The Canadian director Jamie Travis has made a name for himself with his macabre short films, most notably about the troubled lives of children within their home and school environments. At Sundance this year, he unveiled For a Good Time, Call… —a hilarious film that stars Ari Graynor and Lauren Miller as two broke girls who launch a phone-sex operation to help make ends meet.
Details spoke to Travis about how he knew the script had the potential to be a hit, how his life has changed with sudden commercial success, and the challenges of balancing drama, comedy, and sadness in one movie.
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DETAILS: What convinced you to make For a Good Time, Call…?
JAMIE TRAVIS: I had never read a script that engaged me in the way that this one did. I read it from beginning to end in one sitting. It's the story of two twentysomething women in New York City who, in order to pay the rent, take up phone sex as a profession. I thought it was funny and surprisingly touching. And while it is a raunchy comedy, it's also a female-friendship love story.
DETAILS: How did you strike that balance?
JAMIE TRAVIS: We shot a lot of alt lines. When we played it safe, it felt too safe, and when we played it too dirty it was like, "Okay, we definitely crossed a line." So there was just this process through improv; the end goal being we wanted to make this as funny as possible and tell this sweet friendship story at the same time.
DETAILS: I read that some of the dialogue was based on the real-life experiences of writer Katie Anne Naylon, who once worked as a phone-sex operator.
JAMIE TRAVIS: Katie was one of the co-writers, and has a very small role. Phone sex is something she did out of her dorm room at Florida State University. She was always beside me, always throwing out ideas. It was a really collaborative process, coming up with the funniest form of phone sex we could.
DETAILS: The movie was the big breakout hit at Sundance, which resulted in a major deal with Focus Features. Did you have any inkling that there would be so much buzz?
JAMIE TRAVIS: When we screened it for the first time to 1,300 people at the Eccles Theatre, I had a hunch they were going to laugh at the right parts, but I didn't know they were going to go crazy in the way that they did. The laughter was so immense at Sundance that I couldn't even hear most of the jokes. After that first screening, everyone involved in the film felt really emotional. I wasn't even thinking about business at that point, I was just thinking about having a dialogue with an audience, and before we knew it, Focus had signed on. It was a dream come true.
DETAILS: How has the all this attention changed your life?
JAMIE TRAVIS: It was a real confidence boost and it brought our team closer together. I wouldn't say I get recognized on the street, but I'm hoping that the lives of [lead actresses] Ari and Lauren change after this, and that people do recognize them.
DETAILS: You've likened your set direction to a dollhouse rather than real life, and in your short films you've been able to construct every set in the studio to your taste. How much control did you have with this feature?
JAMIE TRAVIS: My short films are very much dollhouse narratives with extremely specific sets. Art direction has been the emphasis of my entire career. I tried to maintain that, but because it's a character-driven film and a comedy, I had to loosen up a little. I don't want people to be distracted, whereas in my short films I do want them to be distracted by the art direction, which is so integral to the storytelling.
DETAILS: How did you approach the soundtrack for this film?
JAMIE TRAVIS: The producers trusted my musical taste, so the soundtrack is full of really infectious pop songs. Pretty early on we discovered that a soulful '60s vibe worked really well in this film. One of the first songs that I wanted was "Operator" by Mary Wells, which is this great Motown tune. Most of the soundtrack is by contemporary bands that are going to be hugely successful but that people don't know quite yet. I was very happy to get some bands that are really big in Canada that aren't yet widely known in the U.S. like Timber Timbre and Austra.
DETAILS: What's been the biggest challenge in your career?
JAMIE TRAVIS: I think gaining confidence. There's always this chunk of time in your life when you question what you're doing, and I feel like this weight has been lifted in the last few years—not just with this feature, but even with shorts and commercials. I feel really confident lately—not that I'm the bee's knees for every project, but I feel that I am able to do my job better than I ever have before.
DETAILS: What are some films that have inspired you?
JAMIE TRAVIS: Nights of Cabiria, the Fellini film, Rosemary's Baby, The Shining, and The Ice Storm. They [have] aesthetic, storytelling, and emotional references, but a lot of it is about where I was in my life when I first saw those movies. As you'll notice, two of those are horror films, but very stylish. Like I said, I wouldn't consider myself just a comedy director—I really want to explore different genres.
DETAILS: Which of your films do your fans always want to talk about?
JAMIE TRAVIS: I've been playing my short films in film festivals for the last ten years and the film that most people are drawn to is The Saddest Boy in the World. It speaks to a lot of gay men who grew up either out or in the closet, and there's just a real kind of universal theme in that movie of what it takes to survive that suburban experience that so many of us survived, whether you're gay or straight. Looking back, it's kind of the movie that strikes the best kind of balance between drama and comedy, sadness and laughter.
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For a Good Time Call… stars Ari Graynor, Lauren Miller, Seth Rogen, Justin Long, Mimi Rogers, Nia Vardalos, Mark Webber, and James Wolk. It opens in select theaters on August 31st, and across the U.S. on September 7th.
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—Andrea Grant is a freelance writer and contributing producer at Details.com