We talk with the indie writer-director about his new personal dramedy, which premieres locally at UW Cinematheque on September 7.
The Adults (2023), writer-director Dustin Guy Defa’s new film, immediately begins with the isolated sound of a soft harmony between siblings who are discovering a song together in the past. Among the lyrics about all the people in the world, which amusingly sync up with the Universal Pictures production logo, the brother and sister rhetorically ask, “Who am I looking at?” This question and the playful act of performing as a coping strategy and way to interpret their surroundings are at the heart of this low-key, but striking family reunion in small-town New York. Older brother Eric (Michael Cera) returns for the first time in a few years to see a friend’s newborn baby, but also to check up on his younger sisters, the withdrawn Rachel (Hannah Gross) and more idealistic Maggie (Sophia Lillis).
Even in the film’s more familiar familial narrative, as Eric happens upon strained realizations in and out of their childhood home (where Rachel is now living after the passing of their mother), Defa lends the sibling dynamic a personally wistful and distinctively funny air. Once inseparable and bound by their mutual love of amateur performance art nestled in their own sort of revue/variety show, they struggle to rekindle a connection through that fantastical refuge of childhood splendor.
Thus, in these interpersonal tensions and personalities adrift, Eric finds himself wandering, perpetually delaying his flight back to Portland. He chases increasingly high-stakes poker games as a substitute for broken bonds, but also to feel a sense of prominence that’s vanished within his own family. Defa sort of inverts the idea of “playing house” for adulthood in their faded youthful world of songwriting, silly choreography, and cartoony voices, but he never lets the film slip into predictable or even easily anatomized notions of escapism.
Ahead of the film’s Madison premiere at UW Cinematheque (4070 Vilas Hall) on Thursday, September 7, at 7 p.m., Defa talked with Tone Madison over Google Meet about the core emotional element of songwriting in actor rehearsals, his own family dynamic inspiring the story, the relationship of comedy to trauma in his work, emotional ambiguity of “The Lion King scene,” inviting warmth of the film’s fall colors, his recent director showcase on Criterion Channel, and the spontaneity that’s persisted in the scope of his filmmaking career.
Tone Madison: I was looking at the official NBC Universal synopsis for the film that ends with a mention of “confronting how childhood relationships don’t always translate to adult connections.” I like how your screenwriting explores the past through the present in terms of performance and childlike whimsy rather than taking a more conventional approach in terms of cinema, with flashbacks, or even shots of a photo album when the siblings were younger. It’s all on the three actors in the frame to convey the nature of their relationship.
I’m wondering more about either the complexity or simplicity of the casting process with Jessica Kelly, who was the casting director, and how you approached direction of Michael Cera, Hannah Gross, and Sophia Lillis in terms of improvisation or number of takes as both their adult selves and also as their exaggerated character voices from their youth of Charles, Moopie-Moopie, Wug-Wug, etc.
Dustin Guy Defa: I’ve struggled a little bit, working with casting directors. It’s sometimes hard to translate what you’re feeling, and you have to write descriptions about the characters and things like that. But you have to get on the right vibe with the right casting director, and they have to understand you and your work to understand where you’re coming from. Jessica Kelly was a dream in a way. She brought in so many amazing people. It was just great, all the auditions I got to see. It’s not a process I [typically] enjoy. [However,] it’s a process that just has to happen.
In terms of the leads, I had already cast Michael [Cera] and Hannah [Gross] before Jessica Kelly came on board. I had already thought of Sophia [Lillis] and a couple other people. Jessica brought a list, and we discussed and discussed, and eventually [Sophia] became our only choice. She’s the only person we went out to, and we were fortunate enough that she was available and responded to [my prior] feature, Person To Person (2017). Having a casting director helped in this instance, as Jessica Kelly had a good relationship with Sophia’s agent.
Before the four of us ended up together in rehearsal, there were a lot of discussions that were just talks about the characters and their relationship to one another. But then in rehearsal, it really became so much more real and solid and alive. Once I saw the three of them become a family unit, it became so much more exciting and alive to me. As you said, the script I had written didn’t have a lot of exposition and also got rid of any kind of backstory or flashbacks or photos/videos. I was tempted by all these things, but the movie really became about the absence of those things and the inability to access them anyway. I trusted the audience to appreciate—some people can’t—but I took that leap of faith. Just try to make them be felt in some kind of way, or just know that they’re there.
We were fortunate that the script had the element of the songs and the dancing and the voices, because that’s how we started rehearsal. The first thing they did was work on the music together. It was a bonding experience, but also a foundation for the family unit. The things they had created as children were the first things they were creating as characters together. So it became a really amazing way to start rehearsal and laying down the characters. We did that before we dived into the script and scenes more. And the voices, too. Michael and Hannah worked on “Rainbows On My Mind” together. I wasn’t there, [but] then they would let me hear it [later]. Hannah and Sophia worked on Moopie-Moopie and Wug-Wug together. They had their own sessions together. It was an awesome foundation for the childhood world before actually getting into the movie itself and the adult world in the present day.
Tone Madison: Did you work on the melodies and the lyrics? I know Michael is kind of a hobbyist musician himself. I don’t know about Hannah, but possibly her, too.
Dustin Guy Defa: All the lyrics are in the script. I did the music melody for “Go Around Me, Buddy,” and then Michael did the music for “Rainbows On My Mind” [while I] did the lyrics. We worked together on another one, the first thing you hear, which they [perform] later, “Looking For You, Looking At Me.” That was mostly my melody, but Michael participated in that. “Rainbows On My Mind” was a really incredible starting point; I just let him have free rein. And when he sent me his version of it, him singing the song, and it was completely unlike anything I had expected. It was a lot more slow and beautiful. That actually became a huge thing for me; I cried instantly when I heard it. Another real emotional core for me was just that moment, which sort of led me further into the emotional core of the movie.
Tone Madison: Was there much improvising in the script? If I compare this to Bad Fever (2011), for instance—seems to be a lot of riffing in that film as opposed to this or even Person To Person.
Dustin Guy Defa: Bad Fever is the only film that has improv at all. I’m casual with the script; I don’t stick to every single word. I don’t think, “Oh, you better nail every single word.” I let people adapt their own speech patterns. Every once and a while a line will slip in or something, but I wouldn’t call it real improv in any kind of way. In Bad Fever, I could feel a certain kind of desire from Kentucker Audley for that kind of looseness [as his character of Eddie Coopersmith]. That movie definitely isn’t improvised in a way, but improvised scenes occurred, and [those] that are in the movie that felt very necessary.
Tone Madison: That’s a personal favorite of mine, so happy to talk about it whenever. [laughs] Just put it in there.
In terms of newer American directors, you have a truly interesting body of work. It’s not really possible to pin a specific type of film on you in the way you shift between different modes. And that’s especially evident in your short films, which range from something like Dramatic Relationships (2016), about the sometimes toxic relationships between male directors and female actors, to something like Declaration Of War (2013), a simple manipulation of C-SPAN footage of W. Bush’s speech to a joint session of Congress that encapsulates the American war machine.
The Adults here is maybe your most “dramatic” feature, in terms of the ratio of drama to comedy. But the dynamics of performance you capture within are different than in say, Bad Fever, with Eddie’s rambling attempts to do stand-up comedy or find something that works as stand-up comedy. Was there something autobiographical that inspired this story in The Adults? My concluding note is: “Hopefully it’s something a lot different from the unnervingly autobiographical Family Nightmare (2011).” [laughs]
Dustin Guy Defa: The inspiration was definitely Michael [Cera] and wanting to work with him again. The initial genesis inspiration. But the unconscious inspiration was my sister, and the distance of our adult relationship between us and the sadness of not having as close of a relationship as when we were young.
Tone Madison: Is she older or younger than you?
Dustin Guy Defa: She’s younger than me. But that became a conscious one, a big emotional core for me during rehearsal, in realizing the personal nature of the film. And I started to develop that within myself and express it in my own sort of way to the actors. Thinking about my sister during the making of the movie became very conscious.
There’s nothing autobiographical necessarily, but it is sort of, in so many ways, The Adults, Family Nightmare, and Bad Fever are the most personal movies. They reflect a certain part of me. The thing that sort of links them is repression of self-expression. The reason I’m interested in comedy—the idea of wanting to be funny as character behavior, which Bad Fever and The Adults are connected—is my family used humor to deal with trauma and try to be okay and survive. Part of Family Nightmare—it starts this way, but it’s also my experience as a child in that environment—there were a lot of parties going on, so there were good times happening all the time. A lot of laughter, maybe vulgar or whatever, but still—part of that movie is about how the good times were extremely destructive at the same exact time. As a child, I obviously didn’t know that. My aunt was an incredibly funny person; she’s one of the through-lines of that movie, and she was one of the people in my family full of immense pain, and so I think she used humor to get through that. That’s one of the reasons why I’m interested in using comedy in my own work or even thinking about it in this way. In The Adults, the humor obviously is something that’s gone, and they’re unable to get it back.
Tone Madison: That’s an interesting comment, about the humor being gone. …I guess that is true.
Dustin Guy Defa: In regards to the difference between Bad Fever and The Adults, I think [part of] Bad Fever is about the American Dream. The idea of trying to be likable or trying to be someone people like or look up to. In the town he lives in, this guy Eddie Coopersmith is seeing people laugh at comedy clubs or seeing people get accepted because of laughter. So I think he thinks that’s his best route to having some kind of approval or success. Whereas in The Adults, I think Eric was extremely successful when they were young. He was god to his two little sisters; as he says in the movie, “You used to think I was the funniest person in the world.” I think he had a lot of power over them, and they actually did think he was funny. It’s just that they’ve grown out of whatever kind of humor used to exist, and he’s no longer able to be funny in their eyes. He’s also not able to have that same kind of power or be comfortable, because the power gave him some kind of comfort.
Tone Madison: There’s that scene in the parking lot where he questions his delivery, because a joke didn’t land the way it would have, probably, in the past. Thanks for digging into the relationship between all those films.
One of our writers for Tone Madison, Alisyn Amant, moved to New York a few weeks ago, and I persuaded her to go to the Quad Cinema on August 18 when you were there presenting it. She and her boyfriend wanted to ask more about the “Lion King scene.” And, just by chance, I want to ask more about that, too. [laughs] Maybe inevitably it reminded of the American Office episode, “Grief Counseling,” where Michael forces his subordinates to inappropriately share stories of personal loss, so Ryan inserts himself in that very Disney movie as a way to dissociate and get out of the extreme awkwardness of this meeting.
Here in this film, it’s almost used to the opposite effect, as a way to have Eric engage publicly, but sincerely, with the loss of his mother as prompted by friend/acquaintance Dennis about the first time he realized people die. The added context of the poker game sort of amplifies the absurdity of this mention at the same time. Would you say that’s an accurate reading? Curious to know more about how this scene came to be and/or evolved over the process of shooting if that was the case.
Dustin Guy Defa: When I was writing the movie, that scene happened. And I was so elated. The reason I was elated is because it was such a fascinating and also telling scene for this character. Interesting, also, because of the ways the audience might perceive the character. He lies and is elusive enough in the movie that, at that point in the movie, it’s hard to [know] which part of him is genuine. The scene right before “The Lion King“ is the one where he talks about his delivery. So, this scene became an incredible moment of him suddenly having an opportunity to have an audience, and seeing and seizing that opportunity, and coming up with the best thing he could possibly come up with. Within that situation, it becomes one or the other, whether he’s actually accessing those moments, pretending or not pretending. I mean, based on the performance—and this was purposeful—I feel like it’s really hard to believe he could fake what he does, and that he’s accessing grief.
Tone Madison: As opposed to pivoting to a character performance, you mean?
Dustin Guy Defa: Yeah, he sort of has a breakdown in that scene. I guess what we were trying to go for, is that even though it appeared that [Eric] got emotional, that in the moment, you would believe it was sincere and that it actually happened. And then afterward, there was still at least a bit of a question mark as to whether or not he could’ve somehow performed that and not have the breakdown. It appears as a true breakdown, because the movie does have something to do with a loss, either the loss of the mother or the childhood. By that point, Maggie had already expressed an emotional thing. But he expresses some kind of emotion, which ends up leading to the end of the movie. I do know that when Michael Cera read the script, he actually thought the way Eric would do it was that the breakdown would be performative, that [the character] was doing it on purpose. When I told him, “No, it’s not that, actually. You have to actually do it, and the movie will let people think that one way or another. He has to become emotional and have the breakdown. It really has to happen and be performed in that way.” That unlocked something for Michael, too, and said, “Oh, yeah, I get it.”
Tone Madison: It’s a very interesting scene. It’s not the climax of the movie, but I guess it seems to have that power, the duality you’re talking about. It’s very memorable.
Is this your first or second feature that was shot digitally? Because I know Person To Person was 16mm, right?
Dustin Guy Defa: Yeah, and Bad Fever was shot digitally on HVX [camcorder].
Tone Madison: OK, so this would be the second one. Compared to the murky lo-fi quality of Bad Fever, The Adults looks and feels like the tonal opposite in some ways. The color depth and deep focus throughout the film are just gorgeous—has this crystalline autumnal coziness, what I typed here [laughs]—in the small towns north of NYC. I saw the locations of New Windsor and Saugerties. Is that right?
Dustin Guy Defa: Mmhmm. Newburgh and the surrounding area. We were based more in Newburgh than anything, but yeah. Across from Beacon [, New York].
Tone Madison: And then Alex Weston’s original score is, I’d say, the most prominent in any of your films, from what I remember. Person To Person has a rich soundtrack of tunes. So this really stands out in its sprightly orchestration. I’m wondering if any particular films, even disparate films, served as templates or inspiration for the look and sound of The Adults.
Dustin Guy Defa: The main thing is that I felt that the cinematography needed to be inviting and warm. The deeper I got into making this movie, I was aiming for expressing an emotional kind of situation for me. And so it’s not that I was trying to trap people into emotion, but I wanted the movie to have an openness or a warmness that would be accessible. That’s sort of how we got there. The cinematographer Tim Curtin and I talked about [that].
But yeah, this is the first time I’ve truly worked with a composer. There was a bit of composing going on in Person To Person but not a lot. But this was the first real time, having that relationship and talking through things. Thankfully, it was Alex Weston who was the right person. The movie really needed him. Because I hadn’t really worked with a composer before—I don’t know if it’s necessarily a mistake, but at least in this instance, it ended up feeling like a mistake—sharing with Alex other movie scores that I thought could be appropriate. Thankfully, he heard it, but also tuned it out in a certain way. He went on his own. But there was a lot of back and forth. He’s a person who’s willing to be wrong sometimes, and I’m a person willing to be wrong. So it was a great collaboration, to really find what was right.
Tone Madison: Did you just make a playlist [for Alex]?
Dustin Guy Defa: No, there was one movie in particular, but I won’t say what it was. [laughs] I used it for temp music while I was editing. [Alex] had watched the movie with that temp music, but I’m glad he tuned it out, because I don’t think it [was] helpful.
Tone Madison: Was the temp music similar, ultimately, to what Alex did?
Dustin Guy Defa: No, it’s not similar. But there isn’t a giant range of where he could go. It ended up not being similar, definitely not in terms of instruments. He really found his own way to it.
Tone Madison: I don’t know what specifically triggered it (maybe the sibling dynamic), but I was reminded of Tamara Jenkins film, The Savages (2007), a couple times throughout the movie. I don’t know if you feel that’s a relevant comparison.
Dustin Guy Defa: It’s definitely relevant. I haven’t seen it in a long time. Didn’t think about it while making the movie, but yeah.
Tone Madison: Lastly, I’m plugging your director showcase on Criterion Channel [laughs]. So I wanted to say congrats on that, which they put up at the beginning of August. I was pleased to see that, and having the chance to go through eight of the nine recently. I re-watched a couple of the features and shorts I first saw, including the Person To Person short (2014), which I feel is a masterpiece. I’m probably not the only person to say that, though. [laughs] But it was also a treat to discover your experimental/unclassifiable work that I alluded to before. Do you see yourself continuing to toggle between short and feature projects, or are you leaning towards a deeper commitment to features at this time?
Dustin Guy Defa: My commitment is to features, but I sort of never know what’s gonna happen. I don’t own a camera, so sometimes I think if I owned one, things would sort of change, and I probably would be making more shorts. A lot of the shorts I made happened because I had access to a camera or something else.
Tone Madison: Like a decade ago or around there? Oh, well, Editing (2021) is a couple years ago.
Dustin Guy Defa: Yeah, I made all the movies for no money. Person To Person, the short, was the only one that cost money because I shot on film. And then the music cost money, so we had to pay for that. Not all of them, but a number of them are because of an opportunity. Dramatic Relationships I made because we needed to do a camera test for Person To Person, the feature, and I didn’t want to waste the film [celluloid], so we shot it on the camera we were gonna use.
Because Declaration Of War and Family Nightmare are archival things, I didn’t need anybody else, and that is a freeing feeling. But I haven’t done anything [like those] for a very long time [since 2013]. But sometimes I have a flicker of an idea but just don’t end up doing it. I’m still thinking about shorts. Sometimes I’m sparked by an actor or meeting somebody. Generally speaking, I made them very quick, so the whole process is two or three weeks from start to finish. But yeah, my head is thinking about features.
Tone Madison: Those can be more widely seen, probably, but they require a deeper investment and time commitment and so forth. Do you want to share anything that you’re brainstorming, specifically? Doesn’t sound like anything is in pre-production.
Dustin Guy Defa: No, I have a lot of scripts—the thing I’m writing right now I’m very excited by, but I haven’t told a single person what I’m doing. Nobody knows, just me.
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