Director Stephanie Laing chose a doozy for her first film. Her movie Irreplaceable You, which arrives on Netflix Friday 16th February, is like P.S. I Love You but in reverse. Abbie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) discovers in the film's opening minutes that she has cancer. Actually, before that, via voiceover narration, she tells you she has cancer, and that she is definitely going to die. But in the film, Abbie is very much alive. She's planning for her death the way you might plan a family vacation to Europe. She cancels her gym membership — who needs Blink when death is imminent? — and, most importantly, looks for her replacement. Her fiancé Sam (Michiel Huisman) has never had another partner, and she's convinced he's going to struggle in his eventual search for a new one. The difference between P.S. I Love You and Irreplaceable You is that the latter is really Abbie's story — how she dies, but more importantly, how she lives.
For Laing, this movie was a lightbulb moment. She'd previously directed episodes of Veep and a couple of short films, but she'd yet to helm something this long. Speaking to Refinery29 a week before the movie's premiere, she described feeling like this script was meant for her.
"I knew no one would ever be as passionate about it as me," she explained. Having lost her father to cancer, Laing felt particularly close to the material. A long time comedy producer — for her first producing job, she worked on Tracey Ullman's show Tracey Takes On... — Laing's influence manifests itself via a unique cast and a surprisingly light touch. The cast is comprised mostly of comedians (SNL's Kate McKinnon makes an appearance), and the material manifests itself like a romantic comedy. Which it is, really, if you ignore the cancer. Which might be the point of the movie, anyway.
In anticipation of the film's release, Refinery29 spoke to Laing about Veep star Timothy Simons, cancer support groups, and making Netflix's most weep-inducing film.
Refinery29: This is your first feature film. What's the biggest difference between directing a feature and say, directing an episode of Veep?
Stephanie Laing: "For me, obviously, this is my first feature, so the difference for me is [that] this is my baby. I found the script and very strategically brought in a casting director Sherri Thomas, who is amazing — she cast Handmaid's Tale, and just about everything you can imagine. She was the first person I brought into it. The difference for me was that I read [the script], five pages in, I knew that I had to make this my first movie, and had to tell this story. I really felt like it would connect with people on many levels. Everyone's loved or been in love or had loss. Ultimately, everyone wants to feel like they're irreplaceable to someone, or they are irreplaceable to someone. The biggest difference for me was that I shepherded this from the very beginning."
I will never forget Sherri saying two words to me — I send her an email saying, 'Read this,' and she texted back, 'I'm in.' And from there, we've just said, 'Can't stop, won't stop.'
The other shows I've worked on, I didn't create. I was on them in a producing capacity, and then with Veep, I was directing."
Why was this a script you wanted to shepherd?
"I have a personal connection to the story. My father passed away when I was 14. He had brain cancer, and throughout the year that he was sick, he had a strong sense of humour, [and] we would laugh a lot. We had one ridiculous story of going to check in for a flight, and he had a very big scar on his head, and the person checking him in said, 'Can I ask what happened?' And he jokingly told her that he had had a brain transplant. And she believed him. We would laugh about how ridiculous it was that somebody would believe that. We focused on living [during] his last year that he was dying. Sometimes, the best way through an uncomfortable conversation is through laughter. And also, knowing that it was such a well-written script that did make you laugh and cry immediately. I just knew."
The movie is also very funny. Did you feel like comedy was essential in telling such a tragic story?
"It's such a tonal tightrope to walk, right? For me, from the very beginning, I wanted to focus on not telling a depressing story, even though it's a sad story. One that takes you on a emotional journey that you surprisingly feel a little bit uplifted, even though it is very sad. And the best way through those stories is through humour. I had done a lot of research on cancer support groups and terminally ill patients. I sat in one of the groups that was put together for me, and I was so surprised at the humour in the room. I mean, I literally had a person across the table from me say, 'I have a confession to make. I was kicked out of my group for being too positive." And I just paused and thought, we have to talk about that. That person is a lot of what Kate McKinnon's character is based on. In that room, they were arguing over who had the worse form of cancer. Obviously, my background is comedy, so I saw that in the script and I thought, I can run with that. I know that world."
A large portion of the cast hails from comedy backgrounds — notably, Tim Simons of Veep plays a doctor. Is it important to you that you work with comedians?
"For this movie, certainly working with comedians was essential. There's no mistaking Abbie — Abbie was always Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She's such an incredibly talented actress, and once she signed on, it became really important to me to cast comedians as well to lighten it. Otherwise, you can go really heavy with this. I just really didn't want to do that. I knew that someone like Tim Simons, who plays Dominic, would bring the levity to that role. And in fact, we wrote that role for Tim Simons. It was the same with the support group. Gugu went to support groups as well, and we noticed that the person running the group was so extremely mild-mannered and kind of amazing, and I thought Steve would be perfect to bring that energy to the group sessions. Then it just became writing Kate [Mckinnon's] character specifically for Kate, and really looking at the authenticity of what feels like at least the group that I was in. Casting comedians was important — more than just casting comedians, but casting people in an unexpected way. Tim Simons hasn't played a character like that! He's known as Jonah in Veep. Here, he's really endearing, and has some of the lines that make people cry so much."
From the beginning, we know that Abbie is going to die. Was this a freeing feeling, knowing that you've already let your audience know what the ending is going to be?
"Yes. Absolutely. I've had people watch the movie and say that they got so wrapped up in the story that they forgot that she was dead. And I think that's obviously great. For me, it was refreshing to not have to worry about. We're not going to trick you in the end. There's no miraculous recovery. And I really think setting the tone for the movie — setting the tone with the first few lines, she says, 'Don't feel bad for me, you're gonna end up here, too.' It was really important to set that tone."
I worked really hard with my editor just on how to end the movie in a meaningful way that I hope feels a little bit like a gut punch. She's not telling you how to live your life or how to live your life. It's just, she didn't want to die. I'm so glad she says she's going to die because then she can say that in the end. She's like, 'I didn't want to die! I didn't want to say goodbye.' That feels real."
You founded the comedy website Put Your Pretty On in 2016 as a space for women comedians. Why do you feel like this space is essential for women in comedy?
"For me, Put Your Pretty On was just something actionable that I could do to help younger writers and other comedians as a platform for them to test out material. It became a point in my career and I just thought, 'I have to do this. I need to do this.' It's so important for women to help other women. I just don't think I had a choice. PYPO — Put Your Pretty On — stands for something my daughter said to me when I was four. And I just that moment when she said it, I knew someday this would happen. I remember saying, "Patterson, we have to go," and she said, "Hold on, I have to put my pretty on." I remember going, hold on. That's a really scary thing to say when you're four. I watched her put Chapstick on afterwards. Then it just dawned on me that as her mother and as an adult woman, I have a responsibility to teach her what that word means. But also, to give back to everyone else. Because if we're not passing the ladder down, then how do you make real change?"
Obviously, we need more women filmmakers making the big-budget movies. What do you think we need to do to make sure it happens?
"Being aware of it is obviously such a big thing. Someone asked me the other night, 'How do you feel about being a female director in 2018?' And my response was, 'I feel better than I did in 2017!' It's clearly getting better. I hope we get to a point where we don't have to use the word 'female filmmaker' and we can all just be seen as filmmakers.
"Not that you asked for my advice, but I always say that you really do have to focus on making your own opportunities, and you have to look for your lightbulb moment. Honestly, I started directing on Veep. I didn't think I would love directing. I loved producing. I just had a moment where I was sitting on Veep and we needed to hire someone to do second unit, and I was sitting in my office, and I was looking at a bunch of people in the crew [who] were putting their hands in the hair, saying, 'I'll do it, I'll do it.' I had a lightbulb moment where I thought, 'I'm gonna do it.' And thankfully, I was really supported by Armando [Iannucci] and HBO to really spread my creative wings. But I wonder, if I hadn't had that lightbulb moment, would I have done it? And if I wasn't in an environment where I felt supported, would I have felt comfortable doing it?"
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