Written by Lauren Miller (wife of Seth Rogen) and Katie Anne Naylon, and starring Miller, Ari Graynor, and Justin Long, For A Good Time, Call… is the story of two longtime enemies who, through economic circumstances and the influence of a shared gay BFF (Long), become unlikely roommates and start a successful phone-sex business. The semi-autobiographical crowd-pleaser (it draws heavily on Naylon’s experiences) drew belly laughs and blushes in equal measure from Sundance audiences, and was picked up by Focus Features for $2 million, one of the fest’s largest deals.
The sale of For a Good Time, Call… is a definitive turn in the career of the 32-year-old director, who up to now has been known for his short films, commercials, and music video work. It’ll likely mean a move from Toronto to L.A., not to mention the requisite raft of sex-comedy scripts with his name on them. But for Travis, the chance to work with Focus Features CEO James Schamus also represents a full-circle moment in his path to becoming a filmmaker.
Growing up in Vancouver, Travis says his was not a family of film buffs. It wasn’t until seeing The Ice Storm, written by Schamus, that a teenaged Travis realized films could be more than what he previously experienced. “That was the first time I thought about film in a new way. It wasn’t just about enjoyment, but it could also be this amazing experience,” he says. “It’s so amazing to be working with James on this feature because he’s an idol. There’s no better place for our film to be.”
That The Ice Storm, a movie about a family spinning out of control, is the film that was most pivotal in Travis’s decision to ditch a major in biochemistry for film school at UBC makes perfect sense. His short films have been drenched with childhood ennui and dysfunction, and have all been included at the Toronto International Film Festival. His 2003 award-winning graduate film, Why The Anderson Children Didn’t Come to Dinner, is a surreal film about three children subjected to their mother’s culinary abuses. 2006's The Saddest Boy in the World is about a disaffected youngster who plans to hang himself in his green gingham bedroom after his ninth birthday party. And The Armoire, from 2009, is a time-shifting tale about a young boy who’s hypnotized in order to recall how his best friend went missing.
All of this begs the question, was he the saddest boy in the world? No, says Travis. But he does remember being detached and somewhat of an observer as a child, something he says has influenced his filmmaking style. “My films are not truly autobiographical ever but they certainly show my preoccupations. As a kid I always took the anthropological stance where I was analyzing everyone. I like to play with sadness,” he says. “Whenever I present [my short films], people tend to psychoanalyze me because the films have a real personal edge. But for me, they were an exercise in irony and technique. I was really focused on art direction and form. I guess I’m still processing how based in my real life it is.”
Combining sadness with style and form is something of a Jamie Travis signature. While his characters might be melancholy or so detached they don’t even interact on screen--"I’ve always treated characters as props, really"--the corresponding images are dripping in bright colors, kitschy art direction, and wallpaper… so much wallpaper!! Indeed, Travis calls the idea for Patterns 1, the first film in his acclaimed Patterns Trilogy, an exercise in art direction and form.
Originally titled Activity--so-called after the screenwriting practice of writing action over activity--Patterns 1 was conceived as a series of meticulous shots with genre references. “I knew generally that the film was about a woman who gets a mysterious phone call and you could only hear one side of the conversation,” says Travis, “but I never thought of as a story; more like a compilation of absurd activities.” When the film did well at festivals, it left him feeling dissatisfied, so he made it a trilogy.
When Travis talks about his films you get the sense that as a filmmaker he leaves very little to chance. He likens his set direction to a dollhouse rather than real life; if he could, he says he’d construct every set in the studio so that every last detail was to his liking.
All of this is what makes For A Good Time, Call… such a surprising and exciting first feature for Travis. To some the jump from his more formal, very contrived short films to a less nuanced R-rated laugh-fest might seem like an unexpected turn, but Travis always knew his short-film style wasn’t for features. Still, finding the right script to adapt his aesthetic and skills took time.
"For A Good Time, Call… was the first script that blew me away," he says. "It was so engaging, I was laughing constantly and I one point I cried!” Travis and writers Miller and Naylon, and actress Graynor, immediately hit it off. "I love that this project is very much a female story. I love working with women. I’ve always surrounded myself with women, that’s another reason I knew I could direct it and that I’d be good for it."
Most interesting for Travis is the profound impact it’s had on him as a director. In speaking with him, he often describes his work as formal and talks about it being director-driven. That all changed with For A Good Time, Call… “My biggest takeaway from this film is my absolute joy of working with amazing actors. I’ve worked with very talented actors before but the material has never allowed them to bring as much to the table as this cast. Justin Long is a revelation,” says Travis. “I want to write for actors now. I was always writing for me, the director; I was writing films that had an omnipotent hand there. But this one rode the line between tongue-in-cheek and real. I’d like to find some kind of balance where I can continue to do that.”
Now with the hype of Sundance behind him, the challenge for Travis, as with any first-time director with a breakout hit, is to pick his next project wisely. “I have to seriously consider whether I want to be the raunchy sex guy, because I’m already seeing more scripts like that. And I don’t,” he says. “I consider myself the kind of director that refuses to be pigeonholed. I absolutely want to make a horror film. I absolutely want to make a musical at some point. There’s so much I want to do. But the thing is you have to choose your projects based on whether or not you love the script. Like if another raunchy sex comedy comes that I love, I’ll do it. I just can’t recede. For me, film is not a job; it’s my life.”