Eric Swinderman continues to keep the Cleveland film industry booming with his new film The Enormity of Life. Eric wrote and directed this film alongside his cowriter Carmen DeFranco.
With impeccable timing, a middle-aged man (Breckin Meyer) on the verge of ending his own life receives a substantial inheritance. His new found fortune coincides with a likable young woman (Emily Kinney) and her precocious young daughter (Giselle Eisenberg) entering his pleasure-free life. As his feelings for them grow, his plan to have the money go toward caring for his abusive, mentally-disturbed mother starts going by the wayside. The Enormity of Life is a tender comedy about misery and a heart-wrenching drama about the things that make us reluctantly laugh.
Check out my Q & A with Eric!
What inspired this story?
Eric: I get that question a lot as a writer and it’s hard to pinpoint an answer. I’m always working on eight to 10 to 12 ideas in my head at a time… I started writing this script a long, long time ago, I believe, around 2014, so it’s hard to pinpoint like when or where I came up with it. I’m a big fan of the movie Harold and Maude, and I liked the dark comedy aspect of that and there’s an opening scene in that film where the lead character pretends to hang himself to get under his mother’s skin. He’s a very disturbed young man and I just like the dark aspect of it and I think some of that creeped in, and there’s some Harold and Maude easter eggs in this film as well, there’s a movie poster hanging in Breckin’s apartment. And this movie was heavily inspired by two other films, Inside Llewyn Davis, a Coen Brothers movie that came out right before I started writing this, and then Garden State, which is one of my favorite films. And I really wanted to capture the tone of those films. They were comedies, but they weren’t, you know, there was a lot of drama and it really blurred the lines and that’s how I tend to write. So, to kind of pinpoint like what inspired it, it was really more inspired by a feeling, maybe what I was feeling at that time in my life. I was going through a divorce, the divorce came after the script was done, but we were in the middle of it, so I think a lot of this movie captures how I was feeling about the world at the time.
What is the audience in for? Are we going to cry, are we going to laugh, a little bit of both- can you describe the tone more?
Eric: I think it’s going to be a rollercoaster of emotions for people. There will definitely be some tears, there will definitely be some laughter, there will probably be a few uncomfortable moments where people aren’t sure if they’re allowed to laugh. A lot of the characters in this movie are socially awkward and we are talking about a character with bipolar disorder and then there’s the character of Abe Berkman, who’s the attorney who was played by the brilliant, Alan O’Reilly. He’s very quirky and a tad inappropriate at times, so I think people are going to be in for a real rollercoaster of emotions.
This movie does talk about some really heavy topics, what else does this movie talk about?
Eric: Jules, played by Giselle Eisenberg, has a fear, well, more of a feeling or a sense, that she will be involved in a school shooting. She’s been inundated by, you know, 24-hour news cycles and seeing all the school shootings and things that were happening from Parkland to Sandy Hook, and she’s convinced herself that that’s going to happen in her lifetime to her and that she’s got to be prepared. So she sort of deals with that and then of course, Breckin, his character is dealing with bipolar disorder and grew up watching his mom struggle with it. So, he’s sort of feeling like he’s seen his future and isn’t sure if he wants to continue on, if that means ending up like his mother.
One thing you’re talking about a lot of emotion and this roller coaster effect, but in the trailer it specifically says that this is “a story without feeling,” can you explain that?
Eric: Yeah, so the original title of the film was called “Anhedonia” and it was called “Anhedonia” for five years, from the time we wrote the script up until it was acquired by Shoreline Entertainment. They kind of coaxed us to change the title because they were worried that people wouldn’t know what it meant or couldn’t pronounce it, especially overseas for international sales, that it might be a roadblock. Anhedonia is a mental condition, by which the person who has that affliction, has an inability to experience joy. They don’t feel excited by the things that you and I might feel excited about or feel excited about, things that humans are excited about whether it’s a new job, a career, money, drugs, sex, whatever it might be, they just kind of feel numb all the time, nothing really makes them experience joy. So that’s where that tagline actually came from, “a story without feeling.”
So the title was then changed to The Enormity of life, does it embody the film in the same way as your original title?
Eric: Maybe not quite in the same way but it does. There’s a line in the movie that it kind of comes from. About three quarters of the way through the film, Breckin, you know, there’s so much that he’s dealing with, and so much in his head, that it’s all just so big for him. That’s really what it’s about. So, at the end of the day, after it was all said and done and this movie was written and it was filmed and it was edited, we really sat down and asked ourselves what is this movie about, and whose movie is this? Is this Casey’s movie, which is played by Breckin or Emily’s character Jess’s movie, or is it Jules’s movie, the character played by Giselle Eisenberg? We all kind of thought that this movie is really about Jules and this loss of innocence and all the characters really experience this loss of innocence. Casey loses his innocence early as a young boy, by almost having to raise his mother as opposed to her raising him because of her mental condition and his sister abandons them and moves out and gets away from it and he feels like he has to grow up very fast to take care of his mother. Then Emily’s character has a child when she’s 16 and she kind of loses her innocence that way. And then Jules, of course, is growing up in this very scary world with school shootings and violence and all of that. So, the movie is kind of about all the characters sort of yearning for that innocent childhood that maybe they feel like they were robbed of. And so that’s really, I think, where that comes from. The enormity of life is that things can get really big, really fast.
What do you hope the audience takes away after they watch it?
Eric: I hope it’s a conversation starter. One of the things about, I think, America is that people often don’t want to have tough conversations, they’d rather avoid those conversations. We don’t talk a lot about mental illness. We don’t talk a lot about guns without getting political. People just want to avoid those conversations because so much that we do talk about does become political. There is no political aspect of this film. This film is not a political statement. So, I hope that people can watch a film like this and have a conversation about it. Maybe through talking about the movie, they open up a dialogue about mental illness, about suicide prevention, about gun violence and school shootings. But I also want them to take away that they enjoyed it, that they had a fun time, that it was an enjoyable experience. And I think Breckin is like you’ve never seen him before and Emily and Giselle will absolutely melt your heart with their performances. I hope that people are talking about everybody’s performance in this film. That’s all we’re trying to do- entertain people and give them a break from all the things that they’re stressed out about, particularly now in the pandemic. This is another thing that they can do at home and take their minds away from things a little bit.
What was it like working with Emily, Breckin and Giselle?
Eric: I mean, my goodness, it was really a dream come true for me. Originally we had another actor sign on who was a cast member from Saturday Night Live, who ended up having to drop out of the film late into the process. So for about two years, Abby Elliot from Saturday Night Live was originally going to play the character Jess. And when she signed on to do it, her agency really wanted to surround her with some top notch talent and they brought us a lot of names. We talked to a lot of really, really big, big names about playing the character of Casey, and then we found out we were going to get Breckin Meyer. So it was Breckin, and then Abby and then Giselle, who I was a huge fan of From Life Pieces. We were really ecstatic! And when Abby had to step down, Emily jumped in probably a month and a half before filming to take the lead. I flew out to LA to take them out to dinner, and really talk about the movie because when you’re in that process of bringing actors on, if you’re not a huge name, like Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese, a lot of times you don’t get to really have a lot of interaction with the actors in the casting process. And that was the case here. Our casting team was dealing with their contracts and dealing with getting them on to the film. So when they finally got on board, I flew out there to take them out to dinner, so we can really talk about the script and the movie and what I was expecting and what they were expecting. And there was a moment of clarity where I was sitting with Giselle and her mother across from me at this restaurant and Breckin was right to my right, and Emily was across the table, kind of caddy-corner from me, and I realized- I have three shows, at the time, that I was DVRing on a regular basis. They were The Walking Dead, Life in Pieces and Designated Survivor. I realized that all three actors sitting at the table with me, wanting to do my movie, were on my DVR at home. And that was a real moment where I was like, you know, just kind of pinching myself that we were about to embark on something very, very cool.
Is the story set in Cleveland?
Eric: It isn’t. The word “Cleveland” is never uttered in the film. And that’s more of a style choice for me, that I try to make all of my stuff rather ambiguous in terms of time, in terms of location, time period… I mean, Breckin does wear the Cleveland shirt in the movie. I kind of thought that there was no real indication that it was in Cleveland until I noticed a bus stop sign in the movie. I actually never even noticed it until the other day, aside for the Cleveland State University sign in the background. So I guess the cat’s out of the bag there, but we never really intended it to be. And, you know, as with all movies, even movies that are specifically supposed to be set in a place, there’s always that location thing where, you know, the house you’re filming at might be 40 minutes away from the other house but in the movie they’re in the same neighborhood or something like that. So, you know, you film where the location is right, and then through the power of movie magic and editing, you make it all seem much smaller than it really is.
Are there any other Cleveland staples that we can maybe see in the movie?
Eric: Let me think. We shot at a local hospital, and you definitely see the signage for that hospital and kind of a drone shot over the hospital. A lot of people will recognize places like Lakewood, where we filmed some exterior shots and Lakewood’s very recognizable. But yeah, I think the trained eye will pick up on some stuff but, you know, the free stamps are not in there and the terminal towers are not in there, you’re not going to see that kind of stuff because this was really a story about these characters, and so we really wanted this movie to be about who they are and not where they are.
Gotcha, so then, why was Cleveland chosen as the location for this film?
Eric: I have a lot of connections in Cleveland and working with people at the Cleveland Film Commission and people on Lakewood city council. So, I have a lot of connections that allowed us to be able to film here on the budget that we were filming on and be able to get locations a lot cheaper than I would be able to say in Los Angeles. I can make a movie in Cleveland for about 10 times less than I can, let’s say, an LA or New York or Atlanta. So it really became about budget but also because I wanted to give back to some people who kind of stood by me through my career, people like say Sage O’Bryant, who was our cinematographer on the film and my co writer and business partner on the film, Carmen DeFranco, he’s a Cleveland native as well. So, there were just a lot of connections here and it just made sense. And to be able to give some of the actors that I’ve met through the years the opportunity to be in a film that we knew would get distribution and that they would be able to work in a scene or scenes with top caliber talent like Breckin and Emily and Giselle, was something that we were excited to do for them.
Cleveland is actually getting quite a bit of love recently, not only with your film but with Cherry and Judas and the Black Messiah– where do you see the future of film in Cleveland going?
Eric: When I did Made in Cleveland, we shot in 2011, 2012, they had just wrapped The Avengers, Alex Cross and Fun Size, and then shortly after that, Captain America. And even before that, you had American Splendor and some other films that were shot here- The Oh and Ohio with Paul Rudd, A Christmas Story, etc… It’s always been a place where people have come to film because Cleveland has such a diverse look to it. You have the lake, you have University Circle which can look like Paris, you’ve got downtown which they use to look like New York sometimes. So, I think that as far as a boom goes, it’ll always be an option for Hollywood because it’s so much more convenient to shoot here a lot of times for big productions. As far as productions like mine and independent films, it’s a little bit more of a struggle because even though our budget was much, much smaller than The Avengers, it’s still a pretty big budget for an independent film. And that’s still going to be an obstacle for people in terms of putting on a feature like this with a big cast like this. So I think the boom, you know, is happening from outside with the bigger budget films. I’d like to see more being done to help some of the smaller companies and the unknown filmmakers who are out there working every day trying to create content. I’d like to see a little bit more being done to help them get funding to do something like this.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Eric: We want people to support this film- rent it, buy it, share it with all of your friends because this is a smaller budget film. But the more success this film has, the more projects we can bring to Cleveland in Northeast Ohio, and Ohio in general. That’s our goal. Let’s do this again and again and again and again. But we can’t do that without the support of our fans and Breckin’s fans, Emily’s fans and Giselle’s fans. So we ask people to watch it, watch it again and again and share it, shout from the rooftops that films like this are being made in Cleveland. Our film hired approximately 200 cast and crew from Ohio. We can do that again and again and again, if we have the support of the people.
The Enormity of Life is now available digitally on Vimeo On Demand as well as on DVD through Amazon, Walmart and FYE. The film will be available on Apple TV and Google Play at a later date.
The film will also have a COVID-friendly in-person premiere tonight in Cleveland at the Atlas Cinemas Lakeshore 7!