With his third feature, Windfall, writer-director Charlie McDowell crafts a playful deconstruction of the heist movie. With no specific character names, Lily Collins (as Wife) and Jesse Plemons (as CEO) play a couple heading to their vacation home, only to find a burglar, played by Jason Segel (as Nobody), has broken in. A single-location hangout heist movie that carefully builds with complexity, it’s another testament to McDowell’s skills at wringing out the tension of a carefully-controlled scenario.
Ahead of the film’s Netflix release this Friday, I spoke with McDowell about the genesis of the project, subverting and deconstructing the crime drama, being influenced by classic noirs (as well as a Ruben Östlund masterpiece), having his trio play against type, and more.
The Film Stage: You do a great job setting up the location at the start, then mine it for all it’s worth. Can you talk about your attraction to these more compact locations for storytelling as a writer-director? How did the restrictions of being on location the entire time aid production?
Charlie McDowell: Yeah, the whole idea of how to make this film and just what we wanted to explore in the film came out of the restrictions of shooting at this time. And so, you know, this idea didn’t exist until the pandemic. And it was kind of two months into the pandemic when me, Jason Segel, Justin Lader—who I’ve written with a bunch—and Andrew Kevin Walker, the four of us got on a Zoom. Jason pitched a kind of one-line idea of something that we could write and shoot in one location and keep the crew really small and the cast really small. And it was interesting because it was the same idea as how we made The One I Love, but the restrictions for The One I Love were: I’m a first-time director, no one’s going to give me money to make a movie. So I’ve got to contain everything and make it really small in order to have a chance to go make a first movie.
This was similar, but because of the pandemic it was okay—let’s write something that, no matter if we’re out of the pandemic by the time we start shooting or we’re in an even worse place, we can still go make this film because it’s so contained. So it was definitely because of circumstance, but then I do find myself being really interested and attracted to stories that take place in a single location. And I think it’s because I look at telling stories, and I think it’s it’s really easy to just pick a location and then cut to another one and then cut to another one. And you’re not really focused on the space in which the characters are living and breathing and spending time in. And so I find it interesting to really dissect and analyze a setting as if it were a character or all the kind of shades of this space.
So in Windfall, in particular, we open with a shot that is this beautiful house in this beautiful setting. And then we go back to this shot an hour later when something––which I won’t spoil––but something really bad has happened. And it’s the same house. It’s the same shot, exactly. But we now view this space in a different way. It now feels corrupt and tainted and dark and so I find that to be really interesting. And also to take something––because we have this beautiful location and because we’re shooting in Southern California so there’s pretty much sun in every exterior––it’s interesting to look at something that feels so safe and beautiful and warm and all of a sudden turn, and it feels scary and claustrophobic. And, you know, so that I find really interesting to kind of find the juxtaposition with the visual and what’s happening within the space.
I would describe this as a hangout heist movie. You really get to know the characters. It’s not super theatrical or heightened; it feels very natural in this way. It’s almost like you are deconstructing the heist movie, in a sense, when the captors suggest he should request more money. Can you talk about playfully subverting those tropes?
What we found interesting is that you have this set up of an idea, this guy robbing a very wealthy couple’s house and then the couple shows up and you realize right away he’s not a seasoned robber. He’s not someone who’s necessarily done it before, knows what to do. And so right away when we were talking about scripting the film, we wanted to tell the version that felt really honest and true instead of the version that we’ve seen in movies before where, you know, someone’s robbing a house then cut to the couple is tied up with rope that is perfectly tied. For us we’re like: okay, well, where does that rope even come from? Like, do people have rope to tie, you know? And also, I wouldn’t know how to tie a perfect knot. And so these are the questions we talked about in the scripting stage as to, like, what is the process of this situation? That’s what we wanted to explore.
And then once the idea that Jason’s character is asking for money and he’s not going to kind of let them go until he gets money, then the film becomes about analyzing these characters under this roof in this situation as they wait for a bag of money. I think because of this situation––and I won’t spoil where the film goes––but everything that happens and also everything that happens with how the characters kind of think and change as the film goes on, that’s all a result of this situation. So I think our idea was if Jason’s character never showed up to this house, then all of these kind of buried feelings and thoughts that Wife has toward CEO would probably never come to the surface. And the only reason that they did was because they were put in the situation.
And so that became really interesting because then it really becomes about character. We have this sort of modern-day noir-ish feel in terms of the structure and what we wanted to explore. But it really just becomes about looking at these characters and how they view each other, and also looking at the choices that they made in their life. And to me it really does feel like a film about choices and how each character has made their own choices. And we kind of analyze and look at those choices as they sit and wait for a bag of money.
The logline for this film calls it a Hitchcockian thriller, and you can certainly sense that right from the start—via the font and music—though it settles into something of its own. But I’m curious: were there any specific inspirations, whether it was Hitchcock or other directors as you developed the film?
There weren’t many specific references, but there’s kind of an overall tone and feel, even how we shot the film. I spoke a lot with my DP [Isiah] Donté [Lee]. We really wanted to shoot the film and have the actors’ blocking dictate what the camera does. So we’re not like roaming around handheld, finding the kind of emotion. We rarely move the camera, and if we do it’s because an actor moves from one side of the room to the other. That was really inspired by the sort of classic film noir where they would sit in shots that were a medium-wide shot with characters moving within a space. And then the character might land in a close-up and at the end of the shot. It was all about the blocking and all about the dialogue and how the characters relate to one another.
For me that’s more the inspiration when talking about a sort of, like, film noir, Hitchcockian tone. I think it was more in the way in which we shot it because, to me, indie films nowadays move on “how do we elevate small moments?” A lot of times it is kind of manipulating emotion through camera or like really getting in someone’s face and hammering home “you’re supposed to feel for this character.” And it was never that kind of film for us. I never wanted to manipulate the audience into thinking a certain way about a character. In fact, the three characters don’t even have names. So I really wanted to let the audience judge and dissect the characters for themselves.
I watched the film Knife in the Water a few times, which has three actors and it’s mostly one location. I mean, they’re on a sailboat, which is really fascinating. But just how they all interact, how they are looked at photographically, I thought was really interesting because it’s also quite a visual film as well. This is kind of a weird one, but I looked at Force Majeure quite a few times, just in terms of a simplistic setup with, then, a true dissection of a relationship. That’s one of my favorite films in the last decade. I just thought it’s so genius to have this idea of this avalanche coming in and the husband just takes off. And then the consequences of leaving your family to save yourself… I remember when I watched it, I was like, why didn’t I think of that idea? It’s so simple. And then it just unfolds how it’s supposed to unfold by really looking at the characters. So I looked at that not in terms of any sort of tone or style, but I really wanted to look at it in a similar way where you have a situation and a setup with three characters, and now how do they handle that situation?
Casting-wise, if one just saw the logline, they might think Jason Segel and Jesse Plemons could have swapped roles. I love the flip with Jason Segel being more the villain and also seems kind of exhausted by being one. With Plemons’ character you really toe the line of him being an asshole or not, and sometimes you can feel sympathy for him. Could you talk about bringing this cast together?
Yeah, I really like playing against type for all of them. And that was something we talked about. Because Jason is a writer on the film and producer and such a huge part of this film, I think right away for him the question was also: who do I want to play? What character do I want to experience? And also, of course, he’s really well-known for his comedy and anyone who loves great films has seen him do incredible dramatic work too. So we know he can do it. But I think with this, because we started at the ground up with Jason, he got to really take ownership of “I’ve never played this guy before. I want to play a guy like this.” It’s funny because, when the film was announced, I read some comments online and everyone thought that Lily and Jason were the couple and Jesse was robbing the house. And to the point where I saw some comments be like, “This is such obvious casting. I don’t even need to see the film. I already know Jesse’s the bad guy and the robber.” They’re not totally wrong. I would say if there is a villain in the film, it is his character. But we really liked how with each of the actors, we got to kind of play against type of what they’re known for.
Of course, Jesse has played complicated characters before, but seeing him as this sort of real, modern-day young tech CEO, I think is what intrigued Jesse to explore who that guy is. What’s so great about Jesse is he takes such ownership of the characters that he plays. He doesn’t just get a script and be like, “Okay, well, now I just act this part and that’s it.” He really embodies the characters. And of course that’s apparent when you watch any of his performances because they are so electric and raw and real and he sucks you in with everything that he does.
But working with him is is truly one of the greatest gifts because I’ll get a call at 7 a.m. He’s like, “I really got to talk to you.” I’m like, “Okay, is everything okay?” And he’s like, “I really think this guy wears Yeezy sneakers.” [Laughs] And I was like, “Okay. Can you send me a picture? Because I don’t know if I know what those look like.” [Laughs] He has such specific ideas and all of these ideas add up to playing the character. It’s so much fun to work with an actor like that because they’re bringing so many tools to the table. And there’s so much that you can play with.
And then Lily as well. Lily’s known, especially now, for this role in Emily in Paris, where it’s become an iconic role. People know when they see a photo that it’s from the show and that character. So I was really excited, because I know how talented she is, to play against that casting and do something where she has quite a dark turn to her, and a lot of layers to that character. And so for me the challenge of working against type is is really exciting to me like that. That’s something I would seek to take on instead of casting the obvious. That’s just not interesting to me. If we know they can do it then why do we spend an hour and a half watching it? It’s fun to see these actors do something different.
With Plemons’ character, you’re commenting on big business and tech, but he makes his own character. The film is obviously backed by Netflix, a huge tech company. As you’re writing the script, you probably know people will be watching it on a massive tech platform. I’m curious what your take is on these themes in the film.
I mean, we’re not attacking every person who works in tech or every person who is a CEO or every person who has money. We’re making a commentary about it through this character. We’ve actually showed it to some kind of younger tech CEO people. And they just found it really amusing because I think there’s a lot of truth and honesty to a character whose kind of everyday drive is money and business. And then this kind of cat-and-mouse game that happens between Jesse and Jason’s character, at a certain point the money becomes totally irrelevant, and it becomes about the game. So that became really interesting to us, what that dynamic between the characters was.
But in terms of Jesse’s character: there wasn’t a specific person that we are having him mimic or be inspired by. It just felt like these kind of younger tech guys that they go from being at their computers, creating something, to all of a sudden having absurd amounts of money and being in charge of a huge business. Like, who are those guys? That just became interesting to kind of look at and dissect, especially when you start to introduce people who don’t have that––the sort of haves and have-nots under one roof, because that’s not often looked at. Those two guys would normally never be in the same space. So that’s a lot about what we talked about in the scripting stage. “Okay, these guys would never cross paths—so what if they were sitting under the same roof and they were kind of forced to interact with each other? What does that mean?” That’s what we kind of were looking at and focusing on.
Windfall arrives on Friday, March 18 on Netflix.