Go Ask Alice

After the sudden death of his creative partner, Eliot Laurence found himself "very much at sea" until the idea for Welcome to Me, the new dark comedy starring Kristen Wiig about bipolar woman winning the lottery, brought him back.

2015 Alchemy
Kristen Wiig in Welcome to Me.
May 1, 2015 Written by Dylan Callaghan
Markus Alkire Eliot Laurence

I was sad to see [my day job] go. You know the clich is you quit your fucking job and say, I'm an artist now!' I kind of wanted to stay. I hope that doesn't make me sound really sad.

In the new Eliot Laurence-penned indie dramedy Welcome to Me, Kristen Wiig plays Alice Klieg a character so unbound by the tedious strictures of "appropriate" social behavior that she seems to float, never touching the hard, rocky terra firma we all arduously trod. She suffers from bipolar disorder, which, at the film's open, she has under control with meds and a compulsive routine. But when she wins an $86 million lottery jackpot, her rapacious id is unchained off meds, free from routine and flush with enough cash to make weird things happen.

Alice hasn't turned her television off in 11 years, and she lives on a tightly scheduled diet of protein-rich foods, Oprah, and infomercials. The one weird thing she wants to make happen is a TV show even more solipsistic than its title, Welcome to Me, so she gives a low-rent, nearly bankrupt TV production company $15 million to make 100 episodes. The very vaguely Oprah-ish show has no guests, only Alice, and features monologues on masturbation as a sedative, protein-intensive cooking tips, like meatloaf cake, and dramatic reenactments of moments in her life when others slighted her.

Wiig inhabits the character like a threadbare childhood sleeping bag, effortlessly dispensing the weird funny she's known for along with a newly captured depth and tonal pitch. Alice is so vivid because she is a vessel for her creator, screenwriter Laurence, an art school grad, improv performer and former video librarian who has arrived on the industry landscape with one of the most original scripts produced this year.

Though Laurence describes himself as high-functioning, he says Alice is part him, with the volume turned way up. Her need to be seen and heard is a compulsion he understands as an artist. More than this, this script is rooted in the period after his writing partner, Stephanie Mnookin, suddenly died in 2006, shortly after the two had landed their first writing gig on a TV show for Logo called The Big Gay Sketch Show. Mnookin's unexpected passing at 38 took away not just a close friend, but Laurence's sole creative partner.

Living and writing without her was something he had to learn to do. "I was very much at sea," he says. "I became a total weirdo and watched a ton of infomercials and slept in a sleeping bag a lot like Alice. So, there's a lot of self-portrait going on [in the film]."

In a way Welcome to Me, which is produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, is Laurence's creative deliverance from that loss. His rendering of Alice shows her boundary-crossing mania, but also lends her the otherworldly magnetism of someone who is here with us but also partly somewhere beyond.

Laurence spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about the writing of this debut feature, getting "friendly fired" from his day job, and how his good friend Shira Piven, who directs the film, made this feature possible with a little help from Kristen Wiig.

Welcome to Me is such a specifically quirky narrative that it kind of feels like it's based on real life or even autobiography How did this story come to you?

I remember when I had the idea. I was at an engagement party for some friends, and I was staring into space, like at a bush or something. I had the idea of a mentally ill woman who won the lottery, and then I saw a golden bumblebee it kind of flew in my face. I'd never seen a golden bumblebee before, but it seemed like a good omen. I definitely looked at my weird behavior at the time I was grieving for Stephanie. I'm kind of fascinated by troubled women. And I'm equally fascinated of this life-casting aspect of our time, with Facebook and twitter and everything - people sort of broadcasting their every move. And I was interested in extreme wealth and how sort of dangerous and destructive that could be. So I think it kind of grew out of that stuff.

Was Stephanie at all an inspiration here, in terms of Alice?

Not Stephanie the person, but definitely our work. When we did our stage show Guile, we would like stand on stage reading off of note cards [like Alice], making these very outrageous claims about our lives. Like Stephanie claimed she was in the movie Jaws, playing the guy who makes that terrifying speech about the black eyes [of the shark] that were like a doll's eyes, remember that speech?

It was just very strange stuff. We would act out rap songs. So there was something about the oddly presentational aspect of our show that seemed analogous to Alice getting up there, buying herself the show and then talking about pubic hair and stuff.

This is all actually starting to make a lot of sense. But it sounds like Alice is more of a projection of you, yes?

Yeah, right. I would say she's a projection of maybe the darkest, strangest parts of me very exaggerated. I'm a pretty high functioning guy and Alice definitely isn't. I mean, she has this burning desire to be seen and heard and witnessed and I can definitely relate to that as an artist. It just seems like I turned up the volume with her.

There's kind of a razor's edge to walk tonally here with the comedy here. It could go pretty wacky and broad, especially with Kristen Wiig's comedic power, but it doesn't. How'd you navigate that?

That sort of laugh/cry tone is something that comes really natural to me and is something that I really love as a viewer and reader. I like the idea of forbidden laughter, those moments in life if you're not sure if you're supposed to laugh but you laugh anyway. You might feel really bad about it, but it's extremely alive and cathartic somehow. So I was interested in that.

In terms of how to balance the comedy, we made sure we researched borderline personality disorder extensively and tried to be sensitive it's hard to explain that kind of fancy-footwork that you have to do because it's kind of instinctual. But it is a razor's edge. We might piss people off. So I don't know. I hope we don't. But it seems like we're running that risk because it's such an odd movie.

Another edge in this script is Alice herself obviously she's bipolar, borderline personality, but she's so self-obsessed that her character could take all the oxygen and likability out of the story. That doesn't happen, but was that something that you had to consciously grapple with?

While being outrageous and fun to watch, she's very trying, and she hurts people in her life. I didn't want to shy away from any of that. I've definitely struggled with depression, my family has been touched by mental illness stuff, so I wanted to be really respectful of how real that stuff is. And in terms of crafting Alice keeping her from taking all the oxygen, as you said I didn't want her to be suddenly okay at the end of the movie, but I wanted her to grow a teeny bit, which is sometimes all you can count on with people. And you know, realizing how much she hurt her best friend and giving her a bunch of money was her sort of her primitive stab at growth, and it was one that I bought, you know?

Did you struggle with that resolution in terms of having her grow a little bit in a way that still felt authentic?

It seemed like her show was just a great way for her to facilitate that. Like her requesting to do one more show and sort of make everything right with this telethon. I didn't struggle too much with writing that. That scene presented itself, thank god.

And the gift of the remaining seven million dollars to the best friend she'd inadvertently hurt was also kind of natural?

Yeah. It seemed that way to me. It seemed like the only thing she could think of to do.

And she purges herself of the burden of the money as well.

Yeah, and she goes back to her apartment. And we assume she's going to go on disability again. But you know what I like about the end of the movie is she gets that camera. To me, there's some hope in that, that she sort of discovered herself as an artist, which I find really thrilling. In the imaginary sequel, maybe she represents the U.S. in the Venice Film Festival. Maybe she becomes this really famous video artist. That might be too snarky and glib, but I kind of hope she does something with that camera, you know?

The camera at the end is brilliant. And coupled with turning off the television, it's

I'm glad that played for you. And that little red light of the end of the camera sort of recording her as she sleeps, I find kind of comforting.

Tell me on a functional level, since '06 how you approach writing. Literally tell me what you do where do you do it, when do you do it?

I had a day job until pretty recently; they actually had to fire me from my job. Not because of any misconduct but the department was sort of closing down, and everyone knew what was sort of happening at my career, so it was the friendliest fire of all time. But it's funny I didn't really want to quit because I actually liked the structure. Every day for years I would wake up at 5 a.m. and write for a few hours before work, and then come home and write some more. I found it really comforting, and I related it to the underdog-ness of that. And now I just it's fantastic, don't get me wrong but I sort of have so much time now, I feel like I'm getting less done.

That's common.

And I write all the time. I do like to write in the mornings but I kind of write whenever. And I'm often thinking about writing when I'm doing other stuff. But I like to write at home, and the pajama aspect of that.

So how recently were you friendly fired?

That was last year.

And where were you working?

At a TV network video library. I did that for many, many years. It was the perfect artist job because it was low impact and certainly not a job I had to take home with me I don't know, I was sad to see it go. You know the clich is you quit your fucking job and say, "I'm an artist now!" I kind of wanted to stay. I hope that doesn't make me sound really sad.

No, the theme of structure helping productivity and less time actually making people more productive is a common one.

Okay, good.

Were you writing feature scripts mostly?

I was writing TV stuff. And actually Welcome to Me started out as a TV pilot. I wrote it on spec, I was imagining that it would be a dark HBO half-hour. I sent it to Shira and Adam McKay who I knew from New York. I really sent it to them for feedback and Shira flipped out and was like, "If you rewrite this as a feature, I will make sure this happens."

That's always nice to hear.


So that ultimately bounced the ball in the feature direction?

Yeah, I mean I didn't really have anything going on, so there was nothing competing with that generous offer from Shira. So it was like, "Hell yeah!" And I love Shira, I think she's brilliant. So it was an easy it wasn't easy, [but] it was kind of a natural move for me.

When you were working the day job, did you write every day?

Pretty much every day.

So you'll do like an hour and a half?

Couple hours and then go to work. It was not a super-demanding job, so I could think about what I was writing while I was at work and crank stuff out at lunch and edit. It was kind of a good little maybe I should get a part time job, Dylan. What do you think?

I don't know. It does sound like a pretty sweet setup honestly. Are you still performing as well?

No, as soon as I started to really like writing which again was after I had a writing job [The Big Gay Sketch Show from '06- 08] it really started to satisfy me. I started to feel like the best of me, the funniest of me, the most sort of insightful parts of me were winding up in the page. So I felt very satisfied. I don't know I was getting great reactions from readers, so that really scratched the itch of like, "See me see me see me," you know?

Right, totally. Writers are exhibitionists. People mistake that.

Oh, for sure.

And Kristen, it's worth mentioning, really inhabits this part in a singular way.

Yeah, I mean, I remember in the early days I was talking to Adam McKay, and he said, "Kristen's at the top of our list, and there's nobody else under it." We just really, really hoped, and it all happened. I still can't believe it because she not only made it happen in a business way, because everyone's dying to work with her, but she brought Alice to life.