Kristen Bell and Ben Platt play siblings who travel to England to watch their half-sister walk down the aisle and exchange vows in the new comedy The People We Hate at the Wedding, which is now streaming on Prime Video.
The film hails from director Claire Scanlon, who developed a feel for comic timing as a longtime editor on The Office before getting her start as a director on that NBC series. She racked up credits on a bunch of hit TV shows including Modern Family, The Goldbergs, Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, The Mindy Project, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and GLOW, before ultimately making her feature debut with the charming 2018 Netflix movie Set It Up featuring rising stars Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell.
The People We Hate at the Wedding is her second feature, and it finds Scanlon working with Oscar winner Allison Janney, who plays the mother whom Bell and Platt’s characters can’t stand to see at the raucous party the night before the big ceremony.
Scanlon recently spoke to Above the Line about her new film, how she made the jump from TV to features, how she landed the big-name cast, and what it was like shooting across the pond in London.
Above the Line: I’m sure I’m the first person in history to ask this, but what’s your most memorable wedding memory?
Scanlon: Oh, most memorable wedding memory. That is such a great question that I have not been asked yet [laughs]. Funnily enough, it’s been so long since I’ve actually been to a wedding because of the pandemic; I have to go deep into the recesses of my mind. I mean, mine are all, like, super raunchy, probably not okay to say [laughs]. Most of the ones I remember [are] random people hooking up because they were jealous of the wedding couple. I know one person who slept with two different people [over] the same wedding weekend.
You know, mine are super R-rated and I just think it was more about seeing something that was so wonderful, like, someone had found their truly significant other that was gonna not just fulfill them, but also just make their life feel complete at that moment. And it being on display made this other person just act out like a crazy person because the concoction of alcohol, plus, a kind of, like, “I want that,” and [they] just go berserk. It was fascinating to see. I wouldn’t recommend it as something someone should do at a wedding, but it was insane.
ATL: Well, maybe down the line you’ll make a sequel where you can include some of those memories [laughs].
Scanlon: I mean, the people in this movie, Alice (Kristen Bell) and Paul (Ben Platt), definitely behave badly, [but] in a much more laugh-inducing way, thankfully.
ATL: How did editing and directing television help you make the transition into feature films?
Scanlon: You know, it’s interesting. Well, for sure being an editor in comedy helps with timing. I could be watching something as a viewer on a set just looking at the monitors and saying, ‘We just don’t have it,’ you know? Like, I put my editing brain on [and say], ‘We don’t have a way to get from that moment to this moment. The blocking is wrong, the cameras are wrong.’ Even if we had a great plan initially, I could just do that very quickly on the fly.
And then also looking for those little moments that you want in comedy, like at the end of a scene, especially in television, you say, ‘We need a blow,’ and that refers to, like, an ending — a button, if you will, on the scene. And sometimes I’ll say, ‘Oh, we don’t have it.’
You know, the very first scripted show I ever did was The Office and so much of the comedy in that show plays on the reactions of the characters. Obviously, the words are hilarious and the performances are hilarious, but it’s the viewer [that] relates to the people watching the insanity ensue in that one paper company that really helps you [feel as though] you are the people viewing Michael Scott (Steve Carell) go insane [laughs] or being ridiculous and trying to force his entire workforce to be his family and friends.
So it’s like you kind of relate, and those are the moments I’m always looking for in comedy on any project I work on — people [being], like, “What’s going on?” you know, like there are moments in particular [that] I can think of in this film and people are like, “What are you doing?” because the audience truly [are] bystanders in the film or the television show [and] are basically our way into the scene or into the story. So editing [helped] for sure.
Directing television absolutely prepares you very well for directing movies. If anything, a movie schedule seems decadent and luxurious compared to a television one. You just don’t get nearly the amount of time on a television show to let a scene unfold on set. You have to be hyper-prepared and as a television journey-woman director, you kind of have to be a spoke in a wheel in that you can bring enough of yourself and your aesthetic to a particular show, but you do want to make sure your episode looks just like the visual themes and the tone of the whole television show. You don’t want yours to be, like, sticking out like a sore thumb, so you do have to kind of try to temper your aesthetic to the show itself so that you get the showrunner exactly what they want to tell the story.
ATL: You started working on The Office in Season 5, so at that point, did you ever think to yourself that the show’s legacy would live on for years and years?
Scanlon: Oh, it’s really weird to me when my friends’ kids come up to me and ask me questions [and are] like, ‘I love The Office,’ and I’m like, ‘Why are you watching this? You’re a little kid,’ and I realized that particular show, The Office, is really a metaphor for any place, including the classroom, so I think kids relate to that show in particular because it is like any [job]. You have to go to a job where you’re forced to work with [people you don’t like], you have to go to a school where you’re forced to be in a class with kids you don’t like; it’s very similar.
ATL: So I know that The People We Hate at the Wedding was based on a book, which I imagine you’ve read, yes?
Scanlon: Grant Ginder wrote the book and it’s great. Wendy and Lizzie Molyneux did the adaptation and there [are] definitely some differences. [When] going from a book where you’re able to imagine [everything] yourself to a film, you really have to have more visual ways of expressing the same sentiments on the written page — and that’s just true all the time. So there might be more words that you can use dialogue in a book in a way that you need to just show visually [in a movie].
For me, what was so exciting about this film is that we shot [it] in London. It truly is a love letter to the city of London, and basically about how Americans come to London and behave like complete asses — and we’re definitely taking the piss on Americans here, so I definitely think that the British will like this film [laughs].
My mom happens to be English, so my mom definitely likes this film. She lives in America, so obviously she likes America enough to live here and raise her children here ’cause I clearly don’t have an English accent. But it was really fun to be an American telling a story that’s kind of pissing on Americans in London and really shows what’s so great about the city of London and how many flowers [there are, and] how lush it is coming from Los Angeles, which is very much a desert; no green.
My eyes were just so excited to go walk through Hyde Park — [especially] after the pandemic — and see these insane hydrangeas that are so big [that] they have their own name, “Annabelles,” and try to shove those into the movie. And visually, it was just an explosion of lush greenery. That was just such a pleasure.
ATL: Had you read the book before the script arrive, or did you read the script first?
Scanlon: I read the script first, so that was actually great. And in fact, I waited on reading the book because I didn’t want it to impact me too much because they are different. I see this film as a culmination of a family and there’s no one story that’s more important than the other. This is the story of four family members coming together and working through conflicts [and] adversity through communication, and ultimately, the wedding is a catalyst.
It all comes to a head, as weddings tend to, which is why I think there are so many films that feature weddings — because that’s when everyone’s forced to be together. You can’t escape and you’re supposed to be on your best behavior. And of course, no one is because you’ve got alcohol and music and lots of people, and the tensions [are] heightened. In our case, some of our family members end up in jail [laughs], so that’s not exactly where we expect to be the night before a wedding, although I’m sure they’re not the only family that’s had that happen.
ATL: I know you filmed over in London, but how long was the shoot there? Did you get time to kind of take in the city in all its splendor?
Scanlon: Yeah, I definitely did. [It was] two months [of] prep, two months [to] shoot. It was roughly a seven-week shoot. And prep was equally as important because to tell this story, you really want to find the right places in London to feature the city. And then, for our beautiful country estate wedding, we went to Newbury and we had to find the perfect house. And this one is just right. I mean, it’s stunning. It’s just stunning.
When I see the film and I see all the work coming together, [and] I see that location, I just remember the first time we went there, a bunch of sheep just came up to greet us, like cute little sheep, you know, “baahhing” everywhere. I was like, ‘That’s a sign,’ it was just so welcoming and so pretty. And then on my phone, I still have location pictures from that estate because the owners were lovely. The place was beautiful. You couldn’t have asked for a better place to shoot a wedding.
ATL: And equally as important as the perfect location is the cast, and you have a great one here. Going in, I was like, “I wonder how Kristen Bell and Ben Platt are going to work as siblings,” but I thought they were really great together. Did you have a hand in their casting?
Scanlon: I did. Ben Platt was the very first person who signed on. I was thrilled. This film ironically has nothing to do with music, and we [still] got Ben Platt. I think we then got Allison Janney, [and] like, who wouldn’t want to work with Allison Janney? She just takes everything and elevates it. And she’s so empathetic.
And then at the last second, our original Alice fell through and everyone was like, ‘What about Kristen Bell?’ And I was like, ‘That would be amazing.’ I’d worked with her on The Good Place, [and] she’s phenomenal. She’s such a team player. She’s so funny. She’s so relatable. And there’s just this inherent likability to Kristen Bell, which is really wonderful because the character of Alice, when you meet her, as you know, is not so likable. She’s doing some pretty despicable things, and yet you still want to root for her, but she’s her own worst enemy. So it was really funny.
And then also, [I had a hand] in casting Julian Ovenden, who’s a complete musical phenomenon.
When they [the crew] realized it was Kristen Bell, Ben Platt, [and] Julian Ovenden, everyone was like, ‘When are they singing in the movie?’ And, of course, the only time singing occurred was in between takes — because there’s no music in this movie.
ATL: There’s a confrontation towards the end of this movie — I won’t spoil who’s involved or the context of it — but I was just curious if you had more than one take to pull it off given the collateral damage that occurs, or if you had numerous takes to get it right.
Scanlon: That’s an excellent question from even just a production standpoint. The night was such that the sun was rising so we did it, [but] there was a real deadline on completing that scene. So elements of it were repeated, but the one big disastrous moment, we did one-and-done because there was a Steadicam shot that leads you into that rehearsal dinner that we had to get. Had we not gotten it, we wouldn’t have been able to establish that. But it was beautifully done by Peter Cavacluti, who is an amazing Steadicam operator — he did 1917 if you’re familiar — so we were insanely lucky to have him, and it was a phenomenal shot. It just took some choreography, and we also needed the time for that.
Also, some people might have just had children that might have been visiting the set at one month of age, so those people needed to go home [laughs]. I’ll let you infer who those people might be because I certainly don’t wanna give that away [smiles].
ATL: There’s another scene where Alice orders that massive breakfast right to her hotel room and we cut ahead in time and we see kind of the damage that’s been done with some of the food. I’m just curious if it was real food — I’m assuming it was — and if the cast or crew were able to enjoy any of it.
Scanlon: No [laughs]! And what’s really frustrating — this is very funny — we really wanted Veuve Clicquot to be the champagne, which it is. You saw, there’s just something extra special about that champagne, and we got a bunch of Veuve Clicquot, we bought it and paid for it.
You know, [in a scene] you pour it out so they can drink fizzy water — they’re not really drinking — but we were like, ‘Where did you pour it?’ since usually, you pour it into something so that someone from the crew can take it home and enjoy it over the weekend [laughs]. It was a “greener” prop department and they’re like, ‘We poured it down the sink,’ so there was [nothing] left. We were like, ‘Oh my God. Amateur move!’
So all that delicious champagne went down the drain. [laughs]
The People We Hate at the Wedding is now streaming on Prime Video.