Comedy fans who were around in the ’90s or early 2000s likely know Michael Showalter as a member of the talented troupe The State, who had their own TV show on MTV. Others will remember him as the co-writer and star of the cult classic Wet Hot American Summer.
But these days, Showalter is primarily known as a director — and an in-demand one at that. In 2005, he wrote and directed his first feature, The Baxter, in which he starred alongside Michelle Williams and Elizabeth Banks, and since then, he has gone on to direct the acclaimed Sally Field movie My Name Is Doris and 2017’s The Big Sick, for which star Kumail Nanjiani and his co-writer/wife Emily V. Gordon found themselves nominated for an Oscar.
In addition to serving as a writer and executive producer on the TV series Search Party, Showalter also directed Jessica Chastain to an Oscar in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and Amanda Seyfried to an Emmy for her performance in Hulu’s limited series The Dropout. He also recently worked with Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd on the Apple TV+ series The Shrink Next Door. Clearly, Showalter is having a moment, and he’s been staying super busy vacillating between movies and prestige TV, though he’s ready for a little break.
But first, Showalter returns to theaters with Spoiler Alert, an adaptation of Michael Ausiello‘s bestselling memoir about his relationship with husband Kit Cowan (played by Ben Aldridge in the film), who was diagnosed with an aggressive type of cancer that would ultimately end their storybook romance.
Showalter partnered with The Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons on Spoiler Alert, and he was kind enough to hop on Zoom with Above the Line to discuss the movie and why he was interested in telling this particular story.
Above the Line: I read that Jim and his husband [producer Todd Spiewak] optioned Ausiello’s book and were looking for a “Michael Showalter type” to direct, and then, separately, you reached out to them after learning that they optioned it, and got the gig. Things don’t often happen that easily in Hollywood, so what was it about Michael’s story that made you want to direct Spoiler Alert and bump it to the top of the projects in your queue?
Michael Showalter: Well, honestly, for me, it actually did start with [me] feeling like Jim Parsons was somebody that I would like to work with. I had seen him on Broadway and [in] New York theater a few times, and obviously knew his comedy work, and I really liked his energy. When I read that he had optioned this book, and I sort of read the logline of what the book was about, it seemed like something that would be interesting to me. I’d never met him before, [but] I reached out to him through our representatives in our companies and said, ‘I read that you optioned this book. I don’t know if you guys have a director, but it sounds really interesting.’ And they were like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re who we were thinking of,’ and then they sent me the book, and I just absolutely fell in love with the book.
Also, Michael Ausiello grew up in New Jersey — many things are not the same, but a lot of the stories that he tells, living in New York at a certain time, I felt like I was adjacent to [that] world. It was something I could really picture, and I felt like I knew these characters and could see it all in my head. I’ve only just recently learned that they were saying, ‘We’re looking for a Michael Showalter type.’ I think that’s so funny, but we’ve been this team of people — Jim and his team, and me and my company, and Michael Ausiello — we’ve been together as a group from the beginning, going out and finding screenwriters and collaborating on the movie from Day 1.
ATL: Had Jim and Todd already hired writers and started the adaptation process yet or did they wait until they had you on board before getting David [Marshall Grant] and Dan [Savage] to write the script?
Showalter: We all joined forces, and then kind of went out into the world as like, ‘Here’s this package. It’s going to be Jim Parsons, and I’m going to direct the movie, and here’s the book, and we’re looking for screenwriters.’ We did take a bunch of meetings with a bunch of really wonderful people who kind of pitched us their take, this is their idea, and Dan and David had, I think, worked together on something prior to this, so they had one other experience of writing together. I guess they had talked to each other and said, ‘This could be something for us to join forces on.’ They pitched us a take that we just completely fell in love with, and then, we all went around and looked for someone to partner with and that’s where Focus Features came into it. It’s been an amazing process in that way. It doesn’t usually happen like that, where things kind of continually fall into place like that, but with this movie, that is how it’s been.
ATL: Maybe it’s because I’m a film critic that I’m trained to see patterns in filmographies, but you’ve done a few actor-driven projects, whether it’s working with Kumail on The Big Sick or Jessica for Tammy Faye. Is that just a coincidence, or is it because you have experience as an actor yourself and it’s just easier to connect with projects like that?
Showalter: Yeah. You know what? It’s [the] actor and [the] character. There’s a very strong central character, and then also having that right actor to play that part that I feel a strong connection to, even if I don’t know that person, there’s something in that person’s essence that connects me to them in some way. I’ve been really lucky with some of these projects and also Amanda Seyfried in The Dropout, and this project I’m doing right now [The Idea of You] with Anne Hathaway that I’m really excited about. There’s something about finding [the] right actor to collaborate with — like Sally Field — where, on some level, I get to express myself vis-a-vis, in some ways, that performer, [who] is saying something with their performance that speaks to me in some profound way. There is definitely a connection [with] finding that right actor to tell the story.
ATL: With Jessica and Tammy Faye, you had these now Oscar-winning makeup artists to make her look more like Tammy Faye. Was that not a consideration or a concern with Jim and Michael, maybe because not nearly as many people know what Michael looks like?
Showalter: Yeah, exactly. It was very important that Jessica look like Tammy because people know what Tammy Faye looks like, and [what she looks like] is so important to telling the story of Tammy Faye, because her looks were so much at the center of the controversy around her makeup and what have you, her voice. Recreating Tammy was something very important to Jessica, especially, but to me as well. Whereas I think with Michael Ausiello, this is a much more universal story where Michael Ausiello is a real person, but it’s the essence of the character, the humanity of the character, in this case, that I think people connect to.
ATL: You’re a terrific writer yourself, so when you take on a project as a director, is it a given that you’ll take a pass at the script or work with the writers to make sure the screenplay is where you want it to be before production?
Showalter: Most of the time, I’ve been lucky enough to work on projects where I’m able to come in and do some work to the script to kind of help shape it and or to allow my tone to speak through it. This certainly was one where I definitely had a lot of input in the script process. Sometimes, that doesn’t happen. I mean, on The Dropout, Liz Meriwether‘s scripts were so phenomenal, and on that one, in particular, it was really more about trying to channel her vision. That was exciting, too, but more often than not, I am usually able to do a little bit of work on the script as we’re ramping up toward production.
ATL: One of the big reasons this film works as well as it does is the casting of Ben Aldridge as Kit. I’m sure I must have seen him on Fleabag, but I’m curious how you wound up finding and casting him, and how you knew he was the right guy.
Showalter: We had an amazing casting director, Avy Kaufman, and she had made a list of “here are some actors that maybe aren’t as well known as others [who] could be interesting for the role.” We took a meeting with Ben — a Zoom meeting, because we were very much in COVID at that time. As me and Jim Parsons and Ben Aldridge were Zooming together, I was just like, ‘It’s him. He’s the guy. This is Kit.’ He has all the qualities [that] I think the character needs in that he’s cool, but he’s also a nice guy, but there’s something a little bit enigmatic about him. He’s not someone who’s… you can tell that there’s a deep internal life there, but he’s incredibly charming. I just felt right away that he was the right person, and then as soon as the Zoom was over, Jim and I spoke on the phone, and Jim was feeling the exact same way. We went to Focus and said, ‘We really believe that this is the guy,’ and thankfully, they had enough faith in us to let us go with Ben, and yeah, he’s amazing in the film.
ATL: You’ve been really busy as a director between your last two movies, and, as you said, The Dropout. Do you generally work with the same group of below-the-line collaborators like your DP or editor, and has COVID affected that at all, since not everyone is necessarily able to work?
Showalter: I’m not someone [who] it’s always exactly the same people. Because everybody’s busy, and so a lot of the people [who] I work with aren’t necessarily waiting around for my next project. There are three or four people that I like, one DP in particular, Brian Burgoyne, who did Spoiler Alert; that’s [the] fourth feature that I’ve done with Brian. We also did [My Name Is] Doris and The Big Sick and [The] Lovebirds, and now this.
I’ve worked with most of my key department heads on more than one thing, but often what will happen is, I work with someone, and then I have another project and that person is working on something else. But I love working with the same people as much as I possibly can, and most of the people [who] I’ve worked with, we’ll work on something and then find a way to work on something again. So usually, it’s people [who] I’ve worked with more than once.
ATL: With a movie like Spoiler Alert where it’s mostly Jim and Ben for most of it, do you generally like to do a lot of rehearsals, or was it not necessary in this case since Jim was already up to speed on the project? Or is it just different for every project?
Showalter: It’s different for every project, for sure. On this one, in particular, we didn’t rehearse, but we were constantly working on the movie, talking about the movie, talking about scenes that we hadn’t shot yet, maybe making some tweaks to the dialogue, trying to really make sure that every scene was about exactly what it was about. That sort of takes on its own version of rehearsal, so you’re constantly talking about the movie and immersed in the story and immersed in the characters, but it’s not so much like a play where you’re literally like, “Here’s the script, and we’re just gonna keep rehearsing the scenes.” It’s more talking about the scenes and the characters that is its own version of rehearsal, I think.
ATL: I’m not sure I saw the trailer before I saw the movie, but because of your background in comedy, as well as Jim’s, and because Billy Eichner’s Bros had just come out, I assumed this was more of a comedy than it actually was. Obviously, it deals with very serious matters between Michael and his husband, but are you consciously trying to shift away from comedy as a director, or not so much?
Showalter: I do think this movie is funny, but I totally know what you mean. I think this film has a lot of humor in it. It’s not the kind of humor that is in Wet Hot [American Summer], but these characters are very funny, and there is a lot of humor in the film. I mean, Sally Field’s character is very funny in the movie, Bill Irwin is very funny, and Jim is very funny. It goes into themes that aren’t funny and that are more dramatic, and I think, for me, that’s the kind of material that I like the most. I think that was true of The Big Sick and that’s [also] true of Doris. A lot of [it] is finding projects that are both, that can be comedic but also have some larger themes that, for me, kind of invest me deeper in the story, directorially. I think I get more invested personally when there are some larger themes to explore that there can be comedy around.
ATL: By the way, is Michael really a collector of Smurfs? I just watched the trailer with that scene in it, and that must have been a really fun set to dress.
Showalter: Those are his Smurfs. Those are Ausiello’s. He is truly a Smurf collector, and he donated his Smurf collection to the movie, although we had to give his Smurfs back to him. But that is Michael Ausiello’s actual Smurf collection.
ATL: That’s amazing. Did you set them up the exact same way he has them as well?
Showalter: I don’t think so, but his Smurfs collection was donated to the film for the period of the shoot.
ATL: Have you already started this new movie with Anne Hathaway, or is that still in the pre-production phase?
Showalter: We’re about halfway through, we’re about halfway finished.
ATL: Oh, nice. You’re a busy, busy guy.
Showalter: I know, I’m a busy guy. I’m trying to stay busy. I’m looking forward to maybe trying to take a little bit of a break in the next year or two, but it’s definitely been a busy couple of years, no question.
Spoiler Alert is now playing in select cities and will expand nationwide on Friday, Dec. 9.