Talk about icebreakers. In the opening scene of Away We Go, Sam Mendes' (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) new film, Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are in bed going at it. Burt has his head under the covers and is clearly, um, pleasuring Maya, while he tries to keep up a conversation at the same time. It's a funny but awkward scene that was among the first that the two stars filmed together. Good thing they knew each other before shooting began.
"Maya truly is, in my opinion, one of my favorite people to watch," says Krasinski at a roundtable interview in Los Angeles. "I think on SNL, she brought a completely unique take to that show. When I actually got to do [Away We Go] with her, we had known each other through friends a little bit. It also helped to shoot the in-the-bed shot first or second. I wouldn't say I was a shy guy when it comes to scenes like that, but you almost get shy because you respect the person so much. It's like, 'Now that we've become close friends, I will be between your legs for the next six hours.' But it was really fun."
A road movie of sorts, Away We Go follows unmarried couple Burt and Verona as they traipse across the country, visiting friends and acquaintances in an attempt to find a place where they can live and raise their child. They decide to embark on their trip after Burt's parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara) inform him they're moving and won't be around once Verona, several months pregnant, gives birth.
So Burt and Verona first visit Phoenix, where they meet one of Verona's former colleagues (Allison Janney). Then they're off to Tucson to visit Verona's sister (Carmen Ejogo). After stops in Wisconsin, Montreal and Miami, they decide their friends don't have any answers about where to live and how to raise children. While the film is essentially about a loving couple that doesn't have any major issues, Mendes says he sees the movie as a companion piece to the much darker Revolutionary Road.
"In very obvious ways, it's the flip side of the same coin," he says. "It's a couple who, this time, they want to escape and they can. Certainly Revolutionary Road is not a romantic comedy, but it is about the mechanics of a couple facing each other, about the relationship itself. [Away We Go] treats the couple as a unit. They're in love and they love each other, and they're happy. In the traditional romantic comedy, boy meets girl, they fall in love, then something goes wrong, and then they are reunited at the end. That's sort of different here, and I like that."
To capture the film's different feel, Mendes decided to work with cinematographer Ellen Kuras, who's most famous for work on music documentaries like No Direction Home and Shine a Light.
"I wanted it to be simple and a little rough around the edges," explains Mendes. "I didn't want to obsess about lighting and in particular interiors. We had no time and no money, so I realized there wasn't really a choice. I told Ellen, 'The irony is that you're delighted to be working with me after everything, but I can't give you the time that I would have.' So a couple of times she would get frustrated, but you know, I wanted it to feel warm and soft, so we used old lenses and we shot widescreen, so I could get a sense of landscape around the characters."
Written by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, the script lends itself to that kind of low-budget production.
"I heard Vendela say that when they were writing it, she had two wishes to fulfill, which was she didn't want them to have a big dramatic breakup and she didn't feel like she had to wrap it up in a bow and have them get married in the end," says Rudolph. "Whether or not that was like a writing challenge, I don't know, but I like that it's not perfect, and that it is very similar to the way that life is."
"I think it's a comedy in the way that life is a comedy," he says. "It's very rare that someone writes the part so well that you don't really have to think, you just show up. But they wrote it really, really well, and there's something about that type of relationship that I not only respect, but am in total awe of. It's not all about flowers and diamonds all the time. It's about secret languages and knowing everything in a glance. That kind of relationship is something that I admire in real life too. I think that's something really special, and I don't think I've personally seen a romance like that in awhile."