Caitlin Fitzgerald: Best of What's Next

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The return of Ed Burns to a career as an ultra-low-budget indie filmmaker is good news for a host of reasons, but perhaps primary among them is his determination to feature extraordinarily talented actors who aren’t yet household names. Last year’s Nice Guy Johnny introduced most of us to Matt Bush, Kerry Bishe, and Anna Wood. This year’s Newlyweds is a coming-out party of sorts for Caitlin Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald’s first audition with Burns didn’t go very well, she says, but she got a call a couple of weeks later to come in and talk to him about a different project, one that eventually became Newlyweds. “It was still in development,” she recalls, “and he had about 30 pages of material written. He wanted my thoughts on the character and the story. So we sat there for about two hours and talked, and I remember thinking, I don’t know how I got so lucky, but this is everything I’ve ever wanted to do—collaborative filmmaking in New York. With a really cute guy.” She laughs and backtracks a bit: “Just kidding about that last part. Maybe.” She laughs again. “No, I think Ed Burns is totally cute, it’s just not my top priority for collaboration.”

Burns employed a creative mix of scripted language and improvised material to build the story. “I don’t think I ever held a full script in my hands,” she laughs. “He’d call me up in the morning and say, ‘Bring the grey coat and the red sweater that you were wearing in that scene we already shot.’ I’d come in and he’d have pages, and we’d talk through them, try stuff out, maybe shoot some stuff. If it didn’t work out, we’d change it.”

In keeping with the Woody Allen-esque structure of many of Burns’ films, the action is often interrupted by interludes that suggest the characters being interviewed, and Fitzgerald says that offered more opportunities for improvisation: “Because of the documentary feel of the film, there’s improv around the scripted dialogue, and I think it makes it feel more real. It’s a really exciting way to make a movie because not only does it make it feel more organic, it really empowers the actors, which I’m always in favor of because I feel we’re relatively disenfranchised often.”

If building the story was done in an unconventional way, so was the shooting. “We shot on the Canon 5D,” Fitzgerald says, “which is a really exciting camera to shoot on. It has its technical drawbacks, but it makes so many things possible. My first day I was on ‘set,’ and I put that in quotation marks, it was a guy holding a boom and a guy holding a camera and me and Eddie. And I did have a little thought of ‘What is this that you’ve asked me to do?’” Available lighting was used almost exclusively: “I think we had one china ball for one scene, but that was about it.” It’s an environment most established filmmakers would be intimidated by.

But the skeleton crew and the ultraportable, ultraflexible camera paid dividends in the shooting process. “You just entirely forget the camera is there,” she says. “Usually in filmmaking it’s at least 20 minutes between setups, and most of the time a lot longer. But this way, the cameraman would say, ‘Hey, let’s try it from this angle,’ and then he’d just step over the couch and shoot it from the other side.”

That freedom also created an economy of action, so that even though the shooting schedule only stretched over a ludicrously short 12 days, Burns got more footage than many longer but more conventionally run shoots. And it allowed the production team a small footprint, often allowing it to shoot unnoticed. “My character is a restaurant owner,” she explains, “and we’d just go right into these restaurants that were kind enough to let us shoot. We’d never shut down a location; it was full of regular customers having their dinner and they were totally unaware that we were making a movie. Sometimes the staff was unaware. There’s a scene where I go behind a bar to make a drink, and customers actually start asking me for things.”

Fitzgerald grew up in a small town on the Maine coast, in a large but very close family, and knew early on that she wanted to be an actor: “I think I got one taste of someone laughing at something I did, and it was done.” Her parents were supportive from the beginning, driving her to rehearsals, attending performances, and even making costumes. “I was just home for the holidays,” she laughs, “and I found my very first costume, which was for a Shakespeare play when I was eight. My mother made it. It’s so small and cute! It’s really this beautiful little costume. And I thought, you know, all these years they’ve been supporting me. What a huge help, to have a family that supports your crazy, mad dreams.”

She came a bit south to attend NYU and got an agent while a student there. She figured that was her big break. “I thought, yeah, I’m going to be this huge movie star now. And I spent the first couple of years out of school confused as to why I wasn’t a huge movie star.”

She did slowly begin booking a few parts, but then her agency dropped her, and she journeyed to California to play Juliet in a regional Shakespeare production. It was in California that she was given a chance to audition for Ang Lee, and that part in his film Taking Woodstock was one of the key steps that led to her being cast just months later in perhaps her best known role in It’s Complicated. “It was really a lesson to me,” Fitzgerald reflects, “to keep choosing those projects and parts that make your heart sing, even when the suits don’t agree. In this weird life of the actor, there’s always another door that opens.”

In addition to being a huge box office success, It’s Complicated gave Fitzgerald the opportunity to play opposite a screen legend: “I got to spend time on set with Meryl Streep,” she says, “who is absolutely my hero. She’s such a lovely human being; she’s just lit from within. She’s got this twinkle in her eye like the world is a place to play in. She’s having such a good time with the work all the time, which I think is crucial.”

As for the immediate future, she’s recently worked with another indie film legend: “I just made a movie with Whit Stillman called Damsels in Distress, which is coming out in the spring,” she says. “He’s a completely different kind of New York filmmaker than Ed Burns, so it’s fantastic to be able to be in those two different worlds, back to back. It was fascinating.” Like Burns, Stillman’s movies are immediately recognizable as his own work, Fitzgerald muses: “He makes very specific choices, and it’s really cool to step on a set and think, ‘I’m living in a world that is shaped by one very particular brain.’ That’s really exciting as an actor.”

She also recently wrapped production on her first film as writer and producer (she also stars), the very personal indie drama Like the Water. “I had just started shooting Newlyweds, and I was so excited about how we were shooting and how easy it was. I was having dinner with my friend [and eventual director and co-writer] Caroline von Kuhn and some other women who were eventually involved in the film, and I said, ‘We just need to make a movie, guys. Let’s just get a camera and go up to Maine in the summer and shoot something. I’m doing this thing with Eddie and it’s so easy.’ Of course, little did I know that Eddie has been a filmmaker forever, and he’s been working with his cinematographer for 15 years and they have this shorthand, and all these things.”

Nevertheless, the idea caught fire with the group, and the seed was planted that night. “You know, I respect Caroline so much,” Fitzgerald says, “and I remember she and I after dinner, standing on this street corner, shaking hands and saying we’re going to do this. We always talk about doing something together, but we’re going to do this.”

As the two friends began working through ideas for a script, they discovered that each of them had lost close childhood friends while in their 20s, and that it had been a formative experience for each. The seed of the script was planted, and eight months later they were all in Maine together shooting the most personal story of Fitzgerald’s career. “It’s madness,” she says, “and I think had we known how hard it was going to be, and how much work, and how scary it would be, we probably wouldn’t have done it. But sometimes ignorance is bliss, so we just went for it. I’ve been on a lot of sets, and I’m so proud of how our set was run and what we managed to pull off.”

It’s no coincidence that the star of Newlyweds was the driving force behind the decision to make Like the Water. “Every time we do a press conference for Newlyweds he talks about how great this opportunity is now for people. When he was doing The Brothers McMullen, he had to beg and borrow to even get the film, and sometimes he couldn’t afford to process the film for five months. And he had to just hope that he got the shots, because they’d never be able to reshoot. But digital has changed the world. And for anyone who wants to make a movie, I highly recommend it. Just go for it.”