Five years after his first visit to Book Expo America to promote his novel, This is Where I Leave You, Jonathan Tropper made his return to the annual convention — once again for TIWILY, but this time, with a little bit of help from some famous friends. In advance of the release of the book's film adaptation, the movie's stars, Tina Fey and Jason Bateman, along with its director, Shawn Levy, gathered with Tropper at BookCon's Kickoff event on Friday to discuss the star-studded film.
In a panel moderated by Entertainment Weekly writer Anthony Breznican, the actors, filmmaker, and writer spoke about the process of making the dramedy, an ensemble film featuring Fey, Bateman, Corey Stoll, and Adam Driver as siblings reunited for the first time in years to sit shiva when their father passes away. While the trailer convinced viewers that all the actors could believably play family, it's the chemistry between Fey and Bateman that's the most evident.
"These two actors," Levy said in awe. "Their comedy and timing acting instincts... it's as good as it gets with these two."
Elaborated Tropper: "These two just say 'fuck the script.'"
The film is a departure for both Fey and Bateman, who typically gravitate towards lighthearted, quirky comedies. Still, the two actors have both dealt with darker moments in their respective roles in the past — Michael Bluth was a widow, after all.
Said Bateman, "If i do anything funny, it usually lives pretty close to drama, anyway. I enjoy playing characters that can do that, that can jump back and forth between something humorous and something heartbreaking."
He later added that he was attracted to the film because "it's funny and endearing and charming, the stuff we go to the movies for."
The panel also discussed the film's tricky tone, a blend of drama and comedy that bounces back and forth between dark and uplifting fare. Breznican described a conversation with Fey he had while visiting the set, where the actress coined TIWILY an "emotional comedy."
"When you see it, like with the book, there are moments that are very funny, and moments that will move you to tears," Fey said, adding that "real life is never just serious. People cope through humor."
Levy described how he and his two lead actors were all drawn to making a more serious film after so many years of comedies.
"We had the opportunity to do something different," he said.
Despite the size of the film's ensemble cast, Levy said that gathering his actors wasn't a difficult task; he'd already worked with Fey on 2010's Date Night, and was familiar with many of the others' work. The only difficulty came with getting Driver, whose Girls schedule wouldn't allow him, at first, to make time for the film. Although Levy attempted to cast someone else in the role, meeting with other actors only "cemented my certainty that this Adam Driver was something truly singular," he said.
To make it work, the cast and crew agreed to shoot around Driver's schedule, which, while frustrating at times, was worth the effort.
"There's no second choice to an actor that's that unique," Levy said.
And apparently, the closeness of the TIWILY cast extended beyond moving their schedules. Breznican said that during his set visit, he saw a sign for an "actors' clubhouse" posted near the shoot.
"It was a great thing that Shawn went to Tina first, because Tina is our lead and she sets a tone on the set, as does Shawn — that really trickles down," explained Bateman.
Added Fey, having a short, close shoot "sort of mirrored sitting Shiva. It forced us to be together ... A week into it, Kathryn [Hahn] and Corey were just napping in bed together ... There was just great camaraderie."
The event also included never-before-seen scenes from the film, including one in which Fey's character, Wendy, punches her brother's ex-boss (Dax Shepard) in the face. (Fey: "I am certified in stage combat.") Although Tropper explained that the book had Judd (Bateman) doing the punching, it was changed to Fey for the film — and good thing it was, because the scene is awesome.
Other changes to the adaptation included the name of the family, from Altman to Foxman, apparently due to the wishes of a "very litigious" real-life Altman family. To come up with a new name, Levy and Tropper "emailed back and forth vaguely Jewish names."
Quipped Fey, "I have a friend I do that with, too."
Image: Warner Bros. (2); Plume