[In a world where every comics-to-movie project gets endlessly covered, SAVE THE DATE has pretty much flown under the radar — but then it’s an indie movie created by an indie cartoonist and not based specifically on a comics property. The film, based on ideas from indie cartoonist stalwart Jeffrey Brown, follows two sisters — one about to get married, the other just broken up with her boyfriend, and how they approach love and commitment. Directed by Mike Mohan (“One Too Many Mornings”) from a script by Mohan, Jeffrey Brown and Egan Reich, the movie debuts this weekend at Sundance and has already gotten some buzz behind it. It stars Lizzy Caplan (True Blood, 127 Hours), as the single sister (who happens to be a cartoonist), Alison Brie (Mad Men, Scream 4) as the sister about to get married, Martin Starr (Mad Love, Adventureland) and Geoffrey Arend.
Brown is best known for his quiet autobiographical comics such as Clumsy, Unlikely and Small Moments, as well as his more humorous books like Incredible Change-bots, a take on the transformers. We caught up with him as he was getting ready for the film’s Sundance premiere this Sunday on January 22nd.]
THE BEAT: It seems like any comic book related movie gets covered to death and yet for years you’ve been saying “Oh I have this movie coming out” but it’s been very under the radar.
JEFFREY BROWN: It’s not based on any comic, so I think that makes the difference.
THE BEAT: I know you have been doing a little press, but I’ll kick off with the question everyone will ask: How did you get to make a movie?
A: In 2006 I heard from Jordan Horowitz, who most recently produced The Kids Are All Right with Gilbert Films. He liked my books and wondered if I had any interest in doing film adaptation or thought about writing for film. Back in high school I had been interested in sketch and comedy and had vague film and TV aspirations, but I ended up drawing instead. So I thought this would be a nice opportunity. I came up with an idea loosely inspired by my situation with my then girlfriend now wife, taking some other cues from other people I knew and meshing things together. The basic story is two sisters, one who is breaking up with a guy and then dating someone new while the other sister is getting married and, not having second thoughts exactly, but questioning things.
We went back and forth writing that and eventually I put a treatment together, but the way I structure my comics doesn’t really translate to film. Additionally, I didn’t really have the experience or maybe even the motivation at the time, to figure out how to write a screenplay in terms of the formal requirements. Jordan put me together with Egan Reich who is a playwright and screenwriter. We developed it into a full story that would work for film
Jordan had met Joe Swanberg, a director here in Chicago and part of the Mumblecore movement. He’s actually a comics fan and knew my work. It seemed like of one those confluences that this could work. After Joe came on, we had had everything set, they’d cast the film and were scouting locations, and then everything all fell apart at the last minute.
THE BEAT: Just in that classic Hollywood way?
JB: Yeah, this person’s schedule is all of a sudden not lining up and this or that. I thought well, that was a nice experiment. Then this other director Mike Mohan found out that the screenplay was without a director. Mike is also a comics fan who specifically likes my work. He and his wife, as a wedding gift to each other, had each unbeknownst to each other, commissioned me to do a drawing.
THE BEAT: Ha! So you know all along and they didn’t?
JB: Mike emailed me first and I said yes. Then his wife emailed and I said oh my gosh. [MacDonald laughs] I thought, Can I do this, should I? Take both their money? Is that weird? Were they going to feel ripped off that they were getting the same thing? I just kept them different. They both wanted a comic and I directed him towards one that was the state of their relationship and hers was how they met.
THE BEAT: What did they do when they found out?
JB: I think they were both just speechless. There’s a photo of it her sister sent me — they are sitting there looking with their jaws dropping. [general laughter]
Anyway, when Mike approached Jordan — he had just had his first indie feature that premiered at Sundance. Egan and I thought let’s inject some new blood and get it going.
THE BEAT: How long did this all take?
JB: 2008 is when were originally filming. Mike came on board at the end of 2010. They started casting it mid-2011. By that point, after the first time, I decided not to get my hopes up to avoid disappointment. And then I get an email in May with “Okay this is the cast” and I’m looking at these people and go “Really?!??” It felt very different this time.
THE BEAT: I know some of the cast are indie faves, so it’s getting some excitement.
JB: It’s a strange experience to see thing you wrote and you have in your head how you would say them, or how your vision of this character would say them, and the actors have an entirely different takes. It adds a lot of depth to what was there.
I visited the set for a few days the week after Comic-Con and thought, yeah these are really good actors and it’s just that weird mind-bending thing where you think “But this is stuff that I wrote!”
THE BEAT: You did artwork for the movie also?
JB: Lizzy Caplan’s character in the film does little drawings from life and autobio comics, and artwork for her boyfriend’s band. So I did all the artwork that the band uses for t-shirts and tote bags they sell. I also filled up a small sketchbook that’s used as Lizzy’s book in the film. Some of those drawings I did as pencils so she’s inking them. And she has an art show so I did finished versions of the ones in the sketchbook. Also some will be in the opening credits.
THE BEAT: Now through this whole torturous Hollywood process, do you feel like it remained a Jeffrey Brown movie? Do you feel that it’s still something that you created even with all the extra hands?
JB: Yeah. The basic story is all mine and the characters all came from the same place. What I had in mind, the emotional beats of the story and the ideas that I wanted to get at about these two sisters in different places and getting frustrated with each other — one ending this really involved relationship and starting a new exciting relationship and all the drama that can come with that. All the things I was trying to get at with the original idea were there.
Mike said when he was writing his draft he just had my books stacked up next to him and whenever he hit a rough part, he would look through my books. I’m very fortunate that everyone who came on seemed to be on the same page.
THE BEAT: Your work is divided into two parts: your heavily autobiographical stuff and then more genre stuff like Big Head or Change-Bots. You haven’t done much that was fictional but not fantastic have you?
JB: No, not in comics and really not outside of comics. When I do fiction I don’t know if it’s easier or I’m more comfortable, but it tends to be more humorous ideas. I have fewer rules for myself. Part of the origin of the story is that how my relationship with my wife began is a story I wanted to tell in full detail in comics. But I didn’t feel like it was a story that would add enough or do things differently enough for me. To do it in film seemed like the easy way to get away from that.
THE BEAT: Is the character the sister is marrying based on you?
JB: Initially, but then what happened is all the character got mixed. My wife does have a sister and she’s a little older and hasn’t settled down. Whereas we have a five-year-old now. Just thinking about that contrast in terms of personality. The sister in the movie is a random mass of different aspects of people. Some of me gets transferred on to Lizzy Caplan’s character, aspects of my wife get transferred to the character that would be me. Everyone got mixed up in the end.
THE BEAT: Are you looking forward to going to Sundance and all that own wackiness? From what I hear, what Comic-Con is to nerds, Sundance is for indie films only with fun snow.
JB: I don’t know! I think having gone to Comic-Con as many years as I have, even if I don’t know exactly how crazy Sundance is going to be, I’m at least psychologically prepared. It’s going to be overwhelming but that’s the other advantage for me. It’s something that I can do as half-tourist whereas for Mike and Jordan, it’s a big huge business trip.
THE BEAT: Did anything surprise you about what worked as a movie?
JB: The biggest thing for me was things that I really wanted to be in there that were left out.
THE BEAT: Yeah, murder your darlings!
JB: And there are things that I really wanted still in there. It’s still something I could learn from again, knowing that with my comics, usually my autographical books are much more based on gut feelings and emotions. There’s only a little bit of intellectualizing in terms of how I order things or how I place things next to each other. With film it’s much more what’s going to make the movie work for an audience that’s going to sit there, a different experience in terms of how the audience participates in the story. The way my comics work I thought has always been more along the lines of poetry than anything narrative and [laughs] a collection of poetry doesn’t really translate to film.
I think if anything it gives me more confidence in approaching fiction later. I’m working on an autobiographical book now which is about fatherhood and religion and this is the last subject that I want to approach through autobiography. It’s a book that’s taking a lot longer, partly because the working process is much different because it’s in full color. And the subject matter is more difficult than other things I’ve dealt with.
THE BEAT: Why?
JB: Well, my father is a minister so for me it’s a very delicate ground to walk to deal with these feelings, and being an atheist but still wanting to respect my parents. Well — um, I want people to read it.
THE BEAT: I guess reading between the lines, it sounds like the relationships with your father and your son are ongoing, so it might be little bit of a tricky road to walk.
A: Yeah. I’m also doing a book about Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker as a four-year-old, which is the flip side of fatherhood…and of religion too, I guess. [general laughter] It’s much lighter, a collection of gag comics and one-page strips. It’s a mix of stereotypical father son things with being a new dad and some Star Warsy things. references.
THE BEAT: I imagine this must have “parody” stamped on the cover.
JB: It’s an official Lucasfilm release.
THE BEAT: Oh, so they got the official blessing? Congrats on that.
JB: Well, I grew up with Star Wars, it was just fun to do.
THE BEAT: You’ve been getting into animation, you did painting, you teach, so you already had some multi-media stuff going on. Is it hard to keep it all going?
JB: I hoped the Top Shelf book would be done by the end of October and here it is January and I’m only a little over halfway done. I may be having to readjust those expectations about how much work I can do. The other thing that’s hard is pushing back the projects that I’d really like to do for myself that aren’t as commercially viable. It’s trying to balance doing whatever I want but also make enough money from it so I don’t have to get a day job again.
THE BEAT: Which for every cartoonist is a struggle.
JB: My wife works fulltime so that helps. Our son is in preschool so I get a decent amount of time. And then I just sleep less. [laughs]
THE BEAT: You say the father and religion book might be the last autobio subject you look at for a long time?
JB: In terms of book length stories. For FCBD I’m going to sign at Quimby’s and I think I’m going to do a free mini comics for it and one of the stories is a shorter autobio story about my best friend in elementary school and how our friendship ended, which involved renting the Lord of the Rings animated movie.
I’m going to do more Change-bots—I have the basic plot for the third book. And I do want to try doing some fiction. I have this story that I’m not sure exactly what I want it to be. It could be a science fiction-y near future sf story. It could be a superhero thing but I’m not sure exactly sure what I want it to be yet. I also have this idea for a kids book about dinosaurs. I have my little notebook with 20 or 30 projects. I’ve always liked horror films so I have some ideas on that I might work on at some point.
THE BEAT: Here’s the other question everyone will ask, so I’ll ask it. Do you feel like you want to do more in movies?
JB: Yeah, I do, but one of the things that was great about this film was that I could be really involved but it didn’t take over my life. I don’t see myself as being a director or the sole writer, but I think it’s good place to collaborate for me. But I think drawing my comics is my first love.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.