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Lucas

Director Craig Lucas discusses his Sundance film Birds of America and how Matthew Perry's constipation made him perfect for the film.

Though Craig Lucas began his career as an award-winning writer, authoring Tony-nominated plays including Prelude to a Kiss and The Light in the Piazza and the landmark gay film Longtime Companion, he has recently made inroads as a film director. His latest film, Birds in America, stars Matthew Perry, Ben Foster, and Ginnifer Goodwin as a trio of very dysfunctional siblings. It's set to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival -- which launched his directorial debut, The Dying Gaul, as well as The Secret Lives of Dentists, which he wrote the screenplay for.

You have a great record so far when it comes to getting into Sundance. Has it become old hat for you yet?

No! I'm not a very social person -- I mean, I'm not inept or anything, but I don't love big crowds. Movie people frighten me. [Laughs] So it's always a challenge in that way, but every time I've gone I see great movies that I might not have seen otherwise.

Having experienced it before, do you go in with a different plan of attack this time?

The only difference is that the last time I was there I was still drinking. That just brings out the worst in me -- I say unseemly things, I misbehave. Everything has gotten easier in my life since I stopped: I get along with people better, I don't take things so seriously, and I don't get angry. So I'm sure it will be more pleasant -- not only for me but for anyone coming into contact with me!

Tell me what I should know about the film that isn't in the Sundance guide's description.

Hmm. What do they say in the Sundance description?

It says, "Three siblings couldn't be more different or more neurotic, but when they find themselves converging at the family manse, they become surprisingly indispensable to one another."

Oh! There's a much better description out there.

Do you want to summarize it in your own words, then?

Well, that's not what I do. I'm not a publicist, I don't summarize. I'm not trying to be evasive, but I could go on for four hours about the movie, and I don't know if it's easily surmisable. In fact, I find that movies that can be described in a short blurb are often really boring. It's a meditative and very thoughtful script, which is why I wanted to do it. The behavior and family dynamic are very specific. I think most of us have grown sick of a certain kind of quirky, dysfunctional family where yuks and zingers abound. What I liked about this is it felt based in things that I had genuinely experienced and seen.

Tell me a bit about the fractured family at the center of the story.

It's three siblings -- the older one raised the two young ones after both of the parents died in quick succession when he was 17. He couldn't deal with it, so he's left behind this 11-year-old sister and 7-year-old brother. He feels ashamed that he didn't do a good job with them, because they are extremely boundaryless kids. Now one is in his 20s and one is in her early 30s, and they're both living on the edge. The brother lives in a ravine and is questionably mentally unstable...the sister lives in her car and takes glamour photos of transvestites. She's a chain-smoker who's not averse to taking pills and drinking.

This is a script that came to you -- you didn't write it yourself, unlike your last film, The Dying Gaul. What was it about it that first sparked a connection?

What excited me about the script is that when the three siblings come into the foyer of the older one's house, they don't touch. They kind of stand there and don't even go through the motions of hugging and kissing, which I found shocking and kind of emblematic about how it's hard to love our families. You don't choose them, and often they deserve to be beheaded! [Laughs] I think it's easier to accept friends and their difficulties. You can put as much distance between you and a friend as you want, but it's very difficult to impose distance on a family member. There's so much guilt and shame and obligation.

How did this project come to you?

I heard that they were looking for somebody last-minute -- they had just lost another director, and they had a "go" date and no director. I was hesitant to step into that situation, but I looked at the work of the cinematographer, and the actors already hired were people that I admired, like Ben Foster, Hilary Swank, and Matthew Perry. Then they let me cast the rest of it, so they let me cast Gary Wilmes, and they let me cast Daniel Eric Gold -- an actor who I don't think is as heralded as he someday will be -- and they let me cast Ginny Goodwin and Lauren Graham.

Is this a different side than we're used to seeing from those actors, especially Matthew Perry?

I like actors that do less, and I was attracted to Matthew in this part because he's so emotionally shut down. He's constipated physically, he hasn't had a shit in six weeks. I didn't think that was possible, but I called a bunch of doctors, and they said it most emphatically is! Nice, right? [Laughs] Part of normal life is being able to express yourself, and this is someone who will not give himself permission to express almost anything. His stomach gurgles throughout the picture as a result of it. So I thought this would be a real challenge -- and a good one -- for an actor who's good at expressing everything with his body and his face and his voice. He's a master at a certain kind of comedy, and I thought, This is like casting Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This is asking him to do something I'd never seen him do.

It seems like a departure for you as well.

I'd never done a comedy like this, and I certainly never directed one. I'd directed comedies in the theater, but I'd never done something that had this sort of Chekhovian tone. I was interested in that formally, and I wanted to try it. Everybody thinks all I can do is gay killers! [Laughs] The funny thing in the movie business is that you make something and everyone thinks that's all you're interested in. Every single studio called me with every dying-person picture they had. It can be a trap. I'm not interested in that. Next I'd like to do something absolutely different, like an out-and-out comedy. A free-spirited comedy, since the comedy in this film is based on awkwardness, an inability to find the right means to love. It's not a gross-out comedy, it's not an absurdist comedy. I'm just so sick of all of that. This is about grown-ups in trouble, and that's what interested me.

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Kyle Buchanan