A holiday diamond in the rough: An oral history of The Family Stone
"I f---ing hate her."
Those words launched an idea, a film, and eventually, an egg-filled strata. In 2000, writer-director Thomas Bezucha was making his bed when he heard what would become the character of Amy Stone say that sentence. Instantly, a story unfolded in his mind, one of a rambunctious East Coast family during a fragile time in their lives and the uptight Manhattan executive (with an insanely annoying throat tick) who becomes the target of their anxiety.
"My sister [was] dating someone, and the family didn’t think it was a great match," Bezucha says. So he wrote a story about bringing somebody who wasn’t immediately likable home to the family during the holidays. One week after he pitched his film (then titled F---ing Hate Her), Meet the Parents came out. "It was like a gut punch. It definitely delayed the movie," Bezucha says. But after a few years and a couple of iterations, he got the chance to make his film. This time around it was called The Family Stone.
A Family Affair
The film follows Everett Stone, the cool, calm, and collected eldest brother of five siblings, as he introduces his family to his girlfriend, Meredith, whose tailored clothes and severe bun aren’t nearly as stiff as her personality. Before Bezucha could begin building the ensemble cast, he knew he needed to nail down a matriarch. The rest would follow.
THOMAS BEZUCHA: We had many different iterations. There was a very indie cast at one point that felt very Sundance. Then Michael London came on as the producer on the heels of Sideways and said, "Who is your perfect Sybil?" I said Diane Keaton. You should always lead with Diane Keaton. No matter what the question is, Diane’s the answer.
DIANE KEATON (SYBIL STONE): I remember I really liked the script when I read it. I knew it was great.
SARAH JESSICA PARKER (MEREDITH MORTON): I had pretty recently finished Sex and the City, and I didn’t [want] to work for a bit. I had a new child. Then I met Tom, and he told me the story. It was a part I’d never played before, and I didn’t really understand why he imagined me being able to do right by that script.
LUKE WILSON (BEN STONE): I’d have probably done it without reading the script to work with Diane.
ELIZABETH REASER (SUSANNAH STONE TROUSDALE): I was auditioning for a show and they asked, “Can you just read this right now, cold on tape?” Very soon thereafter I got a call. I’m sure someone fell out; I still don’t know who that is, so I got very lucky.
DERMOT MULRONEY (EVERETT STONE): I had a meeting with Tom, and Tom's concern that day was I was beginning to grey a little bit. So Tom sheepishly asked me, he said it this way, "I want you to look as good as possible in this movie," and so he asked if I'd be cool if maybe he darkened my hair a little bit.
BEZUCHA: He was like, "I can dye my hair" and I said, "I want you to look as good as you possibly can" and he never forgave me for that. [Laughs] He would tease me about it a lot.
MULRONEY: I never let him forget it. My concern that day was I thought I would say yes, but there’s not a chance that the rest of these people are going to stay in. As luck should have it, they all did.
Rounding out the all-star cast were Craig T. Nelson, Claire Danes, Brian White, and Tyrone Giordano, whose character, Thad, is deaf. The cast was tasked with working sign language into their roles.
BEZUCHA: [Meredith] is already anxious, and they speak a language she doesn’t understand. That’s where the idea of him being deaf started; then the search was on for a hearing-impaired actor.
TYRONE GIORDANO (THAD STONE): I was playing Huckleberry Finn in Deaf West Theatre’s Big River. Casting for the film was happening at the same time the tour was in L.A.
BRIAN WHITE (PATRICK THOMAS): We had maybe three weeks of class, and Diane was so committed to it. And if you got it wrong, Ty would cut the scene or talk over you.
GIORDANO: As a deaf person, I loved that the family signed. Rachel was a quick study. Diane was comfortable getting into it, having learned a few signs from a previous film. Brian approached it as choreography. Dermot had many, many questions.
BEZUCHA: We had a wonderful consultant named Jack Jason, who was Marlee Matlin's producing partner. They're not a family of interpreters. They're a family that has a deaf member and so some of them sign. I went line by line through the script with Jack figuring out what would be natural.
CRAIG T. NELSON (KELLY STONE): I was the worst. One day I stuck my finger in my eye because I was trying to sign. [Laughs] That was pretty much it for me.
Game Night Gone Wrong
Not only did Meredith have to contend with not understanding all of what Everett's family was saying, but she also had to deal with the fact that, well, they just didn't like her. The film's first cringeworthy scene came during a game of charades when an apprehensive Meredith is forced to play, only for Amy to accuse her of pointing to Patrick, the one Black person in the room, when giving a clue.
PARKER: I use my hands a lot in life and Tom said to me, "I want her really still." We talked endlessly about my clothing and, in my head, I was like, "Oh you want me as still as my clothing."
BEZUCHA: It's excruciating! She's calling her racist without doing it. It's horrible.
JEFF FORD (Editor): Tom and I were outside one day, we were running out of time for shooting. He was going to cut the charade scene, and I'm like, "You can't cut that. That's going to be amazing."
BEZUCHA: It's a cast of very nice people. Rachel is Canadian so she's nice on top of being nice. And Sarah Jessica's so nice so Rachel always felt badly going after Sarah Jessica. In the charades scene, when she was off-camera, I had her yell her lines at Sarah Jessica, like shout them, and it made her so anxious to be so mean that I just remember her shaking.
WHITE: Thomas definitely had to amp it up sometimes. And that was one of the times, the charades scene, where she's supposed to get on everybody's nerves, but everybody was just having fun playing charades.
FORD: I love that scene. Luke Wilson in that scene is improving and riffing around the script in that, and it's so funny.
Let It Snow
A large part of the film's appeal (and cozy feel) came from the fact that they flew east to film all of the exterior shots in New Jersey and Connecticut.
MULRONEY: Tom made the huge mistake of writing in a snowstorm. What he did right was check with the heavens, and they cooperated, so those scenes that make everybody who’s watching this movie feel deeply East Coast-y — which is one of the main things that’s super popular about this movie — [are] because it snowed that week!
NELSON: I do remember Luke and I being out on that doggone field. I’ve never been that cold in my life.
BEZUCHA: [When] Luke and Craig get high on the bleachers, that was in a real blizzard and it is snowing 20 times harder than it appears.
NELSON: The cameras were freezing. It was truly uncomfortable. Then Luke and I took a train back into New York and couldn’t find a taxi. I thought I was going to die. [Laughs]
WILSON: You’d come around the corner and kind of get blown over. We were holding on to each other just to stay warm. It had been my idea to take the train back, and I talked Craig into doing it, so I was trying to cover my own hide. I was like, “They would’ve gotten a car service for Diane. They never would have done this to Diane Keaton.”
That bleacher scene also served as a turning point in the film, when Ben says, “So it’s worse this time, isn’t it?” He’s referencing Sybil’s breast cancer, and in that moment fans realize the Stones aren’t just enjoying a holiday together, but also the last holiday with their mom.
REASER: You think it’s going to be one movie, and then it’s this other movie. I think it’s what makes the movie really special. It had a real story to tell about family and loss.
KEATON: I thought of my mother, and how much she meant to me in my life. What that experience is like to know you’re dying. There was never anyone in my life like her. She was the greatest mother. So it was very moving for me to play that part.
One of the film’s most famous scenes comes after Meredith calls in her sister Julie (Claire Danes) for backup. The sisters sit down to dinner with the Stone family. But after Meredith questions gay couple Thad and Patrick adopting, she puts her foot in her mouth…repeatedly. The eight-page scene took over two full days to film.
BEZUCHA: I remember talking to the actors about the degree to which each of their characters understood or intuited that this was their last Christmas together with their mom. When they sit down, they’re looking for something to go after. Thank God Meredith showed up, otherwise they'd all be crying. She provided a target for their anxiety and anger.
CLAIRE DANES (JULIE MORTON): We shot forever. You start to have a really intimate relationship with that one piece of broccoli you have to eat, take after take after take. But my character wasn't the one in crisis. I actually got to enjoy myself because I wasn't in a state of despair.
PARKER: I was scared. It can feel personal. It’s a really weird thing when you are playing somebody who isn’t liked and the other actors who are not liking you are really good. It started to feel unpleasant.
WHITE: Sarah Jessica Parker was literally everybody’s best friend. So it was effortful to be angry at such an effervescent person.
WILSON: That scene it took a long time and I didn't have a lot of scripted stuff. I kept ad-libbing different stuff. Tom would get a kick out of my ideas sometimes. I just remember I said something kind of bizarre, and when they said cut, Diane was just looking at me and she was like, "Where are you from?" [Laughs]
DANES: I remember being very compelled by Diane's process. She listened to music a lot in between takes.
PARKER: Tom would call action and her headphones would come off simultaneous to the word "action." She had old-fashioned, wonderfully rickety, not-cool headphones. And she was, to me, devastating every take. It was a master class.
KEATON: It would be whatever [music] was really moving me. I did that because, emotionally, it's thrilling, it puts you in the place. I love that. And I still use that when I can. I prefer those big table scenes with a lot of people.
BEZUCHA: It’s strange to have made a studio Christmas movie in which I kill the mom with cancer and have a political war at the dinner table over race and sexual orientation. I’m not sure how that happened.
The next morning, Meredith turns down Everett’s nonexistent wedding proposal and then mistakenly announces she slept with his brother Ben. The end result is a brother showdown, a broken kitchen table, and a lot of spilled strata.
BEZUCHA: The more chaotic it looks, the more you need to plan it. That table the boys end up under was on a hydraulic drop so that it would collapse by degrees while they were underneath it.
MULRONEY: It got real under that table in that pool of uncooked eggs. That’s my pinnacle moment when I used Luke’s hand to slap himself. Best stunt work ever!
WILSON: We had fun tussling, but it is one of those things where when you’ve done it six times, each time you’re getting up a little slower. It’s like, “Hey, can we just do one where you don’t slap me?” [Laughs]
NELSON: I think I said to Tom, "You're going to need a stuntman for this, I'm not gonna be wrestling these two guys." Cause they went nuts! They're just so funny.
REASER: When those guys are were running around trying to kill each other, it just felt like a real family.
BEZUCHA: Rachel, Sarah Jessica, and Diane really did slip and fall.
KEATON: Oh my god that was fun! That’s the easiest thing to play. It’s easier than dying. [Laughs]
PARKER: [The food] was real. We’d have costume changes ready, and I was like, "Do not touch anything on that costume. Don’t move that noodle, don’t move that egg!" They were like, "You want to get back into this?" I was like, "Absolutely!" We did it a bunch of times, and it would dry and we’d have to reconstitute it on me. Make me trip. Make me drop stuff. I’m thrilled.
Audiences were also thrilled with the film, which grossed more than $92 million worldwide and, 15 years later, has become a holiday staple.
DANES: People really do watch this movie annually. That is something that is said to me. That feels so nice to have made something that continues to bring people pleasure.
WILSON: It just happened to be on one night during the pandemic and I wound up watching the whole thing and getting really moved by how sad it was at the end. I was like, “I’m in this thing and I’m sad.”
KEATON: It was just one of those special movies. It felt good to make it.
MULRONEY: I have the same experience of the movie as people who see it. The warm embrace of that family that's on film is what I felt like on that movie when we were shooting it. A couple years from now we can probably call it a classic. Give it a little time before you throw that word around, please. Just so we don’t seem that old.
PARKER: Maybe I should see that movie again; it sounds really good.