SMART PEOPLE is the story of an entire family coming-of-age, kicking and screaming the whole way. The head of the family, Lawrence Wetherhold, is having a colossal mid-life crisis. He's a venerable professor who can't connect with his students, a brilliant writer who can't publish his book, an aloof father who can't comprehend his equally smart children and a lonesome widower who can no longer remember the details of how love works.
Things are at a standstill in the Wetherhold household . . .until two events shatter the angstridden peace and change everything. First, Lawrence's adopted brother Chuck - a perpetual, overgrown adolescent - comes back into his life, looking for a place to crash while he gets his life together for the thousandth time. And then, against all odds, Lawrence does the unthinkable: he falls in love. As chaos breaks out on all fronts, Lawrence's brainy, blustering, well-armored defenses also began to break down - confronting him with the grouchy shadow of a man he has become and the parent, teacher and lover he once wanted to be.
The story of the Wetherholds first came to life in the mind of Mark Poirier, an acclaimed young American novelist and short story writer who is just starting to break into screenwriting. Poirier's two critically praised novels, Goats and Modern Ranch Living, explored the humor and anguish hiding within the surreal fabric of modern life in the Southwestern U.S.
But with SMART PEOPLE, Poirier wanted to delve into another insular, quirk-filled world with which he is quite familiar: academia. (Poirier has both attended and taught writing at Bennington College, Johns Hopkins University and Stanford, among others.) It's a realm that has been satirized and dissected in various ways throughout movie history - but Poirier was interested a different aspect of the academic universe: its family life and the volatile emotions and darkly funny situations that often hide behind the overblown self-importance and heady anxieties of the intellectual world. In the intellectually gifted Wetherholds he perceived a family at once funny and moving in their predicament of knowing so much - yet not really knowing one another at all.
The characters also cut close to the bone for Poirier. “When I was a kid, people used to call me `Old Man,' because I was very sort of grouchy and unhappy and a lot like Lawrence,” he explains. “Vanessa, his daughter, is also sort of an extreme version of who I was in high school - someone who was achieving a lot, but for all the wrong reasons. And Lawrence's son James and brother Chuck are the people I always wished I could be, you know, to be that cool and to dare to do what you really loved.”
Poirier's screenplay soon attracted the devoted attention of leading producers Bridget Johnson, whose films include such major critical and box-office hits as Jerry Maguire and As Good As It Gets, and Michael Costigan, who broke into producing with Brokeback Mountain and this year executive produced American Gangster. They in turn sent the script to Noam Murro, a native-born Israeli and one of the ad world's leading lights who had cut his creative teeth on award-winning spots for such companies as Nike and Adidas, and was named DGA Director of the Year in 2005. Murro was ready to break out into feature films, and searching for a story that would hit home, when SMART PEOPLE did just that.
“The story had a really specific and original voice, and when you read something with that strong of a voice, it's hard to ignore,” says Murro.
It was the semi-sweet mix of the sardonic and the heartbreaking in the piece that really set it apart for Murro. “I liked that it was about very serious themes, yet it addressed them very unassumingly,” he continues. “There's a wonderful poignancy to these characters, but at the same time they can be painfully funny. It's a story that invites you in without feeling too heavy. Although it's about a family that never really woke up from grief, the story doesn't take itself too seriously and, therefore, I think it allows you to get closer to some kind of truth. These aren't perfect characters - they're all quite damaged in various ways, but for me, that was a great place to start.”
Early meetings confirmed that Murro and the producers were on the same page. “Noam is extremely focused and really knows his own mind,” says Bridget Johnson. “We were always very confident that he would bring a unique visual style to the film, and that he would be great with the characters and the actors.”
Meanwhile, Mark Poirier was equally thrilled to hear that Murro was going to helm his story, having already encountered his work. “When I was teaching at Bennington College, I taught a course called `The Short Short Story' and we looked at some of Noam's ads and discussed how they are really like short films,” he recalls. “Now, I was very excited to be working with him.”
Murro and Poirier spent the next twelve months intensively collaborating on a new draft of the script, finding a very strong creative rapport. Meanwhile, Bruna Papandrea and Michael London of Groundswell Productions came on board. London, who had previously brought Rex Pickett's novel Sideways to the screen in an Oscar-nominated production directed by Alexander Payne and who also produced the family-angst comedy The Family Stone, immediately responded to the story.
“It had all the elements that attract me - films about families and real people, that are both funny and sad,” he comments. “Right away, I was sold on the script and on Noam. Watching his ad work, I could see straight away that he had his own voice and sensibility. His work was funny, human and interesting, all the qualities needed for SMART PEOPLE.”
London continues: “Michael and Bridget had spent years giving birth to this project and we found ourselves in the luxurious position of receiving it. I loved the script and the director and now it was a matter of getting the right cast together.”