Tim Mason and Abby McEnany took the time to speak about Work in Progress with Solzy at the Movies during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
The duo are also a pair of improvisers from Chicago. Naturally, it makes perfect sense to interview Chicago improvisers in Park City rather than just down the street. But hey, at least I got to avoid the polar vortex that hit the city of Chicago! This interview took place on the first Friday of the Sundance Film Festival.
In all serious though, Abby McEnany is one of the most hysterical improvisers I know. Whenever I make it out to iO for Virgin Daiquiri shows, it would be hard not be cracking up as a result of her antics.
Congrats on Work In Progress being selected for Sundance. How thrilled are you for the opportunity?
Abby McEnany: Thrilled. I was going to say I lost my mind. Yeah, we’re really thrilled. I won’t speak for Tim but on that, I feel I can.
Tim Mason: It’s been crazy.
Abby McEnany: It’s nuts. I found it unexpected and just a beautiful thing.
What did you have in mind as you started to put Work In Progress together?
Abby McEnany: The project started after Tim came to my storytelling show a couple of years ago called Work in Progress. We were talking about collaborating on some little videos because he was getting more into directing and stuff. Then we just talked and he was like, “Hey, why don’t we make that into a show.”
Tim Mason: Yeah.
Abby McEnany: It’s kind of loosely based on me. We met five weeks in a row and we’d think about stuff and we’d come back. By the sixth week, we were starting to write the pilot. By the fifth week, we had 10 episodes worked out and we were ready to write.
Tim Mason: We wrote a pilot two years ago based on this and then it went down like a development journey. We just had meetings about it forever. Then last year around this time, we were like screw it, this is never going to be made so let’s go make it ourselves. So then we did it. It’s nuts.
Did the therapist dying in mid-session actually happen in real life?
Abby McEnany: No, it did not but thank G-d. Thank G-d, it didn’t. Yeah. No. Thank G-d.
Tim Mason: That’s about the only—well no, I guess not. You didn’t truly confront Julia Sweeney in a bar either.
Abby McEnany: That’s true. She thankfully did not die mid-session.
That scene was so hysterical and the way you cut to the exterior of the building during the screams!
Tim Mason: I cannot tell you how much that means to hear that that specific shot that you like that. We basically—that was an added shot. That’s my wife and my kid. I went through so much trouble to go get that wild one shot. And I’m like, I wonder if it even matters. That’s it. You just made it all worthwhile.
Abby McEnany: You validate everything, Danielle!
When it came to casting this film, how important was it for you to cast a transgender actor in the role? In this case, Theo Germaine as Chris.
Abby McEnany: It was the most important casting thing. Tim and I at the beginning was like—this is a must have. He was like, “Of course.” It was just without a doubt. We wouldn’t have made it if we didn’t find the right actor.
Tim Mason: It was super nerve-wrecking, too. Obviously, we would never do that. All queer roles are played by queer folk. Trans roles are played by trans actors. That part is a huge part. Every other actor in there is someone we knew pretty much—well except for the people the party.
Abby McEnany: The party scene. We obviously knew Emily Fightmaster.
Tim Mason: But for the most part, we were casting friends. Basically the biggest other chunk, we had to go have real casting for it. I don’t know if you ever knew PR Casting in Chicago but we go there for auditions all the time. A.J. was like, “We’re going to have a casting for a trans male actor, young.” I was really afraid that she was going to say, “I think you have to go to LA or whatever.” She immediately was like, “I know the perfect person for you.” But she also had a lot of folks.
Abby McEnany: She would email us and say, “Oh, so sorry, X is out of town” or “I’m so sorry, X is going to be out of town during the shoot days.” There were many that were in Chicago, which is so great. I remember Tim said when we were starting—if we don’t get the right actor for this, it’s not going to work. He’s been holding that burden for a long time but that casting day feel was the first audition all day. They killed it. T hey were phenomenal and they left the room. I looked at Tim and I was like, “Holy shit!” Tim was like—that is the biggest—I mean I could kind of feel his shoulders of two years go down. At that moment we knew that this was going to be our Chris. We were really lucky.
How did you decide to bring in Julia Sweeney and did you have similar problems in real life in the mid-90s with Pat?
Abby McEnany: Oh yeah. That Pat stuff is absolutely real. The scene that happens in the flashback happened. All that stuff comes in are very real painful place. Tim, you tell the story about Julia.
Tim Mason: About how we wrote her in?
Abby McEnany: Yeah.
Tim Mason: Abby’s one-woman shows talks about Pat a bunch and then as we’re writing these this pilot and stuff, I was like, “You know Julia Sweeney lives on the North Shore of Chicago? We should just write her into this and Abby was like “What!”
Abby McEnany: Well, I never met her in her real life, Tim! Tim has to do a lot of our writing. I’m like, “Well, that didn’t happen.” But it’s a show right? He’s like, “It’s a show.” And then I calmed down a little bit.
Tim Mason: It’s not a documentary.
Abby McEnany: Yeah. I was like it makes no sense and she’d never do it. Like that’s my role. I’m a creative like nothing’s going to work. (inaudible) Tim’s like, “No, we should try” and I’m like “Well, whatever.” Anyways.
Tim Mason: Yeah, so we wrote her into the script without ever even asking her. I don’t recommend that as the way to do this.
Abby McEnany: Probably not.
Tim Mason: We invested a bunch of time and wrote Julia Sweeney into the script. This project has had so many like almost the weird coincidences. Then we decide we’re going to make it and then we were like, I guess we got to call Julia Sweeney now. I mean really about that week or so, she announces that she’s working on this one-woman show that she’s going to workshop at Second City. So like, then we emailed the producer Alison Riley, who’s my producer on the Mainstage, “By any chance are you dealing with Julia at all.” She was like, “She’s a wonderful person. I’m gonna make an introduction.” I said Julia in email. I put my short film that I made—
Abby McEnany: And actually won Best Narrative Short here at Slamdance in 2017.
Tim Mason: That’s true. Thank you. Julia wrote back immediately and was like, “I love this. I would do any of this. Whatever you guys want.” And she read the script.
Abby McEnany: She had workshopped the show and then we went to opening night at ETC. We had never met her. We were sort of like, Wow, here we go. Her show is phenomenal. And then we met her after—she was with friends and stuff. We were a little nervous and I was like, Tim, let’s go play the set and then we’ll come back. I texted over to Jeff Murdoch and Ryan Asher over on Mainstage and they’re like, “Yeah, come over!” So we played the set. We went back and she’s still with her friends. Then we just went up and she got up and she hugged us. She’s like, “I’ll do anything for this. I’ll be the lighting guy.”
Tim Mason: She was like, “I’ll be the PA.”
Abby McEnany: She is such a generous person and she’s coming out here when we told her we got into Sundance. She’s like, “I’ll do anything you guys need.” She is just a genuine lovely human being and we are just so lucky. We’re so lucky.
Tim Mason: It’s funny especially going back before we met her and with the whole subject, Abby was like, “She had ruined my life.” And now, we have such a nice relationship with her.
Now both of you are a product of the Chicago improv, is there an instructor who had the most meaningful impact on your career?
Abby McEnany: Well, that’s a great question Danielle.
Tim Mason: Susan Messing was the most important—she was the best teacher for me for what I needed. She’s very like let it go and make crazy bold choices. I can be a little guarded. She’s probably my—there’s so many unbelievable amounts of great talent.
Abby McEnany: It’s funny because Susan—I never had her in class either at Annoyance, iO, or Second City but she directed a show I was in. I’m going back to like the earlier things and actually level 3 at iO, Paul Grondy was my teacher. He is just first of all a phenomenal improviser, an amazing human being, and an amazing teacher. I just can’t even like—he was—
Tim Mason: Do you know Paul?
I’m not sure if I’ve met him in person. I definitely remember that he was in Carl and The Passions when I was going to iO all the time in 2009.
Abby McEnany: Actually, he’s a dear friend of both me and Tim. His wife is as well—Sue Salvi. They actually lent us their house for the charade scene. We have a game night with my friends. Five of those are actually—well, all seven of the other actors in it are dear friends of mine. Five are not actors. They’re just they’re just like my friends that are like yeah, we’re gonna do it. But that’s their house so it’s full circle Paul Grondy. But there’ve been so many. Tim’s right.
What do you love about creating a show like Work In Progress and filming it in Chicago when a lot of people as you very well know have all moved to New York or LA to find roles and film stuff there?
Tim Mason: It’s so important to Abby and to myself. Lilly Wachowski came on board now so she’s attached to it. She lives on the North Side of Chicago. To all of us, we’re like it’s a Chicago show and we want to be the Chicago show. For me, the way life works out—Erin and I have talked about moving to Los Angeles at different times we never did it. You watch your friends go out there and you think, what are we going to do here? And then I don’t know. Two three years ago, I just got to the point I was like, Let’s start making things. I’m going start directing and let’s just make it here instead of taking all these meetings in different cities. I love it. I would love if—what are the things we want people to know about the show. I want you to know how much Chicago is important to us.
Abby McEnany: Yeah, absolutely. I can’t even add to that—can you believe it?!? (Laughs)
Tim Mason: I can’t believe it. People are always stunned—when I took my short here, people were like, where did you find those actors? And I’m like, it’s Chicago.I think the acting talent in Chicago is phenomenal.
Abby McEnany: It is great.
Tim Mason: I mean it’s more raw, grounded, and honest.
Abby McEnany: What is so great is that our dear friend of again both of me and Tim, Celeste Pechous. She was perfect for it. We really wanted her in it and then the character of Campbell was perfect for her. She lives in LA now but she’s a Chicago person. We flew her in for two days. We only shot over three days but first, she could only come in for two so we worked it aroun. Chicago is filled with amazing, amazing talent.
So what else are looking forward to doing while you’re on the mountain?
Tim Mason: I saw the first film that I’ve seen yet this year.
Abby McEnany: You’ve been here less than 24 hours—
Tim Mason: I’ve been here less than 24 hours! I love it. At Slamdance two years ago, I just was like, I’m going to see as many movies as I can so that’s my main goal is to try to just—it’s a little harder this time because we have all these things to do but I’m doing the waitlist thing and yeah, I love it.
Abby McEnany: I’m excited. I think that I really want to figure out panels and stuff like that. We’ve had so much work to do before here like getting ready for this. We got here yesterday. I was a zombie so I need to go home and look at what I want to do. There’s so many great things. I’m so excited. Yeah. I don’t know. Just take advantage of it. Then if that snow storm comes into Chicago, that’s going to be a bummer. But we have some dear friends coming out to support us. It’s hilarious and amazing and kind of takes my breath away. Yeah. I don’t know.
Any plans to get together with Sam or Maribeth?
Abby McEnany: Oh yeah, we’re going to see Sam on Monday. We’re not sure about Maribeth yet but we saw our friend Dave Hill.
Tim Mason: Dave Hill, one of the producers of Bootstrapped, he’s already in town. He goes back to level one at iO with me. When they announced the list of episodics, we knew we were in. We kept our mouths shut for like three weeks.
Abby McEnany: You can’t tell anybody.
Tim Mason: The list comes out, we were at La Colombe. The list came out. Julie Nichols was there and they were all talking and trying to keep up with the conversation but I’m looking at this list and I’m—I can’t see whose in the first thing but it was directed by Andy St. Clair’s wife.
Abby McEnany: It was not directed but created and written and starring her, Danielle Uhlarik. It had Maribeth Monroe in it and Karen Graci’s on the production team and she’s a dear friend. It’s just so crazy that the Chicago thing and the first thing I did I was like, “What!” Sam and I toured together and I texted him. I was like, “Sam, are you coming to Sundance?” He’s like, “I don’t know if I’m going to be there but now that I know you guys are coming, I’m going to try.” He’s going to come in and we’re really excited about that.
Tim Mason: It’s crazy.
Abby McEnany: We were at the party last night and I was kind of like I don’t know—is that Dave Hill? I haven’t seen Dave in almost 15 years but that was really fun.
I think that’s every question I had.
Tim Mason: Thanks so much.
Abby McEnany: Thank you so much for taking the time.