Writer/director Nikole Beckwith’s unique writing process allows her to get deep into her characters’ minds.
Nikole Beckwith‘s comedy Together Together is easily one of the most charming films to come out of Sundance 2021. The Ed Helms/Patti Harrison starrer is an unconventional relationship comedy that follows a single man who enlists a young surrogate to carry his baby. As they navigate this singular situation and their developing friendship, they both grow into fuller people.
Beckwith spends a long time fleshing the characters in the writing process, often writing scenes that never make it past the first draft. But, as you’ll see in our conversation below, she never considers this work wasted because it often informs the story and its relationships.
Beckwith spoke with No Film School via phone ahead of the film’s wide release. Enjoy her wealth of insight and advice below!
Editor’s note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: I will start by saying that yours was one of my favorite films of Sundance. I’m excited for more people to see it.
Nikole Beckwith: Thank you so much. That’s so nice. Oh, my gosh.
NFS: It is such an interesting take on a relationship and something so fresh, and you have to strike a delicate balance in these characters and their relationships. So I’m interested in how you developed that, how you developed the story, what that process was like.
Beckwith: Well, I knew I wanted to tell a story about a single man pursuing fatherhood with a surrogate and wanted to tell the story of what their relationship would be. And I knew I wanted the first thing to be their very first meeting and for the last scene to be the baby’s first breath, but didn’t know exactly what it would be like.
I write from curiosity. So I feel much more like a spectator when I’m writing than I do a puppeteer. I write a lot of pages of a lot of dialogue. It’ll be like a 15-page scene of someone trying to decide who’s going to take whose car to eat at the Olive Garden, but it’s just a way for me to get to know the characters. And then I feel like when I know them well enough, they reveal the story to me.
I knew that I wanted to tell a story of an older man and a younger woman that have a bond and a relationship that’s not at all sexual or objectified or physicalized. But other than that, I wasn’t exactly sure. I didn’t go into it thinking the Matt character is like this and the Anna character is like that. They had to reveal themselves to me through the process.
And the more of those crazy, whatever, parking lot, Olive Garden conversations you write, then you know the characters well enough and the story starts to show itself. So once I complete those writing exercises, when I get into actually telling the story, like my first draft of a screenplay is usually pretty close to my last draft, because of that.
I did not go to film school, and I did not study writing, so I don’t know—speaking of No Film School—so I don’t know how to do it any other way. That’s just the organic way that I started engaging with that stuff.
NFS: So does that mean you end up with a bunch of individual scenes? Or do you end up with a draft that’s massive and you cut it down? I’m interested in how that works for you.
Beckwith: Generally, I’ll start writing… The very first thing I wrote was the interview scene, no matter what, and then I just keep writing and keep writing. And so, it’s like, I get let into the story, and then it might be like a lot of Anna watching TV, Anna on the road with her mom, Anna at work, waiting on customers. Ed reading books, dealing with his brother, or doing this. And then I’ll write 100 pages of that. Just from beginning to end.
There will, of course, be certain things, like the interview, or there will be scenes between them when I start getting to know them well enough, that make the grade or whatever. But generally, I then open a new document and then start again from scratch. But then I’m like, “Okay, now I’m writing the film.”
I tend not to go back and reference the first thing. I just think like, “If it’s a gem, it’s still in there and wants to come out.” And if I’m forgetting it, then I’m forgetting it, and its purpose was to help me get to know them, not tell the story. And so, then I just start from the beginning again and go.
NFS: That’s so interesting. I love that process. I’m glad that it works for you, because a lot of people are so particular. “I have to do this, and then this.” That seems like it’s an easy and organic way to get the story out.
Beckwith: Yeah, I remember when I wrote Stockholm [Pennsylvania], I was adapting it from a play. And I’d never written a screenplay before. So I went out and got that Syd Field book, [The Foundations of Screenwriting]. And I sat down. I was reading it and I kept making notes in the margin. It was like, question mark, question mark. I’m like, “This is dumb.” And then I noticed all of my notes were that. And so, I got to a certain point, and I’m like, “Why am I still reading this?”
Then I just put it down and was like, “Okay, I’m just going to go.” And so, then I wrote 150 pages […], and then realized like, cool, but like nothing’s happened yet. And so then I started a new draft. And I didn’t think of it as my process at the time, but it was. That’s kind of stuck around as the way I get into a story.
It’s time-consuming. I’m sure outlining would take less time and be more efficient, but that’s not the way I roll. In both of the movies I’ve made, the inciting incident happens on the first page. I’m not a super structure person, I’m a story person, so those kinds of rules don’t help me. It’s just trying to find those characters.
NFS: Shifting a little bit. I know that you have a background in acting, and I want to know how specifically that informs your process as a director, how that helps you.
Beckwith: My favorite part of directing is working with actors. I think it’s why character is the one thing I think about more than anything while I’m writing. I love to write for actors. I love actors. I love acting.
I remember watching Saoirse [Ronan] when we were doing Stockholm, Pennsylvania. And I was like, “That’s acting.” I don’t know what I was doing. I was just talking loud, and people were looking at me, but this is magic. And I have such massive respect and I’m awed by it. And I do think that my experience as an actor, I know what I wanted from text, from story, and from directors, and I had positive experiences and negative experiences with both those things.
And so, that definitely informs the way that I write and the way that I direct. When I’m on set, I’m just out of frame. I warned my DP, Frank Barrera, when we started shooting, I was like, “My shoulder will be touching your shoulder all day.” Because he also [camera] operated. So I was like, “I will be right up in your face.” And a lot of times I am just cut out of the frame and sitting at the table with them, when they’re doing the invitations for the baby shower. I’m lying on the floor next to Anna’s bed when she wakes up in the middle of the night with those pains. I’m right there.
Part of that is because I like to be quiet about my thoughts and notes and adjustments. I think of that as a private convo, a place where you’re going with the actors and helping to make that not a performance. Not everybody needs to hear what the adjustment is, in the way that we’re going back in for another take or something. Everyone should just [be] in the moment and feel it.
I think I also try to be pious to my actors. I’m not writing a lot of scenes where they’re out in the rain, crying or something. It’s like, we don’t need to get you wet. I’m very actor-friendly and always want to know what they have to say, what they think, what feels natural. I block a scene based on what they want to do.
It’s like, “Okay. So if we’re sitting over here, just read through it and show me what you naturally want to be doing with your body in relation to their person. Do you want to be across the room from them? Do you want to sit down next to them? Are you pacing? Are you getting up? What are you doing?” Just to see that naturally. And then they’ll go off to hair and makeup or whatever. And then Frank and I would deal with that, and just be like, “Okay, that means that we should light here and here. And we’ll do this. ” And I’ll edit it based on time and what we knew would work, like, “I guess they can’t actually walk into the kitchen and come back because we can’t follow them.” But as much as humanly possible, just making everything about the actor’s instincts.
NFS: I think that’s such a unique way to come at it and just good advice overall. I did read an interview with Frank, your DP, where he talked about the shoot being very, very short. I wanted to ask generally about the challenges of the project. I might be getting ahead of myself about that being one of them.
Beckwith: Of course, that was one of them. We shot the bulk of the film in 17 days. We shot in LA. And then after that, we shot a day-and-a-half of exteriors in San Francisco, but the only real conversation, the only real deep scene that happened was after the maternity store, chasing her down the street. And then otherwise, it was like the—I used to go to couples therapy with my ex, and then on the bench, holding hands. So those are really all my talking scenes that we had outside.
And so, it was, most of the movie basically shot in 17 days, which is fast. I mean, it’s helpful that it’s primarily two people, but this was also more locations than I’ve ever done before, so that was interesting. And of course, we were shooting day-for-night, night-for-day. So Frank and his team and the gaffers, Chris [Tonkovich], the gaffer, just like incredible at working so fast and so beautifully.
Obviously, it’s very stressful to be shooting five pages. Like the scene where, “I think you’ve seen too many Woody Allen movies,” that was just straight five pages of dialogue. Obviously, it’s edited down, but that scene alone was five pages. And then we had other things to shoot that day. And so, shooting seven pages, 11 pages in a day, but I shot Stockholm in 18 days. I’m used to that, but Stockholm also had less characters and less locations. So this was like a whole new thing.
But there is also something about when you are operating in that crunch altogether as this unit, where it’s like costume, props, grips, gaffers. Everybody’s operating so intensely, and it really is kind of like all hands on deck. It’s like, “If I don’t have anything to do, what can I be doing to make your job easier?”
I don’t have a chair when I’m on set. I don’t sit down. It’s like if I can be making someone’s life easier, I’d be doing that. There’s also a real comradery that develops in those circumstances. It’s kind of like, yes, if you’re all a crew on a ship and you’re sailing from one place to the next, of course, you’re going to bond and like each other and have private jokes by the end. But if that ship is in choppy waters, and you’re manning it through a storm the entire time, that bonding and that connection and that depending on each other and showing up for each other happens really intensely, very quickly. You’ve really been through something together, so that’s kind of… It’s not all bad.
And finding locations in Los Angeles, like architecture in Los Angeles, that played for San Francisco was also challenging and interesting, but we did it. We found that beautiful house. Our production designer found that beautiful house we shot Matt in. And the locations manager found that really cool exterior of Anna’s apartment, which was actually married to the interior, which was very San Franciscan, and the windows opening vertically instead of horizontally. LA loves the horizontal window. We don’t get it. So things like that. So that was also a challenge.
But again, everybody’s incredible. The belly is also really intense to be swapping out. You’re shooting really quickly, but then from one scene to the next, it’s like, “Okay, she’s three months pregnant in this scene, but we’re in the same location. And now she’s eight months pregnant, and then we’re shooting a night scene.” So we actually have to go back to her being five months pregnant, and that takes—so it’s not as quick as just getting out of hair and makeup. It’s like a whole belly swap. So that was a lot too, but it was good.
I think it was a really nice set. It was a fun set, and I love the crew. The cast and crew were just amazing. So the challenges of indie film, like that are pretty quickly—you’re all stressed and you’re all challenged, but it pretty quickly gets smoothed over like a balm, with everybody being present and open and game and in it for the story.
When you’re making movies like that, you’re not in it for the money. Nobody is like, “Yeah, I’ve made a billion dollars doing this.” You’re doing it because you want to be there and you like the story, you like the people you’re working with.
NFS: To go more into working with the DP. For someone who’s self-taught like you, what do you think is the best way to communicate your vision, maybe to a DP that you haven’t worked with before?
Beckwith: I just do a lookbook, pretty soon after I finish a script. I put together the tone, the images. I’ll just spend hours and hours looking on the internet for images to pull. I generally have a pretty extensive book of photographs, famous or otherwise, well-known or otherwise, stills from other movies. And then also just like, the Internet’s crazy. There’s family photos on there, people’s personal pictures, and you can pull from that too. It’s just like, “This is cool.” So that really helped get that conversation going, because you are kind of just plugging them into your brain. And then Frank comes with images and stuff, and you start talking that way. And then we watched a couple movies together, specifically for camera movement or lack thereof, and talked about them as we were watching them.
And then we started shot-listing, and that’s also a really intense way to get to know each other. I think we shot-listed the whole movie in two days, three days, or something. It was very, very quick, because again, you just don’t have any time. So it’s like long hours with someone, shoulder-to-shoulder, talking about like, “Well, we could do it this way, or we could do it that way.” And drawing things out on paper. And you really do mind-meld, and you continue mind-melding through the whole process, until you’re Abbott and Costello by the end, like Laverne and Shirley by the end of the shoot. But yeah, I just pull images and talk about textures and feelings.
NFS: You have said so much here that’s already amazing advice, but is there any other advice you would give to a self-taught or up-and-coming director?
Beckwith: I don’t know, I feel like I’m bad with advice, just because I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know. Just keep going. Yeah. I have no idea. To work with people that you trust, that’s a big deal. I remember when I was going around with my first film script and stuff, it didn’t occur to me—I felt like I was applying for a job, when I was meeting with producers, where it was just like, “Please, want to make this movie!”
And it didn’t occur to me that I should also be thinking to myself, “Can I make a movie with these people? Do we gel? Is there a sense of togetherness there or something?” And I didn’t. I learned it the hard way. And so, now I understand the importance of working with people that you trust and understand and who you feel understood by.
Anthony Brandonisio was on my first movie and quickly became a very trusted person out of the mix. And so he was the first person I sent the script to, where it’s like, “Let’s just cut out the middle man and make movies. I really trust what you’re doing.” So it is that.
I think it’s so hard to get a movie made, that it’s really easy to just be like, “I’ll take it, I’ll do it. I’ll do anything to make this movie.” And you feel like there’s pressure there or something to seal the deal or get it sold. And of course, there’s some of that, but you should also be knowing, as much you’re applying for the job of being the person whose movie they’re going to make, they’re also applying for the job of being the person you’re going to collaborate with. I guess I wished I had thought about that more when I was first cutting my teeth out there.
NFS: Is there anything you wanted to add I didn’t talk about?
Beckwith: I think I learned how to be a director on the set of my first film. So also, trusting yourself is important. And I think one of the only ways that I was able to do that was because I never pretended that I knew something I didn’t know. I felt confident being like, “I’ve never done this before. The nine-year-old actor has more set experience than me. Thank you for trusting me and coming along on this. But also, let me know if I’m in your way.”
And I think there’s also pressure to come across like I have all the answers or something. And I think especially when you’re self-taught, you have to have room to learn. And it’s so much easier to learn when you’re not pretending you know it already, for the sake of whatever. So I think that’s also valuable, and I think it creates deeper—for me anyway, it created a deeper collaboration with the people on the ground I was making my first movie with, for sure. The camera department and the lighting and the costume, we were all just on the same page. So I don’t know. Maybe that.