Christmas in the suburbs: homecomings, gift-giving, festive decorations, caroling, and a scandalous love affair that threatens to tear two families apart. Perhaps this isn’t what might be expected in a holiday film, but that’s just what makes the ensemble comedy “The Oranges” so unique. “This is a holiday movie for people who are skeptical of holiday movies,” explains producer Anthony Bregman. “Holiday movies often set an unreal view of what life is like. They make you realize that your life isn’t as happy as the Christmas decorations or the music. What’s entertaining about ‘The Oranges’ is that it examines a scandalous and entertaining problem against the backdrop of the holidays.”
The Walling and Ostroff neighbors are not unlike many suburban families who have been best friends and neighbors for over two decades. They share everything — weekend dinners, hobbies, family barbecues, and the holidays — as we are told by our story’s narrator and the youngest Walling, Vanessa (ALIA SHAWKAT). And like some suburban households, this familiar routine can sometimes turn a vibrant life into one of gentle despair. This is what has happened to the Wallings and Ostroffs. Despite Paige Walling’s (CATHERINE KEENER) obsessive insistence on the joy of Christmas (her caroling group starts rehearsals in August), or Terry Ostroff’s (OLIVER PLATT) endless fascination over his latest gadget, or David Walling (HUGH LAURIE) and Cathy Ostroff’s (ALLISON JANNEY) patient acceptance of their friends’ and spouses’ idiosyncratic habits, these two families are in a pretty unhappy place.
Until, that is, one particular Thanksgiving when David Walling answers the door to find the prodigal daughter of Terry and Cathy – Nina Ostroff (LEIGHTON MEESTER) returned after a five year absence. After drifting from place to place and suffering an unexpected break-up with her fiancé Ethan (SAM ROSEN), Nina finds herself back in the last place she wants to be, West Orange, New Jersey. And our story begins.
“Both David and Paige have become a bit stuck,” explains screenwriter Ian Helfer. “And in many ways Nina has always been something of a button-pusher and a troublemaker. A lot of people might be happy just to stay in their unhappy relationship, but Nina is able to come in and poke at it in a way that really blows things up. They are perfectly matched — at least at that moment in their lives.”
According to screenwriters Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss, the story is very loosely based on a May-December romance that they heard about from friends. “The first question, after this affair started, was what would it be like for Nina to have her parents over for dinner,” says Reiss. Elaborating on those moments of awkwardness – and with time to write a spec script because of the Writers Guild strike, the story and the characters became fleshed out with both humor and depth. “The big idea was, what if they really fell in love, this 24 year old girl and a 50 year old guy?”, continues Helfer. “It’s not that odd that this affair would lead to a real relationship, which in turn would turn this hermetically sealed world upside-down.” The strength and humor of the film rests on the delicate balance between David and Nina’s affair being shocking to both families, but not too disturbing to audiences. Producer Bregman admits it’s a tricky tightrope to walk: “The character of David has to be old enough so that the relationship with Nina is inappropriate, but not too old that the whole thing is unattractive.”
Much to the delight of Helfer and Reiss, the script for “The Oranges” quickly made the rounds and impressed those who read it. The script was put on the underground “blacklist” of great unproduced scripts, making it one of the industry’s hottest reads. Anthony Bregman, with dozens of credits in independent films including “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Friends With Money,” was the first to come aboard, and eventually found a producing and financing partner in producer Leslie Urdang, whose company recently produced high-profile critical hits like the Oscar-nominated “Rabbit Hole” and Mike Mills’ “Beginners.” “It’s rare that you read a script where you laugh all the way through and then you cry at the end,” remembers Urdang. “For me the power of the film lies in its illustration of how people come together because they each need something real and valuable from the other person in order to move forward. And in the idea that sometimes the most disastrous things turn out to be exactly what we need to wake up to our lives.” Urdang felt the script would also attract top talent. “I think that the real surprise is how much we root for David and Nina to have this time together,” says Urdang. “whether it’s supposed to last forever or not.”
It was British-born director Julian Farino, a veteran of documentary and television shows such as “Entourage” and “Big Love,” who was chosen to take the reins of “The Oranges” and make the script come to life. “There were a lot of directors who were interested,” recalls Ian Helfer. “Jay asked me to talk to Julian, because they were friends who had worked together before, and Julian’s sensibilities were right on. He has great comic sense, but also gets the heart of it.” “This is the third thing I’ve done with Julian,” says Reiss, “and after we finished the script, he asked me to read it. I told him I didn’t think it would be his kind of thing – it’s set in the suburbs in New Jersey – but he got it right away. He really gets the characters and the tone.” “Julian’s style syncs precisely with the style of this movie,” agrees Anthony Bregman. “It’s about serious stuff, but it’s told in a very funny way, and in a very soulful way.”
For his part, Farino admits that his background gave him a bit of an asset when approaching the material. “I started in documentary, so I have a bit of experience being the viewing outsider. I think as Brits we’re trained in a tradition of realism, so I think I bring that with my instincts. I never really thought of it as just an American story, it’s also a suburban story, and it’s very universal in its themes. It’s about mothers and daughters, and husbands and wives, and families and friendships, and those themes are all cross-cultural.”
Although David and Nina set the story in motion, the film is a true ensemble piece, with each part requiring actors who could deliver a range of emotions and reactions, from sincere emotional betrayal to broad physical comedy. The first to be cast was David, who, as Bregman noted, had to be likeable enough to root for and not come across as a guy you would expect to take advantage of a younger woman. The filmmakers all agree that there could have been no better choice than Hugh Laurie, the veteran British comedic actor whose credits range from the absurdly oblivious Bertie on the BBC’s “Jeeves and Wooster” to the kindly patriarch in the “Stuart Little” films to the irascibly misanthropic title character in the long-running Fox network medical drama “House.” “I pinned my hopes on landing Hugh from the beginning,” says Julian Farino. “He has a unique blend of charm, intelligence, and ease, but there’s nothing predatory about him. If you felt that David’s attraction was just based on desire or sexuality, the whole thing would come unstuck.” Leslie Urdang adds, “We’ve not seen Hugh do something like this. He’s paternal and sexy. It’s great that Julian and Hugh are both British, as well. They share a cultural approach in terms of the film’s emotional tone. American families tend to express themselves more dramatically – that’s a generalization, of course – but I think both Julian and Hugh are mining that and getting a kick out of it.”
“I probably should have some kind of strategy about the kind of film I ‘should’ do,” jokes Hugh Laurie, “but I don’t – I just respond to a well-written script. This script was funny, and touching. For all of the heartache at the center of the film, though, there’s something very optimistic about it, which I found very uplifting.” The central relationship between David and Nina would also prove a substantial acting challenge. “You have two problems, really,” explains Laurie. “One is to get the audience to believe the relationship, and that can be a big enough problem, sometimes insurmountable. The second problem is they not only need to believe it, they have to like it, they have to approve of it, and they’ve got to root for it. To get both of those things right is tricky for the actors, but also for the director, and I think Julian had it right from the beginning. He understood how people might, against their better judgment, end up rooting for this couple. We’re not Bonnie and Clyde – we don’t rob any banks – but in the suburban world, they are an outlaw couple, and Julian always had a very clear idea about how that could work, about how there could be a kind of joy in it.”
Finding the other half of the scandalous couple ultimately led to actress Leighton Meester. “I felt very lucky in a sense, because Leighton and I had actually worked together before,” says Hugh Laurie, who had established a professional rapport with Meester when she guest-starred on two episodes of “House.” “So the ice came slightly pre-broken – it was in cubes, actually – which was a great advantage. It proved to be much less traumatic than either of us thought it was going to be. We both thought, ‘this could be awkward if we don’t get this right,’ but we ultimately felt really at ease.”
“I think people are going to like the couple of David and Nina,” says Leighton Meester. “Without all of the other drama, it’s pure, and it’s quite real. They fall in love and it’s quite beautiful, if for nothing else that they teach each other a lot about life, and happiness, and freedom. It’s not about the difference in their ages, it’s just about them. When Nina starts out, she doesn’t think very highly of how she grew up or where she is from, but when she comes back, she discovers a lot about herself and really grows up.” “Leighton is absolutely sublime and spirited and accessible,” enthuses Leslie Urdang. “Her chemistry with Hugh is just beyond what we could have asked for.”
In many ways, the not-so-silent protagonist of the film is Vanessa Walling, who has watched her former best friend Nina break out of her suburban shell, only to return and shatter Vanessa’s world by beginning the affair with David. “Alia Shawkat is strong, funny, and so vulnerable at the same time,” says Leslie Urdang. “She’s leads us through the heart of the story.” Shawkat is best remembered as part of the infamously dysfunctional Bluth family of the series “Arrested Development,” where she played the role of Maeby Fünke. Being in the middle of the madness of “The Oranges” meant shouldering a new burden for the young California-born actress. “Vanessa’s very stilted in her life, not exactly on the fast track” says Shawkat. “I think that’s why it’s a unique script, for a character like that to be the narrator. She doesn’t have the most balanced, omniscient perspective, looking at everybody equally. She really hates Nina, and she’s very judgmental of everybody, including herself, but she always says it like it is.”
Catherine Keener was chosen to play the part of Paige Walling, the spurned wife who moves out of the family home after learning of her husband’s interest in Nina, but still attempts to preserve her traditional holiday plans. Keener is no stranger to Anthony Bregman, who has produced four of Keener’s previous films, and who states plainly that he considers Keener “one of the greatest actresses alive.” “One of her many talents,” he continues, “which is particularly applicable for this role, is that she’s very good at playing someone who is pissed off, and you can’t say that about most actors. Something really terrible happens to her at the beginning of the story, and she’s really enraged for the rest of the movie, and Catherine is someone who is fun to watch be enraged.” Although Paige’s rage is evident, her character is unique in that she is separated more from the ensemble than the others, and largely suffers the breakup of her family on her own. “There’s a confusing rhythm to Paige,” says Keener of the role, “but Julian was always there to help me find it.” Key to the role is Paige’s obsession with Christmas, which serves as collateral damage (literally, as audiences will discover) in the fallout of the David-Nina relationship. “Paige wants to live forever in the holidays,” says Keener, “but the affair dismantles her idea of what her life is supposed to be like.”
Across the street from the Wallings live Cathy and Terry Ostroff, played by Allison Janney and Oliver Platt – who receive universal praise from the cast and crew for their ability to draw great comedic moments out of otherwise dire emotional circumstances. “Oliver and Allison have comic gifts to spare,” says Julian Farino. “I’m just there to nudge them around and stay out of their way.” “These are two actors who know how to stay truthful and be broadly comic at the same time,” agrees Leslie Urdang. Hugh Laurie is equally impressed by his castmates’ profound comedic sensibilities. “To sit and watch Oliver and Allison do their thing three feet away is a true joy – you’ve got the best seat in the house, and it’s the greatest pleasure to see them after admiring them from afar for so long.”
Like Hugh Laurie and Leighton Meester, Platt and Janney were aided by the fact that they had crossed paths professionally before, notably on the acclaimed series “The West Wing.” “I adore Oliver,” says Allison Janney, “and I was very excited at the idea of playing his wife.” The performance of Cathy, she says, was inspired by her mother and other women she grew up with. “I always try to say the right thing, but Cathy has no edit button,” she says of her sometimes caustic on-screen counterpart. “In a way, I’m living a fantasy of how I’d really like to be.” On a more universal level, Janney and Platt were impressed with the script’s ability to surprise. Says Oliver Platt: “The whole affair ends up changing everyone in very mysterious and unexpected ways.” Working with Janney is just as much of a treat for Platt: “We plug into each other’s sense of idiocy immediately.”
Part of Terry’s biographical past includes a bit of trivia that writer Jay Reiss was particularly proud of including, and in fact becomes part of Terry’s reaction to his daughter’s affair with his best friend. Terry can’t help himself from boasting on more than one occasion that he co-founded the sport of Ultimate Frisbee with a few other college buddies – including blockbuster film producer Joel Silver. (Silver in fact did help establish the sport as a college student). Out-of-shape Terry finds himself curiously inspired to return to his game, which was perfect for Platt, who played the game himself in college and was recovering from knee surgery at the time of the filming, making his character’s physicality that much more realistic.
That kind of realism wasn’t as easy to come by for the production crew. Although set during the fall, from Thanksgiving Day to Christmas, the film was shot in the spring, leading to some interesting challenges on the set. For the most part, mother nature cooperated, although the Thanksgiving dinner scene was shot on a day where the temperature topped ninety degrees, making it all the more uncomfortable for the actors bundled in fall clothes on the set. “There were no leaves on the trees for the first few days of shooting,” remembers Ian Helfer, “but then some trees started blooming.” “I’ve never been so conscious of spring and how fast it happens,” laments Jay Reiss playfully. Still, the effect in the film is seamless, as the fake snow and holiday decorations managed to transform the location (a suburban cul-de-sac in New Rochelle) into a thoroughly believable winter wonderland.
But creating a holiday atmosphere meant more than set decoration and carefully trimmed tree blossoms – it meant fostering an ensemble spirit that would allow audiences to believe that the Wallings and Ostroffs had known each other for decades. To streamline some of the production logistics, the producers didn’t provide individual trailers for the actors on set, instead renting a nearby home where they could all relax and prepare together, often playing cards while Hugh Laurie tinkered at a piano. Likewise, the screenwriters, who had crafted their work over the course of nearly two years, were a constant presence on the set (and in fact have cameos as two of the singers in Paige’s caroling group). This meant that they were able to consult with either the director or the actors in order to ensure that the quality and tone of the dialogue fit the individual performance styles, a process much more like episodic television or professional theatre than conventional filmmaking.
That kind of feeling was fostered most specifically by director Julian Farino. “Julian has a tremendous esprit de corps,” says Catherine Keener. “He didn’t separate us from each other.” “He’s really given us room to breathe, but always has very specific notes,” adds Alia Shawkat. “One always hopes that the tone on the set is the tone you see on screen,” says Anthony Bregman.
The cast and crew even found a common enemy: the giant snow globe that gadget-obsessed Terry places on his front lawn. Though they had high hopes for the set piece’s visual appeal, the device itself turned out to be difficult to manage, requiring far more effort and manpower to function than anyone wanted. “I hate the snow globe,” says Julian Farino, refusing to discuss it further. Appropriately, perhaps, the unsightly decoration becomes the target of Paige’s wrath in one of the film’s more outrageous comic moments, which ultimately proved to be cathartic for everyone on set. Fortunately, “The Oranges” isn’t quite as brutal on the holiday season as Paige proves to be. However, its unique take on how the path to happiness sometimes requires selfishness and unexpected sacrifice is likely to prove to be just as memorable and hilarious.