‘Take Me’: How Jonathan Demme and the Duplasses Inspired an Unconventional Kidnapping Movie
Art and Experience: Pat Healy balanced acting and directing in this wacky kidnapping romp.
Pat Healy has appeared on just about every network show on the air and been cast in major auteur films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, but he’s most well known for some his more twisted roles. He led the cast of Cheap Thrills as a down-on-his-luck dad who tries to reverse his fortune by accepting increasingly perverse dares. He also played an impostor cop who manipulates an accused criminal into uncomfortable sexual situations in Compliance.
Healy’s character in Take Me is no exception: he plays an aspiring entrepreneur whose business model involves staging custom-designed kidnappings for clients who long for the thrill of abduction. What sets Take Me apart from past films is that Healy took on an additional role: director. He aptly directs himself and his kidnapping victim-by-choice Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black) in a psychological cat-and-mouse game where you never quite know who’s in charge.
The film is being released theatrically and on demand this week. We sat down with Healy after its world premiere at Tribeca 2017 to discuss the actor-director balancing act, how he was influenced by Jonathan Demme, and what he learned from working with master directors in past work and with indie stalwarts the Duplass Brothers on this project.
No Film School: You have a long history as an actor, but you also directed this one.
Pat Healy: Yeah. The writer is named Mike Makowsky. He was 23 when he wrote it. I came on very early with the script and developed it along with Mel Eslyn and Mark Duplass, and with Taylor [Schilling] a little bit when she came on. You’re always kind of rewriting when you’re shooting, but Mike was there for most of the shoot.
NFS: At what point did you know you wanted to do both of those roles? Was it a given from the beginning that you were going to be in the film and directing?
Healy: Mike had written the script for me, but he didn’t tell me that. We were friends because we had done a short film together that he produced. He asked me if I would read the script because he hadn’t written a film script before. I didn’t know he could write. I just knew him as this producer and friend.
It sat in my email box for a couple months. He reminded me about it one day, and I just read it. I thought I was just going to give him notes on it, but I got really excited about it. My initial thought was, “Mike and I will produce this, and I’ll be in it. We’ll find a great director.”
“Our film was half film noir, half screwball comedy. Those are kind of sister genres.”
That day or the next day, I was talking to my friend Evan Katz, who I had done a few movies with, Cheap Thrills and Small Crimes. I was talking so animatedly about it. He knew I’ve always been a crazy cinephile. The way I was talking about it, Even said, “Sounds like you should direct it.” I [said], “Yes, but I can’t not act in this. This is the best part!”
So I went to Mike and I said, “I want to act in this and direct it.” He said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” I said to myself, “Well, he’s just very young and nervous about that. Could I do it?” I hadn’t done that on a feature before. He wasn’t wrong. I knew in my heart I could do it, but I was unproven. I’d only done a short film that I acted in by myself 15 years earlier. It played Sundance and all these [festivals], but that was it. I hadn’t done a feature. I needed to legitimize [myself as a director] somehow.
That’s when I called two producers that I knew: Adele Romanski, who was actually scouting in Miami for Moonlight, and Jay Duplass. Jay sent it to Mel Eslyn, who’s the producer that [the Duplass Brothers] had hired to start producing all these movies they were financing. Mel said yes. I met with them the next day. They wanted to do it right away.
NFS: What advice did you get from them about wearing that director’s hat?
Healy: Their advice was just to prepare a lot. We all really worked very hard on the script to make sure that it was solid and that we were all happy with it. That just meant going back and forth for eight months. I sat down with my DP, Nate Miller, for a month and we got together almost every day. We just went through what every shot in the movie was going to be. In my mind, I knew what the edits were going to be.
NFS: How did you communicate with him about your vision? Did you storyboard?
Healy: No, we just got in a room and we talked about it. We watched movies on our laptops and took screengrabs of things. We both like a lot of the same kinds of movies.
We shot with these anamorphic lenses. I was like, “I may never ever direct another movie again. I got to do all of the things that I always wanted to do!” One of those things was shooting with anamorphic.
Our film was half film noir, half screwball comedy. Those are kind of sister genres.
NFS: They are?
Healy: In a way. They seem like opposites—one of them is tragic and one is comic, but they both sort of generally feature a schlub being led down a rabbit hole by an alluring blonde who is nuts in some way. One ends in a nice way, and then one usually ends tragically. [They also feature] characters who, through their best efforts, only end up making things worse for themselves and everyone around them.
NFS: What kind of films specifically did you reference?
Healy: There’s a few that I talked about a lot from the mid-’80s. After Hours, Scorsese’s movie, and Into the Night, John Landis’s movie, and then Something Wild by Jonathan Demme, who died today. I was talking to Steven Spielberg the other day about my movie, and I mentioned Something Wild. He went, “Oh, I love Something Wild.” We ended up talking about it for a while, so I was just shocked to hear that Demme passed away.
“I don’t like comedy when the people know that they’re being funny. I play the truth of it.”
Every frame is packed with something that hopefully gets bunched together and becomes something original. I always make this reference to Bob Dylan—not that I would compare myself to him—but what he did was for the first time take rock music, folk music, country music, romantic poetry, art, abstract art, beat poetry, all these things that didn’t go together—disparate elements—and what he came out with was something truly original. I don’t know that there’s anything truly original left to do. It’s an amalgamation of hundreds—maybe thousands—of ideas of a lifetime of watching movies that got filtered through my sensibilities.
It gets filtered through the entire team. I’m telling them all about these ideas and I’m talking about these movies and things. That gives them an idea, and then they show me something. I would be like, “Yes! That is great. That’s the right idea, and it’s better than anything I could have come up with because you are good at your job.”
NFS: That’s why this is a collaborative art.
Healy: It’s not a micromanaging situation. It’s hiring the right people because they get what you’re talking about and they’re going to give you something better than you could have ever come up with.
NFS: All of your choices from production design to music add to the absurdist tone of the movie. Tell me about some of those decisions.
Healy: The wig [worn by Healy’s character] is a key to that. It’s in the very first frame of the movie. Hopefully, then you know, “Okay, this is absurd or silly,” and you go along for the ride.
I don’t like comedy when the people know that they’re being funny. If the situation is funny and it’s written correctly and you shoot it in the right way and you frame it in the right way and you cut it in the right way, it’ll be funny. That’s just because you’re playing the truth of it. That’s what’s funny to me. This movie goes back and forth. We play the truth when it’s very sad at times, about these two lonely people, and we play the truth when it’s very scary or violent. Then, with editing, we’re constantly making sure to thread the needle between farce or comedy and tension, noir-like [elements].
Heather McIntosh did the score. That took a really long time for us to close in. We settled on the throwback tone, and that worked. She’s a very accomplished, brilliant musician. The base of it was kind of a ’60s caper score. There is some harpsichord and some dulcimer. We tried a bunch of things and they weren’t working. When we hit on that, then the movie was really working for everybody and it really made sense.
“The best people that I’ve worked with are the most collaborative—like Paul Thomas Anderson.”
NFS: In terms of advice for other filmmakers, what did you bring from those years of acting into directing?
Healy: Being on a set is not like anything else in the world. There’s a lot of moving parts. As an actor, you can go and sit in your trailer while things are being set up, and I certainly do that a lot, but if I’m working with great people, I’m watching how everything works. The best people that I’ve worked with are the most collaborative. Like Paul Thomas Anderson. I was just a young actor at the time when I did Magnolia, and he did a rehearsal where for 12 hours one day, all of us who had scenes with Julianne Moore sat around the table. He included me in that, even though usually what you do is you audition, you get it, you show up on the day, and you shoot your scene.
I worked on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford with [cinematographer] Roger Deakins, and with [costume designer] Patricia Norris, who did Blue Velvet and The Elephant Man and Days of Heaven and 12 Years a Slave and is sadly no longer with us. I worship those people like I do Steven Spielberg or Robert DeNiro or Meryl Streep. So I want to talk to them!
I did a movie with Ivan Reitman a couple years ago called Draft Day. My father took me to see Stripes for my 10th birthday. Ghostbusters is the movie I saw the most in the theater. When there was a free moment, I sat and talked to Ivan. He was really nice to me and happy to have me. I don’t think people ask him a lot about [his work]. He was shooting with two cameras, which is kind of common nowadays, especially in television, but it was unusual for an older director to be doing it. I asked him if he had just started doing it. He told me no, he’d been doing it since Ghostbusters, because he had done two movies with Bill Murray, and Murray would improvise amazing things, but when there was one camera sometimes you wouldn’t catch it. So, on Ghostbusters, he always shot Bill with two cameras, and he’s done it ever since. That was great advice.
NFS: Did you shoot this with two cameras?
Healy: No. I really wanted to get away from the current, most common aesthetic, which is handheld. I like handheld camera. I don’t have a problem with it. Even going back to The Graduate, it has handheld camera in it. Everybody uses it somewhere.
I just said, “Let’s try to not do it at all. Let’s either always have [the camera] locked down, or we’ll have it on a dolly or something. But we’ll never do the handheld.” Unless we had no space and Nate was in a corner and he had to hold it. But he’s still holding as if it’s on a tripod, very steadily. Again, it was a throwback style. Also, that allowed me to work with him and go, “This is the shot,” because I’m acting in it and I’m not worried about how I’m getting covered.
“When you have that really strong box that you’ve built, then you can play within it.”
There’s one scene in the movie that I just didn’t cover correctly. It ended up being too long and I had to cut it in a strange way. You would never notice it. It’s a phone call scene. Actually, my editor Brian had done Warren Beatty’s new movie Rules Don’t Apply, and he said, from Warren who has so much experience, “When you do a phone scene, and you’re not seeing the other person on the other line, always do one shot on their back. Then you can always cut to that if you need to cut a big chunk of it out in the middle.” You can dub in anything later on.
NFS: That’s a great tip.
Healy: I guess I’m ruining it now for people and showing them how the sausage is made, but that’s the point of your site, right?
NFS: That’s what we do. Exactly. You kind of touched on this already, but do you have any specific tips for people who are trying to direct themselves in a movie?
Healy: Yeah. Know the script backward and forwards. Over-prepare. As I said, know what every shot is going to be. Things will change on the day. You’ll lose a location. The camera doesn’t fit in that corner. It doesn’t feel right when you get in the room and you start blocking it. But if you really know the script, then you can very quickly switch to another idea. You have to know what all the rules are; then, you can break them. When you have that really strong box that you’ve built, you can play within it.
We had very specifically gone over the moves. There was one really prolonged physical comedy sequence in the movie that everyone loves. I had to know what each piece of the fight choreography was and where all the cuts were going to be. That was the only way it was going to work. That I was nervous about, so I had the editor put it together for me in a rough assembly. It worked! I was like, “Okay, great. We’re doing the right thing. This is exactly what I’m going for. Great. Everybody just keep doing what we’re doing.”
Also, the shoot should be fun. You work on a lot of sets and people are just miserable. Most people don’t get famous or rich doing this. We just do this because we love movies so much. Mel and I had a really strict policy when we were hiring people: it was the person as much as the skill. Nobody that was an A-hole and nobody that was not super excited about it. You really have to find the person that gets it, but you also have to feel like, “I can spend a month with this person.” Sure, people get tired and frustrated and stuff for the long days, but it’s all about that group you put together. It’s a testament to this, I think, that most of these people flew themselves to New York for the premiere and they were so excited. This night is for them.