Sometimes, life imitates art, and it can be really, really, really cringe-worthy, funny as hell, and the stuff that movies are made of. Case in point: James Morosini’s father catfished him. And now, Morosini — in his capacities as writer, director, and star — has made the acclaimed indie comedy I Love My Dad. He’d previously written and directed Threesomething and acted in American Horror Story and The Sex Lives of College Girls, but this is Morosini’s highest-profile project to date.
I Love My Dad follows the outlandish events that unfold when regular-guy Franklin (Morosini) is catfished by his estranged, desperate-to-connect father, Chuck (Patton Oswalt), who befriends his own son on Facebook under the guise of Becca (Claudia Sulewski), a nice, pretty waitress who works at a diner not too far away. Their online romance heats up, but it all blows up in Chuck’s face when Franklin decides it’s time to meet Becca in person.
Rachel Dratch, Lil Rel Howery, and Amy Landecker co-star alongside Oswalt, Sulewski, and Morosini, the latter of whom recently caught up with Below the Line over Zoom. During our chat, he shared memories of his late uncle, Christopher Reeve, discussed how Oswalt’s participation legitimized the project, and revealed whether he’d rather make a Marvel movie or something more intimate, like My Dinner with Andre, for his next directorial effort.
Below the Line: Did you always want to write, produce, act, and direct? Or was there one specific thing first?
James Morosini: I’ve made films since I was a little kid. I started out by… I would basically direct my home videos. My dad was often the one filming. My uncle was the actor Christopher Reeve, and so I aspired to be an actor from a very early age. I didn’t realize that I was also writing and directing throughout my whole career until I got to college. That’s where I was making a lot of shorts. After college, I made my first micro-budget feature. But my aspiration from an early age? I didn’t even think about them as different things because I was always doing all of them. I was like, ‘I just want to be doing this. I want to be making movies in every way that I possibly can.’
BTL: What advice did you get from your famous uncle?
Morosini: I would talk to Chris a lot about his roles in films. Growing up, I was surrounded by a lot of his contemporaries, like Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, [and] Meryl Streep. I got a sense of these folks’ lifestyles, and also the degree of commitment to their artistry. That inspired me from an early age to develop a commitment to my work on my own. I would spend a lot of time educating myself on film, and trying to get a sense of the kind of stories that were exciting to me.
BTL: Not everybody would have had the balls to make this movie, especially with its personal and embarrassing elements. How easy or tough was it to say, ‘I’m going to let this crazy story out into the world?’
Morosini: It felt like a dare that I was making to myself. My favorite movies and stories are ones where it feels like it almost cost the storyteller something to make it, where I can tell that they’re taking a big risk of some sort. It’s always been important to me in my stories that I personally have some skin in the game and that I’m not just painting by numbers, that I’m taking a big swing. The risk is part of the excitement to me in telling the story. I’m actively chasing and challenging myself to go to those places and be willing to be as embarrassed as I possibly can be.
BTL: How willing were people — actors, investors — to be embarrassed with you?
Morosini: People responded to the emotional truth of the movie, that it’s about a father who loves his son and is going about connecting with him in totally the wrong way, which is something we’ve all done at one point or another. Maybe not catfished someone, but we’ve gone about pursuing someone we love. When Patton Oswalt came on board, it really accelerated and other people were able to see what he saw in the film. Then, I was able to assemble the cast around him and find partners financially [who] were behind that vision as well.
BTL: How did you land Patton?
Morosini: Patton read the script. The script had won some screenwriting awards. Patton read the script and responded to it. Then, he and I had conversations where we were able to align on the kind of story that I was interested in telling, and he was on board.
BTL: You’ve directed before, but never anything this big featuring these kinds of names, so I imagine there was a lot at stake here. How did you handle the pressure?
Morosini: I kept coming back to the fundamentals. It comes down to the emotional truth of what’s happening scene by scene and making sure that I’m telling the story as clearly and as compellingly as I possibly can, at every moment. When you’re focused on the task at hand of executing, a lot of the auspices of what you’re creating fall away. It stops being about the money or the people involved. I get kind of obsessively focused on actualizing this feeling or these images that I see in my mind. That becomes my sole purpose, and everything else stops being as much of a distraction.
BTL: As the director, what was your greatest challenge in getting the story on the screen convincingly?
Morosini: The movie is very funny, but I never wanted it to feel like we were trying to be funny. I wanted it to feel emotionally grounded throughout, and to encourage restraint within myself as well as others for us to tell the story in a way that felt… I wanted there to be a tonal neutrality throughout, which is sometimes a tricky arena to play in because it’s tempting to want to make something funny or more dramatic. I just wanted it to feel as real as we could possibly make it feel. That was sometimes tricky to nail.
BTL: What kind of an ally was Patton on set?
Morosini: Patton has — obviously — an incredible sense of humor, but he also has a tremendous heart. He was able to bring both of those qualities to every moment of the film, and he took the role very seriously. His commitment to the role just signaled to everyone else involved to bring their best work as well.
BTL: When you’re on set as an actor and you’re directing yourself, who wins an argument?
Morosini: The director always wins. Sometimes I’ll let the actor within myself have some free rein, but then when I step up to monitor it, I’m now looking at a performer and I’m trying to see the character in the story. If there’s something getting in the way, it doesn’t matter how it felt in the moment. I’m now trying to conjure the direction I would give that actor and then I’m essentially giving it to myself, deliberately.
BTL: There are many cringe-worthy moments in I Love My Dad. Much of it feels improvised, but considering the intercutting of the characters’ realities, there needed to be a certain degree of precision, right?
Morosini: What Chuck was saying was what Becca was also saying. For much of the film, there wasn’t much wiggle room in terms of being able to improvise because we had either shot stuff already or it needed to match. There needed to be a certain coherence between Claudia’s performance and Patton’s performance. A lot of that we figured out in rehearsal. Then there were a few moments where things got more frantic and frenetic, where I would try to give as long of a leash as possible to the performers. But most of the improvisation came in rehearsals, and then it was just a matter of us figuring out what we felt worked and what didn’t.
BTL: The film gained buzz on the festival circuit. How rewarding was it to see the reactions of people in an actual theater?
Morosini: Yeah, man, this movie is definitely an audience film. Watching it with a bunch of other people, where everyone is collectively reacting to each moment, has been so rewarding and euphoric at times, especially moments where it gets uncomfortable, then heartwarming, and uncomfortable again. These drastic tonal pivots back and forth have been fun to watch as an audience navigates this rollercoaster ride of emotion.
BTL: Magnolia got involved during South by Southwest. How have they been as partners in helping I Love My Dad make the leap from festival favorite to theatrical/VOD release?
Morosini: I love Magnolia. They’ve been incredible partners. I’m also a fan of so many of the movies they’ve released. They’re a distributor that deeply cares about the filmmaker’s vision. They are willing to do everything it takes to execute that vision and to bring the version of the film that filmmakers have in their hearts to the world while trying to keep that as intact as possible. I couldn’t be happier with them.
BTL: How ready are you for the world to see your baby?
Morosini: It remains to be seen. I’m excited. Definitely a little nervous, but I’m proud of everyone’s work. I’m honestly just excited for people to see what the cast in this film delivers. I’m so thrilled by it.
BTL: In a perfect world, what kind of doors will this open for you?
Morosini: I want to continue to tell stories that feel like they’re taking big risks, but I want to do so on a larger canvas. I’m currently looking at some projects that meet that criteria. I also have a project of my own that I’m very passionate about that is genre-blending. I’m interested in continuing to challenge myself and my audience with the stories that we’re able to tell, but doing so in as entertaining a way as I possibly can.
BTL: If somebody came to you right now with a new version of My Dinner With Andre and someone else approached you to direct a Marvel movie, which road would you take?
Morosini: I’d do a weird Marvel movie, which they’re already doing a lot of. I’ve been impressed by the direction Marvel’s taken with their work, and the support and free rein they’ve given their filmmakers. The ability to execute at that level, and to bring my own stamp to something that’s that widely seen, is very exciting to me.
I Love My Dad is now playing in select theaters and streaming on VOD.