Interview: Rob Burnett talks Netflix’s The Fundamentals of Caring
Nathanael Smith | On 19, Jun 2016Reading time: 14 mins
The Fundamentals of Caring is the latest Netflix Original acquired by the streaming site, a thoroughly charming indie in which Paul Rudd cares for a teenager with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) – played brilliantly by Craig Roberts. Before its release on Friday 24th June, the film had a big screen debut at Edinburgh International Film Festival, with the director Rob Burnett in attendance.
Burnett is an immediately warm figure, effusive about his film even after a long day of junkets and full of authentic praise for his excellent cast. He’s the kind of director who keeps chatting long after our dictaphone has stopped recording, such is his love of the film he and his talented cast have made.
I thought I’d start by asking about disability on screen. Have you heard about the controversy surrounding Me Before You?
I’ve heard about that, I did read about it. I don’t know where we’ll fall on there. One thing you grapple with is using someone with a disability to play someone with disability. We did actually audition and consider greatly a guy who had cerebral palsy, not DMD, but in the end it seemed like it was going to be too difficult for the person, the work schedule and everything else. But I’m very sensitive to the issue.
I was impressed with the portrayal in The Fundamentals of Caring. Many of the complaints surrounding Me Before You were that the disability was a bit of a prop and it was more about how she reacted to it. Whereas Trevor (Craig Roberts) is a fully fleshed out character and the film isn’t really about his disability.
One of the great things about this for me is that there was a guy named Case Levinson, the real Trevor, the person that Jonathan Evison actually cared for and based the book on. Case and his mom, who is his primary caregiver, actually came to the premiere at Sundance and they adored it. They just loved the movie. Case’s mom gave me a hug. This meant everything to me. Additionally, there’s a woman named Tracy Seckler, whose son has DMD. She operates an organisation called Charley’s Fund out of New York, it’s a big DMD charity, and she was our technical adviser on the movie. She was very generous with us, helped to set up kids for Craig and I to meet so we could ask questions about DMD. She also adored the movie.
The reason I believe they both love the movie is what you’re saying. Craig doesn’t play a character who is defined by the disease, that’s the thing that they love. It’s a kid that, yes, has DMD, but I think for all of us – and if we do any good with this movie, it could be this – we all sometimes have this inclination that if you see someone in a wheelchair, you just log that in your brain that that’s who that person is. But they’re humans! For good and bad.
I’ve gotten that reaction from many, many people who are caregivers for people with DMD. “My cousin has DMD and he’s hilarious!” “My uncle has DMD and he’s an asshole!”
There is that one line: “Have you ever considered that I’d be a prick even if I didn’t have a wheelchair?”
It’s one of my favourite moments. That’s kind of the point. One of the best compliments I’ve had a few times about the movie is that by the end, you forget that Craig is in a wheelchair.
Were you interested in subverting expectations? Because I kept expecting something medical to go wrong, especially in the sweetest moments, but then it didn’t. Instead the challenges are emotional, not contrived medical emergencies.
Right, exactly. You know, for me, this movie is bathed in tragedy – you don’t need to lean into it, it’s just there, in every frame. It’s a guy who lost his son and a kid with muscular dystrophy. Neither of them are ever going to get better, you know. Ben’s never going to get over the loss of his child, I don’t think you can ever get over that, and Trevor’s never going to get out of the wheelchair. So the journey is tiny. It’s two guys who are completely dead inside that just start living this much by the very end. And I think that’s heartwarming. A lot of the drama of the movie, weirdly and intentionally, is what doesn’t happen. Every time you expect something to happen, it doesn’t happen. The movie stays very small, every time.
For me, I can tell you on a personal level, one of my childhood friends, a guy that I knew from the age of six, passed away from ALS about seven years ago. It was the first time I’d been around a disease close up. When I saw ALS – where the mind is fine, but the body deteriorates – it was the first time I ever saw the mundanity of this. Yes, there’s drama, the overall drama that’s happening, but day by day, you gotta watch TV, you’ve got family… this whole movie takes place in the aftermath of everything. Everything has happened before the movie starts. That’s the challenge of it, but that’s also the beauty of it.
Not to get too corny, but to extend it a little, that’s true of all of us. We’re all dying, day by day. By the premise of our lives we should be doing something epic every day. But we rarely do. You’re just sitting here talking to me for instance, you poor thing.
In terms of making a road movie, how do you keep it visually interesting when a lot of it is just two people in a car?
It’s difficult, without a doubt, and difficult with a very quick shooting schedule. We shot this movie in 23 days, which is really fast, so it is very difficult. One advantage of shooting a car – and there aren’t many – is that geographically you know where everyone is. So you never have to worry about a lot of the director things you normally have to worry about – crossing lines, eyelines, that kind of thing. You can put the camera almost anywhere you want and you instantly understand the geography of everyone, which saves a lot of time. You don’t have to run multiple cameras to make sure the eyelines match up. People buy the eyelines instantly in cars. So that helps performers. On any shoot, but particularly a 23-day shoot, any time that you can just do takes instead of covering yourself, that’s an advantage. But the truth is, you try to get them out of the car as much as you can.
It helps that you have two really engaging performances in the front of the car.
Honestly, it’s everything. For me, actors come in two varieties. There’s actors that you can just put a camera on and leave it there, and then those that you can’t. Craig and Paul, you can do that and it’s a director’s best friend, because they’re giving you something all the time. It isn’t easy for an actor to do that, with no dialogue, it’s just “OK, you’re super sad now”. That’s not easy work for an actor, but Craig gives you something every second he’s in it.
There was a moment that stuck with me when Selena Gomez says “I like assholes” and he turns away from her and widens his eyes just a little bit. It’s a great moment. What is the tension in a moment like that between the actor, director and editor? Who is responsible in bringing that to the screen?
The answer is that it can be any of those three, in general. Specifically, I don’t remember how… I’m gonna go ahead and say that was probably all Craig in that moment, I don’t remember if on a take I’d asked him “let’s see that land with you”. I think the reason that that moment is what it is, is because of all the other moments. He’s so contained in his movements that some bits of the movie stand out. Regardless of who said what to create that moment, that moment is created by him, really in sum total of everything. If he was acting like Jim Carrey all movie long, that moment wouldn’t even register with you, but the fact that you see that little thing, his eyes widening – and I know exactly what you’re talking about – that’s a testament to the rest of his performance.
“That’s the prestigious thing: to be a Netflix original makes you feel super cool.”
Did you devise an aesthetic for the film, watch a lot of road movies, slip in some Wim Wenders?
I did watch a few road movies. The truth is, as we were talking about before, there’s only so many places you can put cameras in cars. Visually, my overall aesthetic for the movie was a huge collaboration with Giles Nuttgens, my amazing Director of Photography. He’s a big, big talent and very collaborative. Everything about the movie – the performances, costumes, dialogue – for me has to be real, you know? We shot the film in 2.35, a very cinematic format, but the colours are very muted. It’s not shot like a studio comedy. There’s no centre-framing, there aren’t big, bright colours. The muted look of the movie is, of course, meant to portray their muted inner lives.
Until you get to the pit at the end.
And then it starts to brighten up. And I must say, the good lord above could not have been kinder to us on this. We shot this movie in Atlanta and the weather was miserable when we were there, completely overcast. So it looked like the Pacific Northwest. So the weather could not have been more cooperative – it was very grey and rainy. It even snowed in Atlanta, which is very rare, then as the movie progressed, the sun came out, which was really exactly mimicking the journey. Which makes me look like genius! Honestly, when it was snowing outside, there’s a shot of Trevor’s house with snow and we just had to run outside to shoot it.
There was something slightly surreal about seeing Netflix as the first logo that popped up on the screen. What was the role that Netflix played in the film?
Well, the movie was made before Netflix came into the picture, it was made as an independent movie. We then had screenings for buyers out in Los Angeles. We had had such great luck. We’d had a research screening before the movie was finished and we got a bunch of regular folks in to watch the movie. The movie played tremendously well, huge laughs.
I’ve heard horror stories about test screenings…
I’ve never been more nervous in my life. My stomach was in knots and the movie was very unfinished – green screen, temp score – but they loved it. I didn’t know much about research screenings but the score, the top two boxes, the first question on the screener is “Rate the movie, Excellent, very good, good, fair poor”. They’re looking for those top two boxes: good isn’t good enough. It has to be excellent or very good. I was told, going in, that the average is like 50-60%. 70% is great, 80% is incredibly rare. We got 91%. Now, my reaction was, how come 9% of the people didn’t like the movie? The agents sat me down and said: “You don’t understand, we don’t ever see this.”
So right from the start the reaction has been great and again, all credit to Paul and Craig for that. So I went off and finished the film over the next two months. Then we came back to the same theatre and screened it for buyers. Netflix came in and immediately loved the movie and made us a very big offer. Then they came back and said, “We want all of it.” And they made it a Netflix original.
I can tell you from my standpoint as a film maker, it’s been thrilling.
How do you view streaming in the world of film distribution?
Number 1, you want as many people to see your film as possible. So the idea that this little movie, on 24th June, will be in 190 countries in front of 80 million people in 12 languages, is mind-boggling to me. This would never have happened in a movie theatre, you know?
I mean, it was odd for us because Netflix bought the acquisition rights, the third window. Theatrical, pay, then subscription. They bought this right before Sundance for a pretty big number. So as a result of this, the theatrical was always going to be limited, because the only reason people do theatrical is to harvest this third window. Theatrical is never really a money maker and usually a loss leader. I can’t speak for Star Wars, that’s a different story.
You mean that’s not your next project?
I wish. If I had an ounce of J.J. Abrams’ talent…
Our theatrical release was going to be very small and it concerned me because I thought that people weren’t going to understand and would consider it to be a failure. But it would never have had that chance to grow to a thousand screens – it was never designed that way. So I was thrilled when Netflix came back and said they wanted to make it a Netflix original. In the world today, that’s the prestigious thing: to be a Netflix original makes you feel super cool.
From a logistical standpoint, these guys know what they are doing. Before, I was the one making Selena Gomez’s flights to Sundance, I was the one making hotel reservations. Now, I’m getting a new email every day. “We’re the Clips Division.” “We’re the trailer division.” “We’re the European division, we’re sending you to Scotland.” Everyone involved is so expert in what they do. They really have figured something out.
Even the way they market the movie inside Netflix, they have a whole range of images that they can push out to people who will respond to different things. All aspects I don’t understand, but I know that I’m in very good hands.
My favourite scene in the film was the “Slim Jim” scene. Are they actually good? American cinema has lied to me before because they made Twinkies seem great, but it was the foulest thing I’ve ever eaten. So what are they like? Secondly, how did you keep a straight face when Paul Rudd was being that funny?
I’m very happy to have these questions. First of all, you have to try a Slim Jim. Slim Jims paid us nothing at all to have product placement in this movie and as a result I think you will find it every bit as good as a Twinkie… You won’t be disappointed, I don’t think you’ll enjoy the experience.
Secondly, it was impossible to keep a straight face and in the edit, I had to cut out the sound of me and the crew laughing as Paul was ad-libbing all of these brilliant lines. What I like to imagine is a group of executives on Madison Avenue that have the Slim Jim advertising account, who have racked their brains for six months trying to come up with the perfect slogan for Slim Jims. Then Paul Rudd, off the top of his head, comes up with “A bite of the James?” Then you’re done, you’re never going to get better than that.
The Fundamentals of Caring is released exclusively on Netflix worldwide on Friday 24th June.