A film producer since 2014, Matt Ratner made his directing debut last year with the tragically funny film Standing Up, Falling Down. Starring Billy Crystal and Ben Schwartz, it follows two men who become friends during equally pivotal moments of their regret-filled lives. The film is an excellent blend of drama and laugh-out-loud jokes, and I had the opportunity to speak with Ratner right before its release. We talked about the making of it, the current comedy landscape, and BoJack Horseman, among other things.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today; it’s a fantastic film.
I’m biased but I’ll agree with you. [Laughs]
How does it feel with only a couple of days until this movie hits theaters?
I would say “but who’s counting?” but I am most certainly counting! But you know, if I don’t enjoy this part of it then I should probably go do something else. It’s been such a long journey with this and for people to finally have an opportunity to see it across the country is really meaningful.
What was the reception like at the film’s debut at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival?
It was beyond any expectation. We’d done some small test-screening type things, but there were probably only around ten people in the world who had seen the final cut of the film before the premiere. You think you can be moderately objective but you don’t really know how audiences are going to respond. It was an awesome night.
You’re no stranger to working on films but this is your first time in the director’s chair. What about Standing Up, Falling Down made it feel like you needed to make this?
Directing is such a personal endeavor and I feel like you have to find your own connection to the material if you expect anyone else to care about it. I’d been looking for something to direct for a long time. When I read the script it just immediately got its hooks into me. I’ve always been drawn to stories that blend humor and pathos. I’ve always felt like that’s very true to life. From the first time I read the script, it did that. There were moments I was laughing out loud and it also dealt with thematic elements in a not-showy way that resonated with me. It had terrific characters that I thought could attract some really great actors.
Were there any specific actors in mind when it came to casting the roles?
When we were first trying to get the film made, Billy was a pie in the sky. Not realistic. The last thing you want to do on these small movies is set them up waiting for somebody like Billy to not even read the script. So when we got feedback that it might be something he was taking a look at, that was a game-changer.
He’s been receiving pretty universal praise for his performance in this film, with many including myself regarding it as his best work yet. How does it feel having that come from your film?
It’s incredibly meaningful. Billy is somebody whose work is something we’ve all respected and looked up to for years. I’m so thrilled that he’s getting the kind of response he’s getting for his performance, and it was so special to aid it and to see the way he got his hooks into this character, to see how much he cared about this guy and connected with him. They always say “don’t trust the dailies, the dailies always look good” but we were all very acutely aware that Billy was turning in really special work. It was our job not to mess that up! [Laughs]
How do you feel about the word “dramedy”?
It’s funny. I know that’ll be affixed to this, and that’s fine. For me, life is comedy, life is drama, it’s often both at the same time – it’s just life. Sometimes people wanna call this a dramatic comedy, sometimes people wanna call this a comedic drama, whatever works.
How do you work that balance between drama and comedy when you’re translating the script to the screen?
It’s mostly making sure that everyone is telling the same story. I think there are very different versions of this film. There’s probably a much more saccharine version of the movie, and there’s probably a movie that’s a much darker look at the perils and struggles of addiction. Those are great stories. Neither one was the story that we wanted to tell. We were all really clear on exactly the story we wanted and we tried to have every choice – from an acting choice to a lens choice – work towards that story.
Neither of the two main characters end up with the kind of Hollywood ending that you might expect. Is that something you purposefully strayed away from?
It wasn’t a conscious choice in the sense of wanting to avoid those kinds of endings. It was conscious in the fact that it just felt appropriate to the film. So much of this film is about what happens when it comes to people’s redemptive journeys and about the fact that there is this sort of inherent messiness to life, that it’s not always clean. As someone who makes movies and sees them, I personally enjoy stories that give an audience a little bit of credit.
There’s been so much talk the past few years about how it’s too hard to be funny now, with a lot of performers claiming that they’re too afraid of offending anyone. What’re your thoughts on the state of comedy at this moment?
I think two things. I think it’s empowered people to be smarter in their comedy and I think that the best comedy doesn’t come from those sort of low-hanging fruit. The best comedy is grounded in truth and grounded in intelligence. My favorite comedians are all hyper-smart people. Billy and Ben are certainly that way. I remember Jon Stewart talking about how the Obama administration was kind of a disaster for stand-up comedy because it was very hard to make fun of. I think there’s so much going on in the world now that you often look to comedy as a release. You look to comedy as both a reflection of what’s going on in the world and an escape from what’s going on in the world. There’s a lot of opportunity on both sides of that. With our movie, we’re not trying to be inoffensive. You can tell a story that’s enjoyable and hopefully funny without testing aspersions out.
Are there any recent comedies or comedy series that have been making you laugh?
Fleabag is brilliant. I absolutely tore through Fleabag and now any time I see a fox it induces paranoia. [Laughs] Unfortunately I haven’t been able to watch a ton lately because I’ve been so busy with Standing Up, Falling Down. I really enjoyed Booksmart, I finally saw that. There’s a lot of angst about the nature of the marketplace of film and the truth is that there is a lot of content fatigue, and I get that, but it also means that there’s never been a better time to find content. There’s so many people making such vital and interesting work.
Some moments of this film reminded of BoJack Horseman, which also beautifully straddled that line of being hilarious and devastating.
When you try to pitch BoJack to someone who isn’t aware of it, it’s like, about a fucking horse actor and it’s also emotionally impactful? But no, really it is! It’s one of those neat things where you can use that medium to tell stories in a way that you didn’t used to be able to.
I have one last note and that is just that Kevin Dunn is incredible and I’m glad to have seen him in this!
I’m actually glad you mention it because Kevin is somebody that I’ve really wanted to work with. Part of the joy of this kind of storytelling is that people still want to work on good stuff. On a movie like this, everybody – whether it’s Billy, whether it’s me, whether it’s a production assistant – everyone is doing it because they care about the material and believe in it. Starting with the script means you can get people like Kevin, Grace Gummer, Eloise Mumford, Debra Monk. They come in, they work three or four days and sort of slip into this. As much of the story is this unlikely friendship between Ben and Billy, fleshing out everybody else as well-rounded characters and performers was really wonderful.
I think we’re seeing a resurgence of smaller films. There were so many high-profile ones from last year.
There is room. I think sometimes people look at it as binary. We’re never going to be on as many screens as The Avengers but we don’t need to be. We need our story to get out into the world and for people to see it and care about it, and there certainly is space for that.
Standing Up, Falling Down is now playing in select cities and is available on demand.
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