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
TOGETHER TOGETHER isn’t necessarily defined by one specific genre. That’s what makes it so special. This platonic dramromcom (dramatic-rom-com minus the romance) is centered on single software designer Matt (Ed Helms) and his single surrogate Anna’s (Patti Harrison) journey together gestating a baby. Their orchestrated nine month relationship not only will result in the delivery of a baby, but also a very tender, adult friendship being formed. Yet it’s writer-director Nikole Beckwith who fittingly delivers the goods with her second feature film.
Was it always the intention that you were going to write and direct this one?
I think of myself more of like an observer when I’m writing and less of a puppet-master. I don’t think of characters as things I’ve invented. I think of them as out in the ether, revealing themselves to me. I was curious and called up these characters and observed them through this circumstance. I knew they weren’t going to get together – I couldn’t write the movie like that. We have hundreds of years of that kind of storytelling. So that never occurred to me. When I write anything, my mind’s eye is the camera. There’s a directorial element to writing. Once I get to the end of a script, that’s when I know if I want to be married to it for the next few years – if this is the thing calling me to commit. I got to the end of this and it was, “yup. here’s the thing.”
How challenging was it to not put your characters through broad comedic shenanigans or fall into tropes the genre typically requires?
It’s a journey getting a film made and there are definitely people like a producing partner who I did not collaborate with who would want them to end up together, or things to become funnier. I do think after Ed came on board there was a bit of an expectation that, [puts on mock voice] “This thing could be hilarious.” And that can also be modulated in an editing room. It is the director’s job to advocate for their story and their world and get people jazzed on that. This is the tone I always had. Everything that’s most interesting to me was internal and character based. Shenanigans don’t apply.
It’s slightly hard to categorize in a genre. I guess dramedy is the best, but the way we think of drama is something terrible happens – we conflate drama with tragedy and those are different things. I’m interested in the subtle and the loud. Not to say I don’t want large dramatic shifts. I just don’t think every movie has to have tragedy to make drama. It can be internal. Some people have been all, “It’s inverting the romcom,” and I don’t disagree with that, but I think that sets up strange expectations as though you might see shenanigans as most romcoms involve shenanigans. It is book funny and it is sad, which means it’s bittersweet. I say it’s funny, but there’s no jokes and there’s drama, but no tragedy and there’s sweetness, but no sap and there’s romance, but no sex. It’s hard to sum that up with a category. I’m grateful for the people who helped get this movie made and help bring it out into the world, who lean into that. It’s hard to do.
The anchor performances from Ed and Patti are really remarkable. We see beautiful shading of these characters through your writing and their own lenses. What was it about Ed and Patti that stood out to you that made them perfect for their roles?
They’re both super hilarious. In both of their comedy, I do see this pulsing heart of humanity and vulnerability. I wanted to put that in the front seat and see what that would do, especially Patti. Patti and I talked about how she had never worked in an earnest space and that was definitely new. And for Ed, he had never been asked for a subtle, internal performance. So we were all doing different things. I’m a huge admirers of both of their work. From the second I saw Patti, I was like, “Oh look. There’s Anna.” They both turned in really moving, incredibly nuanced, subtle and strong performances – and beautiful chemistry together. That’s the dream.
I noticed the credits font you use is same as Woody Allen’s, whom your characters discuss in the film. Tell me about that specific choice. I saw it as a “I’m taking it back” move.
Yeah. It’s like, “You don’t get your own font, you disgusting monster.” So that’s what it was. Give it to me. He doesn’t have the monopoly on a certain kind of storytelling, or a font and he should just get out of here.
Were there certain inspirations you and your cinematographer Frank Barrera pulled from to create the aesthetic?
Frank is amazing. We did a bunch of image swapping, sending images back and forth. I made a look book for a visual reference point. I shot both of my films through vintage glass. On STOCKHOLM, I used vintage Canon lenses which were that cinematographer’s preferred lens. For TOGETHER, TOGETHER, we shot through vintage Super Speeds. I like that look. I like that soft, deep, timeless feeling. One of the nice things about shooting through glass and diffusion is letting the light be a character in the room, not in a distracting way, but in an omnipresent way where it’s the way the light works with the glass is part of the world building. I guess that’s less of a character and more part of the place.
We watched some films together while talking through them. It’s like we were the old men in the MUPPETS in the balcony. [We knew] we wanted a grain and to create a timelessness in our nods to Nora Ephron movies of the late 80’s and early 90’s because she’s very good at the two-hander. And also there are so many modern ideas and ideals in the film, but wanting to put them in a space that looks nostalgic, while feeling now.
One of the scenes I loved is where Anna and Matt pick out the nursery paint color. It felt like the perfect confluence of form and function – production design meeting character drive. How did you and Ashley Fenton bring this scene to life?
That’s a fun question. The green color which is mentioned in the script and talked about quite a bit has like endless colors. Ashley brought us the perfect shade. There were some colors that was described as “too bright for sleeping” and “this is what a waiting room would be painted,” but it doesn’t say what color that is, so Ashley did that too and used colors in between the pillars. It was very cool. I also loved working with props, who had to reset the paint swatches. Big shout out to them! We tried to do it in the most efficient way possible. I looked at the paint swatches on the wall and as soon as they started coming off, I was like, “This could be Hell.” So it became, “How do we do this so we don’t have anxiety all day or nightmares?” It’s form, function, and a pivotal scene in their relationship. Working with Ashley and Frank with that green color was about us wanting it to work with the light, but not fully sponge up the light, but also isn’t blasting the light back at us because we’re using the diffusion glass. A lot of care went into it. Ashley made it feel easy. It’s so complicated and layered and difficult.
Another thing too with costumes. Elizabeth Warn coming in and dealing with, “This is the color that will be the backdrop for this, this and this. So what are the colors we want to put in the room with it?” That stuff was fun because the color becomes a character. We use that color to inform Matt’s color story and Anna’s color story as a middle point – a merging of their color stories. Also picking the moments where that color would suddenly and not-so-suddenly would appear like in the first restaurant date, the colors in the hospital. Where we’d see the subtle nods to that dusty blue-green was fun to see color as a character. It was very informative for Ashley, Elizabeth, Frank and myself and gave us a real landing spot for these conversations to work together.
How was it collaborating with Alex Somers to create the score? Did you have to give him much direction?
Working with Alex was so lovely. Obviously, I was a huge admirer of his work, score work and other. Humblebrag: I was friends with him in Los Angeles. I’d known him socially. He’s such a brilliant mind and open heart. We would always talk about what we were working on. When it aligned that, “Oh. Maybe Alex is free for this movie,” it was sending him a text message, “Wanna put rubber to the road? You’re a composer and I’m a filmmaker and we can work together.” The stars aligned.
Tone and genre-wise, this film was different for both of us. He’d never scored a comedic film before and I’d never made a comedic film before. It was fun to go through that together. Maybe that’s the best way. If you’re doing something you’ve never done before, try to do it with someone who also hasn’t done it. You’re less inhibited and take swings and figuring out what works and what doesn’t together. You’re not trying to meet somebody else’s expectations. We don’t even know what the expectation is. You’re trying to find it all together.
We looked at scores from the Nora Ephron movies and other classic two-handers, or movies that start with a meet-cute, though I would not consider Matt and Anna’s interview a meet-cute. A lot of the scores are piano standards, like WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, which is such an iconic two-hander. We knew we wanted to use piano as the main sound to venerate that feeling, but also wanted it to sound new. I like a score to be very supportive of the scene and what’s in there to feel, but I don’t like to have the score tell you how to feel. That’s a hard balance and hard for this. It allowed for modulation. I’d send him emails and would describe what I’m feeling. They might as well have sounded like bad dreams or poetry, you know? (laughs) He would write back, “This is great.” It was a very happy collaboration. It was so dreamy working with him.
What were some of the insights or lessons you learned on your first film that you applied here? What did you learn about yourself making this film?
Making STOCKHOLM, PENNSYLVANIA was such a crazy experience in that I had never been on a film set before. The amount of learning while executing was very intense. On day two of shooting, I was 100% more informed than on day one. Those bg swings of adapting and processing information was happening every single day. It was nice to come in on the second movie and have a lay of the land. Directing STOCKHOLM, PENNSYLVANIA was like getting dropped off in a helicopter in the woods. You get a knife and you’re off. TOGETHER TOGETHER was you got to look at a map first and plan your way – and then the helicopter drops you off and says goodbye.
On both of my sets, I had a lot of love and admiration for the people I was working with. I think there’s a misconception that the job of the crew is to empower, or enable, the director to make their best work. But that’s the opposite. The director’s job is to empower everyone around them to be making their best work. That, in turn, empowers everyone to make their best work. I like to run a set with softness and adaptability and care. There’s a way to make a movie where you’re all taking good care of each other. That’s the way I try to do things.
TOGETHER TOGETHER opens in theaters on April 23 and will be available on demand on May 11.