NEW YORK — During the Golden Age of Hollywood, the move from choreographer to director was fairly common. Today it’s almost unheard of. Yet Anne Fletcher has a bit of a classicist streak.
After a career as a dancer on TV and in film, and as a choreographer for projects such as Adam Sandler’s “The Wedding Singer,” Fletcher took to the director’s chair with the major success “Step Up.” She followed up that film with rom-com hits “27 Dresses” and “The Proposal,” the latter one of those “chick flicks” guys can watch without tearing their eyes out.
Her newest film, “The Guilt Trip,” is what Hollywood types call a perfect elevator pitch — an easy-to-sell premise that can be summed up fast: “Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen play a mother and son on a cross-country road trip. I’ll take my million dollars now.”
While the film, which opened Wednesday in the US, is far from flawless, the scenes of mother-son comedy can’t help but bring a familiar chuckle to your lips — particularly, perhaps, to Members of the Tribe. The onscreen road trip is a push-pull of kvelling and kvetching between Streisand and Rogen, with some third act “My Yiddishe Mama” tear-jerking. It’s all pretty much what you’d expect from the ads, and while it may not be too original, it is very sweet.
In a conversation with The Times of Israel, Fletcher spoke about working with Brooklyn’s most famous chanteuse, and how, despite seeming like a natural fit for Streisand, getting the project off the ground was anything but easy.
The phrase gets tossed around a lot, but in this case, it fits: Barbra Streisand is a living legend. Did it take a little convincing to get her on board?
I only wanted to do the film if I could get her and Seth Rogen. I said, “I have to get her,” and . . .it took me a whole year. I like to say we started dating in November of 2009. I went to her house and we had a candlelit dinner, and there was conversation.
She hasn’t starred in a movie since “The Mirror Has Two Faces” in 1996. The “Meet the Fockers” films were just fun, just playing dress-up and being silly. Fun work for someone like her, who knows how to do it. She worked six days on the last one. To star in a film means you have to work every single day for 12 hours, which is a real commitment. She had to decide if it was worth it to disrupt the life that she’s deservedly earned and that she loves. And, yeah, it took about a year to get the decision.
What put her over the top?
My meetings with her were endless. But wonderful. We discussed the tone of the film and her character, and how she had to be a “real mom.” I introduced her to the writer, Dan Fogelman, and there was more conversation. Because I didn’t think it was going to take a whole year, I figured, well, I better pull something else out of my hat. She and Dan talked about Dan’s mother, because it is a personal story for him — he took a road trip with his mother very similar to the one in the film. Then we also had a reading of some of the scenes between Barbra and Seth, and they got to see some of the chemistry. I knew in my heart that she was going to say yes — I knew it would be hard to walk away at this point.
‘She had to decide if it was worth it to disrupt the life that she’s deservedly earned’
So after this whole year of me coming up with ideas and plans to convince her, what happens? She reads the script with her son, Jason, who is recovering from back surgery. He turns to her and says, “Mom, you HAVE to do this movie.”
If you’d just called him first, you would have saved a lot of time.
I didn’t think! I said, “Barbra, thanks a lot! I busted my hump for a year, and then your son says to do it, and that’s it?”
It’s an interesting character. She’s not the villainous, overly nagging Jewish mother, but those stereotypes do pop up. It’s like she’s partially clueless about the modern age, but she’s also a sage and has wisdom beyond her years.
Most moms are exactly those two things: They are ding-dongs about a lot, but brilliant and insightful when they need to be . . .
I didn’t want her to be a stereotype. We hit on all the things that drive us crazy, because we see it through Seth’s prism, but we wanted her to be every mom, regardless of the ethnic background or specific age. They nag, they’re irritating, they chew too loud — I mean, I swear, I ask my mother if she has a microphone in her mouth, she chews so loud!
There’s the stereotype of the Jewish mother, but there’s very little explicit Jewishness in the film, other than the fact that it is Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen. I found two very subtle comments that, if you blink, you miss them. [During one emotional outburst, Streisand calls Rogen “tatelah,” a Yiddish term of endearment. Later, during another rapid-fire speech, she asks her Los Angeles-based son, “What do you know from galoshes?”]
Anne Fletcher doesn’t sound to me to be a Jewish name, though you can’t always tell . . .
Fletcher is not a Jewish name, but many times in my life, I’ve felt Jewish in my soul. All my friends can attest to this. Even Barbra — until a very late date, she thought for sure I was Jewish. I just identify very well with Jewish people. When I told Barbra that I wasn’t Jewish, she was flabbergasted: “You’re not?!” I told her not to worry — everyone thinks I am. Maybe in a past life.
But the goal, despite Barbra and Seth and our writer being Jewish, was never to run away from that, but to open the platform to reach all moms — a universal mom — to capture a story about a mother and son. The two actors I wanted were Jewish — we let that speak for itself — but we didn’t see the need to push or pull it any further.
Did Seth’s mother ever make it to the set?
She did. And she said to him, “Oh, now I see why you haven’t been calling me, because you’ve been spending every day with me!”
To some people, maybe young people, they know Barbra from selling out special-event concerts and from political activism, but Barbra as straight-up comedian is no joke. “What’s Up, Doc?” is one of the funniest movies ever made, and “Funny Girl” is no slouch either. Can you talk about the first time you saw some of these classics?
Most of my life, I was a dancer — dance, movement and physical comedy were the entire focus of my life, period. It took me a long while to connect with other things. I remember watching “Funny Girl” in my early 20s and just being floored by the physical comedy. The roller-skating scene: I mean, my God! It’s an amazing ability she has, and it is because she completely understands her body — what it can do and how it can be made to look funny. I don’t mean gross or lewd – I mean how to move your body and how to make it funny. She understands it instinctually.
There’s a scene in “The Guilt Trip” where she runs out of a gas station and gets into the wrong car, and she’s got a very particular walk. Is that something you discussed with her as a choreographer?
‘Very early on, we said that to do this movie, we have to try and erase the perception of Barbra Streisand’
Oh, God, no, that’s all Barbra. That’s a perfect example of her knowing exactly what she has to do – even the musicality coming out of her voice. Her body is very physical, but the way she vocalizes, it is all music. She says, “I don’t sing. I don’t sing in public!” But everything that comes out of her mouth is music. She goes “bup-bup-bup” [Fletcher imitates a high-toned interrupting sound], then [lower register], “Oh, sweetie, look what I got. Ah!” [High-pitched yelp, then low-voiced again] “Who are you?” It’s all music. Barbra’s singing throughout the whole film, though she would not say she is.
This, of course, leads me to the obvious question: Was there ever a point where you considered a musical bit? There are lots of stops on the road trip — maybe a karaoke bar?
It was off the table for both of us. Very early on, we said that to do this movie, we have to try and erase the perception of Barbra Streisand. Now, it’s a hard thing to do, because Barbra is Barbra, but it had to be about acting. The minute she sings — even if she sings badly — she’s Barbra Streisand selling out Madison Square Garden. We considered that maybe Jim Brolin [her husband] would play the cowboy character she meets, but we thought, “No, we can’t do it.” We can’t break the illusion of the story.
It’s funny — I didn’t even put that together. Now that you say it, it’s obvious that the character — the romantic interest — represents Brolin.
Yeah, no question, but we wanted her to just be this woman, and stuck to that.