Cat people won’t be the only ones who relate to Noël Wells’ directorial debut Mr. Roosevelt. In the movie—which Wells also wrote—Wells plays Emily, a broke aspiring comedian in LA who returns to her former home in Austin after the sudden death of her cat, the titular Mr. Roosevelt. Once there, she has to reconcile with the cat’s other “family,” Emily’s ex-boyfriend, Eric (Nick Thune) and his new live-in girlfriend, the apparently perfect Celeste (Britt Lower)—all while coming to terms with her own seemingly-stalled career and, well, life.
You likely know Noël Wells as Rachel on Master of None or as a former featured player on Saturday Night Live, but she’s been writing and directing for much longer. “I’ve been making my own projects for a long time; I wrote my own sketches, I’ve done my own videos, I’ve worked in animation, I’ve worked as an editor—I’ve been doing it for a long time, it’s just that people haven’t seen all the things i’ve been doing,” she tells BUST.
In fact, Wells began working on the story that eventually became Mr. Roosevelt in a college screenwriting class. She developed the character of Emily, and though the character initially had different adventures—returning home and moving in with her pregnant sister—her core was the same, “this lost, self-obsessed, millennial type,” Wells says. Wells, now 30, adds that she’s been writing the character on and off since she was 23—but eventually knew it was time to get Emily on film because “there was a point where I was like, ‘I really just need to make the movie because I want to make more movies, and if I don’t make this movie, how am I going to make all the other ones?’”
“The script was the hardest thing to get right,” Wells says. Though it kept the main character and the general theme of returning home when your life is a mess, Mr. Roosevelt is very different from Wells’ initial screenplays. It’s also based on Wells’ life experiences, though she’s quick to say that she is very different from Emily.
Like Emily, Wells moved from Austin to LA, and left her cat—named Mr. Feeny after the Boy Meets World character—with her then-boyfriend, who she later broke up with. When her cat suddenly became ill, Wells returned to Austin and, like Emily, realized that the breakup had had a stronger effect on the ex than she anticipated. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, my cat’s going to die, and I emotionally killed this person who I truly loved and I had no idea—because he didn’t seem that upset, you know? It was the first time where I was like, ‘Oh, all these decisions I’m making are so self-centered.’ And [like Emily], I used all my savings to get the surgery my cat needed, and I had a friend who was like, ‘It’s just a fucking cat!’” (Unlike Mr. Roosevelt, Mr. Feeny survived and is “living happily ever after” with another ex and current friend and writing partner, Wells says; in the film, Mr. Roosevelt played by a big, orange cat who belonged to a friend of the production coordinator.)
Also like Emily, Wells gained some unexpected fame after a goofy YouTube video went viral—Wells' was of her taking a shower with various foods while Britney Spears’ “Toxic” played. Emily’s is similar, but different—though I won’t reveal it, because Mr. Roosevelt teases out the video’s subject like a mystery. The biggest difference between them, Wells says, is, “I had more of a sense of humor about it, but Emily does not have a sense of humor about it at all!”
After the script was ready, Wells pitched it to indie production company Beachside, which funded the movie—though Wells decided to give up her fees so they could shoot on real film. Wells says she fell in love with film when, one summer in college, she traded her digital camera for film. The results “looked way better than anything I’d ever shot on a digital camera,” she says, “and because I wasn’t looking over my shoulder judging myself, I developed an intuition and started going by instinct. I started just shooting on film, so I feel very comfortable with the medium, and I always imagined I’d shoot my first film on film.” She also prefers the look of film, especially because most indies at a certain budget level are shot on the same digital cameras.
Similarly, she paid special attention to the colors of the costumes and filming locations; many of the actors incorporated their own wardrobe, and Wells is, in fact, wearing the same high-waisted denim shorts she wears in the film when I interview her. But while Wells pairs the shorts with black tights and a dark button-up, Emily wears hers with a yellow vintage tee and oversized jacket. “I wanted her to feel like a cartoon person,” Wells says.
She also wanted Emily’s wardrobe to stand in stark contrast to her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend’s. Celeste (Britt Lower) “is very elegant and wears hand-dyed pieces,” Wells says; at one point in the film, Emily compares her to a human Pinterest board. But though the film does show tension and even rivalry between the two women, it’s not your typical two-women-fighting-over-a-man plot. “I wanted to go down a path of familiarity and try to figure out a way to change it up,” Wells says. “I see a bunch of movies where I’m like, I like this movie, or I like the idea of this movie, but that character’s thin, or that’s a flat character, or that’s a villain, and why are we talking about women this way? And why does it always have to be a dying mother, why can’t it be a dying cat?”
Something else unusual in Mr. Roosevelt is that is has the most hilarious, un-sexy sex scenes you’ve ever seen. Wells says that they were mostly improvised—of one sex scene, she says, “There were three parts that were scripted: I was like, ‘Try to get my shorts and my tights off because it’s going to be complicated; kiss me down and bite my butt, so it’s like sexy, sexy, bite my butt; and then when you’re done, say, ‘That’s it!’” The improvised parts of the same scene include Emily explaining what a bralette is and some unusual, tooth-related compliments.
The film will make you want to see more from Wells—and you’re in luck, because along with acting and making music with her band The Marys, she’s currently writing her next feature film, which she hopes to shoot in 2018. It’s about “a different type of millennial,” which is not something she means derogatorily. “People talk about millennials, and they can be derisive, but we’re a group of people facing a very quickly changing world,” Wells says. “Society is falling apart, the economy is not sustainable, and we’re just facing a lot of problems that we don’t really have a good way to fix. When I say ‘millennial,’ I mean a character that’s in the middle of that.”
Mr. Roosevelt is in theaters now — find one here.
Images via Mr. Roosevelt
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Erika W. Smith is BUST's digital editorial director. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @erikawynn and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.