For years, Stu Zicherman was known as the guy that wrote the abysmal superhero miscarriage known as ELEKTRA. But as time went by, the true story behind his contributions to that film came to light, and it was an all-too-typical tale of a studio ripping apart a writer's work and leaving just the empty husk what he'd written originally. No one will really know if Zicherman's version of ELEKTRA would have bee any good (or at least any better), but at least those in the know are aware what got slapped onto the big screen bore little to no resemblance to his screenplay.
After years of writing for and producer television series, Zicherman has pulled together a film based partially on his own experiences as an adult child of divorce, A.C.O.D., staring Adam Scott, Richard Jenkins, Catherine O'Hara, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Amy Poehler, Jessica Alba, Clark Duke, Ken Howard and Jane Lynch. This is Zicherman's first time as a feature director, and both he and Scott were, themselves, children of divorce, and not surprisingly A.C.O.D. is loaded with both laughs and a few poignant observations about several generations of children growing up either living primarily with one parent or being shuttled back and forth between two who were often trying to outdo each other to be the most liked parent.
I had a chance to chat with Zicherman on the phone recently about A.C.O.D., and we even got a chance to talk about the impact his sour ELEKTRA experience had on his career and enthusiasm for writing for film. Please enjoy my chat with Stu Zicherman…
Stu Zicherman: Hey, Steve.
Capone: Hi, Stu. How are you?
SZ: I’m good, man. How are you?
Capone: Excellent. I have to know: you end the film with these testimonial clips from actual ACODs who look like people that worked on the movie. Is that what that is?
SZ: Yes, that’s the crew.
Capone: That’s great way of saying, “This is a real thing by the way, in case you think we are exaggerating the phenomena.”
SZ: It’s funny, when we were making the movie in Atlanta, as a director, I bonded with the crew very strongly and about halfway through the shoot, those people started coming over to me at lunch or during breaks and telling me their stories. People would say like, “I’m actually ACOD. My parents got divorced when I was 11,” and they would tell me these stories. I just thought it was so funny. I kept saying, “I need to write this down or I need to do something with it."
So the very last day of shooting, I brought my video camera to set and during lunch I literally told everybody, “Line up against the wall, if you are ACOD or you’re not ACOD, and tell me your story.” I got home from Atlanta, and we were editing and I was bored and started cutting it together, and it was just so fun.
I didn’t know at the time, but since screening at Sundance and doing these festival screenings, people love talking about this shit. It’s almost like, because it’s a comedy or pseudo-comedy, it’s given people license to laugh about it and to talk about it in a way that’s always been taboo. We all grew up on divorce movies like KRAMER VS. KRAMER and movies that are tragic and sad. One of the big reasons I wanted to make this movie was because my parent’s divorce was tragic and sad, but it was also funny at times and confusing and irreverent. It felt like something that we could get people talking about it, and I think we're finally at that place in society where people are comfortable. So I just wanted to put that at the end of the movie.
Capone: I forgot there are people in there that are not ACOD, people who are like, “My parents have been married for 40 years.” That’s kind of funny. So how much of a "thing" is this in terms of its clinical nature? Are there common traits and shared behavior and books written about this and support groups? What are some of the more believable things that we are meant to take from this?
SZ: Well I’m 44, so I came of age in the '80s. So I’m really part of the first generation whose parents got divorced en masse, and it takes a generation for the research and studies to get done and the research to come out. Really about eight or ten years ago, the research came out, and there were all of these books about adult children of divorce, and there are some common traits. The big one that I responded to was “Adult children of divorce do one of two things, they get married very early, because they want to prove to everybody that they can do better than their parents; or they get married very late, because they had no role models and they're terrified of commitment and of marriage, and so they're going to try everything and make sure they are marrying the right person.”
What’s funny about the whole thing is that neither of those work necessarily. Nothing works. The movie to me, especially as I did more and more research, is less about divorce and more about how we're destined to repeat the mistakes of our parents. So whether it’s from married parents or divorced parents, we're free to make our own mistakes, and I always wanted the term “adult” to be in the movie, because for me, my experience in growing older is you’re not really an adult until you’ve put your childhood into perspective and you stop blaming it. That’s the true nature of adulthood. So yeah, there’s so much interesting research about ACODs, to the point where they’ve analyzed the first child, the second child, the step brother. It’s very interesting.
Capone: You’ve loaded the film with characters who, at various points in the story, are very difficult to like. How do you strike that balance between liking a character versus, maybe the more important thing, understanding them?
SZ: I think it’s hard. The balance is where we either succeeded or didn’t succeed. Look, Carter is running around the whole movie bemoaning that his parents together. You need to look at that character and be like, “Get over it, dude.” There were certain scenes we took out, because we felt like we didn’t want to tip that balance. It was very important to me that the people in this movie did things that were selfish. I think you used the words “not likable”; I think that people are selfish, and they do selfish things.
You should control yourself and not get into a balls-out fight at a birthday party, but you can’t. You should not tell your son that his father is a homosexual, but you can’t control yourself. To me, I wanted the characters to be realistically selfish, but also to find what’s honest about that, and at the end of the movie what I love is, yeah, Richard and Catherine are running around carrying on a secret affair, and it’s very easy for Carter to look at it and be likem “What the fuck are you doing?” But the truth is, he’s following his heart, and you can’t really blame somebody for doing that. That’s not something I personally could understand about my parents until I was older. My parents have each been married three times, and I couldn’t understand, but now I do. I’m an adult now; I understand that love is a hard thing to figure out, and you should follow your heart, you should follow your passions.
Capone: Are there particular elements of the parent characters in this that you pulled from your own parents? And have they seen it, and what do they think?
SZ: [Laughs] My parents have seen it, and they're just happy for me. I didn’t really pull the parents… The parents were sort of an amalgam of lots of different parents I knew. There is one moment in the movie that’s based on something my parents do, which was they would not agree to come to my sister’s wedding. They went through a terrible divorce and they would not agree, and so I invited them each to dinner to explain to them that they had to come and they had to behave. My parents did not start sleeping together…
Capone: I was afraid you were going to say that the scene when Adam walks in on them having sex was pulled from reality…
SZ: [laughs] No, no, no!
Capone: Which will become the most talked about scene in this movie by the way.
SZ: It will, but I tried to imagine what would be my worst nightmare? When you’re a kid, you want your parents to get back together if they get divorced. As you become an adult, you deal with all this shit and all the chaos and all of that. Literally my parents getting back together would be my worst nightmare; it just would. It would negate everything I went through and it wouldn’t make any sense to me. But you know, I wanted the parents as much as possible to be relatable and likable, and it’s funny, people at that age really like this movie. It gives them a license to misbehave.
Capone: It’s so rare that you see older people in a sexual context. It’s probably more of a reality than movies would ever let us believe it was.
SZ: Absolutely, yeah.
Capone: As a first-time director, you nabbed this incredible group of actors. Tell me how the cast came together.
SZ: Well the first person we went after was Adam. I was a huge "Party Down" fan, and I just thought there was something so human about him. In a way, Adam has a cynical humanity to him that I just love. He’s not your average romantic lead. He’s got this very cynical funny thing that I thought worked really perfect for the movie. And once we got Adam, I knew he’d worked with a bunch of people that I was interested in, so I knew that would give me access to them.
Richard Jenkins was always my first choice as the dad. He hadn’t really done a role like this since FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, and I just thought he’s so funny and he could bring the gravity. The scene he has with Carter where he’s like “Listen Carter, I love you like a son.” How many actors would just fuck the delivery of that up? He just crushed it. He is so funny. So yes, we got Richard next and then once we got Richard, we went after Jane, and then Catherine came onboard, like your phone starts ringing, and everybody wants to be in your movie. At that point, it’s like “Who's directing it? Who? Who cares?”
Capone: Adam is such a funny guy, and maybe this goes to what you’re saying, it takes a certain talent to be the straight man at the center of these insane people, and they're just circling around him like sharks. I think a lot of actors get lost when they're in that position, but he doesn’t. He’s really good at snapping back. That’s one of the keys to this film really working, him being at the center of it.
SZ: I think that’s a great point. Adam and I talked a lot about early Ben Stiller movies…
Capone: Like FLIRTING WITH DISASTER…
SZ: Yeah, he doesn’t really have a funny line in the whole movie in that movie; he’s just dealing with this swarm of chaos going on around him. I said to Adam, “The thing is, just because everybody else around you being funny, I don’t want you to feel the pressure to be funny. Trust me. I’m going for a tone with this movie that is real, and if you react the way a real person would react to all these situations, it’s going to play funny. You’re in every scene in the movie, so we have to arc this. If we don’t, we're going to regret it.”
Capone: Are you prepared to be the touchstone for this project for a little while? People are going to want to tell you their stories, and I’m sure even at Sundance, it might’ve happened a few times during Q&As and after the screenings.
SZ: Yeah, I’m used to it now. I’m starting to charge people/ [Laughs] I am comfortable with it, just because I believe it’s a subject matter that is not part of the national consciousness. We don’t talk about it. When I was a kid and my parents got divorced, I felt embarrassed. We live in a different world now, and people have two dads, two moms, parents aren’t married, you have kids out of wedlock; it’s a different world, and so there’s no reason not to look back on this divorce culture. There are things about it that are just humorous.
Capone: I know you’ve been doing a lot of television leading up to this, and I’m guessing that your experience with ELEKTRA might have crushed your soul and made you realize what the true role of writers is in movies is, and then you went to television, where the writer is king. Is that accurate? And what made it safe to come back at this point?
SZ: You’re 1,000 percent right. You just get so frustrated when you work on something, and then you see it and you don’t feel necessarily proud of it. You’re happy it got made. I started writing action movies since that’s how I sold my first movie and realized I could make a living writing movies and I was so excited. But eventually you want to start writing about things you know and things you believe in, and in my action movies, I would try to add, “The villain has a broken heart.” [Laugh] And the studio would just fucking fire me and throw me out.
That’s why I got into TV. I started working with J.J. Abrams [on the series "Six Degrees"] who is like the master of making cinematic television, and I learned so much. It was a place I could write about that I knew about, but I always planned to come back to features and always planned to make this movie. I’m very lucky, because I get to work in both. I’m writing a movie with Steve Martin right now and working on "The Americans," so I get to work on stuff I just love.
Capone: Are you writing or directing?
SZ: "The Americans," I’m writing.
Capone: That’s cool. I love that show. Did you write on the first season?
Capone: I watch that show religiously. I love it. So that’s cool.
SZ: This next season is going to be good.
Capone: Stu, thank you so much for taking the time to talk, and good luck with the film.
SZ: Thanks. Thanks for liking the movie, and please tell everybody you can. We're really excited about it.