Writer-director Scott Abramovitch spoke with Solzy at the Movies last week about his new film, Eat Wheaties!, starring Tony Hale.
As the call got underway, I learned that the filmmaker was a former bat boy for the Montreal Expos from 1992-1997. I’m a baseball fan myself so we could have talked forever about baseball. It just so happened that during the phone call, the Bally Sports Midwest telecast of the St. Louis Cardinals vs. Washington Nationals was muted on my Roku TV.
The film is an adaptation of Michael Kun’s 2003 novel, The Locklear Letters. To no surprise, it’s updated for the social media era and Elizabeth Banks replaces Heather Locklear. Tony Hale leads a star-studded cast.
Eat Wheaties! is being released on April 30. What was it about reading The Locklear Letters that inspired you to adapt the book?
Scott Abramovitch: I read the book. It was a friend of mine from law school who turned me on to it. He was actually working at a firm with Michael Kun, who wrote The Locklear Letters. The tone and the character were just so unique and so brilliant that when I first read it, frankly, I didn’t quite see it as a film. I read it about 10 years later and suddenly the themes of social media and how destructive that can be to people as well as when you’re trying to be funny, as well as this idea of celebrities being so accessible through their social media—those two things combined made the story feel a lot more relevant. I reached out to Michael and the rights were available—we were off.
Obviously, you replaced Heather Locklear with Elizabeth Banks. Was Elizabeth your first choice or were there other celebrities you were considering?
Scott Abramovitch: The biggest thing I wanted out of choosing the celebrity—because I didn’t think Heather Locklear would work for contemporary audiences. Even though it’s not that long ago that the book was written, it just didn’t quite make sense especially considering a lot of the stuff that happened in her life. I wanted somebody who really went to college and I wanted somebody who was connecting really well with people on social media. Elizabeth Banks went to the University of Pennsylvania and we were just so lucky that both she and the school loved the script and were excited to be a part of this.
In updating the book for the social media era, do you think fans of the book will be satisfied or will they be among those claiming that the book is better?
Scott Abramovitch: My instinct is based on Michael Kun, who wrote the book and who was on set a lot. The things that we changed, he loves. He just actually was telling me about a conversation he had with some friends that had seen the film. They were telling all their favorite parts of the film were stuff that weren’t in the book. I really hope that fans of the book will get to see some things that they love and see some things that weren’t necessarily in the book. At the same time, I hope people who liked the film will go and pick up this book, which is now titled Eat Wheaties!, actually, in the re-release. They just released it this year as well as the sequel, Everybody Says Hello, and be introduced to Sid Straw on the page. I don’t think the Sid character really is much different but there’s certainly a different perspective because the books are told all through his voice.
I cringed throughout so many moments during the film and wish I saw it on the big screen with the audience.
Scott Abramovitch: I still haven’t seen it with an audience in a theater yet either even though we played some film festivals. I’m hoping that I get that opportunity.
Was there a moment in the film where you thought you might be taking things too far?
Scott Abramovitch: Along in the editing process, we had a couple of screenings for friends just to get a feel for that cringe feeling. The earlier cut was too much. There were laughs but they were coming in places that led me to feel that I think people were laughing at Sid and not with Sid. That’s where we really needed to worry about it. I think if you’re laughing with him, when he’s doing these things that are cringe-inducing, it works. If there’s too much of it, I think you lose the connection to following him on his journey. The scene, I think, in the car with a phone call—that was the one where in the cut where we had too much awkwardness in the office—that was the scene where I said okay, this is too much. But I love that scene so we scaled back on some of the awkward encounters in the office.
That car scene where the phone misunderstands him was so hysterical!
Scott Abramovitch: (Laughs) I’m glad you liked it. Thank you.
With film festivals largely going virtual, how have you learned about the audience reception?
Scott Abramovitch: The closest thing that I got to some real feedback was David Phillips, who was one of the other producers. He knew some people who were at the drive-in screening at the Heartland Film Festival. We got some feedback on that screening—the honking when the people were laughing and we got some photos from it. That was the closest I got to really feeling a part of it. Other than that, I don’t know anyone else who actually at—there was an in-person screening in Calgary. That was the only other in-person experience where we could even find out anything. I didn’t know anyone—Rizwan Manji’s family is from Calgary and they were gonna go but I think they canceled at the minute.
It’s frustrating to experience a lot of this virtually. I’ve looked at responses online in terms of the virtual festivals and how much connection we could have were as good as they could be. We did some good Q & As where some audiences were asking questions. I got a little bit of a sense of what people wanted to know about. It’s a lot of the same questions that you’re asking, which I think is more about the origin of the film, which intrigues people.
The film features a star-studded cast. How did it come together?
Scott Abramovitch: Well, I had this wish list of people. It started with Tony, obviously. And when Tony said yes, I wanted to cast someone for his brother and sister-in-law because those were the characters who I think we would typically see at the center of a film where a character like Sid is a part of it. I think the characters like Sid are typically the strange brother or the weird friend of the more conventional couple. I wanted to find somebody who felt that they could be the center of a different kind of movie—Elisha Cuthbert and David Walton were my first choices. They said yes and from there, it was just a spiraling snowball effect of yeses of everyone. We were asking Danielle Brooks, Alan Tudyk, and Paul Walter Hauser who, to me, just came and saved the movie. That was the one role that we didn’t have cast until later in the process. It was so important, I think, to find somebody who gets Sid and Sid is also able to not just connect with but actually help them and give him confidence in his own life. So yeah, it was really just this, amazing stretch of good luck. I think a lot of it has to do with having Tony Hale on board. We had a lot of people who read the script knowing Tony was attached and thinking, Oh, I’d love to be onscreen next to Tony.
Given the comedy pedigree of the cast, were there many opportunities to improvise?
Scott Abramovitch: Our production schedule was pretty tight. That being said, the two performers in particular who are just were impossible not to have improv were Alan Tudyk and Paul Walter Hauser. The beauty about it was that we were able to get the scripted scene first. Paul actually—I don’t know if you remember that scene in the film. It’s a trimmed-down version of it but I had to find a way to keep it in where he staples his hand.
I remember that scene.
Scott Abramovitch: When we were shooting that scene, Paul said to me, “When we have it, can I have one more take?” I’m like, absolutely. Nobody knew what he was gonna do in that scene. He grabs the stapler and says, “Do you want me to staple my hand?” Rizwan Manji, who was playing Bruce Rapp, Sid’s boss, was across—I think he was so startled and it was a battle to not laugh for everyone involved because we only had that one shot at it. Tony kept it—you can see he’s kind of biting his tongue to not laugh. We were all behind the monitor holding it in. He really did it. He really stapled his hand and we had to pull the staple out afterwards. Thankfully, it wasn’t too deep.
Alan Tudyk—the scene in the softball field, he was hysterical. The beauty of that scene was that it had the ability for improv built into it with the way he was talking to his son trying to hit the ball. When there were times for improv, to have these kinds of performers was a blessing.
What was the most challenging part of the production?
Scott Abramovitch: I think the biggest challenge was just the time. I mean, I wish we had an extra week of shooting. We had a lot of locations for a low-budget film, which was great. I think it allowed film to breathe but it also meant our days are short. We had a couple of overnight shoots to be able to use the restaurant, for example. And the courtroom, we needed to shoot overnight. I think that was the biggest challenge of doing so much in so little time, particularly for Tony. Out of the 20 days, I think he only had one day off. It was a physical grind, but at the same time, that was the way to make this movie. Everyone rolled up their sleeves and pitched in.