Talking with Chris Kelly About His Intimate, Devastating Comedy ‘Other People’
Any big SNL fan will tell you that over the past five years, some of the show’s most memorable work has been partly thanks to writer Chris Kelly. From musical hits like “(Do It On My) Twin Bed” to political sketches like “Bern Your Enthusiasm,” Kelly and his SNL collaborator Sarah Schneider have proven to be such consistently bold, unique, and above all, hilarious voices since they joined the show, and last month their work paid off in the form of a well deserved co-head writer promotion.
But, as it turns out, Kelly’s voice extends far beyond sketch comedy writing at SNL. Premiering in theaters today, Kelly’s feature directorial debut Other People stars Molly Shannon and Jesse Plemons in a story based on Kelly’s own experience dealing with one of the most heartbreaking things anyone can go through: watching your mother die of cancer. But don’t look for a cliché Tragic Movie Moment in Kelly’s film, because there isn’t one. Instead, scattered across the length of Other People lie countless little memories — some sad, some sweet, some funny, some painful — that make up the very un-movielike experience of losing and grieving a loved one. Ahead of the film’s premiere, I spoke with Kelly about how he wrote the film, what he learned as a director, how comedic actors improve dramatic stories, and more.
First off, congrats on your promotion at SNL! I’m very excited for you and Sarah.
Oh yeah, thank you! We’re both very excited.
We’ve all seen so many great sketches you’ve written over the years, so the promotion makes perfect sense. It’s so well deserved.
Oh that’s nice. I don’t know what to say to that, but I appreciate that. It’s exciting because we came in kind of together — we didn’t know each other really, but we came in around the same time and we worked together every single day, so it’s cool to get to do it together. It’s been a special couple of days.
How are you two approaching the job?
Well, no one does it alone, you know? We have the role of head writers and we have that responsibility, but obviously there are great producers there and a great writing supervisor and great writers who have been there a long time, so it’s still very much a team effort. But in terms of hiring writers and managing writers, we’re just hoping to help make sure that we get the best people and let them do what they’re best at. The show’s always thrived when it’s had a series of very different, distinct voices working at their best — you have the political writers, the topical writers, the writers who write cool weird stuff at the end of the show, the Update writers — it’s just about helping create a team. We’ve had five years to watch other head writers above us doing it, and we’ve learned a lot.
When we started it was Seth Meyers, and because he’s such a good writer, he always wrote the best stuff every week, so that was inspiring. But he was always just such a good person, too. At six in the morning on Tuesdays he was working on his own stuff and scrambling to get it in, but he was always, always willing to put it aside and read your stuff and give a new person thoughts and notes and ideas. So that set a bar, I think, for both me and Sarah right away. It was like “Okay, that’s what a head writer is.” It’s not just being a good writer, it’s being a good person — being able to look outside yourself and your own stresses in the moment of thinking of the whole show and thinking of the new people and thinking of the whole staff.
So let’s talk about Other People. I was familiar with the story from when you were writing Reasons I Love My Mother on Tumblr. When did you decide to start seriously turning it into a film?
Well, as I was going through the real-life situation when my mother was sick, I kind of wrote “journal entries” every day, and I’d say it was probably several years later before I sat down to write the script. I was really trying to write my first narrative film script. I’d never done anything remotely like that before. I’d mostly done sketch and straight comedy, so I didn’t really know how to go about writing a longer narrative feature. I kept trying to think about what to write, and every time I thought about it I came back to that time in my life but kind of pushed it away like “Ah, I don’t know if I really wanna write something that personal.” I also didn’t know if I really wanted to write a “cancer movie,” because there’s so many of these, and I was just in my head — it was like a thousand reasons why not to. But I couldn’t get it out of my head, and I realized it must mean something if I keep thinking back to this time in my life, so I should just follow this and write about it. And with no intention of it ever being made — this was during my first year at SNL, so I didn’t really have any intention of getting it made. I didn’t even know how one would go about doing that. It was mostly just a writing exercise, but I thought I would have this script that I was proud of, and then that was it.
How long did it take you to write the script?
I wrote maybe a very bad rough draft, just to get it out and make sure it existed, maybe in that first summer, I would say. Then I hammered away at it and made it better slowly over the course of that next season of SNL. Whenever we had a week off or a couple weeks off I would go back to it and chisel away at it. I wrote the first half during my first summer off, and it was in such a different form then. I kind of used sketch writing as a crutch — the first version of it was just 14 scenes out of order that just stood out to me about that time and being with my mother. I realized I had these 14 standalone scenes and I could then stand over them and look at them and be like “Okay, what are these 14 scenes? How is this a movie? What are the things I notice about them? What are the themes that keep coming up?” And then I kind of turned these “dramatic sketches” into a feature.
Do you think approaching it that way helped you flesh it out better than tackling everything at once?
Yeah, probably. I definitely wasn’t like “Here is my hot approach to writing that I wanna teach people!” It was mostly just me being like “I don’t know how to write something long. Let me just break it down into smaller parts that feel a little more easily digestible to me.” Even before writing that, I would rewrite before I would write the script. I would just sit there and write down anything and everything that I remembered from that time of being with my mother while she was sick.
And when all is said and done, the actual thing isn’t fully autobiographical. There are many scenes that didn’t happen at all, there are many scenes that are bastardized versions of things that happened, and there are some scenes where I took a couple real sentences that I remembered someone saying and I kind of extrapolated on them. But, first and foremost, I started by thinking “Okay, what are some true things that I remember from that time so that this does start from a place of realness?” So I just free wrote bad things and funny things and single sentences I remember people said, and I did refer back to the Tumblr. And it’s just nice, because it’s not all gonna be usable — a lot of it’s gonna be crap or a lot of it’s gonna feel not, I don’t know, “worthy” of a movie or something at first, but then you start to notice patterns. Even small things like “Oh, I keep remembering versions of this. I should follow that.” I mean, that’s kind of true for any writing. I do a lot of free writing, outlining things, brainstorming first so that I have all these raw materials to stand over and look at and be like “Okay, where is the movie in here?”
How did you balance aspects of the movie that are directly autobiographical and those that aren’t?
Well, when I was free writing, my sisters became very present. I noticed I would think about my sisters a lot when I was brainstorming and thinking about that time. And I remember a lot of my stories — even if they were very little stories that didn’t have any deeper meaning — were about my worry about not being in the moment with my mother or that thing where someone is sick or dying and you have a limited amount of time with them and you’re like “I’ve got to enjoy this, I’ve got to be present, I’ve got to be there every single moment, full body and mind with this person,” but then knowing you’ve got this other life back in New York City — that was something that, clearly when I was free writing, I thought about a lot. Just bigger scenes or ideas or underlying things that interested me or that I remembered came to the surface, and then I sort of realized that as I was piecing the movie together, I needed to have throughlines. Once you figure out what you want the movie to be “about” or the bigger-picture ideas or themes you want to explore, then you can invent and create a narrative around it. So then, individual moments might be false, but they still are true, because they are helping tell an audience the underlying truth.
This movie is also your feature directorial debut. What was important to you as far as the look and tone of it? And what did you learn?
I wanted it to look and feel very matter-of-fact. One of the things I did remember autobiographically from that time of being with my mother while she was sick was that I was constantly — and this is very not healthy and I’m the first one to admit it — I constantly remember feeling like “Ooh, I’ve seen versions of this in cancer movies, but this real-life version is way sadder, way less glamorous, and way less melodramatic. When am I going to learn that beautiful lesson all the characters in cancer movies learn? When is somebody gonna sit me down and fucking teach me something so gorgeous? When does the music swell?” I’d never been through the experience before, so I kept trying to grab onto something to relate it to, and I could only relate it to other movies I had seen. And you know, in all those movies it’s so glossy and gorgeous and everyone is sick but the whole movie’s looking beautiful and the score is touching, and I just wanted the opposite of all that. I wanted it to be very matter-of-fact, I wanted no score, I wanted everything to feel very naturalistic to the point of it being almost frustrating for the main character, because this just kind of plays out in real, ordinary life. I didn’t want a lot of bells and whistles in the movie, I just wanted it to be presented naturally.
And technically speaking, I learned a shitload, because I can say something like that but then this is the first film I’ve ever directed. I’ve directed a few shorts before, but between me and you, it probably wasn’t enough for someone to let me direct this movie. [laughs] Once I realized it was happening I was like “Oh shit, this is amazing!” So I did learn a lot, just technically speaking, in doing it, and obviously I have a great DP and a great editor and great producers — no one directs a movie alone, no one makes anything alone. So I felt really supported, and we were all on the same page about what we wanted the movie to look and feel like, so we all kind of spoke a common language, which is helpful. The script is already written in a way that’s pretty matter-of-fact, and the movie’s just a lot of hard cuts and a lot of hard edits and abrupt edits — just not glossy in any way. So in some ways, I guess that makes it easier because there aren’t a lot of bells and whistles, but that’s also what I wanted.
It’s fantastic to see such heavy drama carried by a cast that’s mostly people known for comedy. Was that approach with the casting important to you?
Yeah, that was my intention. Because this movie, I guess if you had to choose, it’s a drama, but it’s really both. I really wanted to have basically a fully comedic cast for a couple reasons. I always just am personally drawn to when I see a comedian do drama for the first time, and I also think that — and somebody else said this, I’m stealing — but I like how comedic actors often have a really good bullshit detector, where when they’re doing drama they can tell if something feels off or too melodramatic or too overwrought. They have a good ability to call bullshit on something or make it their own or put things in their own words or perform it in a way that kind of takes the melodrama away. They have the ability to perform it very plainly and very matter-of-factly and make it feel more real.
And also, just personally, that time in my life with my mother was horribly sad, but it was also super funny. My mom was an incredibly funny person, and a lot of my family are all with-it, funny, smart people, and so it just wouldn’t have worked in my brain to cast like a “great dramatic actor.” I didn’t remember the time as being only sad and only harrowing and only dramatic, so I wanted to make sure that we cast people who really kept the lightness and the funniness and the weirdness that I remembered from that time.
Is it weird to cast yourself and to cast characters based on your family?
It was only weird to cast my family once they saw the movie and I was like “Oh yeah, this is you.” I didn’t have any weirdness casting myself because I didn’t really super think about it that way — I was happy to just cast it and then let that person play it however they see it. That being said, obviously I directed it, so I worked very closely with Jesse and I think he did use me a little bit as inspiration in person. [laughs] But I wasn’t really precious about that. I didn’t need people who looked exactly like me or my family — I just wanted the same essence, which all boils down to: I wanted funny people.
The only person I was super particular about was Molly, because as much as I can say the movie isn’t 100% autobiographical, when it comes to Molly, I mean…she is like my mom. So I was a little precious about that and a lot more particular about that. It meant a lot to me who was going to play her, and not because they look exactly alike or anything like that, but I have had a lot of family who have seen it and they’re like “Oh my God, it’s very bizarre. It feels like watching your mom up there!” That part was unintentional, but I wanted someone who was funny, could be sweet, could light up a room, could be strong — all of these things — and Molly was just everything to me and everything I wanted in the role. So I was very incredibly lucky that she said yes.
They say “Comedy = Tragedy + Time.” So, as someone who just made a movie exploring all those variables, what do you think about their relation to each other?
I don’t know, they’re so constantly next to each other. People have asked me a lot “How do you make this incredibly sad experience funny? How do you know how to do that?” or something — as if it was like a skill of mine that I was supposed to take credit for. It was just that I didn’t know how to write about the experience in any other way. It didn’t feel like a trick, it didn’t feel like “Now I’m gonna make this bad thing funny!” I think, in the tragedy of the situation of someone dying of cancer, there is inherently such comedy there. When I was writing the script, I just remembered that in the real-life version, we would have the saddest, worst, most horrible days and then someone would say something and it would be hilarious and we’d all start laughing, or we’d have a very lighthearted day and then the emotion of the knowledge that my mom was gonna pass would hit somebody and someone would just start sobbing out of nowhere. I just remember that experience because my mom was constantly turning on a dime. Everyone was so volatile, and so I wanted to be able to capture that in the movie.
For me, any time something is so tragic, I’m always looking for the comedy in it. Partly because it’s a coping mechanism, partly because I’m just aware of, you know, “God, we’re all just on this little fucking marble together and it’s all so bizarre!” It’s not even that it’s funny, but it’s so sad that it’s comical. It’s just so bizarrely comical how much something can suck. But then also, if I’m having a totally nice day and I’m sitting around with friends and we’re all laughing, in my mind — like during comedy, during a wonderful moment — in my mind I’m like “We all will die soon.” So I’m always inserting comedy into very tragic moments like my mother’s death, and then on just a totally pleasant day, if you’re talking to me and I’m laughing, in my mind I’m thinking about how you’ll be dead one day. [laughs] The two are always right there in my mind together.