Send a Card for Girlfriend's Day
Director talks Bob Odenkirk's Netflix crime comedy
By Richard Whittaker,
3:30PM, Tue. Feb. 21, 2017
When it comes to crime noir, Netflix's Girlfriend's Day has it all: murder, corporate intrigue, furniture sales, reformed Nazis, new holidays, and the perfect greeting card.
The black comedy with a heart from director Michael Paul Stephenson is an unlikely crime tale of a somewhat-alternative Los Angeles, where the people who write all those greeting card mottoes ("Happy birthday," "Get well soon," "Congratulations, I'm sorry") have rock star recognition – or, if not rock star, at least local musician with enough name recognition to score free drinks. Ray (Better Call Saul's Bob Odenkirk) was once king of the bon mots, but now he's a lousy bum, selling couplets on the black market, where he finds there's more intrigue and malice than can be contained in an embossed envelope.
It's a change of pace for Stephenson after his two documentaries, his tale of cult favorite Troll 2 (in which he also starred) Best Worst Movie, and Halloween home haunt history The American Scream. After he finished his second film, he said, "My wife and I were sitting around and we were talking about comedic actors that we really liked, and have really strong, untapped dramatic sensibilities."
Top of the list was Odenkirk, and that's when synchronicity struck. "A month after that, I was reading an interview with Bob in the A.V. Club, and he mentioned that he had an admiration for my first film." Stephenson invited him to Los Angeles, where the coincidences started mounting up. Not only did it turn out that Odenkirk's son was a Troll 2 fan, but "that night, Bob said, 'Have you ever thought of doing something in the narrative world?'"
This was 2012, when Odenkirk was still really a cult comedy star from Mr. Show, and only just beginning to get positive notices as scheming attorney Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad (Stephenson said they would joke about the concept of a Saul spin-off, even then). The idea of a collaboration soon picked up speed, as Odenkirk sent Stephenson a script. "I'll never forget the email: 'Dear Michael, here's this thing that I've been working on for far too long, but it makes me smile.'"
Attached was a draft of Girlfriend's Day, originally written by former Mr. Show writer Eric von Hoffman and Philip Zlotorynski (My Big Fat Independent Movie). Both Odenkirk and Stephenson were drawn to the dour, off-kilter humor, and the unlikely "hero" at its center, and set about bringing those elements to the fore.
First off was to move the story from the Midwest to Los Angeles. Partially, he admitted, that relocation was "for selfish reasons. My family is there, and Bob's family is there." However, there were also a good narrative and thematic reasons for the shift. "It was nice to show an anti-romantic version of L.A., because it's been so romanticized, and L.A. is a sad place it's the noir city."
They latched on to that grand crime tradition of the City of Angels. Stephenson said, "Early, early on, we talked about films we love. Bob and I are big fans of Chinatown, and there are obvious nods to this, and you have the classic Double Indemnity."
Not that all their references were from the golden age of noir: Stephenson was so enamored of recent crime fave Man From Reno that he hired its cinematographer, Richard Wong, as his director of photography.
Of course, his biggest asset was Odenkirk, just as his star was truly in the ascendant. That could have been overwhelming for a first-time narrative director but, Stephenson said, "One of the greatest things about Bob is that he's so supportive and so determined to make strong choices, as long as they're honest."
He also had another big ally in his corner: Netflix. The streaming service had championed documentaries, including both of his early films, and even when they started work more than four years ago, he and Odenkirk saw it as a natural outlet for their quirky collaboration. Stephenson said, "It's interesting to feel the shift, because at that time it was all about making a movie, getting it into theatres, and finding an audience. But to make something like Girlfriend's Day right now, and have an immediate audience of 90 million people worldwide, there's nothing better."
Girlfriend's Day is available on Netflix now.