Premiering at the 2013 Seattle International Film Festival, “Teddy Bears” enjoyed a festival tour before Tribeca Film picked it up for distribution, changing the title to “The Big Ask” in the process. The fickle desert of Joshua Tree serves as the ideal backdrop to the (somewhat) true story of a man (David Krumholtz) who surprises his friends during their vacation with his nervous breakdown in the form of an indecent proposal. I reviewed the film when it played at SIFF and it was one of my top picks from the festival that year. I was pleased to hear that “The Big Ask” would reach a larger audience thanks to its V.O.D. release on June 30th. I recently caught up with co-directors/married couple, Thomas Beatty and Rebecca Fishman, at their home in Los Angeles where they were still adjusting to having a new human baby on top of promoting what they consider their first-born, a feature film.
Your life must be pretty bonkers right now, promoting a movie and having a new baby.
Thomas Beatty: Yeah
Rebecca Fischman: Yeah, it’s interesting. There’s not a lot of sleep happening.
Thomas: We have two babies. And they both require a lot of attention.
You have two babies? That’s a lot to take on at once.
Thomas: Oh, I think of the movie as our baby.
Thomas: If we had two actual babies, we would not be able to speak English.
They’re both equally unpredictable.
Rebecca: Yes, that’s definitely true.
So I know sometimes there are compromises to make in a distribution deal. I have to ask about the title change. Why did you choose the original title [“Teddy Bears”] and why did you change it to “The Big Ask”?
Thomas: Well, the original title… Teddy Bears are the name of the cactuses that are kind of the most intriguing cactuses to us in Joshua Tree where we shot the film. We were both just interested in the fact that these very cute, cuddly-looking things were incredibly dangerous when you got up close to them, and that really parallels what the movie is about. And then we changed the title because we were making a compromise for a distribution deal. [laughs]
Did you guys come up with the new title?
Rebecca: It was kind of a mutually agreed upon middle ground between us and the distributor [Tribeca Films].
Thomas: And it started with a B, which is a good thing. Their feeling was that in a world that’s dominated by on-demand you want to have a title that speaks to what the film is actually about. And they made the really good point that if you’re scrolling through Time Warner and you see “Teddy Bears,” it looks like a kid’s movie. And we did NOT want people to think it was a kid’s movie because it would probably not be good for kids.
[laughs] Probably not. They’d probably be bored, I would assume.
Rebecca: Oh yeah.
Thomas: They wouldn’t make it through the title sequence.
Would you mind talking a little about your journey from the film festival premiere to distribution?
Rebecca: We came up to Seattle and could not have had a better experience. And it was playing the festival circuit for a while. And all the while we were kind of fielding offers from distributers and the funny thing is that we ended up going with a distributor who had seen the movie at Seattle, actually. So they were the first distributor that had approached us and they were who we ended up making a deal with. So it was kind of a long journey. I guess it was about a year.
Thomas: Yeah, well it was like six months before we began the process of moving forward with Tribeca. We wanted to do our due diligence and we hired a great sales agent and we did all the things that you’re supposed to do. And at the end of the day it just felt like the person who was passionate about it first was the right place.
Which festival gave you the best reception on your tour?
Thomas: You know, I think it definitely makes a difference when you have a film out there to go with it. I think some of it is just that people are more open to your movie if they get to meet you and get to know you. We sort of stumbled upon a couple of people who really did not like it at festivals we didn’t go to. But in terms of the ones where we were able to represent and had a relationship with the festival and a relationship with the festival goers, we got such a wonderful response across the board and it was incredibly rewarding and there’s nothing like it. It’s really wonderful. It’s a community that you kind of get invited into and you get to be a part of. It’s a special thing.
Rebecca: I would say that probably SIFF was the most fun. Because we had all the cast there and it was kind of like an extended wrap party for the movie. Everyone was there and we just got such a wonderful welcome from Seattle and the Seattle filmgoers.
Thomas: Yeah, it was an amazing group of filmgoers. It really blew us away.
They are incredibly enthusiastic.
Thomas: Yeah! Enthusiastic and knowledgeable and they have really good taste but they’re also welcoming. They’re not lording their good taste over you. So it’s been great. And a lot of the people that we met there and people in that community have become really close friends of ours moving forward.
I originally read that the script was “loosely” based on your real life experience. But then your press release made it sound like it was more literal than that. You mentioned that it also draws from the lives of your friends and that you “mined their lives.” So is the end result closer to the truth or to fiction?
Thomas: Hmm… What do you think, Honey?
Rebecca: I would say that the emotional truth of the movie is very true to life. When somebody goes through a breakdown it’s very specific. And I think a lot of what Thomas and I went through emotionally is there in the film. I don’t think that the facts of the movie and what actually transpired in the movie happened but there’s the emotional core of it. And how one interacts with a person who is going through a mental breakdown is very true.
Thomas: And I hope that the movie is true to the place too, which is the place that we congregate with our friends every year. And all the characters are very much based on our friends and combinations of our friends and…it’s funny, we’ve gotten so much response from people who say I just can’t imagine…if someone said something like that to me I would never react in that way. But it really feels very true to how our group of friends, who are like a family, really – how they would have reacted if something that crazy happened.
Yeah, it seems like one of those things where you don’t really know how you’re going to react. It’s impossible to predict.
How did your friends react when they found out you were telling this story?
Rebecca: A lot of them were the first people to read the script and everyone was universally supportive. And there was a lot of game playing. Guessing who was who. When we premiered the movie in Los Angeles, we had a bunch of our friends come up to us afterward and be like “OK, so this person was really this person, right?”
Thomas: Yeah. Every year. It has to be two years now.
Rebecca: But yeah, I have to say, even the people who knew it was based on them – they were really supportive. And initially when Thomas first wrote the script it was a short and the people who read it were some of the people that it was loosely based on and they were the ones who were like, “You have to turn this into a feature. This is so good.” I guess our friends are all really laid back.
Thomas: I think that’s also the luxury of being in a community of creative people who were all trying to take our lives and turn it into something worth watching. So there’s a lot more understanding toward taking liberties with your life and with the people around you than there would be if we were all bankers or something. [laughs]
Do you still visit the same place every year with the same crew?
Rebecca: Yeah, we went back a year after we had filmed and that was kind of the PTSD experience.
Thomas: It was brutally hard. Both of us were shaking the whole time.
Rebecca: It wasn’t that fun. But we did go back. And then last year one of our good friends actually got married out there. A lot of people were out there so that was really fun. I think we’ll continue going out there. It will be interesting having a kid now and going out there with a baby. The plan continues. Life moves on.
Thomas: And a lot of the people that the movie is loosely based on are in [an unnamed cover] band with Rebecca. They play every year in the bar that is featured in the movie so it all gets very tangled up.
Are you guys the first in your group of friends to have a baby?
Thomas: Kind of, yeah. In that group of friends, yes. We have a lot of other friends with babies but in sort of our core Los Angeles group of friends we are the first ones.
I find that if you take them out traveling right from the get-go, they acclimate to it pretty quickly.
Rebecca: I hope that that is true. We’re about to find out. We’re about to go on vacation with him. So we shall see.
Thomas: We’re about to go back East for a plane trip and our son, Gus, will be about six months old and that’s our first big excursion with him. So we’ll see how it goes. [Laughs]
You said that David Krumholtz nailed the audition for the lead character [Andrew]. What scene did he read for you? And at what moment did you know that he was your guy?
Rebecca: He read The Ask, that first scene where he initially has that monologue about why he wants to do this and he did the whole scene and I think we knew right away once we saw the tape. It was interesting; because a lot of people we saw in person and he was I think one of the only people we cast whose audition we didn’t see in person.
Thomas: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Rebecca: Sorry, I’m remembering something wrong.
Thomas: The funny thing about it was that he had just shot… Oh yeah, you weren’t there. Yeah, Rebecca wasn’t there but I was there in the room with him. She couldn’t be there that day for auditions. And he came in having just filmed a TV show that required him to have the most disgusting handlebar mustache you’ve ever seen. It was such a pervert mustache. And when I saw him, I was like, “This is never gonna work. He looks like a pervert right now.” But it didn’t matter. He was so great and as good as he was in the room, he just has a way on screen that was really special. We just watched it over and over again.
Did you know before Rebecca saw it that he would be the one?
Thomas: I’ve loved him since I was a kid. I actually have a very… I don’t remember that many things from my childhood but I have this very funny memory of sitting with my sister and watching “The Santa Clause” and turning to her. And because our dad was an actor [Ned Beatty] we kind of fancied ourselves to know something about acting, I turned to her and I was like, “That kid’s very good. I think he’s got a future in this.” And it was Krumholtz. And so I’ve appreciated his work for a long time and was just so excited that he was willing to come in for the part. And then I knew it was good but it really was when we watched it together, when we watched the tape, that we were like, “There’s something special, different and unique here.”
Did all of your actors come from Barden/Schnee Casting or was there anyone that you found independently?
Rebecca: It was an interesting mix of um…we had friends in common with David and with Ahna O’Reilly. So it was a mix. Our dear friend who was working at Barden/Schnee at the time was friends with David and friends with Ahna, so we kind of pulled some favors in asking people to come in but then it was really Melanie [Lynskey] who… we sent the script to Melanie. She was our top choice…
Thomas: We didn’t know her at all.
Rebecca: …We didn’t know her. We never thought that she would even look at the script but she did and she signed on. And after Melanie came on it was kind of a domino effect. Everyone wanted to work with her. So it was way easier to cast the rest of the parts because we had Melanie.
Thomas: Yeah, the combination of Rich and Cary of Barden/Schnee and Melanie being a part of the project that took us from being a couple of randos excited to make a movie to something that… I think people felt like they could put their trust in us. And both Melanie and… Well, Melanie we had met with but Jason [Ritter] read the script, liked it, heard who was in it, said yes. I’d actually met him weirdly when we were, like, three years old and had no conversations, no contact with him since then. He just kinda showed up to the first reading and was like, “OK, let’s do this thing.” He’s a very giving actor.
Rebecca: Yeah, he was actually the last person that we cast. And I think we had the offers out to him and maybe one other person. And I think he came on maybe two days before the first read-through.
Thomas: Who, Jason?
Thomas: Oh, we had the offer out to him for… Basically, we just had it out; we didn’t know if we’d hear back from him and we were kind of like, “What happens if he says no.” And having to move forward. He’d just finished a project, had time to read it and was like, “Yeah, I’ll do this movie.” And yeah, it was pretty close to the end.
Did you have any actors in mind when you were writing?
Thomas: Um… yes. I would say yes, I did for some of the parts. And there was a period when we thought we would just be going off and making this for zero dollars with our friends. So some of the parts, definitely friends were in mind first. Then I kind of moved away from it. But I mean, I write a lot of scripts. Sometimes it’s a trick when I’m doing a specific pass on a script, if I know that character needs to go one way or another I’ll think of an actor that really evokes that for me and I’ll imagine them for that specific pass and write it for them and then hope that I can take it in a certain direction. Sometimes I’ll do that with four or five actors for a given part. I’m sure I did that, I’m sure there were ten actors playing each part in “The Big Ask” at some point or another.
How long did you spend writing the script?
Thomas: It came out really fast. I probably spent six months thinking about how to write about this period in my life and then I wrote the short in about a week and the script in about a month after that. Which is definitely the fastest I’ve ever written anything.
Did you write the short knowing you were going to turn it into a feature?
Thomas: No, not at all. We knew that we wanted to shoot something. So we thought, “OK, let’s shoot this and I’ll write a short and we’ll do it.” And it was just… Right away it was clear that it needed a little space to breathe and it should be a feature. The short was just the first scene but I was like, “Yeah, but what happens next?” So we went from there. And yeah, it just came out really fast. I don’t know. We certainly re-wrote it for months but it really didn’t change that drastically compared to other projects that are… We’ve had other projects where we’ve had a Page One re-write six or seven times.
How many re-writes did you do on this one?
Thomas: I probably did four or five but they were all… They were not Page One at all. They were all sort of um…
Thomas: Tweaks, yeah. But then our ninety-page script… Our first cut was two hours and forty minutes and so… The end result of the movie is only, I would say, about sixty pages of the ninety-page script I wrote. And that was a really hard thing for us. Like there’s a whole…
Rebecca: There’s a whole other movie.
Thomas: Yeah. There’s a whole other movie. And all the characters really have their own… I really wanted to write an ensemble where, yes there was a lead but it was no one person’s story. But the great lesson of editing was, unless you wanted to make a three-hour movie it had to be one person’s story. So, yeah. Sadly, we have this whole other movie. Hopefully it’ll see the light of day in some form or another.
You think you might re-visit some of the characters?
Rebecca: Well, there’s just great scenes that we had to cut from our movie that will, you know, hopefully be on the DVD, maybe. There’s back stories to all of them and actually much more of the women.
Rebecca: We ended up cutting them to tell a more linear story and we ended up cutting some of, you know, Ahna’s parts and Gillian’s [Jacobs] parts. It was sad.
Thomas: As good as Ahna is in the movie, she had this whole other performance that’s so beautiful that we just… We tried to keep it so many times but there was just no way.
I would definitely like to see those scenes. What films did you watch when you were trying to develop the visual tone?
Rebecca: Aaron [Kovalchik], our D.P. and Thomas and I probably spent, I don’t know, two months watching movies. I guess the biggest takeaway was probably “Paris, Texas,” which, you know… I want to make every movie look like a Wim Wenders movie. But that was definitely an inspiration for how to shoot the desert. And, um… What was that Spanish movie? “The Woman…”
Thomas: Oh yeah, the talking head? …Oh my gosh. We’re the worst.
Rebecca: We have total baby brain.
Thomas: “The Headless Woman”!
Rebecca: “The Headless Woman”…which is this beautiful Spanish movie that we got a lot of inspiration in how to shoot ensemble. David Lynch is always an inspiration in terms of just how stylized he is but also how he always just shoots, like, weird stuff. Like the kind of weird fine line between realistic and surrealistic.
Thomas: Yeah. Dreamlike.
Rebecca: Um…what else?
Thomas: Well, there was the other Joshua Tree movies like “29 Palms.” We had to consider them.
Rebecca: What was the tire movie?
Thomas: Oh yeah! It’s just called “Tire,” right?
Rebecca: No, it’s called…um…
Thomas: Yeah, “Rubber” – which is this crazy desert movie. It’s super weird and it’s just about a tire that rolls around and explodes people’s heads.
Rebecca: Yeah, it’s very weird. Aaron brought all of those weird movies. But yeah, we watched a lot of desert movies to get us in the mood.
Did the actors follow specific character notes or did they develop their characters through their performances?
Rebecca: We had two days of rehearsal with the actors which… Some movies have no rehearsal and some movies have some and it was really nice to get people to sit down with them and talk about what we felt was the character and what they felt and tried to reach a middle ground. But I would say they all had pretty copious notes.
Thomas: Yeah, you know they’re all really great actors…
Rebecca: And they all really did their homework.
Thomas: Yeah. For the most part that means that they’re gonna think a lot about it and bring a lot of their own… They all had very personal relationships with their characters. The wonderful thing about writing to actors is that they will find the problems with your script and tell you what they are just with the questions that they ask about what they understand and what they don’t. And that was definitely the case with this. They found holes that I hadn’t even considered in the writing. And it’s totally a luxury in this case for us that the characters weren’t that far from any of us. So we were able to talk about our own lives and our own situation in a way that really informed who these people were and how they should play them.
Were there any aspects of the shoot that you found surprisingly easy?
Rebecca: [laughs] No.
Rebecca: Everything about the shoot was super hard… to me. I don’t know. Thomas, did you find anything easy?
Thomas: Um… I don’t know what this sounds like but I found it very easy to be in charge. I did not know how that would feel but I was super comfortable kind of being like the person whose job it was to make sure that everyone else felt supported and be the person who kind of kept the calm and kept perspective on everything. I didn’t expect that to be the case but for whatever reason… Afterwards, of course, I had, like, three weeks of shaking in a ball on the floor so… I would be that person who would go into battle and be fine and, like, totally lose it afterwards.
That sounds like good preparation for fatherhood as well.
Thomas: [laughs] Yeah…
Rebecca: I think it definitely was. He makes everyone feel very safe.
Thomas: Definitely for sleep training.
Was there anything that you expected to be easy but ended up being really hard?
Rebecca: Everything else… I guess just the day-to-day of being in the desert was way harder than we thought it would be because I guess we go out to the desert with our friends at a really peaceful time in the desert’s life.
Thomas: Yeah. Middle of winter.
Rebecca: Yeah, so the desert in winter is very, uh, sweet and nice and moderate in temperature and in April it was… not that. So we had crazy windstorms and terrible heat. Also terrible cold. Just the extremes of the desert that seemed worse in April than they do in December. We were expecting the desert to be our friend and it’s nobody’s friend. [laughs]
People are bound to misunderstand a film with such a risqué premise. What has been the most off-base interpretation you’ve encountered?
Thomas: Well some of the really out-there ones I really like. A film programmer who is a friend… He thought that all of the people that, like, live in the desert were all figments of Andrew’s imagination. I was like, “Oh, that’s kind of cool. I like that.” But that was the weird one that I was super into. I think it’s, like, they’re not the craziest ones but the ones that are tough for us are people who just don’t buy into the world and everyone gets the chance to say yes or no to it. I think if we have one regret as filmmakers it’s that we didn’t… Our biggest regret is that we didn’t do whatever was necessary to let people know that this was a fairy tale. That this place, and this situation were, while dealing with very real human things, were supposed to be fantastical. And if people won’t go along on that journey with us then that’s…that’s the one we don’t like. [laughs]
I can see how the desert folk that [Andrew] encountered were fairly Lynchian, Now that you mention it I can definitely see the Lynch parallels.
Rebecca: We were working really hard to try and make it a real story and really be grounded in reality. I think we just went too far with that. And made kind of a hyper-realistic film that was really supposed to be more of a fairy tale.
Thomas: Interestingly enough, all of the desert people are modeled very directly on real people that we’ve met out there at Joshua Tree to the point where a lot of our dialog is actually directly lifted from people’s mouths. So it’s one of those cases where truth is stranger than fiction, definitely.
Do you have any plans to make another film together?
Rebecca: We have grand plans. We’ll see if they become a reality.
Thomas: Even though we made the movie a long time ago, with the release sort of just jumping in process right now there’s an extend to which… We have a couple of scripts that we feel good about but it also would be good to take a breath. And now that this movie has met the world, figure out what the right next movie for us to make is. Of course while that goes on we have always one hundred projects of one kind or another, whether it’s stuff that I’ve written or we want to direct together or that one of us is producing in some capacity. I think that’s the nature of any film. It’s so hard to get anything going that you have to have one hundred things going and hope that one of them becomes real.
What are some of your individual projects that you have coming up?
Thomas: Well, I’m working with one of the producers from the movie adapting a book called “Flatscreen” by Adam Wilson that is hopefully going to have a life pretty soon. It’s really funny. It’s an awesome book. It’s sort of about coming of age in a media drug world in a suburb of Boston. And it’s just weird and funny and crazy. And then Rebecca and I are writing something right now that is not ready for the world yet but we hope will be in this next year. And then we’ve also got a couple… I don’t know. I really love doing things for the web because they’re small and fun and they’re quick and you can show them to people right away. But again, we have a couple of projects that…they’re not ready to meet the world quite yet.
Rebecca, do you have individual projects?
Rebecca: My individual stuff is more… I stopped playing with my band a couple of months ago on maternity leave. And just getting back into my photography, which is my day job. So shooting a lot of stuff here and hopefully collaborating with Thomas on a project that is inspired by parenthood.
It definitely consumes your brain.
Rebecca: Yeah. It’s funny… There’s so many people who relate to that show, “Parenthood,” being parents. And I feel like there’s not that much out there that really depicts what it’s really like being a parent. So I’d be interested to do something along those lines.
The person that comes closest to describing it for me is Louis C.K.
Rebecca: He really nails it.
Thomas: And I always think of that Tina Fey line where she’s like, “It’s like having a drunk midget in your house.” We’re not there yet, but I’m looking forward to the drunk midget phase.
Where can people see “The Big Ask” right now?
Thomas: They can see it on VOD, whatever VOD service they have. It’s also on iTunes, Amazon…all those carriers.
Thomas: Yeah, and it should be on there for another month or so.
Rebecca: And on iTunes in perpetuity.
Thomas: Yeah. Which means “for a long time,” I think. [laughs]
Do you have a DVD release set?
Thomas: That will be post-VOD so we have to get through that window before we move on. But we’ve talked a lot to Tribeca about it so there’s definitely a plan to do that at some point.
Well, thank you very much for talking with me today. Best of luck with promoting the movie. I loved it and I hope it reaches a wide and appreciative audience.
Thomas: Well, thank you. And we just want to say that it meant so much to us to have people and you specifically to really get what we were doing when we were so terrified that nobody would. So we will always take that with us. Thank you very much.