Doubling Down on Authentic Storytelling with ‘Best Sellers’ Screenwriter Anthony Grieco and Director Lina Roessler
By Sadie Dean • September 17, 2021
In this special double-header interview, Script's Editor speaks with 'Best Sellers' creative team screenwriter Anthony Grieco and director Lina Roessler about approaching storytelling, connecting to authentic characters, and tapping into your unique vision and voice.
Lucy Standbridge (Aubrey Plaza) has inherited her father’s publishing house, and the ambitious would-be editor has nearly sunk it with failing titles. She discovers she is owed a book by Harris Shaw (Michael Caine), a reclusive, cantankerous, booze-addled author who originally put the company on the map decades earlier. In a last-ditch effort to save the company, Lucy and Harris release his new book and embark on a book tour from hell that changes them both in ways they didn’t expect.
Thematically this film touches on many universal elements, like imposter syndrome, self-worth, insecurities, and as you'll read further on, what Best Sellers screenwriter Anthony Grieco simply boils it all down to "dad issues". The performances given by both leads Michael Caine and Audrey Plaza are authentic and sincere, all thanks to the visionary leadership from director Lina Roessler.
I had the immense pleasure of speaking with both Anthony and Lina about their individual approach to storytelling, connecting to authentic characters, and tapping into your unique vision and voice. Plus, they both share invaluable advice for filmmakers and screenwriters on connecting to your characters and finding inspiration by watching great movies.
These interviews have been edited for content and clarity.
Interview with Best Sellers screenwriter Anthony Grieco
Sadie Dean: What was the initial kernel for this story?
Anthony Grieco: The initial kernel was I read an article and I can't necessarily be specific, but I'm almost sure it was in Vanity Fair, and it was John Hughes had passed away and this guy apparently used to just bang out screenplays on the weekend and you'd get Ferris Bueller's Day Off, right? So there were rumors that he'd become very disenchanted with Hollywood and was still writing, like he had ideas and treatments and screenplays that he'd just bang out that were in a vault in Chicago. [laughs] There's probably an agent at CAA who's just going, “Oh, man, if I could just get my hands on those screenplays.” Right? There's like 10 more John Hughes movies for sure. Good or bad that can easily get made. And I thought, ‘Oh, that's an interesting story.’ right? There's a kernel of an idea there and then my brain leaped to, ‘but are people really interested in long-lost screenplays?’ [laughs] So my brain went to JD Salinger and how there's Catcher in the Rye. There's a couple of others, some short stories, but for the most part, it's Catcher in the Rye is what he's identified with and then a recluse who didn't have anything else. What's he doing out there? He's gotta be writing books. People say there are unpublished hidden manuscripts. And then your brain goes to, ‘why would anyone just disconnect from society like that?’ And then you start thinking, ‘well, what if your first book is one of the greatest books of all time? Where do you go from there?’ It's interesting because my next script they're threatening to make and I say threatening not in a negative way, like threatening, getting me excited is Buzzed, which is the same principle, which is like, you're 39 years old, and you stepped on the moon.
Sadie: Where do you go from there?
Anthony: Where do you go? What do you do? Anything you do is just kind of like, ‘Yeah, that's great, let's talk about the moon.’ It just gets further and further in the rearview mirror. It’s the impression you made when you're so young, and how do you live up to that? I think there's interesting elements of that. Or maybe that's a recurring theme, but that was a kernel of the idea - there's books, and there's an author and there's a young agent. Now that agent has been replaced by someone who runs a publishing house. And my first thought was, ‘oh it's this guy.’ And then I thought, ‘that's been done.’ Choosing a woman was certainly a physical choice. But it was also kind of like, it's different. It's very different, right? Because now it’s fathers and daughters, in essence, and that's got its own amount of baggage. But to me this goes to whether you're choosing what males or females play roles, it never mattered to me in regard to the idea it's still someone who wants something. Someone who's got a scar. And so, what does gender matter? It certainly matters in the movements, in minutiae, how people dance. But with an older man and younger woman, you're not looking at really a physical love story, you're looking at an emotional one. So that doesn't change. And that's just basically the idea. It went from there, and it started taking some shape. It just hooked me.
I think that's interesting that it played right into the idea of you have a story, and there's a secret. Right? I think that's always interesting, because there's something about you getting up every morning and getting closer to that secret. And even when you're writing you're kind of like when you get to that place you go, is it the secret you thought it was? Because it's a physical secret? Like, I got more books, but who cares? Why didn't you share them when you were supposed to? That's the secret, like, what's wrong with you? Right? And then why would someone be like that? And then you just look at your own life.
My wife vets all of my work and when I wrote the first draft of Best Sellers, she read it, looked at me, and said, “This is a Nicholl script.” And I went, “Yeah, but like, I've done that before.” It's just like, these contests, man, come on. How much is it? And was 70 some odd dollars or $75. Let me just spend that money at Trader Joe's and get something for it. She's like, “No, no, do it, just do it.” And I went online, and the deadline was…I'm going to tell the story like the deadline was in four hours, the final deadline, and I was like, I don't even have time to fix the typos she found. She's like, “It doesn't matter, just submit it.” And I submitted it. I sent it to my manager, like a week later, after I'd fixed the typos and everything and he's like, “I hope you haven't shown this to anyone because it needs work.” I said, “Well, I've submitted to the Nicholl Fellowship. He's like, “Oh, how much was that?” And I said, “Like 75 bucks.” And he's like, “Well, there's $75 you'll never see again.” Literally, I'll never forget that. I probably would have forgotten that if things hadn't gone the way they'd gone. And then one thing led to another. But that was the kernel of the idea, John Hughes led me to JD Salinger, which led me to Harris Shaw and Lucy Stanbridge.
Sadie: Submitting the script to Nicholl, what was that process like for you? Were you getting attention before becoming a finalist?
Anthony: Well, everybody's excited for you that you're a semi-finalist, but I don't think it means anything until someone's actually gotten their hands on this script. And people started getting their hands on the script when your name was announced as one of the finalists. There was a lot of that. And the phone calls and the drumming up of excitement definitely start up when your name is announced. So, agents, producers start checking in and you can't really do anything with them until it's announced. I mean, my script Best Sellers, the producers who ultimately ended up with it had found that script before it was announced. And I basically said, “Look, we have to wait and see if it wins.”
It’s interesting, the dynamic between what you want for yourself, and what you ultimately have to start thinking about is best for your project, versus what the people who represent you want, that's always been an eternal struggle in Hollywood. It depends really on how invested you are in knowing who you are and what your voice is. When Nicholl had come about and there was that success, I was already, like, for lack of a better term, jerked around. You kind of knew the lay of the land already, right? When my representation is like, let's pursue studios, and let's pursue these movie stars, and I thought, ‘OK, but studios are not making these movies.’ The writing was on the wall. It's just like, I mean, yeah, you'd have to get big stars to move a small story, and then it's not a small story anymore. And it's not a small story, not because the story isn't small, it's a big movie with a small story. And I thought, like, ‘OK, let these guys do what they're doing.’ But in my mind, there's no way in hell I'm not going to continue circling back to Arielle and Cassian, because they were a father-daughter story. It was a perfect fit. And look, I'm not a religious person, but sometimes the world is grabbing you by the fucking lapels and saying, “Here! This!”
There’s definitely a lot of excitement just before it was announced, and then when it's announced then you're doing that tour, all the fancy agencies, and they're all telling you why you should be with them. And again, because it wasn't my first, “Wow, Hollywood!” it was kind of like, OK, who seems sincere? What seems like a good fit? Who gets it? Who sees its true potential. And you mull these things over and then you go home and you talk to your confidants, you talk to your wife, and say, “What do you think?”
Sadie: And when you're picking an agent or manager, any representation, are you only focused on that one specific project? Or are you looking at what's good for you, as a person and longevity in this business?
Anthony: I think it's important to put all your cards on the table, and basically tell them and say, “Look, this is what I write, this is my voice. And it'll fluctuate a little bit to the left and a little bit to the right. And, this is the zone I'm in. And these are the stories I'm interested in telling.” My Nicholl fellowship came to me at a time where I had stopped bullshitting myself and other people. And my advice is, the sooner you can stop bullshitting yourself and others at 25, you're golden. The world is yours. You can tell younger writers “Don't do this. Don't do that.” They have to do it. They have to spend two years of their life writing a terrible screenplay that someone else wants them to write, you have to do it. They remember in their gut, what was that emotional experience, like, right? What resonates with people.
Sadie: I've read many of your screenplays, and I feel like there's a reoccurring theme in all of your projects.
Anthony: What do you think that the theme is, if you were to guess?
Sadie: I feel like a lot of your characters are always chasing something that they wish they were. And they always get in their way. And like with this movie, it's right there, right in front of them. And they're just in their way. And we go on an emotional journey with them and then they finally become what they've always were meant to be.
Anthony: I think there's definitely truth that it's rooted in. Not to sound cliche, and hearken to what most therapists probably tell you, it's often rooted in the relationships you have with your parents. These are your first people, and how they behave and how they behave with you, shapes you. It’s interesting to again, finding this goes back to a lot of the stuff I was just mentioning to you about how you behave in the room when you're choosing your agent, right? Like, trying to be as authentic and genuine as you possibly can help you. And I think a lot of my characters start off in an inauthentic way. And they’re protecting something. And I think my personal, if I was to go deep inside my head, is basically, you're just constantly trying to make your dad happy or trying to make your mom happy. My dad was very specific. And when you look at Best Sellers and Buzzed and there's one I just wrote now called Ciao America, which is based on a real hijacking situation, all these people are chasing this idea of what the promise was. That is what your dad's standard for achievement was. My dad passed away many years ago now, but that doesn't change anything. That's what ghosts are, like peeking around a corner. They live in your head. And my dad did not want me to be a screenwriter. I started off doing some acting. That was terrible and horrifying for him because I got good grades in school. He was an immigrant and he's like, “be a lawyer, be a doctor.” Some stability, right? And so what's interesting is like trying to become this screenwriter that would, challenge that notion and also, something to be proud of.
The stories within themselves are all characters who are living up to expectations that just aren't their own truth. The ghosts you're chasing, the desires of others, you find out that those people are kind of fraudulent in their own way. You're like, ‘Oh, the person who's telling me how I gotta go about my business has no business telling me how to do it.’ And it's because they're a father, because they're a boss, because they're a president, you automatically put them on this pedestal of like, ‘they must know something I don't.’ And those journeys reveal, there's always that character in my scripts who are basically saying, “What are you listening to that person for?” There's a wisdom and epiphany they've had, that the main character has not, and trying to massage that in a way that isn't so you know, ridiculously evident is part of the craft.
My scripts are about characters who are chasing some degree of authenticity. I guess like that David Mamet thing is one of the questions you ask yourself about any script, you're writing, why now? Why is this happening to this person now? Who is my character? What do they want? What happens if they don't get it? And why now is usually a stumper for a lot of people. It makes you really think and it implies there's an inciting incident. Look, let's boil it down to its essence, it's about vanquishing your father's ghost or Hamlet's, they're all Hamlet's!
You still want people to enjoy the journey. And maybe think about that after like we're doing that now. Even myself reflecting on my own script, I'm like, ‘Did I do that? Was that on purpose?’ Or is it just tapping into what you know. I wouldn't dare compare myself to having lived any kind of life other than my own, but like, just being in the arts. You just get poo-pooed on a lot. No one comes out of this unscathed. But, yeah, those are definitely my stories are, for lack of a better term, Dad issues.
Sadie: A pretty universal theme. What are you watching these days? Maybe some films that new writers should be watching or should have had watched to better understand screenwriting?
Anthony: I would advise definitely going through any list that Martin Scorsese makes. There are so many movies that I'm continually drawn to like right now. I watch pretty much exclusively now since the beginning of the pandemic, the Criterion Channel. I feel I'm at a place in my career where I have watched all the great films, the top 100 lists, right? The Criterion Channel is playing this series of New York stories and one of those New York stories is The Apartment. I've seen that movie, I don't know how many times, but I'll watch it again, because it's perfect. And could you imagine pitching that today? It’s kind of this weird sex comedy where this guy loans out his apartment to get further up the ladder. And then that becomes a love story, because one of the girls commits suicide in his apartment. And won best picture, and it's considered a rom-com! I will always go back to movies like Network, The Apartment, Annie Hall, Goodfellas, I just love all these great American stories.
Sometimes, when I write, I have a movie on and it's muted and I'll look over at it, and just the cinematic influence of like watching behavior, as opposed to hearing what characters have to say. All those movies are watched and re-watched and held dear. What I love about the movies I watch now, and that I continue to watch, too, is that they're strange and they take their time. And they're foreign and extremely indie. I feel like I know the fundamentals of storytelling. I feel like I know what movies inspire the stories I'm writing. I'm always looking for something, a color that I don't have in my arsenal. Something that I can put on the canvas that is a different way of saying what I want to say. It's just interesting because you definitely have to continue to challenge the medium in many ways, it has to grow. And all of it's been done, it's just a matter of what does the reassembly look like when you do it?
And then I have people like you in my life or Mario in my life, my writers group, or Andy, who will throw out movies like, “No, Anthony, seriously, the Red Shoes is great. You have to just get past first 20 minutes,” and then you go, ‘yeah, that’s great.’ I have an aversion to Technicolor films. I look at those movies like some people look at broccoli, I'm not having it.
Sadie: [laughs] But it's good for you!
Anthony: Right? You're just a fool. Because it's just another moment or color palette. And it was part of film history. I highly recommend, it’s either $11 or $14 a month I spend on the Criteria Channel, it’s soul food, it's nurturing, it's all good for you. And you'll find something on there that will make you a better writer, filmmaker, whatever, that's without a doubt.
Sadie: Well, thanks so much Anthony for chatting with me. Congrats on the movie!
Interview with Best Sellers director Lina Roessler
Sadie Dean: How did this screenplay come across your desk? And what made you excited to jump on board to make this your feature directorial debut?
Lina Roessler: Yeah, it's a pretty great story. I was doing this TIFF talent lab. They invite a bunch of emerging directors to come and be mentored at this lab during TIFF and we also do a self-portrait, which is everybody's worst nightmare. Like a self-portrait film, about yourself, which is just, I mean, imagine what you would do? It still fills me with anxiety. But I did it. [laughs]
Sadie: Yeah. I have anxiety thinking about it. [laughs]
Lina: Exactly. I think they stopped doing it too, because it was just too much. But it oddly really worked out for me, because one of the mentors, Cassian Elwes, he loved my self-portrait and he came up to me afterward and asked me questions about it. And then, he watched my short films. After the lab was done, and TIFF was over, I got an email from Cassian and with it was attached to the script for Best Sellers. And his message was really brief, it just said, “Here's the script. Let me know what you think.” And so, I read the script and obviously, I loved it. It's great script from Anthony. I told him what I thought and he forwarded my answers to his daughter, Arielle who found the script. And then they asked me to make a lookbook. And right away because of Anthony's script, I knew these characters right away, I just was like, ‘I just see this. I know what his house looks like, her house,’ I had the whole thing. I just could visualize it really clearly. And so I made this lookbook and then just like a Cinderella story, they fly me down to New York City, to come and present this lookbook. And we're sitting at some hotel restaurant, and I'm trying not to spill scrambled eggs, my pens exploded, everything's kind of a disaster. [laughs] Conan O'Brien is having breakfast next to us and I couldn't stop looking at him and his hair. [laughs] And then they're looking at my lookbook and they're talking about cast and who they're going to cast and then I remember being completely naive, and I was just like, “Um so do you want me to be involved in this project in some way?” And then Cassian just like, kind of threw his hands on the table, "What?! I want you to do to direct this picture. Why the hell do you think I flew you down here?" I was just totally gob smacked. I'd done three short films and a self-portrait, it was not on my radar at all. And that night I remember going to the rooftop of that hotel, buying a glass of champagne and drinking it by myself [laughs] and being like, “Cheers!” To the New York skyline. Like, what the hell just happened? I don't understand what just happened. And then fast forward to all these other amazing things, obviously, Michael Caine, Aubrey Plaza, working with Anthony. Just a total dream come true.
Sadie: That is a fairy tale. And the importance of lookbooks because it's so important to show your vision and what you're going to do with the movie.
Lina: Oh, by the way, about that, I'd never done a lookbook before, I had done little things for my short films, like I pulled images and things like that. I literally made a book [laughs] a little book. And printed it. So, it's like a little book and it has character descriptions about Lucy, about the story, I did a synopsis and then I did images, color templates and even the music. It literally is shaped like a book. I guess it kind of worked out because the film is obviously about the literary world. [laughs] But it was another strange happy accident, in the I don't know what I'm doing. But I'm just doing it. [laughs]
Sadie: Whatever works out for you. In terms of the collaboration, how early on were you teaming up with Anthony to look over the script during pre-production and all the way through production?
Lina: It was at the beginning, we worked a lot. I remember for some reason, I was in Berlin, because I think it was at another lab or something. And I remember like Zooming with him from my sister's apartment in Berlin and talking about the script and asking him to explain certain things and reworking things. It was a cool collaboration. And then, of course, right up until production, you get into the thick of things, some things go out the window if it's not working for the actor or whatever and then I would suggest other things, we would change things. But we worked really well together. Anthony is great, a really talented writer.
Sadie: In terms of collaborating with your team, like your DP Claudine, I feel like there's such a great decision of lens choices and framing – how were you two teaming up on that?
Lina: Oh, it was awesome. So again, the same way as I read the script, I could see the characters, I could see how this was going to look. So that includes the beginning of the film, it was very clear to me what Lucy looked like so that lens set it's crisp. She's buttoned up, she's like an A-type personality, really rigid so she's always in the center of the frame. Everything is very balanced. And then with Michael, we found these awesome lenses and I called them the drunk lenses. They're kind of softer and the edges they kind of make a distortion and weird stuff. We weren't sure how exactly they were going to get married but it kind of ended up working seamlessly through editing. But there is a change and that's all deliberate choices of once Lucy gets on that road trip, her character starts unraveling a little bit, the sweater thread gets pulled, she starts coming undone and revealing like her true authentic self underneath all that as we go through the story.
Sadie: I really liked those lens choices. With the casting process, assuming that you had a say in that, attaching someone like Michael Caine, what was that like, and being able to direct them in this piece?
Lina: Just the fact that he read the script, and he loved it. And he was also like, Cassian, and like everybody else, willing to take a chance on me. It felt like the Cinderella story, I kept waiting for the pumpkin to show up, everything was going to disappear or something, you know, I was gonna wake up. But Cassian had been working with Michael on a film and he gave him the script. He told him about the project, and Michael loved the character. And then, of course, then Aubrey, Cassian had seen Aubrey when she was hosting the Independent Spirit Awards. Kind of same deal. And like a total out-of-the-box kind of idea, but also perfect. These two actors for these two characters, because we got to see Aubrey who's usually I think most people see her as the April character, right? More comedic chops more kind of almost like a physical comedy.
Sadie: The deadpan.
Lina: Yeah, exactly. And then Michael, who's obviously, he's done a million things. But a lot of people maybe consider more upper crusty kind of British, whatever that idea is, and to see them almost like switch perceptions and this to have her almost as the straight person to his wild and crazy guy was really fun. I'm really quite proud of their performances. I think Aubrey did a great job. There's a really nice arc to her character. She goes on this journey and we talked about a little bit before but yeah, kind of slowly unraveling the threads getting pulled and coming to this real emotional, and like authentic kind of performance that she's got and Michael too. He's one of the greats and to watch him work is a total joy. He's so generous that he constantly wanted to perform, always asked me “was that all right?” I learned so much. It's unbelievable. I had so much fun. I can't wait to do it again.
Sadie: General advice for first-time directors in terms of vision and choosing their first project?
Lina: Let's be honest, is an opportunity that I couldn't say no to. But at the same time, I was lucky because I knew how I wanted to tell the story. And I think, you need to know the answer. You'll never know all the answers like, you'll constantly be figuring them out, solving the problems, up until the end. And even when it's done, you'll still be wishing you had done things differently. But at the beginning, you want to answer all the questions that may come up, any that even you're not asking, but other people are asking you want to know how you see the story, even if it's on a gut, kind of instinctual way, I don't mean some technical thing. How does it feel? How do the characters feel? You want to put yourself in their shoes, know where their journey begins, where it ends. You want to feel the characters and really, you should love them. You should care for the story. You should have a connection like that. And then surround yourself of course with all the most amazing [laughs] I mean, again, I'm so lucky, but also my crew were incredibly talented people and just lovely to work with. So, yeah, know your vision, know your story, and bring that care to everything as much as you can.
Sadie: I love that advice of just connecting to your characters as a director. It makes it even more special on screen. Well, Lina, thank you so much for your time. Congrats on the film and release. I hope it does very well and that you get to do more.
Best Sellers is available In Theaters & On Demand September 17, 2021