Photo: Magnolia Pictures & Magnet Releasing/YouTube
The cringiest sequence in I Love My Dad, which arrives in theaters on Friday, involves what can only be described as cyber-incest. In the prize-winning dramedy, Patton Oswalt plays Chuck, a bumbling ne’er-do-well–online-chess-cheater father who has become estranged from his troubled 30-something son, Franklin (played by writer-director-co- star James Morosini). After his son stops taking his phone calls and blocks him on social media, Chuck catfishes him, creating the profile of a beautiful young woman named Becca (Claudia Sulewski) to infiltrate his son’s life. But the ruse is so successful that Franklin catches real feelings — which leads to a frenzied roundelay of sexting in which Chuck exchanges horny messages with his girlfriend (Rachel Dratch) and then copies and pastes her replies into a chat with his son, who is locked in a bathroom imagining an encounter with Becca. Unbelievably, the cringe only escalates from there.
The Magnolia Pictures release nabbed the Audience Award for Narrative Feature and the Grand Jury Award at this April’s SXSW and is the sort of movie where co-star Lil Rel Howery utters lines as indelible as “Internet kiss your son!” most astonishing, I Love My Dad is based on experiences drawn from Morosini’s own life. A series regular on HBO Max’s The Sex Lives of College Girls and American Horror Story (and the writer-director-star of the 2018 microbudget indie threesomething), Morosini himself was once catfished by his father.
I literally cringed all the way through this movie. Probably even more so knowing it’s based on real events. Your dad in fact catfished you, James. What happened?
James Morosini: My dad and I got in a big fight. And in traditional early-20s fashion, I overreacted and decided to cut him out of my life on social media and change the number on my phone to “do not answer.” I was going through a tough time. He was really worried about me, but I wouldn’t talk to him. One day, I got home and this really pretty girl had sent me a friend request online, and she had all these great pictures and all the same interests that I did. I was very excited — and then it turned out to be my dad! My dad was catfishing me. And the story was born.
In the movie, your character, Franklin, grows suspicious when he gets a friend request from a pretty young woman with lots of attractive photos, but she has no other friends and there are no comments on any of the posts, which raises a few red flags. How was your dad’s fake profile?
JM: It was actually pretty well fleshed out! In the movie, I wanted Franklin to have a discerning eye so that he’s calling out this person on what seems a little fishy so that he doesn’t seem completely gullible and that we could be with him throughout the journey.
At what point did you think this could be a movie?
JM: A few years ago, I was walking through New York with my dad and he actually reminded me of the whole thing. I hadn’t thought about it in a long time. And I love stories that take a different point of view — ones that we don’t explore — and the idea of someone doing something wrong but for the right reasons. The question I wanted to pose with this was, like, What would you do if you had no way of reaching someone you love but were really worried about them and wanted to make sure they were okay? Is that right? I don’t know. I don’t think so. There are probably better ways to do it. But I wanted to tell the story in a sincere and sarcastic way.
Patton, how did you react when this script crossed your desk? Perhaps first of all, you were like, “James who?”
Patton Oswalt: I’m a big movie buff. So a script by someone I’ve never heard of that’s making the rounds and that other people are reading and liking is always very exciting for me. It means there’s a new voice out there. I didn’t look at it like, I don’t know who this person is. When I read this script, it was such a risky vision; it was such a roll of the dice. Here’s a story that can at any second fall apart in terms of the audience sympathizing and wanting to go along for the ride. It came down to just me wanting to see how this gets made. I wanted to see how we pull this off.
Chuck is a great, complex, fully fleshed-out character. But your performance is going to succeed or fail based on the audience simultaneously being horrified by him and rooting for him. Tell me about the challenge that presented.
PO: I had to not make my performance needy toward the audience. He’s definitely needful toward the end, but I can’t ever try to give the audience half an eye and go, “You know what? I’m better than this person.” I had to absolutely commit and find something to love about him, find something in me that I think is universal about a person who is saying, Don’t I get credit for wanting to do well? Do I necessarily have to follow through? Isn’t the want enough? I’ve done that a lot of times in my life, and there’s something cringe-y in that. People can relate to it in a cringe-y way.
Prior to production, what kind of discussions did you have about this character?
JM: I’ve been a fan of Patton’s for as long as I can remember and I — he’s going to make a joke after this — but I think he’s a fucking comedic genius and also just has such a heart that he brings to everything —
PO: Why would I joke about that, James? He’s stating a plain fact.
JM: There. I knew it.
PO: Go ahead. Continue.
JM: In our initial conversations, Patton already had such a clear take on who he felt Chuck was. I think we both agreed that in order for the story to work, it needed to be coming from a place of love. That was what would keep it away from ever feeling creepy or too weird. He really cares about his end. Everything else comes from that place because that’s a place we can all connect to.
the word cringe keeps coming up in our conversation. The movie’s cringiest moment is when Patton’s character has so convincingly catfished his son that he has no choice but to sext with him. We cut between Franklin sexting with “Becca,” his fictional girlfriend; Chuck sexting his (real) girlfriend, Erica; and footage of you two guys making out. Tell me about the complexities of framing it that way.
JM: The sexting scene came out of this thing my dad did while playing online chess. He’d play a game online with someone and play the same game against a computer and use the computer’s moves against the other person online. So I mapped that strategy onto what Chuck is doing with Franklin because he does n’t want to be sexting his son. He’s taking what his girlfriend is sexting so he’s able to step back and let his girlfriend and Franklin go back and forth.
Shooting that part was tricky because we’re intercutting multiple sexual fantasies and physical locations. So we really needed to plan that sequence out in detail ahead of time so the shots could match and the screen geography was similar when we were cutting back and forth. Also that Claudia Sulewski’s performance as Becca was able to kind of mirror Patton’s performance and vice versa. We were really all setting out to make this whole cringe-y puzzle work.
What were those sloppy make-out sessions like to movie?
PO: James did me the favor of not giving me a lot of time to think about it. We were in this supermarket, I went over to take a break, and then he came in: “Okay, it’s your shot.” Then we came in and yelled “Action” and started making out. So I didn’t have time to overthink it, and I think it ended up working because I’m just sort of lost in it. It’s not me, again, trying to approach it from anything weird; this is just what’s happening. This is more about how this fits into James’s character’s fantasies and recollections later.
What was the hardest thing to film, Patton?
PO: There’s a scene in the laser-tag place where I basically have an emotional breakdown, and that was kind of real. That happened because I really started thinking in terms of, What if I had been that neglectful to my daughter? And thinking about how little kids are, just wanting love from their parents and not getting it. And if I had been that kind of parent, how that realization would come crashing in on me, the massiveness of it. I’ve never really explored that area of my personality or what I could have been. You try to find something human in that. And that really put me on unsteady ground for a while.
I was actually covering my eyes as I watched parts of the movie and saying “no” out loud. What kind of reactions have you been getting from people?
JM: Watching it in a movie theater is one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had. In the way that you’re describing shouting “No!” at the screen, that’s what everyone in the whole theater is doing, and it creates a kind of echo chamber of cringe. it goes from those moments to everyone laughing or screaming; it’s like a comedic horror movie. Then other moments, the audience is dead quiet. So there’s this big contrast of reactions that’s been really fun to see.
James, I have to know: Did your father really sext you?
JM: So it’s definitely a movie, right? You have to do things to make a movie more entertaining and exciting and take it further in some ways. But emotionally, this movie is very true for me. I set out to make a movie about the intricacies of my relationship with my dad over a lifetime. I wanted to explore his perspective throughout and really understand where he was coming from. Because I thought it would help me make sense of my relationship with him at the end of the day. I really do feel like it’s made our ability to see one another stronger.