Vera Farmiga goes on a road trip filled with dogs and daddy issues in ‘Boundaries’

June 22, 2018

by Carla Hay

Peter Fonda, Shana Feste (with her dog Loretta), Vera Farmiga and Louis MacDougall at the New York City press junket for "Boundaries" (Photo by Carla Hay)
Peter Fonda, Shana Feste (with her dog Loretta), Vera Farmiga and Louis MacDougall at the New York City press junket for “Boundaries” (Photo by Carla Hay)

In the comedic drama “Boundaries” (written and directed by Shana Feste), Vera Farmiga plays Laura Jaconi, a divorced mother of a quirky, artistic 12-year-old son named Henry (played by Louis MacDougall), who finds herself in a dilemma. Henry has recently been expelled from drawing nude photos, and the only school that might be able to accept him is a private art school that she can’t afford. So Laura finds herself reluctantly reconnecting with her estranged father, Jack (played by Christopher Plummer) to ask for Jack’s help to pay for Henry’s school tuition.

Jack—a charismatic rogue who has a long history of breaking the law and who has recently been kicked out of his retirement home—agrees to pay for the school tuition on the condition that Laura and Henry accompany him on a road trip in Henry’s antique Rolls-Royce from Seattle to Los Angeles, where Henry plans to live with his other daughter, JoJo (played by Kristen Schaal). Unbeknownst to Laura, Jack (who doesn’t have a driver’s license) is using the trip to smuggle marijuana and do some pot dealing along the way. Laura is a compulsive rescuer of stray animals, so the Jaconi family members have plenty of company on their road trip, including several dogs. (Feste’s real-life dog Loretta, a white terrier mix, is one of the dogs in the movie.)

During the drama and dysfunction that ensue on the trip, they meet some colorful characters, including Jack’s old friends Joey (played by Peter Fonda) and Stanley (played by Christopher Plummer), while the Jaconis face uncomfortable truths about their relationship with each other. If “Boundaries” seems to have a lot of authentically family moments in the film, that’s probably because Laura is an alter ego for Feste, and the Jack character was inspired by Feste’s own father, who often made his living doing things outside the law. Her father, who has since passed a way, has a cameo in “Boundaries” as one of Jack’s marijuana customers. Some of the other characters in the movie were also inspired by Feste’s real-life family. Here is what Farmiga, Feste, Fonda and MacDougall said when they recently gathered for a roundtable interview with journalists at the New York City press junket for “Boundaries.”

Christopher Plummer and Vera Farmiga in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

Shana, what were some of the things you learned about your family and yourself while you were writing the “Boundaries” screenplay?

Feste: That’s a good question. I guess I learned how totally out of touch with my own anger I really was. My father was in and out of my life for most of my life. And when he was with me and visiting me and taking care of me, it was the best thing ever. It was Chinese restaurants, “order everything on the menu.” But when he was gone, it left a huge hole.

And I think as a kid, you try and make each visit the best visit, so you’re always really positive and happy when your dad is around, and you don’t get to express he kind of resentment you feel when you’re doing your very ordinary things, and you’re looking at other parents who are on the sidelines at AYSO games, and your dad is in Africa digging for diamonds to smuggle in the rim of his cowboy hat—some crazy adventure that he’s going on. So in the process of me writing, I learned a lot about vocalizing my own anger. It wasn’t anything to be scared of—I was so frightened of that, but it was therapeutic for me.

Vera Farmiga in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

When did you know that Vera Farmiga was right for the role of Laura Jaconi?

Feste: This was one of those dream situations where I got to cast all of my first choices for these roles. I had met Vera a few years before, and I had always wanted to work with her. I met her with a friend. I remember thinking, “Oh my God, we’re going to her house for dinner?”

Farmiga: The “Country Strong” director? What am I going to cook? We were at my house in upstate New York.

Vera Farmiga, Christopher Lloyd and Louis MacDougall in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

Feste: No, we weren’t. We were in Laurel Canyon.

Farmiga: Seriously? [She laughs.]

Feste: And I just remember being so taken with Vera and trying to play it so cool. Cut to—I have this role, and I knew she would be the perfect person. I had never really seen a lot of comedy from Vera, but I remember her being so funny and sharp. And that was really important to me: the intelligence behind the funny.

Vera Farmiga and Bobby Cannavale in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

Vera, what was it about the “Boundaries” screenplay that spoke to you?

Farmiga: I love chuckling about dark stuff. I really do. And I felt enlightened by the script. For me, it was a personal reminder to lower my expectations. It read like a really comedic parable. I love parables as a kid, like “The Prodigal Son.” This was like “The Prodigal Papa,” but a comedy. I also loved that it highlighted animal rescue. It’s just a reminder that people often disappoint us, but animals don’t.

Kristen Schaal, Louis MacDougall, Vera Farmiga and Christopher Plummer in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

Speaking of animals, what was it like interacting with all the animals on the set?

MacDougall: A lot of scenes are in the back of the car, four dogs were in the back of the car with me. It was really enjoyable. You’d think it would be stressful, but I didn’t mind it at all. The pets on set were a very calming presence. People can get stressed on a film set, but everybody can just poet a dog, and it can make everything better.

Feste: The hardest thing about the animals for me was that I wanted all the animals to look natural. Usually, when you have animals in a movie, they’re doing backflips or doing Air Bud tricks. So not only was it hard to find the rascally, scruffy ones to cast, it was really hard to have the animals act naturally.

To go to bed was the hardest thing … Everybody would be very quiet … and the animals would nod off, but sometimes it could take 20 to 30 minutes. And on an indie movie where you’re shooting 10 pages a day, you do not have time to make sure six animals are asleep in a bed, but we did it.

Farmiga: The hardest thing was my allergies. I think I had a week of Benadryl, and then I acclimated to every particular dander, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t hives underneath.

Christopher Plummer and Vera Farmiga in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

What was it like to work with Christopher Plummer?

Farmiga: Don’t let the tweed jackets fool you. He’s a clown and so easy to get to know and so easy to get immediately affectionate with and to giggle with. Most of our time was just spent combing Zillow together and fantasizing about real estate in alternate lives. And eating Cheetos. And playing I Spy With My Little Eye in countless hours locked up in a car together.

Fonda: His first motion picture was with my father. It was called “Stage Struck.” He’s 10 years older than I am. I was 18. I saw him from time to time. He might not remember it. He knew my first stepmother very well.

When I saw this was my chance to work with him, I thought, “This is really terrific.” And the parts that Shana has written for him and me, I thought it was wonderful, because I’ve known him. Vera’s right. He is a card. He’s very funny. He keeps his energy flowing. He did for us.

Christopher Plummer and Louis MacDougall in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

In “Boundaries,” the free-spirited people who show the most reckless behavior are the older people, when most movies follow a stereotype of the young people being carefree and irresponsible. Peter, when you look back on your life, what inspired you the most to play Joey?

Fonda: I just read the character she had written. It was a full character. And knowing what I could bring to it with Christopher, it was a gas. Realizing what we had to do to get it done, we couldn’t be just goofing off. It turns out we were goofing off while we were getting it done. It was hysterical.

Louis MacDougall in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

What was the best road trip you’ve ever done in real life?

MacDougall: I’ve never been on a road trip. I live in Scotland, so after you drive for an hour, you reach the other side of the country.

Farmiga: The 1980s. Irvington, New Jersey to Palm Beach, Florida, every summer. June, one way. August, the other. Oh, yeah.

Kristen Schaal and Vera Farmiga in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

And who went on the road trip with you?

Farmiga: My mom and my dad—it was four of us. I have seven siblings now. It was four of us originally, and then [my parents] took a hiatus for 12 years, and then there were three more of us wacky people. It was an uninsulated blue van, so you could feel the heat of the summer and the stench of the makeshift toilet, which was five-gallon bucket with mushrooms painted on it.

My dad tried not to make many pit stops, when you have four kids who want to go at different times. It would be a highlight when we would stop at a Days Inn. My parents would be in one king-sized bed, and the four of us would be in another king-sized bed. And my parents would give us coins to toss in the bed jiggler. Oh, good times!

Louis MacDougall in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

Fonda: My whole life has been a road movie. Sometimes I don’t go further than from one room to the next. Sometimes I go across town. Sometimes I go across the country. But any good story, play, book movie generally is a journey. Whether it’s in one room of the house, or like in my father’s movie “12 Angry Men,” you can see the journey.

Shana wrote a movie about a journey, but there’s a journey within the journey: bridging the gap between the father and the daughter. And connecting the pin, in a sense, is the son, who’s goofing off with Grandpa while she’s trying to get everything straight—and collecting more dogs. This is a wonderful gift of a trip that I get to be a part of.

But in this sense, I’m like one of the campfires in “Easy Rider.” They come in, they do this little thing, and then I’m not part of it anymore. I was having so much fun, but we have to move on the next campfire.

Christopher Lloyd and Christopher Plummer in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

Shana, can you talk about assembling the “Boundaries” cast?

Feste: I got to choose who I wanted to work with for the first time in my career. I did for my first movie as well, which was “The Greatest,” which was my second-favorite experience. There was a day when Peter Fonda, Christopher Lloyd and Chris Plummer were on set, and they were all sitting next to each other in directors’ chairs. You guys were just all having a conversation. And every single member of the crew had their cameras out and were secretly taking pictures of them. It was like three unicorns sitting together all at once.

Christopher Plummer and Louis MacDougall in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

Farmiga: I have that picture up in my office.

Feste: My mother was never really excited about my films, but this one, she wanted to be on set. Every single day, she would ask me, “Is Peter Fonda going to be on set today?” I knew this was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For a director, working with actors like this is a gift. It just makes you look stronger.

Kristen Schaal in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

Can you talk about Kristen Schaal, who plays JoJo Jaconi, Laura’s sister?

Feste: That [character] is verbatim, my sister. My sister has always been wacky. She’s followed the Dead her whole life. But she actually knows so much more than I did. She was able to see my father for who he really was. It was so easy for me to say, “Oh, I have it together.” But my sister really did the whole time.

Vera Farmiga and Louis MacDougall in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

How was it for the cast to bond together off-screen?

Feste: It was really magical. I remember the first time I met Louis, and I remember thinking, “This is one of the closest relationships I’ve ever written, between a mother and a son. And Louis is just meeting Vera for the first time, and they’re going on this journey.” How do accomplish something like that? I just remember the physicality of their relationship changing so much. By the end, he was in her arms.

It was a really beautiful thing to see. I so admire things I cannot do. I’m so closed as a person sometimes. And actors are so open, so available. And you guys embraced it. You’re so empathetic, you were able to find love for these characters and then find love for each other. That was really kind of beautiful to see.

Louis MacDougall in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Boundaries” shows the healing power of having pets. Can you talk about any real-life experiences you’ve had where animals brought people together?

Feste: Anyone with any kind of childhood trauma is attracted to animals. Animals were my safe space, growing up because, just like in the movie, they’re the one thing that can never hurt you. And they represent love, loyalty. So I surrounded myself with animals. I still do. I’m a huge rescuer. This film was an opportunity to shine a line on something I really care deeply about.

I teach at the American Film Institute, and one of the things we always teach our students is “Don’t work with animals. Don’t work with old cars. Don’t shoot multiple locations. Don’t shoot with minors.” I broke every single rule with this film.

But what was really cool to see was the impact that the animals had on the cast. Loretta, my dog, had the best five weeks of her life, because she was always in someone’s arms. Like Louis said, it’s an incredibly stressful environment being on set, so being able to hold this little animal just totally calms you down.

Louis MacDougall and Vera Farmiga in “Boundaries” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

MacDougall: Bonding with the dogs, I had a special moment with every single one of them. It was great. I couldn’t wait to go back the next day and say hello to one of the dogs.

Farmiga: I love working with children and dogs. You can anticipate what your fellow actor might do, but you don’t really consider what the animals are going to do. And there were surprising moments in the heated tonality of it, like, my character would be afraid of revving up her engine so much that it would disturb her animal friends, so that sifted my performance in ways I didn’t even consider.

Henry gets bullied a lot at school. What kind of message do you think “Boundaries” has about bullying?

MacDougall: He gets bullied at school, but I think the film gives you an option to see who he really is. You get to see another side of him. You can’t judge a book by its cover. It just sends that message.

Louis MacDougall and Vera Farmiga in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

Vera and Louis, your relationship as mother and son seems so authentic. How did you build that chemistry?

Farmiga: I think we had no rehearsal whatsoever. What we had were family picnics, where Shana’s family and her kids and Louis and his dad and my two kids and me and my husband. They’d just come over and we’d have picnics. We just bonded naturally. It happened very quickly. It just has to do with openness and willingness. It’s just that simple.

Christopher Plummer and Halldor Bjarnason in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

Shana how did your family react after seeing “Boundaries” for the first time?

Feste: My siblings were like, “I didn’t know you felt this way. We never really talked about that.” When they saw the film at South by Southwest, they said, “I didn’t know you felt the same way this whole time. I didn’t know you had that anger too.”

Christopher Plummer and Vera Farmiga in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

What do you want audiences to take away from “Boundaries”?

MacDougall: I think it’s a film about second chances. Jack wasn’t a very attentive father, so when Henry comes along, it’s a second chance for him to be a father and for Henry to be a son, since [Henry’s] father has been absent. I think it sends a message that people can change and deserve second chances.

Feste: I hope people rescue an animal after watching the film. That was really one of the goals. Look at all these adorable animals. They’re so amazing. You need to take one home. Even the pitbull. Pitbulls get such a bad rap. People don’t understand pitbulls. They’re such loyal, goofy dogs. That’s why I wanted to include a pitbull.

Farmiga: It’s a story about dysfunction, but we put the fun in it. People will have a really great laugh.

Fonda: That’s how I feel. It’s a good laugh. People will have a good time watching the movie.

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