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Couples Retreat - Peter Billingsley interview

Couples Retreat

Interview by Rob Carnevale

PETER Billingsley talks about making his directorial debut with Couples Retreat, working with best friend Vince Vaughn, making the Bora Bora location a character in the movie and why it was important to make the movie’s themes and characters relatable.

Q. Was Couples Retreat as fun to make as it looks?
Peter Billingsley: It is. I like it because it’s a very relatable comedy. It’s not Hollywood problems; it’s regular people dealing with life and kids and work and not connecting. There’s a mid-life crisis for one guy. So it’s all very relatable.

Q. And I guess it was good to be working with two of your best friends?
Peter Billingsley: I’ve been best friends with Vince [Vaughn] for about 20 years and I’ve worked a lot with Jon Favreau as well. Jason Bateman I also know because we were both child actors together. So, when you have guys that are also off-screen real-life friends, there’s a chemistry that translates to the screen that you can’t force. It’s about friendships as much as relationships – and they are friends.

Q. Is it harder directing friends and establishing that line where you’re the boss?
Peter Billingsley: No but a lot of people ask that. I think I’ve been able to separate work from friendships effectively. For me, it’s better because it’s a lot about trust and knowing people. If you know what someone is capable of and you know them well and trust each other, then you feel free to be able to play and to work. You trust that the outcome will be OK and that you’ll protect each other. So, I think it makes for a more freeing environment, whereas when people aren’t as familiar with each other they’re more resistent to experimental play.

Q. So does that make the improv easier?
Peter Billingsley: I think so. People use the word improv with us a lot but it’s not as though everyone is just slinging jokes around. We still have the script, which is really, really important. We always get what’s on the page but sometimes we’ll improv too so that we have the same intention but find a different way of expressing it. When you have really good actors, that’s improv at its best. But it’s never like: “Hey, you know what? Let me take this painting down and hit the guy over the head and see what happens…” If the scene is to get an interview, then that’s what we’ll do – but there may be a million ways to get it.

Q. The script also has some serious elements to it as well that may well wrong-foot some viewers. Because it tackles some pretty heavy stuff much in the same way as The Break-Up did?
Peter Billingsley: Well, I think so. I think you can’t really do a movie about people in relationships that may be in jeopardy… even if it’s a comedy there has to be stakes and consequences. That’s life. It’s not that the movie becomes a drama by any means, but it would be a dis-service to the subject matter if you took it all too lightly and sort of glossed over it. For these people, it is a serious thing. There is some really funny stuff in the movie but to them it really matters. Their relationships matter and they’re trying to fix it – so you have to honour the stakes of that.

Q. Did you have several different endings in mind?
Peter Billingsley: Not really. You mentioned The Break-Up and that, from the outset, was a story that Vince had in his life for a long time. It was more of a cautionary tale… to be careful in a relationship because if you don’t service it, it might not end up how you want it. This was from the outset a celebration of relationships. I think sometimes Hollywood can be cynical towards relationships – I don’t know why. But we’re all trying to make them work if we’re in them, and looking for them if we’re not… and they’re pretty funny, they’re pretty complex and it was very much in the spirit of the film – in terms of the rating, the tone and the outcome – that we wanted to say that relationships, monogamy are the harder choice but the better choice.

Q. The film took $35 million on its opening weekend in America. That must be really gratifying for your first feature film as director?
Peter Billingsley: It’s very, very gratifying. We make movies for the people and it’s been fun being on this world tour for the last week and a half. It’s been nice to see that the film plays well all over the world and that people are relating to the humour. If you go back to Vince with movies like The Wedding Crashers, Dodgeball, or even a movie I did when I was a child called A Christmas Story… these are not necessarily critical darlings but they’re movies that people like and connect with. But I think the world is tough, there’s an economic crisis, there’s so much bad news every day that it’s just nice to escape and have a comedy where people can relate, see a little bit of themselves and laugh at themselves and the characters on-screen.

Q. The locations looks idyllic. But was the reality of shooting in them tougher than it looks?
Peter Billingsley: In some ways yes but the truth is no one wants to hear about our problems shooting on Bora Bora. You know, let me cry you a river… [laughs]. But in some senses, yes. We were the first major movie to shoot there since Hurricane with Mia Farrow, which was years ago. So, it was quite an under-taking. But I only found that out after I chose the location! It was important to me, though, because it’s sort of a character in the movie. It’s like Oz… these characters enter this almost Oz-like world. And as beautiful as a lot of the tropical places we often shoot in on American movies, such as Hawaii or Mexico, I just think they’ve been seen in some ways. Whereas with Bora Bora, I don’t think anyone’s ever seen this! It literally is breathtaking.

Q. Did you get to tour other places?
Peter Billingsley: Fortunately, the studio gave us the latitutde to look around. But we’d seen the photos of Bora Bora and we were like: “That’s it.” It probably slightly cost more. But we did that instead of maybe having another celebrity cameo in the film. Those huts on the water really exist… it’s amazing.

Q. And expensive to stay?
Peter Billingsley: Yes it is. But there’s a lot of different levels. It’s not dissimilar to other hotels where you have everything from the 4-star high resort to the smaller ones. There’s a Club Med there. And it’s all couples, even the Club Med – it’s the honeymoon capital of the world.

Q. You say you’ve known Vince Vaughn for 20 years. It must have been quite enjoyable and satisfying to see how his career has blossomed in that time?
Peter Billingsley: Absolutely. We met when he first moved out to Los Angeles from Chicago, where he grew up. He was just getting parts. I was still acting. We did an after school special together, which used to be these hour-long specials that came on about 4pm. They’d deal with a social issue, such as teen pregnancy. They were for High School kids and teenagers and ours was steroid abuse and I was playing the kids on steroids. So, we met, we were collaborating and we just became great friends. And he had so many ideas for movies even back then. He was so smart and funny and talented. It was always a question, for me, of when he’d be successful, not if.

Q. When did you decide to make the leap from acting to directing?
Peter Billingsley: Acting is a wonderful part… but it’s a small part of it. You come in… it’s the second third of the three. But you miss the development, you come in for the shoot, and you leave before the post. I was interested in the whole process and the more I spent time around it, the more I just wanted to expand my horizons and get challenged by new things. So, I started producing and then had the good fortune to make a lot of good movies with Vince and Jon.

Q. And has this whet your appetite?
Peter Billingsley: Absolutely and hopefully we’ll have some more projects coming your way soon.

Read our review of Couples Retreat