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This interview contains spoilers for The Family Stone.
I love The Family Stone. Every year, without fail, I pay a visit to my favourite misanthropic clan in their snowy New England haven to watch them make one woman’s life completely miserable for an hour and a half. I laugh. I cry. I rewind. It’s my holiday ritual.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve started to realise that part of the reason I am so drawn to this particular Christmas movie is because, it is, deep down, a very Jewish story. Hanukkah movies are few and far between (Netflix, where is the rom-com? Where?) and there’s only so many times I can watch Elio weep in front of a fire (yes, Call Me By Your Name is a Hanukkah movie) before it starts to bring me down. Written and directed by Thomas Bezucha, The Family Stone is not a Hanukkah story. It’s an altogether different beast: A Christmas movie with a Jewish heart. For people like me — a Jew with Christmas FOMO — it represents the best of both worlds, combining the aesthetic of Yuletide cheer with the cranky, complaining cast of characters that make up my own family. You know the Lenny Bruce bit about what makes something “Jewish or goyish”? Love Actually is goyish, but The Family Stone is definitely Jewish.
The plot of The Family Stone is fairly straightforward. Eldest son Everett (Dermot Mulroney) brings uptight girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) home for the holidays to meet his quirky liberal family. What could go wrong? The answer is absolutely everything. From the moment Meredith steps into the Stone family’s gigantic, cosy home, she rubs everyone the wrong way. Everett’s sister Amy (Rachel McAdams) hates the way Meredith wears stilettos out in the snow; Susannah’s (Elizabeth Reaser) kids make her nervous; matriarch Sybil (Diane Keaton) thinks she can’t take a joke; slacker brother Ben (Luke Wilson) gleefully whispers that they're all talking about her behind her back; and dad Kelly (Craig T. Nelson) watches over everything with an amused smirk. Only Thad (Ty Giordano) and his husband Patrick (Brian White) are at all welcoming, and Meredith unforgivably alienates them in a series of genuinely cringe-worthy scenes. In a state of panic, she calls her own sister, Julie (Claire Danes) to the rescue. Little does she know that will just make everything worse.
Underneath all of this screwball comedy lies a dark truth: This is very likely Sybil’s last Christmas with her husband and children. The spectre of terminal cancer hangs over every heartfelt moment and fuels every angry tirade as the Stones do everything they can to avoid talking about the elephant in the room.
Let’s be clear: The Stones are not actually Jewish. But the film’s themes of finding comedy and levity in grief are essentially the cornerstone of every single Jewish holiday. (Siri, play “Remember That We Suffered.”) Plus, a movie about a family who thinks their son is too good for the blonde lady he brought home? L’Chaim.
Not everyone shares my love for the Stone clan. The original reviews were mixed — The Family Stone holds a 53% Rotten Tomatoes rating — and the characters’ place on the Grinch end of the likeability spectrum has spawned many an internet debate. My take: These characters are not likeable. They’re truly not. That’s why I love them. They are petty and messy and irritable, privileged and seemingly unaware of it, accepting of some but not others, and just generally flawed. But they feel real. And as Bezucha reveals ahead, that’s because they kind of are.
Refinery29: I think I read somewhere that this story was loosely based on your sister. Is that true?
Thomas Bezucha: “It was. She was dating a guy, and I told my parents, If she even smells that we don’t like this guy, she will marry him. So we all bit our lips for three years until it ran its course. At that point in her life, she was very much like the Amy character. Anybody that knows my sister, when Rachel McAdams gets out of her car in the beginning [of the movie] with her laundry, they identified my sister.”
How does she feel about it?
She’s been a terrific sport.
So what was the casting process like? Did you always have these people in mind?
“No, no no. It’s a miracle the movie ever got made. There were so many iterations, with so many really talented actors. For whatever reason, people responded to the script, and I was lucky enough to meet with a lot of people. It ended up being exactly the right cast, but it could have been any given cast. Rachel had just done The Hot Chick. She was shooting when I met with her, [and] I fell in love with her. She was just so great. And then many years passed, and the thing was just coming together. We had Diane [Keaton] and Sarah Jessica [Parker], and I thought, Okay well Rachel has now made The Notebook, she’s made Mean Girls, don’t even bother calling her. She’ll never do this tiny part. And Rachel called, and went, ‘That part’s mine, right?’ It was incredible. And she owned Amy for sure. Amy was her.”
Who were some of the other people you had in mind for the cast?
“Oh, I can’t say. I will say when I was writing the script, the voice in my head was Elaine May when I was writing Sybil’s dialogue. So I owe Elaine May, aside from hours and hours from all the movies she wrote and directed, I also owe her for this one.”
Love Actually is goyish, but The Family Stone is definitely Jewish.
The movie had a different title in its first draft. Why did you change it?
“Yes. It was Fucking Hate Her. That’s how it started, and then it got downgraded to Hating Her. And then Tom Rothman, who was the president of 20th Century Fox at the time, believed that no movies with “ing”in the title ever did well, and wanted us to come up with something else. We were in pre-production and it was a big fight between — it was sort of a drinking game trying to find the title of this movie — The Family Stone and Sticks and Stones. But I like The Family Stone.”
I feel like Hating Her wouldn’t have held up as well.
“I agree. And I knew Fucking Hate Her was never going to make it, but what it did do is that it got people to read the script. People loved to talk about it.”
Many of the original reviews used very gendered language to talk about Meredith. “Shrill” is a word that comes up a lot. But rewatching it, I kind of felt bad for her. She’s really nervous to meet this guy’s family.
“They are SO mean to her! She never stood a chance. I had met with Sarah Jessica years before the movie came together. She’s just my kind of people. She’s so smart, she’s got such a great work ethic. The key for me with Meredith was that it takes an actress like Sarah Jessica that you sympathise with. You have to feel terrible for her and be on her side. And Sarah Jessica has this huge empathy thing going. Poor Meredith.”
How can you not feel bad for her? Everett leaves her for her sister, so suddenly!
“He is such a jerk. I know, but he’s trying to do the right thing, and trying to keep his mom from dying. My thing was always that everybody knows on some level that this is Sybil’s last Christmas, so they’re all reacting to that in their lives without addressing it directly.”
That’s another thing — this is a Christmas movie, obviously, but it’s also about death, and otherness. How did you get away with that?
“I definitely stacked the deck. I got terrible reviews, and a lot of it was because 20th Century Fox sold it as a Christmas comedy. And God bless them, because people went. And that was the calculation. There’s a woman named Elizabeth Gabler, who was the president of Fox 2000 at the time, and she believed in this thing like you’ve never seen. She was determined to get it made, and they didn’t want me to change anything. But they knew they had to sell it as a comedy in order to get people into the seats. But then, I think the problem is that people went to a Christmas comedy not knowing they should bring a bucket of Kleenex.”
To me, this is the most Jewish Christmas movie. It’s all about being funny in grief and mourning.
“I take this as a supreme compliment. That would be a life goal.”
One of the things I always liked about this movie was that all the women are deeply unlikeable, but in a believable way. What were some of the challenges you faced as a male writer and director creating these difficult women?
“They’re all so deeply flawed, but I like all of them. They’re all part of me. I’ve always said, this is not my family, but these are definitely my people. Having sort of grown up in New England, in a liberal community — they’re funny. It wasn’t like, Oh, how do you write a strong woman? I didn’t think of it that way. I’m lucky that I have strong women in my life, but also the key is...Thanksgiving is coming up. You would never find me in the living room with the guys watching the game. Growing up listening to the women talk about other people has informed my entire life.”
I have to ask about Meredith’s throat tick. Where did that come from?
“It was in the script. It’s a thing I do, or did at the time. I wanted Meredith to do a thing that was irritating to everybody, that she’s not conscious she’s doing. But in order to not make too much fun of her — it was like a safeguard — I made it a thing I did so I could identify with Meredith. It was a way to sort of check myself.”
It only recently struck me that the dinner scene where they all blow up at Meredith really gives off Succession vibes.
“I have not watched Succession — I heard it’s great. But I loved doing that scene. I have a movie that just came out last week called Let Him Go with Kevin Costner and Diane Lane and Lesley Manville, and there is an eight-minute-long super uncomfortable dinner table scene right in the middle of the movie. It’s my signature move.:
What do you enjoy about those scenes?
“Find the best actors you can, chain them to a table, and let them go at each other. It’s fantastic.”
That dinner scene took several days to film, right?
“It took three days. It took me forever to figure out the seating arrangement, because it had to be exactly right. But a day and a half into shooting, we broke for lunch, and the catering hall was right next to the sound stage, and so everybody went into catering, and I was a little late. And I went in, and all the actors were sitting together in exactly the same arrangement that they were sitting in in the scene. They were just in it. I love that about how much they enjoyed each other’s company.
“We had built the interior of the house on a sound stage in Culver City, and there was a little colony outside the door of the sound stage. We had putput golf, we had a dark board, they would all be playing games in between. It was very relaxed, we all had a great time.
It’s ironic given how much fun you had making it that it’s become this very polarising Christmas movie. There are people who love The Family Stone, and there are people who hate The Family Stone.
“People hate that movie.”
Do you have anything to say to them?
“Don’t come over.”