Filmmaker Sophie Goodhart on Her 10+ Year Wait to Make ‘My Blind Brother’
Feeling oddly jealous—and embarrassed about that jealousy—when her sister was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Sophie Goodhart began developing a story about a tense sibling relationship largely built around resentment. That inspiration led to her 2003 short film My Blind Brother, which at the time seemed like a launching point for her smooth transition into feature filmmaking. “Since then I’ve had three or four films green-lit, ready to go, and then something happened,” Sophie laments from the Tribeca Film Festival. Her new feature-length directorial debut, also titled My Blind Brother, has been a long time coming, but the version Sophie finally got to make comes with a standout cast.
In her interview with Way Too Indie, My Blind Brother writer / director Sophie Goodhart discusses the long path to production for her debut, spending her option money too quickly, and the benefits of working with longtime friends like Nick Kroll, Adam Scott, and Jenny Slate.
I wanted to ask you about the film’s journey into development because this is a story that’s personal to you, but it’s also a movie that was based on a short film that you had directed.
Sophie Goodhart: Yeah, [the idea started with] my sister being diagnosed with M.S. [multiple sclerosis] when I was in my early twenties. I was sort of embarrassed and kind of surprised to find that I was feeling kind of jealous—and really embarrassed by my jealousy—about the fact that I knew that she was always going to be this incredible hero that battled against great misfortune. So that’s where the short came from.
I got incredibly lucky and worked with three great actors—Tony Hale, John Mattey and Marsha Dietlein—in the original. The short kind of got me agents, and got me certain contacts. Immediately I got these films optioned, and I was like, “Look at me, I’m about to really do it!” I had parties where I bought lots of people drinks where I celebrated my success. Unfortunately, I was, like, way, way, way too soon. I realized that was an expensive mistake to make.
Since then I’ve had three or four films greenlit, ready to go, and then something happened. 2008 happened, everyone needed their money and you couldn’t make films. Or one of the actors leaves and I can’t find a replacement or you couldn’t spend a certain budget on the film. I was writing something completely separate from [My Blind Brother], and was just focused on the Jenny Slate character—about a woman who was going out with this guy who gets killed by a bus just after she’s dumped him. She feels terrible, she kind of hates herself and finds herself on a weird path where she would have been a tragic victim and instead she was just a cruel ex-girlfriend. I realized that her story fit really, really well with this other story so I put them together in this feature. I had to wait around for the perfect cast, the perfect three people, who would mean that I could get over a million to shoot the movie.
There’s a way to interpret the logline of this movie as a broad, Mr. Magoo-style comedy, but your movie stays very tethered to reality. Was there an impulse to go broader or do you prefer to keep your writing grounded?
SG: I always write about things I’m feeling, or worrying about, or have experienced in one way or another. You know, I could research the whole world, or a new environment or a new job, but to have that kind of basic character issue that I’m not connected to I think would make it difficult. I think that the fact that it’s based on some of these feelings that I’ve had, meant that it could [depict] a mean-spirited aspect of humanity. Because it wasn’t just an outsider looking in and mocking it. It was something familiar that I felt and believed.
You had mentioned your three lead actors came aboard as a kind of package. How did you get Jenny Slate, Adam Scott, and Nick Kroll all become involved?
SG: It’s one of those things where you never know which people you meet in your life are going to be the ones to make things happen. It turned out that Sharon Jackson at William Morris Endeavor really connected to the movie, and she had confidence in it. She had enough power to make connections to these people. But I didn’t know that when I initiated talking to her. I wasn’t like, “This is the woman that’s gonna package it.”
The three people who kind of made it happen were my initial producer, Tori, who found the short film. That was reassuring and good news for people doing shorts is that [making them] actually can make a huge difference. Somebody can like it, and they can mention you to try and help you get a feature. Then, Sharon; it’s not often in big agent’s interests to put their time into small films—and this kind of a low budget indie film—but she took a fancy to it and sent it to these bigger actors. Finally, Tyler Davidson saw [our cast], read the script and was like, “Fine, I’m happy to give you a bit more money” than he originally would have been inclined to. It just takes so many happy accidents to get off the ground. And it took such a long time. I felt like I was ready for those happy accidents.
Sometimes it can feel fated in a way.
SG: Yeah, I think after 13 years sitting in my kitchen writing I was like, “oh my god.” It was only hardcore delusion and denial that has meant that I made this because any other human would have just thought, “fuck this, it’s not working.”
What was it like for Jenny Slate and Nick Kroll—who have worked together several times before—and to work with them on developing a romantic dynamic, especially one that is played pretty straight throughout?
SG: With Jenny and Nick and Adam, you just get this unbelievable mix of people who are so intelligent and so good at acting. So nimble about playing jokes and playing them so straight or so small, that they can do pretty much anything. When they read this script, they knew that it was this romantic element, and I didn’t want to play it jokingly. I think they totally delivered. I think the fact that they’re friends meant that I didn’t have to do as much work as I might’ve. And there’s such a beautiful ease between them that I could just say, “And kiss now,” and they just were comfortable, grown-up and intelligent. They were good at acting so it was easy.
What other movies and directors did you look to for influence when putting this movie together?
SG: Two directors that I love are James L. Brooks and Elaine May. I also looked to David O. Russell and Silver Linings Playbook. Then, Knife in the Water, even though tonally it’s so weird—I love the kind of graphic quality of [Polanski’s] work. Elaine May! Her original The Heartbreak Kid is just so fucking good. So those are my inspirations, obviously.