SIFF Guide: Director Craig Johnson on His The Skeleton Twins

How a Northwest native won the Sundance jackpot.

We’re sitting in the lobby of a U District hotel, coffees in hand, staring at the morning rain in late January. And Craig Johnson couldn’t be happier to be back home in the drizzly Northwest, he tells me. Raised in Bellingham, with his undergraduate degree from the UW, the director is fresh off the high of two packed screenings of The Skeleton Twins at the nearby Sundance Cinemas—this after the just-concluded Sundance Film Festival, where his sibling dramedy picked up a screenwriting prize and distribution deal. He doesn’t need the coffee; he’s already buzzed enough with success.

“I’m still sort of digesting and readjusting to it,” he says. “It was that Sundance fairy tale. Sundance looms in the head of the indie filmmaker as this Shangri-La. It was all very overwhelming.” But a good kind of overwhelming. Now based in L.A., Johnson has been scrapping his way in indie-land since film school at NYU. His locally shot, Mark Duplass–starring debut feature, True Adolescents, played SIFF ’09 but wasn’t widely seen. (You can find it at Scarecrow and via Netflix.)

Things will be different—already are different—with The Skeleton Twins, in which SNL alumni Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader play morose, sarcastic siblings who reconnect after a 10-year estrangement. No offense to Duplass (one of this film’s producers), but this time around Johnson has two recognizable stars who are playing against comic type. (And look, there’s Luke Wilson in a supporting role!) “We really pitched people as, ‘This is a drama,’ ” says Johnson, who simply hopes of the film “that it resonate emotionally with people.” There are laughs in it, but more in the sense of laughing-against-despair.

So how did a humble guy from Bellingham get to the star-filled parties in Park City, Utah? “I was a theater kid,” says Johnson of his youth, when he acted alongside Hilary Swank (who soonafter decamped for L.A.). “I was a total drama jock at Sehome High School, and I was a theater major at the UW.” At the same time, encouraged by his mother (who turned him on to My Life as a Dog and The Piano), Johnson’s filmgoing habit picked up steam in Seattle. “I became a huge film nerd, and I credit Seattle for some of that,” he recalls. “SIFF was a huge part of it.” Getting a student pass for the festival, “I’d see all those weird-ass movies.”

Still, after bumming around the fringe-theater scene at Open Circle and Empty Space during the early ’00s, even doing sketch comedy, “I had a sort of mid-20s crisis,” Johnson explains. Watching movies wasn’t enough. “I had to go to film school. It was a complete transition. And it cost a shit-ton of money.” Good-bye, Seattle; hello, student loans.

At NYU, he and Mark Heyman (later the writer of Black Swan) began developing The Skeleton Twins, Johnson explains. The mood was “something emo and resonant,” inspired by a student/teacher sexual relationship, but the project was shelved before Johnson shot True Adolescents—“technically my thesis film for film school.” When he and Heyman returned to the script years later, it was revamped to emphasize the two adult siblings, years after the incident in question. “I call it a non-romantic love story,” says Johnson of the rapprochement between Maggie (Wiig) and Milo (Hader). “It was really important to me to capture the ways brothers and sisters interact.”

Indeed, the film depends entirely on the bruised banter between Maggie and Milo, two damaged adults whose father committed suicide during their childhood and whose mother has fled to the Southwest and New Age spirituality. Reconvening in their New Jersey hometown, where Maggie’s a dental hygienist, she and failed actor Milo consider their alienation from the world. (She’s married to Wilson’s Lance, but treats him like furniture.) How is it that two kids of such promise, once so tight, ended up so mopey and alone? “What the hell happened to us?” asks Maggie. The situation and sibling dynamic puts you in mind of You Can Count on Me and The Savages, if rendered in a more self-consciously sardonic key. Maggie and Milo are two drama queens who—if they deserve no one else—certainly deserve each other.

Johnson wanted the tenor of his film to be “humor in the face of darkness,” he says, to build on the rapport of his stars to sell a small story that the studios deemed “a little too weird.” To offset that story’s underlying sadness, Johnson says it’s “riffing on this relationship that exists in the public’s mind. [Bill and Kristen] are very close friends in real life, very much a kind of brother/sister relationship.”

Though Hader and Wiig won’t be attending SIFF with Johnson, who’ll do a Q&A on Friday, they were both at Sundance with him to share in the buzz for Skeleton Twins (expected for late-summer release). He’s grateful for Hader—“This was his first lead role, and he just plunged in”—but especially for Wiig, who after Bridesmaids can headline most any comedy she wants. (Fun SIFF fact: Her voice can also be heard in How to Train Your Dragon 2.) “When Kristen stepped in,” says Johnson, “I felt like this might really happen. There’s so much fear in this business. It costs so much money, and movie stars are your insurance.”

Still, like any good indie director, he admits of Hader and Wiig, “They got paid nothing.”

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

THE SKELETON TWINS Egyptian (805 E. Pine St., 324-9996, siff.net.) $10–$12. 9:30 p.m. Fri., May 16.

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