Interview: A conversation with Stuart Blumberg, director of Thanks for Sharing

We chat with filmmaker Stuart Blumberg about his directorial debut Thanks for Sharing, starring Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Gad, Joely Richardson and Alecia Moore…

Q: Tell us about Thanks for Sharing…
Stuart Blumberg: Thanks for Sharing is the story of 3 men who are in a 12 step recovery program for sex addiction in New York City and it tells the story of how through their friendship and their fellowship and their struggles, they help each other recover and be the best people they can be.

Q: Can you walk us through each storyline?

SB: Sure. There is the character that Mark Ruffalo plays, named Adam, and Adam is a successful environment consultant who has been in the program for about 5 years. And he had a really sort of tough, checkered past, full of lots of sort of dark stuff and when he got into the program he really jumped in with both feet and he’s been what they call sexually sober for 5 years but he’s sort of been living like a monk. He’s really shut down everything in his life, to where he doesn’t date, doesn’t have a computer, doesn’t have a TV. When the story opens, his sponsor, who’s played by Tim Robbins, the character’s name is Mike, tells him that he needs to start venturing out into the real world and he needs to start dating. So part of his journey in the movie is to actually try to and find a healthy sexuality and to start dating. And what happens with him is he goes out and he meets a beautiful, smart, winning woman named Phoebe, who’s played by Gwyneth Paltrow, and they start dating. And it starts out beautifully and it’s this amazing thing and then of course, complications ensue as she finds out about his past and about his program and their romantic journey is about how they overcome those obstacles.

There’s another character, Neil, played by Josh Gad, who at the beginning of the movie is in program but not taking it very seriously. In fact, he was court-ordered to be in 12 step recovery for rubbing up against people in the subway and what happens with him over the course of the movie is he actually experiences a new bottom, or a new low, and is forced to take his recovery really seriously for the first time. And he goes from being kind of a dilettante and kind of a joker to being a real mainstay and a real rock of his fellowship and his 12 step community. He also, in the process, befriends a newcomer to the meeting, her name is Dede and she’s played by Alecia Moore. They strike up this beautiful friendship. Neither of them has really ever been friends with a member of the opposite sex before and they sort of learn how to be adults and how to have healthy boundaries through their friendship.

Then there’s the character I spoke of, Mike, who is played by Tim Robbins. He plays Mark Ruffalo’s sponsor. Mike is kind of the elder statesman of the 12 step group and he also is in AA, so he’s what’s called a double winner, he’s in 2 different programs. He’s the kind of guy everyone loves, everyone knows, and he seems to know it all about recovery. He’s Adam’s sponsor and when the movie opens, he gets a visit from his estranged son, Danny, who’s played by Patrick Fugit. Danny, we learn, has had problems in his recent past with drugs as well, although he’s not in recovery and their relationship is a strained one. Over the course of the movie, we actually see them start to repair that strained relationship as the two try to figure out what they’re each like in recovery. When Danny comes home, he informs his father that, in fact, he has not used in a long time, although he isn’t in program, he’s doing it by himself. That’s a very powerful story about a father and a son who are trying to come to terms with each other. I don’t want to give too much away but basically they also encounter a rough patch in the story that they have to overcome to sort of figure out they’re not perfect and both sides of the street could use some cleaning up.

Q: One of the things that really struck me is that this is really a story of friendship, of family and that need for human connection, beyond just being in recovery which is also a huge thing in itself. Talk about it on a human level, what our characters are looking for.

SB: I think what our characters are looking for, as you said, is that kind of connection, that feeling that I’m not alone in this world, that we all have problems but if we face them together, we have a better chance of coming through it, you know, on the other side. And I really think our characters are searching for that feeling of community, and for that feeling of togetherness and belonging. It isn’t just a 12-step story, it really is, as you said, a story of friendship and of bonds. And bonds between very unlikely sources.

Q: Let’s talk about the cast. Alecia Moore, a.k.a. Pink — this is her debut…

SB: It’s one of those funny things, talking about bringing Alecia Moore in to play Dede, where Matt and I were writing the script and it was slightly based on a woman I know who is a hair stylist who is real original figure but when we were writing the story, the voice was a very unique one, it was a strong one, it was a funny one, but there was also a real sensitivity and for some reason, you know, the idea of Pink as I knew her then, and now know her as Alecia, came into my head. It was like, “it’s sort of like Pink”, you know. She’s just that tough girl who you kind of love but who’s got that sort of soft center. And we’re like, “Let’s just write it for her, and I don’t think she’ll do it but why not, it’s always good to have someone in your head.” So we finished the script and we’re like, alright, met every every actress in Hollywood, a lot of people wanted to play that role, and it was like “well why don’t we actually try for the person we wrote it for”? And so my producer, Bill, said “Fine, I love Pink, let’s go find her and see if she’d be up for it.” So we tracked down, she doesn’t have an acting agent, we tracked down her manager, her touring manager, got the script to him who got it to Alecia. She read it and then out of the blue, we heard “yeah, she loves it and wants to meet you” and we went to Malibu to this crappy little diner, you know, on the side of the road and sat with her and she was just the most normal, down to earth chick we’d ever met. And we just sort of said, “yeah, let’s make this happen”. It was great. And she was very pregnant at the time, and we had to figure out if it would be possible or not, but the timing worked out great and she looks amazing and she is amazing.

Q: Obviously you had a prior relationship with Mark Ruffalo on The Kids Are All Right. When did you approach him about this?

SB: Mark came up to me when we were doing all the Oscar stuff, and I was just finishing the script, and he said “what are you up to?” and I said, “I’ve been working on this script”. And he said, “Is there anything for me?” (LAUGHS). He’s very funny. And I was like, “well actually there kind of is”. And so, sort of, last January, I sat him down, said “I’m giving you the script, I want you to do and here it is.” And he read it a couple weeks later and said “Great let’s do it”. It was that simple. What’s interesting about Mark is that it’s a challenging subject matter, and I think he needed to overcome some initial, like, oh-my-God, do I want to go this place, because it’s a very intense place that he goes to. But, as a testament to him, he does that because he knows that when he commits, he really will commit. So he’s almost like steeling himself for battle. When he really committed and jumped in, the guy is all in and it’s amazing. Amazing to watch.

Q: Talk about Tim. He seems like such a natural Mike to me.

SB: Yeah, I mean, he, like…what you try and do when you cast is you try and cast people who don’t have to act that much, hopefully,  to be the part. So for instance, like Alecia is Dede. And what’s great about Tim is that Tim is first of all very physically imposing. He’s a tall guy. He’s a big guy. He’s a smart guy and he’s also sort of intellectually imposing. He knows what he knows, and he knows it well. And I think there’s a lot of Mike in that. Mike is a guy who really feels that he knows a lot. I’m not saying Tim is arrogant and thinks he knows everything but Tim is a smart guy and he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. So part of that attitude is Mike. But he’s also this big poppa bear that you want to hug and squeeze and you want to be hugged by, which is very Mike as well. Yeah so I think he really, he had to access a certain part of himself that was already there and he’s so natural at it.

Q: I also think the relationship between him and Joely, how it’s written, Katie, is so beautiful because they have such a great relationship.

SB: I think what’s interesting to explore sometimes are relationships where the couple has really been through it for many years, and has somehow found a way to persevere and keep going and if one can actually get to that other side, there’s a place of real understanding and tolerance and I think, it’s not a perfect relationship and they really go through bumps in the story, but you get a sense that these guys, they know who they’re married to and they’ve come to really accept and enjoy their partner and I think you see that in Tim and Joely.

Q: How did Joely come to be involved?

SB: It’s funny hiring an English accent, er actress, to play a mom from Brooklyn. I’ve just always been a big fan and our casting director actually brought her up and I was like, “That’s a great idea, I love her”. And she just really, there’s something so, I just find her interesting and fascinating – both her face and just the palette of emotions that dance across her face. I’ve always found her interesting. And she’s very, she’s very, there’s something at once, kind of frail but also kind of strong, which is sort of the thing that Katie had to embody. And again, I think that you cast somebody who doesn’t have to go far to get to the character, and that’s what we did.

Q: I think the character of Neil is just so amazing because he’s so funny and yet obviously very disturbed. What did Josh Gad bring to Neil?

SB: Yeah, Neil is an interesting case where a lot of people, when they read the script, they’re like “I hated him at the beginning, he’s so unlikeable, and then when he turns, I just found myself rooting for him. I couldn’t believe I was rooting for this guy but I loved him.” You know, I hadn’t really honestly heard about Josh Gad til people educated me and then all of the sudden I realized, “Oh my God, this is the guy in Book of Mormon, this guy’s going to be a comic force.” And he’s also somebody who’s just incredibly well-trained, both comedically and dramatically. He takes it very seriously. And he knows how to laugh at himself, which the character does, and he’s so damn funny. He’s willing to go there, he’s really willing to just make you feel so uncomfortable, and I just, you know, it’s funny cuz a lot of agents were pitching people like, “I know this guy weighs 98 pounds, he’s skinny, but he can play Neil”. And finally, I was like, you know, I don’t want someone to try and play, I want someone to be Neil and Josh Gad is Neil. And when I met him the first time, he was like, “So like have you been reading my journal? What’s going on?” It’s just been great ever since and he’s so enthusiastic and so committed, and just a really good guy. And I’ve really, really enjoyed working with him.

Q: Describe the tone of the film, what have you been striving for?

SB: You know, it’s a challenging tone because it’s truly a “cama” or a “dramedy”. You know, it’s got, it’s really got strong elements of drama and strong elements of comedy. I mean, I’m going for a tone that’s maybe a little more intense in both sides than The Kids Are All Right, which had been comedy and drama. I really, in all my movies, love when you can do both, when you can get the audience laughing and crying in the same 100 minutes, I think you’ve won. And so, but the biggest thing I hope to accomplish is a sense of heightened realism, like these people you know, you know they’re not characters, they’re people you know and that allows you to get into the story. You’re not standing at a remove, going, “Look at those weird people. I can’t relate.” I want people to painfully relate to these people.

Q: Talk about your production team.

SB: Great. God, it’s going to take so long. I’ll start with my producers who I think are amazing. I have a small company with Edward Norton, the actor Edward Norton and this guy, Bill Migliore works with us and he is our producing partner. He is just one of my favorite people in the world. He’s an old friend of mine for the last 8 years, and we’ve done a bunch of things. We produced this Barack Obama documentary, and when I finished the script, I said, “Bill, I want you to produce this, you’re the only person I want to produce this”, cuz he just cares, he gets it and he is the most driven producer I’ve ever seen. And he said great, and he brought along David Koplan, who had line produced “Leaves of Grass” with us, who’s also an amazing, amazing producer. And these guys from the beginning have just helped me make this movie in every sense of the word. They helped, you know, raise the money, get the crew, help us shoot this big script for the small budget we have, thank God we have it, in the small amount of days we have, thank God we have them, but without feeling I’ve really had to sacrifice everything. They’ve just been incredible champions of this story. And the people at Olympus, Dean Vanech, Leslie Urdang and Miranda de Pencier, I’ve been long time friends with Miranda is how I met them, and I’ve always been impressed with the movies they made. You know, I think they are real producers of quality, whether it’s Rabbit Hole, whether it’s Beginners, you know whether it’s Adam, they really, they have a great track record, and they really care about their movies. And they’ve shown that on this film, for, it hasn’t been so much you know, just about we’ve got to do this as cheap as possible, you know there’s always an emphasis on cost always, but they also really, really are striving for the finest movie. Really striving to give us the tools to do it, so they’ve been amazing.

I have a wonderful cinematographer, Yaron Orbach, who I met through my friend, David Wain, who’s a director. He was the cinematographer on a movie of his called The Ten, and he always me, “This guy’s amazing. Get him if you can.” My other friend, Jesse Peretz who did Our Idiot Brother, my friend Josh Schwartz who did this movie Fun Size, they were all like, “We love this guy. You got to hire him”. So I met him, and I had met a lot of people, and I was like, “This guy’s amazing. He’s like, you know, an Israeli former, like, basically Green Beret so he knows how to kill you and he moves quickly and he shoots beautifully. He’s been amazing at sort of helping me achieve the kind of naturalistic look I wanted to get, and he’s also really helped me balance the drama and the comedy that I wanted to get. A wonderful, like, first AD, named Doug Torres, who helps a first time director like me really understand how to shoot the day efficiently and he’s been great. A great production designer, Beth Mickle, who just did Drive, who can work with a shoestring to make things look beautiful. Just overall, just an amazing, amazing team.

Q: What was the transition like from writer to director?

SB: It’s been a, what’s been good about making that transition for me as a writer to director, is that I’ve also produced some of the stuff I had done, that I’d been on set for all of it, so I really saw, sort of, and I’d been involved in prep a lot, so I really saw sort of, what the pieces of the puzzle where I just never was the person actually making the decisions. Umm, and so I knew sort of the things that would be coming my way once I stepped into that. Um, it definitely is like trying to drink from a fire hydrant, it’s over-whelming much of the time, but I really, really enjoyed it. Umm, I think when I get so invested in the story and I see it in my head when I’m writing it. I know what I want it to look like. For me, it’s just been a natural extension of just trying to make that vision a reality. And, you know, I am a control freak so it plays to all of those tendencies, so it’s been really, really satisfying.

Q: Has there been a moment or a scene where you were just like “wow, this is great”?

SB: Yes, many. We just shot a scene where Neil basically, is in a meeting, a 12 step meeting, and he comes clean that he’s basically been lying about being sober and he’s been acting out the whole time and it’s a very, a very powerful monologue where he takes responsibility for the first time and decides to stop BS’ing people. And, um, it’s a really, really great thing where you write it on the page and you hope that the actor can deliver and then not only do they deliver, but they plus it and they make it more than you thought it could be.

Q: That’s great. I realize we didn’t talk about Gwyneth Paltrow. Talk about what she brings to Phoebe.

SB: Gwyneth Paltrow as Phoebe has been amazing. Um, it’s funny, I’d heard rumors that she’s an acting machine, and what I mean by that is she comes in and she literally just like gives you 3 amazing takes like low, medium, high, just different shadings, different variations. And she’s just like the consummate actress and like the first scene, you know, after 3 takes I was done with her side because I, she did it 3 different ways, all amazing. It was like, “Holy crap, this girl can act.” And besides that, she’s so charming and she’s so engaging and um, she really gets it. And she doesn’t make the craft harder than it needs to be when it doesn’t need to be harder, and she makes it just as complex when it needs to be when it does. Um, and I just love what she’s doing with Mark, I mean their relationship is so, you believe that relationship, you really do. You want to, I could watch them kiss forever, I mean it’s so romantic, it’s so cool. And I can watch them fight, it’s so real and it’s so engaging and the way they fight, is…I watched some of their fight scenes and it’s painful. I’m like I have lived through those fight scenes and they’re nailing it.

Q: That is some great….any final thoughts? What do you hope people take away from the movie?

SB: I mean, my hope for what people take away after watching the movie is that, you know, ah, to sort of revel in people’s complexity and to almost revel in the struggle that people go through to be better people and to realize that you know, the best way to go through that struggle is, you know, with other people. And it’s ok to sort of admit your limitations and that it’s only through accepting your limitations that you actually can hopefully overcome them. Um, you know there’s a theme in the book (?) that we may all be broken but if we’re broken together, we have a chance at healing. I think that’s a really powerful theme.

Thanks for Sharing is released on DVD this coming Monday, February 3rd.