Suzi Yoonessi on Balancing the Adorable and the Suicidal in ‘Unlovable’

We chat with the director about helping Charlene deGuzman’s struggle with addiction to the big screen.

Unlovable
Orion Pictures

Some stories take windier paths towards creation than others. Writer/actor Charlene deGuzman garnered initial attention for her online presence as well as her eclectic collection of short films. After I Forgot My iPhone went viral, she reached out to Mark Duplass via Twitter and sent him a script for a pilot she was pitching. He eventually proposed that TV was not the final destination for this story, but that an improv-based theatrical presentation was required. Sarah Adina Smith was brought on board to co-write the script and possibly direct, but somewhere along the journey, she decided her sensibilities were too dark for the material. Enter filmmaking pal Suzi Yoonessi, who brought the right mixture of cuteness and authenticity to Unlovable.

DeGuzman plays Joy in every sense of the word. She’s exploding with enthusiasm for life but suffers tremendously from love and sex addiction. At the start of the film, she’s ready to commit to recovery, but that simply won’t happen without the help of others. She finds that relief in her sponsor (Melissa Leo) and her wannabe rock star brother (John Hawkes).

I spoke to Yoonessi over the phone the week before the release of the film. We discuss why the usual improv method of the Duplass brothers was not going to work for Unlovable. We also chat about balancing the cute with the realities of sex addiction, and how this film could have easily descended into far more morose depths. Unlovable is a tremendously personal tale for deGuzman, but Yoonessi found deep connections to her own life within, and she hopes audiences will as well.

Here is our conversation in full:

I am fascinated by the inception of the film. Charlene deGuzman obviously had a pretty big online presence beforehand and she gains entry into Mark Duplass’ DMs and suddenly a relationship starts there, a screenplay is formed. Where do you come on board with this process?

Well, so interestingly I actually came onboard before the screenplay was formed. Charlene did send a script to Mark that was a pilot I think for a TV show. And then he said, “Let’s develop this into a feature.” And they started outlining it. When I came on, Sarah Adina Smith introduced me to Charlene and she is a great writer and director. And at some point, she was actually attached to direct the film and her work is much darker than my work. I think she had moments in the process of outlining where she was like “I really think Charlene and Suzie should meet.” And then she called me about Charlene. She said, “If I was ever going to set up two people on a friend date, it would be you guys.” You’re both super cute things and you think about love all the time and exploring love and the many chambers of the heart.

So when I came on, what they had was an outline. The intention was to do the film all with improv off of this outline. That was a pretty detailed 25-page outline, but in bringing me on, because I had worked with people before who are had never – this was Charlene’s first feature. She’s definitely a comedian and had the chops to do it, but I felt strongly that we needed a script and that it made sense to have a script. And I said, “Even if we throw out the script, we should still have a script that we can go back to and reference, and I think it will help.” A lot of Duplass brother films are improv-based and so are our ensembles of actors who have done this a million times but I didn’t want that, on a short schedule and low budget, to be working with someone who was in their first feature for that to hold us back from having magic happen.

So Sarah Adina Smith and Charlene started to write the script. We then got John Hawkes and Melissa Leo attached, and they were both more of method-based actors, and a lot of it was very true to the script that we ended up landing on. Actually, I had worked John with about 10 years ago on Miranda July’s first film Me and You and Everyone We Know.

Yeah, love that movie.

Yeah. Such a great film and I had grown up in a riot girl band playing guitar. We both bonded immediately. I bonded with John at the time over music and the love of music. So years later I had gone and seen him play and in coming onboard to this film, when we were talking about casting, John was the first person whose name came to mind because we really needed someone who understood music and could write music and be part of that process. Melissa, I had worked with five times so I looped her in. She was super excited about working with John on something.

It’s such an amazing cast. Such an eclectic collection of styles, but they all blend so well together.

Yeah, definitely. I feel like even in pre-production, as we were making things, John and Charlene spent a lot of time rehearsing together. I think that really helped with building chemistry between them. And already, the relationship between Maddie and Charlene is innately like teacher and student. So even in Charlene being this comedian who’s doing her first feature, it was implicit in the dynamic that they had and I think both Melissa and John responded so well to the material and really put their hearts into it so it really shows on screen, including Charlene. She definitely holds her own in such an extreme way and is the beating heart of this film on top of John and Melissa giving great performances. We all were on the same page about what film we were making. So the tone ended up being very consistent across the board in terms of performance.

Well, let’s talk about that tone because it is really tricky here. I mean, this film could easily have fallen into being a simple, awkward romantic comedy, or it could have been a lot heavier. What was your philosophy in approaching these characters, this material, the narrative, to balance that tone?

Well, I think for me, because it could have gone several ways, and there’s certainly a darker version of this film, but even in terms of the relationship between Joy and Jim, from the first read of it, I just felt very strongly that it was a friendship and that they certainly grow to love each other and care for each other, but that wasn’t all about sex and sexuality. I know there was definitely a version of the film where they ended up together. That was not the story I was interested in telling. Charlene too. We were both interested in telling a story about friendship and how music is a common language in bringing people together and these two people from very different walks of life, where Charlene’s character Joy is someone who has no boundaries and Jim is the exact opposite and has such extreme boundaries.

So pairing these two together, it is the yin and the yang and two people from very different walks of life who both are struggling, especially with Joy, struggling to find her internal beat. And so it created an interesting dynamic. But always for Jim, his want was to make music, to make music, to be a rock star. Growing up, I remember my first guitar teacher was an older guy who was still going to be a rock star and making music and living the punk rock life. So yeah. It was interesting, definitely, in terms of performance. I really believe comedy should come from an honest moment and that we should be laughing with characters as opposed to at characters. So really just grounding everything in the honesty and truth of a moment was incredibly important.

Was there a moment before production, or maybe even during production, that you knew in the film had to work for the whole film to work?

Yes, definitely. I think there’re two scenes. There’s the big fight between Melissa and John and that was an interesting day too on set. I remember initially in the schedule, our AP had had it first up and I was like “We do not want to do this first thing in the morning. At least push it later in the day so that they can build to this. Even with John and Melissa, these are two great actors who have wanted to work together for so long and they’re going to have this big, crazy fight scene and they’re both method style actors so will definitely emotionally be in that space. But the scene, really, I mean, it was like fireworks in that barrage. And even for Charlene, it was like these two heroes that she had going at it, and she was just terrified in the back of the space. And yeah, so that was an important scene for it to really land.

And then the following scene with Charlene in the room where she’s crying and has that breakdown. I always think it’s just important for tears to come from an honest place. And for Joy in that moment, just to see her break, and I really remember where there was a moment where Charlene was like “Oh, Gabby [Quinonez the makeup designer] has glycerin drops.” Because makeup artists have things, those sticks that can make people cry. But I was like “No, no, no, no. These tears are going to come from a real place. And we’ll talk it through and I’ll help you get there.” But for sure, in that moment too, I just always feel like you can tell someone’s crying from an honest place, in a place of vulnerability and fear. For her character, fear of abandonment in that moment, these two people who have come to be the stability in her world both going up like that. So we worked for it and I think it really shows on screen.

I mean, that’s just such a painful moment to witness. I think it’s interesting, your wanting to get tears from a real place. What’s your conversation with your actor at that moment? How do you convince them that that’s the place they need to go to?

I mean, a lot of actors can just do it, of course. But when you’re a younger actor and learning your craft and building your toolbox, I think there was a moment where she was like “I’m not going to cry.” And I said “Well, if you trust me, I can help you get there. But it’s going to hurt.” I won’t go into detail about what it was, but it was just finding that thing that was a trigger to trigger her and I think she even had a moment where she was like “That’s not going to make me cry. That’s just going to make me angry.” And then she was like “Okay, I’m ready to shoot.”

It is just building up the trust and setting up for those big scenes and those big scenes where it’s like a character breakdown or a big turn in their world where you have a scene that goes super emotional, trying to not put that at the top of your schedule too. At that point I had built trust and gained the trust of Charlene so I could take her somewhere that’s not comfortable and not a happy place to be and then pull her back, but having built that trust where I could use something or use a conversation we had previously had to get to that place and ground the tears or the hurt or the pain in an honest place.

I’m fascinated by that. Thank you for sharing. So, ultimately, what do you want Unlovable to do? How do you want it to reach an audience?

Well, for me, I think it’s important that the takeaway for audiences is hope and that there’s hope and in darkness, you can find light and I think Charlene, in telling this story and writing her story has found light in a dark place. It is a story to tell people that you’re not alone. There’s something I felt that Charlene said recently at a Q and A we had done, we were at a festival screening and people were like “What can we do to help?” And she said “You all have that friend who you know needs to see this film. So please, I hope that friend and their friends come to check out this movie.” Even people who have struggled in the past with addiction, I think it’s a very different take on that type of film because it doesn’t tell a story with darkness. It tells a story filled with light and even if you’re in a dark place, that doesn’t mean that you see your world in black and white. So that, for me, is what my hope is in terms of who will come to see this film and also what the takeaway will be.


Unlovable plays in select theaters and on Digital HD and VOD on November 2nd.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.