Q&A: Justin and Christian Long on their paranormal stoner comedy 'Lady of the Manor'
“I remember the first time I went there, it was to shoot Mike Judge’s movie, to do ‘Idiocracy,’” says actor and filmmaker Justin Long about Austin. “I immediately fell in love. It was the people, it was the atmosphere, the everything about it.”
Long used to live in Travis Heights, and he and his brother, Christian, are no strangers to the finer things in the capital of Texas — dinner at Uchi, splashes at Barton Springs Pool, long weekends at Austin City Limits Music Festival.
“I just felt so at home,” he says. “I felt like people didn't really care about a lot of the more superficial elements of Hollywood. It was something that I had been kind of struggling with myself, and there's just something very authentic about the people."
So, the brothers are mega bummed that they had to cancel in-person press for their new movie, “The Lady of the Manor,” which would have brought them to see their friends in Austin. (Also New York and Los Angeles, but skipping this stop was “the worst part,” says Christian.)
Even if its creators can’t swing through, “Lady of the Manor” will still be here. It opens in theaters on Sept. 17.
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The Long brothers co-wrote and co-directed the comedy, which stars Melanie Lynskey as a down-on-her-luck stoner named Hannah who takes a last-resort job leading history tours at (and living in) a Civil War-era manse in the South. There, she’s haunted by the ghost of the manor’s former resident, Lady Wadsworth (played by Judy Greer).
The mismatched pair are drawn into a tangle of historical happenings and very modern mishaps that involve the ne’er-do-well heir to the manor (played by Ryan Phillipe) and its caretakers (played by Tamara Austin and Wallace Jean), descendants of a Black woman who was said to be a friend of the late Lady Wadsworth before she died. Justin Long also plays the film's love interest, a history professor who gets mixed up with Hannah and the lady.
We caught up with the Long brothers on Tuesday to talk about the film. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
American-Statesman: Where did this haunted antebellum manor tour concept come from?
Christian Long: One of us one night said, I think out of the blue, "Wouldn’t it be funny to make a comedic version of ‘Psycho’? But instead of Norman Bates’ mother inspiring him to murder people, she was just kind of like naggy and obnoxious.”
Justin Long: Kind of overbearing.
Christian Long: And in his business all the time. I think the other person said, “Yeah, that'd be a funny idea.” Then that kind of morphed into what we ended up making.
Justin Long: We transitioned it into a more buddy-comedy setup, an odd couple. Those were just the movies that we were so inspired by growing up. We felt like we could, for our first feature, really get a handle on something like that. We loved “What About Bob?” and “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” … Then the ghost thing was just kind of a fun backdrop.
Christian Long: One woman in the movie is from an entirely different era, from the 1800s, and the other woman is a modern woman. It kind of helped create more of a gulf between them.
Well, now I want to see a remake with Judy Greer playing both Norman Bates and the mother.
Christian Long: Yeah, maybe that will work for a sequel.
Justin Long: You know what, we couldn't get our heads totally around it, because we kept butting up against it being too tragic. (Norman Bates’) mother was dead. It was hard to make it funny. Whereas there's something about this, I don't know, it felt a little bit easier, just because she had passed away so long ago.
Christian Long: It didn't feel as tragic.
So the setting specifically, the Old South manor home from the Civil War era — America has been rethinking its depictions of that era, especially in connection with slavery. I know this is a madcap comedy, and it is not a drama, but did y'all have any conversations about the depictions of that world, that era, that history?
Justin Long: For sure. Yeah, we wanted it to be a positive message. We definitely wanted to — we didn't want it to be overbearing, and to overwhelm the comedy, by any means. So we tried to keep it as subtle as we could. It was a message that we felt, if people do pick up on it, if they find value in the message, that that would be —
Christian Long: — nice. But also, like (Justin) said, hopefully very secondary. (If) people are leaving this movie really having a discussion about that, then it's probably not a good sign.
Justin Long: And nor are we qualified as two white guys to be initiating that conversation, but if it does happen, it would be nice. It certainly wasn't our mission, nor would we flatter ourselves into thinking that that's going to happen, but it's definitely like a distant backdrop.
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Are there any moments in writing the movie or in the directing process where you found some weird tonal areas, where you were like, “Oh, let's like make sure we treat this sensitively”?
Justin Long: You mean, in terms of the historical context?
Historical context of the Civil War, and the place of women and the Black characters in the movie.
Christian Long: I would say we want it to be as accurate as we could, but not being historians ourselves, or, like (Justin) said, necessarily qualified to handle the nuances of that period. But we read a book called “The American Woman's Home” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, just to get a sense of the time, of the vernacular. It helped us write for that character.
Justin Long: For the lady.
Christian Long: We learned a lot in the process. We learned about the differences between how women were treated back then versus now. ... We became students of it.
Justin Long: There was one thing that really struck us in that book, and we kind of worked it in into the script. … That book was very progressive at the time, and we wanted Judy's character to be a product, a progressive woman, of her time. There was a passage that was like, “A woman's place is no longer just in the kitchen. Her oversight is of the utmost importance throughout the house and just about every room.” So it was like, it still relegated a woman to the home, but now she can deal with any room in the house. That really struck us as being —
Christian Long: Just the absurdity of it.
Justin Long: The absurdity, and that a woman who was a progressive product of that time, how far she then has to go to align herself with a modern woman, we just thought it would … You know, what was driving us, Eric, was the comedic value of that, and the disparity of those two characters, and creating a sense of clarity between such different people.
How much did Judy Greer influence the creation of that character? Because she's such an indelible performer.
Christian Long: Man, a lot I would say, not to sell ourselves too short. But that character as written was very much the straight character. We thought that we might have a hard time attracting actresses to do that part, because it wasn't as fun and lively as the other characters. What she brought to it was so much more than what I had envisioned in the character. Whereas instead of just being this sort of one-note, school marm-y kind of character, she brought so much fun to it. She just has that ability, and she has that very natural effervescence, or whatever you want to call it. She made it funny.
Justin Long: It was almost like we were cheating a little bit, like she's such a ringer. She found the comedic potential, and in these moments that we just thought were —
Christian Long: Like exposition.
Justin Long: Totally. ... She's such a — I know that this word gets overused — but I think she's a treasure.
I was really interested in the characters of Nia and Marcus in the movie. Their family's story is, in some ways, sort of the backbone of the plot, but they're also supporting characters. How did you develop those characters from idea to script to screen?
Justin Long: We knew that we wanted to connect Judy — like I said, she was a progressive woman of the time, and she was friends with the relative of Nia and Marcus. We wanted both characters to be people that were good, you know, good and tolerant and champions of diversity. Those are just people that we wanted to root for.
Christian Long: Also, I like how they're brother and sister in the movie, Nia and Marcus, and to me, they represent the audience, in that they're seeing this crazy stuff that Hannah's doing. Nia thinks she's ridiculous, but she also is a kind person, so she gives her some breaks and she helps her out. … And Marcus, the running joke around the movie, not to give anything away, but he's always catching Hannah in very awkward moments. ...
Justin Long: We loved “Three's Company” growing up, and we always loved when Norman Fell or Don Knotts would catch Jack in some ridiculous situation. We really wanted somebody to be able to react in a way that sounds like it's an easy thing to do, but God, is it hard to really be that natural and nuanced.
Christian Long: And to your point, we got very lucky in meeting those two actors, Tamara Austin, and Wallace Jean, who are such kind people, but also very natural. And like you said, they were supporting roles, so they weren't like the meatiest acting opportunities, but they were both very natural, and they came across, I think, as very positive characters in the movie.
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Speaking of collaboration: brothers making a movie together. What were the challenges, but also maybe some of the benefits, that came from collaborating on a big creative project at this scale?
Christian Long: Oh my god, the benefits outweigh the challenges, like, 99 to one, you know, to the point where it's hard to even think of challenges. I felt so fortunate to have Justin there, just creatively, and someone I trust so much, right?
Justin Long: In every way.
Christian Long: I couldn't have done it without you.
Justin Long: And vice versa.
Christian Long: I wish I had a fun story about like just one fight or some like a real problem, but I don't. It was pretty easy.