Most young independent filmmakers start out by telling stories about what they know: themselves or people just like them. Not Brett Haley.
Haley’s directorial debut, the micro-budgeted “The New Year” (2010), centered on Sunny (Trieste Kelly Dunn), a young woman stuck in a dead-end job at a bowling alley after she returned home to suburban Florida to care for her sick father.
For his second feature, the dramedy “I’ll See You in My Dreams” (opening Friday), Haley has again focused his lens on the inner life of a woman, this time 70-ish Carol Petersen, a retired teacher and a widow. At 31, Haley has attracted attention and earned kudos for eschewing geriatric comedy pandering — his film has the audacity to tenderly depict a romantic, sexual relationship between Carol and a man of the same age.
Sure, it helps that the couple in question is played by Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott, but still.
“I really enjoy writing women,” says Haley, in Boston. where “I’ll See You in My Dreams” screened at the Independent Film Festival of Boston, in April. “Men can be simple, and I can say that because I’m a man. Women tend to be more complex. Blythe’s character has this exterior wall up. She’s very cautious about who she allows in and that was fun to write. This film was made from the heart. I just wanted to tell this woman’s story.”
Like most people past middle age, Carol’s life may be settled — she has a nice house in California; a successful daughter (Malin Akerman) she seldom sees; and a group of girlfriends from the nearby retirement community. But loss, loneliness, and yearning are constant companions. A surprising connection with the courtly Bill (Elliott) reminds Carol that, even late in life, the unexpected can bring with it joy and heartbreak.
The script, which Haley wrote with Marc Basch, was impressive enough to interest Danner, 72. A formidable stage star, Danner’s recent film and TV work, though plentiful, has mostly been in supporting roles. “My producers Rebecca Green and Laura Smith got the script to Blythe’s manager. Then I had to sit down and convince her that a 30-year-old could make her feel [that she was] in good hands on a low-budget film where she’s in every scene and that I’d take care of her and that I knew what I was doing,” says Haley. A Brooklyn resident, he grew up in Florida and studied directing at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. “She was understandably concerned . . . independent films can be a mess; a disaster. I needed to make sure she was my number-one priority. I said, ‘If you agree to do this film, we won’t overwork you and you’ll be taken care of.’ ”
With Danner on board, the other cast members (Elliott, Akerman, June Squibb, Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place, and Martin Starr) followed. “Blythe was a magnetic field. Everyone wanted to work with her because she is a giving actor and a lovely person,” says Haley, who also edited the film. “Malin Akerman came for a small part just for the chance to play Blythe Danner’s daughter. Nobody did it for the money.”
“It’s always been what’s on the page for me. I don’t know how this kid came up with such a gem about 70-year-olds at 29, or whatever he was when he wrote it,” says Elliott in a phone interview.
The gangly actor with the velvet-in-gravel voice says he jumped at the chance to play a romantic lead at 70. “Older couples don’t have to be the way they are in Cialis commercials,” he says. “I credit Brett and Blythe, and me to a lesser extent. I was sensitive to how Blythe was feeling about the bed stuff and the kisses. The first day we worked together [we had to shoot] the first kiss we had in the car. She was nervous and said to me, ‘I’ve never kissed a man with a mustache before,’ and I thought, wow, how is that possible? I’ve loved Blythe from afar like all of us have. It’s just a gift that this thing came along and I was determined to do all I could in service to the script and to my leading lady.
“I’ve loved being a character actor for the last few years and selling beer with my voice,” he says, “but for this to come along, and ‘Grandma’ with Lily Tomlin [due out this summer], it’s mind-boggling.”
Despite such praise, don’t expect Haley to follow up “I’ll See You in My Dreams” with another film for the senior set. He’s creatively ambitious, quickly citing Quentin Tarantino, John Cassavetes, and Jacques Audiard among his influences. “I want to define myself by not doing the same thing twice,” he says. “My next film is about 14-year-old boys. It’s very different, visually and thematically. I just want to be honest and authentic, in whatever genre. No one expected this film from me, so I’m starting on a good foot.”
Haley says he’ll continue to look beyond himself and his peers for his stories. “I am curious about the world and people,” he says. “Empathy is a huge part of storytelling.”
Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.