What’s better than kicking off your week with a coffee date with Brie Larson?
On Monday morning, ahead of the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of her film, Unicorn Store—in which she directs and stars—the hella talented Larson chatted about her buzzed-about comedy, which tackles the topics of adulthood, fulfilling childhood dreams and yes, unicorns.
Larson plays Kit, a young “dreamer” who is booted out of art school and is stuck living at home with her parents (played by Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford.) Lost and confronting the responsibilities of adulthood, Kit gets a job at a temp agency. She soon starts receiving cryptic invitations to a secret store and is eventually offered a “unicorn” by a fancy-pants salesman (played by Samuel L. Jackson)—but only if she can prove she’s worthy. Intrigued? So were we.
Hosted by Nespresso at Toronto’s swanky Byblos restaurant—and moderated by Sangita Patel—FLARE was there for the intimate “Coffee with Creators” event. While Larson sat beside castmate Mamoudou Athie, she chatted about what it was like being behind the camera, why she wanted to make a funny film and what she has to say to dude directors in Hollywood. (And yes, she is even more stunning IRL).
Was it challenging to be in front of and behind the camera?
It was in some ways. The hard part was that it’s exhausting; just really long days and a lot of energy. Other than that, in some ways it was easier because there was a lot less conversations I needed to have with the main actress (laughs). There was a lot of internal [conversations], but nothing anybody else saw. I knew exactly what she was going to do, and so because of that I was able to position myself to the camera in a way that would support the performance I knew I was going to give.
And you were familiar with this story for a long time.
Yeah, I had auditioned for it five years ago and didn’t get it, and then the film just never got made. About two years ago, the script came back around and they asked if I wanted to direct it. So I spent about a year working on it and retooling it with the writer Samantha McIntyre, and here we are!
You’ve written and directed short films before. Was the experience different for you this time around or was it the same thing just on a different level?
It’s just more. With both of my shorts, part of what my goal was with them was to make them as short as possible, which doesn’t really work with a movie. You can’t be like, “I made my movie! It’s 45 minutes.” You got to actually have at least an hour-and-a-half in there. There’s just more time, more to discover, more with characters… it’s a different narrative form than short films. [With] my first short [The Arm] I did everything: I made it with my two best girlfriends and we did all the departments…Because I had that experience being very hands-on, I felt really comfortable knowing how to dictate what I want.
How was the first day of filming?
It was exciting. The first day was mostly just me, just solo stuff. We sort of padded it so we had that be our day to make mistakes and learn how to work together. Casting is all about the alchemy, similar to hosting a dinner party. There’s a lot of great people for a lot of different jobs—and I’m talking specifically about the crew now—so you’ll look at resumes, and at a certain point, everybody is really good, but it’s not about that. It’s about meeting new people and going, “Are you going to mesh well with the rest of my party?” It really worked.
A lot of films at TIFF this year have political undertones and are varying degrees of depressing. But it seems like there’s quite a bit of positivity in Unicorn Store.
Yeah! It’s kind of aggressively positive. That was first a choice I made selfishly, because I had made a lot of darker films that were about showing the dark corners of the world, and that’s a really important task for filmmakers to take. We need that. It’s a safe way for us to view things that are darker or difficult to see. There are certain subject matters that I don’t think are fair to subject real people to in a form of a documentary, so we really need people as actors and as filmmakers to tell those stories in a safe way. And when you’re in a theatre, you’re emphasizing, you’re watching, you’re becoming somebody else who has a different background than you. But in all of that I was starting to lose this part of me, that was like this inner child that was needing something, that was needing to not feel like the world was totally falling apart. What’s available to us at all times is childlike play and innocence. Even in the face of things that are scary, in the face of darkness…it’s still there. So at the time I was making it as a way to restore my own faith in myself and in the experience of making a movie that wasn’t so much about, “God how am I going to get through crying for eight hours today?” and instead was, “Who can make each other laugh the most today.”
Is there a real unicorn in the film?
I can’t say!
Your recent films Room and The Glass Castle are both very deep. Playing Kit must have been a turning point.
Yeah. We live in this time too when we have a lot of really incredible, complicated, strong female characters, and I’ve certainly played those and I will continue to play those, but I started thinking more about concepts behind strength. A lot of it comes from stereotypical forms of physical strength or using your voice loudly, or getting in people’s faces. And I thought, Well I don’t know if I believe that’s the end of that word for me. I think strength is also vulnerable and innocent. It’s saying, in the sweetest way possible, “I’m not going to do it the way that you’re telling me I’m supposed to do it.” And so as a person who identifies as a woman in this world, I am asked a lot, “Well how do you feel about proving yourself as a female director?” Now I’m at this point where I’m like, women have been proving it for a really, really long time, and the numbers aren’t changing that much. I’m going to make a film that’s extremely feminine and soft, and I’m going to ask men to take a step forward and enter my space. I’ve entered your space for most of my life; you can the step and enter my space this time.
What was it like to work with your Kong: Skull Island co-star, Samuel L. Jackson, again?
It was so much fun. He’s one of the greatest actors alive and does not take his greatness for granted at all. He’s someone that weeks before we started shooting, he already had all of his lines memorized and knew what he wanted the character to look like. He prides himself on that; his extreme professionalism. To have someone like that come into my first film, to trust me in that way and to give so much love to this project was mind-blowing to me.
What kind of journey do you want your audience to go on when they watch this?
At the very least, I hope they can fall into the story and enjoy it. It’s something to be enjoyed. There’s a lot of things in it; there’s a lot of thought put into the film although it might feel very light on the surface, that means that it’s really hard to make. That’s something that’s very complicated for people to understand. Something that looks fluid or effortless is not effortless to make—you just work really hard to make it that way. There’s a lot of thought put into every single frame.
What was your biggest challenge with this project?
Making it. Not all of it, but saying in my head to myself that I have a voice that’s worthy of being heard. I have a point of view that’s O.K. to say, and I think that’s the first hurdle. That’s the one question that goes through at least my head throughout the entire process and every day of editing. I hope this means something to somebody else because this is my soul and I hope that it’s O.K. that I’m saying this.
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