‘Coopers' director Jessie Nelson aimed for realistic family portrait
November 13, 2015 12:00 AM
Jessie Nelson, director for the Pittsburgh-based film "Love the Coopers," poses for a portrait at the Fairmont Hotel in Downtown Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015.
By Barbara Vancheri / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Imagine Christmas dinner crossed with “Groundhog Day.”
“Love the Coopers,” opening in theaters today, spent four days filming a holiday meal that could give Martha Stewart a run for her money. Not to mention calories and polished presentation.
The dining room table and kitchen island were laden with turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, green beans, carrots, apple chutney, dump salad (lime Jell-O, cottage cheese, crushed pineapple and Cool Whip), breads and pear streusel cake, for starters, thanks to food stylist Melissa McSorley and property master Ellen Freund.
Sitting around the feast were Diane Keaton, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Olivia Wilde, Jake Lacy, Ed Helms, Marisa Tomei, June Squibb, Amanda Seyfried, Alex Borstein and a few other guests.
“I would say they cooked 44 Christmas dinners,” director Jessie Nelson recalled recently. If she shot Ms. Keaton and then turned the camera toward another actor, the plates had to have the same amount of food for the sake of continuity.
“Initially, that scene had so much energy and the actors were doing such beautiful work, and by the second or third day, I thought where is the energy? And they were all in a carbo coma. They all fell in love with Melissa’s stuffing. They all had their favorites.
“They did a wonderful job of keeping the consistency and making you really feel like you were at a dinner and time was passing.”
Adding authenticity was Rags, played by a part Saint Bernard-part Australian shepherd named Bolt, who gobbles dog biscuits masquerading as Christmas cookies, among other treats.
“He’s the Marlon Brando of dogs, I call him. He’s an extraordinary actor, that dog.
“The trainer would come to work every day having read the scene thoroughly and giving me 10 choices of how Rags could interpret the scene. He could be sad that his owners are fighting, he could be angry, he could be confused, he could put his paw over his head,” or share a plate of food and fork with Ms. Squibb’s Aunt Fishy.
“She felt Aunt Fishy would do that. I took my hat off to June.”
“Love the Coopers,” once called “Let It Snow,” features four generations of a family navigating their way through Christmas Eve in Pittsburgh. Steve Martin narrates the story.
“Every time I see the movie, I’m just so struck by how blessed I was with this cast. They’re just extraordinary actors. Every time any of them get up to bat in a scene, they’re just doing such great work,” the director said.
“And also, not to sound schmaltzy, but I was really lucky to shoot in Pittsburgh. The city looks so perfect for the film — it’s just beautiful. There’s such a warmth to it, also.”
When Ms. Nelson returned to Pittsburgh last week to attend a cast and crew screening at AMC-Loews and conduct interviews at Downtown’s Fairmont Hotel, the temperature reached an unseasonal 78 degrees. Were the weather gods making amends?
The production had needed a wintry backdrop, and it got one, with days so cold that props and snow globes and even a camera truck froze in 10-below-zero weather. Crew members still had to make snow for some scenes, including on day one at Lincoln P & G Diner in Millvale, where Mr. Arkin’s character is a regular customer and Ms. Seyfried his favorite waitress.
“It was beautiful snow falling. Oh, such a sign, this is fantastic,” Ms. Nelson said. “By lunchtime, the snow had disappeared, and so every time we were shooting against the beautiful window in Pamela’s Diner, there was no snow, so we had to make snow.”
Sometimes, when shooting outdoors, the snow would fall on one actor but not the other when it was his or her moment on camera.
“I would say in every scene, there’s a bit of real snow, and then we had to make it look consistent throughout the scene,” by supplementing it.
“Love the Coopers,” written by Steven Rogers, features some timeless lessons delivered by Mr. Arkin’s widowed teacher and snappy dialogue between Mr. Lacy and Ms. Wilde, who plays the daughter of Ms. Keaton and Mr. Goodman.
She is a playwright, living out of town, who fears she peaked at age 19. He is a soldier trying to get to Wyoming for a brief family visit before deploying overseas. She’s flown into the Pittsburgh International Airport, and he is stranded there by snowstorms.
Eleanor and Joe Bailey (his name a nod to George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”) pass the time with cocktails, conversation and flirtation. Loathe to see her family’s disappointment when she shows up alone, she asks him to pose as her boyfriend for one night.
“You would make my parents so happy.”
“Love the Coopers,” a PG-13 comedy with some dramatic elements, deals with family dynamics including squabbling sisters who briefly turn into childhood versions of themselves, disappointments, and delights, including of the musical variety by cast and soundtrack artists.
In addition to Millvale, the movie filmed at Pittsburgh Studios in Churchill (where production designer Beth Rubino and others worked magic), houses in Sewickley and Edgewood, Pittsburgh International Airport, TGI Fridays at Consol Energy Center, Gateway Center subway station and along the T line, Butler Memorial Hospital, Boyce Park, Shop ’n Save in North Huntingdon, Broadmore Senior Living in South Fayette, Frick Art & Historical Center Greenhouse, Galleria mall and Mt. Lebanon Recreation Center in Mt. Lebanon, and Reynolds Street in Point Breeze.
Ms. Nelson, who counts “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Love Actually” as her favorite holiday films (until now), says, “I think times are tough for people so the idea of bringing some joy into the world is meaningful.
“I think there is the feeling of the challenges of family and the messiness and insanity of all those dynamics and yet how important that is and how meaningful it is, and I don’t just mean the family you’re born into, I feel it’s families people create, also.
“I always feel like you just want people’s hearts to get opened,” she said, and in an ideal world, “You come out of the movie appreciating the people in your life more.”
Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.
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