Filmmaker Brett Haley may be roughly half the age of Carol Petersen, the 70ish widow featured in his new dramedy, “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” But telling stories about women and older people – who, it’s no secret, are terribly underrepresented in big-screen leading roles – is important to him.
Cowritten by Marc Basch and starring a graceful and radiant Blythe Danner, the film opens in the Bay Area Friday, following a string of well-received festival showings. Haley (“The New Year”) describes it as a female-led story with themes that matter.
“It’s about love, life and loss,” he says. “And the best person to tell that story was a widow.”
Danner plays Carol, a retired teacher and former singer who lives in a Los Angeles home with her dog, Hazel. Carol lost her husband 20 years ago and has since maintained a routine that gets no more adventurous than playing bridge with three friends (Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place, June Squibb).
After Hazel dies in a four-hankie scene that Danner plays with zero sappiness, Carol, experiencing a hole in her life, starts re-engaging with the world. She forms a meaningful friendship with Lloyd (Martin Starr), her pool guy, and they enjoy a karaoke date. (Danner performs a knockout rendition of “Cry Me a River.”)
She finds love with Bill (Sam Elliott), a cowboyishly charismatic and genuinely caring silver-haired admirer with a mustache nearly the size of his boat.
Additional adventures include getting high on medical marijuana with her three girlfriends. (A junk-food shopping spree follows.)
Haley praises Danner’s performance, calling it “very nuanced, not clean and tidy,” and notes that all of his top casting choices signed on.
“When you’re dealing with that level of talent, it works,” he says.
Haley criticizes the “obsession with comic books and fairy tales” that often figures into Hollywood fare.
“What happened to the real people?” says Haley, who cites Jacques Audiard, Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen brothers (whose “Inside Llewyn Davis” inspired a key singing scene in his movie) as filmmakers he admires.
“I’m not a genius, but I’m a hard worker and a good storyteller,” he says of his own merits. “I try to just be honest as a filmmaker.”
He also shares an approach to filmmaking, one that the big studios should consider: “Whenever you come up with a good, solid, interesting male character, make him female instead. Women are more interesting.”
As for what’s next, Haley will shoot a film in Napa Valley and possibly explore some genre projects, including a Western.
He also says that, if audiences appear receptive, a sequel to his current film might happen. Regarding the details, he’s keeping us guessing.
IF YOU GO
I’ll See You in My Dreams
Starring: Blythe Danner, Martin Starr, Sam Elliott, Rhea Perlman
Written by: Brett Haley, Marc Basch
Directed by: Brett Haley
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes