There’s a reason that so many actors transition to going behind the scenes. After a while, people like Ron Howard, Ben Affleck, Clint Eastwood, George Clooney, Ben Stiller and beyond, have spent enough time observing how the sausage is made that they feel inclined to try it themselves. And it actually puts them at an advantage. After witnessing an array of directing styles over the years, you can take a little from everyone and apply the best qualities to your own art.
Justin Long is the latest actor to jump into the arena. Long, along with his co-director/co-writer/brother, has directed a new film titled Lady of the Manor. The film follows a slacker with no direction who, by chance, winds up with a job as a tour guide at a historical house. Not soon after, the person she’s playing on the tours begins speaking to her as a ghost. The film’s plot gives way more to an unlikely friendship than it does anything spooky. As the Long brothers saw it, it is a tribute to their love of the buddy comedy genre.
We recently spoke to Justin Long about the film, where the idea came from, finding the right person for the role, how he almost lost his lead due to weed, what he’s learned as a director, and what the future holds for one of our favorite performances he’s ever given: Brandon St. Randy from Zack and Miri Make a Porno.
Tell me about the inspiration for the film and how you and your brother Christian first had the idea for the script.
We had been kicking around this idea First of all, we love odd couple comedies. We grew up on Laurel and Hardy, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, What About Bob?. Buddy comedies. Movies like that were our favorite. So we knew we wanted to do something in that genre. We had this idea that we couldn’t quite get our heads around, but we loved the concept. It was basically like a comedic version of Psycho where instead of Norman Bates mother driving him to do murderous things, she was just getting in the way. She was like annoying him. So it wasn’t like a scary haunting. It was an obnoxious haunting.
And we started thinking about the reality of ghosts and the reality of somebody haunting you. I hope that if a relative of mine or somebody I knew came back, I don’t think they would be scary. It depends on who it is, I guess. We thought it was funny if they were more just interfering in your life. So we kind of married those two ideas. And we needed to write something with an eye on a lower budget. So we needed a cast of fewer actors and we needed to set most of it in a single location. And I love ghost tours. Whenever I visit a southern city, my first stop is to go on a ghost tour.
All that stuff just started to ferment a little bit. And we came up with this concept where Melanie Lynskey plays a ne’er do well pot smoker whose life has sort of unraveled. And she gets a job as a tour guide at this southern estate. And Judy Greer plays the woman that Melanie is pretending to be as a re-enactress. And Judy’s character, the ghost, takes offense to how Melanie’s living her life, and that she’s doing all this filthy stuff in her bedroom. So she starts haunting her, again not in a scary way, but more in an obnoxious way. And so it was a way for us to get two characters together for an odd couple comedy.
And the thing I love about Melanie’s character is how at every single turn, she’s managed to find some new way to put her foot in her mouth once again, in ways that I didn’t even think were possible.
Yeah, we needed that! We needed a character who was different enough than what we imagined a southern lady in the 1870’s would be like. So we needed Melanie to be that, the character who as you said keeps putting her foot in her mouth. But the funny thing is, Melanie herself is so not that person. I mean she could not be lovelier. Her life is totally together, she has a beautiful family.
Actually her agent wrote to us like a month before we started shooting. And we got so nervous because we thought this thing that we thought was too good to be true, she’s gonna pull out. Melanie is so in demand as an actress. We thought “Scorsese called and she’s not going to be able to do our thing.” So the letter said “Melanie has some concerns. There’s some issues.” But the issue turned out to be that she wanted to know if the pot smoking was something we could change. We thought it was like a moral thing and she just didn’t want that out in the world. But it turned out to be she was worried she wouldn’t be able to do it realistically because she doesn’t smoke pot. She didn’t know how to inhale or do the mechanics of it. It was just so sweet. So we had to give her some lessons. And her husband, Jason, also gave her some lessons because he’s apparently very good at it.
And given that this was your first time tackling directing a feature that you also wrote and star in, were there any challenges that would arise that you weren’t anticipating?
Yeah, for sure. There were challenges like budget things, crew people going to other jobs. There were certain things that you can never account for. There were things that were outside our control, even though as directors, you would think we’d have a hand in everything. But there were things that were money related that were more on a producer end that became obstacles that we were presented with out of nowhere. “By the way, you don’t have a music budget.” Things would come up that you can’t control, or noise. We were shooting in this bar. It was right before the pandemic, if you can remember that time when people would go to bars. Things were really loud. And on a lower budget movie, you have to make certain concessions. You don’t own the street outside, for example. Or there’s a bar next door and sound will bleed through the walls.
Or something like with Melanie, who was so game and such a team player. Melanie had just had a child and she was breastfeeding. Two men probably shouldn’t be talking about this. (Laughs). But I didn’t realize that that depleted a woman’s energy. It seems so obvious looking back, but she’s literally being depleted. And so that was a difficulty. And Mel was so patient with us. And we tried to give her time to do this. And it killed me every time her baby – I really fell in love with her kid -, and every time she had to leave set, it was heartbreaking. I get it. The baby’s a year old and wants their mother. So the sacrifice that Melanie gave to do this movie is one that I will be forever indebted to her for. It was a really special thing that she did for us. I just was so grateful to her.
And certainly when I was in a scene, I’d rely totally on Christian. Because I didn’t originally want to act in the movie. I thought it would be too much to do. We made this web series, The Real Stephen Blatt. And on that, it was little bit easier because I was playing a broader character; and I don’t know, it was easier for me to see if the scene was working. But still I relied heavily on Christian. But on this thing, it was all up to Christian to keep an eye on. As an actor, you just have to be present. That’s all you have to do is be present to the other actors and block everything else out. So it was really hard for me to be objective and to see the scene, whether it was working or not. We originally wanted Melanie’s husband, Jason Ritter, to play my part. But Jason was busy on another job, unfortunately. That was our desire initially.
Well you pulled it off great.
Aw, well thanks Andrew!
And I’ve got one last question, unrelated to the film. Which is one of my favorite performances that you’ve ever given is as Brandon St. Randy in Zack and Miri.
[As Brandon] Hell yeah! Thank you.
And so in Zack and Miri, he was a gay porn actor. And then in Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, he became a lawyer. Well, kind of a lawyer.
Which didn’t really work. Kevin told me afterwards, when I saw the movie, he said… I was just talking to Joe Manganiello about this. I saw Joe for this thing I did with Josh Horowitz. You’re right. Brandon was a lawyer, but he still had this like overt animalistic sexuality. He was still so hungry to touch. And with Joe Manganiello, we did so much improv. Joe played a bailiff and I kept finding excuses to get close to him. Like I kept being like “Do you need these papers? I can bring them to you. Do you want to see them?” And Joe would be like “No, I don’t.” “I’ll bring them to you! Let me just bring them to you.” And we did so much back and forth.
But all of it was cut because Kevin said in the script, it was never made clear that I had this other job. People who saw the movie would know, but he had to cut all of that. But anyway, sorry, I interrupted you.
No, that was great. So my question is, he’s gone from being a gay porn actor to a lawyer. What do you see the next logical career being?
Brandon St. Randy, I think it’d be hilarious to see him attempt to raise a child with Bobby Long. I think that would be very funny. Because he’s also very selfish. He’s very self centered. And Bobby always struck me as the more compassionate one, and I think Bobby would be the better parent. And Brandon would kind of just want to do his thing. And that’s what I liked about that dynamic was how the power imbalance was between the two of them. I actually hope he goes back to acting in adult films. I just think that’s what that character is meant to do. He’s built for it. And I know he enjoys it. So I hope he goes back to what he does best.
Lady of the Manor is in theaters and on VOD now.