Monday, November 28, 2022

Reverend's Interview: Spoiler Alert! Death and The Holidays Go Hand in Hand

Ah, the sights and sounds of the holiday season are upon us: Christmas trees, eggnog, traditional carols, Santa Claus, terminal illness. Wait, terminal illness? Yes, it strikes me that many of the most beloved Yuletide tales, both in print and on movie screens, involve the potential or actual death of a beloved character. Think of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol; the matriarchs played by Diane Keaton and Catherine Deneuve in The Family Stone and A Christmas Tale, respectively; suicidal George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) in It’s a Wonderful Life; or Queen Latifah’s misdiagnosed department store clerk in Last Holiday. And don’t forget The Little Drummer Boy’s pet lamb!

Continuing this tear-jerking tradition is the new dramedy Spoiler Alert, opening in theaters on December 2nd. Based on Michael Ausiello’s best-selling memoir, the film follows the 14-year love affair between the author, a Smurfs-loving entertainment journalist (played by Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory fame), and Christopher “Kit” Cowan (British actor Ben Aldridge). It was essentially love at first sight for the men when they met at a gay nightclub in 2001. Through Kit, Michael discovers the family he was robbed of as a child, from Kit’s small town parents (Oscar winner Sally Field and Tony winner Bill Irwin) to their circle of Manhattan friends.

Sadly, tragedy struck after 13 years of dating and marriage. Doctors diagnosed Kit with rare, stage 4 neuroendocrine cancer and he died in 2015 at the age of 43. Michael and his parents were at his side through it all. To process the final months of Kit’s life, Michael took to social media to share regular updates with friends and family. Little did he know that his posts would lead him to explore their bond in a whole new way. It would also allow him to share that bond with millions of people.

“A couple of months after Kit died, I was actually approached from an editor at Simon & Schuster who had followed some of the story on social media,” Michael Ausiello said more recently of the genesis of his memoir, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies. “I had been documenting Kit's cancer journey on Facebook among a close-knit group of friends. One of them, Rakesh Satyal, was an acquaintance at Simon & Schuster, and he was really moved by the story. He said, ‘Would you ever give any thought to turning this into a book?”

He was understandably hesitant. “I'd never written a book before,” Ausiello continued. “I was still grieving when I was writing it, so emotionally it was sort of a traumatizing experience reliving the details of, not only the year Kit was sick and his death, but the 13 years that came before. It was hard. But it got me thinking about what an extraordinary opportunity it would be to introduce Kit to thousands, potentially millions of people.” His memoir was published in 2017 and quickly optioned to be made into a film by the Emmy Award-winning Parsons and his producer husband, Todd Spiewak.

The book has been smartly yet sensitively adapted for the screen by gay actor-turned-writer David Marshall Grant and gay columnist-turned-screenwriter Dan Savage. Multiple scenes take place during Christmas festivities. Spoiler Alert, the movie, feels more authentic than many other movies I’ve seen that deal with a terminal disease prognosis. (Full disclosure: I work “by day” as a hospice chaplain so am aware of many similar, real-life situations.) Also significant are the tender lead performances by Jim Parsons, who co-produced the film, and Ben Aldridge.

“I’d known Michael Ausiello for many years,” Parsons recalls. “At some point, right before the book was released, he asked if I would conduct a Los Angeles Q&A about it. I said yes, and they sent me a copy. What’s funny is that it became such an important part of my life. I remember where it sat on this one bench in my apartment for a very long time until I was taking a vacation with my husband Todd [Spiewak] and picked it up. I thought it was a good time to read it. It was so traumatic, reading it. From that moment, Todd was the one, having watched me react to it, that asked if we should consider optioning it. He felt strongly that it would make a good movie. I was so moved and attracted to the material I couldn’t disagree.”

The producers next had to select a director and one name stood out for them: Michael Showalter. Showalter started out as an actor-comedian but has since become a prolific, Emmy-nominated director, writer, and producer. He directed the two-time Oscar-winning film The Eyes of Tammy Faye, an intimate look behind the extraordinary rise, fall and redemption of televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. Jessica Chastain played Bakker and won the 2022 Academy Award for her portrayal. Showalter previously directed The Big Sick, which received an Oscar nomination for its screenplay written by Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, and Hello, My Name Is Doris starring Sally Field. On the television side, Showalter recently directed and produced Hulu’s The Dropout starring Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes, for which she won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series, and Showalter was nominated for Outstanding Directing. Finally, but perhaps most importantly to its many fans, he is the co-creator of the Wet Hot American Summer movie and subsequent series.

This writer recently had the privilege of speaking with Showalter via Zoom in advance of his new movie’s release.

Michael Showalter

CC: Congratulations on your success last year with The Eyes of Tammy Faye and now with Spoiler Alert! I’m really interested in your journey from comedian and actor to producer-director of Oscar-winning movies today. Tell me a little bit about your journey.
MS: Let’s see, I started in comedy and am very much influenced by an absurdist kind of comedy, whether it’s the Zucker Brothers in their Airplane movies or Steve Martin’s early comedies, or Monty Python and what have you. I did sketch comedy in college and started a sketch group out of college. That was really my focus. I was doing a lot of writing of things to perform in and then wrote a movie, Wet Hot American Summer. I became interested after that in really learning how to write a well-made screenplay and, as a corollary to this, I originally when I went to college thought that I may be a Cinema Studies major. So, before I got into comedy I thought of becoming a Cinema Studies major because I had taken a class one summer about Alfred Hitchcock movies and was really interested in how he made movies. I thought: “Well, that would be really cool; I could write about movies and that would be my career.” I had always had an interest in not just comedies but all kinds of movies, all kinds of stories, and looking at film as a serious pursuit beyond just being comedic. And then there was kind of a period where I decided I didn’t want to be an actor any more, and I was in New York and I was predominantly teaching screenwriting at NYU Film School, the graduate school. I really enjoyed teaching and I found myself encouraging my students to pursue a certain kind of process that I knew I wasn’t doing myself, and so what ended up happening was I co-wrote a screenplay and really decided to put into action some of the things that I had been talking about and thinking about. That movie, Hello, My Name is Doris, was the first time that I actually put comedy and drama in the same thing without any quotation marks around it. It’s just a story about a person who is quite strange and has a lot going on, and it’s a very funny movie but it’s also a very dramatic movie and I realized “Oh wow, those two things can co-exist and I’m actually able to do that.” That was the beginning of the next phase of my career, so to speak.

CC: What drew you to Michael and Kit’s story in particular? I know you had read the memoir but what really grabbed you and made you say “I want this to be my next movie”?
MS: To me, it’s this incredibly sad story, this incredibly heartbreaking story that uses this sort of brutal, relatable honesty and authenticity about who these people really were and their deepest insecurities and their deepest foibles, and finding humor in that and wanting the world to know these things about us that we’re afraid to tell or show each other. All of the kind of secrets that we have, the things we have done that we’re embarrassed or ashamed about or aren’t sure about. That was all on display in this book that was ultimately about this group of people trying to cope with something that was so difficult, and that really made me feel just so connected to it and I fell in love with it.

CC: It seems to me that many holiday- or Christmas-themed films, including Spoiler Alert, often involve the terminal illness of a character or the death of a significant character. Do you have any thoughts about that trend or tradition?
MS: Yeah, I think that the holidays are a time for family, they’re a time for groups coming together, a time of reflection about what’s really important, about what really matters. There’s a kind of way in which the holidays remind us to be the best versions of ourselves, and to kind of come together and put our disagreements aside or what have you. I feel like there’s a lot happening underneath the holiday season that I think makes people think about togetherness and forgiveness and love, so that could be part of it.

CC: That’s great. You know, I had the pleasure recently of seeing Jim Parsons perform in A Man of No Importance in New York City.
MS: I’m dying to see it!

CC: It’s so good, and it’s great to see him doing more dramatic work, and in a musical! What was your experience like directing him and working with him as one of the producers?
MS: Oh, he and I (I hope he agrees) felt like we had a really deep connection in every sense in creating this character and telling this story. He and I were constantly in contact about every tiny little detail of it, and I think there was a lot of mutual respect between the two of us. We’re both people that have a lot of background in comedy but are also really interested in telling stories that have dramatic weight to them as well. I think we had a really, really great collaboration and I would love to work with him again.

CC: That’s awesome. Last question: You earlier mentioned Wet Hot American Summer and I’m a fan. Is there going to be a next entry in the franchise?
MS: Nothing planned but never say never. I mean, those characters definitely live on in my brain and I could easily imagine us revisiting them, you know, when we’re like 60 or something and then we’ll be playing like they’re in their mid-20’s or something like that, yeah.

CC: That’s cool. Thank you so much for your time and continued success to you!
MS: Thank you, I really appreciate it. Take care!

Spoiler Alert opens in theaters this Friday, December 2nd.

Reviews by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.