Lucky Her

I thought I was going to grow up and be a movie star,” Emily Wachtel was saying one bitterly cold night at a Greenwich Starbucks. “Like everybody who goes into this business, I started with a dream. Or maybe it was a delusion.”

Emily played a nurse in Regarding Henry (1991) and a bartender in Empire Falls (2005). She played hairdressers, airport counter girls and random shoppers; she played bit parts on TV series that never evolved into promised bigger parts. Twice, she sold a reality show in which she was to star, and twice the project evaporated before the check arrived in her mailbox. The late Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, an old friend, would say, “Why don’t you have your own show yet? What’s going on with you?” She passed from her twenties to forties wondering why good jobs didn’t fall her way when names like Sanford Meisner, the legendary acting teacher of Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton, had praised her talent. She smiles. “He used to say, ‘Where’s the girl with the big hair and the potty mouth?’”

All these years later, at Starbucks, Emily’s hair is glamorously brunette with golden highlights and her mouth is poetically, offbeatly, comic. Everything rolls out with a nice little spin on it. “I have such a high tolerance for coffee that when I drink it, it makes me tired,” she says. “Am I, like, talking too much? Don’t let me say ‘like’ or ‘um.’ God help me if I do that. I’ll sound just like Gisele Bündchen.” It’s the sort of breezy, lively talk that makes one glad she stumbled into writing. Not that writing has been a whole lot easier. The charming new movie she co-wrote and produced, Lucky Them, starring Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense), Thomas Haden Church (Sideways) and Ryan Eggold (TV’s The Blacklist), emerged in her consciousness eleven years ago. Little about that elephantine gestation was pleasant. “It was like getting hit in the knees with a hockey stick all along the way.” Really? “No. It was like running a marathon on your elbows.”

Knocking on Hollywood’s Door

To anyone who wants to make an indie film: Emily Wachtel’s journey will either kill your dream right now or inspire you to persevere to the point of madness. But let’s begin with the result. Lucky Them is the story of a world-weary Seattle rock journalist, Ellie Klug, assigned to track down an old boyfriend, the cult rock hero Matthew Smith. Ten years earlier Smith abruptly quit the music scene—and perhaps his life too, in the grand tradition of Northwestern rockers Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith. We don’t know for sure, though; the man is simply gone. Ellie (played by Collette) drinks too much and sleeps around too much, largely to avoid confronting old ghosts like Matthew Smith. The past is past—isn’t it? Not if you’re Ellie’s boss Giles (played by Oliver Platt), who is under pressure to reverse Stax magazine’s waning fortunes in the digital age. Thus, he demands a Matthew Smith exposé or Ellie’s head.

That’s the basic premise. Ellie hits the road with Charlie (Thomas Haden Church), a wealthy man at loose ends who wants to try his hand at making documentary films; as potential mates they seem wildly unsuited to each other, but as odd-couple searchers they sparkle. Church, so put-offish at first glance, turns out to be the most appealing eccentric on film in recent memory, tossing out left-field observations like, “There’s a crispness to my writing that I enjoy.” Meanwhile, Ellie is pursued by a talented young musician named Lucas Stone (Eggold) whom she treats rather shabbily, so wary is she of giving her heart to another Matthew Smith. Indeed, when it seems to her that Lucas’s ship of fame has landed (and his interest in her is therefore doomed), she hops into bed with another guy. It’s a symptom of the damage she must overcome.

“We call our movie an unromantic comedy,” Emily says, a touch darkly. “It’s not a romantic comedy, it’s unromantic. The other writer [Huck Botko] and I decided that if we were going to go down doing a romantic comedy, we were going to go down in flames.” You might not agree that Lucky Them is unromantic; but certainly, it feels truer to life than the typical Hollywood romantic comedy.

The film, due out in May, has Greenwich fingerprints all over it. Emily lives in Stamford, but does her writing in Greenwich Avenue coffee shops. You might even spot her with Eggold—who takes the train out from New York—at CFCF Roastery & Café, laying out scenes for a new project of theirs. (Much like Lucas Stone, Eggold is verging on stardom. “Everybody says he has movie-star quality,” Emily notes. “Plus, he’s a doll.”) Adam Gibbs, a producer of Lucky Them, grew up in Greenwich and graduated from Brunswick in 2004. Peer Pedersen, an executive producer with whom Gibbs often teams (the duo plans to shoot a script of Pedersen’s this year), graduated from Brunswick in 2005. Gibbs and Pedersen are cementing Brunswick’s reputation for turning out film people: major writer-directors Rod Lurie (The Contender) and Neil Burger (The Illusionist) are early ’80s graduates.

The actor Jake Robards, who has a small role in Lucky Them, was born in Greenwich in 1974, attended Greenwich Country Day, and recently moved back to town. Jake, son of the late Jason Robards, read every draft of Lucky Them through the years. “People outside the business have no concept of how hard it is to make an independent film,” he says. “They say, ‘You were in the same place five years ago! You’re never making a movie.’” Nobody has faith in yet another unknown with movie dreams, he says, observing that his friend Michael Sucsy spent eight years trying to get a film made. It turned out to be the multiple Emmy-winning Grey Gardens. “As for Emily, I think she willed Lucky Them into being. She believed in it, even when nobody else believed.”

 

Art Imitating Life?

Emily grew up in Westport, the third and youngest daughter of Sylvia, a magazine writer and editor who later went into advertising, and Jesse Wachtel, an importer of Italian shoes who created the brands Nickels, Jazz and Via Spiga. With her father often abroad, Emily made a best friend of a girl whose successful father also spent much time away: Clea Newman, the third and youngest daughter of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman. Emily and Clea have lived parallel lives ever since. They went to the same prep school (the Hun School of Princeton), the same college (Sarah Lawrence), and, loosely speaking, they work today at the same Westport-based charity—SeriousFun Children’s Network, which runs Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang camps for ailing kids. Clea calls in “Tenacious E” whenever SeriousFun needs help booking A-list celebrities for its gala events.

Some years ago, when Emily completed a draft of Lucky Them, Paul Newman agreed to look it over. “Paul read it within twenty-four hours,” Emily says. “He was so sweet about it. He called the next morning and said, ‘I think you have a real shot with this thing.’ And then he gave me his notes.” Newman recognized that Lucky Them was in some sense autobiographical and encouraged Emily to explore those elements. Emily is loath to commit self-analysis in interviews—the movie should speak for itself—but she does allow that the missing Matthew owes something to her busy father’s long absences from home.

And Lucas? Lucas speaks directly to Emily’s love of music and, well, musicians. “Ten years I was an unemployed actress in New York, listening to a lot of live music. You know, when you go hear music—it takes you out of what you’re doing and makes you think your life is better than it is,” Emily says. “And then I had a romance with a younger musician as I went off to supposedly star in a television show. Of course that didn’t happen. Meanwhile, this kid that I’d been dating became the biggest star.” One naturally wants to know who it is. But here, too, Emily is reticent, fending off names of New York singer-songwriters like so many gnats. Life is life, art is art.

Still: “Ellie Klug” is the name Emily used for herself a few years ago when writing columns for Fairfield Weekly. Ellie and Emily are not wholly divisible. In Toni Collette’s nuanced portrayal of Ellie, we see a talented woman with nothing but dead air in front of her. She’s stalled, in love and in life. The Kinks’ “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” might well have been her theme. How can Ellie proceed? How can Emily proceed? Just as Ellie Klug confronts her past through journalism, Emily Wachtel confronts her past through filmmaking. Perhaps this is why, as Jake Robards puts it, “Failure was not an option for Emily. It just wasn’t.”

Yet there were times when failure seemed inevitable. As the project languished, actors unattached themselves, presumed director Huck Botko left to do other, more viable projects, and potential financiers kept saying no, no, no. What else? “Somebody promised $750,000, then pulled out. He was a billionaire. We had a three-hour lunch with him. Bailed. I had an instinct about it, but everybody kept saying, don’t worry, don’t worry, he wouldn’t give you his word if…” she trails off. Emily suffered personal losses, too, along the way: her father died in 2006 and Paul Newman, her most important booster, in 2008. (She did take solace in learning that Newman had said, a week before his death, “She’s going to get it done, isn’t she?”—confident to the end. Emily has dedicated the film to him.)

Meanwhile people would ask, year after year, with a creeping sense of indulgence, “How’s the movie coming?”

“People thought I was crazy,” Emily confesses. “I’d talk about this movie, and it was like they were thinking, ‘Really? Where?’ And then, when it finally happened, a friend of mine said, ‘I just have to tell you, I thought you might have been slightly batshit.’ I said, ‘You and a lot of other people.’”

 

The Depp Effect

For all the rejection, Emily kept dreaming big. She got the crackpot idea, for instance, that Johnny Depp, the most famous actor on earth, would be ideal for a certain cameo role in Lucky Them. No budget, no director, a revolving cast of actors—and a fool’s dream of landing Jack Sparrow. Through Joanne Woodward, who is listed as an executive producer on the film, Emily was at least permitted to meet with Depp’s people in Los Angeles; people who treated her politely and seemed to take her quite seriously—but who knows what they were really thinking?

Whatever happened with other actors, she did have, irrevocably, Thomas Haden Church. Among a certain contingent of viewers, Church is known as the Sandman in Spider-Man 3 (2007), or as Lowell Mather on the TV show Wings. But he earned an Oscar nomination for playing Jack, a washed-up TV actor, in Alexander Payne’s brilliant Sideways (2004). Sideways is about people fumbling through life, about sputtering dreams and quiet crises—themes that also resound through Lucky Them. The point of Ellie and Charlie is to endure with wit and grace, and Church liked that. “We’ve had a seven-year, I’d say, bromance, artistically,” Emily says. “He would spur me on when I was at a low with the film, because he liked the part so much. He’d say, ‘C’mon, you’re the lead producer, get this going, woman.’ I’d think, OK, I guess I am the lead producer.”

Even with Church’s encouragement and some Woodward-Newman wind in her sails, Emily found that getting Lucky Them aloft seemed as impossible as ever. “I never lost belief in what I was doing—I got tired,” she says. “But as soon as I stopped grieving over every rejection, everything that didn’t work out—I guess that was about three years ago—it started moving quicker. They say you have to get that Zen thing going where you just say, ‘What’s next, what’s next, what’s next?’”

One important “next” happened when Emily bumped into Philip Seymour Hoffman at his Ides of March premiere in 2011. He asked the dreaded question: “How’s the movie?” Wachtel told him she had only $1 million to show for all her meetings, all her effort—not nearly enough. “And he said, ‘You’ve gotta go. You’re done.’ And I said, ‘But we need more.’ And he said, ‘Doesn’t matter, you gotta go.’ He really kicked this thing into gear.”

The next big “next” was a director named Colin Trevorrow reading and loving the script. Trevorrow’s first feature, Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), is little known outside the film community but admired within it; indeed, it won him the plumb job of directing Jurassic World, executive produced by Steven Spielberg, now in preproduction. Trevorrow tried to woo other directors for Lucky Them, without success. And then it struck him. Megan Griffiths. The youngish Seattle director’s track record was similarly obscure, but those familiar with her work (Eden, about a woman kidnapped into sex slavery, drew particular notice) regarded her as a fully emerged talent ready for bigger films. Emily loved her almost from the moment they met in 2012—even when Megan suggested changing Lucky Them from a New York story to a Seattle one—and not just because she lives there and has an eager crew at hand. The change made sense because Lucky Them is a music movie and Seattle is a music town, home to Pearl Jam and Macklemore and Sub Pop Records (slogan: “We’re not the best, but we’re pretty good”). The growing legend of Matthew Smith was highly credible in the Seattle milieu.

After hiring Megan, the film fell together quickly, beginning with a first-rate cast of veterans like Platt (Frost/Nixon) and newcomers like Eggold, Nina Arianda (a Tony winner for Broadway’s Venus in Fur), and Ahna O’Reilly (The Help). When shooting began in January of last year, a gentle magic descended on the set, as if Emily’s whole crazy plan had been preordained. “It was amazing to see her vision come to life,” Peer Pedersen says. “And it did so effortlessly. This is a movie that feels comfortable in its own skin.” Toni Collette, among the most respected of film actresses, has called the experience of making Lucky Them “joyous, focused, passionate and exciting.” Adam Gibbs described the on-set atmosphere as “familial.”

There was one missing piece, though. Whatever happened to Johnny Depp? Emily had been careful to keep in touch with Depp’s office, but no sign of the actor’s participation issued forth. Even a late letter from Joanne Woodward seemed to go unheeded. “So we were shooting and I kept saying I want Johnny Depp to do his part,” Emily remembers. “Everyone was telling me, ‘You’re crazy, it’s not gonna happen, live in reality.’”

On the set, two weeks before wrapping, Emily received an out-of-the-blue e-mail from Depp’s sister and manager, Christi Dembrowski. “She said, ‘My brother’s really excited to do this.” Emily stood there, in Washington State, freezing, lucky. She turned to Adam Gibbs, standing beside her, and said, “This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me.” Adam said, “This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me, and I’m just standing next to you.”

They filmed Depp, who proved thoughtful and engaged, on a desolate street in Tacoma. Emily says, “Somehow there never was a question in my mind that he wouldn’t do it, but every time I see the movie—and I’ve seen the movie so often—I’m like, ‘I can’t believe he did it.’ We wrapped early that day, and there was a double rainbow in the sky. I just thought, ‘This is the best day ever.’”

Lucky Them premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September to a standing ovation. Shortly thereafter, IFC Films bought North American distribution rights and will soon bring the film to theaters near us. Emily may have had luck, here and there, between stretches of crap and nothingness, but her story goes to prove that luck isn’t just luck. It’s imagination and willpower, too. “The thing that gets you into this business, the dream thing, the dream of making your movie—you have to hold onto that through all that bad stuff,” Emily says. “And if you stick around, sooner or later you’re going to see the whole show.”

 

 

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