The Skeleton Twins
Directed by: Craig Johnson
Written by: Mark Heyman, Craig Johnson
Produced by: Stephanie Langhoff, Jennifer Lee
Production year: 2012/2013
World premiere: January 18, 2014 at the Sundance Film Festival
Running time: 93 minutes
Kristen Wiig as: Maggie
Other cast: Bill Hader, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell
As children, Maggie and Milo Dean seemed inseparable. But tragedy hit their family as teenagers when their father died, sending them on different paths, and ultimately leading to a decade-long estrangement. Now in their thirties, another set of near-tragedies brings them together. Melancholic Milo, a frustrated actor with no prospects, decides to accept his sister’s offer to return to their hometown in bucolic upstate New York. However, he’s unaware that Maggie herself is barely holding it together, secretly unhappy despite her loving husband Lance.
At first, the bond between the twins is tentative: A surprise visit from their mother, a new-age practitioner who refuses to recognize her children’s pain, only seems to amplify just how little Maggie and Milo have recovered from the events of their childhood. Secretly Maggie and Milo separately seek out relationships that are destined to go nowhere. Maggie enjoys the flirtatious attention of her hunky Australian SCUBA instructor a little too much, sabotaging her interest in having a baby with Lance.
Meanwhile, Milo meets up with his first love, Rich. After their father’s death, Milo (as an older teenager) had an affair with Rich, his high-school English teacher – a scandal that drove brother and sister apart. At first, Rich is seemingly happy with a girlfriend and grown son and resents Milo’s sudden return. Desperate to get his former lover’s attention, Milo pretends to be successful and happy, which is enough to get Rich to consider rekindling their romance.
With painful wounds that only the other can understand, Milo and Maggie grow closer as they try to guide each other through this newest set of secrets. But as the hurt from the past catches up to the confusion in the present, their special bond is put to the test once again. They bring out not only the best in each other, but also the worst, and they are each desperate to avoid owning their own mistakes. Eventually Milo and Maggie grow to understand that living truthfully and sharing their lives with each other, pain and all, is the only way they can move forward and reclaim the happiness they once enjoyed together.
The search for an actor to play the complicated role of Maggie ended with Kristen Wiig, one of the industry’s most in-demand actresses due to her brilliant instincts, comic precision, and strong writing abilities. Before Wiig had even been approached, Hader had excitedly told his SNL colleague about the script. “I loved how Bill described the character and the story,” remembers Wiig today. “I read it and instantly knew I wanted to do it. Maggie is half got-it-together, half total train wreck. She has a difficult relationship with her mom, because of her father’s death, she looks at the world a certain way, and she hasn’t spoken to her brother in ten years. So she’s had loss after loss after loss. Now she’s with Lance because on paper he is perfect and she loves him, but mentally she has some things to figure out before she can stay with someone.”
Despite their tenure together on SNL, Wiig and Hader still managed to surprise each other on set. “It has been a dream – Bill and I had been working together for seven years, but this film is so completely different, and I’ve seen a side of him I’ve never really seen,” says Wiig. “Before we did this we were very close. I always considered him like a brother, so being able to play these two complicated people has been very rewarding.” Hader, for his part, thinks the same of Wiig. “Working with Kristen, she just makes you better,” Hader says. “It’s just not fair how talented she is. We’ve known each other for years so once she was cast, we didn’t have to do too much – that nitrous oxide scene, embarrassingly, is pretty much how Kristen and I are around each other all the time. She’s essentially my sister. But just watching her work, it’s amazing that I’ve known her for so long and she can still do things that surprise me. I will watch her and say ‘Wow, you can do that? I thought I knew all your moves, and I don’t!”
While Johnson believes in sticking closely to a script, casting performers with strong comedic backgrounds allowed him to give them room to bring their own sensibilities and interpretations to the dialogue. “Even in scenes where I wanted them to do the script very much as written, I’d always want them to riff on the lines, to embellish them, to throw in their own stuff, because it makes the movie feel more authentic and natural – and much, much funnier,” he says.
The chemistry between Wiig and Hader was crucial for Johnson, who is very close to his own sister. “My sister isn’t that much different from Kristen Wiig in terms of temperament or sense of humor, and we’ve always connected through our very strange, shared sense of humor. I think that’s become one of the most present elements of the movie, how a brother and sister can connect through humor. Bill and Kristen are such dear friends in real life that they have a brother-sister type relationship, and that’s not something a director can manufacture.”
One of the biggest depictions of this dynamic comes in the form of a lip-synch performance Milo uses to pull Maggie out of a particularly dark mood. “I knew that we needed that moment to reflect a time when they were kids and did crazy stuff together like lip-synch uplifting pop anthems,” explains Johnson.
The problem came when Kristen Wiig was cast in the film – because the song that Johnson and Heyman initially chose was “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips, which is featured very prominently in Wiig’s blockbuster hit Bridesmaids. “I had to spend a very funny 48 hours listening to every pop ballad from the 80s, and I was lip-synching all of them in the mirror to try to get an idea of what it would look like,” remembers Johnson with a laugh. Eventually, he settled on “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship: “It’s the perfect song lyrically, but it’s also a duet between a man and a woman, so it gives Milo all of this time to try to get Maggie to sing along with him and sing the Grace Slick part. He needs a full two verses to amp up his game and we really see her struggle before she finally joins in.”
Principal photography lasted for 22 tightly scheduled days. “Even with 22 days, it was an absolute dream shoot,” remembers Johnson. “It was so much fun that after day two or three, I thought to myself ‘Wow, things are really going okay!’ I didn’t dare say it out loud, but by the last couple of days we were all saying it!”