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The best of BookCon: Highlights from the ‘This Is Where I Leave You’ panel

Cover art for 'This Is Where I Leave You'
Plume Books (A Penguin Imprint)

Tina Fey. Jason Bateman. Jane Fonda. Adam Driver. Rose Byrne. Dax Shepard. Timothy Olyphant. Connie Britton. Kathryn Hahn. Corey Stoll. Talk about your serious star power. That list could well be the roster of celebrities attending an A-list event, but it is, in fact, a list of the stars leading Shawn Levy’s upcoming adaptation of Jonathan Tropper’s beloved novel, This Is Where I Leave You.

Stars Tina Fey and Jason Bateman, who play two siblings from the Altman clan; a family forced to live together for a week as they sit shiva for their recently deceased father, joined director Shawn Levy and screenwriter Jonathan Tropper for the inaugural event at the first ever BookCon in New York City.

The panel, which lasted the better part of an hour, was moderated by Entertainment Weekly’s Anthony Breznican, featured clips from the upcoming film, passages from the novel and plenty of commentary from the assembled panel. It also afforded some interesting insights to both the upcoming film and the process that went into making said film.

A cast known for comedic chops doesn’t mean the film will lose the emotion of the book
A cast known for comedic chops doesn’t mean the film will lose the emotion of the book Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

A cast known for comedic chops doesn’t mean the film will lose the emotion of the book

Tina Fey described the film as an emotional comedy when speaking with panel moderator Anthony Breznican on set. She elaborated on just what that designation meant in her mind.

"I think it’s because the in movie, when you see it, and the book, there are moments that are very funny and there are moments...that will move you to tears. I think that is the hallmark of good writing, because real life is never just serious. People cope through humor. I think it’s just really a good example of Jonathan’s writing and integration of real life and the humor that comes out of these situations."

Director Shawn Levy added that one of his main goals in making this film was to capture the emotions and tone of the text.

"It’s about people and the experiences that are relatable, even though they are very specifically screwed up people. I read this book 5, 6 years ago and I loved it instantly. It just felt so fantastically funny and poignant. I wanted the movie to feel that way, I wanted the trailer to communicate that."

Still after hearing Tropper read a passage from the book in which Wendy (Fey) reveals to Judd (Bateman) that their father has died, and then watching the scene (of which tiny snippets can be seen in the trailer) that passage became, Fey voiced the sense that the portrayal she went with didn’t mesh with the text, co-star Jason Bateman also chimed in.

TF: "I sort of went into it [shooting] knowing that I know Shawn well and I trust Shawn and we had an agreement like, you just guide this if you want more one way or the other. So listening to the passage I was like, ‘God, I played it wrong. She should have been less emotional.’"

JB: "You should have read the book!"

TF: "-I did read the book! But when you’re in the scene and you’re playing the scene, you’re playing the reality of it and maybe in an also craven attempt to have your character be likeable, you let emotion creep in."

For his part, Levy revealed that he never felt the need to push for comedy given the acting caliber of his stars.

"...I mean it’s as good as it gets with these two. So, I think the way we approached a lot of these scenes was, we’re going to play it honestly and we’re going to worry about playing the emotions in an authentic way and just kind of have faith that we would find opportunities for funny. When you have Jason Bateman and Tina Fey you’re never far from that. In this movie we never felt we had to push or go looking for the laughs. We kind of trusted that those will come because we all work in comedy enough that we have certain instincts about that. We played it for the reality of the feelings."

Levy and Tropper collaborated extensively on the script to get the right tone
Levy and Tropper collaborated extensively on the script to get the right tone Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images Entertainment

Levy and Tropper collaborated extensively on the script to get the right tone

Author and screenwriter Jonathan Tropper fielded a number of questions about adapting his book alongside Levy to create this film. He said that one of their biggest concerns, apart from Levy’s desire to remain as faithful as possible to the text was to ensure that all of the dialogue felt right for the actors bringing those words to life.

"Shawn and I would sit there and he’d look at a line and he’d say to me, ‘Can you really...Bateman would never say this.’ If we couldn’t hear Tina or Jason saying it it felt like well, we should get that out. There were lines that felt like they belonged and lines that felt like they didn’t belong. So, I would hear Jason’s voice, he has a particular sardonic side and Tina has a particular way she delivers wit. At the table read Tina changed one of our lines and it immediately went in the script, but Tina actually emailed an apology… She was like, ‘I‘m sorry, I hate it when people change lines,’ but the way I looked at it is we were getting some free writing from Tina Fey. Whatever happens on the screen, I take credit for it so, it doesn’t matter."

This collaborative process also allowed Levy and Tropper to make changes, some larger and other more subtle, to make a piece that they already loved as a novel, as strong as possible as a film. Levy and Fey spoke about one such adjustment (some of which can be seen in the trailer).

SL: "...Watching it [the table read], what struck me and Paul and Jeff, our producers, and Jonathan, was you have this great big sister character in Wendy who is always giving advice to Judd, sometimes condescendingly, sometimes supportively and the movie at this point didn’t have a real kind of championing of her brother by Wendy. We just thought that it would feel really good to have Tina as Wendy stand up for her brother and take out Wade. I have to credit, the scene was, as you can tell, very much written, but some of the lines like the middle part line--"

TF: "--Oh yeah, I gave Dax that. I said, if you want to insult me, say I’m too old for a center part."

SL: "You won’t find many actors who give an insult of themselves to the other actor to say to them, but that’s Tina. As was ‘princess cut,’ and a number of other things that get said in that scene."

The set of 'This Is Where I Leave You' sounds like an incredibly fun spot
The set of 'This Is Where I Leave You' sounds like an incredibly fun spot Jessica Miglio / Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The set of 'This Is Where I Leave You' sounds like an incredibly fun spot

Breznican also shared that during his set visit he was struck by the sense that everyone was having a great time. He even took note of a sign outside one of the bedrooms in the home where the film was shot that read something to the effect of ‘Actor’s Clubhouse.’ The panel shared some memories from the 31-day shoot and the atmosphere that was enjoyed by all.

Though it was true that all of the trailers were a few miles off from the set, Bateman shared that the circumstances were not the only reasons there was such a sense of closeness on the set.

"You kind of hit it on the head that our trailers were really far away [laughs]. I mean no, but we would have all hung out in one trailer had the trailers been a little closer. It was a great thing that Shawn went to Tina first, because Tina is our lead and she sets a tone on set, as does Shawn, that really trickles down. I think people are genuinely nice, for the most part, and if they are working with people who lead with nice, than you feel safe to be nice, and then everything’s nice. It was a very smooth operation."

Fey added that the environment also had a positive effect on the work.

It sort of mirrored sitting shiva, it forced us to be together in a way that was good for everyone, I think. By a week into it, Kathryn Hahn and Corey were just napping in the bed together. There just was great camaraderie.

Levy recalled that having Jane Fonda on set was a particularly amusing.

"As you saw in the trailer, in the book Hilary has had a boob job ‘cause she’s got another book tour coming up. She just wants a touch up... So Jane early on, like the day after I cast Jane she said, ‘I want to see the top prosthetician in LA and get really big, fake boobs, so we can shoot this scene where I’m in a robe and go fully open if you want to,’ and I chose not to. But, we spent a day with Jane in these breasts that just look completely real. Jonathan just reminded me we’d be sitting at lunch and she’d just be like [flashes everyone] and you don’t know where to look. You look at your plate, you look up, because to Jane, she’s wearing like a chestplate of clothing. But to us it’s like Jane Fonda below the waist, Jane Fonda above the neck and just huge breasts just being flaunted. She’d flash passing by cars, it’s true, I’m not making that up."

Levy also noted that he had no problem pitting Fey and Bateman against each other for the good of the movie.

It helps when you give opposite direction to the two actors in the scene. So, I would go to Jason’s ear and I would say ‘Shut her up.’ And I would go to Tina and I would say ‘Make him confess. They didn’t know what I said to the other, so you have two people working at diametrically opposed agendas. The only note I remember giving was pull his hair hard.

The cast didn’t shy away from changing things up for the food of the film either. Levy recalled one great adjustment they made to ensure Adam Driver could be part of the project.

"We offered Adam Driver the movie and he couldn’t do it cause he was filming that show [‘Girls’], Phillip is a big part, it’s well over half the schedule and we tried, it failed. I was told forget Adam Driver, you’ve gotta move on and find someone else. So, I read 50, 70 different actors in that age range, and it just cemented my certainty that this Adam Driver was something truly singular. So, I asked both Jason and Tina, I said, ‘Look, I think there might be a way to get Adam in the movie, but it’s going to mean we shoot weekends, we shoot wonky hours, we shoot way out of sequence,’ and unhesitatingly they both said, absolutely, do it, because there’s no second choice to an actor who’s that unique. … It meant seeing our families less and our kids less, but in the end it was worth it because Adam Driver is Phillip."

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