Interview with ‘Girlfriend’s Day’ director Michael Stephenson

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Bob Odenkirk’s Ray Wentworth is a rockstar of writing greeting cards in Girlfriend’s Day. (Photo courtesy)

By Trey Hilburn

In a world where greeting card sentiment is sought after with as much reverence as we have for film and literature, Ray Wentworth (Bob Odenkirk) exists as one of the more celebrated stars.

When Ray is tasked with coming up with a game-changing greeting card sentiment, it leads him down a pulpy path full of memorable characters and bizarre dark wit.

Director, Michael Stephenson shows us a hardboiled-noir tale that alludes to the great noir films of yesteryear with an amazing cast, dark comedic wit and, well, a lot of greeting cards.

We had a chance to sit down with Director Stephenson to talk about how the whole thing came together, what fueled this awesome passion project and how it eventually landed it on Netflix.

La Prensa: This film has tons of classic noir film influence. Did you go back to revisit those films to get into that headspace?

Michael Stephenson: Well, it was like that on page from the first iteration by Eric Hoffman. Bob (Odenkirk) did some rewrites, and then I got involved five years ago. There was always those nods and homages to “Chinatown.” That is a film Bob loves and I love. I watched a film called “Man from Reno,” from a director named David Boyle. It was a really nice pulpy movie. Watching that sparked my interest in the DP who shot that movie. I connected with Richard Wong over that, and he shot “Girlfriend’s Day.” That was probably the most recent noir that I have watched.

LP: How did Larry Fessenden get involved and did you get to direct him in those amazing headshots?

MS: Yeah, I don’t know if you have seen those old, formal portraits of like, Einstein and Theodore Roosevelt and all these people that look studious and composed but, those headshots came from that idea. I’ve been a fan of Larry’s for a long time. He is such a great actor and interesting character, so when we were talking about (his character) Taft, he was the go-to. The benefit of having years to talk about a project that you aren’t sure if you are ever going to be able to make, gives you a continued process of talking about different ideas and building on those. Larry was an idea we had not too long before we started shooting. We wanted to make sure that the characters were unaware and unsuspecting as the story was and Larry was perfect in adding to that.

LP: Andy Ricter seems to be one of the nicest guys in the world. How did you get such a jerkish performance out of him?

MS: Andy really is the nicest person! That role was one Bob had written specifically with Andy in mind. No matter who else we thought about, Andy always seemed like the perfect guy for that role. So, we continually insisted it had to be Andy. You just put an ill fitting sweater on him and have him sit down at a piano and the rest works out.

LP: Working with Netflix sounds amazing, and they seem to give a lot of freedom on their projects. What was it like working with them on this?

MS: We couldn’t have a had a more supportive partner in making this movie. Right after I read it, five years ago, my first thought was Netflix. That was before they were making movies. Probably because they were great about licensing my small, weird documentary. I came to learn that years ago, Bob had sent a copy of the script to someone at Netflix and it made them really happy. As time went on, Netflix started to make movies. They were making stuff that was original and just different than other stuff out there. So, at the time Bob stepped into this window where more and more people became familiar with his work from “Better Call Saul.” It reached that momentum and Netflix helped us with complete creative support. We were guaranteed an audience. There is no other way a movie like this would get made without something like Netflix. You don’t have to appeal to a box office or certain advertisers. Netflix just wants to support these offbeat projects. It is interesting to see the shift.

LP: There is a ton of great characters and story in this film and its got a runtime of only 70 minutes. Was it a challenge from a director’s standpoint to cram everything into that runtime?

MS: It was always 70 pages and around the 70-minute mark, but there was a lot of characters and the question did become “How are we going to find the time to make these characters seem purposeful and meaningful?” Some of them get so little screen time. So, what it came down to was making each character’s time on screen large and to make it count. Never make anyone feel like arbitrary background. You do think at certain points that maybe you have to make it into a typical 90-min feature length but it worked better in this time frame. With Netflix you don’t have to feel confined to specific rules. It was nice and freeing.

LP: Was there anything you would have wanted to explore further?

MS: I could make volumes of stories about these characters. But, I think where we ended up is just about right. I feel like every character in there brings a certain amount of joy and is someone you can connect with, rather it’s through a flaw, or strength. There is justification for each person in the story.

LP: This feels like a Mr. Show feature length movie. Do you have a favorite sketch from Bob and David’s old sketch series?

MS: I would have to say “Change for a Dollar.” Because it’s such a simple sketch. It takes an idea and keeps pushing. Right when you think they can’t take it another step, they manage to keep it going. So, right now I would have to say that is my favorite.

LP: You have a cool vampire comedy film announced on IMDB called “Destroy.” It sounds like an awesome take on the vampire genre. Where are you on that?

MS: I hope this is the next movie I get to make. The writers are from Austin, Zach Carlson and Brian Connelly. This has been an idea since before “Girlfriend’s Day.” These guys have strong voices and have written something I really connect with. It’s really funny and at the same time really human. It gives me a ton of joy to think about that movie.

“Girlfriend’s Day” is now streaming on Netflix.

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