Every time director David Frankel reads through the script of a potential project, he's looking for the scene. He needs to find that moment in a movie that makes it worth the time and monetary investment of an audience member. "You go see The Avengers or you go see Batman and you know you're getting your money's worth," Frankel tells Hollywood.com. "Or 3D. You know you're getting your money's worth, even at $20. But if you just have a movie where two middle-aged people sit on a couch, you better take the audience to a place they don't expect to go to. That's what the screenplay did and that's what the movie does."
Frankel, the man behind The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me, and 1995's Miami Rhapsody, was immediately hooked by the script for his latest film, Hope Springs. Starring Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, and Steve Carell, the romantic comedy follows an aging couple coping with the disintegration of their marriage. Kay (Streep) doesn't feel the spark she once had with her husband Arnold (Jones), who goes through the daily motions of eating breakfast, heading to work, returning home, eating dinner, then falling asleep while watching golf in his La-Z-Boy, without giving Kay so much as a peck on the cheek. The romance is gone, but instead of walking out, Kay decides to take matters into her own hands. She pours her life savings into a marriage counseling program led by Dr. Feld (Carrell), and the two begin a journey of rediscovering romance. Or at the very least, a journey to realize there's nothing left to be rediscovered.
"I thought the theme of people trying to reconnect was really profound," says Frankel. "At the same time, the screenplay was a laugh-out-loud comedy. It has a lot of drama, it's quite emotional." Frankel praises his two stars, who fit perfectly into the grounded world he strove to create. "In both performances [there is] a striking lack of vanity. They want it to just be out there. Unprotected by glamour." Hope Springs takes a natural approach, but Frankel insists that both actors were still playing characters. "I think real parts of the actors come through. But I think Meryl's stretching a lot to play someone who is an everyday person. There's nothing remarkable Kay. There's nothing remarkable about the way she looks, how she talks, how she thinks. She's lit from the inside, vibrating with this desperation that things cannot go on like this. That she can't imagine a future where there's no looking forward."
Frankel previously collaborated with Streep on The Devil Wears Prada, a role that earned the actress her 14th Oscar nomination. The high-status Miranda Priestly couldn't be further away from her Hope Springs character Kay, but that didn't change Frankel's approach to working with Streep. "It's kind of like if I was Joe Girardi and, what does Alex Rodriguez need to hear from me about hitting? 'Don't try too hard!' My part is organizing the day so that she's sharp, and communicat[ing] well with her about what we're doing. Sharing with her, not as if she's a movie star, but as if she's a producer, co-director." Streep worked with Academy Award-winning costume designer Ann Roth to find the perfect costumes for Kay, a wardrobe that fit her routine lifestyle. "They were very specific — her and Meryl worked many long hours making that work. And she had a real vision for Tommy. He saw it and he got it. As brilliant as they are working the emotions of their characters… I know when Meryl puts on the clothes, does the hair, she becomes the character."
According to Frankel, by the time they were shooting, Streep knew Kay so well, she was able to rattle off ideas on ways to tailor the script to her performance decisions. In one of the film's many counseling session scenes, Arnold admits that he's fantasized of having a threesome with their next door neighbor Carol. Both troubling and hilarious, Streep found a way to take the dialogue an extra step that would inform scenes later in the movie. "I think originally the line was, 'Carol? With the hydrangeas?' And she said, 'Carol? With the Corgis?' It just popped out. Suddenly, you look over to the prop guy who's thinking, 'Where am I going to find Corgis?'" That's exactly what Frankel hopes for when he works with Streep — truthful comedy that makes the movie pop. "She just knew the character. All the Golf Channel stuff, that's from her relationship with her husband." Frankel doesn't get away attributing everything to Streep: "Well, my wife has been forced out of the room many times because of the Golf Channel too."
With all the laughs Frankel manages to squeeze out of his quarreling couple, one of the film's most surprising turns comes from a complete lack of quirk. "The studio kept asking, 'When is [Steve] going to do the funny scene?'" says Frankel. Carell plays his role as the mediator straight — and it works. But when you get an actor like Carell, it's hard not to find something that the actor can spin into laughs. For Hope Springs, it was Dr. Feld's go-to metaphor: improving a marriage is like fixing a broken nose. You can't do it slowly, and it's going to hurt. "That was a little thread of humor for Dr. Feld. I had met Steve talking about another project years ago. In real life, he's Dr. Feld: compassionate, sensitive, thoughtful guy. He's not there making funny farting noises and popping his eyes, from my experience. Unless he's an incredible method actor [laughs]."
Romantic comedies are a tricky genre. These days, even an ounce of "relationship talk" can send the Internet in a tizzy, critical commenters crying "white people problems" in a bold declaration of pre-judgment. Frankel insists not to write off Hope Springs as a rom-com obsessed with trivial emotional hurdles. Drifting away from your loved one is a big deal. "The stakes didn't seem small scale to me. They seemed life or death to me. Meryl's character... I felt that if she didn't somehow address this, she would die. Not literally, but that she would feel dead. So she had to escape. I knew if she left Arnold, he would feel dead. So for me, I really read the screenplay as a thriller. I was on the edge of my seat — 'Are they going to make it?' If they don't, they die. That's how I approached the narrative." If the trailers makes you think otherwise, remember: they do have to convince people to see it. "I think the marketing is important to make clear that this is entertaining. Not everyone assumes therapy is going to be something fun to watch. It's a romantic comedy for people who are already married."
To balance the comedy and drama of his tricky movie, Frankel took a step back from the action. He had a great cast and great creative team — his biggest challenge was not interfering. I feel that watching these three actors do their thing, that I could watch it for as long as it takes if it's dramatic enough. I worked really hard to not overdirect those scenes. To keep the camera out of the movie." Frankel cites an unlikely inspiration for how to best allow Hope Springs to simply flow, but out of his mouth, it makes perfect sense. "If you look at The Social Network, [David Fincher being] someone known for his incredible camera work, The Social Network is a very neutral movie. He's very objective with that camera. He barely moves. I thought it was fantastic, it was a way into the movie. He makes it feel very real. You forget it's a movie. That's what makes the best movies. That you think you're watching people, in a room with them."
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Sony Pictures]