“Some writers feel like puppet masters. They’re creating this universe,” says writer-director Nikole Beckwith. “I feel like a stenographer. I’m just there to take down what the characters are doing.”
It’s through this lens that Nikole approached her latest feature, Together Together, which follows the relationship between a single father-to-be (played by Ed Helms) and his surrogate (played by Patti Harrison). “I only write anything from curiosity,” she adds. So when characters reveal themselves on the page, she’s just as surprised as anyone else. That’s what pulls her in—wanting to know what will happen, much like the audience would.
Becoming a writer
Growing up in a small town in Massachusetts, Nikole had an intense relationship with movies—like everyone else, she presumed. But it never occurred to her that people were making them. She always thought, “It just is—they’re just handed down from on high or something.” But then she watched Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. “There was something about William H. Macy, every time he turned on the car and that Gabrielle song played, ‘Dreams do come true…’ That was the light bulb for me that someone is making all these very specific choices.” It was also a completely different movie from what she was used to seeing on the big screen, in the very same theater where she had watched Dumb and Dumber and sneaked in cigarettes years before.
“It changed my mental relationship to movies,” Nikole says. She decided that film, that art, could be anything you wanted it to be. She began her career as a theater actor, performing in local plays before moving to New York, where the competition grew intense. “New York forces you to be brutally honest with yourself about what you’re best at,” she says. So she began writing.
It was her play Stockholm, Pennsylvania that started opening doors for Nikole. “It was like the cartoon where you pull the lever and the train goes on another track. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m a better writer than I am performer—full switch.’ I put my headshots in a closet, and immediately started figuring out what I needed to do and where I needed to be to be writing these plays.”
She soon realized that writing left her so much more exposed than she had ever been as a performer on stage. “I spend so much time now in that space where everything is very personal, so confessional, and so deeply connected to me that I can’t imagine also being looked at.”
She took everything she had learned as an actor, the connectedness, and channeled it into writing and, ultimately, directing. She eventually adapted Stockholm, Pennsylvania into a screenplay and a finished film. “I remember working on Stockholm, Pennsylvania with Saoirse Ronan and watching her on camera,” she says. “I was like, ‘That’s acting.’ I’ve been performing, and I’m a fairly good performer, but that’s magic.”
A life-changing moment
Stockholm, Pennsylvania was Nikole’s first attempt at screenwriting. She wrote it on Celtx, a free screenwriting software, and took it to Sundance Labs. “Between submitting to the Labs and actually getting into the Labs, I googled, ‘What do you do with a screenplay?’ because I was curious.”
“I knew in the theater landscape where I fit in,” she says. “I could see all four corners of that map and knew where I was, where I was headed, and what I needed to do to try to get there, but film is so expansive and such a different world. I wanted to drop a pin. Where am I in the general landscape of people writing movies?”
After learning about the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, she applied—with hopes of merely getting some feedback on her script. Once her screenplay was submitted, Nikole put the competition in the back of her mind. She soon made it to the finalist round, and realized just how much she wanted to win; when she got the call with the good news, she says, “It was my first happy cry in a really long time.”
It was a life-changing moment for her as a writer. “I quit my day job when I got the Nicholl; it was more money than I had ever made in a year and more money than I was making working barista jobs and retail jobs and babysitting. For me, it was an unbelievable amount of support—and it also put the script on everyone’s desks and my name on everybody’s mind.”
That same year, her script made it onto the Black List. Soon after, she was hired to write a script for someone else, which eventually turned this organic sequence of events into a career. “I’ve been supporting myself as a writer ever since,” she says. “I hope this keeps going because I’m actually, at this point, not qualified to do anything else.”
Stepping into the role of director
The Nicholl Fellowship gave Nikole a sense of life as a screenwriter, but only when Stockholm, Pennsylvania got the green light did Nikole realize her aspirations as a director.
“In theater, playwrights are basically the chief of what’s going on,” she says. “The director and the producers are leaning into the playwright, and it’s very collaborative. After doing my water bottle tour [with Stockholm], I learned that with screenwriting, not so much.” Often, she realized, the screenwriter wasn’t even on set. “That felt like a massive departure,” she says. In order to director Stockholm, she’d have to apply just like anyone else. She asked her agent for examples of pitch documents and lookbooks, and put together her own vision for the movie. Although at that point, no one could have possibly been closer to the source material and the characters than her.
She ultimately landed the job.
“I worked very hard to get the job directing my own movie.” —Nikole Beckwith
Directing her first feature was an intense learning experience, Nikole recalls, because “on day two of shooting, I had 100% more experience than I had the day before.” The process left her exhausted with decision fatigue.
Then came Together Together, with an altogether different tone. Plus, Nikole already had a finished feature under her belt. “I knew how I wanted to work and what each department head or crew member would need for me. Going in with that knowledge made it a lot less stressful—and then it was fun.”
Unlike Stockholm, which required “a reverence and a quiet,” this film proved more accessible, even for the crew. Stockholm was “very fragile as we were bringing it to life. Together Together was a little more rugged. It can take more.”
Different kinds of love
While writing Together Together, Nikole Beckwith resumed her role as a stenographer. She was intrigued by the kind of relationship, the kind of love, that isn’t predicated on romance. “It’s such an intimate relationship and such an emotionally charged circumstance, and to have two strangers endeavor on something like that together was really intriguing,” she says of the surrogate process. She let the characters of Matt and Anna, two self-professed loners, reveal themselves in this way.
Related: Nikole Beckwith shares six of her favorite movies about non-romantic love
“I think men want to be parents, too, and we don’t ever talk about that or show that,” Nikole says about the themes of her film. “The fact that we only really see men becoming fathers reluctantly, or reacting poorly to an unexpected pregnancy test, or having a wife say, ‘It’s time,’ does a real disservice to everyone.”
“I think—and I’m going to say the “f” word—feminist moviemaking is deepening the representations of women and men onscreen because feminism is good for everyone.” —Nikole Beckwith
Nikole was drawn to Ed for the role of Matt because of his comedic brilliance with a vulnerable core. “When I’m watching Andy Bernard [on The Office], I’m not seeing some crazy guy yodeling with the banjo and punching walls. I’m seeing someone who is desperate for his father’s approval and has always felt like an outsider, even in his own family,” she says. “I wanted to take those things from the back seat and put them in the front seat.” In Patti, Nikole saw that same vulnerability behind a comedic edge. For Anna’s character, she wanted to take that edge and root it in earnestness.
The cast is rounded out with other comedic masters, including Tig Notaro, Julio Torres, Sufe Bradshaw and Anna Konkle. Every time casting director Richard Hicks called with another confirmed actor, Nikole says, “It really felt like winning the lottery over and over and over again.”
“It’s funny when you write a movie like this and then you cast it and you’re like, ‘I’m the least funny person on set.’ Here, I wrote this funny thing with funny moments, but—hello geniuses.”
Even Nikole has a tough time putting into words the tone of the film. It’s not hilarious and it’s not melodramatic either; it’s about “the softer subtler things—and that was all very intentional,” she explains. “I know that it doesn’t fit neatly into a genre of film and our expectations of what those are, but that’s okay with me.”
There’s a moment in Together Together when Anna comes over to spend the night at Matt’s place. In Nikole’s head, this is a moment where her character is declaring, “Here I am, listening to a need and fulfilling that need for you to the best of my ability.” And Matt, in choosing to let her sleep alone in his bedroom, is maintaining her need for boundaries. “That’s a love language,” Nikole says. “That’s romantic.” It’s Nikole’s hope that the film expands and celebrates the myriad definitions of love, shades of attraction and the ways in which we express them.
Together Together debuts in theaters April 23rd.
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