Having your first movie as a director star Tony Hale, with a supporting cast including Danielle Brooks, Paul Walter Hauser, Elisha Cuthbert, Sarah Burns, David Walton, Lamorne Morris, Sarah Goldberg, Alan Tudyk, and even more impressive comedic talent, is a luxury that we would all be lucky to have.
That’s the fortunate position that filmmaker Scott Abramovitch had when he made Eat Wheaties!, the story of a mild-mannered office worker named Sid Straw (Hale) who goes viral after people discover a series of messages he’s been sending to Elizabeth Banks on social media.
Based on the 2003 novel The Locklear Letters by Michael Kun, which naturally focused on Heather Locklear as opposed to Banks, Abramovitch updates the source material to tackle the ways in which social media have muddied our relationships not only with celebrities, but with other people as well. It’s easier now than ever to say something silly that makes you look like a fool, and it’s just as easy for people to relentlessly dunk on someone who made a harmless mistake like that, potentially causing genuine harm to their real lives as a result.
With what we’ve seen happening over the past year, it’s more appropriate now than ever for a film that at its heart radiates the importance of kindness towards your fellow person (something I spoke of in my review for the film). Abramovitch sat down with me to discuss the ideas he hopes come across in the film, along with the good fortune of working with such a tremendous group of actors on his first feature as a director.
Read below for my interview with Eat Wheaties! writer/director Scott Abramovitch:
Mitchell Beaupre: Where did this project begin for you? Were you a big fan of the book?
Scott Abramovitch: Absolutely. yeah. I read the book when it first came out 17 or 18 years ago, and it was the fastest read ever. I remember I went into a Barnes & Noble to pick it up and I was done in like an hour and a half. I loved the character, I loved the voice, but at the time I didn’t see how it could be a film because it was all told through letters, through stationery, and notes on flowers that the character sends to women he screws up with. I reread it a few years ago though, and suddenly that theme of connecting with celebrities on social media and how accessible they feel, along with the idea that you could post something on social media that you think is funny and it could completely derail your life, felt so real.
That’s all there in the book, with Sid’s problem being that he can’t stop putting his foot in his mouth. I felt like it was the perfect vehicle to tell this story about somebody who is not connecting with people in the real world, even though he’s trying so hard. That was the heart of the movie. It was about me wanting to fall in love with Sid on screen the way that I fell in love with him on the page from that very first letter. My main goal, and main hope, was to ensure that people were laughing with Sid, and never at him.
MB: One of the most crucial elements of the film is making sure that the audience loves Sid, and empathizes with him, while also understanding why the other people in his life find him so irritating. Could you talk about navigating that tricky balance?
SA: For me, everything really came down to both the casting and the structure of the story. I wanted to make the brother relationship stand out as Sid’s saving grace. It’s this relationship that was always a rock for him, and yet he can’t quite access it anymore because of his relationship with his sister-in-law. Elisha Cuthbert was so great at giving us exactly what that character needed to be. I worried at times that she would come off as too harsh, but I hope that the audience understands where she’s coming from. I definitely have people in my life who are very similar to Sid, and I think I can be quite like him as well at times, and some people find a person like that really off-putting, but those are the people that I love the most in my life. When you get to know them, like we do with Sid, you realize that their heart is on their sleeve, and they’ll do anything for the people they love.
MB: For a first-time feature as a director you’ve got a tremendous cast from top to bottom here. Did that help you feel like you were in safe hands?
SA: Definitely. This was my first time as a director, but I’ve produced and written some stuff before, and on my first film ever I was working with Susan Sarandon, Ellen Burstyn, and Donald Sutherland – actors who I not only grew up with, but were part of the reason why I wanted to be a filmmaker in the first place. You get over the feeling of intimidation being around great actors like that pretty quickly. This film was really the opposite of being intimidated, as I felt so comfortable collaborating with everyone, beginning with Tony. We didn’t get to workshop a lot because there was very little prep time, but I remember having one workshopping session with Tony and David Walton for the scene at the poolside where Sid’s brother is giving him this wakeup call and I saw there how this movie was going to work because that scene is the crucial turning point for all of it and these guys worked so well together.
MB: Another of the standout relationships in the movie is between Tony and Paul Walter Hauser, who is a total scene-stealer whenever he shows up. Could you talk about that dynamic with the two of them? I love that montage of them on the road together.
SA: Ugh, I wish I could watch a whole movie with those two characters. Sugar Lyn as well, who plays Paul’s wife. There was some great footage of the three of them that we had to cut out of the movie. During the montage we had a moment where Paul and Sugar do this Lady and the Tramp thing with a Fruit Roll-Up that was so hilarious. Every time my wife sees that montage she gets so mad at me for cutting that out. Tony and Paul work so well together I think because Tony has spent decades being the world’s greatest supporting comedic actor, whereas whenever Paul is in a scene all of the air in the room goes towards him. Tony is so great at playing off those big presences, so they’re just perfect for each other.
MB: Elizabeth Banks is such a fitting choice for the celebrity that Sid fixates over. She is someone who does feel remarkably approachable. Was there a process towards deciding on her as the celebrity for the film, or did you always want it to be her?
SA: Elizabeth hit every single characteristic that I was looking for. She really went to the University of Pennsylvania, she’s got this amazing social media presence, but she’s also genuine and is somebody who when she has a cause she goes all in on it. She’s also someone who didn’t get famous until she was in her late 20s or early 30s, so I think it’s believable that somebody like Sid would have been friends with her in college. I was so nervous when we sent her and her team the script because if she said no I didn’t have a clue what else we were going to do. The University of Penn was actually really game for it all as well, which was a lot of fun. They sent us a bunch of swag during production to use during the movie, and they’re going to be doing a big push for it to go with its release. It all worked out so well.
MB: Was it always the intention to not have her physically show up in the movie? You could see a movie like this having a big moment of her actually coming to the reunion, but it’s so much more fitting for Sid’s arc that she doesn’t.
SA: There was definitely a point where everyone around me, the other producers particularly, were pushing to have her show up, or to at least put the voiceover in the end credits into the actual movie itself. I was adamant though that we needed that in the end credits, so it came after the movie was over, and that she never shows up. I think if she were to appear on screen in the film that it would take away from what the movie was all about. Sid’s arc ends when he doesn’t answer the phone. He doesn’t need that validation of Elizabeth Banks anymore, so that voicemail and the recognition that she actually does remember Sid fondly is for us, for the audience. There was certainly a temptation from the marketing side to be able to say that Elizabeth Banks was in our movie, but yeah it was never my intention for her to show up on screen.
MB: Another crucial component of Sid’s arc at the end is the character played by Danielle Brooks. As is the case with many of the actors in the film, she only has a few scenes but we really get to feel connected to her character and understand her. Could you talk about that aspect of being able to realize these characters even when you’ve only got a few scenes to establish them?
SA: That’s all in the beauty of casting people like Danielle, or Sarah Goldberg, or Lamorne Morris, is that they make you instantly fall in love with them. That’s the most important thing for the audience, particularly with Danielle, is for the audience to care about this romance and how it progresses. Danielle’s scenes were actually really tricky to structure in the movie, because we needed the audience to invest in her and care about that dynamic with her and Sid, but we didn’t want to put too much emphasis on that too early. We moved around her scenes a lot in different edits of the movie, and cut some down as well. It was frustrating that we had to lose some great material with her, but ultimately what we need is for the audience to get a lasting impression from her, to see that she finds Sid funny and gets his humanity. I hope people feel really connected to her.
MB: Something that I do need to ask – what exactly does “Davey Crockett this bitch” mean?
SA: (laughing) Oh god, yeah we had to cut that out. That’s too bad. So, the end of that bit was originally done in that car scene where Sid is trying to call Kate and having the mixup with the phone. Eventually, he pulls over and manually calls her. This was just after they had their first date, they hadn’t interacted since then, and he leaves this voicemail telling her that he found three answers for the Davey Crockett thing and they all end with someone having a pubic hair on their head. That’s kind of the button of the Davey Crockett bit, and then after he says all of that he goes, “Oh, this is Sid by the way”.
MB: That scene in the car is something that wouldn’t have been able to happen when the book was originally released in the early 2000s. What was the process like of adapting that source material into the modern era?
SA: As a writer it was so much fun. I was able to take this character whose voice was so distinct, funny, and brilliant, and this story that totally worked and then find ways to build it around other people and extend it outwards. The Danielle Brooks character wasn’t in the novel so that was something I added in, and the whole novel is told through Sid’s voice, so with the movie we were able to really find Paul Walter Hauser’s character’s voice, and give voice to Elisha’s character. Then there was the technology side of things. Personally, I’m not on social media, because I know the challenges of it and the temptations of it when it comes to just throwing out some joke without thinking. If I were on there I’d probably put my foot in my mouth once a day. I think part of what audiences connect with, I hope, is this feeling that they could be Sid, or there are people around them who they don’t find funny, but now maybe they look at a little bit differently.
MB: Something that I found myself reflecting on during the movie was that, just like how we become too familiar with celebrities on social media, we also become dehumanized to the people who said something silly on social media that goes viral and everyone is making fun of them on the internet for days. We lose sight of the fact that those are real people who are impacted by that.
SA: At the time that this all came together around 4 or 5 years ago, there was story after story coming out like this of people whose lives were just derailed and what happened to them afterwards. That was something that I felt very strongly about and connected to. Like I said, I’m not on social media, but my wife is, and I would see how we’d go out to lunch with our friends and our kids, who were really young at the time, and the kids were just absolute assholes. Everyone had a miserable time, but then you’d post the picture on social media and everyone is smiling and acting like we all had a blast. It’s not a reflection at all of what really happened. That’s kind of the way that you make a positive spin with social media, whereas this story is the negative side of that.
In the editing process we had the scene where Sid is searching his name online and seeing all of the stuff that people said about him. The other producers wanted us to see the screen so that we could see everything people were saying, but I knew that we didn’t need that. We’ve seen all of that before, and I knew that the biggest pain comes from staying with Sid and connecting with that feeling of just seeing the worst thing you could imagine on that screen in front of him, particularly because he thought that he was actually connecting with someone, even though it wasn’t really her. I hope that when people see that moment that it’s powerful to them, that they realize how even when you think you’re just saying a joke, when you say stuff like that online it really can be hurtful.
MB: The biggest theme for me personally in the movie was that idea of kindness, and how little effort it takes to simply be decent. It’s something that I think we could use a lot more of in the world right now. What are you hoping that people walk away from the movie thinking about?
SA: That’s the most important thing for me. I think people like Sid, who try to connect with people in their life, are constantly met with people like the ones in his office. I think that’s our natural tendency, especially if somebody is a little awkward, is to either be mean or to ignore them, and these are some of the best people in the world. These are people who are just trying to connect. I know, especially this last year when human interaction and being out in the world has been a lot more limited, that I can say something stupid and realize that it didn’t come out the way that I thought it was going to. That’s a human mistake, and so I hope that people will see this and think not just about being forgiving of things like that, but also about letting people like Sid into your lives in a way that allows us to see who they really are.
MB: This is your first feature as a director, and it’s a movie with such an abundance of heart. What are you working on next?
SA: There’s a few things that I’ve been working on lately. This year was a good one to kind of allow for writing, although it was also hard to find focus at times. There are a few stories that I’m really passionate about. One that I’ve been working on for a while is this true story of women who had never played sports before, and how learning to play soccer teaches them lessons about life. Another true story I’ve been putting together is from World War II about this guy who had a nervous breakdown and gets into beachcombing as a way of calming himself. It’s this incredible story that touched so many people’s lives because these people lost their loved ones during the war and never had an answer as to what happened, and they finally got that closure. That’s another thing that I’ve been working on really hard, and so I hope that Eat Wheaties! connects with audiences and allows me to make this next movie so that we can talk again then!
Eat Wheaties! is available now in select theaters and on VOD
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]