Interview: ‘The Humans’ writer/director Stephen Karam on translating stage to screen, gathering a stellar cast for his feature debut
We all know the dreaded feeling that is coming this time of the year. The unnerving feeling of being around one’s family on Thanksgiving, stuck in a room for an entire day, delicately dancing from topic to topic, hope that nothing leads to confirmations and blow back that will be brought up the following year. These feelings, and more, are expertly delivered in Stephen Karam’s directorial debut, The Humans, dropping just in time for the turkey carving holiday.
Based on Karam’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning one act play, we follow the Blake family as they come together at the daughter’s new apartment to celebrate Thanksgiving. But as the film’s events play out, humor and tension build, leading to revelations that test the future of the Blake family, and if this might be the last holiday they spend together. Bringing these honest, complicated people to life is one of the most talented ensembles put together this year in Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, Amy Schumer, Beanie Feldstein, Steven Yeun and June Squibb. Beyond the performances, it’s Karam’s direction, sharp dialogue, and visual scope that makes this more than just your standard stage to screen adaptations. Due to an impeccable sound design, every secret or ounce of dread is felt, thus turning The Humans into more of a horror film at times than a family drama.
In his interview with AwardsWatch, Karam talked about his mind set waiting to release the film since production on the project wrapped right before COVID-19 shut downs. Karam mentions that he wanted to release the film in the right time, and didn’t want it to get lost, and thus waiting till now was the best chance for The Humans to find an audience. He also talks about this being his first time directing, changes in the script from the original stage version, and his admiration for the cast. By the end, you can just tell he is a good guy, and someone to keep an eye out moving forward if he makes more movies like this.
Ryan McQuade: So how are you feeling based on the film finally being able to be seen by audiences? Since you guys finished filming in 2019, it’s taken a long road to get here.
Stephen Karam: Yeah. I guess the world was so crazy in that moment for so many different reasons that it leads you into a kind of acceptance there’s too much that doesn’t make sense to be too “woe is me” about when the movie comes out. I was bizarrely focused and this could be because it was my first film, you know. So I was so grateful that I made something that I proud of. That was such a good feeling. Because as you know, there’s so many ways, especially as a first film, that the film can get taken away from you. It, people could start to pit. And I was so proud of the creative team and the cast and what I was able to assemble even once we got shut down.
And I was mostly just thinking, man, I can’t believe in the midst of all of this, that there was just like an hour and 46 minute movie that I can’t wait to show the world. And so weirdly I was really content to just sort of sit back and wait and see what made sense and much more on the side of like, please don’t just like dump it or toss it out a window out of, out of like, you know, the desire to just show it to people. I was just so happy that I could be anxious about waiting because I did want people to see the movie.
RM: When did you know that you wanted this to be your directorial debut? Was it when you were writing the play? Was it after it came out? Like when does that start getting up in, in, in the mind and, and how you want to vision this story to be told on the big screen?
SK: I suppose there’s like a multi, multi points that I can point to thinking about directing. I mean, one was as a kid, I loved making movies. So it’s weird to do something when you’re in eighth grade school projects adapted like an Edgar Allan Poe short story with no equipment or have the ability to edit. And then you grow up and I sort of got into a lane as a writer, forgot about it, but always still wanted to try. And then my first foray in adapting, I’ve only written two screenplays prior to this…both got made. And the first one was an experience. I wrote just where a third of it got re-written by someone else. And you have that unfamiliar experience of, “oh, Mike, my gay character is now straight?”
What is happening? And people who are like, “well, we know better than you do about your own characters in your world.” And I sort of just stored away because I think so visually and always dreamed of directing, like, yeah, maybe my role in the film world would be as a writer-director. Maybe I’m not the best person to be writing a studio film and being one of 15 uncredited writers because I’m so invested in my work and I put too much of myself into the work to make peace with that. It’s probably also, I had a day job for almost 12 years while making these plays, because I just didn’t get the joy of a payday for something that I couldn’t really own my own work.
And then with this it’s the first time I felt like it wouldn’t be an adaptation. The path to the adaptation of ‘The Humans’ felt like it was going to be making something new for me, like that joy of telling this same story in the new medium that I loved was going to actually require a kind of reinvention. And then that became just like okay. I’ve just got to be okay to fail. Cause people liked the play. Yeah. So, I just had to be able to give myself permission to do this and get to work.
Interview: Beanie Feldstein and Amy Schumer (‘The Humans’) on playing sisters and creating a cinematic bond
RM: So when you’re directing this movie, are there things that you learn as you’re rewriting these characters, rewriting these scenes, everything they’re going through that you didn’t feel when you were writing the original play? And if so, what were some of those?
SK: I mean, in some ways, there was something really special about exposition that was very verbal in the play. Not only falling away and losing like a third of the dialogue, but finding so much of the screenplay writing that I love was writing the physical stuff. And so the story that felt richer and truer in the film is that you could show the two parents in their sixties, Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell helping June Squibb out of a bathroom into a wheelchair and just getting her into the chair and down a hallway at the beginning. To me, that said more about what their care taking routine had been, what their struggles are, giving you an inkling of the backstory of this, and what it is like to take care of an older relative.
And so I kind of live for moments like that, that in two minutes, you’re showing people just a problem or a situation. And you’re learning though about the characters based on how they’re dealing with it. So that was, that seems like that were my favorite. You know, Stephen Yun with the fake fireplace, like negotiating, how these moments teach you actually about their sense of humor, who they are, how they get through the, the world, how they view the holidays like this and moments like this. I love the exploration of that. And although I knew the story felt the same, you know, the film just surprises me continuously for how much it can communicate to an audience and how much it also will. If you step back in a wider shot, how great it is at letting an audience watch life spill in and out of a frame, you know, how an audience gets to bring their own absolutely feelings.
RM: What’s so also interesting about this film is that there are as many comedic moments as there are tense moments. This movie is like a horror movie. And in a lot of that has to do with the sound design. So can you speak to what you wanted to capture with the film’s sound design?
SK: Yeah, it’s a combination. The floors really did creek, but of course we wanted to add more specificity later. So I think the majority of the house coming to life in terms of the hums and the radiators and the conduit buyer buzzing, and it almost is never ending, even when you don’t realize it’s there, it’s always there in the house based on what room you’re in. And I love the sounds, these apartments make because I know them so well, I would say the, the real specificity was added in post, but because we used real wood floors because our production designer had a hundred-year-old doors and I’d say there was a surprising amount that was also just completely practical. Those door knobs were that old, a lot of the paint jobs were. So it was that it was that combination.
RM: How much of the dialogue is intact on the page and did you allow any improvisation or maybe an actor to kind of throw in a line or a jab that because they’re getting more and more come with the characters.
SK: That’s a really good question. So I demanded a lot of rigorous memorization. I asked of everybody to really commit to what was on the page so that we could feel free. Both in terms of telling me where I thought something would be great, but just didn’t work. And in my own experience with actors as talented as the six who are not just dramatic actors, but also hilarious and could easily off road the entire film. I just wanted them to be focused with a real trust in the dialogue. So that any discussion about adding or going off road would be still based on because there’s because what’s on the page, isn’t enough or it just isn’t working ideally. And then to my surprise, they’re all very funny. I don’t know if people know about Steven Yeun’s comedy roots? He is a comedy genius.
But the cast didn’t off road very much. I can tell you the ad lips because I love them so much., Amy says something like, “Mom, you never check your texts”. Stephen is supposed to warm his hands by the fake fire and then Beanie comes in and the scene does play as it scripted. But like before it does, he’s just saying, “Ooh, it’s so nice.” (Laughs)
And of course I never wrote it. Steven weirdly says it but as if he’s singing a song and in a strange that’s something that only Steven can do. Cause it’s kind of exactly him understanding the character and the moment and throwing in words, because what I had written that was going to be totally silent, except for Beanie telling him to turn it off and gets turned into something better. I was really glad that the script was fair enough in those moments in seeing that were written, but without dialogue to allow them to be really free and, and improv in that way in a physical way.
RM: When you’re working with this cast this with so much talent, as a first time director, what do you learn from them that you can kind of carry on to the next project?
SK: I just think you learn the most from people who are, you know, at the top of their field and brilliant at what they do. And so it’s probably too many lessons to, to learn other than I feel like it was a, a lesson that even a first time director can have this kind of really fun and rewarding, deep experience with more experienced film actors provided, you know, you show up still feeling very prepared and ready. And I feel like that was one of the benefits of feeling really grounded is Jane’s walking in the room now you are getting a feeling really rounded was that it gives the actors a really great solid platform to feel that somebody knows where they’re going, where they want to go. And in, in some ways I felt like it was a joy to watch them do their work and see that the thing I learned was that providing that isn’t foolish. It doesn’t mean you’ve over prepared. It actually can ground the entire enterprise and in something that sets everybody free.
The Humans premieres simultaneously in theaters and on Showtime on November 24, 2021.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photos courtesy of A24 and Jessica Antola