I recently got the opportunity to screen the brand-new comedy from writers/directors/brothers Christian and Justin Long, LADY OF THE MANOR. Check out the trailer:
According to their directors’ statement, “LADY OF THE MANOR is neither a ‘ghost-comedy’ nor a ‘buddy-comedy’. It belongs to a brand-new genre: a ‘fart-warming comedy’.” Indeed it is very much its own thing, and the end result is a rather simple, fun, enjoyable film that hearkens back to some of the more carefree comedies of the 90s. The story follows Hannah, a hapless stoner who would be wholly unlikeable were it not for Melanie Lynskey’s (I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE) unflappable charm. After being arrested in a hilarious set of circumstances (I will not spoil it for you and you will thank me) she falls into a position as a character guide for a mansion of historical significance in Savannah, Georgia. The original Lady of the Manor, Lady Wadsworth (Judy Greer - Showtime’s “Kidding”, FX’s “Archer”), haunts the property still and does not take kindly to Hannah’s inept performance of her legacy, appearing to Hannah to set her straight. What follows is a very Odd-Couple clashing of generations and sensibilities, and as they influence one another, a tender friendship blossoms. Threatening them throughout is Tanner Wadsworth, the boorish, spoiled heir of the manor, played with spray-tanned smarm and entitlement by a delightful Ryan Phillipe (CRUEL INTENTIONS). Justin Long (JEEPERS CREEPERS) appears as Professor Plum, a mild-mannered history professor who finds himself compelled to help Hannah bumble her way through this new role she’s been thrust into. Add in a dash of Luis Guzman (WAITING…) and a sprinkle of Patrick Duffy (Scuzzlebutt’s Left Leg) and the film shines with nostalgia aplenty. As if all this weren’t enough, the film also features bloopers in the end-credits; something I will never not want to see so long as movies are still being made with human casts.
Not every element of the film works, but the chemistry between Lynskey and Greer is undeniable. They both play against their usual type, with Lynskey playing a character that is far more crass than she’s known for and Greer’s character being much more reserved than we’d expect from her. It adds a deeper layer to the Odd-Couple genre for the viewer as we train our brains to see these veteran performers in a new way, as though they are at odds with themselves. At one point in the film the leads part after a false victory, and it is then that we see just how much they’ve grown on one another as they reveal the lessons they’ve carried in private. Hannah’s growth plays out like an after-school special montage (in a good way) but it is Lady Wadsworth’s moment alone that reveals the gentle reverence that the writer/directors have for the character as well as Greer, herself: I found myself smiling gently as the humorless Lady entertained herself by making faces in a mirror, unfolding her joy and discovering herself. It’s a quiet moment of character revelation that many of the overstuffed marquee comedies don’t make time for. And, truth be told, I could watch a whole second movie of Ryan Phillipe as Tanner revealing the dirty simpleton beneath the Trust Fund Kid’s salmon jacket. Where is that movie?
I got a chance to Zoom with Christian and Justin this past week and talk about their original idea for the film, rounding up this incredible cast, their writing process, and our own opinions on the state of cinema.
Eric McClanahan: Hi!
Christian Long & Justin Long: Hey, Eric!
EM: Well, thank you both for being here today and thank you for your patience. (I was late to get to the call due to time zone confusion) Let’s jump right into it: LADY OF THE MANOR, you guys wrote and directed it together. How long had this idea been gestating? I know in the Director’s statement you said you’d been wanting to make a movie forever; how long has this particular story been in your hearts?
JL: “Forever” might be an exaggeration.
CL: I actually know specifically because Justin just found a voicemail-
CL: He actually records our ideas on his phone, just most of the ideas don’t pan out, obviously. Like 99% of them. But he found this one when we first recorded it; it was July of 2019-
CL: 2018, and then we made it a year and a half later. And we made it a year and a half later.
CL: So a year and a half of gestation.
JL: And I think the first - no, we listened to it and it was pretty similar, the idea, to what it ended up being. Prior to that, Eric, we had an idea about a comedic version of PSYCHO, where Norman Bates’s mother, or a Norman Bates-type, they’re driving him to murder by haunting him, but more in an annoying way. You know, like getting in the way of his trying to go on dates, and just living his life out from under her.
CL: That was kind of the genesis of this and then it morphed into what we have now.
JL: We’d always loved Odd-Couple movies, buddy comedies, so we knew we wanted to do something in that genre.
EM: Nice! That definitely comes through in the film. Tell me about landing Melanie Lynskey and Judy Greer. Like, dream casting. How did that happen?
JL: Oh, yes. We agree.
CL: Justin had worked with Melanie a few years earlier on a very serious film, a drama.
JL: Yeah, it was about a school shooting. It was really intense.
CL: Like about as serious as it gets.
JL: Yeah, but off camera, I just so enjoyed being around her. She’s so funny. We had so much - we just laughed a lot. I had been familiar with her work, obviously, and I was such a fan of her work, but I got to know how funny she was; what a great sense of humor she had. So we just took a shot with her. Threw a hail mary.
CL: We thought she might want to do something different. I mean, this is different for her, so we thought maybe that was to our advantage, because she hadn’t starred in a fart comedy before. And Judy Greer was a guest on our podcast “LIFE IS SHORT” and Justin and Judy just really clicked on the podcast. And she also has such a great sense of humor and resume and we thought maybe this might be something she’d want to do, too. It was so lucky for us that they both wanted to.
JL: We were a bit apprehensive when we sent it to them, only because they’re such classy actresses; they’re known for obviously great work. For the most part really classy work, so we didn’t know how they’d respond to some of the crasser elements of the script. But to our surprise, and to the movie’s benefit, that was the stuff that they really leaned into, they really embraced; that was the stuff they wanted more of.
EM: And I think that speaks to the fallacy of pedigree in Hollywood-
EM: That there are certain things that people won’t do but when your heart’s in the project and you’re behind the people who launched it, you get great work like this.
JL: Well, that’s-
CL: That’s nice of you to say. Truly, they’re very great in this movie. And it wouldn’t be the movie, or even close to the movie, it ended up being without those types of performances. Not to be too self-deprecating about our script but they brought something to it that wasn’t on the page and the movie really benefitted.
JL: The biggest surprise was the amount of heart that they brought to it. At the risk of sounding kind of cheesy there was a really beautiful connection that they had, that the characters had, that we had never seen, necessarily. I don’t think it was in the script. It was really moving to watch them do that final scene, not to give anything away, but it was unexpectedly moving because their talent and, they were so present and truthful as actors. Right away they ended up liking each other a lot which we were so relieved and happy to see. Their connection was something that we couldn’t have written. [pause] Well, we could’ve. [laughs]
EM: Well, you wrote it and they made it true. So, speaking of the premise of your “Fart Comedy,” were you afraid of any pushback from producers when you were shopping the film? “Are they going to laugh in our faces and say we can’t do this?”
JL: Oh yeah, absolutely.
CL: Yeah, we’re naturally insecure people [laughs]... I can’t speak for you but I can speak for myself, and of course, I was wondering “Is this something that people want to see?”
JL: Especially because up until then our writing experience had been network TV, writing pilots. We’d had some success in getting those sold; none in getting them made. That process had become something frustrating for us. We were used to a lot of notes; anything edgy or spicier elements of our comedy had been diluted by these studios. Not to say that we’re so edgy but to your point, some of the fart stuff and edgier, raunchier stuff we were afraid we were going to get a lot of pushback on.
CL: But thankfully we didn’t. We had producers who were very supportive and let us make the movie we wanted to.
JL: And make it with the cast that we had. As incredible as those actors are, sometimes people in charge of the money want to see a big marquee name that people are used to seeing in mainstream comedies and I think a lot of people took a chance and we’re so grateful that they did.
EM: Where did the decision to set the film in Savannah, Georgia come from? It’s such a hotbed of filming now, but to focus on the historical backdrop of Wadsworth Manor, where did that come from?
CL: We selfishly love the city of Savannah and we wanted to spend some time there and obviously Savannah has a very rich history from that time period - from the Civil War era. We thought it was a natural fit. We ended up not shooting in Savannah because the producers that ended up getting behind the project had a whole infrastructure in Tampa and St. Petersburg, Florida so we ended up shooting there for Savannah, which we were both dubious about, that it wouldn’t look like Savannah. But much to our surprise it really does and there was so much more history in that area of Florida than we had really known. So we felt like we were really lucky, even though we didn’t get to shoot in Savannah we got to fall in love with a new city.
JL: And the story that Christian touched on about Savannah as the backdrop is something that we thought make for a good setting and somewhat of a plot. We didn’t want the plot to overwhelm the story by any means. We wanted to keep it more of a backdrop but we just felt it worked historically.
EM: So now that you have one successfully written and produced and you’ve made this dream film, I know you guys must have several more in the pipeline; what are you working on next?
CL: Well, I hope you didn’t jinx us just now by calling it successful [laughs] ‘cause it’s not quite out yet.
JL: It’s finished!
CL: We just wrote it and made it, that is true.
CL: We have a few things percolating. We have a movie with Ben Stiller’s company, Red Hour, that hopefully we’ll make as soon as we can.
JL: It’s another buddy comedy.
CL: It’s a buddy comedy that kind of explores hyper-masculinity so it’s kind of the opposite in some ways of this film. But that’s what we’re going to get into next.
JL: It’s funny that those were the two themes, exploring like -
CL: Yeah! I just put that together the other day. “Oh that’s funny - they’re almost opposites.” But we feel very comfortable in that genre, the Odd-Couple comedy genre. We love it so much. We think we’re good at it, so we felt that would be the one.
JL: Yeah, it would.
EM: From a writing standpoint do you sort of play off one another as an odd couple or do you have more similar approaches?
CL: I would say we’re an Odd Couple in terms of our personalities and our approaches…
JL: You think?
CL: Yeah, but I would say we’re very similar when it comes to our sensibilities and our sense of humor and our taste. The writing process is so fun because we outline it together and we create a structure together and we talk about ideas together then we split up the scenes so we each do every other scene; we’ll write and then send it to each other. So we kind of each write 50% of the movie and then tweak the other 50% of it. And it works out.
JL: And it ends up being also a nice way to stay connected because we love hanging out, we hang out a lot and we like to laugh together. [beat] Which is always such a weird thing to say when you’re not laughing. We seem, like - [stern voice] “We love laughing with each other.” But this way, with both scripts really, the Red Hour one was one that we wrote when I was in Pittsburgh and this one we wrote when I was in London so it felt like a nice way to stay in touch. He’d send me a scene, I’d send him my scene, and then we’d both work on each other’s stuff. Sometimes it wouldn’t require any tweaking and we wouldn’t have to do anything.
EM: And do you already have some dream casting lined up for [the Red Hour project]?
CL: We do.
JL: We do. Well, we’re going to send it to, and we’re hoping for, Ryan Phillipe again and we’d love Steve Zahn (OUT OF SIGHT). It was written so long ago that it was written for Sam Rockwell (MOON), who kind of helped us develop the idea and he ended up, like a couple of weeks before we ended up finishing the script, he got THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI which was a very different movie-
CL: A very easy decision for him to make.
JL: Yeah, like “I think I’m gonna win an Oscar for this instead of your fart comedy.” But he was very supportive of it as he’s been with all the stuff we’ve done so we’re hoping to get a good cast with him as a producer.
EM: So LADY OF THE MANOR is very light, breezy, has a surprising amount of heart. What are you hoping to give viewers when they sit down to watch LADY OF THE MANOR?
CL: Yeah, we certainly didn’t intend, nor did we accomplish, reinventing the wheel. But we do think that there’s something - a throwback-y feeling about this movie. We wanted it to feel kind of like a 90s comedy, because we love those movies so much. We definitely think it’s, like you said, light; we think it’s fun. And it’s a great diversion from a lot of the stresses that people are facing now.
CL: If you want to just escape for an hour and a half and have some laughs and not think too much, that’s what we hope people get out of this.
JL: We like comedies that are character-driven and rely on more realistic characters in hopefully funny situations so that’s how we try to make it. Again, we were inspired by movies like WHAT ABOUT BOB? and PLANES, TRANES, & AUTOMOBILES; those movies have such great acting and there’s a patience to them that we think has been lost a little bit in movies. I know we sound like cranky old middle-aged people -
EM: [imitates crotchety voice] “Back in my day we made quality pictures!”
JL: [laughing] Yeah, I know! [affecting an older voice] “These days they just don’t make me laugh!”
EM: [in crotchety voice] “Real people!”
JL: [in old-timey radio voice] “After Mae West, everything was shit!”
EM: [laughs] And there’s the headline. I want to thank you guys so much for talking to me today. I apologize again for the confusion and I wish you guys the best of luck on the film and I can’t wait to see what you do next.
JL: Aw, thanks.
CL: Thanks, Eric. We appreciate you talking to us. We appreciate the good word.
JL: Yeah, happy to get it out. We’re really excited for people to see it so thanks for helping.
EM: Thank you!
CL & JL: Thanks, Eric.
LADY OF THE MANOR is in select theaters, available on all streaming services, and will release on DVD and Blu-Ray today, September 21st.
Until next time, stay safe and stay sane!
-McEric, aka Eric McClanahan-