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ANYTHING: Director Timothy McNeil On Bringing His Work From Stage To Screen!

Based on his award-winning play, Timothy McNeil’s feature directorial debut, ANYTHING, is a story about the infinite possibilities of love. Written in 2007, the play was first performed by McNeil and his old friend, the Oscar-nominated actor and producer Mark Ruffalo, at a benefit for their acting teacher. “When Mark and I did a scene,” McNeil recalls, “I was encouraged by the reception and decided to mount a full production with the Elephant Theater Company where I was a member.” The play went on to win the Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play of the Year, and was also nominated for an Ovation Award for Best New Play, and a GLAAD Award.

The film centers around Early Landry (John Carroll Lynch) who, following he death of his wife and an ensuing failed suicide attempt, is forced to move to Los Angeles so he can be cared for by his over-protective sister, Laurette (Maura Tierney). After a few months, he asserts his independence and starts a new life in Hollywood. A buttoned-down middle-aged man living among hipsters, hustlers, and hobos, Early is initially a fish out of water, but quickly becomes enamored of this strange, new world. He is especially taken by his next-door neighbor, Freda (Matt Bomer), a beautiful transgender woman who finds Early every bit as exotic as he finds her. Loneliness and a shared need for companionship opens their hearts to a remarkable new relationship, as they both discover they’ve found what’s been missing in their lives.

Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Timothy McNeil to discuss unique career path, bringing ‘Anything’ from stage to screen and the challenges he faced along the way!

How did you get involved with the arts early on in life?

When I was 25, I was living in Houston, Texas. I was sort of depressed and I was selling wine wholesale. I always watched films and thought, “I can do that! I can act.” I believed I could act, so I took a class at 25 and I moved out to Los Angeles at 28. I started studying at the Stella Adler Academy of Acting in Los Angeles. That’s when everything started to open up as far as creativity goes. That’s really where my writing began as well. So, I acted for a while, started writing and then started directing. That’s the short answer I suppose!

Who had a big impact on you and your craft?

I think that Mark Ruffalo has been a tremendous mentor to me, as far as the film side of things go. We’ve done a lot of theater together, but he helped me a great deal when I was approaching film for the first time. He’s been a great mentor. Another great friend of mine has been Benicio Del Toro and he helps me a great deal. Those are the people who come to mind right off the bat!

“Anything” is terrific. Tell us how the idea for the story came to be.

It started off as a play that I wrote in 2007. It was a reaction to what I felt was the difficulty in the marriage debate in California at the time because I live in Los Angeles. From there, I’ve began to develop a story about a transgender person and the person from the South, which is where I’m from originally, and how they begin to establish a relationship and find the shared love of so many different things. That was the genesis of it. From there, I began to develop it from a play to a film. Again, Mark Ruffalo was instrumental in that because he asked me to make it a film and then he pushed me to direct it! I had been directing a lot of theater and he thought I would make a nice director for the film. That’s where it comes from!

How did the material change from a play to a screenplay to, ultimately, a feature film? I imagine a passage of time impacted the material.

Completely! The Trans Movement has moved forward in a beautiful way since 2007. There is still a way to go, of course. As far as the script goes, some changes were made as far as the writing goes because plays have a certain texture or nature or the writing itself is more poetic or more spoken. I tried to pull the play out of it, if that makes sense! [laughs] I think I did pretty well with that, but I guess that’s something people will decide for themselves. That was the major difference in the updating of Freda, which was important to the film.

How did the final version of the film compare to what you expected to end up with as a finished product?

For a first-time director, I was a remarkably happy with it! I’m not normally the happiest person but I’m very happy about it, Jason! It’s crazy! [laughs] I think it’s because of the great actors and the remarkable crew that really shepherded me through the process. When I look on the screen, the idea of the movie comes through in the way that I wanted it to and I am really, really happy about that! I can see certain things that I could have done better but I’m really happy in that way!

The cast for “Anything” is remarkable. Tell us about finding the right mix of people to bring these characters from script to screen.

The first piece was John Carroll Lynch. I had admired his work for quite a while and then Mark Ruffalo introduced me to John. Right from the beginning, after really talking to him, I said, “That’s my Early!” He read the script and decided he was in! He was in for the first four or five years, through the process of trying to find financing and all of that. The second piece was Matt Bomer. I saw him acting in “The Normal Heart” and I thought it was such a remarkable performance. I met up with him and thought I had met my Freda, so that was great! The third piece, which was just as important and integral, was the character of Lorrette. When I met Maura Tierney, I knew she was the one. I met a lot of great actresses who could have played the part but when I met Maura, I just knew it was so right! I think that’s up on the screen as well!

John Carroll Lynch and Matt Bomer in Timothy McNeil’s ‘Anything.’

You lived with these characters in some form for more than a decade. Did these actors bring something to these characters you might not have expected?

That’s a good question and so true! First of all, I was really happy with myself that I wasn’t picky about the characters, if you know what I mean. I was able to let the actors be and they discovered so much that it surprised me, particularly John. I say that because I had played Early on stage. I think what he did was bring such a deep sensitivity and emotional intelligence to the character, so much so that it was astonishing for me. The same is true with Maura and Matt. They were both so extraordinary and I didn’t have to do too much directing at all.

As you mentioned, you live in Los Angeles and that is where the story within “Anything” takes place. Tell us about the city and how it impacted you and this film.

I came from Houston, as I said. When I arrived in Los Angeles, I felt a bit set free. I don’t mean that as a knock against Houston. Los Angeles allows people to invent their lives in a way and I think New York probably does the same thing. That’s what Los Angeles is to me. Not to get too pretentious or precious about it because it’s a place but it was a creative birthplace for me. That’s really what it was! Los Angeles allows a human being to explore different pieces of their self that other places sometimes don’t and that’s why I think Los Angeles is critical to this story.

Once you were on set and shooting, did the script evolve?

The script was pretty much shot as written but there were a couple of moments that we changed. We didn’t do too much improv but the actors were fully capable of that and occasionally would say, “What about this?” And I’d say, “Yeah!” But it was fairly minimal. The script was fairly solid as far as the arcs of the characters and thematically. It was important to have that right from the get-go.

As a first-time director, I’m sure you learned from this project. What were the biggest challenges?

The camera! I had an amazing director of photography whose name is James Laxton. He was also the DP on “Moonlight,” which he had shot right before he came to shoot “Anything.” I leaned a lot on him. The understanding of how to use the camera in a way that’s different to tell the story was eye-opening to me and the revelation. It made me so happy and I was learning something every day, which was really beautiful! It was a great experience for me that way and particularly with the camera.

What were the advantages of coming from the theatre world into the filmmaking world?

I think, when you talk about theatre, there are couple areas where theatre can give actors and directors great aid. One is character and the specificity of depth of character. The other is the understanding of thematic ideas and how to communicate those ideas. I think theatre informs all three of the actor’s work; Maura, John, Matt and all of the actors in the movie are all accomplished actors, not only on film and television but in theatre. That was good, and I can say we were all on the same page thematically! That was a big thing!

What are your favorite memories from this project?

I think there were five or six times when I was watching a scene being shot and I was truly astonished by what the actors did! I sort of dropped the headphones in my lap and I was the happiest human being on the planet to be honest! [laughs] I think those are the moments I remember the most but, on a film set, there’s so much camaraderie. It’s really beautiful if people are there pulling for the movie and we had that! I think that’s the other thing I took away from it. I also had amazing producers, Jason. It’s so weird when I talk about it, but I didn’t have a bad experience on even one day! We were a little rushed but that’s to be expected and it wasn’t a problem because we were prepared!

John Carroll Lynch in Timothy McNeil’s directorial debut, ‘Anything.’

How have you evolved as a writer over the years?

I think I’ve gotten deeper as far as my characterizations go. I’m also working through a lot of the same themes present in anything, but I’ve begun to understand them on a deeper level, which I think is important. At the same time, I’m getting much better at getting rid of the things that don’t serve the big idea and a piece of writing. That’s a huge transition for a writer to make. That has happened for me and I’m grateful for that. That keeps evolving! It’s a hard thing to kill your darlings as Hemingway said but that’s the truth! [laughs] You’ve got to be able to sacrifice stuff, you know? [laughs]

Where do you look for inspiration?

Rebellion! To be honest, rebellion is always interesting to me, along with the resistance against oppression and repression, which exists even in a relatively democratic country like ours. Those things are always inspiring me but also human beings striving to get back to their soul, if you will. I know that sounds ridiculously precious but that inspires me as well. Those things just move me! My wife also moves me, so I know it sounds crazy, but she does!

You have a lot going on. Where are you headed in the future with projects?

I’ve got a script that we’re trying to get set up which is about a man dealing with an intense amount of grief in a novel way. I’ve had an awful lot of death in my life lately and I’ve been trying to make sense of it. I did it through the writing of this particular script. It’s a solid script and I’m excited to see if I can get behind the camera again!

We can look to you and your accomplishments as an inspiration. What’s the best lesson we can take from your journey as an artist?

I appreciate you saying that, Jason. I will say this — never stop! Everybody I know has stories to tell. If you work hard maybe you can get those stories told. Just be disciplined about your day as best as possible and get those stories on paper. Let them be known. I think that’s really important. I’m kind of an old dog now at this and the film thing has really opened up for me. I’m really happy about that and grateful but, I will tell you, it’s important to learn your chops and get down to business. Get into rooms with actors and don’t be afraid of rewriting. Fight for your story!

That is terrific advice! Thank you for your time today! I appreciate it and wish you continued success!

Thank you, Jason! It was great talking to you!

Timothy McNeil’s ‘Anything’ opens in theaters in Los Angeles on May 11th.