Michael Showalter's career has gone from larger than life to life itself. A founding member of the '90s sketch comedy group, The State, the bona fide multi-hyphenate — writer, director, producer, and star — was once best known for Wet Hot American Summer, a deeply silly comedy that was critically maligned upon its release but has achieved cult classic status in the decades since.
In recent years, he is better known as the director behind such based-on-a-true-story stories as The Big Sick (which earned Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay), The Dropout (the Emmy-winning series about disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes), and The Eyes of Tammy Faye, for which Jessica Chastain won the Best Actress Oscar.
"The honest truth is it was one of the greatest moments of my whole life," Showalter says of watching Chastain win. "It was an overwhelming feeling of joy for her and, on a personal level, it was just deeply validating. It marked a moment of deep gratitude and fulfillment about the choices that I've made."
His new movie is Spoiler Alert, a love story and true story based on Michael Ausiello's memoir, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies. "As someone who listens to true crime podcasts, watches movies, reads history books, what have you, I'm drawn to true stories," Showalter explains. "There's something about the truthfulness of it — that this really happened — that I guess for me raises the stakes." Spoiler Alert begins as a rom-com, but like The Big Sick before it, turns into a tearjerker.
"Substantively, it's the same," Showalter says of navigating comedy and drama. "These characters are real people, who are funny, who are deep, and who have inner lives. And comedy is a language. It's not just about jokes. It's not just about making people laugh. It's a way of looking at the world and, ultimately, for people who do a lot of comedy, it's how we cope with the world, it's how we get through life."
"I'm drawn to characters that are like that," he adds. "Michael Ausiello, both the character and the real person, are like that. He's someone who's had enormous tragedy in his life, but who is always finding humor in it and finding a way to laugh, because that's helped him get through it. I think I'm the same way."
The movies that have most impacted Showalter and influenced his own work are similarly multifaceted. Below, he shares five of them with A.frame. "I'm sure any filmmaker would say to pick five is almost impossible," he exclaims. "The thing is always, 'How do I want to come across? Do I want to be talking about Fellini movies and all the art films I've seen, or do I want to talk about the movies that I watched when I was a kid?' There's like 1,000, and it could be any number of them."
Directed by: Joan Micklin Silver | Written by: Susan Sandler
It's become a template for so many stories that I've told. It's a romantic comedy that is very funny and very richly observed, but also is about these characters' faults. The main character, played by Amy Irving, is choosing between two men, but it's really two different lives that she's choosing between. She's choosing between this fancy poet Upper West Side guy who's dashing and a celebrity in the literary world, and he represents the version of herself that she fantasizes of being. He's hip, and he's cool, and he's well-known. And then simultaneously, she's been introduced by her grandmother to this other guy who lives on the Lower East Side and has a pickle stand, and they refer to him as 'The Pickle Man.' And that's Peter Riegert who plays that character.
The movie is so romantic and so surprising. To me, it's a really prototypical New York film, but what I love about it and what I take with me in all the things that I do is that Amy Irving's character is really trying to discover who she really is. Because the choice between 'The Pickle Man' and 'The Poet' is really a choice between who she fantasizes she is and who she really is. For myself, that's been very much my own journey in life; is to discover who I want to be versus who I really am. That's my constant journey in life, and I'm drawn to characters in the stories that I tell that are on that journey as well.
Directed by: Lawrence Kasdan | Written by: Lawrence Kasdan and Barbara Benedek
The Big Chill is a movie that I've seen a hundred, zillion times. It's a movie that makes me laugh. It's a movie that, as a kid, was this sort of strange idea of what my adulthood could look like. Like, being an adult could be really fun. It's kind of messed up, but it's fun. And, when you're a grown-up, it doesn't mean that you're perfect. These adults are still messing up in all these different ways, but there's something really beautiful about it. And their friendship is so complicated, and they're trying to work through all their baggage. It's aspirational in that it's about people that have baggage between them, and have dysfunction between them, and have history and love, but are trying to work through it.
Then, as a film, it's making something iconic, and memorable, and classic out of something that's actually very normal, which is a group of friends together in this house. There's no special effects, and there's no crazy car chases, or what have you. The costumes are just what people wore at that time. But with music, with performance, with the story that's being told, and with the aesthetic of the whole film, the loving way in which the characters are being treated, they've created something that has stuck with me throughout all my life, and is always a movie that I think about in my own work. I love everything about it.
Directed by: Danny Boyle | Written by: Alex Garland
I love zombie movies. I love Danny Boyle. Every movie is a completely different kind of story that he's telling. He's done science fiction, he's done horror, he's done romantic comedy, he's done biopic. He's taken on all kinds of subject matter, but always through it is this thread of his own filmmaking aesthetic. What I find in him is an affection for the enormousness of something that's actually very normal. So, he could take normal characters — normal people — and, in showing that, you see something that feels incredibly enormous and larger than life.
What I love about 28 Days Later... so much as a genre movie — and a wonderful genre movie — is how real it feels. That's what's special to me about it, to see that you can be a filmmaker like Danny Boyle and still make a zombie movie — one of the best zombie movies ever made — and approach it the same way, which is to make these characters real, and believable, and make the world seem real unbelievable. At the end of the day, that approach carries through all of his work and, for me, that is very exhilarating. That's another film that I always think about, and always come back to and watch, and just love the way his characters are portrayed, his use of music, his editing, everything. I love his vision of the world.
Directed by: Howard Deutch | Written by: John Hughes
Molly Ringwald is my spirit animal, or something like that. I have Molly Ringwald so deeply ingrained in me, as a human being, as a filmmaker, as a storyteller. And John Hughes' films are very underrated in terms of their dramatic elements. Not in terms of their iconic nature — I think at this point, we all agree how iconic these movies are — but they're really about something, and they're really addressing a certain kind of disenfranchisement that kids of my generation could connect to. And Molly Ringwald was like the avatar for that.
Those movies haven't aged for me at all. They're still front and center in my psyche. I still very much think of myself as a Molly Ringwald-type person, sort of eternally misunderstood, obsessed with who's in and who's out, but also not knowing where I fit in. Am I a dork? Am I cool? I don't know. And that movie, in particular, speaks so specifically to some part of my experience as an adolescent and a teenager that resonates for me today.
Directed by: Jim Sharman | Written by: Richard O'Brien and Jim Sharman
It's so weird. It's such a celebration of weird. It's celebrating the other. It's celebrating eccentricity. It's celebrating experimentation, and that good filmmaking, and good storytelling, and good art can be free. I love how that movie is so playful, and so over-the-top, and insane. As a suburban kid, going to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and loving these characters, and loving how eccentric they were, and being encouraged to embrace it and celebrate it, that has left an eternal mark on me.
I'm drawn to the kind of stories that I'm drawn to, the kind of people that I'm drawn to, the kind of characters that I'm drawn to — that aren't necessarily the mainstream captain of the football team or whatever. The outcasts and the weirdos are also wonderful, and amazing, and lovable, and great. And that's what I got from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.