"The Good Half," is a touching, melancholic comedy-drama about Renn (Nick Jonas), a writer, who reluctantly comes home to attend his mother's (Elisabeth Shue) funeral. On the plane, he meets Zoe (Alexandra Shipp), and their flirtatious conversation offers him some hope amidst his grief. Once home, Renn faces his put-upon sister Leigh (Brittany Snow), his milquetoast dad Darren (Matt Walsh), and his irritating stepfather, Rick (David Arquette). What he doesn't confront are his feelings about his family.
Director Robert Schwartzman knows a thing or two about families. His mother is Talia Shire; his brother is Jason Schwartzman; his cousins are Nic Cage and Sofia Coppola, and his uncle is Francis Ford Coppola. Schwartzman emphasizes the awkward moments as well as the warm memories in Renn's family. The filmmaker deftly balances the humor and heartache as Renn bonds with his sister and fights with Rick as they prepare for the service. Renn also finds time to meet Zoe at a karaoke bar.
"The Good Half" is all about embracing optimism during times of despair. Schwartzman spoke with Salon about his film, grief, and working with Nick Jonas in advance of the film's world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
How did you come to direct this project? You've written most of your previous films. What made this project irresistible for you?
Having spent so much time about making music, I feel the creative process comes with the spark of an idea and chasing that. That's what I've done so far. It was different to get a script, fall in love with it and imagine: what would I do with this? The process can be total chaos, but you feel like you execute it on some level you hope to get to. With this script, I saw the charm. The writer had lived the life of the main character. It was embellished for the screen. I loved the heart and comedy. I am obsessed with John Hughes' 80s movies, so the humor I like is creating situations that are uncomfortable and make you laugh based on the way things play out in the storyline.
Did you identify with Renn?
I found myself close to the character because in my youth. I lost my father to cancer. I was younger than Renn is, but I understand loss and losing a parent, so in my own way it was trying to understand what it was hard for me to understand as a kid. Even though I didn't write the script, part of my life is a story of loss and grief and trying to make sense of it.
The story is about coping with loss, guilt and grief, specifically Renn coping with his mother's death. Renn is in denial and acts out as his emotions get the better of him. What do you think of how Renn processes his emotions, and how do you process grief?
That's at the heart of what this is all about for me. Grief is a mysterious thing to have to experience. It's not a one size fits all thing. Neither is love. Everyone has their own way to process things or grieve. When I talk to my siblings or mother about it, my brothers and I tell stories about this trip we took, and you laugh through tears that's how you can make sense of it. It's comforting. I think this is an honest way to deal with grief; you find ways to distract yourself. Renn's connection with Zoe is them healing together. They are able to talk about it. The first step is communicating emotions, and that's where acceptance comes in, which is the last stage of grief. I wanted to take viewers through the stages of grief. We have the main character in denial, feeling anger and then acceptance.
What observations do you have about family dynamics — especially given your family?
It is hard to make sense of our relationships with the people closest to us. I drew on my experiences of loss. It's harder for me to be emotional with people closest to me than people I don't know very well. For those who know me so well, it takes on a new type of vulnerability to talk to them about stuff. I was excited to build this world around this family and have each person bring a different way of dealing with grief and finding peace in it.
What can you say about working with Nick Jonas on the role? He has a flair for deadpan sarcasm and cynicism, a great hangdog expression, and you get him to sing in one scene.
I have known Nick a long time and I thought the guy I know him to be is an introvert. He's known for being a musical performer, but Nick is a performer-performer. He grew up doing "Les Miz" as a child on stage. He came from that world before he became a successful band musician/personality. Nick is comfortable to perform, so he's up for the challenge. He wants to step up and say, "I can do this."
Inside, actors are afraid and I'm sure he was and is, but for what we needed for the character, he stepped up. I felt Nick has in him a real mystery, and I feel very curious about him. I think the character needed to be played as someone viewers wonder about how he is doing. His layers as a person leant well to casting. I've seen him take on acting roles. I think he will be a competitive force for other actors in his age range.
Nick performs karaoke in one scene. Was it planned for him to sing?
Renn says in the film, "I don't do karaoke." When he gets to the bar he says, "I regret coming here." Nick did not know what song we were doing when we did it. I surprised him because I didn't want him to know it very well. He flubs the song lyrics. We needed it to be in the moment, which is what karaoke is.
What is your karaoke song?
I really love "Dream Lover" the Bobby Darin song. I like oldies but goodies. They are short, sweet, and not about falling on your knees singing your heart out. I'm a sucker for '50s and '60s music. Del Shannon's "Runaway" is my favorite song ever. I love fun hair metal music and I know most people sing that. I think I'm the guy who when he does karaoke, most people go to the bathroom or get another drink. It's not that fun to watch me do karaoke.
Do you think musicians make good actors because of their performance skills?
I find Nick to be more like the character in this film than who he is on stage. It is closer to the truth of who he is and that's why I am so invested in him.
You have often performed and composed music. How does that help you with directing?
Acting is so rhythmic, and comedy is timing. Nick is a really good drummer. On stage, you have to hit a mark at this point in the song; he is doing that. That's what is called on when you are on set. He remembers songs, chord changes, and moments in a show; your memory has to be sharp as a musician. As an actor, you had to come to set with the foundation. Nick was very committed. As a musician, it was very complementary tool set to pull from — memory, marks and professionalism — he pulled on that to deliver for this film.
For me, as a director, everything is so rhythmic. It is about building rhythm of the day when you have no time. Establishing a rhythm with collaborators — your crew, your DP, your actors. Communication is rhythmic. And it's the edit. Having a life in music and directing, the editorial process is similar to making albums. It is watching again and again and being able to manipulate things and find new meanings and having happy accidents is similar to making music. I'm a studio rat so when I am in the edit, I am at home. I eat up post-production. Having spent so much time in music, I feel very happy to have that background to understand that rhythm well.
You create elegiac moments in the flashbacks, but there are also awkward moments, and even farcical ones. Can you talk about how you established the film's serio-comic tone and developed the film's style?
I understand how the casket sequence has more humor, and the rhythm of that scene and how Nick comes off in that scene versus Renn alone in his bedroom. I don't go into the film thinking this scene is going to be the jokey one. It's just things I love about movie watching. I love the playfulness of Nick's performance grilling David about his casket budget. But I also like to be alone with a character and be in their head for a moment. This is Renn's struggle emotionally, and you are feeling this pain and seeing his shift to push it away. Those slices are true to what grieving can be.
The women in the film, Renn's mother, Zoe, and Leigh, absorb most of Renn's guilt, often absolving him. What are your thoughts about the female characters in "The Good Half?"
Renn tries to make good with the characters around him and find peace in these relationships. I like that Renn is able to own up to the things he feels are not right. He apologizes to his sister for not being there. The break-in sequence is the family coming together. They are working together and craving this connection. Zoe is sensitive to other people's needs. She is a therapist; what she does for a living is listen. That doesn't mean she doesn't have her own emotional hurdles. She is open about her divorce, which is a different version of grief.
Are you an optimist? What is your "good half"?
I am an optimist, and my wife would agree 100%. I am someone who tries to look at things from the perspective that it will be OK, even when times are bad. Things don't always play out the way we hope for, but at the end of the day, when things are not what we want in the moment, they can lead us unexpectedly to things that are very positive. Staying open to the possibilities of what life throws at us can sometimes bring us some peace.
"The Good Half" screens at the Tribeca Film Festival June 8, 10, and 12.