Is 'Mad Men's' Jon Hamm ready to direct his first movie?
TORONTO - When Jon Hamm sits down into the hotel room chair to begin our interview he's obviously very tired. The "Mad Men" icon has had a roller coaster of a 24 hours after the premiere of his new film "Friends with Kids" at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival. Directed by his longtime companion Jennifer Westfeldt (co-star and co-screenwriter of "Kissing Jessica Stein"), the ensemble comedy stars Adam Scott (an old friend), Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Chris O'Dowd, Ed Burns, Megan Fox as well as Hamm and Westfeldt. It's a funny and dramatic look at how two friends (Scott and Westfeldt) deal with the fact their circle of friends are having kids and, well, they aren't. Hamm was a full producer on the project, a first for him, and based on the results on screen he helped Westfeldt put together a pretty solid product. So, in something of a surprise for Hamm, this is one interview he wasn't going to be inundated with questions about the long awaited new season of "Mad Men." Not that the subject didn't come up...
Ellwood: So, I have to tell you I have first hand experience that you worked very hard as an actual producer on this film.
Hamm: Why first hand?
Ellwood: Because I have a relative who helped you secure a major location.
Hamm: Oh. yeah, we did.
Ellwood: I don't think people will realize that when they see the film. They’ll think, 'Oh, he’s just took the producer credit and he didn’t really do anything to make it.' But can you talk about like how hard -- what it takes to help make an independent movie like that these days?
Hamm: IFC or IFP or whatever they’re calling themselves these days now, the people that do the Spirit Awards, have a great logo and it’s basically pushing a rock up a hill. It’s like that’s what it is. There are so many things coming down the hill at you that try to knock you back and it’s hard and it takes a lot of people kind of helping. And it takes a lot of favors and it takes a lot of people and faith and all that other stuff. So, we were really fortunate and it certainly wasn’t just me. I mean, the main driving force, not only creatively but sort of energy wise was Jennifer. I mean, she was unstoppable on this and we kind of -- I was telling somebody else -- we sort of did this backwards. We said, 'We’re going to shoot this movie here. Now, what do we need?' It’s like, 'Well, we need money. We need cameras. We need people. We need locations. We need all that stuff. And we’re like, 'Oh, shit. Well we have an hour to get all that.' [Laughs.]
And [we met a lot of people who said], 'Oh this is impossible. You can’t do it. It’s impossible.' And we’re like, 'But we’re going to do it.' They were like, 'Well, you can’t.' And we’re like, 'O.K., well you are not the person for the job then.' So we would go down the line until we found someone that was like, 'Okay. It’s going to be hard but we can do it.'
Ellwood: So, how much time did you actually have to put it together? Six months? Four months?
Hamm: In real time it was probably, yeah, maybe two months, three months.
Ellwood: Oh, my gosh.
Ellwood: That is amazing*
*Note to readers, this actually semi-insane for any movie of this quality to come together this fast.
Jon Hamm: I mean, it was a tremendous challenge and we also were shooting in winter in New York City and it happened to be one of the worst winters in New York City in 35 years or something. Snow and ice and road closures and all that stuff, but we’re also at a place in our career and our lives and things where we have good relationships with people and Jen has a track record of not only producing and writing films, but great relationships with people and agencies and managers and location scouts and crew. We were able to kind of cobble together this rag-tag family of like-minded individuals to get this thing off the ground and see it to completion. Yeah, on time and under budget, so that’s all good.
Ellwood: Well, what’s amazing is people will see this and think it’s a studio-produced movie. Not just the cast, but the quality of the entire production overall. What was the most surprising thing you guys were able to sort of get together in three months?
Hamm: I think there’s probably ten answers to that. I mean, we were incredibly lucky to get the cast we got. If we tried to make this movie [right now] or a year from when we made it, we wouldn’t have gotten anybody because they’re all going to blow up. Adam’s going to blow up. Jen’s going to have a huge bump off this. Megan is Megan. Kristen, obviously after 'Bridesmaids' is now one of the hottest commodities in Hollywood. And we all kind of knew that was getting ready to happen and that was a big part of why we chose the people we chose, not only are they friends of ours and we love their work, but they’re about to go crazy. O’Dowd. Not only in our film, but in the other nine movies he has coming out are going to see this guy and realize that he’s incredible. He’s a really charming, hilarious, talented guy. I saw it on 'Bridesmaids' when I shot the 40 seconds that I shot with him. I was like, 'Oh, this guy’s great.' And we happened to do a reading of another script together and it was just dumb luck that we were able to get him in our movie. Dumb luck that Megan wanted to do it.
Ellwood: Was that a case, though, where you and Jennifer said, 'This character would be Megan Fox. Should we go to Megan Fox?' And she surprisingly says yes?
Hamm: Kind of. I mean, we had gone to a couple other people and for whatever reason they we unavailable and that idea came up and she happens to kind of live in our neighborhood and we know her agent and we were kind of like, 'Is this doable?' That’s kind of the whole attitude really of independent film. It’s like you’re never going to find out unless you ask. We thought it was an incredibly good fit for Megan and something that she hadn’t really had a chance to do and a chance to be loose and funny and kind of play against the image of the sort of pin-up 'Transformers' girl. Off of that, she’s doing Judd’s next movie and kind of has this new kind of vibe going on and it’s great. She deserves it and I don’t know. I just feel like getting the cast together in the time we had and making it were the two biggest surprises I guess.
Ellwood: One of the other interesting things too is that Adam was talking about the fact that when he first read the script he was sort of cringing a little bit because he and his wife have kids and he’s like, 'Oh, I’ve known [Westfeldt and Hamm] for years and maybe like I’m sort of one of these people in the film.' Were you and Jennifer talking about this sort of stuff for awhile before she actually wrote the script, like the change in your friends since they had kids?
Hamm: I don’t know if it was as specific as that or as explicit as that, but it was certainly something that we had noticed. I think one year we ended up going about nine one-year-old birthday parties, which when you have a one-year-old they’re awesome. They’re the cutest and the greatest. But when you don’t, you’re kind of sitting around and everybody’s talking about preschool and everybody’s talking about sleeping schedules and shit that you have no concept or any kind of context for in your life. I’m just like, 'Shouldn’t we talk about like books or the news or politics or football or anything. Like no? We’re going to talk about burp clothes? That’s really a thing? O.K. Here we go.' And then you got to buy like a $90 concert t-shit that’s funny and here’s the thing your kid’s going to shit or puke on...
Ellwood: They’ll wear it for two months.
Hamm: They’ll wear it for two months and then they’ll be too big for it. It says 'Foreigner.' [Laughs.] It’s its own world and in many ways we kind of felt like interlopers or outsiders or just out of sync with it. These are people that we knew and were friends with. So it’s certainly not based on any one in particular. It’s an amalgam of all of our relationships, but that was definitely the genesis and we thought there in lies an interesting story. Jen did an amazing job of adapting that into a script that’s by turns very funny and also genuinely heartbreaking and sort of like, 'Oh, these people are going through something that’s going to affect them whether they like it or not.' They both turn in some pretty great performances in making you believe, really believe, that that happened. I’m really thrilled with how it came out.
Ellwood: Now, I thought it was hilarious and the audience loved it at the premiere last night, too. Was that reaction a huge relief?
Hamm: It is a surreal experience. It is almost an out-of-body experience to have gone through this process and then put it in front of an audience, especially an audience full of reviewers and people who may or may not want to purchase the movie, that have never seen it at a festival like this where there’s a thousand other things going on. So, you’re just like, 'Oh, God. Please don’t let me throw up or pee my pants or pass out.' If I can manage those three things we’ll be in pretty good shape. It was very gratifying to see that the audience laughed where they were supposed to laugh and were moved when they were supposed to be moved. So that was nice.
Ellwood: You're directing the premiere episode of the next season of 'Mad Men.' Does making working something like this make you think, 'You know what, give me a year or two, I want to direct my own movie as well. Let’s look for a right script.' Or is it not that a major goal?
Hamm: I think all great directors are great storytellers. And I think directing features is very different from directing television. I felt confident enough to direct an episode of 'Mad Men' because I had done 40-some-odd episodes of 'Mad Men' and I’m very familiar with that story and how that story is told and what language is used, cinematically, to kind of convey that. Both with working with Jen on this and with Ben Affleck on 'The Town,' both of those people happen to be very, very good writers and very good storytellers and I think that that separates great film directors from not-so good ones. It’s the people that can have a way with the script that I don’t, honestly. I can read a script and tell if I like it, but I certainly can’t sit down at a keyboard and bang one out. I have a tremendous respect for that. So,the short answer to your question is 'no.' And the longer one is whatever I just gave.
Ellwood: What about the producing side then? Is that something you enjoyed enough to develop your own projects?
Hamm: That’s a little more interesting because actually a big part of that is sort of maintaining control over what you’re choosing to put out there. That’s actually very nice. That’s been a really cool experience to see like 'Oh, when you kind of call yourself a producer and you have that power and that influence you can actually make in a way that we as actors generally don’t get an opportunity to do.' You can actually influence it and put your own stamp on it. Also, you don’t have anybody to blame but yourself. So, there’s accountability there too. That part was actually quite nice and interesting. We’ll see what the future holds.
To read my review of "Friends with Kids" click here.
For year round entertainment commentary and awards season news follow Gregory Ellwood on Twitter @HitFixGregory.