Interview – ‘Spoiler Alert’ director Michael Showalter on earning the audiences laughs and tears

Based on Michael Ausiello’s best-selling memoir, Spoiler Alert is a heart-warming, funny, and life-affirming story that follows the 14-year love affair between entertainment journalist Michael (Jim Parsons) and his photographer partner, Kit (Ben Aldridge). Through Kit, Michael discovers the family he was robbed of as a child, from Kit’s small-town parents (Sally Field and Bill Irwin) to their extraordinary circle of Manhattan friends. And while Michael imagines his life unfolding like the plot of one of his favourite romantic comedies, even he can’t predict the twists and turns that will transform and deepen their relationship.

Leading up to the films Australian release on February 9, I was lucky enough to chat with Spoiler Alert’s director, Michael Showalter (The Big Sick, The Eyes of Tammy Faye) about his relationship to comedy and drama, plus working with the real life Michael Ausiello to create the authentic feel on screen.

Nick: Mr. Showalter, I just want to start of by saying that I am genuinely a huge fan of your work. I own They Came Together and Wet Hot American Summer. They were formative comedies for me growing up and I try and show them to people all the time! So, talking to you today is a real privilege for me.

Michael Showalter: Ah, that’s really sweet. Thank you.

Nick: I wanted to kick off by looking at the title of Michael Ausiello’s book, and specifically it’s title: Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies. I’m curious to find out what you thought Michael and Kit’s most heroic traits were respectively, and how you wanted to convey that on screen?

Michael Showalter: I think what I love about them as characters, in the story and in general, is the idea that in life, incredibly tragic things occur. Life is very hard. And Michael, Jim Parsons’ character – and Kit [Ben Aldridge] as well – they’re dealing with really tragic, sad, difficult circumstances. I think what’s heroic is the way they deal with it. Their ability to see what is really important to them and what is really important to the people around them. And the way they handle it is through humour, and grace, and honesty. I think that’s something to aspire to.

Nick: Like you said, this a truly tragic story. But, even in that tragedy, there is still so much heart, joy and humour throughout the film. Given your background in both comedy and drama as a filmmaker, what do you find harder to pull off – making an audience laugh, or making an audience cry? And what is the most satisfying feeling when you do get it right?

Michael Showalter: That’s a great question. Um… they’re both hard. I think in both cases you need to earn it. You have to get the audience on your side and on your page. You need to lead them to whatever that is.

Obviously, this movie is a tear-jerker and there’s a lot of things about it that are really sad. But we didn’t just want to play the sad song and know that alone was going to get us the reaction. We really wanted the audience to feel like they know these characters, and that they were crying because they felt like they were losing Kit. Like they themselves were part of the story.

The easy way with movies is that you can use editing, or a song, or a close up, or a push in to elicit a response. But in both cases, I think it’s important to try and earn that laugh or earn those tears.

Nick: I think the scene that felt most powerful to me because of how the relationship was built up, and with that emotion earned, is the restaurant scene after Kit’s initial diagnosis. What you do as a filmmaker in that scene, with the use of silence and the taking of photos, was so powerful. Can you take me through that day on set, and how you prepare Ben and Jim for a scene that emotional?

Michael Showalter: Yeah, it’s a scene where Kit gets his diagnosis that he has stage four cancer, and that he’s going to have to start chemotherapy. It’s a complete shock for them. They’re not prepared for that at all. And after they go to the doctor, they go to Benny’s Burritos, which is a popular Mexican restaurant in New York City.

It’s an interesting scene because even though this massive thing happened in their life, you’re still in life. They’re ordering there regular food, asking each other what they’re going to have and Michael says to Kit: “you’re going to get what I always get you”. It’s a thing where everything’s changed, yet nothing has changed.

And in the book, it was an interesting choice to have them cope with what’s going on. In this very strange way, they are just taking photos of each other quite flirtatiously. But ultimately, it’s this really heartbreaking moment because they’re starting to confront the seriousness of this situation. So I felt like I wanted to tackle that moment and do it in a way that feels different. A scene where they’re not speaking, but still taking the photos of each other just felt like a really interesting way. And Jim and Ben are brilliant in that scene.

Nick: One of the aspects of Michael that I found interesting is how he uses fiction, mainly in this case television, as a coping mechanism with the trauma in his life. What role has fiction played in your life to help you cope with or understand something better?

Michael Showalter: I mean, I totally relate to that aspect of the story. Michael is a TV journalist. He grew up in New Jersey in the 1980s, and was going home after school everyday and watching TV. And that’s exactly the same with me. I grew up in New Jersey in the 80s, going home after school everyday and watching TV. So much of what I learnt and know about the world, I learned from watching TV.

And I think part of growing up is in a lot of ways unlearning and starting to actually make that distinction between the stories we see on television and in film, and then what is real life. Distinguishing how those two things are different.

I think this movie explores that Michael needed to make peace with reality, because for him, TV was an escape from reality. I like to think in my work, I kind of explore those two things – what stories in TV and movies tell us versus what really happens in real life. And often times, they’re not the same.

Thank you to Michael Showalter for his time to chat about his film, and to Universal Pictures for setting up our chat. Spoiler Alert is in cinemas February 9.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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