A Hollywood success story that doesn’t make you want to barf is rare. When you encounter one, it is like encountering a unicorn. I interviewed ingenious comedy writer and wonderful person, Samantha McIntyre, about her debut feature film, Unicorn Store, which premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, for this reason.
Unicorn Store is the whimsical, existential, coming-of-age story of Kit (played by Brie Larson), an artist and a dreamer, who is faced with the painfully boring disappointment that is adulthood. Just as Kit is about to succumb to the mundane, a sprightly salesman (played by Samuel L. Jackson) offers her a chance at making her greatest childhood dream come true.
We met up at a Chipotle in the Valley, because the coffee shop we wanted to go to was closed and this Chipotle had a parking lot. It was destiny. It was also the total eclipse of the sun.
I successfully avoided looking at the eclipsed sun by pretending it was a man wearing khakis and a belt, as I safely made my way inside. There is something mystical about two subtly hilarious women gathering in a Chipotle during a solar eclipse. Even Larry-by-the-napkins noticed. There was a strange magic in the air.
FL: Growing up, did you write in journals and stuff or…?
SM: Well, I don’t want to brag but I was editor of my school paper.
Right off the bat, we struck gold. Samantha, who grew up in Garland, Texas and had a constant perm from 5th-12th grade, was editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper. She had an electric typewriter, a perm, and her own humor column. It’s okay if you fall in love with her a little.
SM: I started letting my perm grow out freshman year of college so I could become my true self.
Her true self majored in theater at Southwestern University, earned her MFA in Acting from Southern Methodist University, and then moved to Los Angeles to be an actor. But her electric typewriter and high school humor column were calling her name. She wrote her first pilot at her office day job, applied for the Warner Brothers Writers Workshop, and got in.
Her television writing career has been successful and steady, writing for comedies like Bored To Death, Married and People of Earth. We talked about the pilots she sold that didn’t get made. How dead pilots are a depressing thing you get used to, but a feature can float around and not die. Samantha wrote the first draft of Unicorn Store in 2009. The script shifted and changed over the eight years it took to make it, but the initial spark of the dream, and much of the original draft, remained the same.
SM: I don’t necessarily write a script in order. I might write my favorite part first. Usually the whole reason I want to write something is there’s a scene I’m excited about. In the original draft of Unicorn Store, Kit (the lead character) has this long monologue to these Care Bears. That was the first thing I wrote. That was my first idea for the whole thing. Before I even knew how the movie ended, I knew I wanted this person who had moved back home to be pouring her heart out to some Care Bears.
Unicorn Store was almost made in 2012, with Miguel Arteta directing and Rebel Wilson playing Kit. The timing never came together for that incarnation of the film, but a foreshadowing shimmer of destiny was introduced.
Now, Unicorn Store marks the directorial debut of the magnetic force that is Brie Larson. Larson stars in the film, alongside an epically talented cast which includes Samuel L. Jackson, Joan Cusack, Bradley Whitford and Mamoudou Athie.
FL: How was working with Brie Larson?
SM: Awesome. Amazing. So collaborative.
FL: When she first…oh yeah, how did she…did she just like read your script and fall in love with it?
SM: It’s funny, she, and you know she will share this story herself, she auditioned for the movie five years ago.
FL: No way.
SM: The director ended up casting someone else. But her and I had lunch, just the two of us, and it was so fun and I loved her. I remember after the lunch I told one of our producers, “Brie Larson is a delightful weirdo.” She’s just…she’s like Kit. I would’ve loved to have had her in that part from day one. Then that version of the movie never got made and when we were looking for another director, we thought of her because I felt like she really connected to the material. Like the way she talked about the script I was like —
FL: She gets it.
SM: Right, she gets it and she is this person already. So we called her and said, “Do you remember this script? Would you want to direct it?” And I think the next day, she said yes.
I can confirm the creative collaboration of Samantha and Brie is an inspiring one because I play a tiny role in the film. At the Unicorn Store table read, I was determined to not mess up the intense role of Female Reader. In addition to reading a bunch of small parts, I was also filling in for a big part. Samuel L. Jackson gave me advice in front of everyone right before we started (!). His advice was to treat the table read as an audition and crush it. So I did. Samantha also crushed the table read. She was filling in for Joan Cusack. Like, Joan Cusack is in her movie. During production, Joan Cusack saw Samantha waiting in line to use the bathroom and was like, “Oh, come use mine!” What is more enchanting than Joan Cusack inviting you to use the bathroom in her trailer? Nothing. You’ve been Cusacked, your life is better now.
Because I was good at the table read, thanks to Samuel L. Jackson and myself, I was cast as "Waitress." On set, I was nervous. If you have one line as a character that is not integral to the story, in a scene that has been going on for a while, you will feel like an alien crashing someone else’s planet when you stumble in. Just look them in the eyes and try to sound and appear human.
While waiting for your cue, you stand in silence looking at your waitress props. You remember how you held your pen when you were an anxious teen waitress in Manhattan. At that awful restaurant where old women with frosted, purple lipstick would rattle their bracelets and shout at you. God, they’re all dead — oh, time to go say my one line to a movie star!
Brie Larson set a positive, powerful tone from the top of the call sheet to below the line. She made diversity a major priority. The film employed a melting pot of people and it made a difference. Her kindness, talent and strength blew me away. When you have one line in a movie or show, people often treat you like walking garbage. She treated me with respect.
FL: Where did the idea for Unicorn Store come from?
SM: Everyone always asks if I was obsessed with unicorns and I actually wasn’t. My deepest, strongest wish as a child, was that Hello Kitty would come to life. It was always this very bittersweet wish because I was a smart enough child to know—
FL: To know that was never gonna happen.
SM: Yes. But the weird thing is that dream still exists for me. I see it in Story (her daughter) too. She really wishes she could fly.
FL: That was mine. I was heartbroken that I couldn’t fly.
SM: Yes, I just like that idea. Like the deepest dream you had as a child, if you still are clinging to that as a grownup. And if someone came to you and said, “Actually, I could make that come true.” what would you think? So the dream became unicorn. It’s symbolic of that magical dream we all have.
FL: I love that.
SM: I mean, not to be too corny but like, through the course of writing the movie and making the movie I feel like I got my unicorn dream.
FL: You kind of did a magical thing. I think you did.*
*OKAY WE ARE CRYING IN THE CHIPOTLE A LITTLE
SM: It’s a very weird movie and I feel like it’s not for everyone.
FL: But it’s for some people. It’s for people who believe in—
SM: Yes, it’s for the dreamers. At one of the unofficial screenings somebody wrote on a comment card, “Maybe if you liked Harry Potter you would like this, but I don’t.”
FL: Cool comment, dude.
SM: Brie and I were like, “Who doesn’t like Harry Potter?!” but I guess our movie is not for people who hate Harry Potter? Sometimes I feel like…adults who like magical things…makes some people mad? Like that person probably won’t like our movie.
FL: Um, but that person probably really hates himself.*
*This made Samantha laugh a lot.
Unicorn Store was in production during the dumbest moment in American history. When the election results poured in, the whole set cried collectively. They lost it, as we all did, as we all still do. They messed up continuity on some shots. The Diet Coke Kit was holding didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense. They had to re-shoot. They had to collect themselves and finish their unicorn movie. One woman dreamed her dream onto some pages, and then another woman picked up the glittering torch of that dream, added her own magic, and daringly brought it on home. I am grateful to these women for reminding me of the tenacity of unicorns.
Unicorn Store premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival September 11th, 2017.
Images via Unicorn Store
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Fiona Landers is a writer, actor and singer. Her writing has been featured on The Hairpin, Ravishly and Eater LA. Fiona writes and performs musical and sketch comedy regularly at the UCB Theatre Los Angeles. She sometimes appears in films and TV shows but honestly never commercials for some reason. Follow her at fionalanders.com, on Twitter @fionasings4u and on Instagram @fionalanders.