Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader play a pair of estranged siblings who are reconnected at a particularly dark moment for both in the Sundance drama The Skeleton Twins. And, when a depressed Milo (Hader) leaves Los Angeles to live with a similarly depressed Maggie (Wiig) and her earnest, goofy husband (Luke Wilson), it’s not exactly a seamless homecoming, with fights, lies, and past traumas weighing on the once-inseparable twins throughout.
But writer-director Craig Johnson didn’t cast two of today’s most likable comedians to just destroy them with melodrama. There are moments of pure joy, too, including a standout sequence, teased in the trailer, where Milo and Maggie break into a cheesy ’80s classic to ease a particularly tense moment. As Owen Gleiberman wrote after the film’s Sundance premiere, “This is a tenderly sincere, and smart, and beguiling, and penetrating movie about the way that ordinary messed-up people can wind up stumbling through their lives.”
EW spoke to Johnson about directing Hader and Wiig and how that whole Starship sequence came together.
EW: Did you always have comedians in mind when writing this story?
CRAIG JOHNSON: I did. I just gravitate towards comedic actors. I think comedy is harder than drama, and I knew that this movie was supposed to be emotional as well as funny, but I wanted to make sure we had the funny part covered. There’s just a long, great tradition of comedic actors transitioning into more dramatic roles that are really effective. I think of Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine [of the Spotless Mind] or going back to Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People. I think there is an element of darkness and sadness that comedians have within them that they access to find the comedy.
How did Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader get involved?
Our casting director Avy Kaufman suggested Bill. At first, frankly, he was not on my radar. I’d only seen him do really broad comedic stuff, but Avy had seen him in a dramatic table read of a movie with Kate Winslet, Bradley Cooper and Paul Dano. She said out of all those actors, Bill was the most heartbreaking and moving and subtle. So I thought, “Wow, OK, I’ll meet him.” We met in a bar and just hit it off. So we brought him in and were talking about the sister character and like a thunderbolt it hit me: Kristen! For a second I thought it might seem gimmicky because of SNL, but then I realized that this was so different than what they’ve done before that the fact that people think of them together as a duo will only help you believe that they’re brother and sister.
Did Hader get in touch with her, then?
Bill stayed out of it. We passed the script to her and crossed our fingers. Luckily they have the same manager and agent and were already excited about the script for Bill, so I think that worked to our advantage.
Beyond Saturday Night Live, Hader and Wiig have a pretty full history of film work together too. Do they have similar working styles?
They do. They are like brother and sister. I just stood in the corner, silent and in awe of these two people when they would just riff back and forth. They would be on set in between takes just going off on bits that were completely improvised, but were just so funny and so quick. It was like they had a shorthand, secret telepathic language with each other. They know each other’s brains so well. What’s amazing is they both were so able to access the emotions so quickly. I think that had to do with how invested they were with each other and their friendship.
There’s a scene where they are fighting at the end of it and there was a point in between takes where Kristen was like, “I don’t know how much more of this I can do because I hate saying these terrible things to Bill!” But that ended up being good for the scene. It made them emotional.
How much leeway was there for improvisation?
The script was very written, but I couldn’t wait for the moments where we could be free with the script. I encouraged them to improvise when appropriate, or when they felt inspired to, and almost inevitably it made what was on the page better. It made it funnier and more natural. In particular, there’s a scene in the dentist’s office and they’re high on Nitrous… I just gave them carte blanche. I just told them to try to make each other crack up.
And then of course there’s the epic lip sync sequence. What’s the story behind that scene?
In the script, it was just one sentence. “She’s in a funk. He tries to cheer her up by singing ‘Hold On’ by Wilson Phillips.” If you remember Bridesmaids, that song actually factors in very prominently and long before Kristen was involved with this movie, my producer saw it and was like “Ugh! They used ‘Hold On.’ We have to find a new song.” So we were in pre-production, like a week or two out, and I didn’t have a song yet and we needed to clear it in order to shoot it as a lip sync, so I spent 24 hours listening to every cheesy mid-’80s ballad you can think of and looking in the mirror and lip syncing it myself.
What’s so great about “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship is the fact that it’s a duet. Suddenly the scene became a little more epic because it became about Bill’s character getting Maggie (Wiig) to sing Grace Slick’s part of the song. Bill and Kristen were stoked about doing it almost as a production number. We didn’t spend a lot of time on it, but we choreographed it. But I believe in leaving things loose and open once the camera rolls so it doesn’t feel too staged and rehearsed.
The Skeleton Twins hits theaters Sept. 19.