Screenwriter Dan Fogelman took a two-week cross-country trip with his mom six years ago as research for “The Guilt Trip,” which stars Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen as a fictional (and seemingly Jewish) mother and son taking their respective meshugas on the road. Recently, I caught up with the 36-year-old Fogelman (“Cars,” “Crazy, Stupid Love,” ABC’s “The Neighbors”) to talk about Jewish mothers and sons, Babs, and, of course, tribal guilt.
Q: So why the title “The Guilt Trip?”
A: I was really close with my mom, but even then your mother has the ability to revert you to the bratty, 13-year-old version of yourself, no matter what your age is. It’s the ultimate, underlying subtext of any Jewish mother-son relationship -- which is a son always getting annoyed and wanting to explode prematurely and holding it back, but at some point he loses that battle and says something nasty to her and then feels terrible about it. And then he walks away from that dinner or that visit feeling that he should’ve been nicer to her and it’s too late.
When I watch friends with their mothers, I’m constantly horrified at how short their fuse is with these women who seem, yeah, a little bit comedically a pain in the ass but not that bad in the grand scheme of things; yet with your own mother it’s amazing how quickly you can react to anything that pushes a button.
Q: How’d you get the idea for the movie?
A: I’d always wanted to do a kind of mother-son movie; there hadn’t been a lot of them done and it was territory I wanted to explore. Then my mom died about a year after we took the road trip – she was only 60 – and we hadn’t known she was ill. It was just kind of sudden and tragic: complications from surgery to remove a tumor. My mother was not a pop culture addict, but Barbra Streisand for this Jewish girl from Brooklyn was her icon of icons. So this movie became a mission for me; come hell or high water, I was going to get this movie made.
Q: How close is Barbra’s character to your own mom?
A: Barbra had her take on the character, but it’s really heavily my mom. The character’s name is Joyce, like my mother; my mother was also obsessed with collecting frogs, and had a kaffeeklatsch of yenta friends and she was very thin, like Barbra, yet she was obsessed with food and, later in her life, with Weight Watchers. She would sit and eat a 72-ounce steak, like Barbra does in the film, and order the salad with the dressing on the side. And she was obsessed with drinking large amounts of water and refilled her water bottles from the tap, so she wouldn’t waste money on buying new bottles. She considered tap water in a bottle “bottled water.” (Laughs.)
My mother also grew up with very little money and didn’t have a lot of money as an adult, so she was notoriously thrifty; but I realized later in life that that was about control and a little bit of neuroses and less about cheapness in some ways.
Q: You kept a diary of everything that happened on the road.
A: My friends thought I was crazy to take a cross-country road trip with my mom; part of what became the movie was that every night during the trip I would send an email out to a massive group of people who were all curious about how it was going. And my mom was like, “You’re making a movie about this?” She couldn’t quite wrap her head around this in its entirety, but she knew it was a research trip. In fact, the [producers] gave us a stipend to use, so my mom was collecting receipts the entire time to make sure we didn’t go one penny over budget.
Q: How did the two of you drive each other crazy on the trip?
A: The relationship that Seth and Barbra have, especially for the first half of the movie, is kind of my mom and I at our worst points. My mom was a bit insane in the best possible way. She drove me crazy comedically.
The biggest fight that we had on the road was when we got lost and it’s like that age-old husband and wife fight: I don’t want to ask for directions, and she’s going “There’s a gas station right here…” and finally I say "GO! Go inside!” And the tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife. And she’s like, good, because she has to go to the bathroom like every five minutes. But I can’t take it anymore and she goes inside, comes back out and gets in the car and I pull away. And I say, “So, where do we have to drive?” And she starts crying and says, “I forgot to ask for directions!”
Q: Did you really listen to “Middlesex,” the book on tape, along the way?
A: Yes, and it was a strange experience to listen to some of the sexual stuff, with your mother. You cringe, and you actually just try not to make eye contact to get through it.
Q: Was it difficult to get Barbra Streisand to commit to the film?
A: Barbra doesn’t work a lot, so it’s a big process to convince her to do something like this. She’s in every scene of the movie except for the very beginning, so it’s a lot of work for her, and Barbra is very focused on her charities and her life and she’s not somebody who seeks out being on camera. Fortunately, I had a director who was unwilling to ever let it go; and I rewrote for Barbra a bit once she came on board to adjust the things she wanted to be adjusted -- especially the scene where she and Seth have a big fight in the middle of the movie, which is kind of Barbra’s big scene. We spent a lot of time crafting the dialogue for that and I have mounds and mounds of notepads of us just going back and forth and trying to get the rhythm right.
Q: Was it intimidating to work with her?
A: Barbra’s as big as you get and this movie was very important to me, but she puts you at ease. I like to describe her in this way: Imagine your own mother, just with unlimited wealth, talent and fame.
Q: You and your mom were already very close, but did the road trip transform your relationship in any way?
A: There was a point where I had the experience that Seth has in the film, where you start seeing your parent not just as a parent, but also as a human being for the first time. What the gist of the movie is about is that moment when a kid starts seeing their parent as more than just a creature who exists to parent them, and the moment when a parent starts seeing their son or daughter as a grownup who’s not just this thing that needs to be cared for by them. That’s what the journey of the movie is in a way.
Q: Almost five years after your mom’s death, is it bittersweet to finally have finished the film?
A: I’ve been on this quest to get the film made and I’ve shut off the emotion to be more focused on it, and at some point, I’m sure it’ll catch up with me. I’m sure it’s all repressed, like any good, unhealthy male and it will come out at some point.
Q: Your next film is “Last Vegas,” starring Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline.
A: It’s about four buddies from Brooklyn who are now in their 60s. Michael Douglas, who plays the bachelor in the group, calls his buddies to say he’s getting married and they’re going to do one final bachelor party, for him, in Vegas – the last bachelor’s party they’ll ever do.
Q: Do you see anything of your dad in these characters?
A: We did take my dad out to a nightclub in Vegas where it was just thumping music; it was funny watching him sit there in all of it. So there’s a lot of that vibe in the first half of the movie of these guys trying to figure out how to operate in the world of Vegas, then learning to own it and have fun with it.
“The Guilt Trip” opens Dec. 19.