Lawrence and Meg Kasdan met in 1970 at the University of Michigan. “Our first date was ‘Woman in the Dunes.’ We bonded over movies,” Lawrence Kasdan says.
Married 40 years now, they finish each other’s sentences. She gives a silent eye roll when he jokes that he’s not arrogant; he credits Meg with being “a more positive person than I am . . . she’s more generous.”
Opening here on Friday, “Darling Companion” is the Kasdans’ first joint script since 1991’s “Grand Canyon” and the first film Lawrence Kasdan has directed in nine years. It’s ostensibly about a dog — think “Marley and Me” for empty-nesters — but it’s really about the long-term marriage between self-absorbed surgeon Joseph (Kasdan pal Kevin Kline) and his dutiful soul mate Beth (Diane Keaton), who doesn’t realize how lonely she is until her beloved rescue dog Freeway gets lost in the Colorado woods.
“No question, we drew on our relationship. Over the course of a long marriage you get worn out, you get bored,” says Lawrence Kasdan, interviewed during a recent stop in Boston to promote his film. “We’ve raised our sons; we have a grandchild — all that is very much from our experience.”
Sitting side by side on a hotel couch, the Kasdans could be any affluent, educated but down-to-earth, middle-age couple, the kind who question the day’s interviewers and photographers with what seems genuine interest. He’s professorial in pressed khakis; she’s in chic but tasteful black. Lawrence is the more talkative of the pair but when Meg speaks, he listens.
There are more autobiographical elements to the story. Like Keaton’s Beth, Meg Kasdan adopted a stray mutt who later bounded into the woods near the Kasdan’s Denver house and, despite many searches, remained lost for three weeks. “Darling Companion” jumps off from that experience to explore life at middle age and the realization that love is sometimes found in the least-likely places. It helps that the mature couple in the giddy throes of new love is played by Dianne Wiest and Richard Jenkins; add a sexy psychic (Ayelet Zurer) and the buttoned-down young doctor (Mark Duplass) who’s smitten with her, and you’ve got a “Big Chill”-like ensemble for aging boomers.
“When this [dog] thing happened, Meg would tell people about it and they were interested more so than I thought,” says Kasdan. The turning point, he says, came when Meg invented the idea that it’s Joseph who loses Freeway, thus triggering Beth’s heartbreak and dissatisfaction. “He had to realize what Freeway meant to her, and that opened the door to the story and all these other characters walked it,” he says. “You love [Richard] Jenkins and his willingness to jump in; that quality in people is irresistible. And that’s what you love about pets. They’re always ready to go; they don’t ask ‘how long will this take?’ ”
But a lot has changed in Hollywood since Kasdan made such decade-defining films as “Body Heat” (1981) and “The Big Chill” (1983). If “Darling Companion” were made with a major studio, he says, the suits would have insisted on “a scene with the toilet exploding” rather than a quiet dramedy about four 60-something characters. “We thought we were doing an accessible comedy up until we finished it,” he says. “But then both our sons [directors Jon and Jake Kasdan] said, ‘It’s an independent.’ But now we’re up against the independent aesthetic, which is also very young. We’ve had a very hard time at a lot of film festivals because [the movie is] too straight, not edgy enough for them. So you find it on both ends.”
But the script, and the Kasdans’ cache, was enough to attract three Oscar winners to the cast, even for little money. Lawrence Kasdan says this alone says everything about the current state of mainstream movies, unlike television. “In a Hollywood movie, characters over 60 are almost always a caricature. They’re infirm, or losing their minds, or comic relief. Older actors have been reduced to secondary parts and some of them won’t take those parts so they don’t work. I understand it. It’s a business and the business is about franchising 60 commercial tie-ins and that doesn’t happen with movies about mature people.”
Kasdan admits it’s frustrating “when you can’t make movies and that’s all you want to do. Not that I’ve been doing nothing for nine years. I’ve been trying to get movies made, writing, getting to pre-production and then [having it] fall apart. But compared to other frustrations that people have in their work, it’s no different. I’ve been so lucky I’ve been able to direct and write movies and see them on the screen. Some people my age that I started with never got to do that. We have friends in real distress that make these problems trivial. I didn’t think that way when I was younger. And the movie will have a life beyond its theatrical run. That wasn’t true 25 years ago.”
Meg Kasdan — remember, she’s the more positive and generous half of the couple — says her reward has been the number of people who’ve told her how much they appreciate the story of a beloved pet’s impact on a family. “People in the crew started to hear that the film was inspired by what happened to us, and they started telling us their stories of their animals. At the end of the shoot, the crew gave us a photo album with pictures of all their pets; every department, the electricians and the grips — it was amazing,” she says.
“Our dog was 7 when we adopted him and now he’s 14 years old. We got a dog and now we’ve got a movie.”