Production Notes – “The Family Stone”

Fox 2000 Pictures
Published: 2005

THE FAMILY STONE is a comic story about the annual holiday gathering of a New England family, the Stones. The eldest son brings his girlfriend home to meet his parents, brothers and sisters. The bohemian Stones greet their visitor – a high-powered, controlling New Yorker – with a mix of awkwardness, confusion and hostility. Before the holiday is over, relationships will unravel while new ones are formed, secrets will be revealed, and the family Stone will come together through its extraordinary capacity for love.

Sybil Stone (DIANE KEATON) is the strong-willed matriarch who is at the heart of the Stone family, an outspoken woman who wants only the best for her five children. Strikingly beautiful, her face now reflects a recent note of brittleness or fatigue, suggesting that perhaps Sybil carries a secret.

“I was drawn instantly to the character of Sybil because of the many layers to her personality,” says Diane Keaton. “This role allowed me to explore so many – often conflicting – emotions. It was fun playing the character who maintains a semblance of order within the chaos that prevails in her household. Sybil is the glue that holds the family together.”

Sybil and her family are not pleased with the arrival of eldest son Everett’s girlfriend, Meredith Morton (SARAH JESSICA PARKER). Meredith is an immaculately composed, contemporary New York City-based career woman whose tailored suits, upswept hair and subtle makeup speak volumes about her personality, making an indelible impression on both friends and strangers. When she meets the Stones, the results are chaotic and unforgettable.

“Meredith is different from most of the characters I’ve played,” says Sarah Jessica Parker. “She’s controlling, rigid and tightly wound. She’s also intractable and inflexible, and when she finds herself out of her element at the Stone house, she turns into a wreck of a person.

“Meredith tries very hard to relate to the quirky members of her boyfriend’s family, and she works hard to join in their conversations,” Parker continues. “But she simply does not understand the ‘room’ she is trying to become a part of, so she doesn’t realize when she should stop talking. When she tries to dig herself out of these awkward moments, she only makes matters worse.”

After her initial trial by fire with the Stones, Meredith enlists the help of her younger sister, Julie Morton (CLAIRE DANES). Julie, who works at a foundation awarding grants to artists, isn’t nearly as tightly wound as Meredith.

“Julie is not under the same pressure that Meredith is experiencing,” says Claire Danes. “She’s just there to provide moral support. She arrives when her sister’s life is in a state of chaos, and the Stone family – quite eccentric in the first place – seems to be unraveling, and Julie is initially disoriented.”

Danes calls attention to the film’s delicate balance of comedy and drama, saying that it challenged the cast to walk a fine line between the two styles.

“I found working on the film an exhilarating experience, because it forced me as an actor to be as honest as possible,” she explains. “You can’t hide behind a comic or dramatic acting approach, because you would never be able to create and sustain the wide spectrum of dynamic moments throughout the film.”

Julie enters the “lions’ den” with much more ease than her sister, but Julie’s visit ultimately leads to further complications, especially for Everett Stone (DERMOT MULRONEY). Everett is a successful executive in Manhattan whose charm comes from the fact that he seems to be utterly unaware of the effect his attractiveness and easy-going nature has on others.

“Playing Everett was a challenge because he starts out very button-downed and straight-laced, but by the end of the story he returns to his real personality,” explains Dermot Mulroney. “Deep down in his heart, Everett isn’t the over-achieving, submissive ‘suit’ we see at the start of the film; he is really like the rest of the Stone family: loose and kind of Bohemian, with a fondness for free-flowing candid conversation and the laughter that often results.”

Everett’s brother, Ben Stone (LUKE WILSON), seems to have strayed the furthest from his family’s New England roots. A film editor living on the West Coast, Ben’s unpredictable, sometimes mischievous nature is reflected in the ultra-casual clothes he wears.

“Compared to his siblings, Ben is a looser character,” says Wilson. “He’s the free spirit of the family who lives in California, and he doesn’t have a girlfriend. Ben provides a dramatic contrast to his straight-and-narrow brother Everett.”

Ben’s and Everett’s sister, Amy Stone (RACHEL McADAMS), is the passionate, outspoken and youngest member of the family. She bears her luminous natural beauty with an aggressive indifference – and with a near open hostility toward Meredith.

“I was drawn to the dramatic arc that Amy goes through, which eventually brings her full circle,” says Rachel McAdams. “Amy sees herself as honest, not mean, and expresses that uncensored candor in her sardonic wit.

“Amy instantly rejects Meredith as unsuitable for her brother, because Meredith represents a whole way of living – fashionable yuppie success – that Amy has worked hard to reject,” McAdams continues. “Eventually, she comes to realize that she would reject anyone who was brought into the family from outside, because outside is about change. Amy wants everything to stay the same.”

The family patriarch, Kelly Stone (CRAIG T. NELSON), is a college professor in his sixties who is still an impressive figure. Kelly has an obvious love for his family that drives his every move.

“I was attracted to this character because Kelly appears to be the traditional titular head of the Stone household, but it is Sybil who really dominates the family,” says Craig T. Nelson. “Despite his low-key personality, Kelly’s calming yet offbeat influence on each of his five children is obvious.”

Elizabeth Reaser plays another Stone sibling, Susannah, and Ty Giordano portrays Thad Stone, the youngest son, who is both deaf and gay. Giordano is a deaf actor who, like his on-screen character, reads lips and speaks, in addition to signing. Brian White plays Thad’s partner, Patrick.

“This is not a story centering on a deaf character,” Writer-Director Thomas Bezucha explains. “Thad just happens to be deaf. With a deaf member in the family, it is natural that the Stones would be proficient at sign language.” (Bezucha recruited the services of a sign language teacher who worked closely with each actor in the instruction of American Sign Language – ASL – during rehearsals and throughout production. The language is well-suited to films, because it is so visual.)

“The Stones, and Meredith and Julie, are people you could meet in real life,” says Producer Michael London, whose credits include the much-honored pictures “Sideways,” “Thirteen” and “The House of Sand and Fog.” “They can be shortsighted and even kind of nasty to each other. But these flaws make the characters feel real.”

THE FAMILY STONE is set during Christmas, in a small college town, because the holidays resonate for families like no other time of the year. “Our story unfolds during a holiday when you are supposed to be giving, hospitable and on your best behavior,” says London. “But when it comes to Meredith, the Stones can’t seem to get in the spirit of the holiday.”

The Stone household is characterized by its absence of traditional social boundaries. They routinely discuss everything from smoking pot to the loss of virginity. No subject is taboo – especially the topic of Meredith Morton.

From the movie’s opening scene – in which an impeccably-tailored Meredith is in a New York department store, barking out orders into her cell phone to an office subordinate while Christmas shopping with Everett Stone – the audience recognizes Meredith as the quintessential tightly wound, “Type A” Manhattan career woman. Her stylish designer spike-heeled pumps could not be more out of place when she arrives at the Stone’s cozy, comfortable and well-worn home.

A clash of cultures is inevitable and swift; soon Meredith realizes the contempt with which she is perceived, so she moves out of the Stone house and into a local inn. Despite efforts by Everett’s brother Ben to console her, Meredith asks her sister Julie to join her for emotional support. Julie’s arrival – and its unexpected effect on Everett – turns the family Stone upside-down.

“The Stones are just being who they are,” says Bezucha. “They prejudge Meredith because she’s different from them. They are bohemian and open; she seems closed-off and corporate. They rally together against Meredith. No matter how she behaves, it annoys them. But they are decent people and eventually things begin to mesh.
“Anybody who has a family will be able to relate to this story,” Bezucha adds. “Audiences may see themselves as one or more of the characters.

To create these characters, Bezucha drew upon his own background. The son of a college professor, he grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts. But Bezucha says the film is not autobiographical. “The story is not about my family, but it is definitely about my people,” he notes. “I grew up among academics on the East Coast.”

As Bezucha finalized the script, he and London pursued Oscar®-winner Diane Keaton to play Stone family matriarch Sybil. The filmmakers knew that Keaton’s range and versatility were well suited to the story’s seamless blend of comedy and drama. There was a bonus: “Our thinking at the time was that, if Diane Keaton played Sybil, we would have an anchor for our story and a magnet for other strong actors,” says London. (Cast members cited the opportunity to work with Keaton as a significant attraction to the project.)

Soon after reading Bezucha’s script, Keaton joined THE FAMILY STONE.

“Diane Keaton is an icon,” says Michael London. “This role required a lot from her – it’s a difficult acting challenge. Diane’s performance is at the core of this film, propelling the story and the characters around her.”

With Keaton committed to the project, the filmmakers’ casting wish list became a reality, as A-list actors agreed to join what was fast becoming an impressive ensemble cast.

In New York, Bezucha met with Sarah Jessica Parker, who was winding up production on her hit HBO series, “Sex and the City.” Parker had turned down numerous film roles because of their similarity to her series character, Carrie Bradshaw. “I was willing to wait until a special part came around,” says Parker. “THE FAMILY STONE felt like something different, so I grabbed the opportunity to play Meredith.”

In rapid succession, the filmmakers were able to lock in the rest of the starring cast, including Dermot Mulroney, Claire Danes, Rachel McAdams, Luke Wilson and Craig T. Nelson.

“The actors all told us the same thing when they joined the film,” says Bezucha. “They wanted to be in this movie because they loved the script and were passionate about making the film. Their attitude felt simple and pure, and that’s why all of the elements of the project began to fall into place.”

The actors met during a pre-production rehearsal period in Los Angeles, a luxury not afforded to most feature films. “Thomas knew from the very beginning that getting the actors to interact as a family was going to be very important in making the movie work,” says Sarah Jessica Parker. “During rehearsals, he had the entire cast playing charades, which actually occurs in one sequence of the film. The rehearsals felt like we had left work and were transported home, a place where that playful type of comfort level exists.”

As the cast came together, Bezucha and London assembled a crew of talented behind-the-scenes artists. Bezucha, who prior to beginning his film career, worked at Ralph Lauren, designing the look of the brand in the retailer’s stores worldwide, had a clear vision for the world of THE FAMILY STONE. His hand-picked team made the story come to life with the meticulous attention to detail that Bezucha envisioned.

Director of Photography Jonathan Brown, who early in his career had worked with the renowned cinematographers Conrad Hall and Vittorio Storaro, brought his unique talents to the project.

Production Designer Jane Ann Stewart, who collaborated with director Alexander Payne on “Sideways” (produced by Michael London), “About Schmidt,” “Election” and “Citizen Ruth,” is known for creating spaces that look as though real people lived in them – a talent essential to the look of THE FAMILY STONE.

Food and eating are integral elements of THE FAMILY STONE, as the Stones are often seen snacking or preparing food, culminating in an ambitious Christmas Eve feast. This climactic sequence was shot using an imposing array of traditional – and edible – holiday fare, with the entire cast seated at the Stone’s dining room table.

Characteristic of his attention to detail, Bezucha recruited renowned chef Valerie Aikman-Smith for the distinctly non-traditional assignment as food stylist.

Bezucha wanted the film’s exterior scenes shot at outdoor locations appropriate to the story’s setting. Accordingly, he scheduled the most physically demanding and logistically challenging portion of the shooting schedule at the beginning of production, with the company shooting for ten days on two different East Coast locations. A crippling blizzard welcomed the production.

“Actually, we were lucky that a massive snowstorm rolled in the evening of the first day of production,” recalls Michael London. “The storms helped these scenes look like picture-postcards. So the storm was a blessing, albeit one with a drawback. After the blizzard passed through, it left freezing temperatures in its wake. As a result, the cast and especially the crew were faced with incredibly cold – and difficult – working conditions.”

Madison, New Jersey stood in for the story’s unnamed New England college town. The art department gave the small community an extensive makeover, hanging endless strings of Christmas lights, creating elaborate shop window displays, and erecting an enormous, meticulously decorated Christmas tree in the middle of the town’s Main Street.

“Between the contributions of Production Designer Jane Ann Stewart and her crew, and the snow, Madison ended up looking like the epitome of a quaint east coast village at Christmas, something right out of a storybook,” says Executive Producer Jennifer Ogden. “New England has a sense and feel that is unique. You can’t put snow on palm trees in Los Angeles and expect an audience to accept it. We were fortunate to have the real thing for our setting.”

The filmmakers then moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, where they had located a house to be used for exterior sequences at the Stone residence. The aging but comfortable residence benefited from the second blizzard to hit the production. The storm provided a stunning snowy landscape that captured the look described in Bezucha’s screenplay. The art department brought Greenwich back to Hollywood, in the form of a sweeping 180-degree photo of the striking exterior surroundings. The photo was blown

up to provide a 140-foot long backdrop panorama used when shooting the interior scenes at the Stone house inside a studio soundstage.

The combination of the exterior locations photographed on the East Coast and the matching interior sequences shot on sets in Los Angeles were brought together seamlessly in post-production.

Upon returning to Los Angeles, the filmmakers “cheated” a few New York locations. The film’s opening scene (in which Meredith and Everett are Christmas shopping) was shot at the Beverly Hills retail outlet of the Manhattan-based Barney’s Department Store. This location presented logistical challenges, because the production had to be out of the store by the start of business at 10AM.

Two-thirds of the film is set inside the Stone family residence. Most of the Los Angeles shooting schedule took place on local soundstages, where the filmmakers built the Stone home interiors. Bezucha drew on his design experience to enhance these studio sets with his characteristic focus on detail.

“To me, the house is the last actor in this film,” says Bezucha. “For over 30 years, Sybil and Kelly Stone raised five kids in this home, and I wanted it to convey a lived-in quality. New England is filled with these weathered homes.” Stewart says she wanted the house to feel like “you can hear the creaks in it.”

Stewart says the Stone domicile reflects the tastes of matriarch Sybil, reflecting her Yankee liberal sensibilities and no-nonsense personality. At the same time, Stewart wanted to convey the presence of a man in the house.

“Kelly and Sybil don’t have a lot of money on his professor’s salary, so they had to improvise when furnishing their home,” says Stewart. “They tend to hold on to things until they fall apart. They don’t redecorate on a regular basis.”

Bezucha and Stewart wanted the set to establish what life was like in the Stone household, with each room reflecting the personality of its occupant(s). For example, Amy lives in the attic because of her rebellious nature. Everett’s room is tidy; his framed Most Valuable Player of 1982 award suggests a room frozen in time. These touches are all part of Bezucha’s intent to create a nuanced and realistic world.

The time and care lavished on the production design and sets proved to be enormously rewarding to everyone who had worked on the film. Diane Keaton’s reaction to the Stone house set, had the cast and crew laughing all day.

“This is fabulous,” she enthused. “But I wouldn’t live here if you paid me.”

Like the house, the clothes have a history. Bezucha was as hands-on in the creation of the costumes as he was in the design of the sets for the Stone’s home.

Despite its holiday setting, the filmmakers wanted to avoid the obvious traditional reds and greens that are commonly associated with Christmas. Instead, they selected a muted color palette for the set, backgrounds and costumes.

“Thomas showed me some photographs of Victorian Christmas cards that had a warm, burnished, golden ruddy feeling to them,” recalls Costume Designer Shay Cunliffe. “He wanted no blue tones in the film’s wardrobe, which surprised me because it meant I couldn’t put a pair of blue jeans on any of the actors. I ended up fitting Luke Wilson – whose character Ben cried out for blue jeans – in corduroy pants.

“It was exciting to work with Diane Keaton, Sarah Jessica Parker, Claire Danes and Rachel McAdams, who all have a great sense of style,” Cunliffe continues. “I worked closely with each actress to find a look that felt like her character. The end result is that they didn’t feel like they were wearing costumes.”

Sarah Jessica Parker told Cunliffe that she wanted her wardrobe to be organic to Meredith’s personality. Cunliffe suggested that Parker wear fashions from designer Narcisco Rodriguez, a master of exquisite, minimal tailoring. Parker, who knew Rodriguez, agreed.

Shay Cunliffe’s research for Diane Keaton’s character, Sybil, led her to study the photographs of a variety of prominent strong women in contemporary culture, including writer Susan Sontag, sculptor Bridget Riley and artist Louise Bourgeois. The common thread was that none were recognized for the details of their clothes, but rather for their iconoclastic, free-thinking strength.

“Sybil as a synthesis of those great women writers and artists of the past,” says Cunliffe. “She always is true to her sense of style, which remains the same whether she is gardening or attending a cocktail party.”

THE FAMILY STONE takes place over three days, during one of which Sybil wears a bathrobe. After looking through the selection of robes from Cunliffe, Keaton impulsively pulled a Beacon bathrobe out of her own closet. Although Cunliffe was wary of how this large, well-worn robe would look on camera, she acknowledged that – solely on the basis of Keaton’s unique style – the actress made it look “fabulously Sybil.” They later added to Sybil’s wardrobe a pair of Keaton’s ragged pajama bottoms, slippers, socks and her husband’s cardigan sweater, achieving an appearance that suggested layers of comfort.

Bringing these elements together was a labor of love for Writer-Director Thomas Bezucha, Producer Michael London, and the film’s cast and crew. As they put the finishing touches on THE FAMILY STONE, Bezucha and London took time out to reflect on the film.

“THE FAMILY STONE is about love and being human,” says Bezucha. “It is really difficult to fall in love. And people tend to do stupid things when they are around a closed environment like their family. Those are the people who know us best and love us most, yet they are also the ones who hurt us the most. This movie explores those complex intra-familial connections.”

“It becomes clear while watching these characters, that they are striving to accept each other, and to love each other,” adds Michael London. “They are searching to find something within each other.”

“Ultimately, I want to entertain audiences,” concludes Thomas Bezucha. “I hope audiences find it funny because they recognize themselves in this eclectic collection of often impulsive and spontaneous characters. It’s possible to find humor in virtually any situation.”

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