Writer-director Kris Rey on her new comedy, I Used to Go Here, about a writer who returns to her alma mater for a few days of self-discovery.
Between Unexpected (2015) and I Used to Go Here (2020), writer-director Kris Rey has quickly distinguished herself as one of our smartest chroniclers of the female experience — especially when it comes to stories of women in their 30s who don’t fit into conventional stereotypes. Her films are quiet, naturalistic comedies filled with good people struggling with their stage of life, making visible an often invisible niche of female life.
The protagonists in both films are amidst an identity crisis, brought on by opposing reasons: Unexpected follows a woman, Samantha (Cobie Smulders), in her 30s who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant; I Used to Go Here is the story of a woman, Kate (Gillian Jacobs), in her 30s who isn’t pregnant or married when all of her friends are both. Both women feel out of step with the men and women their age. As Rey told me of being pregnant and Unexpected, “When I was going through it, emotionally, I did feel really isolated and alone. My husband was supportive but didn’t understand. And I haven’t seen a movie that deals with that before, so I really wanted to [make one].”
In I Used to Go Here, the single Kate is constantly encountering men her age who are in relationships yet still hitting on her, who have outdated, misogynistic ways of relating to women. Consequently, both Samantha and Kate end up striking up friendships with people 10-15 years younger than them: Samantha with her star high school student, and Kate with some of the students at her alma mater.
I Used to Go Here begins just as Kate has published her first novel but had her press tour canceled. So when she gets an unexpected invitation to give a reading at her alma mater in Carbondale, Illinois, from David (Jemaine Clement), a professor she used to crush on, she jumps at the chance. She arrives thinking she’ll be spending time bonding with Dave, but when she discovers he’s married, she ends up left to her own devices.
The bed and breakfast that the university is putting her up in happens to be across the street from the house she used to live in as a student, one she dubbed the “Writers’ Retreat” because it was filled with creative writing majors. She finds herself wandering over there out of nostalgia, and unexpectedly befriending the three boys who now live there: Animal (Forrest Goodluck), Hugo (Josh Wiggins), and Tall Brandon (Brandon Daley).
Over the course of the few days that Kate spends in Carbondale, she regresses by hanging out with twentysomethings, missing the days when her future was wide open. But she learns from them, too. The boys of today’s Writers’ Retreat are, in many ways, more mature and enlightened than the men Kate’s age, and she gets pieces of herself back — a naivety and optimism — by hanging out with them.
The young cast is peppered with a who’s who of talented emerging actors, including Wiggins who wowed us in Giant Little Ones and Goodluck who did the same in The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Blood Quantum. Khloe Janel, who plays Animal’s girlfriend, is so stunningly good — mature, funny, and totally charismatic — that I hope we’ll see more of her in the future.
Over Zoom, I spoke with writer-director Kris Rey about making a quiet comedy that is naturalistic even when it’s broad, creating a realistic world for her characters to inhabit, the hope to glean from the next generation, and the horrors of editing.
Seventh Row (7R): The film depicts a stage of life that I’ve rarely seen on film before: she’s past 30, but not a mother or married while all of her friends are both. How did you decide to tell a story about someone who is not married, not pregnant, who feels a bit out of step with her friends?
Kris Rey: It’s about someone in their mid-30s. I started writing the movie when I was in my mid-30s. It’s not that weird that I decided to write something about someone in the stage of life I was in — even though I had checked those domestic boxes. At the time, I was married, had a kid, and was pregnant with my second. But you’re right that it rarely happens, especially about women.
My inspiration came from my experience visiting universities for my last movie. Being a professor, your role is really regimented, especially these days. I’m not allowed to go drink with my students although I think lots of them would love for me to be able to do that. It’s such a clear rule that I haven’t had that experience as a professor.
But because of the nature of the film industry, working on crews, your coworkers become people, in their late-20s, that you are going out drinking with, relating to, and becoming friends with. It was really surprising to me when I found out that they were so young and when I realised I was so much older than them. I do have experience with that dynamic and still do. I have many friends that are 10-15 years younger than me that I consider equals, but I realise that there is a difference there.
7R: So many of the men that Kate interacts with in the movie are these creepy men who are in relationships but still flirting with her.
Kris Rey: The characters she has those experiences with are David [Jemaine Clement], who is older than her, and Bradley Cooper [her former classmate, played by Jorma Taccone of Booth Jonathan fame], who is her age. That was intentional. I personally think that the way we are going culturally, in terms of gender, is really very positive. So the relationships she has with the students who are younger, with younger men, are really great. You get the sense that especially Animal, played by Forrest Goodluck, and his relationship with Emma, definitely feels the healthiest of any relationship that you see. The way that they interact with each other, and the way that Kate interacts with them, feels so positive.
That is the way that I view this generation of Zoomers. I really do think they think about it in the right way. They’re questioning all that and being very cautious. It’s happening very naturally and becoming a part of the way they relate. I’m noticing that with my own interactions with people that age. I think that’s really positive. That separation was intentional.
7R: Just because she’s hanging out with younger people, it’s not necessarily regressive. It’s partly that she’s nostalgic, but also some of these younger men are more mature than the people her age.
Kris Rey: Definitely. I think it’s both. You can’t really just hang out with 21-year-olds your whole life, but I think you can learn a lot and take some of that with you. Some of that is ignorance and naiveté. And some of it is more of a purity that Kate has lost.
7R: How do you approach directing actors, especially given you’re working with such a great ensemble?
Kris Rey: My main approach is casting: finding people that are able to bring these very human, grounded characteristics to their characters. I’m always looking for naturalism, even in the broader moments. I’m looking for subtle performances. And I’m finding that first in casting and looking for people that can bring that subtlety without it necessarily having to be quiet or small. I was very lucky to be able to cast these actors that bring that so well through their performances.
I actually didn’t have any time to rehearse. We just talked about the script. We would rehearse on the day before we shot. Sometimes, we would rehearse a scene, block it out, and then we would take the script, sit down with the actors, and shift the dialogue to make it better. Gillian [Jacobs] and I did that a few times with different scenes, and she was, in particular, very additive to the script.
7R: How did you work with your cinematographer, especially as it pertains to capturing performances?
Kris Rey: My cinematographer on this film, Nate Hurtsellers, had shot a film in Chicago called Saint Frances, which was a low-budget indie that was very intimate. I thought the performances were so good [in Saint Frances] and very naturalistically captured. That was the biggest reason why I wanted to work with Nate.
We developed a shorthand on set because we had prepped so much beforehand. We were able to watch a lot of films together, talk about what we like, and what we didn’t like, and create a look ahead of time that we kept referring back to during production.
We really wanted to work with natural light as much as possible, and when we couldn’t, we wanted to emulate natural light. One of the things we really looked for in the nighttime scenes was streets that used incandescent lights rather than LED lights. He was very passionate about this, much to the chagrin of my locations manager and producer. LED lights, which are more modern lights, emit a blue hue. Incandescent lights, which are older, emit an orange hue. We really wanted the look of the orange hue because it felt more small town and nostalgic and warm. Because this movie also takes place in the summer, warmth was a really big part of what we were going for.
7R: How did you scout for locations and how did you approach designing the writers’ retreat where the boys live?
Kris Rey: We went on a trip to Carbondale together with my production designer. We all worked together to try to emulate the feeling of a small town, although 95% of the film was shot in Chicago. Even the street with the bed and breakfast and the Writers’ Retreat, which looks so small town, we found on the west side of Chicago. We did our very best to make it look like more of a remote college town than a big urban metropolis.
My production designer, Megan Hovany, just killed it. We unfortunately weren’t able to rifle through any college houses while we were in Carbondale. But we searched the internet for art photographers who had done documentary photos that captured young adults, teenagers, and people in their early twenties: their bedrooms and the inside of their homes.
We used a lot of my own memories and nostalgia. And Megan had her own experiences from her college. She brought in photos of what she and her roommates had decorated with.
7R: How did you approach designing the costumes? Modern day costume designs that aren’t high fashion tend to be so underappreciated, but I loved how realistic and lived in the costumes in the film are.
Kris Rey: With our costume designer, Kate Grube, it was really similar. Everybody says this, and it’s always true, but filmmaking is a collaboration. I don’t think that these people get enough credit for how much they bring to what a movie ends up being and how it ends up feeling. It’s an amalgamation of everyone’s best efforts.
Like Megan, our production designer, our costume designer, Kate, was researching photos of what kids are wearing. We wanted it to feel nostalgic, but we also wanted it to feel real to 2019 when we made it. She was looking at what young people are wearing, not in fashion magazines but in documentary photos and in people’s instagram accounts. She was walking down the street and visiting colleges to see what is the style.
We wanted to acknowledge that these students were not going to school in Manhattan. They were going to school in a small town in southern Illinois. They look cool; they’re artsy; they’re creative writing majors. But they’re also not wearing the latest fashions. It was a mix. And she was very careful to make everyone’s style unique to them, and did a really great job.
Not only did she collaborate with me, but she collaborated with the individual actors. She emailed Jemaine Clement ahead of time to say what she was thinking he would wear, which was a western vibe, something that was very popular in the early 2000s — how it was cool for guys to wear a western shirt with snaps for a while. She emailed him that idea, and he wrote back and said, “I’ve done that before. I’ve done that in Flight of the Concords and in other stuff.” So they scrapped it. They came up with a new look together, and then they’d bring it to me, and I would approve.
She did an incredible job. I feel like those people and their work don’t get talked about enough — not just in isolation of what they’ve done but how it relates to what a movie looks like.
7R: What is the editing process like?
Kris Rey: The editing process is so long and stressful, and with this movie, in particular, I felt so anxious all the time. There is nothing worse than watching the very first assembly of the film you’ve just made. It looks like such a piece of shit. You can’t believe you made something so bad. I felt like that on my last film, and I felt like that big time on this film.
When I watched the first assembly, I got so depressed. I was sure I had made a bad movie. I called people and said, “The movie sucks. I’m really sorry. I fucked it up.” All my friends were like, “Kris, this happens all the time.” And I was like, “I know. But this time it’s real. I really fucked it up.”
Editing takes so long. It takes much longer than production. Production lasts about four weeks. Editing lasted about 12 or 16 weeks. We wrapped the movie at the end of August of last year, and we were editing up until February. We were doing the post-production, with VFX and music, up until March, up until we were supposed to be premiering at SXSW. It just takes so long to get it right. That’s the case with every filmmaker that I know and every project that they do.
So much changes [in the edit], and you’re able to influence the trajectory of the story and the arc. Again, editors just don’t get enough credit. My editor, Zach Clark, is incredible. I also worked with Daniel Johnson who is amazing and helped do all the finishing touches on the movie. There’s also the sound designer and the colour. There’s just so much that goes into making a movie good.
The music was a real struggle for me throughout. I finally landed on something that I love and that I’m really proud of. There are also scenes that we did reshoots of.
I could probably point to almost every moment of the film and take you through how it changed and what the process was from the time I wrote it to what you’re seeing on the screen.
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