On Friday I had the pleasure of interviewing the duo behind the Sundance smash hit HELLO I MUST BE GOING, which opened this weekend in select theatres. Director Todd Louiso and screenwriter Sarah Koskoff have captured pure magic in a bottle in this dramatic comedy romance that has stolen the hearts of everyone who has seen it — me included. The story follows Amy (played by Melanie Lynskey of Heavenly Creatures and Away We Go) on her journey out of post-divorce depression at the ripe old age of 35. While staying with her parents (Blythe Danner and John Rubinstein), Amy embarks on a brand new path toward self discovery and personal awakening. A journey which perhaps never would have been fully realized had it not been for a chance encounter with Jeremy (Christopher Abbott of HBO’s Girls), the 19-year-old son of her father’s potential dream client. Louiso and Koskoff are not only partners in their careers, they’re also partners in life and love, which adds an extra dimension of beauty and depth to an already incredible film. When I interviewed them a couple of days ago, we spoke about the themes explored in HELLO I MUST BE GOING, and even delved into their thoughts on what it takes to raise a child with an innate sense of self confidence:
FEELguide: The film deals a lot with the concept of being true to oneself and the dangers of what can happen when you devote your life to living out your life using the dreams that someone else has thrust upon you, and then the personal awakening that can be achieved when someone like Amy learns to create his or her own path. We live in a world where there’s more people unlike Amy was at the beginning of the film. People who are self-obsessed with living their dreams. Do you think there’s a line where one goes from chasing their dreams to tipping over into self absorption?
TODD: Yes, I’m sure there’s that line. There’s always a balance that needs to be found in life and in general. I, myself, tend to swing from one extreme to the other. I tend to be influenced by things outside of myself. And I think people do that on smaller and larger scales. I think it’s a very human thing to do — you want approval. And I think a lot of people go through their lives wanting that approval, and sometimes we change what we do depending on what other people think. But I can sometimes go too far where it ends up being a detriment to myself by looking too far outside of myself. And that’s why I connected so much with Amy’s character, because I was going through the same thing — trying to get in touch with what I wanted. But yes, I think there is a line. And that’s what Amy’s dealing with in the film — she’s dealing with narcissists, and she’s the one who has always been in the background which is exactly the kind of person narcissists like to surround themselves with.
FEELguide: I come from a very small town that operates on small town country values where everybody gets married, everybody has 2.5 kids, everybody has the 9-5 job, and boom — you wake up and you’re 85. And that’s not me; I’m very much like Amy — I moved to the city and am essentially the black sheep of my family, which is why I related so much to Amy’s character. But at the same time I still relate to my family in that sense — especially the stoic women in my family who put everyone else’s dreams ahead of their own. The best definition of love I have ever heard was when someone described it as “the extension of oneself for the betterment of another”. For someone like Ruth (Amy’s mom) who felt invisible from her own husband (like Amy did), they also have a certain kind of beauty and love in their lives. Do you think an argument can ever be made for living out a dream that someone else has dreamt for you — as a selfless gesture of love towards that person who means so much to you?
SARAH: Some of the things you were talking about earlier made me think in terms of that threshold between living a dream and becoming a predator (i.e. a consuming machine). I read something once which is beautifully a-propos of that, which was from a Buddhist teacher saying the difference between a warrior and a predator is a warrior feels his or her own mood, and they feel his or her own pain. I think that that leads to compassion. And that’s very different when compared to a predator, like the people who follow their dreams with a capitalist frenzy — almost with an ‘Atlas Shrugged‘ view of the world — in that case those people aren’t connecting with their own personal pain and they’re sort of acting out in their own personal world. So in terms of living out your parents dream: if living out your parents’ dreams makes them happy and makes YOU happy, then I would say sure. But if you’re going to take a broad view of happiness, even people who are very selfless, it’s not that selflessness is bad, it’s that when it stops making you happy it leads to resentment, and that’s not good for anybody.
FEELguide: When it becomes toxic?
SARAH: Yes exactly, and that’s the place that Ruth (Amy’s mother) is in in the film.
FEELguide: The film deals a lot with taking responsibility for your own life, and the statute of limitations that exists for how long you can get away with blaming your parents for the life you have. At a certain point you have to stand up and take responsibility for yourself, and that’s what Amy did. Coupled with the idea of time and with age. To preface my next question, there are two people in my life with personal stories that deal with this. One is a woman in my family who is nearing her 25th wedding anniversary, and once during a very honest conversation she confessed that when she accepted her husband’s proposal when she was in her early 20s she confessed to me that she knew he was not her dream man. But she said yes because she felt as if she had reached a certain age where she simply wanted to put her dreams of “prince charming” away and simply settle down. The other person is a friend nearing his 70th birthday. He is gay, and when he was younger was married to a woman for years. In his 30s he came out of the closet and has now been living decades as an openly gay man. But in recent years he has said he wants to remarry a woman — not out of passion — simply out of a need for companionship. I am approaching my 37th birthday, and like most people, age is a huge force in shaping my decisions. Do you think it’s possible to reach an age where the search for the dream becomes more painful than simply settling for something. Such as Meryl Streep’s character in ‘The Hours’ when she opens up to her daughter about how when she was young every day came with new and exciting possibilities. But as you get older, she explains, the gap between your dreams and your life as it actually IS becomes too painful and one often has to abandon those dreams for the sake of simply moving forward. Do you think there’s something to be said about age and letting go of those dreams.
TODD: I think, as far as the statute of limitations is concerned, for Amy she was under the spell and thought she WAS taking care of herself, but was in fact taking care of herself according to her parents’ plans and that’s what blew up in her face, to the point where she’s once again living at home having to restart again. She feels how wrong it is; being at home and seeing how her parents’ relationship actually is and realized she had been imitating her parents for so long. She felt [that her divorce had pulled the rug out from beneath her]. She’s been completely spun around.
SARAH: I think there’s something to be differentiated between the “idea” of following your dreams in a fantasy-based or delusional way, vs. a true path towards self fulfillment, and I think they’re really different. Sowing seeds everyday for an idea of a future garden is very different from expecting to put the seeds in and see the bountiful harvest the next day. As far as the term “following your dreams” is concerned, I can’t say that’s what Amy’s really doing. This is the first unselfish thing she’s done, and she’s going to finally finish her master’s degree, and that’s something that Todd and I were really trying to track; just that it was a small step in the direction towards herself. It wasn’t like a parade — everybody didn’t clap for her at the end (my particular pet peeve in movies) — which would have been validating this feeling that we each need to be special. Instead, we simply need to track out own needs, and try continuously to be differentiating between what society is pushing us to do vs. our own true needs, and where these two things overlap, because they often do overlap. But I don’t at ALL think there’s an age limit in discovering that kind of happiness. I think you can be 90 years old. I was recently reading a book written by a 95-year-old author, which was a huge success, and I thought what a journey that must have been!
FEELguide: Yeah, it’s never too late to be the person you’ve always wanted to be I guess.
TODD: Yes, and so many times it’s framed that way in America — “follow your dreams!” — it’s such a vague way of understanding it. It’s not realistic — it has kind of a jackpot feel about it. When I hear that, it’s not the reality of how day-to-day life is truly like, and working on that garden day after day.
FEELguide: And I guess you could make the argument that someone who does shut that door towards self-fulfilment, such as someone who does marry someone they know is not their true soul mate and follows the conventional life that society has engineered for so many people, is very much entirely an ego-based decision. Their ego is saying, “I need to protect my ego by living this conventional path.”
SARAH: Yeah, I guess it depends on the individual. For some people it could be an ego-based decision — they are so “important”, so “special”. Or sometimes, you don’t marry the man of your dreams yet you can find some form of happiness in there and build on that. Or, you see it as part of your path. People’s lives take really circuitous paths. They don’t always follow this direct rocket path towards enlightenment.
FEELguide: And people often experience dark moments in their lives which can sometimes be the precipitants of some of the greatest moments of their lives.
SARAH: Yes, for sure. Transformation.
FEELguide: Like I said, one of my favorite moments in the film is when Ruth breaks down in front of Amy and Amy becomes the caregiver. I have a huge admiration for any screenwriter who can even build a cohesive script, let alone what the two of you have achieved here. My question is, was that particular moment something that was always there when you were writing the script?
SARAH: Yes, the moment where Ruth breaks down and Amy comforts her was indeed there from the beginning. It was an essential part of the story.
FEELguide: I happened to come across a quote from ‘The Little Prince‘ just a few hours ago which reads, “It’s only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” And as soon as I read that I thought of the scene where Amy was with her ex-husband and had that A-HA moment when she finally saw her old life through her new eyes which were given to her with Jeremy’s heart, and I imagine if Amy’s parents were there it would have been their proudest moment. I don’t know if the two of you have kids or are planning on having kids, but how would you instill that kind of confidence that Amy found at 35 into your kids at a much younger age?
SARAH: Wow, I could talk to you all day! How could you instill that? I think it’s basic affirmation and mirroring. It’s really “seeing” and giving full focus, don’t you think Todd?
TODD: Yes, I think it’s slowly day by day, practicing the same things over and over.
FEELguide: I guess you could also answer the question by the opposite: what did Amy’s parents do so wrong? Not just what would you do right?
SARAH: They don’t see her. She’s invisible to them.
TODD: Only when she’s their audience are they paying attention to her.
SARAH: She follows the path that they set out for her. I think when children go off and are able to be reflective enough and to look inwards they think, “This isn’t what I would do, but I can mirror it.”
HELLO I MUST BE GOING is playing in select theatres now, and I can’t recommend it enough. In particular, if you find yourself in your thirties such as I am, and have experienced your fair share of disillusionment about about your past, your future, and even your present, then this film will have a moving impact on you. Not only will it make you think, you’re also guaranteed to laugh your ass off. I can’t think of a better recommendation than that. To learn more about HELLO I MUST BE GOING be sure to visit HELLO.oscilloscope.net and follow the movie on Facebook and via Oscilloscope Labs on Twitter.