“We’ve all been left behind by someone, by our ancestors – sometimes it happens ahead of schedule, sometimes right in front of our eyes. There’s something unifying and comforting in it – we’re all in it together.”
The Meddler came to life on the set of Lorene Scafaria’s first feature film, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Although Scafaria was thrilled to be helming her first film, she admits she was still in something of a daze after the death of her larger-than-life father, Joe, the year before. In the middle of her grief and this important time in her career, Scafaria’s mother, Gail, decided to relocate to Los Angeles to be near her only daughter.
The Meddler producer Joy Gorman, who also produced “Seeking,” remembers Gail hanging around the set, making friends with everyone: “I remember Lorene joking to Gail– ‘the next one is going to be all about you, and it’s going to be called ‘The Meddler.’ But she wasn’t joking. It eventually became very real.”
”It was a few years ago. My boyfriend had just dumped me and my father was still dead. I hated my job and LA and every thought in my head. And just when I wanted to pick up and go anywhere else, my mother sold the house in New Jersey and moved three thousand miles to be closer to me. I’ve been raising her in Los Angeles ever since. My mom spends a lot of time by herself. I have a lot of guilt about that. And a lot of resentment about the guilt, and then some more guilt about the resentment, with lots of layers of love in between. I wish I could fill the void that my father left, but he was larger than life. And I miss him like crazy. After he died, my mom and I were grieving so differently, it was hard to find common ground. But in watching her handle her grief so beautifully, so optimistically, I realized that I wanted to tell her story. And I wanted to be honest about it—how lonely it was, how mean I could be, how annoying she could be, but also how generous and giving, and how unbelievably brave she was for making that big of a sea change. So this is her story, but with a little more adventure and trouble and fun and even a love interest with a mustache. It’s an apology and a pep talk and a reality check and a bunch of wish fulfillment. But it’s not just for my mother. It’s for your mother. It’s for you. It’s for anyone who knows what it’s like to start over. It’s for anyone who’s been left behind. It’s about our struggle to be understood, to not be forgotten. But above all, it’s the story of someone we should all be so lucky to be annoyed with sometimes: a mother who loves us a little too much.” Lorene Scafaria – “The Meddler”
For Lorene Scafaria, finding a project on which to focus after the completion of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World eventually came around to that joke – but not just because it was a silly idea among friends.
In the time since her father’s death, Scafaria had seen how much her mother’s life had changed, and how their own relationship had evolved through their different approaches to moving on.
“We’re all survivors of something,” Scafaria says about the story she wanted to tell about a woman like her mother. “We’ve all been left behind by someone, by our ancestors – sometimes it happens ahead of schedule, sometimes right in front of our eyes. There’s something unifying and comforting in it – we’re all in it together.”
As she dealt with her own “normal” personal and career crises, Scafaria, like her onscreen counterpart Lori, for a while felt overwhelmed by her mother’s new daily presence in her life, and the need to respond to her mother’s need to constantly give. To the writer and her producer, that simple concept and character suggested a number of ideas.
A “Fargo”-like series where an aggressively generous older woman gets involved in solving crimes? An exploration of a mother-daughter relationship?
Ultimately these felt too contrived, and against the spirit of how Lorene conceived of the character named Marnie Minervini. “Lorene wanted to create a portrait of a woman who touches people’s lives with this incredible generosity and hopefulness,”
Gorman observes about the eternally optimistic and surprisingly effective Marnie. “Like many women of her generation, Marnie lived her entire life for everyone else, and for the first time in her life she gets to make decisions about what she wants to do.”
The point wasn’t to force the character into a late-life crisis, or insist that her story could only be told through the prism of her relationship to another character – a romantic partner or a child.
Certainly those elements are there in Marnie’s life, but they are things that give her balance and perspective rather than a sole source of meaning or comfort.
“This is not a dysfunctional family movie,” Scafaria says plainly, explaining the way in which The Meddler avoids traditional “will our family survive the crisis” melodrama. “I came from an Italian family – we’ve always fought and cried and yelled at each other, but we always loved each other and had the best intentions.
Scafaria clarifies that The Meddler is not simply an account of what happened to her mother in the years following her husband’s death, nor is it a kind of personal diary of her own perspective intended for personal cathartic effect.
“It’s really a kind of wish fulfilment for her,” she says. Scafaria was often inspired by real-life comments or events that were reimagined as larger events in Marnie’s life. For example, when Gail Scafaria first moved to Los Angeles, she did indeed propose footing the bill for Joy Gorman’s wedding.
“That conversation actually happened, although we didn’t go through with it…” Gorman remembers today. “Having lost my own Italian mother who called 6 times a day, Gail acted as a mother to me like she does for Jillian and Freddy. It’s such a breath of fresh air to have someone be so truly kind and generous. So many people in this world are jaded and competitive, and those are not words that are in Gail’s – or Marnie’s – lexicon.”
“The more specific I got, the more universal the story started to become,” says Lorene Scafaria of bringing Marnie to life out of her mother. “I obviously had this very specific person – someone whose voice I can hear in my head – but it seemed like other people could relate to it.”
Certainly, the “pushy” mother / mother-in-law character type – often Jewish, Irish, or (as in Marnie’s case) Italian – is something that would be familiar to most audiences, though that character is usually used for anything except comedic effect and occasional pearls of wisdom along the younger character’s journey.
But Scafaria thinks that the appeal of Marnie ran a lot deeper than simply rethinking that stereotype: “A lucky percentage of people have a mother who really loves them,” she observes. “Marnie is a character who is defined by how she loves others and she does it well, so most people really see their own mother in this – and themselves.”
In fact, Scafaria recalls the reaction of actor Bobby Cannavale, Rose Byrne’s fiancé, when Byrne shared the script with him. “He told her, ‘this is me, I’m the meddler!’ So I guess you are either the one who is doing the calling and texting and meddling, or you’re the one on the receiving end,” she says.
As they were imagining it, Gorman and Scafaria were well aware that the project didn’t exactly sound like a typical studio film.
It’s about a woman in her mid-sixties who finds direction by reaching out and connecting to new people through compulsive and unusual acts of generosity – neither superhero movie nor traditional rom-com – with a story rooted in characters’ emotions and connections, not by life-or-death crises and last-minute plot twists.
“I can’t tell you how many times someone told us that they loved the character, but could we make it a twohander? Can we make Lori’s part more important?” remembers Scafaria.
At one point, she even switched representation when she felt like she wasn’t getting the support for the project that she needed.
“Some people told me this had to go to TV because that’s where female characters are allowed to be heard,” she remembers, even penning a “pilot episode” version of Marnie’s story at one point. “My heart wasn’t in it,” she says. “Marnie should have a cinematic life. Characters her age on film are so often disrespected and laughed at. Marnie isn’t someone who has done much with her life except be there for her family, but there is something really important and compelling about what she goes through in the film.”
“I had learned a lot about what mistakes I didn’t want to make,” Scafaria says recalling how making “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” helped give her the confidence to stick by her choices as a storyteller.
“I learned what to fight for, what the deal-breakers are. Your first film, you are so desperate to get it made that you are willing to compromise on things. I went into this story with a totally different head.”
She also allowed “The Meddler” to teach her a bit more about the process of moviemaking as a career.
“As a director, it’s really important to be involved in the money side of things,” she says, “because that’s where you really make decisions about what you will and won’t accept,” such as the crucial decision to shoot the film in Los Angeles. Ultimately, LA was the only setting for Marnie’s character. Budget constraints aside, this was something the filmmakers could not compromise on. LA was part of the true story and in itself a “character” in the film. “We made the film the right size, the way we knew we needed to make it – I wish we had an extra hour in every day during production, but overall we got what we wanted.”
Scafaria also knew that it was important to consider the film as something that more than just a specific demographic might understand or identify with.
“I wasn’t trying to write a ‘woman’s story,’” she says. “I was just trying to write people who are part of the human condition.”
She also comments that the much-needed discussion about issues related to gender and filmmaking often lack a broader critical context.
“It’s not just about the number of women directors, though that is another conversation,” she says. “It’s also about how we talk about the idea of ‘women’s stories’ and why so few of them get made. When it’s a female director or about a female character, it’s too easy to limit the film by labeling it, saying it is about ‘the female condition’ instead of ‘the human condition.’”
Producer Gorman shared her friend’s convictions and vision. “This is a movie about what a woman does when her daughter leaves for a while. It’s not an ‘odd couple’ movie or a fish-outof-water story – it’s a movie about what your mother does all those hours when you don’t call her back. It’s not a film about her changing – your mother’s never going to change, you may never change, but you make slight adjustments as you grow up together.”
Even if interested parties loved the script (which many did), it was still a tough sell, says Joy Gorman.
“This was a woman filmmaker, and one that wasn’t going to be made with huge male stars. As much as the market says ‘you can’t do it,’ we were able to find actors who loved the script and wanted to do it as it was written.” That started with the film’s star (and eventual executive producer) Susan Sarandon.
Lorene Scafaria admits that Sarandon was at the top of her list, even though the actress is, Scafaria admits, “a lot cooler and sexier than my mom.” “I sent it cold to Susan’s agent because I couldn’t stop thinking that she was the one person who could pull this off in every way. I hadn’t seen her in a leading role in a while, and I knew that she can be so funny and so warm.”
Indeed, Sarandon’s best remembered roles from her storied career are of strong, selfdetermined women who are able to assert themselves forcefully and actively without coming across as needlessly shrill, unpleasant, or emasculating. Sally in “Atlantic City,” Sister Helen Prejean in “Dead Man Walking,” Louise in “Thelma and Louise,” and Annie Savoy in “Bull Durham” illustrate just how much Sarandon can bring to well-drawn characters who manage to dominate through compassion and an open heart.
Marnie Minervini joins those indelible Sarandon performances, the character and actress a perfect fit. “By the time we got on set,” Scafaria remembers, “Susan had my mother down perfectly – not just an imitation, but a real understanding and intuitive sense of how Marnie sees the world and her place in it. She took over and the film really became about us telling Marnie’s story. It wasn’t a ‘personal’ film about me and my mother at all, it was really about Marnie.”
Scafaria’s characters are survivors who struggle but never stop wanting to believe, bend but never break, and genuinely want the people around them to be happy. The stories emerge from the way characters make small decisions as well as big ones, usually with great humor and affection.
“So much humor today is about how mean people can be,” says Scafaria. “For Marnie, we see things that can be funny without being mean. It’s kind of crazy that someone like Marnie or my mother could be so generous with strangers, and easy to think from a cynical perspective that they are being taken advantage of. But from her perspective, it’s amazing, she’s done this great thing. Even if it gets a little out of control, like with Marnie paying for the wedding, it all generates good feelings.”
It makes sense then that such a film was made by someone who refused to compromise her vision.
“As female filmmakers, we have to be even more relentless,” says Joy Gorman. “We can’t take no for an answer, and we have to lead with our hearts on a movie like this. This business is too hard – if I’m not telling stories that I believe in some way can inspire change, if I’m not fighting to the death to get these projects made on behalf of the filmmakers I love, if the work doesn’t ultimately have a positive effect on the audience, then why do it?” That is easy to accomplish when working with Scafaria.
“I think the film is really a testament to Joe and Gail Scafaria,” Gorman says. “Because they raised a kid who is fearless, and a visionary.”