“It’s the kind of meanness that can only come from family, you know? It’s the kind of meanness that can only come from people who really love each other,” was director Stephen Karam’s reaction to my observation that The Humans presented a very specific kind of familial mean-spiritedness in its dialogue and interactions that will be all too familiar to audiences with fraught family relationships (or, more simply, “audiences”).
He knows the play inside and out, having written and directed its first performance in Chicago all the way back in 2014, and is now responsible for bringing it to the screen. This is not a guarantee for a first-time director, even one who was the progenitor of the play receiving so much acclaim and interest from A24: “It helped that I was on such a long journey with the play and was the creator of the characters and the story. I’m sure it helped the producers to trust my instincts. It’s hard enough for an experienced filmmaker to overcome the hurdles one needs to get a movie made.”
He overcame those hurdles, at least in his eyes, by not simply just doing a straight filming of the stage production, “I was able to have a weird, outside-the-box take on my own play, if that makes sense?” That take certainly found some interesting surprises during the translation: “I have never finished a screenplay with an accompanying visual ‘bible.’ I became so obsessed with mise-en-scène as I was writing the screenplay.” The studio was more than happy to let his imagination take him where the film had to go… for some materialistic reasons along with artistic ones, “In A24’s eyes, keeping the budget low – or as low as possible – was a major part of it, but also they had trust in the material that I had written. It was less a matter of having to ‘fight for it’ and more of an awkward moment of having finished the play and being able to walk the producers through it in about two hundred and fifty images.”
One of the striking elements of the film, to me, was the specificity of the griminess and interiors of the lower Manhattan apartment building Brigid and her boyfriend Richard lived in. When I relayed this to Karam, he revealed this was pulled from personal experiences: “I lived in the basement level of a ground-floor basement duplex for years. I know every laundry stain, I know every foot creak, and I know every hallway that’s impossible to maneuver around. I know that space so, so well. It’s in my psyche. I know how it feels to not be sure if it’s rainy or sunny outside because you’re so deep in that space. There’s something fascinating about that kind of space. In that space, you’re in one of the most vibrant cities in the world, but you can’t tell if the city is ‘out there.’”
“It goes without saying that there’s no recreating the brilliance of the original stage cast so the thing that enabled me to do the adaptation was the feeling of doing something new.” This feeling he had was reflected in how longtime stage veteran Jayne Houdyshell was the only returning member from the original Broadway production. “I wouldn’t have even tried recreating Joe Mantello’s brilliant stage direction or I would have recommended someone else directing [the film]. I was lucky to have Jayne around to build on the performance she had familiarity with, but in a new space, with a new family. Once the concept itself was established, it seemed like, from all vantage points, it was more advantageous to embark on a new enterprise and not trying to have people ‘unlearn’ something they shouldn’t be unlearning. What the Chicago and Broadway Company achieved was indelible and they should remain indelible.”
As he explained the timeline of when the play first made the rounds in 2014, all the way through its national tour before ending up on Broadway in 2016, and then principal photography starting and wrapping in 2019 before releasing it to the world this Thanksgiving week, I pointed out that… well, a lot has happened since the debut of the stage production and the process of filming the adaptation. For that matter, a lot has happened in just the one year between shooting wrapped and today. Does he feel differently about what The Humans is reflecting in this new era? “Yes! I felt differently in 2014 and in 2015 and in 2016 and what was originally received as an economic anxiety Obama era play and then it was interpreted as a Bernie/Trump/Hillary story to a lot of people when we moved to Broadway. I was watching people project their own ideas of which one of the characters was ‘for’ Trump or Bernie. But by not having that talky political discourse, there was a capacity among audiences as events shift to see their own fears and resentments in the Blake family. I never cease to be surprised at how well it adapts to different events, whether it is a hurricane or a recession or a pandemic. That’s not something you can anticipate. It’s not even a good or bad quality, so much as watching audiences see new meanings in the same text.”
He offers a particularly poignant anecdote about this shift, “I knew a woman who had seen the story exclusively through the daughter’s eyes, and over time this audience member’s reaction after one of their parent’s died changed considerably. I love those discussions, and I never get tired of seeing new ways of looking at this family and what they’re going through.”