Premiering to positive reviews (including our own) at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Nikole Beckwith’s sophomore feature Together Together was a perfect fit for that festival, especially in a year like this.
Not only is it an intimate mixture of drama and comedy, casting two actors largely known for comedies in roles that stretch them a bit more than we’re used to seeing, but it also deals with connectivity and togetherness for people who find themselves isolated from their friends and family.
Matt (Ed Helms) feels his biological clock ticking, and he wants to begin a family even though he’s not in a relationship. He hires Anna (Patti Harrison) as his surrogate, which works out well for Anna as she has completely removed herself from her past, including old friends and her family.
The two of them forge a bond under unique circumstances, charting a course that Beckwith uses to subvert gender stereotypes and genre conventions over and over again, often in subtle ways that never draw so much attention to themselves that you’re pulled out of the experience of simply living and breathing with these characters.
I had the chance to speak with Beckwith about how she approaches telling her stories, how this film resonated for her personally, and how it helped push the kind of shift that she’d like to see in storytelling out into the world. We also got into some fun talk about Angel Olsen and favorite candies.
Read below for my interview with Together Together writer/director Nikole Beckwith, and also be sure to check out our interview with the film’s stars Patti Harrison and Ed Helms from Niki Cruz here.
Mitchell Beaupre: What was your inspiration to begin working on this project?
Nikole Beckwith: Curiosity, I suppose, over what would happen between two strangers if they had to come together in such an intimate and emotionally charged circumstance that was also integral to moving each other forward into the next chapter of their independent lives.
MB: An interesting idea in the movie that both characters face is how society puts us all into these boxes of the path that we are supposed to take, and we see the judgement that can be felt when you’re going against that. Was that something you could personally relate to?
NB: I think so. That’s just a side effect of going against the societal grain or cultural grain. I think it’s important to acknowledge that resistance instead of romanticizing the experience because there’s value in that friction, and that idea of moving ahead anyway.
MB: You’re someone who has charted your own path in the industry, having not gone to college or film school. I even saw on your IMDb that you have one acting credit, for a 2007 episode of Law & Order. Could you talk about your journey to get where you are now?
NB: I grew up in Massachusetts and I started out as an actor. I was always in a play, usually in rehearsals during the day, and then performing a different play at night. I went to New York to pursue acting, but not having a college degree made an impact there. It was through acting, though, that I came to writing. I worked as a personal assistant for Eric Bogosian, who gave me a lot of inspiration because he was an actor who wasn’t getting cast so he began to write parts for himself that launched him to where he is now. I saw Eric writing a lot of one man shows, which made sense to me because, looking at all of the characters I had written and created, I was invested in all of them individually so I couldn’t imagine pivoting to put my focus into one of them over the others as an actor, so it was a very organic transition for me.
It was funny, Law & Order was right before I wrote my first play, and it was quite a paycheck. I had one line and that one line paid my rent for six months. I was thrilled, and everyone was really nice on set, but I was also constantly doing things in between shots. I wanted to be touching props and getting into the mix, and everyone had to keep telling me to stop doing all of this stuff, but I just wanted to be doing more and more. That led me to the thought that maybe I should be on a set where I get to touch everything.
MB: Together Together is very much about these two specific people and their situation, yet it also taps into universal ideas on loneliness and self-identity that I think anyone can relate to. Did you go into the writing process with the goal of creating something universal, or is that something that occurs naturally when you’re writing from a place of empathy?
NB: I think it’s something that happens naturally. My only goal ever is character and story. The characters reveal themselves to me, and the circumstances reveal themselves to me, and then I sort of come in like a stenographer walking in to write it all down. It’s only afterwards where the themes and throughlines reveal themselves, which I think is similar to real life. I wasn’t sitting down thinking that I was writing a feminist movie that talks about loneliness and boundaries and upending our social mores, but that’s what came out.
MB: The relationship between Anna and Matt has a wonderful arc to it, where even in subtle ways like their conversations with one another you can feel them becoming more comfortable with each other as the film goes on. Could you talk about building that relationship?
NB: That was all really carefully tuned. I was constantly reinforcing it, talking about the script or talking about the edit where I’d point out that something that maybe others couldn’t see was crucial was actually really meaningful and needed to be where I had it. People wouldn’t see what I was talking about at first, but then they’d step back and look at the whole picture and they’d see the transition over the course of the whole film. It’s hard to navigate sometimes when a story is primarily internalized to be able to identify those things right away, but when you’re the person who invented them it’s all there in your head.
MB: Together Together is a beautiful title for the film, as it speaks to this idea of togetherness and connectivity, something that many of us have been feeling an even greater longing for over this past year.
NB: I know, it’s crazy that this happened the way it did. We wrapped the film in October 2019 so the pandemic didn’t even exist yet, then I finished editing and did all of the post in lockdown, and now it’s one of the movies where people can go back into theaters again (if you feel safe and comfortable to do so). It’s been a really strange and unforeseen trajectory, especially given its subject matter revolving around connectivity and coming together. Patti was joking that I orchestrated all of this for the movie’s marketing.
I feel really grateful for the film keeping me company, especially during the earliest stages of lockdown. It’s such a kind film, with all of the characters being ones who are really nice to spend time with. It’s also an intimate film. I tend to write intimate scenes, so aside from the baby shower everything is really small with not a lot of people, which I think helps ease the discomfort. I remember at the beginning of lockdown, once everything was really starting to sink in, I’d be watching an episode of Succession or something and I’d start having heart palpitations because they’re all sitting at dinner together.
MB: One of the refreshing things about the movie is that Matt is the one who wants to settle down and have a family, even if it means being a single parent, whereas we’re used to seeing the female character be the one who’s at that place in her life. Could you talk about the way that you approached the film’s gender subversiveness?
NB: That’s definitely something that people have been experiencing as radical on screen, which I don’t think is as radical in real life. It’s just that we don’t see it represented on screen, which is a bummer and a detriment to us all. I think there has been a lot of talk in our society about having better, deeper representation of women on screen, which still obviously has a long way to go, but I also think we need to be changing and deepening the representation of men. This goes for every gender identity as well, but just speaking here in the two classic, culturally oppressive gender stereotypes that we deal with. I think feminism is for everyone, and I think it’s important to have feminist representation of men on screen as well. You can’t change the female gender stereotypes without also evolving the way that we portray masculinity.
MB: Something that stands out in the movie is the fact that Matt is more open emotionally, whereas Anna is initially more closed off and takes time for her walls to come down. Even when they come down, it’s not presented as her “getting in touch with her femininity”, but rather her opening herself up more to the world. As a woman existing in the world, and in this industry specifically, is that something that you tapped into personally from your experience, this depiction of a woman who can be herself without having to conform to that kind of a gender stereotype?
NB: That’s a very interesting question. I think Anna’s personality, or her persona, partially comes from having been kicked out of her family’s nest early, and also her endeavoring to be a surrogate after her experience of previously giving a child up for adoption. She’s very attentive to her boundaries and to what she feels capable of. I think when you’re put in a position as a kid where you are your own best advocate then that’s where you end up as an adult in many ways, because nobody else is looking out for your boundaries. Nobody else is looking out for your best interest, so you have to do that for yourself, and it does create a kind of vibe.
I think that is something that I cultivated in my own life based on my experiences that does sometimes rub people the wrong way. Of course, then you add being a director onto that and people will freak out, and come to me with an attitude of, “I’m entitled to have access to whatever I want from you, but also don’t tell me what to do!”. That sucks, and so I never fare well in those circumstances. I think Anna is incredibly emotionally intelligent, very aware of herself, and very clear-headed about her life, her identity, and her boundaries. Matt, on the other hand, is in this opening up space where his layers are peeling away rapidly in the face of becoming a dad, and it’s that combination that made the circumstances of these characters very interesting to me.
MB: Patti Harrison and Ed Helms have a unique chemistry in the film, where they have these two opposing energies yet it balances out so well together. Could you speak about casting them as your two leads?
NB: They’re really great. I couldn’t love them more. It’s such a magical thing when you meet and collaborate with people whose work you admire so much, and then you come to admire them even more. Ed has been on the scene for a bit, so I have been a fan of him for years. I’ve always loved the way he maintains this balance of conveying a grounded vulnerability and raw humanity no matter what outlandish thing he’s doing or is happening to him. I was newer to Patti’s work, but it was love at first sight and I realized right away that she was Anna. It’s really funny because I had a backlog of Ed’s work where I had seen him in so much, but Patti I think only the first season of Shrill had come out when I first cast her, and since then I’ve been able to see her do all of this crazy, outlandish, beautiful comedy in her work while I’ve been fine tuning this incredibly earnest, subtle, gorgeous performance that she gave in the film. I’m so excited to see more of what she’s going to do.
MB: There’s a scene in the film where Anna and Matt are talking about Woody Allen movies and the ickiness of it all. I couldn’t help but notice that your opening titles use Windsor Light Condensed, the same font that he’s been using for his films since the ‘70s. My mind unfortunately always associates that font with him, and I was curious if you made that decision to sort of reclaim it?
NB: Yeah, I was like, “that asshole doesn’t get his own font!”. Everyone should just picture me sitting at a huge marble desk, shouting out, “What’s Woody Allen’s font? Give me that font! Whatever that font is, I’ll take that from him!”. Yeah, I’m not a fan, so I was like why should you have that association and that ownership? No thank you.
MB: The ending of the film sees you make this really genius choice to have us stay with Anna, whereas I think most films would have us follow Matt or even have him bring the baby back up to Anna. Could you talk about your motivation for staying with Anna at that moment?
NB: I think it totally represents the story. Frank Barrera, our cinematographer, captured it so beautifully, and Patti’s performance is so gorgeous. That was the way the moment was scripted, but what wasn’t scripted was Matt off screen talking to the baby. While we were shooting I had to be calling over from camera, telling Ed to talk to Lamp, and he did it so beautifully. The scene in the film is the first take of him doing it. I just knew it was perfect. The way those two things are existing with each other, it really captures the bittersweetness because we see the goodbye in the frame, and then his joy, and her many layered experience. I think there’s a lot going on for Anna in that moment, and so then we should all leave, and go think about it in private and process it.
MB: I’m a huge Angel Olsen fan, so I wanted to ask you about the decision to have her song “Spring” as the end credits song. I think it’s such a gorgeous choice that perfectly fits with the ending and where the characters are at that moment.
NB: Oh, interesting! I got sneak peeks of that song because I know Angel a little bit, and I know Ben Babbitt, who did a lot of the string arrangements and instrumentation on that record. Even just from hearing early demos of that song I knew that it was the song for Matt and Anna. They were really generous in giving it to us, and it’s just the perfect fit. It’s this beautiful song that is lyrically so gorgeous, the piano is amazing, and then it feels both nostalgic but not old, very honest and hopeful, yet also melancholy. It’s such a difficult balance. I think that one is my favorite one of all of her records, and so I was very happy to have a part of it in the film.
MB: I wanted to end by asking you a bit of a fun question. We see couples therapy scenes throughout the film, and Matt mentions that him and his ex used to stand outside and eat candy together after they did couples therapy. So, I wanted to ask you what your favorite candy is, and what’s your favorite situation to be eating it in?
NB: Excellent question! Well, I do have a soft spot for Swedish Fish, which is why that is one of the candies in the film. I also really love chocolate. I love Pocky. I share that with my dog Norman, where I’d eat the chocolate covered part, and then he’d get the biscuit handle. That was our perfect movie snack. That’s our perfect scenario, watching a movie with Norman, and I’m eating the chocolate biscuit, and he gets the handle. I’m no stranger to an emergency box of Swedish Fish after therapy, though!
Together Together is playing in select theaters now and will be available on VOD on May 11.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]