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The Director of 'Best Worst Movie' Explains The Murder, Darkness, and Weird Sweetness…

A former pro now down on his luck decides to get back in the game for one last score, only to find himself wrapped up in a murder mystery where nothing is as it seems and no one can be trusted. That’s a tried and true formula for a movie, right?

But we’re not talking about a bank robber or a car thief or a mobster. We’re talking about a greeting card writer. 

Girlfriend’s Day stars Bob Odenkirk as said writer, who is trying to land a highly coveted job writing the official card for the titular new holiday. But he’s not the only one who wants the gig, and when his fellow rockstar greeting card writers start getting murdered, it seems like this may become a life or death assignment. Yes, it’s kind of a weird premise, but what makes Girlfriend’s Day work is the fact that everything is played totally straight. It doesn’t wink at the audience. It commits to this strange world and these strange characters with the utmost sincerity, and the result is a unique blend of noir and dark comedy that you’re just not likely to find much of anywhere else.

We recently spoke to director Michael Paul Stephenson (Best Worst Movie, The American Scream) about how Girlfriend’s Day came to be. Check it out. This is such a singular tone and story. The very first time you came across it, how was it pitched to you?

Michael Paul Stephenson: I was premiering The American Scream in L.A. and I had invited Bob and his family to come. That night, Bob asked if I’d ever thought about doing a narrative, because I’ve got this thing. A few days later he sent me an email that was like, ‘Hey, here’s this thing I’ve been working on for a while. I keep coming back to it because it makes me smile. I doubt I’ll ever have a chance to make it, but…’

I opened it up and saw the title Girlfriend’s Day and was like, what? What is this? That’s not a title you expect from Bob Odenkirk. And at the time I’d only been reading horror scripts, so I went to a little coffee shop by my house and sat down and just read the whole thing. And it kept making me smile. Every few pages I was just like, ‘What is this?’ There’s obviously murder and darkness, but there’s also this weird sweetness. I got really excited about the notion of creating this world around this ridiculous premise and treating it with sincerity. It’s heightened just a little bit. It’s fantasy that’s just slightly left of center.

Coming from documentaries, you have to focus entirely on naturalism. So I wanted to push totally opposite. I wanted to exercise complete formalism, and this was that world that allowed that. This was a story that allowed things to be really strange and weird. The comedy is there on every page, but I never felt like we wanted to constantly be trying to make people laugh, because that’s terrifying. I said, ‘Let’s present this as if it’s real, as if it’s its own little world.’ On the surface, it’s a ridiculous premise. So finding out how to create stakes in this very surreal world was a fun challenge. What is your history with Bob Odenkirk?

Stephenson: This is bizarre, man. I was editing The American Scream, and one afternoon my wife was like, ‘Let’s write down our dreams of people we’d love to work with one day.’ This was five years ago. It was before Better Call Saul. I’d been a fan of Bob’s from Mr. Show and I wrote Bob Odenkirk’s name down on my white board. At that time, he had untapped dramatic sensibilities. Now he’s got Better Call Saul and all these things, but back then he didn’t. I just had this feeling, even though I thought there was no chance.

Then about a month after that, I was reading an interview on The A.V. Club where Bob mentioned liking my first movie, Best Worst Movie. And so I was like, ‘Whaaaaaaaat?’ So I reached out and we got connected. That’s when I invited him and his family to come to the L.A. Premiere of The American Scream. And then I learned his son is a big Troll 2 fan, so that was wild. And that was four years ago. Since then it’s become this really, really incredible relationship. I’ve learned so much from him and have felt nothing but support from him since the very first day. Does having Odenkirk in the lead basically cast the movie for you? Is he a magnet that sucks in everyone else?

Stephenson: Look, it certainly doesn’t hurt. He’s so respected by so many people. But early on when we set out to cast it, I was driving across the Nevada desert and he sent me an email that said, ‘I’m going to have casting ideas, but don’t just cast them because they’re my friends. Make sure it’s yours.’ So we talked about finding actors who were comedic, but would take it seriously and play it straight. So there were various ideas all the way down for every role. Amber Tamblyn was obviously very connected to him, but, and this shows what kind of a guy Bob is, he was like, ‘Look, you should meet her, but this is your thing. Do your due diligence.’ And we did. We met other people. But we came back to her just because she was perfect.

You have things come up, like we were talking about the role of Gundy and Bob was like ‘What about Stacy Keach?’ As a first time filmmaker, on the outside you’re playing it cool like, ‘Yeah, he’d be really interesting,’ but on the inside you’re freaking out like, ‘He’d be perfect! But can we get him?’ So there are so many things with respect to this movie that felt like gifts. But it was the type of thing where we still had a very formal process. And I think the cast responded to it. A, it was coming from Bob and they like Bob. But B, it was what he and the two other writers had written. As an actor, you don’t get that many opportunities to read for those types of roles. It’s interesting that just now you referred to yourself as a first time filmmaker. This is your first narrative, but definitely not your first movie. Did you feel like you were always having to prove things on this, as if you were a first timer?

Stephenson: It’s interesting because I never felt that anyone treated me that way, but I still went into this with the thought that I was creating something completely opposite in terms of style. It’s a different set of principals, of different tools, so in many ways it’s new. I realized this when I was making the movie. I didn’t feel as though the environment was new. I’ve been on sets since I was a kid. But…I don’t know the best way to describe it. It’s storytelling through a different set of things, a different exercise. What’s next for you?

Stephenson: I will always do non-fiction, I love it, but I love the narrative space. Regardless if it’s doc or narrative, I want to continue to making weird and wonderful and surprising movies. What I want ultimately – and this is something I learned from the director of Troll 2 of all things – I want to create stuff that’s memorable. I have a movie I really want to get off the ground called Destroy. I was working on that before Girlfriends Day. I tried everything, but couldn’t get it going so I put that under the bed. But that’s back out now, so hopefully it’ll happen soon.

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Girlfriend’s Day is out now on Netflix.

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