Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, 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.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
After making three films together with his wife Melissa McCarthy, and with a fourth soon on the way, director Ben Falcone (TAMMY, THE BOSS) isn’t done learning about the filmmaking craft, likening it to a doctor’s continued chosen discipline.
Don’t you want your doctor to want to keep learning? You don’t want him to be all, “You know what? I think I got it.” Keep learning!
Their latest cinematic venture, LIFE OF THE PARTY, tells the tale of a very recent empty nester/ divorcee Deanna (McCarthy) determined to get her undergrad degree. The plucky protagonist is headed back to school with a purpose – and not just to embarrass the heck out of her co-ed daughter (Molly Gordon). Not only is the central message incredibly empowering for women, it’s laugh-out-loud funny, sex-positive, enlightened and an innovative spin on the traditional trappings of raunchy, raucous college comedies.
At the film’s recent press day in Los Angeles, I spoke with the affable talent about everything from the story’s semi-auto-biographical strains, to how they were able to nail the timing on the cameo appearances, to why the word “ham” is so darn funny.
Did that take a while to construct, figuring out what to do and what not to do?
As we were formulating it, we felt like the movie was really sweet and heartfelt and really funny. That started taking on – really early – a PG-13-y direction. Even our R rated comedies – Melissa and mine – they’re for language. We thought it had a PG-13 kind of vibe. So that means, when we were wondering what kind of parts to this story we really wanted to tell, we didn’t want to do… there’s an “R” rated version of this story, right? “I’m going to let myself go crazy at college!” We felt like that would get us more into a simplistic zone of a story we were less interested in telling – like one joke over and over again about how far can you party as a Mid-Western mom. We wanted to show what would happen if the daughter and her friends slowly start to accept her – and what would happen if she got into the sorority?
Even all these actors we were so fortunate to get – they are so great. Luke Benward is so sweet, but yeah, he’s a hunky 23-year-old kid and a good actor. But he’s a sweet kid and that plays into his character. You can tell he likes Deanna. There are other ways to go with all those relationships. In terms of the story we wanted to tell, we wanted to tell a sweet story about a family that gets sideways and hopefully they wind up a little bit stronger from where they started.
Did any of your own college experiences make it into this?
Yes. One of the inspirations for this movie is my Dad – I went to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign – came to long weekend visits and would party with us. He would be at parties and having beers, but then my friends were like, “I love your dad. He’s so awesome. He would ask me questions about my day and it was like he cared.” That vibe spilled over from a real relationship in my life. For me to hear really sweet things about my Dad from my friends, and while the genders are all different, it’s still the same thing – the love of parents and a child.
Has the writing or directing process changed from film to film?
I hope I’m learning more. Putting a movie together in the editing room teaches you more about writing. I think Melissa and I have gotten a little more efficient. If we start to write a scene – she’s so funny as a writer, as you can imagine – that if we have two characters sitting around, talking about something funny that doesn’t serve the story, we know that as much as we find it funny, it’s not going to make the movie and we don’t do it. We try to stay a little more on task.
As director, I hope I’m more efficient, because I have an easier time navigating the technical aspects of making a film. I’m able to spend a little more time on the story elements, on the comedy elements, and not get bogged down in the technical elements that need to be excellent. The crew has to be excellent.
And you work with some of the same crew, which I’d imagine helps.
Absolutely. That kind of shorthand and talent level completely helps. I’m getting ready to shoot my fourth movie pretty soon and I have so much more to learn. I certainly hope everybody on the crew feels the same way.
Did you also know where exactly to put your cameo? This was SO PERFECT here. There are levels.
Oh thanks. That was all Melissa. That whole bit was Melissa. She wrote the whole thing. I wanted to make sure that I was very cut-able from the movie. Without giving everything away, that scene, if you took it away, it would just be gone and no big deal. You’d go onto her parent’s house. If this works, it will be a nice relaxing thing for the audience. She’s just been through a hard time and we were hoping to let the audience have a breather and remind them that we’re still a comedy.
This might be the oddest question you’ll get today, but here goes: Because I’m interested in hearing from somebody with an improv comedy background, and you have a scene that revolves around it, why is the word “ham” so funny?
Ponyo yells it in his movie. Tina Fey has talked about it before. My nephews, when they were younger, took to it. They think it’s hilarious – and it is funny. But why?!
I don’t think that’s an odd question – I think that might be the best question of today. Okay. You’ve asked so I’m going to give you an answer off the top of my head, so here goes. It may be all BS – I’ll preface this with that. Maybe it’s because it’s the most workman-like lunch meat – blue-collar, blue-pail lunch meat. Everybody has had a ham sandwich. It seems like a lot of funny people come from the outskirts of Chicago, or blue-collar areas. Also just hearing the way Mid-Westerners say it sounds funny to me.
I’ll accept this answer. Moving along. How difficult was it coming up with a fake college name or fictional sororities?
Wow! You got good ones! I like it. The college name was pretty easy, because we were like, ‘Decatur’s pretty fun.’ Getting the correct mascot took a long time because you can’t veer too close to something. The sorority was really hard. Every time you’re too close to anything, they won’t do it. Finally, somehow Theta Mu Gamma came through. We actually love the idea that they’re Theta Mu’s, because it sounds so blue-collar – like ham.
Which was the hardest to film: the drunk racquetball sequence, the mediation scene, or the 80’s dance off?
The most challenging of those was the 80’s dance off. It’s more technically tricky on the crew side. You’re trying to figure out where to place the cameras. There’s tons of people everywhere. Melissa had a thing she had to do. The racquetball thing was tricky in the act that the editors would disagree. They wanted it to be, “We’ll not put a real ball in there.” I was like, “No. They’re going to play racquetball, because I want to see Maya and Melissa play racquetball.” That means nothing cut together if you’re trying to jump around. So they editors would say it’s the racquetball, but I say it’s the 80’s dance scene. All of those were fun scenes to shoot, but those were probably the two most difficult.
Now that the cat’s out of the bag, was it always Christina Aguilera in the script? How did this come together?
We love her work. When her name came up, we ran right after her. It came together fairly quickly. She is a delight. Trying to find a pop star, a giant super star, it’s hard to even figure out where they are [geographically]. Once we got a hold of her, she seemed amped to do it. We could not have gotten more lucky with that. Not to give it away, the stuff at the end is so apropos of the movie and everything she was able to deliver to us.
LIFE OF THE PARTY opens on May 11.