Welcome To Sundance: The Skeleton Twins
The relationship and bond between two siblings is not a novel topic; it has been the basis of countless stories surrounded by both family tragedy and happiness, both are something to which many audiences can relate. If you grew up having siblings, you are intimately aware of their ability to alter your mood at the drop of a hat. They are the friends you can’t get rid of. They are the enemies that you keep inviting in. With so much control over who you are during the early stages of your life, there are times where it feels like you are one in the same. Other times, you could be sitting across from them at the dinner table and have absolutely no idea who they are.
The Sundance Film Festival competition film, The Skeleton Twins, takes this relationship and shows the uplifting and life-changing impact of sibling support between two seemingly lost twins who have pretty much given up on life and on each other. Director Craig Johnson distinguishes the film by showing the sibling relationship in an intense but dark light.
“It was a difficult tone," Johnson explained to Milk Made. "We knew that going in; we knew it was this tightrope of sadness and humor and drama and comedy, and it could easily tip over to one. If it was too serious, it could just be this draggy, indie slob. If it was too comedic, it could just be cartoonish and feel not real, not human. I was constantly trying to walk that line, and for me, you just try to keep it as authentic and natural as possible,”
Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader simultaneously break out of their typical comedic SNL roles by playing Maggie and Milo, twins with an unusually dark and twisted relationship that throughout the film constantly tests the limits of sibling love, support and acceptance. Maggie, a dental hygienist married to the ultimate “nice guy” played by Luke Wilson, only seems to have her life together when compared to her gay brother Milo, an aspiring actor who works at a diner in Los Angeles and lives alone with his goldfish.
The unconventional screenplay, which Johnson co-wrote with Mark Heyman (also credited as a screenwriter on the film Black Swan), navigates the multifaceted relationship between Maggie and Milo with what he calls a “gallow sense of humor,” while still unwrapping the complex past of the characters, which is still seeping into their current lives.
From the opening scene of the film, you can see that The Skeleton Twins walks a fine line between comedy and drama. The movie begins with Maggie about to take her life by downing a handful of pills when she is interrupted by a phone call that her brother is in the hospital after slitting his wrists in the bathtub. But a comedic exchange at the hospital between the two keeps things from getting too heavy.
After this failed suicide attempt, Milo reluctantly agrees to stay with his sister in their upstate New York hometown, forcing the twins to reunite after not speaking for ten years. Sharing close quarters magnifies the foundational cracks in Maggie’s marriage while simultaneously dragging up ghosts from Milo’ haunted past, specifically Rich, his old high school professor, played by Modern Family’s Ty Burrell, with whom he had a scandalous, and illegal, affair. Hader’s subtle nuances in the portrayal of Milo are far from cliché or stereotypical, and make his sexuality seem natural and part of his personality.
“Ty plays it so well, this guy in a small town. He is so accepting of Milo, who feels like he has to lie to get this acceptance from him. ‘Oh, I’m a writer, I have an a new agent, I’m this.’ You see the teacher-student relationship; he just wants to say something to make this guy proud of me and accept me. And again, it’s in the writing. It’s what Johnson and Heyman did,” explained Hader, while sitting next to Johnson and Heyman at our table in a Sundance press tent.
Burrell’s supporting role performance, which is a complete 180 from his “Modern Family” persona, is even more impressive after hearing Hader praise his improvisation, a technique Johnson and Heyman believe was essential to keeping the natural, real feel to the different relationships in the film.
“There was this scene with Ty Burrell where he improvised a line, and I started to cry,” said Hader. “It was the third take, it’s at the end where Milo goes back to see Rich, who confesses, ‘You know I’ve treated you badly, it’s not because I don’t respect you or care about you.’ That’s what was written, but Burrell added at the very end, ‘or because I don’t love you.’ He improvised that, and I reacted to it. In the moment I could see what he’s doing. It’s a scene where I’m getting emotional, but then at the end he asks Milo if he’s had a chance to read his script yet. You just listen, and react, and you get clued in. There’s no acting. It’s like taking paint and throwing it against the wall and seeing how it streams down, and then this great thing might happen. And that was one of those moments.”
Milo’s self-deprecating relationship parallels Maggie’s incessant attempts to sabotage her marriage by having numerous detached sexual affairs and secretly taking birth control after deciding to try to get pregnant with her husband. Wiig portrays Maggie’s subtle sadness and hushed desperation so seamlessly and honestly that you lose sight of Kristen Wiig as an actress and comedian, and really understand Maggie as a character.
“One of the things I think [Wiig] really related to was how it’s pretty easy to judge Maggie. She’s got this really sweet husband and you can really judge her behavior, and yet you can feel her sadness and her pain in the sense that she’s really not in the right life for herself, not a good fit in her current life, which can make her depressed. On paper she has everything, and I think we all relate to that. It’s a very human feeling, no matter where you are in your life,” said Johnson.
The finesse with which Wiig and Hader navigate the loaded sensitive scenes and maintain the delicate balance of comedy and sadness really showcases the duo’s amazing chemistry, and shows that they are more than capable of playing weightier dramatic roles.
“Bill and Kristen are very dear friends in real life, they have a brother/sister type relationship, and their interactions have that vibe. It’s not something that I could ever manufacture. Sometimes, I would just turn on the camera and sort of let them go, like the scene in the dentist’s office,” added Johnson. The scene in the dentist office, when Maggie and Milo take laughing gas and fool around is definitely the comedic highlight of the film.
“During the scene in the dentist’s office, we shot a lot of funny stuff that was just cracking us up, but occasionally the comedy would become too sharp and they would seem like professional comedians,” said Johnson. “We have to make this seem like just a brother and sister on drugs, cracking each other up with fart jokes and things that felt real and not too professional.”
Hader goes on to explain that, “In a comedy, you want to get the emotion obviously, but there is a very added goal that’s got to be funny. It’s like ‘Well, let’s try this. Is that stepping on the joke?” But in this film, the comedy was coming from a real place. So you have to modulate; Milo can’t be funny the way that a comedian is funny. He has to be funny the way that his character as a person is funny. It’s a testament to the writing these guys did.”
In the end, The Skeleton Twins leaves you with a heartfelt picture of sibling love, and the idea that no matter how bad things get, they will be there for you.