As it turns out, making a movie about four siblings reluctantly coming home to sit shivah, the weeklong Jewish mourning ritual, is not unlike being held captive at a real family gathering–minus the snacks.
“We weren’t allowed to eat all the matzo and lox and bagels around,” says Tina Fey, who stars in This Is Where I Leave You, the film adaptation of Jonathan Tropper’s best-selling novel.
“You can’t eat and you can’t leave,” co-star Jason Bateman says of the roughly monthlong shoot in and around suburban Long Island. “[But] it was good to hang out and play house for a few weeks.”
In this case, the actors “playing house” make up one of the most star-studded casts of the fall movie season. Bateman plays Judd Altman, who returns to his hometown for his father’s funeral shortly after catching his wife sleeping with his boss; Fey is his wise but still feisty older sister Wendy; and Jane Fonda reigns over the bunch as the chronically oversharing family matriarch. Rounding out the siblings are House of Cards’ Corey Stoll and Girls’ Adam Driver, who plays the black sheep with the much older girlfriend (Friday Night Lights’ Connie Britton). It’s a true ensemble cast, one that juggles both the heartfelt and the humorous within alternating scenes of group chaos and one-on-one intimacy.
It’s also a very relatable one. Though the average American family probably won’t see quite as many fisticuffs and extramarital affairs at their next reunion as the Altmans do in this movie, both Fey and Bateman say they’ve been surprised by how many people have told them the Altman clan’s dysfunction is all too familiar. “It’s a comment I never got promoting Arrested Development,” Bateman says.
But it’s not just the size and caliber of the cast that makes This Is Where I Leave You, hitting theaters Sept. 19, a rare movie in 2014. At a time when Hollywood studios increasingly call for more sequels and sure things, a sharp, midbudget, character-driven dramatic comedy is an endangered species–the kind of movie that typically gets made at independent studios on a shoestring budget, not at Warner Bros. Without an existing franchise or major international appeal–or even a simple, easy-to-boil-down story–these films can often seem like risky investments and consequently have a hard time getting off the ground at major studios.
“There are a lot of really great movies that are made every year that don’t have superheroes in them and don’t have things getting blown up,” Bateman says. “But they don’t get the kind of attention and release they deserve.”
This Is Where I Leave You almost didn’t get that far either. Tropper extracted the screenplay from his novel, a process he likens to “doing surgery on your own child.” But the project then languished in studio purgatory for several years. When the movie’s fate looked grim, Shawn Levy, best known for directing the Night at the Museum movies and other broad comedies, saw an opportunity to make the type of film he’d always wanted to create.
“Directors get typecast the way actors do,” says Levy, who cites Terms of Endearment as an example of the kind of movie that first attracted him to filmmaking. “I never thought I would be the family-comedy guy, but I got successful at it. I always harbored this desire to draw with a different brush, and so I felt like this was the moment where I could still write my own ticket.”
Levy says Warner Bros. was initially unsure about handing over the project to him, given its departure in tone from Levy’s other films, but with a moneymaking box-office track record like his, he was able to cut a deal. He promised to make the movie for less than $20 million–thus minimizing the studio’s risk–in exchange for control over the script and casting. (The average production budget of top studio films in 2013 was $71 million, according to a report from the nonprofit FilmL.A.; adjusted for inflation, $48 million was the average cost of movies in 1993, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.)
The result is a film that’s incredibly faithful to its cherished source material, often reproducing the book’s rapid-fire bickering almost verbatim. Tropper was willing to take apart his novel and completely retool it for film. But Levy, who had photocopied the entire book and presented Tropper with a list of all the must-have moments and dialogue, pushed the author to maintain as much of the original balance of pathos and dry wit as possible.
“It’s usually the writer who’s holding on to each thing from his book,” Tropper says. “In this case, it was Shawn making me reclaim parts of the book I was taking out.”
Central to Levy’s vision for the movie was Fey, who in addition to providing some of its most quotable lines also delivers the most dramatic performance of her career to date. Levy says he waited years to “earn the right” to bring Wendy’s story to the big screen. Inspired by his close relationship with his sister, he also made Wendy a more prominent character in the film. After previously working with Levy on 2010’s Date Night, Fey felt comfortable taking on one of the movie’s most heartbreaking story lines, which finds Wendy reuniting with a brain-damaged ex-boyfriend (Justified’s Timothy Olyphant) and wondering about the life that could have been.
“You want to do a good job and access emotion, but you also don’t want to look like a jackass,” Fey says. “You want the directors to know which take to use. You don’t want boogers running down [your face]. And Jason is obviously so easy to play opposite that you feel like you’re in a safe environment.”
Well, almost. For the rooftop sibling heart-to-hearts with Bateman that provide the film’s emotional core, Fey was tethered to the house in case she slipped. Bateman, however, was left unsecured.
“For some reason, they were worried I was going to fall off the roof,” Fey says.
“I’m less expensive,” Bateman jokes.
If Bateman and Fey banter like siblings, it’s probably because, when the cameras weren’t rolling, some cast members found themselves slipping into the roles they were playing.
“Adam did feel like the baby brother to everyone,” Fey says. “We’d all be in the room, and then all of a sudden he would exit out a second-story window and just go somewhere.” The film’s shooting schedule was even shifted to accommodate Driver’s Girls commitments–fitting, considering his character shows up halfway through his own father’s funeral.
The safety wires notwithstanding, Levy says the movie was ultimately a no-frills shoot–unencumbered in the best possible way. “On every other movie, I have to focus on my actors plus visual effects plus action sequences plus robots or dinosaurs or car chases,” he says. “On this one, there was only the writing and the characters and the way I helped my actors service those two things.” What makes This Is Where I Leave You unusual, then, isn’t how much happens in the movie but how little. Sometimes you don’t need a superhero–today, making a movie about family can be just as heroic.
This appears in the September 29, 2014 issue of TIME.