A trip to the Sundance Film Festival would be nerve-racking for most filmmakers, but John Krasinski had double the concerns going into this year’s edition: In addition to producing Kenneth Lonergan’s tragic drama Manchester by the Sea, he also starred and directed in The Hollars, a family dramedy about a man who returns to his hometown to take care of his sick mother (Margo Martindale). Fortunately, Krasinski’s time in Park City went about as well as he could have hoped, since Manchester earned rave reviews and sold to Amazon for eye-popping numbers, while The Hollars was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics near the tail end of the festival. Back in Park City, he sat down with Vulture to let us know how it was all going.
This isn’t your first time at the Sundance rodeo, but when you’re coming here with two very intimate movies …
… Do you get nervous? Yeah. I think people hopefully feel that the movies you bring to Sundance are more personal and emotional than the other movies you’re a part of, so when you come with that feeling of personal connection and pride in a film, you’re almost more vulnerable, you know what I mean? So I definitely come with a level of nerves, but also a feeling of immense pride. Even before I was in the business, this was a festival that I looked up to as the cutting-edge of storytelling. To be given that stamp of approval on a movie that I had so much to do with is awesome.
So when do those nerves go away?
The most important thing to try to attain is to remember that you made the movie for the audience. It’s scary when you’re getting reviewed, but my favorite experience with the movie so far is just watching it with an audience. With this particular one, to have people walk out crying is the best compliment I could get.
You’re a monster. You delight in making people cry.
Or when they walk out saying, “I need to call my mom!”
When you brought your first film here, it was a totally different era, where there would be a few reviews in the trades, but you could concentrate on the actual screenings. These days, there are insta-reactions all over Twitter. Do you get swept up in that?
My whole thing is that I try to get a quick aggregate of how it’s going online. To get a couple positive or negative reviews, you can get a sense of how people are feeling about it, and once I get that sense, I try to disconnect. To read every single one would probably be mentally damaging.
I talk to a lot of actors who don’t like to watch their own work, but when you’re directing yourself, you’re pretty much forced to. What do you learn about yourself that way that you didn’t already know?
I think one of the things you realize about yourself as an actor — or at least I did — is that as much as the performance has to be emotional and connected to you personally, there’s also the fact that you’re just an element that has to fit into the tapestry of the movie. You’ve kind of got to do your job. I’ve never been the sort of actor-y actor who has to stay in a dark room and listen to meditation music before going on set, but on an independent movie where you have no time and just a couple of takes per shot, you really have to go deliver and knock it out. I love getting emotionally connected to parts, but now, if a director says, “I just need you to walk over there and open the refrigerator,” I’m gonna do it for you.
How do you toggle between being present as an actor in an emotional scene and getting the big-picture sense of it that a director needs?
I almost didn’t think about acting, to be honest with you. Because it was such a low-budget movie and because I assembled the cast I did, I felt this extreme sense of responsibility. I didn’t think about my performance; I thought about, “Oh my God, Margo Martindale took two planes to be here, she’s staying in a low-budget hotel — let’s make sure this scene looks good for her.” My acting weirdly became one less thing to worry about. Instead of having to direct some other guy in this scene that Margo is gonna do an amazing job in, I can just step in, shut my mouth, and allow her to give this great performance.
I was surprised to see Sharlto Copley playing your brother. I usually picture him giving these balls-out performances in much wilder movies, so what made you think of him for this?
I saw District 9 and thought, That dude should win an Oscar. I truly thought his performance in that was … sure, hilarious, but to me it was so real and honest. You just felt so bad for that guy, who’s trying to get back to his wife. And that’s what I wanted for this part. It’s easy to make something cartoony, but I really wanted you to feel for this man who’s going through something, and Sharlto pulled that off perfectly. There’s this desperation in his performance. He just wants to be loved.
And yet his ex-wife is shacking up with Josh Groban. That’s another performance that pops, but since Groban’s not a full-time actor, how did he land on your radar?
Groban was an idea that we’d had from the beginning, because I’d actually worked with him on The Office. He’d played Ed Helms’s brother, and in one of the episodes I directed, we brought him back for that episode. It was a front-row seat to see how good and how funny he can be, and he’s sort of frustratingly good without any experience. He just jumps right in and he knows how to do it immediately.
Was this harder to make than your first film?
With Brief Interviews, we were looking for a director and couldn’t find one, and I think it was Rainn Wilson who said, “Why don’t you just direct it?” And I was like, “Why don’t I? How hard can this be?” I was so naïve and fell ass-backwards into it. I had a great experience and loved the movie, but at the end of the experience, my DP John Bailey looked back and showed me all the things that could have gone wrong. Once you become aware of that minefield, that’s the awareness level that I came into The Hollars with, and it was a lot scarier. On this one, locations fell through all the time, and actors’ schedules were complicated. It was much more stressful because I knew it could all fall apart.
Going forward, to what degree do you want directing to be a part of your career?
For as long as I’m the right guy for the job. I’ve never been the actor who thought directing was a foregone conclusion, because I respect the job so much. That said, I also was never a guy who wanted to be precious about directing — I want to jump in and learn it. That’s what I’m doing now, is jumping in the water and learning how to swim.