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Courteney Cox and Seann William Scott show dark humor in 'Just Before I Go'

Cleo King, Courteney Cox, Seann William Scott, Mackenzie Marsh and Garret Dillahunt at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival press junket for "Just Before I Go"
Cleo King, Courteney Cox, Seann William Scott, Mackenzie Marsh and Garret Dillahunt at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival press junket for "Just Before I Go"
Carla Hay

In the dark comedy "Just Before I Go" (directed by Courteney Cox), Seann William Scott plays Ted Morgan, a suicidal man who decides to revisit people from his past before he kills himself. Those people include his insensitive policeman brother Lucky (played by Garret Dillahunt); a guy named Rowley (played by Rob Riggle), who used to bully Ted in high school; a mean-spirited teacher from Ted's high school named Mrs. Lawrence (played by Beth Grant); and a kind-hearted former classmate from high school named Vickie (played by Mackenzie Marsh).

Along the way, a lot of crazy things happen to Ted after he moves in with Lucky and his family: Lucky's wife, Kathleen (played by Kate Walsh), chronically masturbates in front of him while she is supposedly sleepwalking; Ted finds out a big secret that Lucky and Kathleen's teenage son, Zeke (played by Kyle Gallner), is hiding from almost everyone he knows; Ted unintentionally breaks up a marriage; and while Ted is yelling at Mrs. Lawrence on her death bed, he meets her quirky but charming granddaughter Greta (played by Olivia Thirlby), who ends up befriending Ted.

"Just Before I Go" had its world premiere at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. The day after the premiere, I caught up with Cox (who is also one of the film's producers), Scott, Dillahunt, Marsh and co-star Cleo King (who plays the mother of one of Zeke's classmates) for a roundtable interview. Here is what they said.

Seann, there's a stunning scene of you underwater toward the end of "Just Before I Go." How much of that was you and how much was a stunt double?

Scott: It was awful! It was all me. I didn't know how we were going to do it. It was at this huge water tank in L.A. that they don't actually use much anymore. I don't know if they did anything for "Titanic" there but they did for "Waterworld." Some guy built this massive tank.

It was pretty cold. They had serious free divers, the guys who can go way down. I said, "Dude, I can't do that!" So we did a little bit of practicing, and I said, "I don't think I can do this. I was really panicked. I told Courteney, "I'm so sorry. I don't know what we're going to do."

That one shot where you see the big monster? I was actually down that far. I was getting better and better. They put the weights down by your ankles. So they weigh you down, which is awful?

Was your brain affected by having to hold your breath underwater for so long?

Scott: I think so, which is scary because I don't have a lot of brain cells left. We did it throughout the day, and toward the end, I was getting really shivery. But when I got home, I thought, "Oh no! I'm getting the bends!" It looked cool though. It was worth it.

[He says jokingly of an underwater hallucination that Ted has] And that monster is real! I saw the movie last night for the first time. I grew up loving movies ... with dragons and monsters. Seeing me with this cool, dinosaur-looking thing, it's kind of neat!

How was it working with Courteney Cox as a director?

Scott: I always hear that actors make great directors. I had that experience with Pete Berg in "The Rundown." He was just so smart, so funny, so decisive. It was just a completely different experience. Courteney's the same way.

Cox: There was some torture going on [with the underwater scene]. I said, "I think we're going to have to film this for more than one day. And [Seann] was like, "I think not!" It worked out the way we did it.

Scott: Yeah, it looked so great.

Cox: Look how handsome he is!

Scott: Thank you. This is a great day. So I was talking about you as a director.

Cox: Go ahead. Keep going.

Scott: I expected her to be hilarious, but honestly, for me, she's the funniest person I ever met. [He says to Cox] I would've said this even if you weren't here.

It was so fun, especially since this character was so completely different from anything I've ever done. I always knew I was taken care of. It was fun. Her confidence with the camera. Everything was awesome.

Marsh: She took a huge chance on me, so I feel very blessed about that. I was just so honored with how much she trusted me — at least I felt that way. She kind of let me do my thing. And when she did come to give any of us direction, it was so intimate. It was between her and me, or Seann and her — and that way, the rest of us could react to each other's direction and not know exactly what it was. '

She was such a great director. I worked with all sorts of directors, because I grew up doing musical theater, so I've had my fair share. She was an amazing director. She was so organized.

You could tell that she knew what she wanted. She had the vision for it, but the whole set was so relaxed. If there were ever any stressful moments, we never saw it, as a cast, from Courteney or any of the crew. It was cool.

Courteney, can you talk about your musical choices for "Just Before I Go"? You said your daughter, Coco, even sang some of the music? When did you decide to let her sing in the movie?

Cox: That was probably a couple of weeks ago. Music is such a process. I had an original thought of what I wanted, but I couldn't afford one song that I wanted. Not one!

Having it scored was one thing. Erran Baron Cohen did the score. I was trying to find the balance of trying to have people being comfortable enough to laugh and also feel sad and feel all these emotions that you have to go on.

Gus Van Sant actually gave me a great note. He watched the film. And he said, "Why are people not laughing at the joke at the beginning?" I re-watched the film and I put in "The Odd Couple" theme, just to see him floating in the water. And it changed everything.

So that's what I did with the music. And, of course, I started dating Johnny McDaid [from the rock band Snow Patrol]. Snow Patrol wrote three songs for the film. And he introduced me to a guy named Foy Vance, whom I got four songs from. It just really elevated the movie in so many ways. It opened up my eyes to things like original songs from Snow Patrol and artists who are new to me.

There's a lot of dark subject matter in "Just Before I Go," such as suicide, homophobia and adultery. Can you talk about how those dark subjects were handled in this comedy film so that it didn't cross the line into offensive parody and making your characters look like caricatures?

King: I love that it's not a typical comedy. It has so many issues, like alcoholism. My character has her [sobriety] chip. But what I really love. Even when [one of the movie's characters cheats on and leaves her husband] and shows up with her bags, as a woman, you feel something for her ... As a woman, you just go, "Oh no! Don't do that!"

For me, I love a film that makes me feel something. And to be able to deal with those issues, that's what I love about this film. It's not a typical comedy, but it's all the typical life things we all have to deal with. But the fact that we can laugh about it, I love that ...

Whenever I think of a movie afterwards, that's when I know it really affected me. This movie really made me feel something, and that's why I know it works for me.

On set, I just loved Courteney's sense of humor. To me, it's very different and very dry. I like that. For me, that's what I love the most: her sense of humor.

Scott: This is the first movie I've done where I've not said anything inappropriate. After seeing it for the first time last night, there are so many things that I'm thinking about. The scenes I didn't see being filmed with the with the high-school kids, that's so timely. That really hit me. All the other stuff as well. I just loved it all.

The [gay] relationship between the two guys, I was really moved by it. That added another layer to this movie. I thought it was handled awesomely. That's all I can say about that.

Marsh: All of us [our characters in the movie] had our own struggles. We all had something we were dealing with, but I loved that this movie shows the resolution of everybody knowing their worth, and knowing that they need to be loved, and need to love ... It's a really cool message, and I love that we all played our part.

I feel like I represent women. I represent the heavyset person. I represent people who don't feel beautiful because of an image issue. And even at the end, going, "No, it is worth it to be a mom. It is worth it to have kids.

And it is worth it to have a few extra pounds and still be able to feel beautiful and have a happy family." I think it was cool that you saw everyone have their moment of "We are worth it."

Cox: I have to say that [Mackenzie Marsh] is amazing. I would run by her the most inappropriate lines you can imagine, and she was like, "I'm fine." She's so gorgeous and talented and so beautiful. I love the way you were just game. It didn't matter if who was saying something inappropriate about anybody else, all the actors in the movie [were up for it].

Marsh: I was going to say the same about [Courteney Cox] too, but I didn't know if she wanted me to say that about her. I thought it was so respectful as a director. There were a couple of lines that got changed because of their inappropriateness.

There was a "fatty" line. Courteney pulled me aside and said, "Is this OK? The word 'fatty'?" And I'm like, "Yeah, let's do that. Take that moment." But I just thought it was so respectful and so unnecessary but so wonderful from the producer/director.

Courteney, why did you choose "Just Before I Go" to be the first theatrical movie you directed?

Cox: I actually was in the process of developing something else. It was a bigger movie: a $20 million movie. They wanted me to direct it, but I was having to go through a lot of hoops to show, "This is how I would make this film."

I was out to lunch with Thea [Mann] and David [Arquette, who are partners with Cox in Coquette Productions]. We were talking to ["Just Before I Go" screenwriter] Dave Flebotte about developing a season for television. Dave had written on "Dirt," so we knew him and worked with him before.

I had a cold and was really sick, but I love Flebotte, so I wanted to show up for this meeting. At the end of the meeting, David Arquette said, "Flebotte, do you have any scripts that are just sitting around that you would like to have made into a movie? Courteney is looking to direct something this hiatus." I was very specific about wanting to do something.

And [Flebotte] said, "Yeah, I actually just finished one." He sent it over. I called him up and said, "I'm doing this movie." He said, "OK." He got very nervous and called his agent. As soon as somebody is interested in a movie, then everyone is interested ...

I said, "You can sit on this thing for a year in development hell, or I can make it now." I had to call him almost daily until I had to call him dirty names. I said, "Stop being a pussy and let's make this movie!" I actually hate the word "pussy." I like the word "c*nt."

I didn't want him to take it to a studio. It never happens, or if it does, it takes too long. Anyway, he's really happy now. We had a good time.

There is great irony about the fact that Lucky is a cop whose job is to be observant but he is in denial or clueless about things going on in his own home. His character is very different from many other characters that Garret Dillahunt has played. Can you talk about how Garret got cast in "Just Before I Go"?

Cox: I had worked with him on a movie called "Talhotblond," a television movie. I was so thankful to get him for that part. And then I'd seen him in a few other things. Oh God, he just blows me away!

I'm not saying I'm going to put him in every single thing, but I always say, "I'm going to work with him no matter what, even if he has to play a woman. I don't care." [Garret Dillahunt] is the kind of actor who is a chameleon from the word "go." You don't get to say that about many people.

Lucky is someone who has a lot of unlikable characteristics, so how did you decide to portray him?

Dillahunt: I kind of liked him. I liked the script as well. I was on a break from my show "Raising Hope," so it was a coincidence, I think. I think I wanted to work with Courteney. I loved Seann in "Goon." There's a great sensitivity that he brings to things.

And I already felt affection toward him from that. I said, "I can be this guy's brother. I'm older and blondish." And also, the movie was really different from "Talhotblond." I wanted to do something different for Courteney.

But I like low humor anyway. My parents and I are miles apart, politically, but I don't hate my parents. I love my parents. They raised me to believe what I want to believe.

So there's something about that in this movie that I really appreciated. It seems like everything is so polarized right now. You get these caricatures of people, these caricatures of their beliefs. "I hate this kind of person" or "I love this kind of person." But actually, there's a lot of great things about them. There are things to like. There's possibility of change.

Lucky is unfiltered, that's for sure.

Dillahunt: He's unfiltered. And I worried a little bit that he was a dumb cop, but I also feel that he's kind of a good cop. He can be that kind of person. He's a cop who could be unobservant about things in his own family.

Cox: The reason why I love that character is that I'm not inappropriate like that, but I'm so blunt. Every thought that comes in, I can't stop it. You have to know my personality, and then you don't mind.

Scott: [He says jokingly] I can see how that's really held you back.

Courteney, your ex-husband, David Arquette, is an executive producer and co-star of "Just Before I Go." (He plays Vickie's husband.) Did you always have him in mind for the role? What was it like directing him in this movie?

Cox: I love directing him. I think David is an amazing actor. He's just so interesting. There's so much going on in that brain at all times. It was an interesting way to direct him.

When you know someone so well, you know kind of what they're going to do. I'd seen him do certain things, and I was like, "No, let's play this character completely different." I think he broke my heart in that scene where he's fly fishing in the tub. It was just great.

I think [David Arquette and Mackenzie Marsh] were so natural and so good together and the weight of the song. I was really happy with that. David's just great. I love working with him. And Coco was in that scene too.

David and I have a weird relationship. I loved him more last night. He's my bud.

How much of the casting was through auditions and how much was offering the roles to the actors?

Cox: Mackenzie auditioned. Evan Ross [who plays Zeke's openly gay classmate Romeo] didn't think he was going to audition. I met so many actors, but some of them ... weren't believable. The greatest thing is when people have soul.

There was something about him. He came in, and I was like, "Oh my God!" He could play gay, but he did not want to kiss [a male co-star]. I had to bribe him!

What did you do to bribe him?

Cox: [She laughs and declines to answer.] I asked him, "Could you just please read a scene while you're here?" And he did. And he didn't realize I was thinking, "Oh my God! You're so perfect!"

Seann, you usually play wild, off-the-wall characters, but in "Just Before I Go," you're actually the earnest straight man to characters who are wild and off-the-wall. What did you think about this different role for you as an actor?

Scott: It was actually easier for me. It's the first movie [like this] that I've been lucky to do. I don't have the kind of energy to keep doing broad comedy [for my whole comedy]. I love the challenge of it. I don't really have that comedy sensibility. It's fine to try to be funny.

Cox: You do have it. You have it with your dry sense of humor and your looks and your subtleties. What's great is that he is the most sincere person.

[She says to Scott] If I saved all the texts you sent to me throughout our relationship, I would just make it a plaque above my bed. You're so sweet.

He's just present and real. There's never a false moment. And that's the greatest part about you. Of course you do comedy! You've done more comedies than anyone at this table. And all the movies you're funny in, even if you're sad.

Scott: Thank you.

Cox: And what's that movie you did about the grocery store?

Scott: "The Promotion."

Cox: I loved it.

Scott: It was easier for me to approach this [role as a comedy straight man]. Even my mom even said, "You're kind of like this guy [Ted Morgan]." It's true.

I think it's one of the first things I said to Courteney when we met. I knew I needed to do it. I felt like I had a lot to offer, a lot of my own personality to bring to it.

I was in my head a lot. I'm not sure I did a good job and didn't ruin the movie. It was real easy for me to play a character like this, compared to Stifler [in the "American Pie" movies], which is exhausting.

Did making "Just Before I Go" give you any thoughts about reconnecting with anyone from your past?

Scott: I did that, under different circumstances. There was this girl I had a crush on. I had the biggest crush on her. I wanted to be in movies because I loved films, but I had the biggest crush on her since seventh grade. She was a year older than me. She was so pretty but she was dating this guy, who has a great last name, but I can't tell you.

And she called me out of nowhere and said, "I always had a crush on you. I'm not with this guy anymore. You can be in my life." So for a month, we made out. We almost had sex in my family's kitchen. My grandpa was at home, taking a nap. She had just graduated from high school, and I was a senior.

Anyway, she went back with the guy, I was heartbroken, and I was like, "I'm going to show you! I'm going to be in movies!" I didn't speak to her for about seven, eight or nine years. And then I heard she was single.

I was like, "I'm going to give her a call." And she was so mean! She was like, "Oh, Mr. Movie Guy." She was so mean!

So she wasn't flattered that you contacted her after you became famous? Do you think you did anything to make her angry with you?

Scott: No. And that was the last time I contacted any girls I had a crush on.

Courteney, were there any surprising challenges to directing "Just Before I Go"?

Cox: No. I had some scenes that were difficult to figure out that part of the story, but mostly, I think what I'm good at — and I think it helped that I did a bunch of "Cougar Town" episodes — is that I trust everyone so much.

I did a scene where I planned something out visually, like how I wanted it to look, and [Garret Dillahunt] was wearing a police belt. And he said, "You know, I don't feel comfortable sitting in the couch on that." And I said, "What do you feel comfortable with?"

I think I can change things on the fly. I may storyboard stuff, and I may really come prepared because I have to, but I don't mind changing at all. I'd much rather for the actor to be comfortable. And then, it always works out.

Was there a lot of improvisation on the movie set?

Cox: We were open to any kind of improv. We were giving lines sometimes on the day — little funny stuff ... [Cleo King] literally killed me, every time she said a word.

What's next for each of you?

Scott: I'm doing a film called "Guidance." It's a comedy. And I'm doing a Jackie Chan movie ["Skiptrace"]. The Jackie Chan movie shoots all throughout China. It's kind of similar to "Lethal Weapon" and "Rush Hour."

Cox: [She says jokingly] It's all underwater. It's going to be great!

Marsh: I'm recurring on "The Following" right now. My character [in "The Following"] is really creepy.

Dillahunt: I'm doing a play ["Conviction"] with Sarah Paulson that I'm excited about. We've done movies together but never a scene together. And I'm finishing up a series for Amazon called "Hand of God," which I'm very excited about.

King: I'm still on "Mike and Molly" on CBS. We were picked up for a fifth season, and we're going into syndication in the fall. And I have a recurring role on a new show on TV Land called "Jennifer Falls" with Jaime Pressly. That starts this summer. And then, I have "Transformers 4" coming out. I have a role in that with Mark Wahlberg.

Cox: I'm hoping to [direct again]. I haven't looked at anything yet, because I was just waiting to finish this movie. Hopefully, material will come to me. I have really nothing going on.

We're on the bubble with a show called "Cougar Town." And I have no directing jobs. [She says jokingly to the actors] Thank you. I hope you guys feel better.

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