Dennis Lee’s “Fireflies in the Garden”, a heavygoing but rewarding drama starring Julia Roberts, Ryan Reynolds and Willem Dafoe, has been sitting on the shelf for three years. Alicia Malone finds out exactly what happened…
Congratulations on the film. I know it was a long road getting it to the release.
Yeah, it was.
It premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2008. Is that correct?
What made it take so long to get to this point where we can finally see it in cinemas?
2008 and 2009 happened and it was just…
The economic crisis?
Yeah, it was just bad. A lot of production companies that I admire went under in 2008, including Senator. It just got caught up in the tangle of financial and legal… it was a legal and financial nightmare to try to get this film out from under all that, and there were so many times… I think for me, I just want to get it out for a sense of closure, but there are so many times when I said just screw it. We got to move on. We’ve got to get past this piece. So much energy and time and devotion was just put into getting this film to the theater, and then I would get a call from one of my producers. Vanessa Coifman would call me and say “Dennis, we’re going to do this. We’re going to…” blah, blah, blah, and she was just so passionate and Sukee Chew was just so passionate about this that whenever one of us felt down, the other person would pick that person up.
To get this movie to the theaters was really – it was just this amazing friends and family experience. People would ask what’s the production company putting it out or distribution company? Well, we are. We are the one’s doing it. I’m not doing anything anymore. I get the pleasure of sitting down and talking to you; the real people who work their magic are Vanessa and Phil and Sukee.
It takes a lot of passion to get a film, firstly, written and then funded and made and then to the screen.
To the screen… it’s just each step is just filled with potential potholes and traps, but through their guidance, we were able to get through it.
You must feel relieved that it’s finally coming out.
Are you excited to get it out to more of an audience?
I’m really excited to get this film out and not only the film but this kind of a movie. Somebody asked me how you feel about the long delay, and I think I’m just blessed because the cut that went out to Berlin and that nationally was a cut that was rushed. It was rushed and compromised in too many ways. I’ve never been prepped on what to say or what not to say during these things…
I felt a lot of pressure to make it a certain way, and then I also was just – I didn’t feel proud of the film. It something that I enjoy in terms of watching it, and so when this opportunity came around for the States release, the domestic release here, the opportunity also came to re-cut the movie, and that was awesome.
That’s a rare thing for a filmmaker once it’s already been to an audience or maybe just some critics to be able to work on it yourself a bit more.
Just bring it closer to the director’s cut. I mean there are certain limitations financially because it takes a lot of money to re-cut an entire film, but we were able to work around a lot of those limitations or work within those limitations to get a cut that the producers and I really felt that was what we wanted four years ago.
What was missing from the first cut do you think that’s in the second cut now?
Clarity was missing and emotion. Wow, can I say this?
Go for it.
When you get a certain cast, right, for or a smaller movie then the animal of the movie change, the expectations for the movie change, not in your eyes, not in the directors’ eyes but in your financiers
They say its Julia Roberts film is an expectation of a certain box office.
Yeah, exactly, and no matter how much you may remind them it’s not a Julia Roberts film, it’s an ensemble film and this is an orange that you’ve been given and the scripts an orange.
And I’m sure she did it because she wanted to more of an independent film. She doesn’t want to keep doing all the blockbusters.
She always said she wanted to do an independent movie like this and then the product that gets released international turns out to be an apple. It’s disappointing. The fact that the film’s been delayed four years here is just a blessing. It’s closer to what we all envisioned coming out. I’m just thankful.
That’s good. What was the original inspiration for writing this movie?
People say that this movie is suddenly autobiographical, but people have really latched on to that. I just clarify that my dad is awesome.
He’s not scary.
My dad is truly awesome. He’s not scary and he’s just a good man. What inspired it was it was 1999 and it was Easter Sunday and I was working and my sister was in college out east, and we got a phone call. The phone call was that my parents were coming back home from an Easter Service and they got hit by a driver, and so my mom passed away and it was awful. There’s no other way to describe it. It was searingly painful. I started film school the fall after that Easter. Thank God for film school. I was a teacher before going to film school teaching sixth, seventh and eighth grade. I didn’t know a single thing about film. I went into film school.
What made you want to go to film school?
Because I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I don’t know. It just felt like the right thing to do. My dad always said you don’t make a decision out of fear, never make decisions out of fear. I just went with my gut and went to film school, and it was awesome. It was completely immersive and you got to just write stories. Fireflies was the first script that I wrote in film school, and it was really just kind of therapy. The script had gone through so many different rewrites and interpretations but really, at first, it was just wish fulfillment. I want my mom back. How am I going to get her back? I’ll write a script about her. So that was the inspiration.
You can tell that certain parts of it feel real. That maybe that’s why people think it’s more the father story that’s real, but it all feels very real with the grief and everything.
There’s a scene where Ryan’s in the church and I just remember my sister coming up to me and going, God, it must’ve been – it was night and she said lets go to the church. I said why are we going to the church? She said that’s because that’s where mom is right now. My sister didn’t want her to be alone. So we went to the church and we just spent the night there. We just slept on the pews. The next morning was the wake or the service. It’s just little moments like that. People have asked the question, well, why doesn’t he have a confrontation with his father for forgiveness? It’s not about the dad. It’s about the mom and the fact that when my mom died, my dad was holding her, and I asked did she feel any pain? He said that she was just very happy. She said she was happy. You could see it in her eyes because my mom had smiling eyes. So when Michael finds out that his mother has passed away and that she was happy, she was genuinely happy, nobody has to read this book anymore. That’s why the final…
He’s got his closure.
He’s got his closure. It’s not about the death. It’s about the fact that the last shot of the movie is him and his mom. I can’t tell you how happy just to know that my mom passed away happy. That’s it. That’s what this movie is about for me. That’s a really expensive form of therapy.
It’s been a long road then or extra-long if you wrote it back in 1999. So then how did you go about getting this amazing cast for it?
Carrie-Anne was the first one. She came on board and read the script and loved it. Then Julia was second on board. It was crazy. It was shocking when Julia came on board. It was something that I never expected. When I meet actors, I’m never nervous around actors just because they’re people. What’s the big deal? I was so nervous around Julia.
Does she have that star presence?
She does, but it’s more everyone reaction to her. We met at this place in Venice, this café in Venice, and everybody turns, and everybody looks. Everybody starts whispering. There’s Julia Roberts, there’s Julia Roberts. Who’s that guy with Julia Roberts? When she said she wanted to do the film, I still couldn’t believe it.
What do you think it was that made her really want to play the mother is this film?
She is perfect for the role. Danny, her husband is the cinematographer on this. He’s just amazingly talented. Julia read the script and really responded to the mom and I think it’s – I don’t want to put words in her mouth. She’s definitely at a point in her life where being a mother to her three children is the most important thing. I think a lot of that came over to her projection of the role of the mother in Fireflies, especially with her relationship with Cayden or young Michael.
So once she came on board it became easier?
Then it became a whole different animal.
Easier to get funding to get it up or to get other actors on board?
We had the funding but then all of a sudden, it became access to talent was a difficult thing. That was it.
Were you used seeing Ryan Reynolds as this kind of suave, leading man, funny, but he does some interesting independent films, as well.
He does. Ryan is great. My producers, we were looking for Michael for a really long time and Vanessa and Sukee just came back from Sundance. They said you should see this movie called The Nines and consider Ryan. I was like Ryan? He was Van Wilder I had no idea. So I went to the screening and I saw Ryan in The Nines and I thought wow, he’s great. He plays three different roles, and he plays them well. I met him at a café here in West Hollywood, and he is so smart and he’s so intelligent and he’s quiet. Everything, actually the complete opposite of what I thought when I met Ryan. I knew he would probably be pretty bright because of his sarcasm, but I just didn’t expect him to be so quiet. I think it carried through in the role.
A lot of quiet moments in this film.
He’s incredibly quiet and he’s incredibly emotionally numb. I think he’s great. I love Ryan to death.
And Willem Dafoe, I interviewed him at the Toronto Film Festival recently, and he’s so nice and calm, speaks softly.
He is the one actor that all of my family loved. He’s so nice. He’s so sweet. He was funny. The role of Charlie was the last one that we cast, and I was living here in Los Angeles, and I had to fly out to New York to meet Willem. I’m from New York. I was like, oh yeah, that would be great, thinking it would be a one or two hour meeting with Willem and that sort of thing, talk about character and story. It turned out to be like a ten hour marathon where we just went through the script line by line, and he would play Charlie and I would play opposite him. It was awesome. It was really cool. I got to meet Willem then and his lovely wife. It was great. It was really fantastic.
What are your hopes for this movie? Is it more about the fact that it’s out for you, that it’s closure?
For me, it is, yeah. The hopes for this movie for me are just one, it’s closure and two, I hope people enjoy it. I hope they can relate to it in some way or another. Movies like this don’t get made anymore. There was back in the day you could count on these and things like that, but family dramas don’t get made, and this is not a movie about big hooks or huge set pieces or it’s not an idea concept film.
It’s not a franchise or based on a toy or a sequel or a prequel.
It’s just an honest film, and I hope people relate to that honesty in some way. That’s it.
Cool. Thank you very much. Congratulations.
“Fireflies in the Garden” commences today