Director Lawrence Sher gets to the comedic heart of sibling rivalry in ‘FATHER FIGURES’

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Owen Wilson and Ed Helms in FATHER FIGURES. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

I’m always interested in the fact that movies are opportunities to take you on a ride.

Veteran cinematographer Lawrence Sher has shot some of the biggest, funniest comedies of all time (THE HANGOVER trilogy, THE DICTATOR and I LOVE YOU, MAN) – and now it’s time for him to direct one of his own. FATHER FIGURES, a raucous road-trip comedy about two opposite-minded twin brothers (played by Ed Helms and Owen Wilson) in search of their previously thought dead father, provided the Sher with the opportunity to travel down a new road in his career. His years long experience on large sets making quick-thinking decisions, dealing with egos and facing weather and logistical challenges, have all equipped him to wear this new hat with confidence.

At the film’s recent press day in Los Angeles, I spoke with the affable director about stepping into a new career role, the uncontrollable tribulations of film production, and whether or not we should start picking up hitchhikers.

So I read you have an identical twin. How do I know I’m not talking to him right now? 

He’s twenty pounds lighter. Because I’ve been complaining that I’ve gotta be in front of the camera and I need to lose weight and I didn’t have the discipline to do it these last two months, my girlfriend said, ‘Just have Andy walk the red carpet.’ I should sit in for his surgery and he should sit in to make movies.

When did you know you were ready to make this leap from cinematographer to director? Where did this push come from?

It’s interesting. The push came from just time. I think I knew pretty early on to shooting that I would want to direct someday. As a DP, I was infinitely interested in the overall movie’s interests than I was simply into cinematography. I think that’s why I’ve been an asset to some of the directors I’ve worked with because I ultimately cared about the big picture of making the movie as much as they did – or certainly close to that. I knew eventually I would want to now try this on where I can now carry the weight on my shoulders.

I had so many other things I wanted to shoot and places I wanted to go as a cinematographer so it took time. But eventually, I had just finished THE DICTATOR, a movie with Sacha Baron Cohen…

Yes! You worked with my friend Dave Mandel!

Oh Dave is a mensch. He’s amazing. At the end of that movie, I thought, ‘The time is now.’ I was feeling this tiny bit of burn out from shooting and I thought, ‘You know what? I really want to try this out. It’s the perfect time to really go after this.’ Even the best case scenario of trying to get a movie made – even ones like this one – frankly works into the lexicon of a movie that was pretty quick, meaning it was on track to be made pretty quickly and it still took four years. It’s hard to make a movie – any movie – and so you strike while you have an opportunity.

What were some of the misnomers or fallacies about this job that you learned along the way? 

The biggest ‘what if?’ for me was how was it going to be working with the actors. Will I have the right tools to communicate to them to adjust and change the performances as needed? Will I be patient enough? Will I be understanding enough to their needs? As a cinematographer, of course I had to deal with them, but not on the same level as a director. The director, as I say now, having directed a movie, I have so much more compassion and empathy for every director I’ve ever worked with. Thankfully, I was much happier with the how much joy I had dealing with all the actors than I had going in.

I’m always curious when films use luxury sports cars, how many shirts do you sweat through that day when the stunt sequences are on the schedule?

Yeah. [laughs]. I guess since I had done it enough, it wasn’t too bad. Our one little luxury car was we had this really specific car for Terry Bradshaw in the Miami sequence. That, as a logistical thing, of course, I have my own thing of ‘let’s make sure we use furni pads,’ but that wasn’t so much of an issue. That was we had one week in Miami and it was the worst weather they had had in Miami in ten years. We got rain the whole week. All I cared about was, ‘Will I have enough footage to tell the story of that joyous sunny Miami day ride across the causeway?’ All I’m thinking is, ‘Can I get a five minute break in these clouds?’ I was like, ‘I don’t care if we put a big scratch in it. Just get me a shot!’

Owen Wilson, Terry Bradshaw and Ed Helms in FATHER FIGURES. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

Was that character always written as Terry Bradshaw in the script? Did you have backup plans if he wasn’t available?

The original script that Justin [Malen] wrote was a fictitious character – Jack Tibbs. And Jack Tibbs was basically Terry Bradshaw, maybe mixed with a little Joe Namath. It just came up in conversations as we were really approaching casting that role and thinking about actors to play Jack Tibbs. We thought, ‘What about just going with the inspiration?’ He’s a real human being and has acted before. I remembered FAILURE TO LAUNCH and how natural and good he was. He was playing against Kathy Bates and he held his own and then some.

The truth is, as a filmmaker, and you’re dealing with a fictitious character, you then have to lay all this pipe to explain who this character is to this audience. You then have to deal with time on screen to describe who Jack Tibbs is. When you go to the real guy, you now have to lay less pipe.

Thank you for saving us from exposition.

[laughs] Exactly.

I loved the way you edited and shot the transitional sequences, showing the brothers traveling in between cities.

Oh cool!

It’s so much better than the boring, stereotypical establishing stock footage type shots. There’s an artistic energy there.

Aww. I appreciate that. Thank you.

Where did you come up with that aesthetic for that?

Partly it came from thinking about the ways you can move people from point A, to point B in movies. There were things where, I appreciate you saying that, that I even had ideas for that I didn’t quite execute all the way through. The thing you learn as a director almost like a big slap in the face, and almost immediately, but now it’s finally your movie, is the time constraints of a movie. You’re just faced with how much time do I really have? For me, the journey is all part of what makes a movie really interesting. Certainly there was some stuff in SIDEWAYS that had some influence, but mostly I was just trying to think of a way that would be the least amount of time on screen that would also let the audience take a journey. I’m always interested in the fact that movies are opportunities to take you on a ride. Although they’re going to fairly mundane places, still, their journey to and from those places can be beautiful.

I grew up in New Jersey and the drive from New York, to where Roland’s house is, along what’s basically the Merritt Parkway, was my road to go to college. I find that area of the country to be beautiful – even just roads. I find a lot of roads just interesting. We spend a lot of time in cars and so I’m always looking for those little opportunities to show it in a way that seems interesting.

When you have a cast as skilled comedic and dramatically as you do here, how far do you take their riffing before you call “cut?” You could probably just keep going.

It’s funny. I think what happens is, and anybody, Dave, any of these guys, will tell you, you’ll just start feel it. Sometimes it takes a left turn and it’s like sheep-herding. Like that might be interesting, but there’s no way. You’re trying to allow it to just drift, because sometimes in the drifting comes something that’s really odd. Again, in the bummer aspect of trying to tell a story that actually has a plot. This story has a narrative through-line in which there’s point A’s, to B’s, there’s a lot on the cutting room floor that was remarkably funny. Some of it went way out there. You let it go just long enough to be interesting. Sometimes you allow it to go there and then say, ‘Okay let’s use that nugget from take one, and that nugget from take two, and let’s wrap it all in a way that’s a little more concise.’

Is this movie supposed to make us pro-hitchhiking now?

[laughs] I think we’re pro-hitchhiking in the way that as human beings, we should be less scared of each other and more open to the opportunities that life provides. Picking up a hitchhiker is an opportunity. Yes, we’re conditioned as an opportunity for danger, but it could also be an opportunity to bring us to a place we never expected to go. And that’s really the point.

FATHER FIGURES opens on December 22.

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Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.