By Christopher Cappiello
Thomas Bezucha is still pinching himself. Sitting under an umbrella by the tennis courts at the Ritz Carlton in Pasadena, he ruminates on how he went from being a first-time writer/director with the 2000 gay and lesbian festival favorite, “Big Eden,” to directing Diane Keaton, Claire Danes, Sarah Jessica Parker, Dermot Mulroney, Luke Wilson, Craig T. Nelson and Rachel McAdams in his second film, “The Family Stone.”
“If I had set out to do this, I never would have been able to achieve it,” he offers, with a gentleness and humility that is both engaging and rare in Hollywood.
The openly gay director earned praise for “Big Eden,” the story of a gay New York artist who returns to his tiny Montana town to care for his ailing grandfather. “My favorite scene in Big Eden is the Thanksgiving dinner table, so I thought, ‘I’ll do another ensemble film and put them at a table! Yeah, that’s it!'” he explains. “I was thinking of it as another tiny thing.”
The Family Stone started as a script for “another tiny thing.” A couple of false starts in the last few years left Bezucha wondering if the film was ever going to get made.
Producer Michael London was in pre-production for “Sideways” when he came across Bezucha’s script. “Tom had put together two different casts and three different financiers, and the last time the movie was two weeks from shooting when the plug was pulled. There literally were sets already standing,” London explains. With the hot producer’s involvement, scripts got to many of Hollywood’s biggest names, with Diane Keaton serving as the linchpin for attracting other talent.
The producer and director met with Keaton at the Polo Lounge to discuss the project. “It felt like going to Mount Olympus,” Bezucha recalls with a laugh. “It was like the clouds part and there she is, bowler hat and all. It’s one of those pinch yourself moments. I couldn’t even believe she’d read something I’d written, let alone was willing to talk about it.” London says, “Tom’s connection with her was really immediate. And she felt, from the script, that she could discern a filmmaker there.”
The film focuses on one Christmas weekend in the life of a close-knit New England family made up of Sybil and Kelly Stone (Keaton and Nelson) and their five adult children. Everett (Mulroney), the oldest son, is bringing home his girlfriend and likely fiancee, Meredith Morton (Parker), an uptight, type-A woman, to meet the family. From the start, however, Meredith’s stuck-up manner rubs the entire family the wrong way, making for a culture clashing Christmas in which relationships are turned upside down and lessons are learned.
The Stones’ youngest son, Thad, is gay and in a longtime relationship with his partner, Patrick (Brian White). Thad, who is also deaf, is played by Ty Giordano, a deaf actor who was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance as Huck in the recent Broadway transfer of Deaf West Theatre Company’s Big River.
“He’s so good,” Bezucha says with pride, “He’s a great actor!” In a family of confused relationships, Thad and Brian are a quiet example of healthy communication and loving attention. And Thad, ironically, is probably the best listener in the house.
“To me, they were the Ozzie and Harriet of the family,” Bezucha reveals. “Thad is the one member of the family that tries to directly intervene with Everett and say, ‘Please don’t marry Meredith.’ And it struck me, while we were doing it, that Thad is somehow the authority on what a good relationship is.”
Most of the film’s scenes take place in the hulking New England home where the Stones have lived for more than 30 years. “The house is the other character,” Bezucha says. “The story only takes place over three days, so you don’t have the advantage of watching these people over time. So you look around the house and you understand who they are a bit.” A graduate of New York’s Parsons School of Design, Bezucha worked for years as senior director of creative services for POLO/Ralph Lauren. But this is no Lauren house, with its weathered furniture, overstuffed rooms, and general sense of too many patterns. “Ralph would probably have a heart attack!” Bezucha conjectures. “Diane walked in and said, ‘Somebody needs to clean this up.’ It’s not her style.”
What was the first day on the set like for sophomore director Bezucha now in charge of this cast of high wattage talent? “The day of the first read-through, we were on a soundstage at the studio and I walked on the set and it was all of them,” he recalls. “They had this breakfast buffet, and they were all getting their breakfast and I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ So there’s definitely a moment of, ‘Now you’ve done it!’ You know, you’ve got the tiger by the tail. But they are incredibly generous people.”
He adds, “I think there’s a certain inexplicable thing, which is they all liked each other. And that wasn’t guaranteed.”
Bezucha’s admiration for his actors is reciprocated. In separate interviews, Parker calls him an “extraordinarily gifted director” who wrote “a beautiful script.” Craig T. Nelson explains, “I just thought the script was wonderful. And those come along so rarely.” And Dermot Mulroney states, “He had the reins right from the start. He just knew what movie, and how, and what colors, what tone and what people he wanted. As far as I’m concerned, he just had it all dialed in from the start.”
Respect for Bezucha and his vision went right up the ladder to the upper echelons at Fox. The soft-spoken director recalls, “When we got the studio deal, I thought, ‘Oh, they’re going to start to ask for changes.'”
Some initial screenings got a harsh response from audiences about the gay couple. “And the studio could not have been more supportive,” he reports. “In fact, they were more stubborn than me. ‘Don’t change anything.’ And that was really, really refreshing.”
So what’s next for the single writer/director who has called L.A. home for six years? Would he ever consider directing something he hadn’t written? “It’s my fantasy!” he blurts out. “Because I hate writing! Directing is my reward for the pain of having written. I haven’t read anything that has moved me that much, so I’m about to start writing again. But I still hold the fantasy.”