“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”Leo Tolstoy
Haroula Rose’s sophomore feature “All Happy Families” starts with the above quote, which is resonant for most people. The family dramedy is her follow-up feature to the powerful “Once Upon a River” (2020). I had the opportunity during the 2020 quarantine to interview via zoom the entire leading cast of the film, and it made me love it even more. Haroula has a gift at working with actors and bringing really grounded and authentic stories to the screen. Coburn Goss, who played a small but very important role in “Once Upon a River,” partnered with Haroula in writing the script for “All Happy Families.”
The film is about the Landry family and takes place in Chicago. Forty-something Graham Landry, played by Josh Radnor, receives a surprise visit by Will, his middle-aged famous celebrity brother, played by Rob Huebel, and in turn gets a visit by his parents Sue and Roy, played by the extremely talented Becky Ann Baker and John Ashton. While they are together again in the old family home, some unexpected circumstances show the complex dynamics between these family members. The family collapses and then grows into something new and hopeful.
This film is powerful because it shows you the ingrained issues that can bubble to the surface in a family dynamic. I feel that this film has the power to spark conversations that could lead to change, kind of like what I saw in this year’s documentary “Bad Axe,” but in different ways. Along with the aforementioned stellar work from the actors who play the Landry family, it is worth noting the great performance by Chicago-based actress Chandra Russell (South Side) as Dana, the love-interest of Graham’s. Her evolving presence in this film shows you what life can look like if you are really true and authentic to yourself and the people around you.
This film is another labor of love directed by Haroula Rose that was brought to life with a passionate team by her side. I was fortunate to speak with Haroula about her film before it had its hometown premiere last week at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival.
Can you talk about the inspiration for this film, and your collaboration with Coburn Goss?
My co-writer Coburn Goss played Uncle Cal in “Once Upon A River.” He brought a lot of complexity to this small supporting role as a questionable, morally suspect character. The way he played the character didn’t make him entirely hateable in a way that I thought was always interesting. At some point when we were working together on those sensitive scenes, I just felt like in the way he handled dialogue and our communication, he had these instincts that would be great in working together on a script. Getting to know him, I found out that he’s been a writer for forever. He’s received awards for the plays he’s written. Until now, he’s not overtly been seen as a writer because of his acting, but now he’s focusing more on his writing, which is awesome because he is so good.
Since we had time during COVID, we ended up with an idea that could work with a smaller budget. We asked ourselves, ‘How can we make something that is character-based, interesting, dynamic and complex, but also manageable?’ I really wanted to do something that was different from my first feature to challenge myself and to show off other things I could do with great actors. It was such a cool experience that was born through the inspiration of wanting to work with Coburn and to make a family dramedy that we both love so much. With all of the limitations and challengeS that COVID brought, we wanted to focus on making an interesting film that was also a character piece. So the making of the film came from a creative space, as well as what was doable with a smaller budget post-COVID.
Can you talk about assembling your cast for the film?
I have always been a fan of Rob Huebel and the way he can make someone seem both questionable and charming in this way, which made him the perfect person to play this guy. My hope was that he’d resonate with the script and the character and be available to see the part. I’ve seen him in so many things over the years, and I’ve liked all of his performances, so he was the first person we reached out to. Since I was able to connect with his agent, it made it an easier process. I told the agent that we’d like to offer the part of Will Landry to Rob. He ended up reading it right away and reached back out to us. Coburn and I were just so excited and after we had a long zoom conversation with him, it was just even more clear that he was the guy for that role.
As for Josh Radnor, he is a dear old friend of mine. We met twelve years ago when a song of mine was on How I Met Your Mother for their Valentine’s Day episode. The music supervisor on that show made these these mix CDs of songs that were on the show and it was playing at Josh’s house when another friend of mine happened to be there. They were like, ‘Hey do you know Haroula Rose? You two should be friends, I’m going to introduce you.’ Then we just became friends over the years and I always wanted to work with him as an actor. He is so versatile, and hasn’t really played this kind of character before. So it was really fun to see him access this part of himself and see him have fun doing it.
And for Becky Ann Baker, who’s not a fan of hers?
She’s so good!
Anytime I tell people that she is in this, they all freak out. There just is not a false note in her performance, and she’s incredible. I’d love to make a movie with her again. You could tell she really resonated with Sue Landry. After meeting her, I could already see that the role was perfect for her.
John Ashton and I had built a rapport on “Once Upon A River” and I always knew he could play that guy too, so I didn’t even look anywhere or ask anyone else. That worked out well too.
We also had a great Chicago supporting cast with Chandra Russell, Antoine McKay, and David Pasquesi. I was really grateful because all of these people did these amazing things and it wasn’t for money or anything like that. It was because they were drawn to the script and the team behind it. I was really excited and honored that they all showed up and worked as hard as they did, especially because it was still weird during COVID times.
Can we talk about Chandra Russell? I love that she is a Chicago actress, and wanted to know how you found her for this role.
We looked at many different actresses for Dana, but honestly Chandra was always the person we wanted at the end of the day, and Josh was most excited about working with Chandra. We felt given her role in South Side, and by getting to know her more and learning more about her, she was the right person for the role. Chandra provides a sense of someone who is really sensitive, but also tough and authentic. I just like how she delivered that performance, which was a nice contrast to Josh as Graham being almost too soft around the edges. She was just a little bit more direct, like ‘I don’t have time, I’m busy, but I want to spend time with you.’ I like that she has clear boundaries, and as someone who is sober, she has really learned a lot about herself and what works for her. In a way, her knowing herself so well helps Graham grow up too.
Part of the film that really drew me in was the delicate line that we find ourselves in with cancel culture and being in post #MeToo, how we are more aware of sexual harassment. I loved how you intertwined those topics. Can you talk about why that aspect of the film was important to you to bring to the screen?
The characters came from Coburn and I having these great discussions about this subtle kind of misogyny that is so deeply ingrained within our own families, friends and the people we love. How do these old ways of patriarchy keep rearing their heads in the wrong ways? We didn’t want to be overtly righteous or moralistic in showing this or tell people exactly how they should feel about it. I never like to spoonfeed the audience, and Coburn doesn’t either. That’s how “Once Upon A River” was too. If you want to make these judgements, you can, but I don’t really want to spell it out for you. I just want to observe these things and keep them as authentic and grounded as possible. I wanted to show in the film these discussions that I have literally heard from people who are not necessarily bad people. It is part of what I think is worth looking at and noting. I think just by observing these things onscreen this can change things and make an impact.
So Coburn and I wanted to figure out how to show all of this without being morally righteous about it. We thought we could show it through the dynamic between these two types of men with Will and Graham. One man is kind of charming but also douchey in a questionable way, but he is also this alpha ambitious guy. Then there is this other man who is more sensitive and compassionate, but is stuck in his life. In many ways, you see that dynamic play out so often all the time with men. How do these paradigms keep persisting? It was fun to write in that way. How do we show this but not necessarily judge it in a way where we’re overtly telling people what and how to feel?
I thought it was great how you brought Evie’s story into the mix. It was interesting to see how the family reacts to Evie coming out as a trans woman. Can you talk about that aspect of the film?
Coburn and I were thinking about what else we could add into this family dynamic that was going to show more about who these people are by how they react and grow from it, and just to experience what it is like to be human right now. Will is such a great dad in some ways, but obviously not fully present in other ways. And Roy, Evie’s grandfather, has a more narrow-minded way of looking at gender. Sue and Graham are trying to help evolve Roy in his thinking. But the reality is nobody can do the work for everybody. Ivy O’Brien is a wonderful actress, and she was perfect for the role as Evie.
Also, I want to talk about the Chicago locations, because I love how you brought this film back to your home city. Can you talk about the location scouting and working with the Chicago community?
Making our home base be that two flat building was just very Chicago. Finding the right community, neighborhood and building for the Landry home was really fun to do but also challenging because we basically had to own a building and a whole block for a while.
Amy Limpinyakul, our B-Roll operator, had a lot of fun going around the city and just filming parts of Chicago. I had given her a list of the ideal “Chicago scenes” I’d like to see. Amy grew up on the North Side like me, so she’s familiar with the different neighborhoods. It was just really nice and a lot of fun to show these old motels, kids playing in the park, and getting a variety of Chicago locations.
For scouting, I would say it was mostly places that we already knew, and it was about showing off what we knew, from the fancier upscale restaurant that Dana works at to the more low-key kind of pub that Roy frequents. That pub has a very Chicago-cozy-vibe, and it was nice to show all of that off.
I love the music in the film too, like where you have Becky Ann singing in that bar.
That was at the Hidden Cove actually on Lincoln.
And yes, that was such a fun one to shoot. Oh my god, we had a blast that day. Rodney Crowell came up from Nashville, and it was a big production. We had such a good time.
And I want to talk about some of your behind the scenes people, specifically the women behind the camera, such as your cinematographer Johanna Coelho.
Johanna is French and I was introduced to her years ago when we did a music video together for Israel Nash, and that was really fun. I saw what she could do with so little. It was literally just me, her and the artist, and it was a great time.
We also worked together a couple years ago when I did a short film called “Hound of Love” for Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine. It was really fun to make. It’s like a fairy-tale romcom through the eyes of a dog, and it was so fun to shoot. She selected three female or non-binary directors, underrepresented people, to direct these first three spots. It was my first time doing something “branded,” but it was a short film that I wrote and directed that they threw in a brand. And I was like, ‘oh Johanna, I think this would be so fun to do.’ The experience was so easy, and our rapport is really great. I know I’ll get a lot of good material with her and she understands how to work with actors too. I just feel really natural with her So when this project came up, I knew she was the perfect person to be our cinematographer, and we went for it again in a longer form instead of a music video or a short. I love all of her stuff, and it was a real joy to work together again.
All the heads of my departments were women, from the editors to the music supervisors. Liz Cardenas played a huge role in making the film as one of our on-the-ground producers. And I’m so proud of the work our production designer, Ania Bista, did for the film. I also had women in behind-the-scenes leadership roles for my last film “Once Upon a River.” Actors commented on the dynamic and how it felt in comparison with how they usually feel on sets with mostly male crews. Our atmosphere just felt more warm, comfortable, cozy and open. I just felt good to the cast and other people on set.
I felt you showed that spirit onscreen with Sue and her friends, and I love that they had their own posse. You don’t see older women onscreen shown that way enough.
I kind of wish we had more scenes with them. It was very fun to shoot when they are doing their slow motion walk. I’d love to make those women into a series. This came up a few times with the cast and crew. I hope this thing keeps living on because I love these characters. You fall in love with your characters, and you fall in love with your cast, and then you want it to keep going. If the world wants to make this into a show, I would be down. I’d love to take those women and turn it into an aspect of the show. I love seeing them in all of their bad ass-ness. You don’t get to see that normally, and they have each others’ backs. It was just really fun, and I think they are all amazing actresses.
What do you hope people see in your film?
I hope they see themselves for better or for worse. Or they see people that they know for better or for worse. I hope the film is relatable in this truthful and grounded way. That’s what I was aiming for, and I love when movies do that. I love when movies can spark conversations among people.
Another aspect of the film that Coburn and I talked about was the film is essentially the female gaze on the male gaze by the way that these men talk about women and the way that they react to women and what happens to Sue. I want to look at that how I want to look at it. I don’t want to give anything away, but it felt really empowering to be able to do that.
Obviously it was a real thrill and an honor. Michael Shannon is a friend of Coburn’s. When he sent him the script, he read it, liked it and showed up to support us early on. And through his support, we were able to get everyone else onboard.
I already knew Neon Heart would be into it, but it always helps to have that first bit of support truly accounted for. Having money in the bank and eyes on it are meaningful because it’s someone with a name. And I obviously love CMA (Chicago Media Angels). They were instrumental in helping me with the first and the second feature. And Liz, Ian Keiser, and Coburn are seriously the best. They were on the ground physical producers. Executive producers Sue Berghoef and Marshall Cordell are like family to me. They read the script and related to the characters and the story in a way they were like, ‘Oh my god, I could see this in my own families, and other people I know.’ The way that everybody saw their families in this story was really meaningful to us as the writers.
As you know, it’s no small feat to make an indie film. It was so great to see all of these people come together for this film, Because making indie films is so hard and it’s only getting harder. I’m just endlessly grateful to have all of these men and women come together to make this story come alive. Now I’m just praying that we get a great distributor that sees those same things and that it’s marketable to a wide audience. I love a good artsy indie movie, but I also wanted to make something that was more accessible to a lot of people. I really wanted “All Happy Families” to be something that you’d be able to scroll through on Netflix or on Amazon and say, ‘oh I want to watch that.’
I also think that this film is on that people would want to watch this film with their families. I feel like there is something for everyone here.