Ryan Jaffe is the writer and director of This is Happening, which was just made available via video-on-demand. It’s a comedy about two, adult siblings who try to place their ailing grandmother into a nursing home when she suddenly goes on the run.
It’s an autobiographical story but with a lot of creative license. Jaffe and his younger brother went to Palm Beach, Florida, to spend time with their grandmother in her final days. In the movie, however, it isn’t two brothers. It’s a brother and sister, and they don’t go to Palm Beach. They instead go to Palm Springs, California. Jaffe’s grandmother in real life didn’t go on the run. That was a fabrication for the movie in order to express the theme of finding family in order to find oneself.
On Tuesday, January 5th, the day his film was supplied on digital platforms, Jaffe spoke to me by phone. He told me about the origins of the project and a bit of the origins of himself. He grew up in Chester, New Jersey, a small town in the northern tip of that state. He said he had what could be called a typical, east coast, Jewish family. His father was a veterinarian who had his own business and his mother worked for that business. His parents, however, pushed him to become a lawyer. Jaffe attended the University of Pennsylvania with the intent of doing exactly that, but he said four months before his 1996 graduation, he decided the law wasn’t for him.
Rich Ross, an executive at Nickelodeon at that time, gave a talk about the entertainment industry, which Jaffe heard and which inspired him. Ross’ key piece of advice was to move to Los Angeles and that’s exactly what Jaffe did. Using UPenn’s alumni network and not much else, Jaffe was able to get an entry-level job, working in a mailroom and making deliveries.
After a few months, he became an assistant to Nick Wechsler, a successful, Hollywood producer, a job Jaffe held for three years. During this time, he learned a lot about the biz and made a lot of contacts. He went on to work at an agency, covering screenplays and even writing some, but eventually he left and took a regular job in San Francisco.
He got a 9-to-5, non-Hollywood gig in the Bay area, but he did take writing classes on the side. He did so starting in September 2000. He wrote short stories to which people responded positively. Prior to this, he had gone with his brother to visit his grandmother and it was this experience that formed the basis of a short story he wrote for class.
Jaffe moved back to L.A. in 2001 with the goal of making it as a writer. His friend and manager Matt Weinberg saw the short story about Jaffe’s grandmother and encouraged him to turn that short story into a screenplay. After 11 drafts, Jaffe finished the script in 2004. He sent it out as a spec script hoping to sell it.
He wasn’t able to sell, but the script got him meetings with studio executives who saw his talent as a writer. The executives instead hired him to pen other projects. He did, but he said three years ago he wanted to revisit this script, which turned out to be a pivotal moment both personally and professionally.
Jaffe wanted to bring the script to life. It would become his directorial debut. He needed actors and the first one to come on board was James Wolk (pictured above in the middle). Wolk was cast in the role that was based on Jaffe himself, but Wolk wasn’t mimicking Jaffe or doing an impression.
A casting director found the rest of the actors, which included Judd Nelson, the only actor who intimidated Jaffe. Jaffe admitted to having grown-up on films like The Breakfast Club, but he said he wasn’t intimidated at all by Oscar-winner Cloris Leachman who plays the aforementioned grandmother.
Jaffe said Leachman will give everything to get a laugh. She’s an octogenarian but not self-conscious at all, and Leachman’s portrayal of what was a real-life woman is a lot more bawdy. Despite joking around with her co-stars, Jaffe said his favorite scene with Leachman is a devastating moment where the elderly woman stares at herself in a mirror and has to remove her makeup.
While Wolk and Mickey Sumner who plays his younger sister get to give more comedic performances, Leachman handles much of the dramatic weight. She does get funny moments, including one with the actress’ actual, stuffed dog, but she is the movie’s heart and ultimately the movie’s heartbreak.
The script was 117 pages. Jaffe filmed it in 11 days in June 2014. A lot was rewritten and cut out, but he said the soul of what he intended and probably what he experienced is retained. He said Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, as well as Wes Anderson’s Rushmore were inspirations for him, but he added that this movie is his version of Flirting With Disaster and You Can Count on Me put together. Flirting With Disaster (1996) is a dark comedy with the comparative theme of finding one’s family and You Can Count on Me (2000) is similarly about estranged siblings coming together.
When his movie screened for general audiences, the crowds responded well. However, Jaffe said his next directing effort wouldn’t be on this scale. This was an independent production through-and-through. From financing to distribution, Jaffe wrote about his frustrations about the process and his prospects in an article for Indiewire. He’s in-line with many who believe the marketplace is too saturated, and there should be some scaling back.
It’s disheartening that artists would be discouraged to make their art, but, as Jaffe’s article indicates, the economics of everything don’t always work out in the artist’s favor. Yet, it’s clear this movie was a labor of love and was something near-and-dear to the now 40-year-old father, so regardless of the economics, it seems like it’s something Jaffe had to make. To check it out This is Happening, go to iTunes, Amazon Instant, Google Play, Vudu and various digital cable platforms.