If comedy comes from pain, then Barra Grant knows that while laughter might not heal all wounds, it certainly makes the physical and mental aches go down better. Having now experienced no end of creatively inspiring tsuris as the daughter of controversial (and the first Jewish) Miss America Bess Myerson, Grant had a prolific career as an actress during the 1970s, appearing on such famed programs as Love, American Style, Gunsmoke and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But perhaps no two film roles foretold her future like Grant’s appearance as a drug addict in the 1976 ambulance cult comedy Mother, Jugs & Speed, and as one of the participants in 1978’s Slow Dancing in the Big City, a romance which she also had the distinction of writing.
Emotionally excessive characters and memorable dialogue are the two hallmarks of Grant’s second and quickly growing career as a writer and director — one that’s included the Gene Hackman drama Misunderstood, several after-school specials and uncredited script-polishing on any number of major films. But it was Grant’s first feature scripting and directorial effort, Life of the Party, that showed her acerbic talent for finding poignancy and humor in the unhappiest situations — in this case, as a charismatic alcoholic finally comes to terms with disease’s affect on family and friends.
While the stakes of Grant’s new movie, Love Hurts, aren’t quite as alarming, her witty dialogue and eye for involving characters once again make for a winning combination, as a vainglorious doctor receives a wake-up call when his wife leaves him. Played by Richard E. Grant (Withnail & I) at his neurotic best, Grant’s fully imagined egotist at first throws himself with equal passion into the bottle and the singles market before his son’s advise helps him become a far better man — one that his wife might want back.
Joining the company of such other gifted comedy observationalists as Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron, the richly humorous and emotional Love Hurts shows off Barra Grant as a multi-hyphenate filmmaker who knows how to smile at the heartache of the human condition. It’s a gift that continues to bring out richly believable performances, here from a name cast that also includes Jenna Elfman, Carrie-Anne Moss and Janeane Garofalo. All combine for another witty observation from Barra Grant on how gently laughing at the pain ultimately gets us through it — life lessons that her writing and directing talents continue to grow with.
Daniel Schweiger: What inspired you to make the transition from being an actress to becoming a writer and director?
Barra Grant: I did a lot of work at The Mark Taper as an actress, where I was in a program called New Theater for Now. Because I was a regular, they put me in a lot of plays. Some of them weren’t so good, particularly because of the characters I was supposed to play. I quickly realized I was judging the material, and once you do step back from being an actor to do that, you know that you’d better well be able to write something better than what they’re giving you, or you should quit. That made me concentrate on writing, which I’d always done, and once they made a movie out of one of my scripts and I became a full-fledged writer, I was doing everything from plays to screenplays and polishing existing scripts. I never looked back, really, because I loved it so much. Then I started directing to truly capture the gist of how I wanted the actors to communicate my words. I love all three disciplines, especially in how it lets me communicate with performers, because I used to be one. It’s a very precious world, and all the actors I work with are better than I ever was, so I venerate them. In Love Hurts, I was blessed with a cast of geniuses. The wonderful thing about being a writer here is for me to see everything in my screenplay become better than I ever imagined it, and that’s what you get with great actors.
DS: Richard E. Grant is the last person you might cast for an indie romantic comedy like this. What made you think of him?
BG: We went through all these ideas of the usual casting suspects for indie movies, and I actually met with a couple of them, but the complexity of Ben’s part is that the guy starts out as a fossilized and completely self-absorbed ear, nose and throat doctor who’s only interested in money, despite the dreams he had long ago of truly helping people. Ben has turned into an insensitive jerk whose wife Amanda is in misery being with him. I thought, “This character sounds like a Brit!” In other words, you can get away with a lot if you’re a British person. I don’t want to say anything about them in general, but an American audience understands a British man in terms of how detached and out of touch he is. Even after 22 years of living in America, Ben still has an English accent. He’s one of those haughty guys and is completely amazed when his wife leaves him, because, in Ben’s mind, he’s terrific, and Amanda doesn’t recognize who she’s married to anymore. She doesn’t want to be in an empty nest with Ben once their son Justin leaves for college. Richard E. Grant has an incredible ability to play that kind of befuddlement and mystification, and also Ben’s tremendous pain and suffering as he spirals downward. I can’t imagine another actor in the part. Richard can come from a place of pain, and turn it into a brilliant performance. He makes everyone laugh at how much he hurts.
DS: Your film is also about how Justin has to assume the role of his father to get Ben back up from rock bottom.
BG: Yes, they really trade places. Justin is a very popular kid who has a lot of “friends with benefits,” and Ben has only been with his wife. Now he’s suddenly alone, out in the single world without a clue. That’s a place where Justin is proficient and confident. He even says to his father at one point, “Listen, rejection isn’t death. It’s just rejection,” and that’s a very profound thing for Justin to understand, especially because he’s been out there as a serial dater. The beauty is that Justin then falls in love with a virginal and exquisite Russian ballerina who turns the tables on him. Because, while Justin knows how to bed girls down, he doesn’t know how to win their hearts, and that’s where Ben trades places with him again, because he was a romantic in his 20s, when he wooed Amanda. That’s why he’s never been with another woman. Now he has to teach his son how to truly love someone. But the biggest catch is that Amanda is now with another man by the time Ben learns his own lesson, and he’s got to figure out how to win her back. That’s a tough road for Ben to travel.
DS: How would you describe your approach to comedy?
BG: I write people who are on the edge of disaster, be it marital or psychological, and when you put those characters in certain situations, they’re going to be funny because they’re so desperate. The best comedy comes from truth, pain and suffering — unless you’re writing a drama where those things aren’t funny. But if it is your intention to write comedy, then that’s the best way to do it — not to depend on one-liners or being slick. It’s dependent on the human condition.
DS: What’s it like to write for men?
BG: I prefer to write for men because when women are on the edge, they’re very accessible. They let their emotions out and cry and share. Even a woman you don’t know will share if you meet them at a party. Men are so interesting to write for because they’re more guarded and unused to being in trouble, so they become helpless.
DS: One of the film’s funniest performances is given by Jenna Elfman as Darlene, who practically attacks Ben in his first time out in the single world.
BG: Jenna is amazing. She was completely prepared and brilliantly equipped for the part. I only gave her one note about Darlene, who’s Ben’s nurse. I wanted Darlene to come from a place of deep insecurity, and I told Jenna that her character was a single mom with a 13-year-old kid. It’s extremely important that she gets Ben on their first “date,” but at the bottom of it, Darlene is also unsure of what she’s doing. That one note turned Jenna’s performance into magic. Because Jenna is a comedic genius, she knew her character was coming from insecurity, pain, desperation and fear, all of which she could make hilariously funny without ever trying. She just got where Darlene was coming from, and that was it. She was so fabulous at embodying the role. Plus she’s a great dancer, which she shows to Ben. But that’s the thing with everyone in the film. Everything they do is effortless, especially the “straight” characters that Johnny Pacar and Carrie-Anne Moss play as Ben’s family. They don’t have to be funny.
DS: Do you think you have anything in common with the other successful female writer-directors who specialize in comedy like Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron?
BG: I think comparison is a man-made invention, and it’s a bad invention. Just look at animals. They don’t compare themselves. Do you hear a lion saying, “I’m a better lion!” Sure they fight and things, but comparing is an intellectual concept. It’s extremely non-productive to do it because it kills you equally to say you’re better or worse than someone else, so I don’t think that way. I think of all of us as writers and directors who are very different in what we’re trying to achieve. It’s a very tough world in Hollywood, and I’ve found it’s more common to have great female directors on television than on features, and obviously some of us are more successful than others, but I’ve found that one thing that helps you as a female writer and director is becoming friends with your crew because there are a lot of guys on it, yet I also think every director role-plays. If you’re a man, you’re the father, you’re the yeller, you’re the friend and you’re the brother. As a woman, you’re the mother and you’re the girlfriend. A filmmaker is always playing a role with everyone that you deal with in order to inspire them so they give you their best. The crew and actors become emotionally involved with what they’re working on, and if you don’t inspire that feeling of being invaluable, then your work won’t succeed, especially when you’ve got 30 days you have to shoot an independent film. But I also have to say that I like that kind of tight schedule. I’ve been on a lot of sets, and the more money and the longer the shooting schedule, the harder it is to keep that energy alive. When you’ve got to get through five pages in a day on a feature, boy is it exciting because you never stop. You’re always on your toes, versus the extremely long time it takes to set up a shot when everyone’s drank too much coffee or liquor. You sit in your trailer for endless hours. So there’s something exciting and glorious about being in the independent world, especially on Love Hurts.
Special thanks to Nancy Bishop and Venice Magazine.