”It’s a movie that people will feel. It’s very easy for Hollywood to become cynical and try to create something that will just provoke people… The intention of this movie is to celebrate little enthusiasms, to make people feel good and warm and to celebrate connection.”
During the past 25 years screenwriter Tom Flynn has been selling spec scripts to studios in Hollywood, only seeing Watch It made (which he also directed). Now, with the success of Gifted, a story inspired by his one-eyed cat Fred, and his sister, whom he describes as “the most unassuming ridiculously smart person you’ve ever met,’ Flynn is back to writing full time… this time getting his movies made.
In Gifted, Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is a single man raising his spirited young niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) in a coastal town in Florida. But Mary is a brilliant child prodigy and Frank’s intention that she lead a normal life are thwarted when the seven-year-old’s command of mathematics comes to the attention of his formidable mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan)—a wealthy Bostonian whose plans for her granddaughter threaten to separate Mary and Frank. As family tensions and disconnections flare, uncle and niece find support in Roberta (Octavia Spencer), their protective landlady and best friend, and Mary’s teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate), a young woman whose concern for her student soon develops into a relationship with her uncle as well.
Gifted began its journey to the big screen when producer Karen Lunder, who has produced an assortment of films including Arrival, remembers a conversation with producer Andy Cohen in which she asked: “‘What do you have that’s great and different? What is the thing you’re most excited about?’
‘’He sent me Gifted. When I read the script, it had this timeless quality to it. It felt like the kind of movies I grew up watching: it was a throwback of sorts to films of the 70’s and early 80’s that weren’t afraid to make you laugh and cry – that were both escapist and real.”
Says Cohen, “Screenwriter Tom Flynn had a written something special. Once in a while you get lucky and you read something that you absolutely fall in love with. I was crying at the end of it, but I also kept laughing throughout. What I loved about it is was that it was all about the characters. They were fully realized and I knew we could get tremendous actors and a top director.” says Cohen.
“The next step was to find the right filmmaker, and Marc Webb ((500) Days Of Summer) was at the top of the list. But with a script like this,” Lunder says, “if you don’t get it right, it won’t find its audience, it won’t find its place in the world. We had to find the right person,” and she was convinced that was Webb.
Cohen remembers, “Karen told me that she would try to get Marc to read it but not to get my hopes up as she knew how selective he was as well as being focused on another project.”
Like Lunder and Cohen, Webb responded to the writing. “I kept on waiting for this script to get bad, but it just kept getting better. It was simple, warm and uncynical. The writing felt nourishing to me. Mary and Frank are something like a comedy team with a lot of heart. After spending so many years on bigger movies, I just wanted to hang out with these two.”
Says Webb: “I had been looking for a script about personal relationships, something that really gets back to the roots of what I love about cinema and characters and this just felt right. I wanted to go away and just experience this little bit of joy, kind of under the radar. It’s a movie that people will feel. It’s very easy for Hollywood to become cynical and try to create something that will just provoke people. The intention of this movie is to celebrate little enthusiasms, to make people feel good and warm and to celebrate connection. I think we’ve done it in a way that is authentic. That’s rarer than it should be.”
In his career, Chris Evans has judiciously chosen a balance of blockbuster and smaller, more interior films. He picked Gifted for many reasons but says: “It was more the director than the role. You can have a great role and a great script. You can have a lot of pieces in place but if you don’t have a great director, you don’t have much. So for me it was Marc Webb.”
Tom Flynn’s journey
Tom Flynn has had a successful career in Hollywood. “He’d done really well selling big comedy scripts to the studios,” Gifted producer and Flynn’s literary manager Andy Cohen explains. “These were different spec scripts where he’d sell them and they never got made.
Flynn left Hollywood for Florida where he started selling real estate and semi-retired. At the urging of his wife, he finally began to write the movie he really wanted to write. He hunkered down in his sister’s empty beach house for five uninterrupted weeks. “In November and December there was nobody around and everything’s closed, so you don’t have anything else to do.” With little to distract him, Flynn walked the beach in the morning, created the dialogue in his head, and then went home every day and worked on the script.
His inspiration for Gifted was actually his sister, whom he describes as “the most unassuming ridiculously smart person you’ve ever met. When she was five everyone in the family was afraid of her, she was so determined. I had been around a brilliant mind all my life and I learned how important it was to have fun too, if she hadn’t she might have been doomed.” She was the jumping off point for Gifted, along with his two nieces, one of whom really did punch out a bully on the school bus just like Mary Adler. For the first time, Flynn says, he felt no pressure as he worked. “Every other time I wrote something it was always with the market in mind, I always wrote it to sell it. This one I wrote for the characters and the story.”
“Before I knew it,” says Cohen, “I had a first draft that was nothing like anything Tom had written before. It was really something special. Once in a while you get lucky and you read something that you absolutely fall in love with. The characters were fully realized and I knew we could get tremendous actors and a top director.”
Lunder felt an immediate personal connection to Flynn’s story too. She hunted Flynn down and persuaded him that she was the right person to get his film made and even shared the coincidence that her own no-nonsense, intimidating “Chanel grandmother” was named Evelyn like Lindsay Duncan’s character. “It’s like when you fall in love, now you have to figure out how you’re going to get married. I told him that there was something about it that I latched onto and couldn’t let go of. I knew I had to take care of this project and make sure it got made right.” The script eventually landed on Hollywood’s Black List, a survey of film executives’ favorite screenplays yet to be produced.
Other key players on Gifted also had serendipitous connections to components of the world that Tom Flynn had created. As it turned out, Webb himself, like Flynn, came from a family in love with mathematics.
“My father had been involved in mathematics for a very long time, so I had an immediate physical and emotional connection to the material. It just felt right,” Webb reveals. “I had been working in big movies for a long time at that point and I wanted something simple, something that got back to the roots of what I love about film, which is character, and then this came along.”
“I was really interested in working with kids,” he says. “It can be really challenging and it was new to me, which I think was the one intriguing reason I wanted to make the movie.”
Webb brought a unique vision to the film, Cohen says: “When he’s directing a scene, it’s like he’s choreographing a dance, not just where the actors stand or what they’re doing, but an emotional choreography. That’s important because each of them have their own unique arc.” Cohen adds: “You never know when you’re building your cast and your crew what you’re going to end up with. It’s this magical alchemy. I do think it starts at the top with the director. He paints what he wants the film to be.”
Webb is particularly pleased that Gifted is a movie in which all the intellectual powerhouses are women. “It’s a movie where women are really brilliant and it’s not done as a stunt. It’s something that feels weirdly rare, I don’t know why. I love the idea of having girls who are good at math, women who are good at math. A woman just won the Fields Medal in mathematics [Note: In 2014, Maryam Mirzakhani, a math professor at Sanford University, was the first woman to win the most prestigious prize in her field also known as the Nobel Prize of Mathematics] I mean, it happens in the world but we just don’t always recognize that in cinema.”
Webb also thinks that fathers will respond to the message of the film, if his own reaction is any example: “I’m a forty-year-old dude, and I got choked up. All the burly grips hid behind the duvateen (light blocking fabric) because they were crying. I think men are not encouraged to feel, which I think is one of the challenges that Frank has to face, but of course men are emotional creatures too.”
Karen Lunder says. “It’s what you hope for as a producer, to actually have each role played by the best possible person, a dream cast.”
Evans, a huge fan of (500) Days Of Summer and the Spiderman films says of his first meeting with Webb, “It just felt like we gelled. We quickly saw eye-to-eye on the process, and he gained this allegiance with myself and the rest of the cast. We just had trust. We believed in Marc’s internal barometer of what was good and what was bad.”
When Evans first read the script, he was drawn to the dialogue – “the music of the words, the exchange, the repartee” — and the story. “I love character pieces that involve family drama, they’re very relatable.” That, and the attraction of very intelligent people exchanging clever banter, he says, “is just very juicy for an actor.”
Evans worked with Webb to create who they wanted Frank Adler to be. “Frank’s a tricky guy,” Evans says. “He has a lot of guilt, which is tough to play because it’s beneath the surface. You can’t exactly show your cards and he’s kind of a closed-off emotional guy anyway. He’s tough to read. I think he’s exceptional but in a different way than his sister. There’s a lot of complexity in his past and he’s someone who didn’t cope as well with it as he does now.”
Webb says: “People often think of Chris as Captain America, this sweet all-American guy, and he is all that, but there is a dimension to him that you sense underneath, some melancholy that I think is really beautiful and hasn’t been explored a lot in his work. He’s incredibly skilled and very funny. There were a lot of actors who were interested in GIFTED, but Chris had a passion that was singular. I remember when I was meeting him, and I said, ‘We’re making a small movie.’ If he wanted to, he could exist solely in that atmosphere and I was a little nervous because I wanted him to do this one. And in about 30 seconds he said, I love this movie and we have to do it. He became an ally really quickly, a wonderful, creative collaborator and a good friend in the process.”
Lunder too thinks Evans gives “a very surprising performance…There’s something about him in the role of Frank where he’s messier, not just on the outside but on the inside. In every moment of this film Frank is carrying something from his part – his anger, guilt, resentment, fear and love. And the moment you see him with Mary, regardless of whether you know where the story is going, you can’t help but root for them.”
The casting of Mary was crucial to the success of Gifted, and led to an eight-month exhaustive search says Lunder. “We were not just looking for a great child actor, which is a challenge in itself. We needed to find someone who could be funny, spunky, pull off the big emotional moments and be credible as a genius – a tall order, especially for an eight-year-old.”
Webb insists there was a good reason for the massive search: “I couldn’t have made Gifted unless I found the right Mary Adler. It was the biggest hurdle to making the movie.” “We saw hundreds of girls but when Mckenna Grace auditioned with Evans, “their chemistry was palpable,” Lunder recalls. In Mckenna’s audition, Webb remembers asking her to prank the cat and pretend a stapler was the one-eyed Fred. “She made the stapler meow – she was hilarious. Chris couldn’t keep a straight face. But then two minutes later she would come in weeping, with her guts spilling out because she was left by the only person she knew. There’s an emotional depth and sophistication you don’t see very often in an actor, but for a child, that’s a level of virtuosity that is incredibly rare.”
Mckenna says she also learned a lot from working with Evans. “He was very focused on the set, and sometimes he would sit down and help me with my script.” Evans treated her “more like a friend, like he treats Mary. I really like that he treated me that way, except he did try not to say bad words around me.”
She allows that Mary is very smart for her age “and smarter than I am,” so it was a challenge to learn the math: “It was very hard to memorize all those numbers and those periods and all that math. I mean, I just learned all of my times tables and now I’m moving on to division while my character Mary was on calculus.” Webb recalls that Mckenna found a way to memorize the equation that worked for her: “She made it into a song, singing along with sophisticated and very real equations with pi and alphas and absolute values and it was extraordinary. You felt like there really was some genius in the girl, a different kind of genius.”