In terms of casting the leads, Saxon notes, “When we met Maya Rudolph, we were knocked out by her depth and humanity. We already knew about her amazing sense of humor from her chameleon-like work on Saturday Night Live. Essentially, she was Verona in real life.”
The actress confirms, “This character is so close to me in real life; it felt like fate. I don’t see anyone like Verona in movies, or in scripts. I loved what Dave and Vendela wrote, I loved the characters of Verona and Burt. Certainly, some of what happens to her happened to me while I was pregnant. Perhaps the coolest thing was that she is [of] mixed [race] and her partner is somebody who doesn’t look like her; that this is never an issue in Away We Go spoke to my own personal experience.”
Of her leading man, Saxon remarks, “John Krasinksi had a small part in [the Mendes-directed] Jarhead and has since become more well-known because of his television series The Office, so Sam knew how talented he was. I hope I get to work with him again when he becomes a big honking movie star!”
Krasinski says, “This project is a perfect storm of creative superpowers; great material with a director of Sam’s caliber and a true talent of a cinematographer like Ellen [Kuras]. I had heard about Dave and Vendela’s script even before Sam got involved. It was such a cool project, I was just looking forward to seeing and enjoying it when it came out. Then I got a call from Sam saying, ‘I’m only thinking of you for the role.’ That was pretty amazing.
“The script was extremely funny, but the theme that I felt bonded to right away was belonging somewhere. No matter what you are doing in life, your biggest dream is to find where you belong. Burt and Verona go after that, which I think is brave. Through the dialogue, you also get a sense that these two are partners who get each other so well that they allow you each other to be their truest self; that’s something that people hope for in a relationship.”
The director made a point of surrounding himself with new collaborators behind the scenes for Away We Go. He explains, “The people I’ve worked with on multiple films before are all amazing, but I wanted to challenge myself by working with a new crew; I felt I needed to change my perspective on things, and shock myself out of some habits. Different speeds and rhythms would help me achieve the freshness and looseness that I was trying for with this movie.”
For their part, crew members rose to the challenge of a movie that would shoot across three states, with only two sequences were shot on a soundstage. As Burt and Verona’s journey loops them around and across North America, so too had the production had searched around the country. Many of the key locations were “cast” in the hills, valleys, and towns of Connecticut.
Production designer Jess Gonchor remembers, “I was excited to work with Sam. I read the script and went to his office thinking, ‘We’re going to go to all these places…’ Then I found out that we’re going to try to do almost the whole movie in Connecticut…! This was the most challenging project I’ve done, in terms of achieving this many different looks.”
“Connecticut is a versatile state, from urban looks in places like Stamford, New Haven and Bridgeport to the rural countryside around Litchfield County,” explains location manager Tyson Bidner. “We found locations to serve as sections of Denver, Phoenix, Montreal, parts of Wisconsin, and even a little bit of Miami.”
“It’s almost like this story takes place as a series of postcards,” says director of photography Ellen Kuras. “The characters are within the postcard, and we’re seeing the backgrounds change as they question and explore where they want to go and who they want to be. This is a comedy, but it’s one about the human condition.”
Paul Schneider, cast as Burt’s brother Courtney Farlander, muses that reading the script put him in mind of “A Christmas Carol, where Marley and the ghosts come to Scrooge and lead him through these various situations. In Away We Go, Burt and Verona touch down into several different mutations of relationships.”
Gonchor remarks, “Sam told me that, in getting at the comedy in this character-driven script, he wanted to take it to the point of just before it falls off the edge.”
Kuras and Bidner worked closely with Mendes and Gonchor. Kuras says, “At the beginning, Sam and I talked about shaping the vision of the movie and what was appropriate for the story. Jess and I had to come up with ideas about creating different looks for the different places. I used particular lenses to keep the flatness of the postcard-feel image, although we were shooting widescreen. Flattening the image enables me to marry the characters into the background a little more.”
For his part, Gonchor “created five different color palettes, one for each state that the story takes place in. I had them up on a wall, next to each other, and kept working at them.
“Colorado is done up as bleak; Arizona is bright sunshine; Wisconsin is scholastic; Montreal is brick and collegiate; and Miami is pastel. Once I had sold Sam on these looks, every piece of dressing or prop, and every paint color, stuck to its palette so that nothing crossed over. Working with him was a pleasure; I came up with some crazy ideas and he said, ‘Go for it.'”
Also a first-time collaborator with the director, Kuras offers, “Coming after [previous Mendes movies’ cinematographers] Roger Deakins and [the late] Conrad Hall, I feel honored that he would trust me, and our working together enabled me to be more creative and more daring. The DP and director’s relationship is one of confidence and security, and one of exploration. Sam likes to be able to rehearse on location with actors on the morning of a particular scene; he would invite me to watch the blocking and the movement, so this way I could get a jump on the lighting and work with my crew and he could have enough time to work with the actors.”
Mendes notes, “I didn’t go into many of these locations with too much predetermined. I wanted whatever we were getting in any location – atmosphere, weather – to dictate how the scenes would be, so I kept them loose.
“The DP is the center of the crew, and the DP’s personality is the overriding atmosphere-setter along with the director’s. Ellen has great warmth and an easy manner about her, which helped keep everyone relaxed and bring out the comedy in the scenes.”
The director also praises costume designer John Dunn, noting that “some of the most difficult costuming jobs are on contemporary movies. You have to give the characters originality without it looking ‘cute’ or self-consciously hip. John did it all with amazing skill.”
Dunn was comfortable working with the director “because he and I both have theater experience. I was able to have a dialogue with him in a way I often can’t with directors. We went through the script together and worked to identify and individualize Burt and Verona – and create contrasts with everyone they’re visiting; throughout, they’re a little bit out of season with whichever environment they’ve gone into. They haven’t yet evolved into who they really are.
“With Burt’s clothing, to show him as unselfconscious we did a mix-and-match that looks sort of thrown-together but in an interesting way – maybe just a little irritating to Verona, yet reflecting confusion with their lives. John can look dashing and wonderful, so I needed to tone him down a little…In Away We Go, the clothing – and many of the characters we encounter are only in one set of clothing – is about how much a person is interested in revealing or hiding about their real self.”
As for exploring those characters’ selves, Carmen Ejogo, cast as Verona’s sister Grace, reports that the actors “spent weeks getting ready for film, sitting with the director and the screenwriters, talking out our characters. Rehearsals are somewhat rare in filmmaking, but Sam makes time for you to do that.”
“He did on American Beauty, too,” reveals Allison Janney, the only actor to appear in both Away We Go (as Lily) and the earlier picture. “He knows how to talk to actors. In rehearsals, we are able to identify nuances which Sam incorporates to make the scenes and characters richer on-screen.”
“It’s a huge luxury for a supporting player,” marvels Melanie Lynskey, who plays the couple’s longtime friend Munch. “No one usually thinks of us! But Sam is very patient as he gets to the core of scenes.”
Mendes explains, “I’ve always done rehearsals. It makes an enormous difference on a movie like this, where we had actors for only a few days. They have to establish and tell the whole story of their character before the story moves on and moves past them. It’s very important that they hit the ground running, to convey an existing relationship.”
Krasinski – who himself had written and directed a movie (Brief Interviews with Hideous Men) shortly before filming Away We Go – muses, “Sam’s rehearsals are about making sure all the actors discover what the scene is about. He adjusts you for a scene. If you’re a spinning top, he never wants you to stop; he will give you the momentum to keep going. If you need a solution for a scene that isn’t working, he will find the one that works best and also affects the rest of the movie. So when the time comes to shoot, you are all basically on the same page.”
Even so, Mendes reveals, “When we start shooting, as is often the case, I throw in things to have the actors improvise for a few takes. Then we go back to the scripted version of the scene and it feels much more like natural speech – and I didn’t want to veer off this script too much, because it was wonderful and that’s why we were all doing it. In the finished film, there are only three or four scenes that are improvised – plus a few surprises and happy accidents. Since they really got on with each other, I could say to John or Maya, ‘That thing you did yesterday behind the camera, do it in front of the camera.'”
Saxon praises Mendes for always keeping an eye on “finding the best way of telling a story. It’s a complicated process, directing, but Sam has a great sense of where True North is for the story and the characters; his compass is strong and he was able to keep us on course.”
Atypically, the course for the movie’s music was set early on. Mendes notes, “I always wanted to have a singer / songwriter write the music for Away We Go. In pre-production, I discovered Alexi Murdoch and I knew I would be using a lot of the songs from his album. He became very much a part of putting it together, and wrote new songs for the movie as well.”
Mendes and Murdoch looked for inspiration to movies like Harold and Maude and Magnolia, which were scored by and with singer / songwriters. Once in the cutting room, the director “found that scenes would be edited slightly differently because of the song that was playing. The rhythm of the film changed because of the music.”
Following the rehearsals period with the actors, filming began in Wilton, Connecticut; in the first of many instances of one location portraying another location, Wilton stood in for the suburbs of Denver, where Burt and Verona are living as the story commences. Although Krasinski and Rudolph had rehearsed with Mendes already, there is nothing quite like an intimate scene to truly introduce the principals to one another… and, per the screenplay, to the audience.
Krasinski says of his leading lady, “I don’t know of anyone who could have played Verona other than Maya, who is gifted. She has an understanding of the world and of what’s funny, so she knows not to go for the joke; when you’re as talented as she is, you play it like it’s no big thing. She’s so honest, but it’s easy and fun for her – which makes it that way for whomever’s working with her.”
Rudolph says that she and Krasinski “had met before this project, but I didn’t really know him. However, when we started working together on Away We Go, we felt we spoke the same language. He could very easily have been part of the Saturday Night Live world that I was in for seven-and-one-half years; he made me laugh every day. Sam Mendes gave us the freedom to figure out who this couple was.”
The characters that the two leads play share that same dynamic of comfort and ease with each other, so the chemistry was crucial. Yet both actors had to have firm senses of their characters’ individual strengths – some of which might also, as the screenplay explores, be seen as weaknesses.
“I think Burt is a dreamer,” offers Krasinski. “He’s also naïve, yet smart at what he wants to be smart at. He’s one of those guys who knows 10,000 little things but doesn’t know much about one big thing. Burt doesn’t overthink the world; he just kind of lets it happen to him. A lot of the time, that’s a blessing, but Verona does sometimes have to rein him in a bit.
“Having a baby is the epitome of a life-changing moment. You can’t just slide through life any more; you have to exhibit real responsibility and strength. At the beginning of Away We Go, Burt and Verona get really excited – and terrified.”
Head make-up artist Michele Paris, who had worked with Mendes prior on Revolutionary Road, worked with the costume and visual effects departments on prosthetic bellies and latex stomachs to realistically convey Verona’s advanced-stage pregnancy, during which most of the story transpires.
Even so, quips Rudolph, “I looked great compared to what I really looked like when I was pregnant, with my nose growing in width…”
The actress feels that “Verona’s world is the one she has with Burt; really, the two of them have a world of their own,” says Rudolph.”Meeting them, we see that they both work from their home, and their work is strewn all over the house – especially Burt’s projects.
While they can carry their world with them wherever they go, the news that this cozy world – the one they’ve kind of had since college
– is to be expanded means building a new nest for their child, and so they decide to find the perfect place to live. “Wherever they go, they are strong for each other. I feel that she brings him to life in a way that he might not be on his own, and vice versa. She may be more of the driving force, but she wouldn’t feel right without him. On their trip together, they are given windows into what their lives could be.”
So it was that Krasinski and Rudolph found themselves partnering with different sets of actors. Krasinski marvels, “It was basically like a traveling play with a new cast every week; they would join our troupe for just a few days and knock it out of the park. Talk about free acting lessons; I think I ended up stealing something from everybody in the movie…!”
Filming opposite Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara, as Burt’s parents Jerry and Gloria, proved to be a particular pleasure as O’Hara’s off-camera antics kept everyone on the set relaxed and laughing.
In fact, Daniels warns that “if you dare look her in the eye during a scene…you’re gone. Sometimes you have to fight your way through to not break up.”
Mendes confirms, “It’s barely possible to get through a scene without laughing! Catherine is literally one of the funniest people I have ever met; she had us in stitches.”
Having worked with her before, Daniels had an idea of what to expect from O’Hara both on camera and off; however, he had not worked with Krasinksi prior, and Mendes knew that the early sequence was crucial to establishing Burt’s character, in that a son often reflects a father.
Dunn adds, “We wanted to show that sense of fear that young people can have of maybe becoming one of their parents.”
Daniels reports, “Sam wanted to make sure that John and I were recognizably father and son, even taking it to a stylistic extreme in that we wear similar glasses. We both grew out beards for the roles, and worked on subtly mirroring each other; the way we sit, the rubbing of our eyes, and our speaking rhythms and cadences.”
Mendes admits, “I thought we could pull off having them look very similar – and not have it commented on, letting humor bubble up from the situation.”
Daniels comments, “In our scenes together, you had four actors who love doing comedy – which is precise and hard to do. It was great to get in there and play off of each other. This script was very funny on the page, but for us it was not just about how many jokes are in the scene.”
The couple’s search for the perfect place – if one indeed exists – takes them (and took the production on location) to Arizona, for the scenes with Verona’s sister Grace. Filming took place at Tucson’s J.W. Marriott Star Pass Resort & Spa, which itself already had what executive producer (and green initiative captain) Mari Jo Winkler-Ioffreda praises as “an aggressive recycling program. It was also good news that crew members could stay there, which meant less gas used for transportation.”
In Away We Go, the Star Pass is cast to type as the luxury resort where Grace works. Ejogo, who plays Grace, laughs, “Grace is sort of the more expensive version of Verona. She seems to have everything under control and organized, with a lucrative job in a glamorous setting. The two sisters’ parents are gone, so they are each other’s most intimate friend in the world.
“It all starts with the writing, and I responded to the quality of Dave and Vendela’s work; there are several vignettes in the story, and none of the characters feel stereotyped. All the actors were very trusting of Sam because he finds the layers which make the scenes more dynamic.”
For Grace, Dunn and Mendes “wanted her to reflect another path that Verona might have gone on,” notes the costume designer. “But we also wanted to convey that Grace is maybe a little bit envious of the life Verona has, so Grace emulates Verona in her casual clothing.”
Earlier in Arizona (as scripted), the production alighted in Phoenix. At the dog track, Allison Janney holds court as Lily.
Janney remarks, “I was grateful to Sam and [casting director] Debra Zane for hiring me for American Beauty years ago, but it’s been too long in-between and I adore Sam, so I have to talk to him about being part of his regular stable of actors…
“Meeting up with Lily again, I think what Verona learns is that, as parents people change – or maybe just become more of who they are. I don’t think I’ve ever played anyone quite like Lily. She’s quite a character, a little much; she doesn’t have any boundaries.”
Dunn praises the actress as someone who “wears clothing extraordinarily well. Allison wants to look different from character to character, and this is a more blue-collar and slightly trashy look than has probably been seen on her before.”
Jim Gaffigan, cast opposite Janney as Lily’s husband Lowell, comments, “With this wardrobe, I found myself getting into character, behaving differently; I don’t normally wear jewelry…
“My character has a pretty healthy amount of detachment. Together, Lowell and Lily are a stark example of parenting getting messed up. In the ‘nature-vs.-nurture’ debate – ”
“She’s more the ‘nature’ kind of gal!” laughs Janney.
The campus scenes set in Madison, Wisconsin were filmed at The Taft School’s sprawling (220 acres for 600 students) campus in Watertown, Connecticut. It is there that Burt and Verona seek out Burt’s childhood friend and “cousin” LN (formerly known as Ellen). LN is played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, an actor with whom Mendes had long sought to work.
For Gyllenhaal, it was worth the wait, since “on the set, he is very collaborative; when I would have an idea about something, he would really hear me out. Even if he ultimately didn’t agree, Sam made me feel that he had listened.
“I found the script to be hilarious and moving, and all about trying to get to a place that’s honest before you become a parent.”
To that end, playing a mother of two came easier to Gyllenhaal than it would have a couple of years earlier. The actress points out, “I just had a baby in 2006, so I can relate to the anxieties of being a parent – whether it is Burt and Verona’s, or my character LN’s. I don’t know if I could have played some of these scenes – like comforting a crying eleven-month-old – if I hadn’t been a mom.
“LN definitely goes against the grain. She is fiercely attached to her ideas about parenting; she has highly specific ideas about child-rearing.”
Burt and Verona’s subsequent visit to the home LN shares with her partner Roderick, played by Josh Hamilton, sets up a sharp contrast between the two couples in a sequence that escalates in both comedy and intensity.
Gyllenhaal praises Krasinski and Rudolph “because these are two people who make everybody laugh, yet are basically playing the straight men in our scenes together, reacting to some crazy things. They had to be still and quiet yet also convey so much and be funny, so that the scenes are both outrageous and real.”
Elaborating on some of his character’s tendencies, Hamilton reveals that “Since LN is independently wealthy, Roderick is for the most part a stay-at-home dad. His favorite animal is a seahorse, because the male seahorse carries the babies in his brood pouch; Roderick is envious. He has a very strong maternal instinct, which is to be applauded. Whether or not he and LN have good ideas about parenting, what makes them maddening is how they clearly assume their way is the only way to parent.
“Like Maggie, I became a parent in the past couple of years. So, much of the script rang true for me and was finely observed. People now are taking longer to settle down and figure out the rest of their lives. Until you have a kid, you have no idea of the battles over schools of thought for parenting…”
Dunn advises that “what looks like peasant clothing on LN and Roderick is actually high-end expensive clothing. They’re determined not to look like everybody else, so it’s a style of dressing as well as indulging expensive tastes.”
Still in Connecticut, downtown Stamford and parts of New Haven effortlessly stood in for Montreal interiors and exteriors; in an acting stretch, the Montreal pancake house is played by Remo’s, an Italian restaurant in Stamford. In Montreal, Burt and Verona seek the comfort of their old friends Tom and Munch.
Melanie Lynskey, who plays Munch, remarks, “The two couples were at university together years before. Now, Burt and Verona come to visit and find something that’s very grounded. In a beautiful townhouse, our characters’ kids are spilling all over each other. But, as happens with anyone, there are things that have happened that we don’t want to talk about. Towards the end of the visit, this becomes evident.
“I have friends who have gone through what Tom and Munch have gone through; reading the script, I knew that I wanted to tell that story with these characters, and I felt that if any director could lead us through that, it would be Sam Mendes. He gets the balance of emotion and comedy right. Much of the movie is very funny, but there are more serious moments.”
Chris Messina, cast opposite Lynskey as Tom, praises the actress in turn for “being committed 1,000%. She has a scene – which she had to do over and over again – which is heartbreaking, odd, and unique. Only Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida could have written a scene like that.”
Mendes notes that “the scenes that Chris and Melanie play change the mood of the movie, and I think they do them wonderfully.”
Messina adds, “There is a beautifully written scene about the doors we have within ourselves. Individual scenes, and the movie as a whole, explore the difference between a house and a home; not just about the superficial stuff, but about going deeper and deeper and unlocking all those doors with love and patience and generosity.”
That necessity cues the final leg of the trip, which begins in Florida (filmed in Miami Beach, Florida) and ends in South Carolina (filmed in Leesberg, Florida – “about an hour outside of Orlando,” notes Gonchor).
It is there that Burt and Verona’s own bond is redefined and a shared definition of home is reached.
“I love the exploration of home in this movie; what that means and what it is,” states Rudolph. “Ultimately, home is what and where you make it.”
Mendes says, “I hope that people will find themselves in this movie somewhere. Away We Go is filled with hope and light and life force, and that is a real testament to Dave and Vendela as writers.”
While viewers of Away We Go will take note of the actors, the music, the direction and the writing, what will not be readily apparent is that it was made as a “green” production.
What this entailed during filming was that alternative fuels were used; 49% of waste from landfills was redirected into recycling and composting; and carbon emissions were substantially reduced. These guidelines were upheld during a location shoot that spanned three American states (Connecticut, Arizona, and Florida) through the spring of 2008.
In “going green,” everything was separated into five categories – bottles, cans, plastic, compost, and paper – during the production of a mainstream feature film, a rare feat that is anticipated and hoped to become a more common achievement. Away We Go adhered to energy-saving and environmentally friendly guidelines throughout its production.
The production office observed the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)’s Best Practices Guide for Green Production and was advised by Green Media Solutions [f/k/a Earthmark Green Production Consulting]. Executive producer Mari Jo Winkler-Ioffreda and Focus Features executive vice president of physical production Jane Evans coordinated efforts at every phase of the extensive location filming.
All departments complied with the guidelines, from camera (shooting with three-perf film, which uses 25% less stock and chemicals in the manufacturing and processing) to costumes (using low-energy washers and dryers in the costume shop, and outfitting the characters in vintage or borrowed clothing as much as possible) to sound (using rechargeable batteries) to photography (production and publicity stills were evaluated online rather than via contact sheets).
At all points in the filming, and at each of the three different states lensed in, the production reduced its carbon emissions, or “carbon footprint,” as an on-set recycling program was set up each time. A substantial percentage of the trucks and campers ferrying the cast and crew were using reclaimed Biodiesel 5, a petroleum diesel fuel blend that runs on recycled/collected cooking grease from local restaurants. Away We Go was the first East Coast-based film production to use Biodiesel 5 (B5) on location, and the production was able to procure it in every state.
Winkler-Ioffreda remarks, “Some cities were more progressive in the green movement than others. It takes education, and talking to people, so that better recycling programs can be set up. For instance, once vendors are assured that B5 will not harm engines or vehicles and that the American Trucking Association has approved it, they would sign off on using B5. Our generators ran on it, too.”
Furthering the initiative, the cast and crew availed themselves of environmentally responsible products. Craft services and catering’s biodegradable-only products were recycled and composted; 16 oz. aluminum SIGG water bottles – with filtered tap water made available for refilling daily – were provided to one and all, which in itself kept 10,000 non-biodegradable plastic water bottles out of landfills and off the shooting sites; and organic food was purchased from local purveyors at every leg of the shoot, to cite just a few examples.
Sam Mendes enthuses, “To be moving around with a lighter, more deft unit means that it doesn’t take you hours and hours to park every day.”
Sets and props left over from the shoot were donated to organizations such as Build the Green and/or to co-producers and co-financiers Focus and Big Beach; the latter two then made use of the materials in subsequent films that they put into production.
The production’s overall efforts were detailed in a report presented at the December 2008 “Hollywood Goes Green” conference in Los Angeles, entitled Away We Go: A Pilot Study of Sustainable Film Production Practices.
Winkler-Ioffreda states, “The support was overwhelming. People care about the environment, and you feel the importance to do what you can. Hopefully, everyone from this shoot will, on their next jobs, ask for some of the things that we’ve implemented on Away We Go.”
John Krasinski confides, “The incredible part about it is that you realize just how easy it is to do – and how much you are saving.”
Away We Go (2009)
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Starring: John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Jeff Daniels, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Schneider, Melanie Lynskey, Allison Janney, Samantha Pryor, Bailey Harkins, Chris Messina
Screenplay by: Vendela Vida
Production Design by: Jess Gonchor
Cinematography by: Ellen Kuras
Film Editing by: Sarah Flack
Costume Design by: John Dunn
Set Decoration by: Lydia Marks
Art Direction by: Henry Dunn
Music by: Alexi Murdoch
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual content.
Distributed by: Focus Features
Release Date: June 5, 2009