It’s always hard to navigate family relationships… but when our home life collides with the work world, things can become even murkier.
This tension between the professional and domestic worlds is the basis of David, the new short film written and directed by Zach Woods. Best known for his work on comedies such as Silicon Valley, The Office, and Avenue 5, David puts Woods in the director’s chair for the first time and tells the story of a therapist (Will Ferrell) who is struggling to find the balance between work and life. In the midst of a session with depressed patient, David (William Jackson Harper), Ferrell’s son David (Fred Hechinger) arrives and demands that his father leave work to attend his big wrestling match. As the two men argue about priorities, personal and professional relationships collide and Ferrell’s character must navigate which is most important to attend to in that moment.
Because his father worked as a counsellor, Woods has a unique perspective on the experience that he brought to the script. On a deeper level though, his interest for the piece lay in exploring the messiness of human relationships.
“In real life, my father’s a therapist, so I’m familiar with that setting,” Woods begins. “My relationship with my dad isn’t really anything like the one in the movie and I obviously I’ve never wrestled before. (If I had wrestled, I would still be in traction, even if I did it in high school. [laughs]) I think that I’ve always thought therapists’ offices were kind of interesting situations and sort of the myth of the therapist’s complete lack of means. Therapy is so based on this sort of fiction that the caretaking dynamics only flow one way. I just think that’s so interesting when the therapist’s humanity comes leaking in through the pipe, basically.”
“More broadly, I guess I’m really interested in messiness, basically, and how, in order to be close to people, you have to endure messiness like your own and theirs. At a time when there’s so many fantasies of perfectibility, when we’re constantly sort of performing our lives for each other in these ways that feel slightly disingenuous sometimes, the idea of three people having to negotiate their respective messes and figure out how everyone can get fed in the way that they need was interesting to me, I guess.”
As a director, it can always be a challenge to get the best out of your cast. However, as his first time behind the camera, one might expect that Woods would be even more nervous. However, Woods explains that his experience was quite the opposite as each cast member was ready to engage the material fully from the outset.
“Surprisingly, it really wasn’t [hard to work with them],” he marvels. “I think it’s because they were so gracious and generous with their talent and their time and beyond that, just showing up. There’s way in which, as an actor, you can show up physically, but not spiritually. You can be there in body, but not in spirit and that’s almost worse than just not doing it in the first place. There’s like sort of two levels of commitment. When someone signs on for a project, there’s something where they say, ‘I will be at this place at this time’. Then, there’s the other much more daunting form of commitment, which is to show up with your whole heart. When somebody does that, it’s infectious. If I am there and I’m vulnerable and really invested and you’re acting across from me, that gives you permission to then be equally exposed. But it’s kind of like someone has to take the first leap. It’s like skinny dipping or something. Someone has to run into the water first. Sometimes, on set, it can take days of waiting for people to run into the water. In this case, it was like all three of them were charging for the water from the get-go. From a director’s perspective, that is a gift.”
Central to the film is Ferrell’s therapist who finds himself caught between his love for his family and his commitment to his patients. Reflecting on the complexity of these relationships, Wood believes that the core of these relationships remains a healthy form of supportive love.
“I think [relationships are] really complicated. I think, with good therapists, love sort of is the active ingredient. Not love that’s boundary breaking but, I think that the therapists I’ve had who have helped me in my life, a lot of it has been [due to] their insight, expertise and clinical perspective, but a lot of it has just been [due to my] feeling cared about. I think that’s a real relationship. It’s not really transactional. If someone goes to a therapist for help and the therapist is trying to help them, I think that’s a deeply human connection. So, it’s tricky when your family shows up and you also hopefully have a deeper human connection with them too.”
With this in mind, Woods believes that one of the great challenges of human relationships is one’s ability to understand the world from another’s perspective. As we attempt to empathize with one another’s struggles, he believes that there are many who struggle with a deep-seeded fear that to do so may somehow result in the value of their views getting lost in the process.
“Sometimes I think there’s an attitude of empathy that you have a finite amount (and maybe you do). I hope you don’t,” Woods posits. “I hope empathy just grows on itself. But I think that sometimes it feels like, ‘if I empathize with you, no one’s going to empathize with me’ or if I empathize with that person, then I won’t empathize with the person they hurt. It’s like you have an empathy allowance that has to be budgeted carefully and I think that makes people sort of… cautious, at least about stepping outside of their own perspective because they’re scared. They’re like, if I care about you, is anyone going to care about me? If I think about it from your perspective, will my perspective get completely disappeared in the process?”
“I think it’s a huge leap of faith. That’s also why wrestling was the metaphor for me. Boxing is so beautiful and elegant to me (almost like a ballet) and wrestling, I always thought was just two guys on the floor, grunting and rolling around. It’s so messy and inelegant looking from a layman’s perspective. I think that’s more akin to my experience of being close to people, which is just like struggling, sweating and smashing your face into someone else’s back [as you] try to figure out how to exist together and not to get pushed out of the ring, basically. It’s a little bit of a bloody business, but I think it’s worth it.”
In this particular scenario, all three characters have complex motivations that affect their relationships with one another in any number of ways. Asked if there’s a character that he connects with the most, Woods argues that there’s a part of him that has related to each of them at different various of his life.
“[I connect with] all three of them.,” he explains. “I’ve felt like the therapist before in my life where I [had] the feeling of [that] I’m doing my best and it’s not enough. The panic of being yourself, coming up short with a loved one and not knowing how to do better and feeling the shame and rage of that. I felt that before. But the patient feeling so identified with his own fragility. he’s saying like, ‘I’m starting to think maybe this isn’t a failure. This is who I am.’ I think trying to separate from your own misery is challenging and I’ve struggled with that before… The son, I know I can relate to the idea of I’m not leaving here until I get the connections. I’m down for the fight and I’m not going anywhere. Maybe you’ve said there’s not enough go around, but there has to be enough to go around.”
“I think language can be a maze as much as it’s a bridge, right?,” he continues. “It can separate us as much as it can connect us. For example, the therapist [in David] says that whole thing about [how] you can say something and it releases a toxin into their ecosystem of the relationship and blah, blah, blah. It all sounds very pretty and sort of eloquent in a brutal way, but a truthful one. Then, it’s one of my favorite moments is because of… the way William Jackson Harper listens and says ‘Is that true?’. It’s not accusatory or anything. He’s just kind of skeptical because it doesn’t ring true. Then he stands up and he holds him. At a certain point, language is a little bit of a crude tool for the task at hand and you have to just touch people… So, I think that I found [that feeling] very relatable. It’s coming to the end of language’s utility and needing other tools.”
Tightly written and performed, David is an entertaining but poignant piece that deserves its day in the sun. However, unlike feature-length films, it can be a challenge getting shorts in front of an audience. Even so, Woods is excited about the response to David and remains optimistic that others will get their chance to see it.
“[The film] got chosen for Cannes, which then got canceled, but then I heard whispers about maybe there’s they’re actually are going to try to do something… So, they’re selling it to various tv stations in Europe and festivals. It’s just the festival route. Then, I hopefully we’ll find a way to get it to the widest possible audience. Like anything you want people to see the stuff that you care about.”
David premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and is touring festivals now.