‘Lady of the Manor’ star Melanie Lynskey and writer/directors Justin & Christian Long talk about their new comedy
The star and directors talk about working with a great cast, and how Luis Guzmán makes everything better.
In ‘Lady of the Manor,’ Melanie Lynskey plays Hannah, who takes on a job as a tour guide at an Antebellum estate, only to be personally haunted by one of the estate’s previous owners (played by Judy Greer). Lynskey joined writers/directors Justin and Christian Long to talk about their new movie.
First up, Lynskey talks about her character and what it takes for her to do an American accent.
Moviefone: Could you describe Hannah a little bit?
Melanie Lynskey: Hannah is somebody who is quite a lazy person I would say. She likes to be comfortable, she likes her life to be easy. She works selling weed, she spends a lot of time smoking it, and she is at a point in her life where she needs a new job and she needs a place to live, and both of those things come through. She gets a job being a tour guide at a place called Wadsworth Manor.
MF: So, how did you get involved in this one? I got to talk to Christian and Justin, but how did you get involved in this?
Lynskey: I had worked with Justin before on a little independent movie called And Then I Go, and it was quite a dark intense movie, but we had a lot of fun. We played a married couple, we had dinner together every night. It was a really fun experience and we'd stayed in touch. So he wrote the script, he and Christian wrote the script and he just reached out to me and said, "Would you read it? I think it might be fun for you to do." It really made me laugh. It made me laugh over and over again, and I was like, "Yep, I think I want to do it."
MF: There's so many jokes that you guys do, and there's some outtakes that we get to see over the credits. How much are you getting to improv versus sticking on the page? What does that like for you personally? Do you enjoy getting to improv say?
Lynskey: I love getting to improv. Probably my favorite job that I've had was the show Togetherness. It's an HBO show that the Duplass Brothers made, because they would come with a script, a perfect script, and you could just do the scene from the script, but we also got to improvise a lot, and so there was a lot of freedom. That's my favorite way to work.
It was a similar thing with Justin and Christian. They'd written a script, there were jokes, so many jokes in the script, it was great and then we get to add stuff. My rule is you don't add anything if it doesn't need it, so if something comes to you and it feels like it's going to enhance the scene, then I'll do it.
MF: I found myself wondering while I was watching this, you get to work so many funny co-stars, and you're no stranger to comedy in general. How tough is it? What does it take to not break in those scenes? At some point do you just get fed up? What's it take to kind of stay true to the scene or do you ever lose it?
Lynskey: It can be very, very difficult to not break. I'm not great, a lot of the time I'll just laugh. It's just easier to get it out and try again, it's really hard to hold it in. Justin is very good at not breaking. He's really, really good at it, but I am not.
MF: I would get the feeling that Luis Guzmán is also good at that. How was it working with him at the bar?
Lynskey: Oh, it was really fun. He's such a sweet guy, and it was obviously so kind of him to come and do that part. We just had a day of filming and it was really great, and Justin was just thanking him all day long for being there. It was incredible that he did that. But yeah, he's very good at not breaking also. There were a couple of times where he did, and it felt like a personal victory.
MF: You have so many great scenes with Judy Greer in this, and you both can do drama and comedy. What was it like working with her? I mean, you guys have a great chemistry. Was it as fun as it looked to those of us watching?
Lynskey: Yeah, it was super fun. I was saying earlier that I've never worked with her before, because usually either she's doing the part or I'm doing the part in the movie, or Kathryn Hahn. So, there's just not really been an opportunity for us to do stuff together, so it was a real gift to get to have this much time with her on screen and off.
I mean, I don't think we stopped talking, there wasn't a quiet moment. We were in the green room talking, we were walking to sit talking, we'd do the scene, we'd keep talking. I really adore her, she's great.
MF: I'm sure you get this question all the time, but I'm curious, what's it take for a Kiwi girl to do such an excellent US accent? Is there a trick to doing an American accent?
Lynskey: Oh, that's very kind. Also, I appreciate you saying doing an American accent, because people say, "Oh, how do you lose your accent all the time?" It drives me crazy, because Americans also have an accent, so thank you for putting it that way. I just worked on it. When I first got here, I just watched a lot of movies and I tried to learn a lot of different kinds of accents. There's a website that I look at that has specific regional accents, the International Dialects of English Archives. It's very helpful for any young actors who might need to do an accent. It's really specific and good.
MF: You're in almost every scene of this movie, just about. Are those long days for you?
Lynskey: Yeah, they couldn't go over 12 hours, because nobody could afford to pay for overtime, and so that was one blessing. At the end of 12 hours, you would know the day was done. But yeah, it was a lot. I had a one-year-old child at the time, she's two and a half now. So, she's not a great sleeper still. She was an even worse sleeper then, so it was a lot of up all night, working all day. Yeah, it was a lot.
MF: Two and a half, that's where the fun begins, right? That's where they start walking around, right?
Lynskey: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, she's been fun, but now she's full sentences and a lot of funny observations and it's pretty cute.
MF: Did she come to the set with you and see you acting or is she not there yet? She's still staying home with a caretaker or your partner, or whoever?
Lynskey: Yeah, my husband, and we have this amazing nanny who we love so much, and they're both helping at all times, but she does come to set. It's harder now with COVID, but she has come sometimes and she loves the makeup trailer and she likes to play with the sponges. But one day she pretended to be me going to work, and she said, "I'm mama going to work," and then she said, "I'm home from work now." I said, "What did you do at work?" She said, "Just sitting around." I was like, "Hmm. Okay." So, she doesn't really understand.
MF: So when you're doing a role like this, what's the preparation for this like to kind of get into Hannah's head? Are you working either with wardrobe together, or are you kind of like, "Oh, what's it like to be a stoner that sells weed."
Lynskey: Well, I had to get some advice from people who do smoke weed, because I'm not one of them, about how to do it. I had to practice a little bit so it didn't look like it was the first time I was doing it. Yeah, working with costumes to find the most comfortable and silliest options available.
MF: I mean, Hannah looks like she's wearing ... most of the outfits are pretty comfortable. Is that a rare treat as an actor to be able to like, "Oh yeah, I'm basically in pajamas."
Lynskey: Yes. The job before, I was literally in pajamas for much of it, which was great. The job before that I did was Mrs. America, which was this limited series, and I was playing a very uptight conservative woman and I was not comfortable, so it was a very nice thing to go to this job after that.
MF: My last question. So we've seen Justin now directing, anytime we might see Melanie Lynskey behind the camera and directing a film?
Lynskey: Never, ever. I could not stand the responsibility. I need to be able to pay a lot of attention to people in conversation. I'm not good with groups of people and have a lot of social anxiety, so having to answer a lot of people's questions all at once, it would petrify me. So, no, never.
Writers/directors Christian and Justin Long talk about what inspired the movie and working with a talented cast.
Moviefone: What inspired this particular story idea to do this kind of funny comedy with a ghost?
Christian Long: Well, two things I would say. One, we love buddy comedies. So we grew up watching a lot of them. What About Bob? Is one of our favorites, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a favorite. So we love the genre. And then we had an idea for, kind of a low budget potential buddy comedy. That was like a comedic version of Psycho where Norman Bates's mother, instead of inspiring murder in him, was just like annoying and nagging, like in an noxious overbearing ghost mother. So that kind of started our train of thought with what we came up with. But we wanted to [inaudible] it small and contained while also feeling like more commercial bigger movie.
Justin Long: And the crew we had really went along. We wouldn't have looked that way had it not been for... we got very lucky with the crew. Especially with the art department who made it seem like it was a bigger budget. And having great actors too, that makes a difference.
MF: You do have a terrific, terrific cast here. First of all, how do you cast Julie Greer, Judy Greer, sorry, but then do you have to pitch her and say like look, we want you to play it down a little bit. Not go over the top like we've seen you do.
Christian Long: No, actually the opposite. We were concerned that on the page, that role was a bit more, it was very much the straight person role. Too one-note, too reactive and not... But Judy, because she's Judy Greer and she can't not be interesting to watch. She brought so much more to the role than I even knew was there. Just like so lucky that we had her.
Justin Long: I remember thinking like, oh, whoever I think that Hannah role was really fun. I thought actresses might want to do that. But I remember thinking like the ghost might be tricky to cast somebody who's recognizable, of note, because it really wasn't all that there it was... She was, like you said, she was like Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers.
And Judy, she's brought out so much. A lot of that was improv, but a lot of it too was just like her... She has an innate comedic charm that can't help but come through. It's almost stuff that you... I guess you could write it, but we didn't and it's hard to even define what it is-
Christian Long: That's her face, like what do you do with her face. The looks and the... how much she liked Hannah and wanted to be her friend. And I just never saw that one-note character.
Justin Long: A perfect example is like, there was just a moment. It was a throwaway moment where Melanie says like, geez, you're so anal. She calls her anal retentive. And Judy just gives this look. And we didn't even direct her to do that. She was like, oh, like I had a moment where she processes anal. It's so quick. It's such a throwaway, but it was beautiful.
MF: It works right because she's got Hannah or she's her character, Lady Wadsworth, is listening to everything and isn't letting anything go.
Justin Long: Totally. Right. And taking in the world, we wanted a little bit of that. It was tricky because we... Like Christian said, first and foremost, we wanted to make a buddy comedy. We want people to see this as like an odd couple comedy before a supernatural or ghost comedy or whatever. So we tried to... that's what we were hoping for. But still there were those moments where we wanted those reminders that, yes, this is a new world to Judy and the internet. And like, she's taking it in. And so we thought there was some comedic value there.
MF: I'm going to talk to you about Melanie in a minute, but I first, want to thank you for casting Ryan Phillippe to do comedy, because I feel like that is something that not enough people rely on him for.
Justin Long: I agree. I know we... MacGruber is one of our favorite movies. He's just so... It's such an underrated performance of his because he allows Will Forte and [inaudible]. He allows all that mania to happen in those big set pieces. He keeps it so grounded. It's a reactive character, but he's kind of the mouthpiece for the audience and-
Christian Long: He's so funny without ever playing the comedy. And I can say the same thing about all of the actors. And that's important to us because often I see comedies where the actors are really like playing into the [inaudible] it real. And I just happen not to find that brand of comedy as funny. So it was really important that someone like Ryan play that part. It's such a ridiculous, like he's such a despicable character and it's such an awful, like over the top potential character that... But he had such realism and truth to it that it made it funnier.
Justin Long: Right. And he really knew that line to walk. He knew it was a delicate balance of like do shitty without being over the... big, without being over the top. It's weird. And I've always had a little bit of a prejudice, I think about really handsome guys that I just sort of assume they don't a have good sense of humor. And because they haven't... There's not as much of a need to cultivate a sense of humor for a handsome guy like that. But Ryan does, he's like a rare combination of looks, like somebody who has those great looks, but also is truly good sense of humor. Really funny.
MF: Yeah. It feels a little bit like it's a discovery of when the Zucker brothers cast Peter Graves and Lloyd Bridges in Airplane. These guys that you're so used to seeing so serious.
Justin Long: Yeah. And, and Val Kilmer and Top Secret!.
Christian Long: It might take an audience like a minute to get over how they usually see this person. But I think if they could hang in there in this movie they'll be really surprised by... I mean, Melanie Lynskey, someone who's such a brilliant actress is mostly known for, I would say more dramatic things. But she, in my opinion, there's was no one funnier than her. But I just [crosstalk] people will see that in this movie.
MF: I almost want to say she's like a stoned Lucille Ball in this.
Justin Long: Oh my God. I'm going to write this down. I'm going to tell her. Love that. That's an amazing compliment. Yeah. It's funny, we got an email from her a couple of ... From her agent about a month before we started shooting and we thought, oh God, that this is it. She's dropping out, Martin Scorsese called and we're out of luck.
And so, because it said, Melanie's got a concern and we're nervous of what could it be. It's about the pot smoking. And, and we thought, oh, is there a way that we can do it without the pot smoking? And we thought it was because she just would morally objected to... She didn't want to play a character who did that on screen for whatever reason. And it turns out... this is how dedicated she is as an actress and how much she was thinking about this part. It turns out she was nervous that technically she wouldn't be able to look... She didn't have enough experience inhaling, that it was just a mechanical thing. And so we kind of talked her through it and Jason Ritter her-
Christian Long: He gave her some lessons.
Justin Long: He gave her lessons. He has more experience smoking weed. So, the fact that she was even thinking that much about it was like we knew that we were in good hands.
MF: She's really great... You have to imagine it's great on set watching that as an actor who can play, but she's still good at playing kind of dopey without overplaying it. Right. And there's a lot of laughs that she gets out of that.
Christian Long: Well, again, she never plays the joke. She never goes... it's always grounded. Mel is just can't not be truthful. Also in the wrong hands that the script we wrote, and not to like crap on our script, but just as Judy brought something so unexpected to that part, that was potentially like a one-note straight woman part. I can say the same thing for Melanie who... that part could have been in the wrong hands. Kind of unless... she does like a bunch of unlikable things and she's kind of like crass and gross. But because Melanie is so charming, like inherently charming and likable, she made all that gross stuff work so well. And it made you root for her because... But that's her. That's not the script. That's her charm.
Justin Long: That's the great thing about Bill Murray too. That's why like... And if this was a Bill Murray movie, that would be the part. Melanie's playing that part where Bill Murray... even What About Bob? I mean, he does truly a crazy thing. Like genuinely annoying things like screaming Dr. Leo Marvin in the middle of a public area. And he has such charm. He has such inherent... and Melanie has that. To me, she's like a young Catherine O'Hara. She has that level of comedic chops and sensibility and certainly her drunk acting is the best I've ever [inaudible]. Chris Pratt, I think those are the two best strong performances I've ever witnessed. And we were just so like... we were such fans of hers, but watching her, it was a whole other level of appreciation for what she could do.
Christian Long: What's it like for you guys, especially for you, Justin, like acting and directing at the same time. Does it put you in two different headspaces or do you just kind of throw that to your brother in those scenes.
Justin Long: We were just talking about it. For the most part, I really have to lean on Christian for that, but it was also... I was so familiar with the script. We had been with it for so long and we had been...I mean, we wrote it so I just knew where the scenes had to go. And we did that on purpose because I initially I didn't think that I was going to play the part. I thought it'd be easier to not act in it as well, but I ended up doing it. And I always thought it was a part that if I have to do it, it would be in my wheelhouse. It wouldn't be much of a stretch. And so, it didn't that difficult. I think if I had a different part, it might've been-
Christian Long: Feel like those scenes were such a blur. They went by so fast because we would do at most two takes.
Justin Long: Yeah. We were really moving.
Christian Long: Combination of you knowing the material and knowing that character so well and Melanie being kind of perfect and never needing more than two takes. The combination of the two of you. It was just like, we just banged those out so quickly. All those scenes.
Justin Long: It's always embarrassing when Melanie knew the lines better than I did. I was like oh God, I've only had this for a year.
MF: So feature directorial debut for you guys. What took so long?
Justin Long: Well, we had been... it's funny that it, we just said this, but it doesn't feel like it was a sudden. It felt like we've been doing it for a while, just because we've been doing it kind of under the radar for so long. Trying to get experience and learning and-
Christian Long: We've made shorts and web series, but this is our first feature, like you said. But, yeah we've been kind of working, like chipping away at it to get to this point. And yeah, a lot of time has passed. But hopefully the next one doesn't take 10 more years.
Justin Long: And also we had a script that was about to happen at Ben Stiller's company, at Red Hour and that got shelved for reasons I think... Hopefully we're resurrecting it now. So, we also needed something that we could shoot on a budget and so we tailored this specifically for that. But like Christian said, we had done this web series called The Real Steven Glad, it's on Amazon, if you want to check it out. So we got to know a lot of the... we've learned a lot, but we also got to know a lot of the crew down in Florida and that's kind of what led to this happening. So it was really an introduction to the filmmaking community down there that led to us shooting in Tampa and getting a producer that was behind this movie. And so it all kind of like flowed from very humble beginnings.
MF: How long was your shoot? I imagine because it's an indie and you talk about low budget, although you'd never know it really from looking on the screen, that means you probably have limited time though. Still, right?
Christian Long: 17, 18 days. It was quick.
Justin Long: It was quick and there a lot of dialog to get through. And the montage stuff took a while. But again, like Christian said that, Melanie and Judy, all the actors were so on top of it and everyone was on their lines and they were they're so good right away. I mean, take one was always so good.
Christian Long: I can't imagine how we would have done it.
Justin Long: We wouldn't have made otherwise.
Christian Long: Because then we had, we were so lucky and having these actors who, not only were really good, but knew their lines. Were Prepared. And if there was an actor who needed like six, seven, eight takes here and there, we would not have been able to make it.
Justin Long: And like you said, we wanted it. I'm glad you said that Matt because we wanted it to look like a bigger movie. We wanted it to feel more commercial and it's kind of how we wrote it. We wanted that setup to feel commercial, we wanted... And so certainly to look that way and we had the best art department, Sean. We had such a great wardrobe. So the people who were working on it, we were lucky to have. They were outside of our budget range and they made it look a lot bigger.
MF: Ryan's preppy wardrobe is terrific.
Christian Long: It's great. And the reason that he always had to have those blazers and the salmon colors is, is his entire arm is full of tattoos. And we thought you don't have time to put makeup on it and we're in Florida. So it's going to be hot for him to wear this. But it worked out.
Justin Long: It did. Yeah, it did. I remember seeing it at first. I remember seeing his wardrobe and I was like, oh, because it's jarring. It's really like crazy those outfits. And I thought, oh, this might be over the top. This might look a little too broad. But the way he was playing it, then once I saw him and then with the spray tan and like his attitude, he lived in those clothes very naturally.
MF: All right. So my last question, it seems like it has to be awesome to get Luis Guzmán on set.
Justin Long: Oh, man, Luis... I've known Luis for, God almost 20 years now. And he's always saying like, let me know, man, when I do something with you guys. And he's always been so kind. But I always just sort of thought he was being friendly because he's such a warm guy. So we sent it to him and right away, he said, yeah, absolutely man. And at the day he came down was for us the most stressful day. For many reasons that would be boring to get into. But we were under a lot of pressure and it was crazy stressful. And I remember at one point he just pulled us aside and he was like, hey, listen, you guys, it's going to be okay, all right. And he just like looked at us with such conviction-
Christian Long: He just gave us like a chill pill. It was like, wow.
Justin Long: Yes he did. We got goosebumps.
Christian Long: Yeah, we did. He was like some Jedi stuff that he pulled on us.
Justin Long: And we were like... I know, but the thing, and the were doing this and he goes, no, no, no, listen man, it's going to be okay, don't worry. And we were like, oh my God, thank you. And we like melted. And yeah.
MF: I feel like he's like the low key legend that just makes anything better.
Justin Long: Yeah. He is.
Christian Long: Absolutely.
Justin Long: And again, when he shows up, he lends also a legitimacy to it because he's such an authentic presence and he has such a funny presence. Just his presence is enjoyable. And he would give us, I remember every take, he go like, alright, I'm going to do like three different levels. He would just give us three very distinct takes. And knowing that we'd use whichever one in the editing room. And he was just such a joy. I've always loved being around him, but I'm forever grateful to him now for what he got us through. And just coming down to play.
'Lady of the Manor' is now available on digital and on demand.