as well as the budding romance of Bryan and Carmen, the exotic caretaker of the Winters’ cabin, who claims to be gifted with second sight.
Once the outline was finished, the Meg and Lawrence wrote the script itself very quickly. The Kasdans were happy with what they had accomplished. Now they had to find a backer.
“When we were writing it, I think there was a fantasy that it could be a studio film,” says Lawrence. However, “as soon as we finished it, we knew it couldn’t. I don’t think that the stuff we write can make it through the committee that studio scripts go through. And I think the comedy is— we’ve seen it play, it’s really funny, but to convince a studio of that when they’re used to bigger jokes and more extreme behavior? We didn’t want the toilet to explode and we didn’t want to have a conversation about that.”
Another complicating factor was the age of the protagonists. The Kasdans made the Winters people like themselves—Baby Boomers in late middle age, thus continuing an examination of their generation begun in The Big Chill and continued in Grand Canyon. “Those movies are about people that were our age when we made the movies and this is too,” Lawrence explains. “[But] Hollywood is not making any movies about people in their 60s. Since most of the movies are aimed at young people, the studios naturally are looking for younger stars.”
For Lawrence, however, the biggest obstacle to finding studio backing was “The material that‘s being made. [Studios today] just aren’t making the kind of stories that writer/directors write. They’re not drawing from ‘What are you thinking about today? What are your concerns?’ That’s not the basis of most movies. The material tends to be brandable, franchise material that can create a tentpole or extreme comedies where the toilet does blow up aimed at a very young audience. The writer/director is practically extinct now.”
Accepting the inevitable, “we never presented it to any studio.” Instead, Lawrence and Meg decided to make the film independently. Teaming with Arthur Bregman’s Likely Story productions and Elizabeth Redleaf’s Werc Werk Works, the Kasdans made Darling Companion in Utah on a rock bottom five million dollar budget. The film was shot on digital and the entire cast and crew worked for scale.
How different was this low-budget experience for Kasdan, following decades of big ticket, big studio filmmaking? “Not as much as I thought,” he states enthusiastically. “When I would pull up in the morning and there were all these trucks, it didn’t look that different from a sixty million dollar movie. There were still all the people you needed; they were still beautifully trained and gifted. They had a little less help —we had fewer grips; wardrobe had one less person; everywhere you looked it was a little slimmer—but that’s fun, because you don’t want any fat around. The schedule was short, the money was nothing, we had to move fast, and we couldn’t do a lot of takes, but I never did a lot of takes anyway.”
Despite the limited resources, they were able to assemble a stellar cast of terrific actors, including Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Elizabeth Moss, Mark Duplass, Ayelet Zurer, and Sam Shepard. “We asked these incredible and amazing talents to be in it and they just immediately said ‘yes,’” Meg remembers. “They wanted to work with each other. They wanted to work with Larry. And they connected to the screenplay, which was very gratifying for us.”
How did Kasdan the director approach the work of Kasdan the writers? “I would defend the script,” Lawrence explains. “There was a famous definition of poetry, which was “emotion recollected in tranquility,” [meaning that] you can’t construct a poem that’s very emotional and passionate in a state of passion and emotion. I think screenwriting’s like that—it requires a quiet place to construct it. And then you take it out into the world to make it and a hundred of people come to help you. And they all have ideas. You’re hoping to be open to them and to make the adjustments on your feet under a lot of time pressure; trying to protect yourself —‘what if I feel differently tomorrow’?—and yet keep them contributing; not discouraging them so that the next time they don’t say anything. So for me, it’s a question of respecting what you’ve composed and structured in tranquility, but hoping that the process breathes it full of life.”
Once the film was shot, Kasdan began cutting the film with his longtime friend and editor Carol Littleton. For Kasdan, editing is “definitely a writing process. That’s your chance to rewrite the movie and correct the mistakes that you’ve made. It’s so similar to way you started the process. And in between you’ve had this adventure, but then it comes down to a quiet room again, making tough decisions.”
Having made a deal with Sony Pictures Classics to distribute the film, how do the Kasdans feel about the final product? “It’s a real labor of love for us,” says Meg. “It is a personal film, it has incidents from our life, but more than that, I think it reflects our values: what we think is important, how we view relationships. For better or for worse, we put our heart into it.”
Darling Companion is in theaters now.