Matthew Weiner has been working on Are You Here, an ode to and examination of what he calls the “myth of male friendship,” for over a decade. He started writing the film between his first two years at The Sopranos, just around the point in his life when he started looking around and wondering where all his friends had gone.
It took Weiner nearly eight years to get the script to Owen Wilson, two breaks from Mad Men to shoot it, and two more seasons to edit and finish the film. But after showcasing an in-progress cut at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival and making few more edits, a slight title change, and some finishing touches, Weiner is finally ready to take it to the public. Almost.
The film tells the story of two childhood best friends, weatherman and bachelor about town Steve (Wilson) and bi-polar screwup Ben (Zach Galifianakis). The pair travel home when Ben’s estranged father dies, only to discover that he’s actually inherited a ton of money. There, the friendship is tested thanks to complicated relationships with Ben’s sister Terry (Amy Poehler) and Steve’s lust for Angela (relative unknown Laura Ramsey) – Ben’s father’s too-young widow.
“Owen’s character has to get off drugs, and Zach’s character has to get on them,” laughs Weiner. “There are performances from Zach and Owen in particular that no one has seen them do. It’s still a funny movie, but there’s a dramatic depth to both of them.”
Though Galifianakis wasn’t on Weiner’s radar when he started writing the film, he says he’d always had Wilson in mind for the part of Steve. “He really reminds me of Bill Murray in the best way. He has depth, he has pathos, and he’s just very funny,” he says. “I always felt that there was something else going on behind his eyes.” It took Wilson reaching out to Weiner (he’s a fan of Mad Men) and a fateful, friendly dinner for the director to finally get the script in the actor’s hands. After Wilson agreed to be in the film, things started falling into place.
Weiner called on his Mad Men crew to work on the film, including exec producer Scott Hornbacher, makeup head Lana Horochowski, production designer Dan Bishop, and cinematographer Chris Manley. Besides making the set feel like a Mad Men group trip, the imported crew also helped make Weiner’s transition to feature filmmaking easier. “It was exciting to financiers, believe it or not, because they knew that we would work together and everyone liked the product that we made together,” he says.
The camaraderie and long-term relationships didn’t go unnoticed: “There was a moment on the set where I was walking around with Chris Manley. I was just sort of walking around and talking. Amy Poehler was in that scene, and she said, ‘You guys have worked together a lot.” Weiner recalls being a bit perplexed about how she might have known that. Poehler’s response: ”You keep talking, and he keeps ignoring you, and everything’s still getting done.”
One of Weiner’s biggest obstacles was suddenly working with established stars. On Mad Men, Weiner and his cast came up together. “Everybody liked the script and was on board with that, but you have to earn their trust,” Weiner says. He modestly credits his pro crew for keeping things on track with Wilson, Galifianakis and Poehler – all of whom, he admits, had very different working styles. But ultimately, Weiner believes ”everyone knew that the movie was very important to me and very personal. That kind of held it together.”
The film screened at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival in 2013, alongside future awards recipients like Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. Though it was one of the fest’s more anticipated movies, the response was mixed. Weiner stayed above the fray, though. He says he’d heard a few rumblings, but overall, his experience in Toronto was positive. “I just continued the process of making the movie. I treated it as a screening,” he says. The final product, he adds, is “actually quite a bit different than it was at Toronto.”
Now Weiner’s just excited for audiences to finally see his work when it debuts in theaters and on VOD Aug. 22. “I love the movie Five Easy Pieces, which is really a movie about a man coming to terms with the same issues as in Are You Here,” Weiner says. “Structurally, I wanted to commit to telling a story that you wouldn’t know the ending to. That you would recognize it as reality but you would really have a plot that is as twisted as real life is.”
He adds: “This is decidedly less glamorous than Mad Men. It’s definitely contemporary. It’s about what is ugly now and what is beautiful. “