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How Lorene Scafaria used Susan Sarandon to break Hollywood barriers with 'The Meddler'

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Susan Sarandon, left, and Rose Byrne play mother-and-daughter in "The Meddler."
Sony Pictures Classics
Susan Sarandon, left, and Rose Byrne play mother-and-daughter in "The Meddler."

The filmmaker and her producer, Joy Gorman Wettels, insisted to financiers that their lead character had to be an actress of a certain age. And that's where Sarandon came in.

When filmmaker Lorene Scafaria’s father died, her widowed mother Gail basically moved into Scafaria’s life. Gail was so ever-present, and so over-involved in her daughter’s life, that she was jokingly known as “The Meddler.”

And that’s the name of Scafaria's new movie starring Susan Sarandon, who plays a very loosely fictionalized version of the director's mother.

Scafaria previously made the film “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.” But because that movie grossed only about $7 million in domestic theaters, and because “The Meddler” was about an older woman, the film was very difficult to get financed. Scafaria’s producer, Joy Gorman Wettels, heads an initiative to support women filmmakers at the production and management company Anonymous Content. She was finally able to pull the movie together.

When The Frame's John Horn met with Scafaria and Wettels, he began by asking them the obvious: How did they do it?


JOY GORMAN WETTELS: Well, we are relentless as a team. Lorene, when she has a vision and when she writes something that's so moving and beautiful, and when she's really asked me to fight for something, I'm going to kill myself to get it done. But first, bringing it to Susan Sarandon was a great help.

LORENE SCAFARIA: I sent that, cold, to her agent, actually. We'd thought of [Sarandon] for a long time. 

WETTELS: But people kept telling us we couldn't get this movie made.

SCAFARIA: We were asked to make [the daughter] Rose Byrne's part bigger than the mother role.

So when you get notes like that, how do you interpret them, especially considering how "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World," your previous movie, turned out?

SCAFARIA: The first time around, in order to get the first film made,  you just make a lot of compromises out of the gate. Then you realize, Oh, I have to fight for absolutely everything the next time out. I wasn't as desperate to get this movie made the wrong way. I just wanted to do it the right way.

So you become careful about that, to not compromise. Because you know if you make all those little compromises, you'll end up making a movie that is not what you intended to make.

SCAFARIA: Yeah, the biggest note being, Make Lori's role bigger, make the daughter as big as the mom. It went against the entire point of the movie: to explore a character's loneliness and who they are when their daughter's not calling them back. Peel away the layers of this meddler to realize how much of it comes from loneliness, that she's a widow, has a lot of love to give and doesn't know what to do with it. All of those things would have been completely destroyed if we left her side to go see her daughter rolling her eyes when the phone's ringing.

WETTELS: It's hard enough to get your first movie made. It's hard enough to get your first movie made as a woman. It's even harder to get your second movie made . . . And we made this movie for a third of the budget that we made Lorene's first movie.

Because you couldn't get any more? 

SCAFARIA: Yeah, and honestly I didn't think we needed more. Part of the process of getting this made [was shooting] the first five minutes with my mom, who's not an actress. That was our attempt to show our financiers [that] this movie can be made for cheaper than you think.

Lorene, the character of Marnie is very closely based on your mom, Gail. And it's about how she and you reacted to the death of her husband and your father. Could you talk about what happened to you personally and your relationship with your mother that made you think that this was a story that had an appeal beyond yourself?

SCAFARIA: I started writing the script about a month after she got here, officially — after she sold the house in New Jersey and moved to Los Angeles. That was in June of 2010. My father had just died. My grandmother — her mother — had just died. We were grieving in really different ways. I thought my mom was doing it very beautifully and optimistically, but strangely, for me. Because I was more in anger and depression, and she was somehow in denial and acceptance at the exact same time. The two of us were grieving so differently — that's what the story ended up being about. I guess I started writing it not sure how personal it was going to get.

We've talked a lot on this show about sexism in Hollywood. Something we haven't talked a lot about is ageism. And this is a movie that stars a 69-year-old woman. What are your thoughts about gender equity in terms of age, and that there seems to be a double standard, and was that an issue as you started taking this movie around?

SCAFARIA: It was. Before Susan [Sarandon] came along, it was a problem for people on paper. They asked us, Can you make the character in her 50s and the daughter in her 20s? When you see the movie, you see that the daughter has to be in her 30s as much as Marnie has to be in her 60s. 

She has to have had a life. But Joy, when you're trying to get this movie financed and people are saying, Make her 50, how do you get them off that topic, or are those people never going to come on board?

WETTELS: Those people are never going to come on board. And I think what was so wonderful about getting Susan, besides the fact that we found the sexiest 69-year-old on the planet, is that she came on as an executive producer. She was really aware that we had to cast the other two roles to get the amount of financing we needed to make the movie. She was really behind that.

So Lorene, you said you sent the script to Susan Sarandon's agent blind. Did she actually get the script?

SCAFARIA: She did. Her agent has a mother a lot like this mother.

WETTELS: Susan's agent has this amazing Instagram and Facebook feed about her mother, who's very much a meddler. When Lorene said she was sending it to her, I said, "She's going to love this."

Why do you think that the story about a relationship between a mother and a daughter is so resonant? And what does it address that other stories don't in terms of family?

SCAFARIA: I do think it's the deepest, strangest relationship that you can have, if you're good friends. If you're lucky enough to have a mom that's around and cares about you in any way, chances are she cares about you a little too much. And I think it gets really complicated as you get older and you're navigating through your own stuff.

"The Meddler" is currently in theaters.

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