I was sitting in a movie theater in the University district of Seattle with my Aunt Kathy and there she was: Deborah O’Brien.
I was living in the Pacific Northwest at the time, and had convinced AK (as she’s affectionately known) to accompany me to a matinee of Bottle Shock, a fun film about a Napa Valley winery, the hippie folks who run it, and their struggle to win an international wine taste test and gain global credibility. I grew up in Northern California, so since the movie was a local yarn, I’m sure I would have gotten around to watching it eventually, but the reason to brave University Village traffic on a weekday was that Deborah O’Brien played a part in the film.
It’s just one scene, but there’s a great moment in Bottle Shock where our protagonist (Chris Pine) has to get many bottles of wine on a plane without checking them, and Deb plays the TWA attendant who gives him and Alan Rickman (the movie’s high-fallutin’ wine snob) a hard time about it. What begins as a straightforward exchange becomes a lively, infectious sequence – Pine convinces everyone else waiting in line to get on the flight to check wine bottles for him – and Sarah from Better Than Crazy, Deborah O’Brien herself, is right at the center of it.
I’d seen friends and colleagues of mine on stage and television – Josh Drennen, a buddy of mine who’d acted in a USC directing class project for me even showed up on an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise once! – but as further proof that there’s something intoxicating and alluring about that giant silver screen at the epicenter of the movie-watching experience, seeing beautiful Deb at ten times her actual size was hypnotizing.
More importantly, she’s really good in the movie, which is the norm when it comes to her body of work. Of the professional actors who worked on Better Than Crazy, Deb was able to fuse her craft with the fluidity of an ever-changing script more adroitly than anyone. Because it usually ended up inspiring funnier and more interesting dialogue than was in the screenplay, I’d let Aaron Daley, Nick Leonti and Amy Bruni go off book whenever they wanted. It was important to me as director that in each scene that we’d go from point A to point Z in terms of emotional truth and the trajectory of the movie’s overall narrative, but exactly how our performers actually achieved that was arbitrary. Courting chaos (and twenty times more footage than I was expecting), I encouraged my buddies to torpedo any and all elements in the movie as they saw fit and let the performances stem from that.
Watching Deb ebb and flow with this was extraordinary. When looking back at raw footage, it’s fascinating to see how usually with Deb, a take would end, and she’d break character and become herself again, only to close her eyes and jump right back into Sarah’s skin as though it was her own. When I blogged about working with Shawn Romias, I mentioned that his position in Better Than Crazy as an onlooker, someone peering in on the dynamics of his cousins from the outside was key in the way the movie develops. Sarah begins the movie unfamiliar with the bawdy senses of humor her cousins showcase, but unlike Shawn’s character who pretty much stays on the sidelines, Deborah O’Brien as Sarah cannonballs into the deep end with everybody else, ready to play.
I had a handful of wonderful afternoons at Deb’s seaside apartment in Marina del Rey when we recorded ADR after principal photography ended, and on one occasion, I did what I told myself as a director I didn’t want to be let in on: I asked Deb about her process, about what she went through in preparing an approach to a character like Sarah. I won’t get into specifics – during these chats, we both were insistent that her on-screen presence in Better Than Crazy should speak for itself – but upon letting me in on her capacity as an actress, I was floored. Let’s just say that a lot goes into making a performance appear easy and natural, and Deb is someone who’s able to achieve this with grace.
My favorite Deb moment in Better Than Crazy comes when Sarah has to break the ice in a particularly tense family atmosphere. The third part of the movie takes place after a series of grudges has splintered our little cousin gang – it isn’t until Dave (Nick Leonti) manipulates everyone to agree to have a dinner together that all six of our protagonists occupy the same room at the same time after years of refusal to do so. After getting to the meat of the issue that broke up the band, so to speak, the choice has to be made either to end the meal early and send everyone back to their respective corners or give it a kick-start by quickly and boldly changing the subject and lightening the mood.
Again, I’ll stay mum on how she does this (you’ll notice how the movie pivots in tone at one distinct point near its finale), but Deb does an amazing job of switching the very syntax of the movie with a simple series of gestures and words. At the end of the day, Better Than Crazy may seem like just a comedy, but speaking as an artist, I must attest that underneath its fat jokes and snarky one-liners are deep truths about the sometimes tricky act of interacting honestly with members of your family. Whether she was on the same wavelength as me on this or not, Deb delivered a performance that ended up being exactly what I had in mind.
Ever the professional, I remember exchanging emails with Deb after she’d had a chance to watch an early cut of the movie on DVD. She said she found it really funny, but that she would have loved a chance to do a couple scenes differently – she recognized the value of her contributions, but nonetheless saw a shining potential for improvement.
What a fantastic energy to have with a cinematic collaborator.
– Mike Restaino, writer/director of Better Than Crazy