June 2024

Screened | Christy Hall

Behind The Camera With Daddio Writer-Director Christy Hall

Photos Martin Rusch | Words Tamara Rappa

New York City based playwright Christy Hall, who moved to Los Angeles seven years ago when her original stage play Daddio was honored in The Black List top 3, is having a pivotal year. Now a buzzy new film fresh off the festival circuit, Daddio stars Sean Penn and Dakota Johnson and hits theaters today. Deadline calls it a breakthrough first film; Variety, who named Hall one of 10 Screenwriters to Watch in 2018 celebrates the artist's storytelling as 'deeply riveting', and in his recent review, Roger Ebert marvels at her 'mastery', highlighting the writer-director's extreme skill for both filming her own material and for filming entirely within the confines of a car. The movie takes place during a cab ride from JFK to Manhattan, and is a study of the kind of conversation that can happen between two vulnerable strangers in a "cosmically profound way', as Hall describes it. It's a cinematic exploration of the relationship between a young woman and a taxi driver who engage in an unexpectedly honest conversation, and we were particularly taken by Hall's luscious layers of dialogue, in part between a character never even seen on screen---but on that piece of tech that's changed human connection forever---the Iphone. Story + Rain sat down with Hall, who discusses what was required, technically, to capture all that emotion, expression, and the film's third key character: the city. Here, she opens up about the origins for film's elegant exploration---a barroom observation of the sexes along with some soul-searching that lead her to discover that it was the HBO reality series Taxicab Confessions that subconsciously sparked her story. At its core, Daddio points out the old versus the new and the gains and losses experienced in modern society. For Hall, up next this summer is It Ends With Us starring Blake Lively, Justin Baldoni, Jenny Slate, and Hasan Minaj, for which she took on the titanic task of adapting Colleen Hoover's beloved book and also serves as one of the film's eleven producers. We went deep on Daddio, discussed one very loaded label, life as a playwright, and more.

Daddio was inspired, in part, by the brilliant old HBO series, Taxicab Confessions. How did Taxicab Confessions make you feel at the time that you watched it? That's a great question. It subconsciously inspired Daddio. I've done some soul searching and have been able to pinpoint that. Undeniably, it had to had to have inspired it. I grew up in a very small town in Oklahoma, without the internet, without a phone in my pocket. I wasn't too exposed to the global world.  I wasn't exposed to much outside of this very small speck on the map. I was probably too young to be watching it, but I was utterly fascinated by it. When you grow up in really small places, big cities like New York almost don't feel like real places; they feel like something out of the movies. It's hard to wrap your brain around what it's like when you haven't really been to a big place before. I was purely fascinated. It was kind of my first exposure to a bigger city. What I love about Taxicab Confessions is how the show was only possible because it captured a quintessential experience that already existed. The show could not have worked if it wasn't already embedded in the culture and landscape of New York: the bearing of your soul to your cabbie. The show only worked because they were banking on what people were already doing. The people didn't know that they were on camera and being recorded until after they were dropped off, after they had said all the things. Then of course they had to sign a waiver, and choose to be part of the show. I'm sure there were a lot of people who chose not to sign that waiver. [Laughs].

Would anyone even sign that kind of a waiver, today?! That's really interesting, isn't it? A lot of the confessions were, in some ways, the things that are spoken about in my movie. There were a lot of extremes on that show. That's what I loved about it. There were a lot of things that were said in the cab that were pretty cutting edge, and in terms of HBO. It captured a very real and raw reality that existed in New York. At the time I didn't realize that Taxicab Confessions had been so informative, but I realize now that had It had to have been, because when I moved to New York many years later, I continued to be really fascinated by that experience. It's very different than taking an Uber. When riding in an Uber, they know your name. A lot of times they already have your address programmed into their phone. It's more vulnerable. Sometimes you're actually in someone's personal car. I feel like the people who know what that experience was like, really, really go on the ride when they watch Daddio. Anyone who's a little trepidatious about giving themselves over to the makes me wonder whether they're comparing it to Uber. It's very much not the same thing, and it's a love letter, not only to New York, but also to the quintessential experience that is struggle. I was living in New York when Uber was in its beta stage, and I was having conversations at dinner parties or bars with New Yorkers who were saying, 'You know what? This thing might take the place of having to call a car service at three in the morning when you're at a party that went too long...Maybe this will replace car services.'  I remember people saying that Uber would never replace lifting out your hand to wave down a cab---but it has. This movie is a very purposeful time capsule of sorts. I want people decades from now and in generations to come, to know that this used to be a really beautiful and cherished part of New York City...these little confessionals on wheels. I think we're going lose something extremely special if and why they do go away.

What was the most important theme you wanted to convey in this film that consists of a conversational exchange between two people during a car ride?  The theme I'm playing with is old versus new. This is a multigenerational story. Our cabbie is supposed to be representative of all that is analog and all that is old guard. [Our passenger] represents the modern world pressing in. It was purposeful to have it be a multigenerational story where these two very unlikely people strike up a conversation and create a sphere of non-judgment, one in which they're able to actually have a real human connection during this time of now, when we're so terrified of one another. Our cabbie talks about being like Blockbuster Video... It's old versus new. I'm asking the question, what do we gain from the modern world, and what are we losing? The title for the film itself is supposed to reflect that; something old meaning something new. It reflects a theme and the characters themselves. Other themes I'm playing with are fatherhood, and I'm, very unapologetically, dissecting the idea of 'daddy issues'. Subconsciously, it was Taxicab Confessions; consciously, I started to put Daddio together in my head when I was at a bar in New York and this guy was kind of flirting with me. There was a woman there, probably in her late 20s, and you could tell she went to the bar to get some attention. The guy flirting with me kind of nodded his head toward her, and as if she was the butt of a joke, he rolled his eyes and smirked, and said 'Daddy issues'. I remember thinking...maybe? And if so, there's nothing fucking funny about that. I started to think about my own daddy issues. It made me  start thinking about the fact that we've created this 'daddy issues' joke, but haven't had an intelligent conversation around it. I've never seen a movie that has talked about the topic but not made fun of it. And by the way, Sean Penn's character, the cabbie, he has daddy issues too. In the end he touches on it and says, 'That's a whole other cab ride' He is like my dad, who has his own dad stuff, too. The idea is not just relegated to the world of women. I wanted to be bold and brave enough in attempting to talk about it. It's just the tip of the iceberg, but I want it to at least be one piece of art out there that discusses it.

Technically, what was required in terms of being able to beautifully capture emotion and expression from front seat to back seat, driver to passenger?  It's so funny because when it was just words on a page, it was like...this is gonna be easy. It's going to be super producible. It was actually highly, highly complicated in it's simplicity. As a filmmaker, I thought, we could just old-school trailer them, just hook the cab to a trailer and drag them from JFK to Hell's Kitchen, and see what we get. I really wanted to protect the performances...and that would have meant all night shoots for the cast and crew; continuity would have been an issue because that's a very distinctive drive. You appreciate this as an actual New Yorker: when you leave JFK, it's very industrial, and then you get on 495 and it opens up, there are more lights the closer you get to Manhattan. I wanted the drive itself to feel like its own character. The more that is unveiled in the cab, the closer and closer they get to this epicenter of illumination. More and more light is part of the texture of the subtext of what's going on. Trailering them not only would have been really grueling, but it would've been more difficult for me and our incredible DP, Phedon Papamichael, to be able to be very specific and distinctive about what we wanted to capture on screen, or not. Then I thought, on a sound stage, we'll have to use blue or green screen, and that would've completely bloated our budget by millions and millions of dollars. For almost every single frame, you're laying in the backdrop. You can do that for gigantic $200 million. Studio super-movies. I think it would've actually made Daddio un-producible, and also, I don't know if it would've looked as good. You would've had to roto around their hair; their light isn't actually shining through their strands of hair. So I started doing research, early on. Theater taught me that. A director prepares, especially if you don't have a lot of time and a lot of money. You want to be extremely responsible about how you pull it off. I started with The Mandalorian...the Disney version, right? They have this huge, almost snow globe, 180 degrees, of what they call a volume stage. They basically design what is being projected on this kind of globe and they can create all measure of landscapes. That's the very high end of what can be done. I thought, what is the more cost effective version? We went with LED panels. The best way I can describe them is, imagine taking a bunch of iPads and putting them together to make one gigantic iPad that then you can move around. Then what we did is, with nine cameras we shot the drive from JFK to Hell's Kitchen twice. Then, on a sound stage, we surrounded the cab with the LED panels that were projecting the drive. What happens is that foreground and background are both being filtered through the lens. We use these beautiful anamorphic lenses that were de-tuned to give more of a vintage effect. It's all filtering into all that information's that's being captured at the same time. It gives an illusion of reality, which is just incredible. I would be at the monitor, Phedon would be at the monitor, and we could see, in real time, what it was actually going look like. Not only that, it also gave an immersive experience to our performers. Dakota would look out the window, and see actual cars passing by. When we got to New York, there was this moment when Sean said he was nervous that he was going to hit some of the pedestrians. When he was driving, he's actually moving the wheel with the road because he can actually see where it is. The soft light engaged with the environment, and Phedon was able to hit hard light with it as well. If a car drives by, Phedon could hit Sean Penn's character's face with red light, as if it was the taillights. Layered and textured.

The text exchange between Dakota Johnson’s character and her lover felt so intimate and authentic. I was overwhelmed, in the best way, by that sub-story. How did you find those voices? I'm a playwright by trade. I come from the theater world. If it's a live piece of theater, you don't have a lot to hide behind. You live or die by your character development and your dialogue. Most of the plays I've written, most that exist, typically take place in one location or it's three people on stage talking to one another. Character and dialogue are kind of my bread and butter. It's really important for me to create characters who feel very distinctive. Because we never meet him, I wanted to give him some character traits. I like that. This is a man who texts by rapid-machine gunfire, but this is also a man who doesn't like to make mistakes. That's why I always have him correcting himself.  I wanted to give him a personality. I love dialogue. I love words. Everyone is word-perfect in this movie; even the text, even what looked like mistakes, or when he says, 'Marlon's going to sleep' and there's an extra 'M' next to the comma...all of that. I come from the theater world where you don't bastardize what's on the page. You actually deliver it. I have to say that my cast, Dakota and Sean, they deliver every single word masterfully. I'm so grateful to them, grateful that they really sunk their teeth into the material, and with respect and love. It was a total love fest, and I'm very grateful to them for that.

Were these characters based on anyone you know or have interacted with? Were they pure invention?
It's not autobiographical, but it does feel personal. I feel like it's a playwright's job, an artist's job, a storyteller's job---to really meditate on society at large. Where we are, where we've been, where we're going. Thank you for that compliment by the way, I'm so glad that you really responded to those text sections, because I really wanted them to very authentically represent what I feel most people have experienced: how sex manifests on a phone, and the secrets we keep locked away on our phones and within our threads. I want people to feel like even though they're not these specific people, with non-judgment and love and compassion, can we all just have a very grown up conversation again? The themes of old and new and how technology has shifted the landscape of how we engage with one another is really important for me. It's inspired by the truth in experiences I've had and that my friends have had. You get locked in conversations and you realize, there's actually nothing very unique about this. It's pretty prevalent. What I'm really proud of is, I want to be the kind of artist who actually has something to say. Yes, this exists, but no one wants to talk about it because it's uncomfortable. I think it's okay for art to be comfortable as long as, and I'm not out to preach or teach. We hold up a mirror to society so we can have really meaningful conversations about the reality of where we are. That's the artist's job.

What did you discover about this piece of work once it was complete? Where did you start with it, and what were you able to uncover about it after its creation?
I have been so charmed and delighted by the fact that men have really embraced this movie. When we were at the festivals I was really floored by and caught up in these incredible conversations with people who have different takeaways.  I didn't know how much men would love it. They've received it with open arms, and even allowed it to be a piece of art that moves them and challenges them. I got locked in a conversation with a complete stranger after TIFF, with a grown man literally crying. He came up to me to tell me that watching Daddio made him decide that he wants be a better person. As an artist I believe that stories can change lives, save lives, shape culture. I'm very grateful that Daddio is speaking to a wide range of humanity. I didn't know whether men would feel attacked by it or not. I don't know quite why I was presumptive about the response from men. I've been really lucky to meet women at Telluride who watched it with their husbands. They said, 'You made these grown men cry' but the men were tickled by it, you know? They were even tickled by it. One of their husbands had tears in his eyes, and he was like, 'I'm a father. I'm a dad. I know that these are realities'. And he said, 'Your movie just broke my heart, and in a good way'. I've been very happy to see that.

What does it take for a brief, chance encounter between two strangers to produce worthwhile revelations or life-changing moments? It requires that they both co-create a space of non-judgment. It just does, and from both sides, I love that [Dakota Johnson's character], is not afraid of [the cabbie], even though he's saying a lot of things. She stays in the cut in a way I find to be very empowering and exciting. She doesn't judge him, but he doesn't judge her either. She's saying these things to him and he is like, 'Oh, yeah, totally want some gum.' They co-create that for each other. This happens beyond New York City cabs. Now I'm hearing all these incredible stories, like people's encounters on trains in Germany...stories of remarkable human connection. It exists all over the world. I do think it also requires that each person be in a little bit of a vulnerable state. That can create a profound moment. We can say things to strangers because we're never going to see them again. It's the non-judgment and there's a desire, a need, a void that they each have and then fill in the most cosmically profound way. They're satiating a need within one another. Any other cab ride, any other person, any other time? They may never have had the conversation. It can happen when there's a spark. You look back and think, how in the world did that even happen?

Up next for you this summer, is the much-anticipated It Ends With Us. 
What was the biggest thrill and biggest challenge in adapting Colleen Hoover's bestselling book? The biggest challenge was that this book is very beloved. We had to get it right. Adapting a novel into a screenplay is difficult because you want to preserve as much as you can, but then, structurally, a novel is very different than a screenplay. A screenplay has a three-act structure. For a film, you've got a couple of hours to tell the story so you really have to be very thoughtful about what you're preserving, and very thoughtful about what you're massaging and adjusting. Early on, when I raised my hand for this, I told Colleen that my intention is that when people watch this movie, even if there are certain things we need to massage or change in order to serve the three-act structure, any change I make, will only be made with respect, and with the goal that when people watch the movie they have the feeling they had when they read the book. Even if they recognize that a scene didn't exist in the book, it still feels like the book. I absolutely love Colleen Hoover. I think she has done a remarkable thing. The only reason all of us have surrounded this project is because she's done something really undeniable and very brave and bold. She had the courage to tell a story, to open it up, to dissect something that, in society, we don't really want to talk about. And I believe her book has absolutely saved lives. I think the movie will continue to carry the torch for what she's created. I'm very proud to be a part of it, and as producer as well.

hair john d | makeup mai quynh

"I'm obsessed with this thing called The Class. There's this idea that trauma hides in the body, it causes aches and pains that we don't fully understand, and it also causes us to disassociate and to cease to be in the present moment. Through movement, and yes, it's an exercise class, but through movement and through breath work, it invites you to locate and release some of those tensions and those traumas that you've hidden in certain places in your body.  The invitation is to continue breathing and not leave your body through the practice of the class, so you can then bring it into your everyday life. I have found it to be transformative."

"Can I geek out about Hadestown? I am obsessed with Hadestown. Anaïs Mitchell who wrote it, is this American folk singer-songwriter, and originally wrote it as this concept album that she was peddling around in small venues. Then, a musical theater producer who was in one of her audiences heard it and approached her to develop it for the stage. It is purely profound...oppression, industry, climate change...I've seen it twice. I have bawled both times. I find it to be a masterpiece. "

"The Golden Secrets is a skincare line by a woman by the name of Jesse Golden. She's a mom, she's a wife, she's a yoga teacher. She's a leader in health and fitness. She is deeply inspiring, and she's created this skincare line that I just discovered a few months ago. It makes you feel like a  glowing goddess. It's really beautiful stuff. She's very specific about like the ingredients she uses. She doesn't believe in retinols. And he's just a badass."

"The Courage to Be Disliked takes pretty heady psychology and it makes it more digestible, by making it more of a philosophical conversation. The whole book is kind of done like a play, a dialogue between two characters.  Back in ancient Greece, that's the way people were taught...through having these philosophical debates about really heady material; it's a teaching tool. I've found the fact that it's mirrored in the book to be really interesting. Reading it has opened my brain to another way of seeing the world. I feel like every person should read this book."

"I have wide feet and I have to be very thoughtful about my shoes. Especially as a New Yorker, when you walk ten miles a day and a lot of shoes are not made for people with wide feet.  Inez shoes are beautifully crafted, and you can choose different widths like Roomy, which I love. I have their red suede pumps, I have their black leather pumps."

"I am obsessed with my dog. Her name is Mantequilla, which means butter in Spanish. We call her her Mante for short. M-A-N-T-E. To anyone who feels like they want a dog or are feeling pulled in that way, I just have to say, go for it, because I was trepidacious about it, and she has absolutely torn down the walls around my heart. She's made me brave with love. I have never felt anything like this in my life."

Daddio written and directed by Christy Hall.