Saturday Night Live head writer Chris Kelly is most known for co-writing memorable sketches like “(Do It On My) Twin Bed” and “Back Home Ballers,” but he switched gears for Other People, a drama based on the period of his life when his mom was dying of cancer. The result is an at times heartbreaking, at times hilarious look at a family doing their best to get through a terrible time.
Molly Shannon and Jesse Plemons star in the film, which Kelly wrote the script for after his own mother died in 2009 — but even though many pieces are taken from his own life, he says Other People isn’t purely autobiographical. “The big things are true, like, I’m a comedy writer, I’m gay,” he tells EW. “But oftentimes, I would take one memorable sentence that my mom said to me and I would invent full scenes around it.”
More than anything, Kelly aimed to capture the feeling of those final months with his mom without veering into melodrama. “I wanted it to feel as real as possible,” he says. “I tried to avoid big, swelling orchestra moments that tell people, ‘Here’s the lesson, here’s where you cry.’ I wanted it to feel matter-of-fact.”
Read on for what else Kelly had to say about finding humor in horrible situations, how a Train song made its way into the movie, and what made Shannon perfect for the role. Watch the trailer for Other People — available now on iTunes and in theaters — below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What has been the best part about getting this out into the world?
CHRIS KELLY: I’ve been very overwhelmed at how much people have said they related to the movie, either because they’ve been through it with their own parent or they are a cancer survivor themselves, or they related to the sexuality of the main character and the struggle he went through with it. I think that’s brave and lovely that so many people have wanted to share their experiences. Sometimes I feel not equipped enough. I want to say a thousand things to them, and I’m not really sure what to say, but I really do appreciate anybody who’s tweeted at me or come to a screening. It’s s—ty to hear that all these people relate to the movie because that probably means they’ve had someone die. But it’s sort of nice. Because you’re like, oh, okay. Everyone goes through this.
When you were actually going through this with your mom, were you seeing the humor in some of these situations? At what point did you?
It was constant throughout. My mother was incredibly funny. And my whole family’s funny and has a good sense of humor and my whole family had an awareness of, we were able to be in a very horrific moment and still laugh at the absurdity of something. If something funny reared its head, the family wasn’t too serious to step outside of themselves and be like, “Okay, this is kind of funny.” That’s how it’s been my whole life, growing up with my family, we all had a sense of humor, the comedy was inherent. When I sat down to write the script, it wasn’t a drama that I then needed to go back and put jokes into. I was just trying to capture the accurate tone of what it felt like to go through that.
On your Reasons I Love My Mother Tumblr, you wrote about your mom’s relationship with birch trees, and how you think of her when you see them now. But in the movie, it’s the main character’s friend who sees his late mother in birch trees. Could you talk about that decision?
My mom had made a comment about birch trees and that when she died she was going to be a birch tree, so if we ever see one, that’s her. And I remember thinking that was a sweet little thing for someone to say. I’m not religious at all, it was just one of those bizarre things that seemed so small at the time but it really did stick with me. I wanted the main character in the movie to be searching for this meaning. I wanted him to be trying to figure out, okay, I’m living through a cancer movie right now, where is my cancer movie lesson? When do I learn something? What am I supposed to get out of this f—ing s—ty experience? I thought it was helpful to have the friend’s mother tell that birch tree story, which is beautiful and so lovely, and I wanted the main character to hear that story and basically be like, “I want that story! What’s my version of this story? I want my birch tree moment, come on, give it to me, world.” Then he’s searching for it in all the wrong ways, and then if you see the movie, you see, hopefully, what that turns out to be out for him. It’s a good example of how the movie is fictionalized.
There isn’t that much music in the movie, but Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” plays a big role. Why that song?
Initially, when I wrote this script, as much as it isn’t autobiographical, I did start by just brainstorming and jotting down anything and everything that I remembered from that time in my life, whether it was big or small or stupid or silly, and one of the things I wrote down was “Drops of Jupiter.” I remember it playing on the car radio one night after a pretty sad, rough conversation I had with my dad and my sisters about my mom’s health. We all drove somewhere, he explained what was going on with her body; it was a very delicate, sad night, and then we drove home, and that song was playing, and I don’t know why I remembered that it was playing, but I did. And I didn’t hate it or love it, I just remembered it.
As the script was taking shape, I liked the song playing comedically throughout it as this haunting presence. The main character is very dismissive of his hometown, rudely so. He’s like, “I’m from New York, baby, I’m back in Sacramento, and I’m better than this.” Which is so stupid and so rude and so dismissive, but the song is to me a good stand-in for suburbia. It’s like, that song you hear and you treat it as a joke and you’re like, “Ugh, this ‘Drops of Jupiter,’ Sacramento, blah blah blah,” but I wanted it to play like that throughout the movie and then I wanted it to take on a different meaning at the end. I just thought it worked both ways. I do actually think the song is beautiful. I think it’s a song you could easily write off, or if you really wanted to listen to it, and you really wanted to give it some credit, it can be pretty.
Everyone is so great in this movie, especially Molly Shannon. What was it like working with her?
I wasn’t setting out to cast an identical version of me or my sisters or my dad. I very much was into, let’s cast the best people, the best actors, the funniest people, and let them turn these roles into whatever they want to turn them into. When it came to my mom, though, I was a little more precious because she’s kind of the center of the movie, and I knew I was going to have this movie forever and I wanted to be able to see my mom in the role — and I do. Molly is just… the best. [Laughs] I really can’t say enough good things about her performance. And I’m not even saying that as someone who directed this movie, just like, as a fan, I’ve been a fan of hers forever from Saturday Night Live to her more dramatic work with Mike White, like Enlightened or Year of the Dog. I’ve always wanted to see her front and center in a role like this where she’s funny and heartbreaking and angry and sad and, as a fan of hers, it’s very cool to be a part of this movie that has allowed her to show everyone all the sides of her.
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What effect has making this movie had on you emotionally?
I think it’s given me more empathy, maybe as a writer and as a person. Not that I was some hardened, cynical piece of s— before and now I’m just like a saint or anything like that, but when you write a movie where the idea is other people and thinking of other people, I spent so much time in writing this script trying to think about my own insecurities and my own fears and my own deficiencies when I was in my 20s. I spent so much time writing in the voice of my younger self that I had a lot of time to reflect on, how was I good? How was I wrong? What could I have done better? And I spent so much time trying to put myself in that mindset and one of the things that I learned was I was going through a lot personally and all of my problems and concerns were valid, but I probably could have done a better job of looking to my left and looking to my right and noticing that there were other people going through equally horrible, sad things. The process of writing the script and then directing it, and even talking about it in interviews has really just… I don’t know, highlighted this idea of other people and I think it’s given me more empathy for other people — which is such a dramatic sentence to say when your movie’s called Other People? [Laughs] But it is true. I think it’s given me hopefully a little more empathy.
This is obviously a very personal movie, but you’ve talked about this period of your life before, like on your Tumblr. I’m wondering if this feels any different or if you had any hesitation about putting something so personal into the world?
Yes and no. it just sort of kept happening accidentally. I wrote this script with no intention that it was ever going to get made. I just wrote it to see if I could. I had never written something that was this long of a sustained narrative, but then I’ve also never written anything that was tonally like this before, a sort of hybrid between comedy and drama. No one was begging me to write a feature script [Laughs], I was just doing it on my own. So at the time, I didn’t really have any hesitations because I didn’t presume that it would then get made. And then slowly but surely when it was like, “Oh, maybe I’ll direct this…” And then every step of the way, it was a little weird, like this is about me. But it really isn’t. It turned into its own thing. I don’t 100 percent see my family up there. I think it’s turned into this thing that’s more universal now and I don’t really, I don’t know how to explain it, but now that’s it’s a finished thing, it feels weirdly more personal to me and less personal to me because it’s become its own story. I was nervous but as soon as the cast was there, and the first day we started shooting, and the actors were just as incredible as they were, my nerves kind of went away. Because it felt like it was in good hands. Once we started rolling on the first day, I felt like, “Okay, I think this will be something.” [Laughs]