Saturday Night Live has cultivated comedians and launched them to stardom, but not being there long-term can have benefits of its own. Had Noël Wells stayed on SNL past her one-season tenure, we might not have gotten the actress’ performance in Netflix’s critically lauded Master of None, nor her new directorial debut, a smart and endearing comedy that premiered last weekend at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas.
That film, Mr. Roosevelt, stars Wells as Emily Martin, a struggling Los Angeles comedian who returns to her hometown (fittingly, also Austin, which is also where Wells went to college) after the film’s title character falls ill. Short on money, Emily ends up staying with her ex-boyfriend, Eric — who locked his guitar away, cleaned up his wardrobe, and is now studying to be a realtor — and his new girlfriend, Celeste, a poised, so-perfect-it’s-scary type who doesn’t eat gluten and completely redecorated Emily’s former home to look straight out of a Pinterest board. (Emily’s remaining belongings, meanwhile, have been relegated into a shed out back.)
As Emily attempts to navigate the city she left behind and the events following what brought her home, the results are both funny and heartfelt (not even technical difficulties with the projector during the film’s premiere could dampen its charms). Following the big debut, Wells, 30, sat down with EW to talk about choosing to make the movie, the challenges of directing her first film, and why Austin was the perfect place to screen it for the first time.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you come up with the idea for the script, and for Emily?
NOËL WELLS: The character was sort of in my head when I was in college, and I was thinking about this person and the sorts of things that she reflected in me and also in people my age around me. But it took almost six years to figure out exactly the journey to take her there. I always knew that she’d be coming back to Austin, and I had written a draft of the movie where a lot more things were happening and the feedback I was getting was, this is funny, but it’s a little all over the place, and once I figured out the central aspect of Mr. Roosevelt then it all sort of just came together and I was able to take the pieces that had worked before and incorporate them into the story.
Emily has this outlook where you have to tick a box before you can move onto the next one. Did you feel that way about making a movie, that you had to accomplish X, Y, Z, other things before you took this on?
I guess I kind of did — I thought you have to work your way up, and I think being on SNL was a huge goal of mine and I was thinking, oh, I have to go do this and then when I’m on it for seven years, then they’ll let me make movies! And then, when I was not on it for seven years, you just have this imperative on yourself to say, “What do I do now? Do I wait around for somebody to give me permission, or do I just decide that I’m gonna do it?” And so, to me it was I definitely had to decide to do it, and I really wanted to.
Are there any other parts of Emily that are autobiographical?
Yeah. I say that everything that happened in the movie, everything is something that has happened to me in some sense, but all of it’s made up. So there are lines from my life, there are interactions I’ve had with people, I did have a job in L.A. where I worked out of an apartment with all these other people, I did get fired for going back to Austin, and I did have a boyfriend that I broke up with and didn’t realize that I had hurt his feelings because I was so self-absorbed. So I guess that that seems like a lot of the movie but I promise it’s much different than reality was [laughs].
Did it take a few tries to find the balance of how much comedy you wanted in the film?
I think it kind of just came out. I did shoot a lot more jokes and a lot more funny interactions, so in the edit those were the first things to kind of leave because we needed to cut it down, and at the end of the day, I did want the story to feel like it was always moving forward, so you throw a lot at the wall and then you strip it away to service the movie. I think that was always my goal was for it to resonate with people and to feel humane. There’s a lot of comedy out today, comedy’s very en vogue, but I don’t really connect with the comedy that much. The comedy movies that I really love all resonate with people on a human level, and the intent at the end of the day is I hope people will connect [with this movie]. I also really hoped that they will laugh, but if people feel the heart, that was really the ultimate goal.
Did you look to any other films, or filmmakers, for inspiration?
It actually comes down to the heart of it and the movies that made me feel things. I didn’t really look at a ton of movies before making it, but the movies that I did — this is going to sound strange — was Mike Mills’ Beginners. It’s a movie that blew me away the first time I saw it because it was such an emotional thing, not being obnoxious or cloying, I just really liked the way that I felt afterwards, and every time that I watch it I feel something different. And also the same thing with Frances Ha, I like that movie because it made me feel stuff! So those are the two that I was going back and forth on. And then comedically, I watched Swingers a bunch, and that’s the goofy comedy element that I want to bring — if I can just bring these little anecdotes in from my world that can just be funny throughout it, that would be really cool.
I really liked Celeste as a character because even though she’s the “villain,” from Emily’s perspective, she’s not this nasty, “evil new girlfriend” caricature.
Yeah! I wanted to show, through Emily’s point of view, this woman’s sort of Rosemary’s Baby-ing her, and there’s this horror element that I wanted to have through there, really like, what side of things is she on? But at the end of the day, she’s just a lady [laughs]. She’s a girl, just like Emily, she’s just at a different point in her sh– and it was really important for me to be like, we all have our sh–. We’re not villains.
What were the biggest challenges you faced as the director?
The biggest challenge was trusting myself. It was my first project, and the first time with me working with so many different people, and people ask you a lot of questions and sometimes I thought people were asking me questions because they thought I wasn’t doing something right, and then I would get really confused about what needed to happen. But anytime I just followed what I wanted, it worked out fine. At the end of the day, it’s like, ‘No, listen to yourself!’ — and also listen to other people, but listen to yourself. [Laughs]
You went to school here in Austin, you shot the film in Austin, and it’s premiering in Austin. That must be a really great feeling.
It feels appropriate. You have this idea, like, there’s an ego side of you that’s like, Oh, I hope I get into a big fancy film festival, or something like that. I’ll be crowned in the industry. And then that doesn’t happen and you’re like, f—, why was I trying to do that? I want to be where it was made, and I want to be in the community and celebrate with the people that brought it to life and I want to come back to the place that made me. And so it feels really appropriate and really special.