Five Questions With... Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse, Writer/Directors of COUP D'ETAT

NFF is delighted to showcase Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse’s satiric comedy COUP D'ETAT, originally presented as a staged reading at the Festival in 2006! Putting a rebellious twist on a high school English assignment, 16-year-old Tatiana (Odeya Rush) strikes up a pen pal correspondence with Anton (Michael Caine), the notorious dictator of an island nation. When his people rise up and depose him, Anton escapes to the last place anyone would think to look: the suburban home Tatiana shares with her single mom, Darlene (Katie Holmes). As he plots his return to power while in exile, Anton takes on Tatiana as a protégée, helping her plan the overthrow of her high school’s ruling mean girls. What could possibly go wrong?

We chatted with Lisa and Joe - read more below, and join us at COUP D'ETAT on Thursday, June 22 at 6:15 PM, and/or Friday, June 23 at 4:30 PM!

Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse

Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse

NFF: How do you work together as co-writers and directors? Does one of you handle certain tasks more than the other, or do you divide everything down the middle?

Lisa & Joe: We’ve been screenwriting partners for twenty years so we’ve ironed out working together. We are usually of one mind, which is good and bad. It’s good because we don’t fight that much. It’s bad because if we are going off a cliff, no one stops us. In general, though, Joe is the ‘idea’ guy, and Lisa is the ‘decision maker.’ Joe comes up with a million ideas, and Lisa tells him what seems to work, what doesn’t; what’s funny, what isn’t. Also, on set, Joe is usually there with the actors and Lisa is watching through the monitor to see if it’s working. Before directing, we storyboard together. Unlike most indies, there is no handheld in our film (on purpose) because we wanted to create a more heightened, stylized reality. This is very hard to achieve on a short shoot like this one (19 days) so we really had to have our shots nailed down. Similarly, we didn’t have much rehearsal time, so we had to know in advance what we wanted from the actors. We had such super pros, they understood what we were going for very quickly but if there was any confusion/debate, we’d usually tag team until we got our way. 

NFF: Can you talk a little about casting, and how your actors came to the project? Did you write this with any of them in mind?

Lisa & Joe: We always thought of Jason Biggs because we knew him and had worked with him before. At various times there were many other actors in the lead roles, including for the staged reading we did at your festival ten years ago. For that, we had Jimmy Smits as our dictator and Heather Graham as the mom. Later, we had Alfred Molina, Robert DeNiro, Anthony Hopkins, but our heart always was with Michael Caine. He has the gravitas but also pairs that with the most subtle wit. We were blessed to have him.  We also got very lucky with Odeya Rush. She came in just weeks before shooting and she blew us away. 

NFF: The production design and art direction is so specific to the storytelling. Did you have the world in mind when you were writing, and/or was it a collaborative effort with your team putting it together?

Lisa & Joe: On a small budget,  the art department is the most under-funded area. Directors should have very clear ideas because it’s hard to create a look with no money or crew. We had a very specific vision for Tatiana’s room. We wanted no punk rock posters and wanted it to look like the character hand-made everything. In real life, we made the decor with our kids and a student from SCAD. The idea of defacing cute animal pics later became Tatiana's DIY motif, she then defaced her backpack, her boots, her school etc. 

We wanted suburbia and Tatiana’s town to showcase consumerism gone awry. Lots of Americana.  When choosing locations, anything kitsch we used— the huge globe, the mall with the insane train and toy animal play area,  the school that looks like a post modern fortress.  We wanted America to be Disneyfied and not totally real because we felt that would allow people to believe the very unlikely story. When choosing props, we went for gaudy color, especially yellow because it reflected Anton Vincent’s flag and also made the world a little more fantastical. (We used yellow for Darlene’s hygienist outfit, her silly car and the crazy adult tricycle)!

By contrast, we wanted the island nation to look deprived and rural, like Guiana/Cuba. we also wanted to push the dictator’s Soviet imagery, with his very eastern european fortress, his retro Rolls Royce and his very Fidel style propaganda posters. since we shot everything in Savannah, we are pleased that it actually does look like a different country. 

NFF: This is a satirical look at family, relationships, and politics, among many other topics. Would you say you approach the world or are you drawn to stories from a place of humor?

Lisa & Joe: We always start with our own stories from our lives. In PARENTAL GUIDANCE we used our real stories with our kids. In Coup D’etat, we used stories from both of us growing up with single moms.  Joe’s mom really did force him to spy on her boyfriends. Lee’s mom really did date a convict because he could fix her car and make her life easier. 

In high school, we were very into punk rock and always wanted to find a way into a story about teens, punk and moms. When Saddam went missing, we imagined him hiding in suburbia and that became the thread to weave our real stories together.  

NFF: Why are you excited to show the film in Nantucket, and/or what do you hope Nantucket audiences will take away?

Lisa & Joe: We love Nantucket. We are from upstate NY and CT and we both went to Connecticut College. We had many summers on New England beaches and on Nantucket, so it feels like home to us. Also, we think Nantucket could use some punk rock and DIY spirit, so, we hope everyone becomes galvanized to spark their own revolutions.