When one of her sisters was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, writer/director Sophie Goodhart channeled the experience into the critically acclaimed 2003 short film “My Blind Brother.” The short was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Over the next 13 years, Goodhart would experience many false starts and near-misses in her quest to expand the short into a feature film. However, her persistence and determination has paid off in spades! “My Blind Brother” stars Nick Kroll, Adam Scott, and Jenny Slate in a hilarious tale that takes sibling rivalry to new heights. Bill (Kroll, Adult Beginners, Date Night) has always lived in the shadow of his overachieving brother Robbie (Scott,”Parks & Recreation”, The Overnight, Step Brothers), an arrogant athlete and local celebrity who happens to be blind. After years of thanklessly helping Robbie achieve one goal after another, Bill finally catches a break when he finds a connection with the charming Rose (Slate, Obvious Child, Zootopia), who is dealing with her own crisis. But when Rose starts dating Robbie, Bill must decide if he can finally put his own happiness over his brother’s and compete for the ultimate prize. Also starring Zoe Kazan (What If, Our Brand is Crisis). Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently had the pleasure of chatting with writer/director Sophie Goodhart about the film. The two discussed her unique path as a filmmaker, the challenges of bringing the film from script to screen, what the cast brought to the characters she created and more!
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get involved with the arts early on and what led to you pursuing a career as a filmmaker?
I actually started in news. I went to University where I did history and economics and from there I went to ABC News. I was so bad at it! Then I went into documentaries and that is sort of where I always wanted to be. I loved documentaries and I worked for the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV. I did weird shows like one called “Pet Rescue,” which was 75 half hours following ducks being rescued off ice and things! I found myself doing this documentary about the river police. I was filming someone who was basically trying to commit suicide off a bridge and I suddenly thought, “Oh my God! I’m a vile human being. I cannot believe I am doing this. I am making this man’s possibly last few minutes of life deeply uncomfortable.” I just felt kind of depressed about what I was up to, so at 30-something I went off to graduate school and said, “I’m going to learn how to shoot and come back to make really beautiful documentaries that are very, very cultured and sort of exquisitely intellectual.” While I was there, what I realized was that I preferred writing fictional characters and then being able to get them to do whatever I wanted without the guilt because they weren’t real! [laughs] I realized I could make films about things I was interested in without human casualties. I made some shorts while I was at film school and really loved the process. My last short did really well and I thought, “Well, here I go!” I didn’t ever plan to make it into a feature. I did the short and then wrote 10 other features, some of which got optioned. I got some of them greenlit and thought, “This is going to be great!” And it took fucking 12 years or something! [laughs] I thought, “Here I go! I am going to be this great success!” Basically, I had to spend the next decade of people asking me what I was up to, pretending I had to go to the loo or go and get some food because I was just unable to get funding. I had so many false starts where this actor said he was going to do it and I thought I would make it in the next year but it would fall through. By the time this film happened and Nick, Jenny and Adam said yes, I was so sure that it wasn’t going to happen. I didn’t tell anyone and I was also quite pregnant! I thought, “Well, it doesn’t really matter because it won’t happen. I will just squeeze the baby out and carry on avoiding people at social functions!” [laughs] And then it did happen! I feel quite relieved and can go to Christmas parties and shit!
Did having to wait a long time to make this film a reality impact you and the final product?
In the end, the timeframe helped me because if I had gone any earlier, I obviously wouldn’t have gotten Nick, Jenny and Adam. It was perfect timing and I think they make the film. I love the script and felt very confident about it. I knew that what I was writing about was something I cared passionately about. The sibling relationship was very interesting to me, along with the treatment of disabilities and the romantic aspect. Working with these three actors meant that it became much more than that and it kind of took on a life of its own. Jenny, Nick and Adam are really bloody good! For me, what I am most interested in as a director is content. Being able to make my script a real thing was the thing I was most focused on.
You lived with these characters for some time. What did Nick Kroll, Jenny Slate and Adam Scott bring to them that you might not have expected?
You know, from the first moment of talking with them, they all really brought themselves to it. Jenny is so intelligent and an emotionally sophisticated actor. She is really willing to go to an internal place that I feel lots of people aren’t. She is able to go darker and more uncomfortable while making the character completely compelling and sympathetic while also showing the worst of herself in some way. Adam commits so strongly being able to play someone who doesn’t give a fuck! He really went for Robbie’s self-centeredness, which I loved. When he finally does show you this beautiful vulnerability, it is so surprising because he had committed so strongly. I feel like each of them pushed what I had written and made it more powerful. Nick can express with his face that kind of furious resentment without doing or saying almost anything. He can do it silently all the time — just by moving his eyes or blinking! It is just how he holds himself and he has such interesting physical comedic abilities. They all brought an immense amount to the characters! There were moments that were improvised. I, at the beginning, thought, “I’ve written this script and I love it, so I’m not sure I want to improvise.” Then you kind of realize who you are working with and you are like, “Oh, I have to let these people be able to take this other places.” There are quite a few moments in the film where that happened.
What was the biggest challenge of the film and the biggest lesson you learned along the way?
There were a few challenges. One was trying to get a comedy with a disabled character made. People are very cautious and don’t have a huge amount of money for independent cinema anymore. We couldn’t shoot it for nothing because it was shot on water, so we had to find someone that was brave and forward thinking, which took awhile to find Tyler Davidson. I was very, very pregnant when I was shooting and that was also a challenge! I had the baby and then had to go back into the editing room four days later. Shooting on water is not an enjoyable experience, if you have not very much money. That was very hard. As far as lessons I learned, it took me a while to take on the role and say, “Here I am. I’m the director! Don’t worry, I know what the fuck I’m doing!” Even though I did, I think there were moments at the beginning where I was too grateful because I had been unemployed for such a long time. I spent the first while saying, “Thanks everybody, you are amazing. Thanks, is everyone alright,” rather than just getting on with it and doing the job. I also think that there is a tendency to want to be liked. Whether it is pushing to get another shot at the end of the day or saying, “No, no. This needs to happen,” I think because I hadn’t done it before, I was a bit to concerned with being a good person as opposed to making the film as good as it should be. In the end, it all worked out and I got very, very lucky with the actors. They never took advantage of me being a novice. I think next time I know to possibly push more.
Being a writer and director, you are involved with all parts of the filmmaking process from start to finish. Is there a part of the process you enjoyed more or less than another part?
I love the writing and it is probably where I feel most confident. I loved, loved, loved pre-production. However, I found editing to be quite a challenge. I was working with Jenny Lee, who was the editor of “Skeleton Twins.” She saved me so often! I was surprised how hard some of the editing was and I can’t tell if it was because I had a brand new baby and was exhausted! I found it hard to keep track of where the film was and was a particular moment working. I say that because you see it again and again and again and feel like, “I don’t have a fucking clue!” [laughs] I get this sometimes day to day, where I let my emotion cloud my intellect. I can look in the mirror in the morning and think, “That is the ugliest face I have ever seen in my life.” Then, an hour-and-half later, I see it and say, “It’s fine. Who cares. Good enough!” I might see it a bit later and think, “No, no. It’s a nice face.” That is sort of what happened to me with the film. Depending on my mood, I tend to think I’m a genius or it is all a disaster! Jenny guided me through as a steward, pilot and captain. I wouldn’t work without an editor that I totally trusted. A film can be made in the edit room. My relationship with my cinematography, Eric Lin, was really fundamental. If I get the opportunity to go again, I know I will once again enjoy how wonderful a collaboration can be. Eric and Jenny made such a difference on this film!
You definitely had a unique path in your career and with this film.
Are you talking about me being unemployed, Jason? [laughs] Yes, it has been a unique path!
Yes, indeed! [laughs] What is the best lesson we can take away from your journey as an artist?
Oh, God! I don’t know. I know some people might say, “She was unemployed forever! She should have stopped seven years earlier and got a proper job.” So, some people would say it is stupidity and other people would say, “Well done for hanging on!” I think that maybe the lesson is, if you see it as a happy story, is that I got to make a film at the end and that denial and delusion are useful tools and that if you keep on trying it probably will eventually happen. Also, make sure you try to carry on writing what you actually want to write because you get the opportunity to make it. I don’t know if anyone is going to give me money again to make another one, however, the one thing I am very happy about with the film is that I walk away knowing that I totally stand by everything I said in it! That is a nice consequence!
That is terrific! I loved the film and think you did an amazing job bringing it to life. I can’t wait to see where the journey takes you next!
Aww, that is so nice, Jason! Do tell everyone you know to watch the film, so I can get to make another one! [laughs]
You’ve got it, Sophie! It’ll be my pleasure!
‘My Blind Brother’ hits theaters nationwide and On Demand on September 23rd! Check out the trailer for the film below.