Just like film-fest siblings Sundance and Toronto, New York’s Tribeca Film Festival offers an opportunity for filmmakers and actors both new and veteran to debut their latest offerings. And while many of the films on this year’s slate are from up-and-coming talent, actress Courteney Cox is one of the big-name celebs at the festival as she heads behind the camera for her feature-film directorial debut.
Cox — whose comedic timing has been a fixture on Friends and Cougar Town — brought her sense of funny to Just Before I Go. The film features Seann William Scott (American Pie) as Ted, an ordinary guy who decides that he’ll end his streak of bad luck by committing suicide. But before he goes, he heads back home to check off a few things from his bucket list. Among the items? Confronting an old bully and his elementary school crush. The quirky film — featuring actors Rob Riggle, Garret Dillahunt, Kate Walsh, and Olivia Thirlby — might not have been the obvious choice for Cox to tackle as her first-time directorial effort, but as it turns out, that’s exactly why she loves it. Cox spoke to EW about going indie, coaxing great performances from her cast, and learning from her A-list friend along the way.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve directed a few shorts and several Cougar Town episodes. What about that experience made you want to transition into film?
COURTENEY COX: I’ve done 10 episodes of Cougar Town. Before Cougar Town, I did a short for Glamour called Reel Moments. That was a great experience. We had three days to film something with very limited funds, and I worked with Laura Dern, a close friend of mine, and Rosemary Harris. Then I did Talhotblond with Garret Dillahunt. It felt just perfect for my personality. I felt so passionate about it, so after doing that I felt I had to pick up another feature. It told a story, but it was just something I had to direct after I did this.
What’s the biggest difference between filming a short, a television show, and a full-length film?
For Talhotblond, I had just 16 days, and for Just Before I Go, I had 23. Twenty-three days is just on the cusp of not having enough time to film, only because you have so many characters in so many locations. You know with TV, the actors are used to being there every day and they just want to go home at a certain time, they don’t want to overcomplicate anything. They just want to tell the story on TV. So you have to learn to do it quickly. For features, you get to tell a story with more depth and spend more time with the characters, but that means you have to figure out the balance of how much you can get done in a day.
Tell me about the challenges you had in keeping morale up on such a tight shooting schedule; what did you have to do to coax the most out of your cast?
Well, I know how I like being spoken to. Empathy is a huge thing for me. And just understanding where people are and giving people space and guidance but knowing how to finesse that. So I’m pretty much a cheerleader in life for people. I play that role with my friends and family, even with my mom. It seems like that’s what I’m known for. I’m also very enthusiastic and I get very excited about things. I think I also know how to read a room very well. It goes back to being the youngest of four kids, coming from a divorced family. I learned to pick up what’s OK, when you can jump in, and when it’s appropriate to stand back. I think that’s helped me in directing.
So you didn’t have to bribe people with pizza and brownies?
No. I mean, I might bring in a couple of good food trucks now and then. But mostly, I love directing and I love acting, so I have a lot of compassion for what the actors are doing and their process. You know, if it’s a funny scene, I like to cut up and be silly and bring out the best in my cast. If it’s a dramatic scene, I give people space and remind them of things they can draw from that they didn’t necessarily think of on their own.
How does it feel to be doing an indie when so much of your career you helped define the mainstream?
Wow. I guess I have been very mainstream. I mean, I’ve done a few things that were so indie [laughs] they weren’t even on the radar. You know, this movie is an indie movie and independently financed. And it’s very real, with inappropriate humor. But I still feel like the subject matter is very important and very mainstream. It seems like a commercial movie to me, but it was shot in an independent style.
What element of this story do you think deserves to be part of a larger conversation?
There’s so many things happening. There’s one kid who can’t come out to his father or his friends or even himself. We have another character that’s in a bad marriage and acts out instead of dealing with it head on. And then there’s a very prejudiced character who’s fun-loving but he doesn’t understand how offensive he can be. And then you have the lead character who has lived his whole life in the middle and has never done anything. He’s let other people define him and squelch his own passion. He’s never done anything he could be proud of. He’s so complacent. This deals with so many people’s struggles but does it through humor, which I think is important. When I read this script, I thought, “It’s outrageous.”
Does the lack of these stories that you find interesting motivate you to pick up writing?
I would like to write. If I could sit down long enough to do it, I think it would be great. It would be really cathartic for me. What I love most are character pieces. Every movie I’ve ever loved has always been about the characters. Simple, real, human stories. I remember when I was 10, I saw The Way We Were. Out of all the movies I could have snuck into, I chose that one. I remember I was so taken by it I had to be ushered out of the theater, because I was crying so hard. And I just think I was really a sensitive kid, and when I think of all my favorite movies, Ordinary People or Kramer vs. Kramer, all of them have that thread. So I’d do something like that.
So do you have a sense of what you’d like to tackle in your next project? A book adaptation, maybe.
I don’t have anything right now, but I hope that this film brings quality pieces of work my way. I was lucky to find this. I was having a development meeting with David Flebotte, who I worked with on Dirt, and we were talking about developing a comedy. It turned out he had a script he hadn’t shown anyone yet, and I got the script and I loved it. But then his agent heard somebody wanted to do it, and they thought, “Hey, let’s send it to every studio.” And I said, “You can do that and it can go to development hell, or I can do it and make this movie feel like a true story.” And I did. But it’s really hard to get people to give you money in a short amount of time.
I can imagine. So you got a few really important things in place early on: the money and the cast. Those two things alone seem expensive — did you have to call in any favors?
Well, you know, getting the lead was the hardest thing. I’ve worked with Garret [Dillahunt] before — we have this thing. He’s going to be in anything and everything I ever do. He’s my muse; I think he’s such a talented actor. And I think the script, because it’s so unique, spoke for itself. Kate Walsh does a lot of comedies, but we know her actually for her dramatic roles. And she read this and she knew she could do something with it. And Olivia Thirlby was looking to do a comedy. So I lucked out with the cast, but finding the lead character was really tough. You know, Seann is such a handsome guy, but he’s kind of known for his characters. But he came and met me and he said, “I really connect with his, I feel so much more like this character than I did from what I did in American Pie.” He’s very genuine, and I thought, “This is it.” I don’t think anyone has seen Seann William Scott like this.
So you didn’t handpick him?
I know, it’s not something you would have immediately thought of, but I thought he was perfect after meeting with him.
I know your Friends co-star David Schwimmer has directed a few films. Have you ever asked him for any advice?
No, I have not. I really haven’t. I should, because he’s a great director, but I haven’t. I have asked a lot of other friends, that’s for sure.
Who’s the most famous person you’ve asked for advice from?
What have you learned from him?
I had about a four-hour dinner with him before filming, and we broke down the movie in every way possible. It allowed me to be really clear about my attentions and my style. He’s just incredibly smart, and I was really so excited and honored he spent so much time with me. Afterwards, I sent him the movie, and he gave me some great notes. I read every single one so I could learn.
I have to ask for the Cougar Town fans: Is it coming back for another season?
I hope so! It’s kind of crazy that we don’t know yet. I mean, I feel like we’re going to, but I don’t have any idea. Isn’t that weird?
If you do get picked up, is there a storyline you’re dying to tackle?
My favorite stories are when I’m working with Grayson [Ellis]. I love when we’re acting like a silly, fun married couple together. One of my favorite episodes, that I directed actually, is of me being competitive with my son and trying to be part of a better couple. I thought that was fun. We’re really lucky to have that job.
Take a look at an exclusive clip of Just Before I Go below. It’s a moment that Cox says epitomizes the film’s message that “we all have problems. We think they’re special to us, but really we’re all surviving the best way we know how.” The actress — known for her comedic timing — says that as a director, “My biggest struggle was that I didn’t want this to feel like a reserved comedy. This movie needed to be out there as much as possible.” The film premieres at Tribeca on Thursday.