It was British filmmaker and screenwriter Dean Craig’s desire to write a female-driven comedy that inspired the film The Estate itself. “I really wanted to do something where the female characters led the way in terms of behavior that was interesting and funny, maybe a bit weird, and certainly morally challenging – characters that are flawed.”
“It all started some time ago with a conversation between myself and writer-director, Dean Craig,” says producer and Signature Films CEO, Marc Goldberg (Final Score), of the genesis of The Estate.
Craig, the up-and-coming British filmmaker, and screenwriter behind the hit movie, Death at a Funeral, had initially envisaged the dark comedy as a television series before sitting down with Goldberg to discuss its potential as a feature. “Immediately I thought it sounded like a great idea,” says Goldberg. “That was really the start.”
“What drew me to the story is how the women are portrayed, says Goldberg’s head of production and development at Signature Films, producer, Sarah Gabriel. “If you see men playing these roles you would never question it twice that they’re very strong people. But here we have females playing very masculine roles and I think that’s why I felt like this was a fresh take; that women get to explore masculine roles without it being judged.”
It was that same quality that captured the attention of producing partners, Pretty Matches, Sarah Jessica Parker’s production company (with its focus on female-centric stories), Capstone Studios, and star Toni Collette, the first cast member to join the ensemble.
“Toni was part of this project from the beginning and was championing it from the beginning,” explains Gabriel, who sees Collette’s casting as instrumental in ultimately attracting the film’s powerhouse ensemble. “She saw the perfect comedy in Dean’s writing for female leads specifically. From the beginning she said, there aren’t enough comedies out there for females and Dean cracked that code of having these women all together in a comedy. That’s why she joined.”
“We set out on a path to have a great ensemble and that really was the dynamic of the film,” explains Goldberg. “We felt that if we could get a fantastic cast together, one that would complement each other, we’d really bring something special to the screen… Fundamentally, I think we did just that.”
Despite her better judgment, Toni Collette’s Macey is a sensible woman who finds herself in an insane situation thanks to the infectious determination of her irrepressible younger sister. “She’s kind of the straight guy in the movie, the one who bears the weight of her zany, crazy, out-there, family,” says the Oscar-nominated actress of her character. “But there’s also a real sweetness to her,” says Collette. “She carries the flame of hope throughout the story, and I think she’s the one audiences identify with… You know, there are very questionable things that happen, and she’s the one who’s always questioning it. She’s a real sweetheart and she has a good heart.”
Fresh from her critically acclaimed turns in Pieces of Her (Netflix) and The Staircase (HBO Max), Collette’s work has run the gambit – from Muriel’s Wedding to The Sixth Sense; from Little Miss Sunshine to Hereditary; from her award-winning series, The United States of Tara, to Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley. No stranger to ensemble comedies (having recently featured in the 2019 whodunit, Knives Out), Collette was ultimately drawn to The Estate by Dean Craig’s outrageous script.
“I remember the first time reading it, crying with laughter – it was wet your pants funny,” says the star, who was the first cast member to join The Estate. What kept her in stitches during the course of filming in New Orleans, however, was Craig’s A-list ensemble – “the most talented, beautiful, hilarious group of people,” and the unexpected alchemy which ensued (fostered by the director’s openness to improvisation), that took things to the next level. “They’re all brilliant in their own right,” says Collette. “But collectively, something just seemed to magically happen.”
Playing opposite Collette (in every sense of the word), is Anna Faris, who stars as Macey’s combustible sister, Savanna. Like Collette, Faris, an accomplished comedienne who scored her breakthrough with the Scary Movie franchise (cemented by a string of hit comedies and her starring turn on House Bunny), was also drawn by Craig’s screenplay. “As soon as I started to read it, I was laughing out loud,” says Faris. “But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Toni Collette. That was a dream for me. I love to work with actors that I can learn from and this has been one of the best experiences of my life. I hope that sounds sincere because I truly mean it.”
As Cousin Richard, David Duchovny takes The Estate (and audiences along with him) to the next level. His laid-back, Kappa-clad lounge lizard, after all, isn’t just in it for Aunt Hilda’s money. No stranger to comedy, Duchovny, best known for his iconic roles on The X-Files and Californication, was reminded of Judd Apatow’s early films when he first read Dean Craig’s script for The Estate. “It was also female-centric, in a Bridesmaids mold,” says Duchovny of his initial attraction to the project. “I kind of liked being the guy in that world, the guy in a female-driven comedy.”
Cunning? Scheming? Manipulative? Check, check and double-check. But Cousin Beatrice has one distinct advantage over her chief rivals, Macey and Savanna, as she’s quick to point out: “Aunt Hilda thinks the sun shines out of my ass and that you two are a couple of dipshits.”
Played by veteran actor and comedienne Rosemarie DeWitt, The Estate was a gift on several levels, including the chance for the actress to reteam with her United States of Tara and Staircase costar, Toni Collette, who initially reached out to her to join the ensemble.
For DeWitt, the bonus was getting to work with her actual husband, Ron Livingston, who plays Beatrice’s put-upon better half, James, on screen. “In some ways the character I’m playing is similar to some things I’ve done before in terms of how tightly she’s wound, but definitely not in terms of just how awful she is – particularly to her husband,” laughs DeWitt. “She’s mercilessly bitchy and wrongheaded. And there’s just something really fun and delicious to explore that part of life, when you can’t do that in real life. Your shadow, so to speak.”
Mercifully, Ron Livingston’s off-screen relationship with wife, Rosemarie DeWitt, is a far cry from what he endures in The Estate. Because on-screen, Livingston’s character, James, is not a man to be envied. “He’s sort of the low status guy that’s the butt of all the abuse,” says Livingston of the character. “To me, this is a status comedy. Everybody is trying to jockey for position and status with each other, with Aunt Hilda, and James’ status is the lowest of the low.”
Alas, dear Aunt Hilda, a single woman in the prime of life on her (admittedly cozy) deathbed, with a bountiful estate to share amongst her adoring would-be heirs; those loving relatives who have crawled out of the woodwork to be there for her in the hour of their greatest greed.
Is Hilda wise to their game and happy to string them along? Or is she truly trying to determine how best to settle her affairs?
Kathleen Turner, who plays the cantankerous matriarch, certainly isn’t saying. “I’m just relieved to be doing comedy again,” says the multiple award-winning actress, who most recently flashed her comedic chops in The Kominsky Method where she reteamed with longtime friend and costar Michael Douglas (Romancing the Stone/Jewel of the Nile/War of the Roses). And though Hilda’s intentions may be inscrutable, there’s one thing about her character which is certain, as even Turner herself agrees: “I have to say, she’s a real bitch.”
Craig’s overall sensibility, along with the film’s outrageous characters – desperate protagonists willing to take things to any extreme to satisfy their greed – represents a detour from more recent big-screen comedies. “Television shows like Succession are really popular right now because I think people like to see bad behavior,” says David Duchovny. “We kind of got into a place in movies and TV where we only wanted to see virtuous behavior for a while and I think we’re coming out of that because bad behavior is funny. It’s fun to watch. And these people are really, really bad.”
“I think what separates this from other movies that have been made in more recent years is that we haven’t held back in terms of pushing the envelope with the comedy, going as far as we can to really crank out those laughs and those awkward moments that people like to see,” says producer, Marc Goldberg, who ultimately praises his director for the result on screen.
“Dean has been a fantastic partner really from the very start, ever since we started the development of the script,” says Goldberg of fellow Brit, Dean Craig. “From day one, his wit and timing, and for me personally his dry British humor that has been injected into what is an American story… We just had so much fun working with him.”
“I was incredibly fortunate to have a cast that brought such exceptional comedy acting talent,” says Craig himself of the shoot. “And of course, the film could never have happened without the passion and dedication of our incredible producers as well as our fantastic and hardworking Louisiana crew. Everyone contributed their utmost to what I think will be a seriously funny and entertaining ride for audiences everywhere.”
“I just hope that when audiences walk out of the cinema, they’re holding their bellies because it hurts so much from laughing,” says Toni Collette. “That’s basically it.”
Writer-Director Dean Craig
Dean Craig is a writer/director from the UK, based in Los Angeles. His film career took off in
2007 when he wrote the hit UK comedy, Death At A Funeral, starring Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley
Hawes and Peter Dinklage, and directed by Frank Oz. The film won several audience awards for
Best Film including at the HBO comedy festival and the prestigious Locarno International Film
Festival. Its critical and commercial success led to a US remake in 2010 directed by Neil LaBute,
featuring a cast that included Chris Rock, Zoe Saldana, Martin Lawrence, Danny Glover, James
Marsden, Tracy Morgan and (again) Peter Dinklage.
Craig’s other writing and producing credits include the feature films Caffeine, A Few Best Men (and its sequel, A Few Less Men), and Moonwalkers, as well as creating and writing two television series – the BBC comedy, Off The Hook with Jonathan Bailey, and Hit The Road.
In 2020, Craig turned his attention to directing as well as writing, with his debut film Love, Wedding, Repeat. Craig went on to write and directed The Honeymoon.