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
You’ve probably never seen a female character like the one at the heart of co-writer/ director Max Winkler’s FLOWER – and that’s thanks to the filmmaker’s innate skill at coaxing out comedic irreverence and dramatic nuance from his actors and the material.
In the dark comedy, seventeen-year-old Erica (Zoey Deutch) is running roughshod over her free-spirited mother Laurie (Kathryn Hahn), headed down a destructive path, until she meets her future, painfully shy stepbrother Luke (Joey Morgan). The pair hatch a plan to seek revenge on a teacher (Adam Scott), who’s hiding a dark secret. Calamity ensues from there.
At the film’s recent press day, I spoke with the affable filmmaker about everything from the film’s cinematic influences, to the importance of working with insightful talented women, to what posed the biggest challenge – a fast-growing rat or a broke-down Saab.
It feels so refreshing to see a female protagonist like this – one who is honest to a fault. Where and when did this pop onto your radar?
A few years ago a script was sent to me. It just got on the Black List. Everyone was like, ‘This movie can’t get made because of the subject matter, but you should read it as a sample.’ The guys who were producing it were Roughhouse – Danny McBride and company. They’ve made some of my favorite television and movies fearlessly and unafraid to go to territory other people won’t.
It reminded me of all those movies I grew up stealing from my brother on VHS when I wasn’t allowed to. Those movies, with the exception of John Hughes movies, always had male leads and the girl was the object of affection at the end. What I loved about this movie was that it was a girl. That part of it really excited me because I hadn’t seen that character before. She felt like one part Travis Bickle and another Jim Stark from REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. The girl in FISH TANK is an aesthetic role model. It felt complicated and messy – a lot of what it’s like to feel at seventeen.
Tone plays an important part in any film, but especially here. Everything is “all fun and games,” until it takes a sharp turn into a dark comedy. Is there a secret to monitoring that shift? Is it nailing it in the script stage or editing room?
I think it’s casting the actors we did. We had such good actors. They played everything to feel real and if nothing is ever played as a joke, it’s played as human, you can kind of get away with anything. Music is obviously a super important part and really sets up the tone. Our composer Joey Stephens is incredible. We talked a lot about RISKY BUSINESS as a musical reference – what that would sound like if it were made now. The INTERSTELLAR soundtrack was oddly a big influence too in a sense that it is all fun and games until the forces of gravity that you’re dealing with catch up to you. The girls couldn’t sustain the way of life they were going about. They were messing with things way outside of their maturity level, even though their intentions were good. We really start to massage that tone in the middle of the movie and you can start to feel it creeping up so it’s not completely taking you off guard. To me, her walk up to Adam Scott’s house, which is directly in the middle of the movie, and she goes through this crazy blue smoke, it’s almost like she’s entering into the next tone of the movie. Where the stakes end up coming back to bite them.
This cast is incredible. Crafting that mother-daughter relationship seems to be in the writing, but Kathryn and Zoey come in and just knock it out of the park.
Kathryn Hahn, to me, is one of the best actors alive in everything she does – almost like how Philip Seymour Hoffman used to do. There’s no part that’s too small that doesn’t feel completely lived-in where you know exactly what this character is going to do after the movie ends and what this character did before the movie began. Hahn is one of those people.
We shot this movie for half a million dollars in fifteen days. We shot Hahn out in three or four days. Some of those first things we ever shot with here are the first time they ever met. We talked about the mother-daughter relationship – how there was a lack of boundaries and a lack of discipline. How they were more like sisters and Kathryn carries this immense guilt based on the fact she couldn’t make her marriage work and so she feels like she can’t say no to her daughter, which ends up being the worst thing in the world for her daughter, who’s just looking for some control in her life and can’t find it anywhere.
Immediately we started to block the scene. We have this incredible cinematographer, Carolina Costa. They get on top of each other on the bed and start braiding each others’ hair and there’s no way to light a face. Carolina and I were very clear that we never wanted the performances to be hindered by the cinematography so… we just lit the room and let them fall in and out of light. Really it was about how we can support the actors as much as possible and make it almost like we were shooting a documentary.
This movie feels so feminist in the narrative, but also with key roles on the production side. Let’s talk about bringing in a feminine energy to the set with Carolina, production designer Tricia Robertson, editor Sara Beth Shapiro…
…Michelle Thompson was our costume designer. Maritte Lee Go was our line producer. Caroline Goldfarb was our on-set producer and writer. I knew that was the best way…I’ve always identified with women in movies – sometimes even more than the men, at least when I came of age. I felt like I wanted to tell the story as authentically as possible and I wanted to be held accountable as a man – to eliminate the male gaze almost as much as humanly possible. So to surround myself with powerful women who’d hold me accountable was by far and away the best decision I made, besides casting Zoey, which in fact, was hiring the most outspoken, intelligent and powerful women to put things in their own words and make sure the wardrobe felt completely authentic. A lot of that was Zoey’s wardrobe she brought from home. That, to me, was important.
The best compliment I got in this entire process was our editor, Sara Beth, showed her mentor, who’s a really renowned editor. He watched a rough cut and had a bunch of notes, but he said, ‘You guys did it. It’s really good. It feels really authentic. Please congratulate the director for me. I think she did a great job.” He was certain it was a woman who did it. That really made me happy.
Right. In the wrong hands, the male gaze could wander in. Being held accountable is very important.
Totally. And I knew it was the best way to make the best version of this movie. I think men can make great movies about women and vice versa. I think THE HURT LOCKER would not have been as good of a movie if it wasn’t for Kathryn Bigelow. I think SIXTEEN CANDLES is one of the best movies about a girl ever made. But I do think you really need to work harder and hold yourself accountable in those situations – and listen to the people you end up hiring. Everyone who did it, put their soul into it. It’s a testament to their work.
Zoey was super specific about her wardrobe. Whenever she was doing sort of a transactional thing, taking somebody’s money or pulling off a heist, she never wanted to show skin. I thought that was such an original idea. The original clothes I had chosen for her were these overalls and some Timberlands. It wasn’t overtly sexy or nymphet stuff, but I picked it because I thought it looked great. I didn’t think about the meaning of it. She said, ‘I’m not wearing it.’ I said, ‘Great, but why?’ She said, ‘Because she would never show skin during this.’ More importantly, when she shows skin in front of Scott, because you can tell she’s trying to impress him because she’s feeling conflicted. That’s the first time she falls off her game. In my head, her first kiss as a human being. Everything else is about gaining some control in her life. It’s transactional – not sexual. Her greatest fear would be sharing intimacy with anyone.
You’ve got the rat in this movie, whom I loved. Tell me about working with the rat.
I’ll tell you two things about the rat. The rat was my girlfriend, who is my feminist hero – Rachel Antonoff, who is a clothing designer. She’s a bad-ass. The rat was her idea and she’s a big inspiration in this movie. She thought she should have a rat. Rats are these things that are really misjudged and looked at like vermin and trash, but they are actually brilliantly smart, which I think people think about Erica. The rat was growing exponentially. We treated the rat really well, but it was growing at such a shocking rate – growing in places we didn’t know were possible. Zoey, like myself, is a deep, deep animal lover and she handled the rat fearlessly.
Was Zoey’s knee scrape real? It looked pretty brutal.
No, but I’m glad you noticed that. That I took from RATCATCHER, one of my more influential movies, there’s a scene in there where… for some reason, as adults, I don’t feel like we scrape our knees. But as kids…It just feels like pure kid innocence. It’s such a trope to imagine what it’s like to skinning your knee on the blacktop. It was really important to me. I’m glad you brought that up. I love the way she picks at it.
What was the most memorable, or favorite moment from this experience?
Getting the final shot at the end. We were racing against the sun. We shot the entire car chase in one day, in a 110-degree weather in Lancaster, the first week of shooting. We were definitely not able to come back. We had federal authorities after us for touching a Joshua Tree – a federal offense, I guess. We were racing to get that last shot. The whole crew came together. We had a really successful moment of everyone working towards the same thing. I love that feeling – the stress of it and chasing the sun. It’s kind of a great feeling. Meanwhile, there’s a broken down Saab that never worked to begin with because I should have never chosen a stick shift Saab with no air conditioning.
I saw you thanked Garry Shandling in the end credits. I’m wonder what the connection was.
He was my mentor and one of the most important people in my life. It’s actually really sad he never got to see this. He was someone I met when I was a senior in high school. I would box at this gym in Santa Monica, because I also got in trouble a lot when I was in high school so my parents made me start boxing. From there, to all the way through him passing, he was extremely influential in my life. And watched and read and gave notes and helped on everything. Those two people are, by far and away, the two most influential people on this particular movie.
FLOWER is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. It opens wide on March 23.
Header photo: Zoey Deutch in FLOWER. Courtesy of The Orchard.