Stu Zicherman and Ben Karlin are best known for their work as writers in film and television. Zicherman was one of the screenwriters on the superhero film “Elektra” (which he doesn’t even try to hide his disappointment over) and the Hong Kong action film “2000 AD,” and he is currently working on the FX show “The Americans.” Karlin made a name for himself as a writer and executive producer on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report,” and these days he serves as one of the writers for the acclaimed ABC comedy “Modern Family.” But what you may not know is that these two were best friends when they were growing up and are also children of divorce.
When they reunited as adults, Zicherman and Karlin began working together on the screenplay for “A.C.O.D.” which tells the story of when Carter (Adam Scott) is tasked to get his bitterly divorced parents Hugh (Richard Jenkins) and Melissa (Catherine O’Hara) to come to their youngest son Trey’s (Clark Duke) wedding. Writing the script allowed Zicherman and Karlin to deal with their own memories of their parents separating, but they also manage to find humor in a situation that is usually filled with tremendous sadness and anger. In the process, they both succeed in turning a lot of comedy conventions on their heads and give us a movie that is full of endless surprises.
I got to participate in a roundtable interview with Zicherman and Karlin when they appeared for the “A.C.O.D.” press junket which was held at the SLS Hotel in Los Angeles, California.
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE DOES CONTAIN SPOILERS.
What was the genesis for this movie?
Stu Zicherman: Ben and I have actually been friends since we were born. What’s the quickest way to explain this? Basically, my mom was friends with Ben’s parents, and Ben’s parents were friends with my mom’s first husband who I didn’t even know about. We’ve been friends our whole lives. I have always wanted to do something with this subject matter, this generation of divorced kids. We’re both part of this generation.
Ben Karlin: Yeah. We were friends growing up and our families were friends growing up, but then, when his parents got divorced and shortly thereafter my parents got divorced, we stopped hanging out that much because that was the end of our families getting together and doing things.
Stu Zicherman: It was a very romantic journey where our families used to go on vacations together.
Ben Karlin: So when we were both professional and we were established as adults in our careers, I moved to New York, and Stu was working there already and he said, “Hey, I want to write a movie about how messed up we all are” (laughs). I went, “I’m in!”
Stu Zicherman: We grew up on movies like “Kramer vs. Kramer” and dramas that were kind of tragic. Ben and I talked about this when we first started working on the movie. Our parents’ divorces were tragic and sad in their own way, but they were also not to be believed at times (laughs). They were irreverent, funny and weird. We wanted to try and find a way to make light of it and make a comedy that still had some gravity to it because it’s something that people don’t laugh about. What’s been really fun about making this movie and about taking it around and showing it at Sundance and all these places is that people are excited and relate to it. People will come up to me after screenings and want to tell their stories like, “My parents got divorced when I was 8.” We’re almost giving them license to laugh about it.
Ben Karlin: We were shooting in Atlanta, and the night before production started, it was just us. It was me, Stu, a couple of the actors, a couple of the producers, and we were out in the bar at the hotel. There was a wedding going on and there was the after party for the wedding. There was the groom, the bride, the whole bridal party. Everyone was in tuxedoes. So it was like these two worlds. We were about to make this movie about divorce and these people who were just starting. And they were great. They were lovely people. We closed the bar down with them. And then, a week later, I got a letter from one of the bridesmaids who I had been chatting with, and she told me this long story about her family’s divorce and how it affected her. It was just so weird. Even in that moment, people were just connecting to what we were trying to do, and we found that throughout the whole process, that there seems to be something that everyone can relate to about this subject.
So everybody is trying to figure out who got married at the movie’s end…
Stu Zicherman: Well, you know, we didn’t really want to give it away. Ben and I always talked about the movie as being an anti-romantic comedy. There were certain beats we would get to in the movie as we were writing it. There’s the obvious romantic comedy beat. We were trying to turn away from that wherever we could, not to the detriment of the movie, but the end of the movie was not so much about who got married. It was more important to us that the characters, especially those three men, have evolved through the movie to a point where it could be any of them. When pressed, I always say it’s all three of them, but we like the idea of leaving it open-ended because it didn’t matter.
Ben Karlin: It didn’t really trouble us, I have to say. We wanted to create a scenario where all three characters were repaired to the point where you’d be just okay with any of them. And it could be all three of them or none of them. The point is that whatever was waiting for them in there in the church was okay.
Stu Zicherman: And it’s funny too, when editing the movie, every single time I would adjust frames or tried a different shot and put it in front of an audience, people always guessed a different person. It was bizarre. I started to lose track of why people felt what. We had to calibrate it so that it’s pretty hard to tell now. We’d had a version where there was a faceless bride running through the background.
Ben Karlin: Oh, deep, deep background. A limo, a bride, the whole thing.
Stu Zicherman: Again, it distracted from the movie. It’s such a nice, clean moment with the three of them walking in, and we like it.
Everyone seems to have their own version of the movie’s ending, and that really serves as a testament to your writing because you got us so deeply invested in every single character to where we really want to know what happens to them.
Ben Karlin: It’s a very hard thing to do. You want to give in. You want to give people what they want. And then, there’s the creative jerk part of you that’s like, “I know better.”
Stu Zicherman: But also, we thought about a lot of this when we were writing the movie that we didn’t want people to be right or wrong. It’s not a right or wrong thing. It’s the dad who does this impetuous thing and they get back together. He’s not wrong. He’s following his heart. What’s wrong with following your heart? And again, at the end of the movie, I always say to people it’s not a movie about divorce per se. I don’t want people just to think it’s about that. It’s really about if you’re married, if you’re not married, divorced, whatever kind of family you’re from, you’re not destined to repeat the patterns of your parents. You’re free to make your own mistakes. You’re free to live your life. That’s why I always love the word “adult” being in the movie. I always felt like you become an adult when you actually can put your past into perspective. That’s when you really start becoming an adult. And I like that about the ending because, up to that point, everybody is acting like a child.
You have said the script is loosely based on your families. Have you gotten any flak from them about it?
Ben Karlin: We’ve done a pretty good job of hiding or changing details. There used to be more stuff in the script that was literally word for word from our lives. There was an incident in his family and a specific incident in mine that involved the handing off of kids on a bridge, like a prisoner transfer, but it was between the parents. And it literally, at this moment, happened to me in Cape Cod where it was my dad’s new wife actually and her children and her ex-husband, and they had to exchange and they decided the exact mid-point. It was like North Korea-South Korea. Here’s the DMZ and we’re going to trade these children over that line, and we had that exact scene in the movie for years. That probably wouldn’t have gone over so well.
Stu Zicherman: And then there was a thing in my family called the hysterectomy conspiracy that was so absurd that when it was in the script, people would read it and be like…
Ben Karlin: “That’s not real.”
Stu Zicherman: They didn’t believe it. “No, no. It’s real.” We had to take it out because people didn’t believe it. But that happened to me. There’s one moment in the movie that is sort of torn from my life and its funny. It’s the one where Carter sits his parents down. My sister was getting married, and my parents would not agree to come to the same wedding. My brother-in-law and I sat them down. What’s hilarious about that is my parents don’t remember that. They block it out.
How long did it take you two to get this film made?
Ben Karlin: Oh my God! I was just talking about this the other day. I was living here (in Los Angeles) and I moved to New York in 1999, and Stu was already living there at that time. He probably approached me in 2000 or 2001 to start working on it. Obviously, we had other jobs.
Stu Zicherman: Yeah. We had other jobs, so we were working on it nights and on weekends and vacations.
Ben Karlin: The amazing thing is we were both single when we started working on this movie. I have since gotten married, had children, and gotten divorced (laughs).
Stu Zicherman: It’s crazy. We were both single when we started this thing, and now I’m married with two kids and he’s got two kids, which I think helped inform the movie a little bit.
Ben Karlin: Yes, definitely.
Stu Zicherman: It’s been a long process. It’s funny though. The movie almost got going at one point. It came really close to get going. What was great about it was once we committed to Adam Scott, the movie started to finally roll. Finally, eventually, you get so frustrated with all the games you have to play to try and get a movie made. The thing is that we always loved Adam for this. And again, it fits in a little bit with the anti-romantic idea. He’s got an anti-romantic lead in a way because he’s got a very cynical humor and perspective on life. It just worked really well. And once we got Adam, then we got Richard Jenkins. It just started to roll.
Ben Karlin: Once you have those first few pieces in place, it starts to gain a terminal velocity.
Stu Zicherman: Right. The phone starts to ring and all of a sudden people want to be in your movie. That was very exciting.
What I like about the script is that you don’t know where it’s going to go. From a distance, it looks like your typical formulaic comedy, but it really isn’t. How did you go about that? Were you looking to avoid certain things that you see in a lot of comedies like this?
Ben Karlin: Yes. There are so many tropes to these kinds of movies. Because we always were around, we were like, “How do we deal with the subject of a wedding in a movie that’s essentially about divorce?” We were very resolute that if we were going to have a wedding, we were going to do it differently than that typical moment at the end of the movie where people are walking down the aisle. So we knew we wanted that outside the wedding moment to end it. We just were acutely aware of convention and trying to understand why those conventions worked and why they existed, and then trying wherever we could to tiptoe around the obvious thing.
Stu Zicherman: But the big thing was stakes. I mean, there were so many times where we were hyperconscious with the movie, and we would do readings just to find out where we were with it. The main character, Carter, is in every single scene of the movie and he doesn’t have cancer. He isn’t beaten. It’s the kind of thing, at a certain point, where the audience could be looking at him and go, “Hey dude, get over it.” And so, there were scenes we really liked but we felt like we were going to lose the audience. We said, “We have to keep the audience rooting for him.”
Ben Karlin: We didn’t want to turn the guy into a jerk.
Stu Zicherman: So it was this balance. At times, people would read the script and say, “Why doesn’t he want his parents to get back together?” We just had to find a way and we kept trying to find ways in through relationships. But we did at times always try to move away from the tropes like the scene with the ring that turns into the key, and moments like that. It was funny. I did a Q&A in New York the other night and someone asked me about the whole cheating thing with Jessica Alba and how he never gets caught.
In the classic romantic comedy, you always get that scene where she’s like, “What were you doing with that girl?” It never crossed our minds to go there, and the truth is because in real life most people don’t get caught. You’re just forced to live with it. And that was the great liberty of making this movie independently. We’re not beholden to a studio to hit certain tropes. Also, it made the tone what it is, because the movie is funny but it’s also got some gravity to it and it’s got this balance.
I’m excited. The fact that the movie is finally coming out, I’m excited for people to see it, but I’m also going to miss it because we’ve just been carrying it around like this for so long.