Filmmaker/producer Jason Winer (Modern Family, Arthur) has a ton on his plate this days with the release of his indie romantic comedy Ode to Joy and the fall release of NBC’s Perfect Harmony (he’s an executive producer and also directed the pilot). During our interview, we talked about the inner workings of Ode to Joy, a New York set feature that is headlined by Martin Freeman (The Hobbit trilogy, Black Panther) and Morena Baccarin (Deadpool, Homeland)
Ode to Joy centers on Charlie (Martin Freeman), a Brooklyn librarian whose life is severely affected by cataplexy, a rare disorder that causes him to lose control of his muscles (and immediately fall into slumber) when he experiences joy. Although he falls in love with a beautiful and spontaneous woman named Francesca (Morena Baccarin, who steals the show), Charlie doesn’t believe he can balance cataplexy with passion.
Thus, he ends up in a relationship with Francesca’s introverted and eccentric co-worker Bethany (Melissa Rauch). To make matters even more confusing, he essentially goads his loving but often clueless younger brother Cooper (Jake Lacy) into a relationship with Francesca. Can this weird couple pairing work out for the foursome, and will Francesca and Charlie ever find true happiness?
On the surface, Ode to Joy seems like an innocuous comedy with a slightly interest twist, but thanks to the chemistry between Freeman and Baccarin, along with Winer’s attention to storytelling nuances, this film is a cut above the average romcom.
During the chat, Winer delivered some salient advice on how to follow one’s dreams in the entertainment industry and he also elaborated why, when it came to shooting another New York film, he was in a Brooklyn state of mind.
You are a busy man on the television end of things. How did you find the time to direct Ode to Joy?
I really appreciate the question (laughs). This was a passion project and a labor of love. It took seven years to get it made and there was just no way I wasn’t going to find the time.
That said, it’s weirdly easier to find the time to make a small independent movie like this than a big studio movie which takes several years. When you don’t have any money, you’ve got to do it really fast. That’s what I learned to be good at in television.
Can you talk about shooting in New York without using the same locations and giving viewers a different look at the Big Apple?
Well years ago I made a film called Arthur with Russell Brand. I was really proud (of it) in some ways but it was my first movie in the studio system and I got beat up a little bit. In some ways I didn’t get to make the movie I had really hoped.
Part of that was shooting New York. We shot New York the expensive way, which was all over Manhattan. And the thing that I discovered about that was when you’re shooting the streets of Manhattan, you weirdly don’t see much of New York! You’re at ground level. You see a lot of people. You see the front doors of buildings and that’s it.
I was almost shocked at taking in the finished product years ago and (seeing) how little of the vistas I saw. Part of saving money and making this little independent movie that is (made) in New York was shooting it in Brooklyn. The great thing about shooting in Brooklyn, you see the vistas of New York.
We made sure to shoot in locations that showed you the skyline and that made this little movie feel as big and as awesome as possible.
Ode To Joy is a very original romantic comedy thanks to the cataplexy angle. However, this movie is also a look at how one must combat their own fears to actually commit to a relationship. Can you also talk about some of the themes behind your film?
Cataplexy is a real disease. It affects one in two thousand people and three million people worldwide. It’s rare but it’s not that rare. What happens with it is – it’s related to narcolepsy but it’s triggered by extreme emotion. If you have cataplexy and you experience anger, frustration, or happiness to the extreme, you can experience muscle weakness to the point of collapsing. That’s what Charlie suffers from, so you can imagine how difficult it is for him to fall in love.
That’s the ultimate challenge and when I first heard about this – it was introduced to me by Mike Falbo, one of the producers who heard about it on This American Life – it made us realize that it was a fresh and unexplored reason on why a couple couldn’t be together. That’s the basis of every romantic comedy – it’s the obstacle.
I think part of the reason the romantic comedy almost ran out of steam as a genre is that we ran out of reasons to keep couples apart. And here we have a reason that is not only original, but also resonant in a way that you described.
Yes, you’re seeing this very specific disease portrayed on film, but it’s also a metaphor for the way we all get in the way of our happiness. Or our fear of connection with that other person who might provide that happiness.
Your ensemble is really great, and I was surprised at Morena Baccarin’s natural ability as the funny romantic lead.
Obviously, people who have been following Morena’s work on television know she has incredible emotional depth and range. Then she got the chance to show her comedic abilities a bit in Deadpool. She’s such a great sparring partner with Ryan Reynolds. This is a combination of those two skills. She’s charming, delightful and light in a way we haven’t seen her be I think on camera.
Combine that with some of the savvy from Deadpool and the emotional depth you saw from her in Homeland. Then you have this role which I hope will show how multi-faceted she is as a – not just as an actress, but as a leading lady in motion pictures which she really hasn’t got a chance to do.
It must have been great to work with Jane Curtin on Ode to Joy (Curtin plays Francesca’s loving aunt)?
It really was. Jane was such a dream and a trooper. We were shooting in like 100 degrees and 1000 percent humidity and everyone was working for no money and nobody had trailers. Jane is a legend and she just loved the script, loved the role, and bonded with Morena. She was so game and fun and positive on set. It was an honor and a thrill to work with her.
When you give people advice on how to make it in the entertainment industry, what step do you think they miss along the way?
When you have a dream in film and television you now have the ability to study it from an early age. People get into the specifics, in my opinion, way too soon. I look back at this as an accidental advantage I had – I didn’t direct my first (project) until I was 29.
Before that, I was an actor. I was a photographer. I was a visual artist. I was a writer, and I was a producer. I did all of those things in various capacities. I was also an English major. I had this broad based, storytelling education that I didn’t get consciously. I was following all of those things I was interested in. I feel I have been able to put those to use in all the things I did. I learned the technical aspects of what I do very quickly and I learned them later in life.
My advice is even if you love filmmaking, you have to make yourself (into) a well rounded storyteller. That means studying other things.
Can you pick one of your favorite comedies and elaborate on why this movie strikes a personal chord with you?
One of my favorite comedies of all time is Tootsie. It’s a movie, what I love about Tootsie is – I think it’s a drama masquerading as a very broad comedy. Masquerading is an interesting choice given the subject matter. The last third of it is completely emotional and dramatic. The emotions going on under this ridiculous situation are so real. That’s what I love about it. Hopefully you can see that with Ode to Joy. There are some absurd situations and hopefully some really good laughs and beneath it something that is going on that resonates.
Ode to Joy opens in theaters, On Demand, and Digital on August 9. To hear my review of Ode to Joy, check out Episode 100 of CinemAddicts (my review begins at 44:12):