For a while there, Dan Rush’s screen adaptation of Raymond Carver’s Why Don’t You Dance? was kicking around Hollywood, garnering good word of mouth but not much steam. In today’s fickle independent film market, that’s not enough to get a movie made. But once Will Ferrell lent his star power to the project by agreeing to star in the film, it was all systems go, and Rush was on his way to getting his first film made. In Everything Must Go, Will Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, a downbeat alcoholic who loses his job and returns home to find his worldly possessions scattered across the front lawn—his fed-up wife has cut him off and kicked him out.
He’s got nothing to do but drink his days away. Cue cute-but-damaged neighbor and Notorious B.I.G’s son (seriously) as a neighborhood kid, who together just might be able to save this broken man. Here’s Dan Rush on writing the screenplay, casting Will Ferrell, and the state of the indie.
Were you always a Raymond Carver fan? I was. I think I started reading Carver in college, and I always loved that sort of writing, and these flawed characters. I’m a big short fan.
Why did you choose this particular story? I loved the visual set up, first of all. I loved that this guy was living on his front lawn as if he was living inside. I loved that everybody could look at him. And when I started fleshing out the story, it was just this moment of crisis. Like things have to be pretty bad for you to be doing this, so it became this game of figuring out how did he get here and where is he going. So it was a really great place to kind of lay a stake.
Did you have any expectations when you began writing, or was it more like, let’s just see how it goes? I wrote an outline. I had started and stopped scripts, but I wrote a pretty thorough outline for it, and showed it to some of my friends who were writers and they said, “Woah you’ve got more than we usually do.” And I knew there were holes in the outline, but I just kept writing. There were days when you write five pages and then there’s a week where you write a page, but it was just write write write.
Did you pitch this project yourself? I had a manager that started shopping it around. I wrote it right before the writer’s strike, and then I realized I couldn’t put it out now, because no one was going to make a movie during the writer’s strike because we didn’t know what was coming, so I had to put it away from three months. And I started sending it to people and it started getting a really good response, and then I started meeting with producers, and then we went looking for actors.
Was writing something that was new for you? At first I didn’t like it but I came to really love it and enjoy it. But it was weird when I was getting on this response and was like, Woah, this is my first script.
Did you have an actors in mind when you were writing this? I didn’t write it with anyone in mind, but it was interesting because I shared the space that I wrote in with my friend who is a photographer and does a lot of celebrity work. He had a whole wall next to me of all his celebrity work, so I would try everybody on like, “Hmm Paul Giamatti; Oh, there’s Kevin Bacon, there’s Clooney. Everyday someone different.
Did you ever imagine you’d get Will Ferrell for it? I’d never imagine I’d get the cast that I got.
How did Will get involved? We were all talking about dramatic guys, and then my producers said, “Do you think Will would be interesting for this?” and I said, “He wouldn’t be interested in this!” and they said, “You never know,” and it was really different, so I wanted to go back and read the script before we went and talked to his people. Will really liked the script. So we got together, and it was pretty clear right away that we wanted to make the same kind of movie, and after like a forty five minute meeting, he’s like, “Great, let’s do it.”
As a first time director, was it nerve-wracking to direct such a big star? There are a lot of things that scare me, but that’s not one of them, that’s never been one of my fears. But it’s pretty awesome when people are reading your words that you would never have imagined. When we were casting, we were reading people who are my idols and I had to say no to them.
Can you tell me any of them? I really shouldn’t say but there were a lot of amazing people. Even for the other roles too, like once we cast Will, super-talented women came in and talented guys for the smaller roles.
Did you have trouble getting financing for the film? In the year or two it took to put the movie together, the whole independent world started to fall apart. When I first had the script I was meeting with Paramount Vantage and Miramax, and by the time we put the movie together, those companies were gone. So it was a challenge.
How do you feel about the new Video on Demand model for independent film? I like to see movies in movie theaters, that’s why I shot the way I shot. What will probably end up happening is the way you shoot movies format-wise will change, because there won’t be any different in quality. I really wanted to shoot my movie on film, at least my first movie, and I wanted it to be projected in a theater.
It’s a wide movie. Yeah, it’s very wide, it’s shot 35mm anamorphic which is the widest you can get and that was great.
Was it a closed set? What’s great about shooting in a location where there’s not a lot of people in the industry, was that everyone was really excited about it, and the whole neighborhood was excited. And we were renting everybody’s houses and the neighborhood got really engaged. On the more emotional stuff we definitely shut it down, but there were times when some of the neighbors would come out with wine glasses and watch the movie making part. And we knew everybody. If people are giving you access to their world, you’ve got to treat it with respect.
In terms of tone, do you consider it a drama with comedic moments? So funny that you used the exact words. When I went in to meet with Will Ferrell, I had this list of questions I was going to ask him, and the first thing he said was “Do you see this as a drama with comedic moments, or comedy with dramatic moments?” And it was the first question out of his mouth, and I said I saw it as a drama with comedic moments and he said, “Good.”
Have things changed for you since people have seen the film or read the script? Yeah, I get to read a lot of scripts which is great. We’ll see, hopefully people like the movie and I keep getting offered stuff, but the good news is I can always go write something. I think if you can write something and get an actor to do it, it’s a good start.
Was it easier to get financing once Will was attached to it? Yes, 100%. It’s that weird chicken or egg thing in independent film. Actors sometimes don’t want to do the film if there isn’t financing, but sometimes you can’t get the financing without the actors. But Will says, “Let’s go for it, let’s raise money.”