On Saturday, we attended the Toronto International Film Festival world premiere of “Sorry For Your Loss” at the TIFF Bell Lightbox theater.
Cast and creators Elizabeth Olsen, Kelly Marie Tran, Mamoudou Athie, Kit Steinkellner, James Ponsoldt and Lizzie Weiss were in attendance. Elizabeth Olsen plays Leigh Shaw, a young widow struggling to put her life back together in the wake of her husband’s unexpected death. The show is beautifully shot, boasts great performances and is compelling. Festival attendees were able to see four episodes of the Facebook Watch original show and were treated to an insightful Q&A after. Below are a few highlights from the panel.
Where did the idea come from? Where did you start putting this together in your mind?
Kit Steinkellner: Well, we’ve all seen the first episode. So that flash back sequence where Leigh wakes up in the middle of the night and it’s raining cats and dogs. Her husband’s not there and she thinks the worst has happened, is based on something that happened to me and my husband ended up being okay, but I was not okay. I was very shaken by that experience and just very haunted by it. It was also an eighteen month period in which some people I knew had died and so I just felt at that time just very vulnerable and unsafe. So I started thinking about who this young women was who could survive this impossible thing. As I started to think about her and the people in her life, I just fell in love with these people and this story just started burning a hole in my gut and I had to tell it.
Where did everyone else fall into the process?
Kit Steinkellner: I wrote the script and I rewrote it a million times as any writer in the audience knows that is the process. Then we started figuring out who Leigh would be and when Lizzie’s [Elizabeth Olsen] name came up it was just like a bolt for me … I have always loved the Lizzy’s work. So I was so excited to meet her and she read the script and responded. I will never forget when we first sat down and started talking and I realized I had written this part for her without even knowing I had written this part for her. I love Leigh and I love you, so I think it says a lot of good things about the character and the human. I’m a skeptic. I really don’t believe in fate or meant to be but it was just one of the more magical moments of my life just realizing that Lizzy Olsen and I were supposed to do this together. I kind of compare it to the Wizard of Oz, where you’re going up a yellow brick road and you keep meeting the right people and forming this team because that’s what happened with James Ponsoldt. That’s what happened with Lizzy Weiss when we ended up casting Kelly, Mamoudou, and Jovan and Janet who aren’t here. Everyone was exactly who I hoped they would be as Lizzy who helped me around the show and supervised, James a producing director, our cast, and also everybody elevated the material and made it so much more wonderful and dimensional than I ever could’ve imagined. It’s been the joy of my life doing this.
Elizabeth Olsen, you came on so passionately not only to star in it, but you’re producing it as well. What spoke to you the most in the material when you first read it?
Elizabeth Olsen: There’s this weird impulse you have as an actor with characters where you just feel like there’s some unspoken thing that connects you to something that was inside someone else’s head that they put to paper. I felt that way with Leigh and on top of that I loved the way Kit had approached grief. There’s a sense of humor. I thought it was so funny that the only time the character had a break down was over a donut and it was just all in the pilot tonally of who these people are. I understood them, it was like east L.A. I totally got the whole package but beyond that I do feel like an inevitable experience that everyone in the entire world has to go through is loss and grief. Especially as a western culture, I feel like we don’t give ourselves many ways to go through with that. We don’t really communicate about it and we think ‘oh maybe I shouldn’t bring it up because we already went through that.’ Then you’re actually not bringing something up that was so important to someone else who really wants to keep them alive and you also don’t know if you don’t ask. It’s starting those odd, uncomfortable conversations [and] talking about grief in a really grounded, tangible way that I had never seen. I wanted to be a part of that journey from early on with Kit and Robin Schwartz. Then we accumulated the rest of the cast and somehow we’re here.
The show has a great roster of directors such as James Ponsoldt with Jessica Yu and Allison Anders and these giants of American cinema. James directing the first couple of episodes, you set the tone so I was wondering if you, Kelly, Mamoudou, and Lizzie can talk about your process working together and your process directing with actors.
James Ponsoldt: I think it starts with really great material and then finding the right actors, if you’re lucky enough to have actors like these folks it makes the job really easy. I mean if you’re casting people who you see as creative collaborators in the same way that you would see a cinematographer or a composer or someone who did casting for who they are, for their ideas, for their imagination and who you just genuinely love to watch it makes it quite easy. It imbues the value system of the show or the film with exactly what you want.
Kelly Marie Tran: I feel really fortunate to have worked with such a great group of people. It felt like a safe space to sort of play and be vulnerable. I mean obviously I’ve only done this and The Last Jedi, really so [laughter] I’m like how much do I actually know what I’m saying. But no, truly from the beginning James had us all hangout and talk to each other about what our characters were and what those relationships were like and also [we went] on this weird field trip in a van where we went to all these locations, remember that?
Kit Steinkellner: James is an encyclopedia of Los Angeles. Ask him any restaurant, any street corner.
James Ponsoldt: I think most of the films and television shows that we love, I think location is part of the soul of the story and one of the characters. I think this is a show that intentionally takes place in not just Los Angeles, but North East, Los Angeles and Los Angeles plays itself which is the great documentary about L.A. So it points out that L.A. is sort of a surrogate for a lot of other places as is Toronto sometimes. But it sometimes has an anonymity, a lack of specificity so you had written it as Pasadena and we really delineated that this beautiful beach was Highland Park and they lived not just in Pasadena, you guys also lived in Angelino Heights and we wanted to give a sense of hyper regionalism and class and things that were, you know, for people that lived in L.A. that they might pick up and for other folks it just would feel lived in.
Mamoudou Athie: Well, the thing that I love about working with James is he just knows how to leave you alone, which I think is an amazing skill for a director. Then knowing when to come in and help so this job wasn’t easy but it was simple. It was definitely simple to say yes but it was also simple to feel comforted that you were working with an amazing cast and a director that knows how to help you.
James Ponsoldt: Then again when you have actors like, I remember seeing the screening of Martha Marcy May Marlene at Sundance and being like ‘Oh My God.’ I remember the first time we met on Skype and you popped off the screen and I was like this is the most dynamic human I’ve ever met in my life. Genuinely I just love watching you so it makes it really easy.
Kelly Marie Tran: Can we all just keep complimenting each other?
James Ponsoldt: That was my only goal for this panel. That was my only goal.
I wanted to ask Mamoudou though, what’s so interesting and I don’t want to spoil anything, but what’s so interesting about these episodes is you live as a memory but you live so vibrantly inside the character. Was there some sort of special preparation in terms of the way that the two of you interact to think about where you’re going and as support for the rest of the scenes, as support for who you are as a character?
Mamoudou Athie: No I think that our relationship was primarily founded on listening and just being with each other as fully and presently as we could. I know it sounds so acting cliché.
Elizabeth Olsen: I feel like that is the only thing you can do is if you’re supposed to have some intimate relationship with someone, then that means the two of you on that day should be really present with one another. We just talked a lot about what you do. It’s like a nerdy character study thing. You try and figure out as much as possible.
Mamoudou Athie: I remember a teacher of mine once told me what chemistry really means. If you go see a play and the audience leaves the theater and they’re like I think it was kind of cool but they didn’t really have too much chemistry. What it really means is that actors doing what they’re going to do and that actor is going to do what they’re going to do and no one is listening and talking to each other. That’s all chemistry really is.
Kit Steinkellner: I feel like it’s good advice for a fictional marriage and a real marriage. Listen to each other. Be very present.
After the screening, we attended an intimate reception for the film at Figo. Sorry For Your Loss premieres Tuesday, September 18 with four episodes. Two new episodes will be available every Tuesday at 6PM PT/9PM ET on the Sorry For Your Loss show page on Facebook Watch.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.