EXCLUSIVE: In a filmmaking strategy that must have given her a sense of déjà vu when she watched the recent Emmy Awards to see cameras in the home of every nominee, Stephanie Laing has managed to direct Shoot the Rooster, an indie feature based on loss in her own life that she co-wrote with Brad Morris. She accomplished the mission by sending around 23 cameras to the homes of her cast so that they could set up the scenes under her direction and shoot safely as COVID-19 shut down the business. The shoot covered five states and the drama stars Henry Winkler, Margo Martindale, Elsie Fisher, Judy Greer, June Squibb, Casey Wilson, Tim Simons, Sam Richardson, Scott MacArthur, Ann Dowd, Zoe Chao and Billy Magnussen.
The story centers on a family matriarch (Squibb) who wants to reunite her family before she passes. Laing, who produced the film with Alex Saks and Peter Odiorne, wrote it as a love letter to her family, to the South, and to small-town main street America. In a moment where over 200,000 Americans have perished from coronavirus and over 1 million worldwide, a story specific to her life turns out to have a universality, as countless families had to say goodbye to loved ones they were unable to get close to for fear of contagion.
How did all this come about?
“Unique times call for unique approaches,” said Laing, who told her tale to Deadline. “The script was inspired by my family. I grew up in a really small town in North Carolina called Spring Hope, which we joked is a one-stop-sign town. We have a family farm there that has been in my family for generations and generations, complete with a family graveyard that frankly scared the hell out of me. A couple of years ago I wrote this with Brad Morris, based on me taking my kids to the farm when my grandmother was dying. She was 90 and we spent a week with her at the farm and it struck me how different we were as a family, how different I was compared to my cousins in this quite large family. I’d initially written this story about saying goodbye to the matriarch of the family and are we going to come back together as a family, and how will this affect us.”
Laing put the script down because she was too busy directing TV shows, but it took on extra resonance last Thanksgiving.
“Mother was in L.A. and I was in New York and…she died suddenly,” Laing said. “And [we said goodbye] over FaceTime. Literally, as we were sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner, they called. There was no way I could be with her. After, I had this experience of running the streets of West Broadway and when someone asked me why, I thought maybe it was a reaction to not being able to control something. FaceTime-ing with her while she was dying, that was an incredibly difficult set of circumstances to go through. It was harder than I thought it would be, losing her and not being there.
Laing was directing for Paramount Television and HBO Max the series Made For Love when the pandemic brought everything to a screeching halt and suddenly she had time for the script, if only there was a way to shoot it.
“When the pandemic hit, like everybody…I ordered the power washer, the battery-operated leaf blower, I’m power-washing my deck and feeling like I am losing my mind. What I really wanted to do was tell a story. My manager said, why don’t you just take Spring Hope, which is now Shoot the Rooster, pull it apart, put your mother in there, and see if you can pull it off. It was exciting to me to be able to use that part of my brain again, to be a storyteller. I felt like, I can do this. And now that so many people have died, without their families able to be by their side, I felt very connected to them in a way where I could tell a story, make people laugh and feel something.”
In the reconstructed tale, there is no mention of pandemic. A matriarch’s family can’t be with her because they are scattered all over the world. It did not take long at all for the movie to become reality.
“Honestly, the movie came together, from the idea of doing it this way to finishing it, in less than eight weeks,” Laing said. “It’s entirely shot remotely, using every form we use to communicate with our families. For me it’s how families communicate and not about COVID really at all, but rather about the nature of dying.
“I felt like people would want to work, and I tested the waters,” she said. “I brought in a lot of wonderful producers, got the money and called Sherry Thomas, a casting agent who’s a close friend and said, ‘I have this crazy idea…’ and she said, ‘I don’t think it’s crazy at all and that was the reaction I got. When Henry Winkler became one of the first people to sign on, I knew I was onto something, and then they piled on fast.”
How to shoot a movie whose cast is isolated and spread out all over the place?
“We sent remote packages to every actor,” Laing said. “Wherever they were in the world. Sometimes they had two cameras, and sometimes three. And I directed remotely, from my living room, me surrounded by my three children and two dogs. We sent out over 23 cameras, and we walked them through the shots. Henry Winkler sets up a beautiful frame, and so does Margo Martindale. We used iPhones with Filmic Pro on them and I could see all the shots, like I was in the room. It felt very intimate. You could be very present as a director and I got some of the most beautiful stuff I’ve ever directed.”
With so many cameras around, the movie has a feeling of scope and scale that could not have been accomplished by compiling Zoom call footage, another technique filmmakers have used to compensate for an inability to gather actors in a room. Actors shot outside their homes, and there is an RV trip, with footage shot all over the place.
“We had traditional coverage in some cases, and beautiful wide shots,” Laing said.
“Me being in my living room with three children and two dogs,” she joked. “Honestly, you want to run through the scenes in person but we managed to talk stuff through. The hardest part was not being there in person, but in some ways it was a gift, just to be able to do this with these kings and queens of comedies and dramas. Sometimes, we would have to reboot a phone, but overall it was surprisingly smooth, our technician and our DP were amazing. Once we did the first scene, we knew. And formed our own little film family.”
Patrick Somerville, David Eisenberg, Jonathan Tropper, Larry Swets Jr. and Dori Rath are executive producers.
Laing is repped by Artists First, CAA and David Fox.