Greetings, fellow humans! Today I’d like to make you aware of a lovely film that released earlier this month called I’M TOTALLY FINE from director Brandon Dermer, written by Alisha Ketry, starring Natalie Morales and Jillian Bell. The film tells the story of Vanessa (Bell) who takes a solo trip to help deal with the loss of her best friend and business partner Jennifer (Morales) only to come face to face with Jennifer… or at least a visiting alien that has taken her appearance. It’s a crazy premise, and one could imagine that it creates a crazy story, but what I discovered watching the film was much more human, universal, and touching. It is also, I should add, laugh out loud funny.
Check out the trailer:
Working for this outlet I get to see a lot of independent film, and oftentimes I find that I have to adjust the way I approach viewing these films. I liken it to the Vonnegut short story “Harrison Bergeron” in that I’ll view the film through its handicaps: no budget, no script doctors, no actors, that sort of thing, to try to find the value within. Every now and then, however, I’ll have a movie come across my desk that is just plain good; a purely enjoyable viewing experience that needs no filters or handicaps. I’M TOTALLY FINE is such a film.
The dialogue is wonderful without being flowery. A standout line from a tender moment in the film that I recall was “How does it feel to feel all the feelings?” Taken out of context I can see how silly it seems, but in the film it works disarmingly well. The chemistry that Bell and Morales bring to Vanessa and Not-Jennifer feels real, as do the emotional and comedic beats. The film is efficiently sparse, so much so that the supporting cast waltz in and out of the film’s run to near-perfect utility. Harvey Guillén once again proves to be a comedy cheat code, much as he did with livening up WEREWOLVES WITHIN.
I had the chance to chat with screenwriter Alisha Ketry and star Jillian Bell about this little film that was borne from the boredom and isolation of the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020.
Eric McClanahan - So tell me about writing this movie. I watched it about a month ago and I was blown away by the laugh out loud comedic bits and so much heart. Where did this come from?
Alisha Ketry - So it came from COVID, essentially. It was during the height of the fear and things were shutting down, and Brandon, the director and I, had been friends for a long time and we were both lamenting things that we wanted to do in the industry and all these plans that we had [had been waylaid]; we had a friend’s wedding that had been canceled. That sort of thing. Everybody was experiencing the loss of something. Or someone. And it became its own sort of grieving process. You had to mourn all the projects you lost, and plans were canceled, and we didn’t know how long it was going to be. It was uncertain. We were talking about that and Brandon had the seed of an idea; he wanted to write a story about a woman who loses her best friend and their plans, their whole life plans together, get canceled. We were talking about it, we were going to write it on spec together, and then Brandon was speaking with Kyle Newacheck from “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Workaholics” about directing over Zoom, like a commercial or something. Brandon is this effusive, passionate guy and he was telling Kyle about the idea he was going to write with me and Kyle was like “I get it! I relate to that. I want in!” So from there it became this thing where instead of being written on spec we were writing to hopefully shoot and produce it quickly. Through that we were able to jump on Zoom and talk about our lives and talk about this feeling, then I’d go off and write the outline and they’d give notes and same with the actual script; I’d go off and write it, then Kyle gave the script to Jillian who’d wanted to do something with Natalie then it somehow miraculously fell into place and we were able to shoot it.
EM - So where did the extraterrestrial element come from? It’s such an interesting spin on loss and reconnection.
AK - Brandon and I are fans of weird scifi stuff. He’ll tell you about his favorite eighties movies and one of my favorite movies is MARS ATTACKS! So we kind of have an affinity for the scifi element. We really wanted to tell a story about “what if you had 48 hours with someone you’d lost?” and this kind of seemed like a way in to make that possible.
EM - The script works very well for being very sparse. It’s pretty much just the two leads so it’s very conversational and allows you to plumb the depths of the friendship. Would you say that was a by-product of being able to bounce your ideas off of Brandon and Kyle?
AK - Just having the two actors? Yeah, so we really wanted to tell the story of friendship, and specifically female friendship, and that was very important to me. But it was also a by-product of COVID. We had to write something that was very sparse because we didn’t have access to a big crew and just having the two of them was its own set of obstacles. But yeah, Brandon, Kyle, and I are really sentimental people who value our friendships so it was so easy for us to open up, all three of us, even though I didn’t even know Kyle, we didn’t meet until we got to set, and because of that safe space and how raw we all were at the time it was so easy to tell our stories and talk about our friendships and find that relationship through each other and then put them into the characters of Vanessa and Jennifer.
EM - Did it start as a comedy and become more heartfelt or did it begin as a drama and become something more comedic?
AK - It definitely started more heartfelt and then we found the comedy in it. Which is my favorite way to write. I always want to write something from an emotional aspect or a universal theme, first and foremost, and then find the comedy in that, which most comedy writers and even people in their lives discover, you have to laugh when things are terrible.
EM - Yeah, I think 2020 certainly taught us that.
AK - Yeah!
EM - Now I know you’ve worked in television, notably “American Dad” but I can’t imagine this is your first feature-length script, perhaps just the first that we’ve seen. What else do you have in the pipeline?
AK - Yes, this is the first produced script, and my heart is in television. I absolutely love working in TV, I grew up on TV. This was the first feature that I got to write and shoot, which is insane. I have a script about Mercury getting stuck in retrograde, a disaster comedy, which I’m trying to get out there, and I’m super excited about. I want to explore different ideas. I’m really into MIDSOMMAR and SMILE, which are both very dark, and I’m thinking “Ooo, do I want to write a thriller now?” I feel like the world is very open, so that’s where I’m at.
EM - This idea of Mercury getting stuck in retrograde or your best friend passing away and being replaced by an alien; these are big themes. What writers do you find inspiration in for themes that large?
AK - You know, I think the first show that I watched that really blew my mind was a Bryan Fuller show called “Dead Like Me.” Do you remember it?
EM - Oh yeah.
AK - Early aughts, right? That blew my mind. I realized you could write something that has this huge theme and make it [personal]. You could literally do anything you want! That’s the thing about writing. That was a huge inspiration for me exploring my voice as a writer. That show was spinning what a grim reaper is and making it a very human thing, so that was a huge influence in what I wanted to write and how I became aware of my voice. A writer that I really love is Issa Rae. “Insecure” is such a grounded show. It doesn’t seem to, like, land exactly right, but I absolutely think that she is able to write such heart-wrenching emotional stories while also being character-driven comedy and just really quirky silly bits, and my “American Dad” comedy aspect is very into very silly things sometimes, so just throwing that in there, being able to walk that line of emotional and silly, that’s what I want to do for my whole career.
EM - Pivoting to “American Dad,” I noticed early on that, unlike “Family Guy,” it has these huge fantasy elements like a talking fish and an alien living in the attic but the stories themselves were much more family-centered and much more relatable than the fantastical adventures of the Griffin family. What’s it like balancing those fantastical elements with the mundanity of an actual family?
AK - It’s super fun. It gets compared to “Family Guy” a lot understandably because it’s a Seth McFarlane show, it was founded from the same creators, but it’s a different show, and a different style of comedy. Kind of going back to what I was saying earlier about working with Kyle and Brandon, the writers on “American Dad” at least for the four years that I’ve been on it, so I can’t take any credit for anything before that, but the writers who’ve been on it for over ten years, they’re sweethearts. They’re sensitive people, so it’s starting with the emotion first, which doesn’t seem like what you’d do on an animated show like “American Dad” but we really do, we start with the family and universal themes like being envious or not cared for, feeling left out, or wanting a better relationship with your sister, or your brother, or your mom, or your dad. That’s where we always start from and blow it up as much as we can and try to make each other laugh and that’s where that comes from.
EM - So you’ve done your extraterrestrial comedy. What’s the next genre or mountain you want to conquer?
AK - I want to write a scary movie or I want to do a psychological thriller like MIDSOMMAR. That’s really what I’ve been thinking about and getting inspired by, currently. I don’t have it yet. I haven’t written it yet but it’s percolating.
EM - I’m looking forward to it. So what did you do to get through the pandemic? I know some people learned to play the mandolin, some people baked bread; I got really good at baking. What did you do, other than writing, of course?
AK - I tried baking, and I couldn’t do it, and I’m the type of person where if I try something once or twice and I’m not immediately good at it, I give up on it. We did a lot of walks, me and my fiance. I have a cat, so I spent a lot of time playing with my cat. Painting, being outside… it was very eclectic. I wanted to keep my mind on physical activities, things that weren’t going to be… like, writing can be an escape, but it also keeps you in your head, so I wanted to do anything physical that could get me out of my head, so that’s what I did a lot of. Just different activities like that.
EM - What do you want people to take away from seeing I’M TOTALLY FINE?
AK - I want them to leave feeling closer to the people that they have in their lives, with a stronger appreciation for the people that you have in your life, currently. You don’t get to have that extra 48 hours when you lose someone, whether it’s through a friendship that’s run its course, or a death, or moving away. I think that we feel a lot of losses that aren’t just somebody passing away so when you have these friendships and relationships, it’s important, as we were discussing, to live in the moment and appreciate what you have now and appreciate the people in your life that you have now.
EM - When I was watching the film and seeing the relationship between the two leads, they essentially have to rebuild, because it wasn’t Jennifer, it was someTHING else, and I’m watching them rebuild their relationship and it’s very moving and there’s some great dialogue, and really smashing a lot of boundaries. There was, however, about a hundred percent more Papa Roach than I expected in a film with this kind of heart. How did that happen?
AK - [laughs] That’s funny. That came from a story from Brandon, talking about seeing some, and I can’t remember which band it was right now, some metal band, but he was talking about having a friend go to see a band without him and him feeling extremely hurt by it. I saw a lot of concerts with my friends - Celine Dion - not quite a metal band, and that’s a huge thing when you’re twelve, is going to these events together, and so - I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but I think every friendship has a song that they, especially women, they have a song and they make up dances together… like smells can trigger a memory, and a song can do the same thing. We landed on Papa Roach because Brandon, he comes from the music video world so he has a relationship with them, and it’s such a classic song from that era, so that’s how that worked out.
EM - Well, we’re out of time but I had a great time chatting with you.
AK - Thanks, you too!
EM - I wish you the best of luck with the movie, and the next one, and the next one, and so on.
AK - Thank you! Take care.
Eric McClanahan - Good morning. We’re talking about I’M TOTALLY FINE, which is really very, very good. I really enjoyed the movie.
Jillian Bell - Thank you so much.
EM - I got a chance to talk to Alisha Ketry who wrote the film and she said that it was largely borne out of the pandemic, the loneliness we felt at the time, the disconnect from our friends…what brought you on board this project?
JB - My buddy Kyle Newacheck. I’ve known him so long, even pre-”Workaholics” we were friends and would perform sketches together. He came to me and said we’re working on this idea and it’s a two-hander between you and another woman and I just loved the idea. Also, we’d been stuck in our houses for so long - this was pre-vaccine - and my biggest concern was just about being safe and being able to shoot this thing. It was such an amazing experience and getting Natalie on board; I said to them the first time we were talking about this “You know who’d be great for this is Natalie Morales” and we were originally supposed to play the opposite roles but that ended up changing. We felt like we needed to play the other role. So it was a pretty wild experience.
EM - Okay, so that’s fascinating. You were originally going to playing the opposite roles then switched? Where did that come from?
JB - Well, I don’t know - for Natalie, I think just getting to play an alien is really fun. For me, when I was reading it, I just related to the character I ended up playing so deeply. I lost my dad ten years ago and I just felt like every line that came up from Vanessa I was saying it out loud and seeing how I would play it and I was just like “This is a sign of something. I feel like this resonates slightly more with me.” And I checked it with Natalie and she said “Oh, I haven’t even read it yet but I’m excited to play the alien, that’ll be so much fun!” So it worked out just as it should be.
EM - And there was no pushback from the filmmakers?
JB - I remember calling and making that call like “Oh God, I’m throwing a wrench in but it may not be such a bad wrench?” and they said “Okay, I’m ready. I’m sitting down.” I said, “What if I played the other role?” “I mean, yeah!” “Okay, great! Great!” That was easy.
EM - Great! The movie does so much with a very small cast, and so much rests on your and Natalie’s shoulders. How did you two prepare for your dynamic onscreen?
JB - We didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, because Natalie was shooting PLAN B, she was directing her first movie. She flew in when she wrapped. So I had worked with Brandon and Kyle and Ketry trying to come up with backstory and everything I needed to move forward, but we did have some luck with this in that Natalie and I have known each other for years. We did a charity show over ten years ago and we really enjoyed each other and then we’d run into each other at weird industry party things and end up hanging out all night, but we’d never worked together, so this was our first chance getting to do something together. And the second she showed up I just felt immediately that this was really going to work. I just enjoy her and I think she's just so ridiculously talented. She’s just a good human being. She’s a good egg.
EM - It sounds like this movie has really deep roots. You go back so far with everyone involved, with Natalie and Kyle and Blake. How do you think that will affect people who see it and interpret it as a pandemic comedy?
JB - I always think it’s great when you get to work with people you’ve known for so long. You really feel a sense of comfortability and you get to be vulnerable around them in a way that feels safer and I think that translates onscreen. I really do. It’s the reason that people, or at least I do, rewatch like “FRIENDS” or “The Office” because that chemistry is there between those people and it’s very rare so I think whenever I get to work with people that I’ve worked with before or it’s people that I know and love as human as human beings I know it’s going to be on the screen.
EM - That party scene is so much fun and I was surprised to hear “Last Resort” in its entirety throughout. How much fun was that to shoot?
JB - I honestly think… some of my favorite movies have the whole song in them. Like VALLEY GIRL is one of my favorite movies and they have “I Melt With You” - the whole song - and I love that. I want to bring that back. We always knew we wanted Papa Roach, and we wanted that song to be in the film, that was our number one choice. And when we found out we got it we were so excited, it made the film feel real. We’re actually doing this! We’re shooting this movie! So we were thrilled to be doing it and that night was really fun, shooting it with Natalie. We had, I think, a mango margarita, which we drank way too quickly, because then they needed us on the set and we were thrashing our bodies around which is not the best idea, especially when you have other scenes to shoot that night. But it was a good time. We didn’t have a bad time on that set.
EM - So speaking of Natalie wrapping up her film PLAN B, I watched the video for Ben Abraham’s “If I Didn’t Love You” which you recently directed.
JB - Oh my God, how lovely! Thanks!
EM - It was a lot of fun. Such an fresh take on that Johnathan Richman narrating THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY-style of present performer. Where did that idea come from?
JB - So I’ve known Ben Abraham for a minute and I told him that I really want to start directing so if he ever had a song, you know, and he said he’d send one my way. And it was this beautiful love song. He said “pitch me a couple of ideas” so I came up with one that really matched the song - it was very emotional and romantic, and he said “Oh, I like that one” and then I pitched him the weirdest one and he said “That’s the one we’re going with.” That's the music video that you saw, called “If I Didn’t Love You.”
EM - It is super fun.
JB - It’s weird. It goes to weird places. But also I had great amazing talented actors to be in it, and I was really lucky, and it was definitely a day that changed my life. I really want to direct now.
EM - So, you’ve directed now, you’ve done a lot of work in different genres, so what is next for Jillian Bell? What is the next genre you want to tackle?
JB - I really would love to do something with horror. I love horror! I’ve been a horror geek most of my life, one of the first movies I ever watched was CLUE and then I feel like I watched THE CRAFT on repeat. BEETLEJUICE, I loved all of those. Those aren’t very horror-ish but helped me develop a love for horror. My mom watches a different horror movie every night and I take after her. I’ve been doing it every night, this month, watching a different horror movie every night, which has been really fun. So, yeah, I definitely want to do a horror film.
EM - I know you’re a big fan of Halloween, the holiday, which was just yesterday. I’m curious what you got into.
JB - I had a low-key hang with some friends but I had a very fun, creative costume. I dressed up as Glenn Close from FATAL ATTRACTION. I was Alex. It was pretty fun. I had a pot.
EM - There it is.
JB - With the rabbit.
EM - I was going to ask.
JB - Had the rabbit. So yes, that was pretty fun.
EM - What are you working on next? What else can we expect from you soon?
JB - There are a couple of things but I can’t talk about them yet ‘cause they’re not announced. But I’m hoping I get to direct soon. That would be really fun. That’s what I’m working towards.
EM - Do you have anything in the pipeline? Anyone sending you scripts, are you working on your own script?
JB - Um, a little bit of both. I hate to be so vague. But I am writing a lot. I really enjoy writing, it’s probably my favorite thing to do. But I’m also looking at some other people’s scripts and just trying to get some stuff made. It would be really fun to start creating more.
EM - Pivoting back to I’M TOTALLY FINE, what do you hope people take away from this film? What is the heart of this film’s message?
JB - I think it’s a lot of different messages but I think it’s really beautiful to be able to know that we’re out of control and that’s really scary but it’s also okay. We’re going to be okay. You know, there’s really nothing that we have control over, as we’ve seen in the past, even, four or five years. It seems like the world is so chaotic and I think there’s something to letting go, slightly. Doing the best you can and helping out wherever you can and realizing that you're also a human being living a very scary human experience. For me, I really love that this movie is not just about grieving but also it's really about friendship. And feeling like it’s really hard when you lose a friendship, whether through a passing or just things falling apart. I think a lot of people can relate to it.
EM - I was really impressed with the way the comedy was integrated, because it is a deep subject and it does go to very emotional places, but I still found myself laughing out loud several times.
JB - Yeah, that’s good! That’s what we hoped for. We hoped for that. We don’t want to be living too much in the sadness of the being, there has to be some levity. Because who wants to sit through that? I think that’s the human experience, though.
EM - I asked Alisha what she did to get through the pandemic, as this script was borne from that time. What did you do to get through the seclusion?
JB - You know, I did a lot of virtual escape rooms with friends. Yeah, it was really fun, because you didn’t have to just stay in Los Angeles; you could go anywhere for a virtual escape room, so we were doing ones in Chicago and New York and all over the place. It was really fun, especially because there were some where they’d have a person wearing a camera, showing you what was around the room, and you’d go “Wait, what was that? Grab that!”
EM - “Pick that up! Turn it over!”
JB - What a weird thing to do during a pandemic but it brought us a lot of entertainment.
EM - Well I think that’s about our time but I really appreciate you talking to me today. I really hope people gravitate towards this film. It’s really well done, a lot of fun, a lot of heart, and I appreciate everything that you did for it.
JB - Thank you, Eric, that’s so nice. I can’t wait to speak again.
EM - Likewise! Hopefully very soon!
JB - Okay, I’ll speak to you soon. Bye.
I’M TOTALLY FINE is available now On Demand and on Digital wherever you get your films. Until next time, appreciate those close to you while you can because we don’t get any do-overs in this world. Take care.
-McEric, aka Eric McClanahan-