A joyous gift

Michael Mayer on Single All The Way, filming during the pandemic, and remembering Joan Didion

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Philemon Chambers, Jennifer Coolidge and Michael Urie in Michael Mayer’s holiday treat Single All The Way (a Netflix release)
Philemon Chambers, Jennifer Coolidge and Michael Urie in Michael Mayer’s holiday treat Single All The Way (a Netflix release)

Michael Mayer’s joyous Single All The Way, screenplay by Chad Hodge, costumes by Véronique Marchessault (Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces Of A Woman, starring Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf), music by Anton Sanko (Mikhaël HersAmanda and with Nico Muhly, Michael Mayer’s The Seagull), stars Michael Urie and Philemon Chambers with Kathy Najimy, Barry Bostwick, Jennifer Coolidge, Jennifer Robertson, Alexandra Beaton, Madison Brydges, Luke Macfarlane, Gryffin Hanvelt, Viggo Hanvelt, Melanie Leishman, Stefano DiMatteo, Steve Lund, and Dan Finnerty.

Michael Mayer with Anne-Katrin Titze on having Michael Urie, Jennifer Coolidge, Kathy Najimy, Barry Bostwick for Single All The Way: “It was just one fantastic delicious cast member after another.”
Michael Mayer with Anne-Katrin Titze on having Michael Urie, Jennifer Coolidge, Kathy Najimy, Barry Bostwick for Single All The Way: “It was just one fantastic delicious cast member after another.”

On the day (December 23, 2021) the great Joan Didion died at the age of 87 in her Manhattan apartment, Michael Mayer and I remembered her, we discussed the many challenges of filming a feature in 2021, and the difficulty in keeping Broadway theatres open to the public during a pandemic.

Single All The Way is the story of a weary, yet hopeful Peter (Michael Urie), who lives in Los Angeles, where he has a social media job that starts to get on his nerves. He shares an apartment with his best friend TaskRabbit man for everything Nick (Philemon Chambers) and his dog Emmett (star of Nick’s popular children’s book Saving Emmett) and a number of named houseplants (chronicled @MrHausPlant). Christmas is fast approaching and Peter’s large family in small-town New Hampshire wish for nothing more than a stable boyfriend for him, someone he could bring home for the holidays.

Heart surgeon Tim (Steve Lund) seems to be just the guy at first - until he isn’t. Peter convinces Nick on short notice to fly East with him instead, and maybe pretend that their relationship has grown from platonic into something more, as the family loves him already. The turmoil created by his holiday-, as well as matchmaking-obsessed mother, Carole (Kathy Najimy), an understanding father (Barry Bostwick) and the chaos surrounding Aunt Sandy (Jennifer Coolidge) and her wildly unusual Christmas pageant are part of their annual rituals. Peter’s sisters, their husbands, and his nephews and nieces, Kevin, the singing Snow Plow Man (Dan Finnerty) and James (Luke Macfarlane), the handsome blind date fitness trainer and ski instructor keep the celebratory mayhem going in Single All The Way.

Kathy Najimy is Christmas Carole aka Sleigh Queen
Kathy Najimy is Christmas Carole aka Sleigh Queen

Between reimagining his social media shaving foam campaign for work, the dream to move back to his hometown to open a plant store, and the realization that his single days may finally be over, Peter is surrounded by a lot of well-meaning people, each with their own agenda.

From Berkeley, California, Michael Mayer joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Single All The Way.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Michael hi!

Michael Mayer: Oh my gosh, I haven’t seen you in so long!

AKT: That’s true! How are you?

MM: I’m okay, surviving the crazy.

AKT: It’s insane again.

MM: At least this time the virus is not killing people.

AKT: Broadway - one show cancelling performances after another.

Peter’s (Michael Urie) mother Carole (Kathy Najimy) introducing James (Luke Macfarlane)
Peter’s (Michael Urie) mother Carole (Kathy Najimy) introducing James (Luke Macfarlane)

MM: It’s truly terrible, but I think everybody’s really smart about it and we’re covering as well as we can and being incredibly cautious. We can’t have a lockdown again. We can’t shut it down. That would be crazy and I think lethal. I don’t know how we’d recover from that.

AKT: People are going nuts everywhere, that’s why a film like yours is such a positive! Because there’s nothing mean-spirited in it! And it’s sad really that it’s so rare. You have Tim [played by Steve Lund], maybe, who is the villain.

MM: But even he - what Michael Urie’s character says: “I don’t know what kind of journey you’re on!” He doesn’t even judge him. It’s kind of amazing, even out of his hurt and frustration and devastation, even he acknowledges he’s on some kind of journey. He’s not going to judge him, but he’s like “I hope you never do this to another person”. I think Chad Hodge did a really good job writing the moment.

AKT: Also that he is gone after that! We don’t need to hear anymore about this guy.

MM: You figure your shit out, Mister, and just leave me alone.

AKT: I checked, it was April 1st when you wrote me that you were filming in Quebec and Christmas seemed so far far away then.

Nick (Philemon Chambers) on one of his TaskRabbit jobs
Nick (Philemon Chambers) on one of his TaskRabbit jobs

MM: I’ll tell you, this thing fell into my lap. I got the offer, I read it and thought it was charming and in its way kind of revolutionary. Because gay Christmas romcom on Netflix, no one’s coming out of the closet, no one is suicidal, nobody has AIDS, nobody is tortured by their past, no one is trying to get over being rejected by their family!

AKT: No homophobic neighbours!

MM: There’s no homophobic community to deal with. It was the story I never saw growing up. We never saw ourselves in those stories, so I thought, yeah, this sounds great. After all these months of not working it felt like a gift doing something so joyous.

AKT: Michael Urie is a wonderful lead in this. Have you worked with him before?

MM: No, but I know him, we’re neighbours in the city and I’ve seen him in maybe not everything he’s done in New York, but almost everything. We have talked on numerous occasions about trying to find something to do together. It’s actually one of the things that really hooked me was that they said “here’s the script and Michael Urie is the lead.”

Michael Mayer on Aunt Sandy (Jennifer Coolidge) dressing as Glinda (Billie Burke) here with Dorothy (Judy Garland) in The Wizard Of Oz: “Which makes no sense, but it’s exactly what she would do. It’s just cracked enough an idea.”
Michael Mayer on Aunt Sandy (Jennifer Coolidge) dressing as Glinda (Billie Burke) here with Dorothy (Judy Garland) in The Wizard Of Oz: “Which makes no sense, but it’s exactly what she would do. It’s just cracked enough an idea.”

And I read it and I said: Who’s going to play the character that is described in the script as “like Jennifer Coolidge?” And they said “Jennifer Coolidge!” It was just one fantastic delicious cast member after another. We lucked out. And I suggested Kathy Najimy and she said yes, and Barry Bostwick and he said yes.

AKT: I loved the Christmas play within the film, it’s hilarious. Very original costumes!

MM: This costume designer, Véronique [Marchessault], is brilliant. We had such a great time with her. Halfway through the process I was thinking, what should the narrator wear? Jennifer [Coolidge] playing the narrator. I was like, what would be the gayest thing she could wear?

AKT: The Wizard Of Oz!

MM: She should be Glinda from The Wizard Of Oz. Which makes no sense, but it’s exactly what she would do. It’s just cracked enough an idea.

AKT: And those aviator glasses on the little boy who plays the donkey! It was written long before the pandemic, and there is the point that it doesn’t matter where you live, you can work from afar remotely, which is so topical right now.

MM: I know, it just happened that way. None of it was changed to reflect the pandemic. It was my burden, making a film, figuring out how to negotiate and navigate the staging of the scenes because everyone was in a different pod. So that was super challenging. Kind of a fun challenge but it’s hard when you’re doing a family with everyone in the same room and they have to be far apart.

Joan Didion went to the Midtown East Bumble and Bumble hair salon where I go
Joan Didion went to the Midtown East Bumble and Bumble hair salon where I go Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: How did that work? Tell me a bit about that!

MM: The Covid Officer on set was this lovely young woman, maybe she was 21 years old but she was for real! She had a one-meter stick and on each side was a tennis ball. She would hold it when the actors had their mask off. They were allowed within one meter of each other for exactly 15 minutes total each day. Each day!

She had her stopwatch going. So if we had a big family dinner scene we had to make a table that was large enough, that was one meter across. You’ll notice in that scene when you watch it, some people are in the kitchen, we made a little sitting room in the kitchen far away. And people can do passing action. That’s how we could shoot that scene because it’s a long scene with a lot of people. When Peter and Nick are in the wine store for instance, and they’re walking side-by-side pushing the carts, they actually are two meters apart and we used a long lens to make them look like they’re right next to each other.

AKT: I would never have guessed that.

MM: When Luke [Macfarlane] and Michael Urie are having their first date at the little coffee shop, again we had to seat them two meters apart so that we could do numerous takes. Same thing in the gondola. It looks so fake but we were in an actual gondola at a big ski mountain. Now when I watch it, it looks so fake, we could have done that on a soundstage.

Michael Mayer on Joan Didion: “Joan was a real chronicler of the 20th century. She really did have such insight.”
Michael Mayer on Joan Didion: “Joan was a real chronicler of the 20th century. She really did have such insight.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: All your theatre work must have helped with the extra Covid choreography?

MM: You know, I think it did. The big Christmas unwrapping scene at the end, I choreographed everything, because for that we all had to be in the same room. That’s the only time and we shot it in 15 minutes. It was “Go!” And it was all choreographed and I had three cameras moving so we could get that.

AKT: The children are good, especially the little boy and that voice!

MM: That voice, isn’t that crazy! That raspy little voice, he’s incredible. Those two boys [Gryffin Hanvelt and Viggo Hanvelt] are brothers in real life. Which means that they, because they live together, they count as one person. So when they’re in a pod, we could expand it. Same thing, that’s how Jennifer Coolidge could dance with Kevin the Snow Plow Guy [Dan Finnerty] in the end credits. Because he is married to Kathy Najimy, so they count as one. So Jennifer can have scenes with Kathy and she could dance with him. So it was all this algebra that we had to figure out.

AKT: That is fascinating!

MM: It was challenging.

AKT: Did you hear that Joan Didion died today?

MM: I just read that, yes. I know her a little bit through her lawyer. Before he retired we shared a lawyer. I met her on a couple of different occasions socially. She was quite ill with Parkinson. So I wasn’t surprised, but what a life she led!

AKT: I unfortunately never met her, but we went to the same hair salon.

MM: Oh amazing! Who did she go to?

Single All The Way is streaming on Netflix
Single All The Way is streaming on Netflix

AKT: Bumble and bumble

MM: Bumble and bumble, right, of course! I used to go there, too. Now I go to John Barrett. But, I mean Joan was a real chronicler of the 20th century. She really did have such insight. I don’t know who is writing now in the way that she did. We don’t really have a cultural critic with the eye and ear.

AKT: No, and especially someone who can conjure up a feeling and a mood the way she does. A few sentences can make it visceral.

MM: Did you ever see the film of Play It As It Lays? I was just reading about it in her obit. I never knew there was a film of it, because it’s a book I always loved, that’s very provocative.

AKT: I love the book too, I don’t think I have seen the film.

MM: It’s from the Seventies. It sounded interesting, but then I thought it probably wasn’t good because we’ve never heard of it. Although we all heard of A Star is Born, and that wasn’t good.

AKT: Did you see a film called Azor? First film by Andreas Fontana, a Swiss filmmaker I spoke to last week. I mentioned Joan Didion to him, because the mood and precision reminded me so much of her books. It takes place in the world of private banking in Argentina in 1980.

MM: I read about this, yes, yes.

AKT: It’s a fascinating film that felt so Joan Didion to me. He didn’t know who she was.

MM: I have to see if it’s playing here. I feel quite safe going to the movies here in Berkeley because the theatres are all empty. When I saw [Steven Spielberg’s] West Side Story there were four of us in the theatre, when I went to see [Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Oscar-shortlisted] Drive My Car, there were two of us. Which I loved, by the way. Here’s what I found out about Play It As It Lays: 1970, Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins! I bet we can’t find it anywhere. That’s my hunch. I bet it’s one of those that just disappeared.

Carole (Kathy Najimy) with Nick (Philemon Chambers) and her son Peter (Michael Urie)
Carole (Kathy Najimy) with Nick (Philemon Chambers) and her son Peter (Michael Urie)

AKT: It does sound intriguing. If you find it, let me know! Thank you for taking the time today!

MM: My pleasure. As always you look wonderful. I’m glad to see that you’ve maintained your wonderful self.

AKT: Thanks, you look good too!

MM: Thanks, we’re hanging in! Have a beautiful holiday!

Coming up - Michael Mayer on his composer Anton Sanko, more on Single All The Way, and what’s coming up in the New Year.

Happy Holidays to everyone as we head into the unknown challenges that we’ll face in 2022!

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