The Fundamentals of Caring writer and director Rob Burnett on how he brought his finely honed comic sensibilities to tough material
At first glance, Netflix’s latest acquisition, The Fundamentals of Caring, doesn’t necessarily read as a comedy.
A bereaved middle-aged man starts working as a carer to a wheelchair bound sufferer of Muscular Dystrophy.
One’s lost a son, the other’s been abandoned by their father. Doesn’t necessarily suggest belly-laughs and light Friday night chill fare, does it?
And yet, with the heir apparent to the Bill Murray’s throne of droll, damaged comedy sad-sacks Craig Roberts as the disabled Trevor, and World’s Most Charming Man Paul Rudd as carer Ben, this film crackles with warmth and genuine humour.
Katrina Conaglen spoke to the movie’s writer and director Rob Burnett.
The subject matter here doesn’t exactly scream ‘fund my movie!’ Why did you want to take this project on?
“I met with my agency and said I’d like to adapt a novel, because most of the directors I admire like Alexander Payne – that’s what they do. This was the first book they sent me, I fell in love with it instantly. But you can’t buy the first one! So I read twenty others and then when I was done I said “Ok… I’m going to buy the first book.”
“And there was a moment of silence on the other end of the phone and they said, ‘Wait a minute, we gave you 20 books and the one you want is the one where the guy’s child dies and he takes care of a kid in a wheelchair?’
“But it’s so pure for me. The story just resonated. And then we sent it to Paul Rudd. And once Paul – amazingly – said he would do it, everything started happening.”
So what was it about this story that resonated?
“I liked very much the idea of a story that’s bathed in tragedy, but does not lean into the tragedy.
“The other thing about it is the usual form of a story like this is that you have the ill or injured [person], and then a larger-than-life, irascible character breathes life into that person. Whereas In our movie Ben is every bit as damaged as Trevor. Maybe more so.
“The idea that they make the tiniest move, from two guys completely detached from life to just living ever-so-slightly – there’s something very inspirational and heroic about that to me.”
Were you nervous about getting Paul Rudd, who’s naturally very comedic and lively, to play a character who is so down-at-heel?
“Yes, absolutely, which is why the movie is structured in such a way that he’s very catatonic at the beginning and then their relationship speeds up pretty quickly. There’s an opening montage where they get to know each other and it breaks him out of that a little.
“Paul is so nuanced. You see that it’s through caring about this kid that he begins to feel again. These two guys who’ve been dealt such difficult hands have to go about their lives. It makes you feel like ‘maybe I should take an ounce of that and apply it to my-really-not-so-bad life’.”
There’s a lot of observations about sacrifice in the film. Was it difficult to get the tone right for that?
“In every frame there’s a guy who’s lost his kid, there’s a guy in a wheelchair, so you really don’t need to play it very often. The better way for them to bond is through humour and making fun of one another. That’s the closeness. So by the time that Paul is making jokes about muscular dystrophy and Trevor is laughing, you’ve accomplished something.
“In my first meeting with Paul, I said: ‘In most of the dramedies that I’ve seen the comedy is delightful and amusing but it doesn’t really make you laugh’. So far in the screenings we’ve had there are huge laughs from the audience in the movie. Which is great, because I’m a comedy writer – I worked on the David Letterman show for many years – so just on that level you want the laughs.
“But it serves a bigger purpose in that when you’re laughing, it pushes you further away from neutral and when you feel sadness it’s a further way to go, and so it makes the experience double in a sense. The emotional distances you’re travelling from laughing to crying are further.”
It has a Hal Ashby tone – that very arch, dry take on morbid subject matter. Craig Roberts is practically the reincarnation of Harold from Harold and Maude. How did you come to work with him?
“When we got Paul everyone wanted to be in the movie. Pretty much every kid of this age was available to us. We considered, auditioned or talked to about probably 250 actors for this role, because we knew this was going to be crucial. This movie rises and falls on the chemistry between Ben and Trevor.
“I had seen Craig in Submarine and I thought he was absolutely beautiful in that movie. He just has this natural ability to give you so much, so effortlessly. I’ve now seen this movie more than any human should, and I’m certainly tired of my dialogue by now, but I can watch Paul and Craig forever.
“There’s something internal coming out of Craig so you get drawn into that character. You can feel his sadness at his situation underneath this snark and wittiness. It’s essential to the movie. It almost is the entire movie.”
And Paul Rudd’s got his own stake in the Marvel universe with Ant-Man, so he’s a busy man. It’s great that he was drawn to such intimate material.
“One of the things I really admire about Paul is that if you look at his career, he just does stuff he likes. He was in a movie called Prince Avalanche that’s smaller than this, just because he liked the material, and I knew he liked this script.
“For me, having Paul in your movie provides a whole other thing – he’s so smart, and knows so much about filmmaking, that it was great for me just to have him around. If I were doing another movie and I couldn’t have Paul in it, I would love to have him standing next to me on set!”
The Fundamentals of Caring is available on Netflix now