Thomas Moffett Shrinks Hollywood Down to Size

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Thomas Moffett is a new face in the game, with only Steve Clark’s recent directorial debut, The Last International Playboy, under his screenwriting belt. His second script, Shrink , is a star-studded take on individuals facing depression and emotional ruin in Los Angeles and the broken people the film industry attracts. Pretty good for a guy who’s just broken into Hollywood. The film stars big-screen heavyweights Kevin Spacey and Robin Williams, with Saffron Burrows, Mark Webber, and famed novelist Gore Vidal; it releases this Friday, July 31.

When did you start writing? I’ve always written … it’s the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do or been semi-good at. I grew up in Indiana, and I always wanted to live in New York ever since I read Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey and all those Salinger stories. I went to NYU and then worked as an assistant for George Plimpton, editor of the Paris Review. During that time, I started writing screenplays, and then a few of my scripts got close to being made. I started thinking, “Maybe I can do this.”

Have you spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, where the film takes place? No. When I knew I was going to write the script, I spent about two months house-sitting for the producer of the film in the Hollywood Hills. It was this amazing place to just soak everything in. I spent two months trying to get a feel for things, which helped a lot in terms of the characters the movie.

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What’s the premise of the film? The movie’s about a therapist who practices in LA and has a lot of clients who are in the movie industry. I wanted it to be about these people who happen to live and work in Hollywood, but their problems are the kind of problems that you could have anywhere. They’re just magnified because of the narcissistic nature of Hollywood. I really wanted to avoid making it like Entourage, so I think the fact that I live in New York and not in LA helped me look at things from a more objective view and not get caught up with making it about LA. I wouldn’t have been able to do that very well.

How’d the concept come about? One of my best and oldest friends is an actress named Pell James, who’s in the film. She’s married to a guy named Michael Burns, who’s the producer of the film. He approached me and said, “I have this idea and it involves these types of characters and this setting. Maybe you could find something to do with it?” So, I stared at it for three months and I couldn’t figure out how to write something that didn’t seem Entourage-y. I had a breakthrough when I started thinking about the therapist character, played by Kevin Spacey. I started thinking, what if he’s going through a breakdown that’s worse than his patients? It started organically that way, and then all the LA stuff came later. Once we got Kevin on board, the whole movie started coming to life, and the other actors started signing on. He just threw himself into the character, and the film and worked for a fraction of what he usually works for. He really lead us all by example.

Do you have a personal relationship with psychiatric help? I went to therapy for the first time five years ago. I was really depressed and just felt overwhelmed and had a lot of anxiety and panic and all these different things. I have a bit of obsessive compulsive disorder, which one of the characters also has, so it was fun to take elements of things that I’ve gone through and write about them in a way that was kind of cathartic. I think the saddest things can be really funny and the funniest things can be really sad.

How was Robin Williams involved? He came and did three days of work with us, and that was the highlight for me. The director and I were just standing there and watching Kevin Spacey and Robin Williams do a scene on the second or third day of filming. It felt like a dream come true. I was lucky as a writer to be on the set every day which was unusual. Jonas [Pate] was really generous as a director and very collaborative.

What’s Robin’s character like? Robin got involved and said he was interested in one character. I rewrote the character with him in mind. It was really cool that he was game for that because the character is dealing with some problems and going through a divorce and some things that were going on in Robin’s life. In one of the scenes between him and Kevin, Kevin got to a very vulnerable spot. It’s a very intense scene and Robin Williams has this smile, this very sad smile that breaks your heart when you see it.

How many times did you have to shoot that one? A couple of times but not because anything went wrong. Only because Robin and Kevin would play around, and Robin would improv these amazing lines. There’s this scene where he’s at a press junket. Robin plays an actor in the film, and we just let him go in terms of improv-ing. He’d make these great riffs about the fake movie. In it, he plays a Viking, and there’s a really funny poster in the background of him in a Viking beard. Robin went off making all these jokes about long axes and how he couldn’t have guns because it would have been a short film, and the women had hairy armpits. We were all in awe of him.

Did you have actors in mind while you were writing the script? I definitely had Kevin in mind, but it was very much wishful thinking. When you’re writing a script and sitting alone in a room, you have no idea if anyone will ever see it. But you get these fantasies of different actors playing the characters, and Kevin was someone who early on we all talked about.

And for the other characters? I wrote this character named Daisy for my friend Pell. In the first draft of the script, Daisy’s in her late 20s and starts dating another character in the film, but then Pell became pregnant partway through the process of pre-production. I really wanted her to be in the movie, so I rewrote the character as pregnant, which was definitely a challenge because I had to then tell the love story of her and this struggling writer. We also knew that we wanted Keke Palmer to play the young girl. She was 15 when we were shooting. She’s in Akeelah and the Bee. She has her own show on Nickelodeon, and she’s got a rap album. She makes you feel like such an underachiever.

Was it a constant comedy on and off set? Well, Kevin can do fantastic impressions of different actors. He can do an amazing Jack Lemmon, Johnny Carson, Christopher Walken, Al Pacino. He’s constantly slipping into a Marlon Brando voice to keep the crew entertained. We did one scene with the writer Gore Vidal and Kevin. Later, Gore had all of us over to his beautiful house for drinks. Gore was great friends with Johnny Carson and would go on The Tonight Show all the time back in the 70s. There was this wonderful moment in Gore’s living room where Spacey starts being Johnny Carson and pretending to interview Gore, who started doing a routine on present-day topics like Sarah Palin and talking about the election.

What was it like having this at Sundance? That was incredible. We were in the Eccles Theater, which holds 1,300 people, and we were oversold both the first night and the next morning. It was cool to see it with an audience because we were in such a hurry editing that none of us — myself, the director, Kevin — had seen it on anything other than our computers.

What’s next for you? I did an adaptation of a play that Liev Schreiber proposed to me. He and a friend had a one-act that they put on at Yale and had been trying figure out a way to expand into a film for years. It’s an amazing play, and I just fell in love with it. Liev gave me open reign to expand it from a one-act that takes place in a single kitchen to something that takes place all over New York.

What are your spots in New York? I love this vegetarian restaurant called Counter in the East Village. And I love The Mermaid Inn. I also like this cupcake place called Babycakes. It’s like the Magnolia Bakery for vegans.
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