When was the last time you bought a greeting card? Was it a last-minute rush to hide the fact that you forgot your mom's birthday again? An overpriced, fancy paper stock, "indie greeting card" to show your friends that you have good taste while simultaneously disguising that you were too broke to get a gift to go with it? They may seem obsolete, a physical relic of Hallmark's past, but greeting cards continue to be a multi-billion dollar industry. And a new movie starring Bob Odenkirk goes deep into the world of card hacks to paint a grim, murderous picture of life on the inside. A noir, hilarious take on card writers, romance and a journey to beat the ultimate writer's block, Girlfriends Day is the perfect antidote to the sugary cinema you'd otherwise be subjected to on Valentine's Day, when it premieres on Netflix.
I chatted with co-writer and star Odenkirk and director Michael Stephenson about the weird world of greeting writers, the freedom of streaming and overcoming perfection.
VICE: Why greeting cards? Do people even think about greeting cards anymore?
Bob Odenkirk: That little factoid at the beginning of the movie, about it being a three billion dollar industry, that's true.
I don't know why that surprises me so much.
Odenkirk: I know! Listen, I"ll tell you something, the script was originally written by Eric Hoffman and Phil Zlotorynski. Eric was a writer on Mr. Show and he gave me the script as we were wrapping up that show so this script is 18 years old. We rewrote it over the years because I always loved it, and returned to it because it always made me laugh. It was always a surprising thing, it had all these funny lines and scenarios in it. It never stopped being entertaining and it's as entertaining today as it was when I first saw that rough version of it.
My first thought is who gives greeting cards anymore? Well everybody does, I mean it's a huge industry. You'd think the internet or something would've killed it, but it's actually been growing for years. In the end we need these cards because you can't use an email to say "I love you," and people don't write letters anymore, so you need a card writer to say anything heavy.
It's also a quirky industry—I've never met anyone that knows or who writes cards. It's a great scenario for mystery because it's real and yet no one knows how it works. And it is a huge industry. The character Stacy Keach plays—somebody somewhere in the world owns a big mansion from writing greeting cards. There's probably like four or five guys and they know each other. You know Michael says there's actually greeting card awards, did you know that?
I did not know that!
Michael Stephenson: The Louie Awards!
Odenkirk: What's it called?
Stephenson: The Louies. They have their own greeting card association. For me it was fun because there are so many stories about writers but I had never ever once considered that there is somebody behind those words.
In the process of researching this world, did you meet any actual greeting card writers?Odenkirk: No, I leave that to VICE. Instead of sending somebody to Iraq next week, send someone deep into the bowels of the greeting card industry.
I mean that's actually a great idea. Or go to the awards show I'm sure crazy things happen there. In terms of the noir setting, had that always been the vibe you were going for?
Odenkirk: The script had always invoked the movie Chinatown, which if you know the movie there are parts of the script that are nearly parody, it's certainly homage anyway for that movie. All the tonal stuff was in the original draft. The character goes from a hapless guy who just has to write a romance card, and who you can't imagine having any feel for romance, he becomes obsessed with needing to find out who killed this guy and why, what's behind all this is what he becomes obsessed with.
Working with a company like Netflix, do you find you have more freedom?
Odenkirk: Absolutely. Netflix is an amazing outlet because there's no time constraints—our movie's 65 minutes because that's what works for us. We didn't need to make it longer. Our little film here has no genre it doesn't belong in any genre, it couldn't exist anywhere else and you want it to be in a place where ppl can find it in their own time in their own space. Maybe they find it on the day it premieres, which is Valentine's Day, or maybe somebody, two years from now, comes home and goes, "I've never seen that." I think that's how it's going to be most appreciated—when you discover it on your own time, so Netflix is a perfect fit.
Stephenson: Working with Netflix means working with somebody who has the stomach to take risks on weird, strange, small films, they don't have to do what everybody else is doing. It's one of the reasons why they're gaining [a bigger] audience is because people recognize that they are trying to offer something different than the same five movies that are in the multiplex every weekend.
It's fun to know you can go into a project like this and know that we're not beholden to box office, we're not beholden to advertisers, we're not beholden to length or any of these things. Instead, let's just make something fun and memorable. Like Bob said, I don't think this movie would have been made without Netflix, so I'm incredibly grateful for them.
In terms of Ray's struggle with writer's block at the beginning, I'm curious about how you yourself deal with writer's block.
Odenkirk: I like David Carr's approach, which is that the solution to writer's block is to start typing. Writer's block is just the fear of not being perfect. You sit down to write an idea and think, "My first idea or first sentence isn't the best thing I've ever wrote yet, so I'm going to sit here until I've got the best thing ever. Full stop." To me, the core of that issue is you need to do the best work of your life every time you sit down [to write], and it's just not going to happen. You've got to relax that desire, and you have to write what comes [to you in the moment.] Y'know, you can set it aside and come back to it two days later, but start by writing stuff.
Now Ray—he has resentment. He's really just a guy who can't let go of the worst thing that ever happened to him, which is his wife leaving him, and we can imagine, justifiably so. He's a sour dude, and he had a hayday. In that first scene, you see that Ray was one of the best, and when you're one of the best for a year, or two, or three, that can make things go downhill, because, I mean, how much higher can you get? How can you sustain that? It comes down to letting go of that desire for perfection, because you were—according to your awards on the wall—perfect, once or twice, so now it becomes even harder to do work that isn't outstandly perfect.
Interestingly, the backstory of these characters and the mechanism of our plot is fairly well thought out. For instance, with Ray, we start with a scene where people are reminding us he was the greatest, and he's revelling in the fact that he used to be the greatest, yet that's exactly what's keeping him from writing anything. That will kill you. You gotta stop thinking about the good work you did at some point, start thinking about what rights in front of you, and what's still to come.
For sure. You also don't want to fall into the trap of replicating your great work, instead of challenging yourself to create new things.
Odenkirk: Right. Absolutely.
What about Valentine's Day—how do you guys feel about this sacred holiday?
Odenkirk: *laughs* You go to Church, right?
Every year on Valentine's Day.
Odenkirk: Of course! We need holidays, because we need the weights to come upon us [as a society] to evoke any sentiment. We want to hear, "I love you," as a national movement, and if you don't say that, you're an asshole. That's how we get men to say, "I love you."
That's dark, I don't know if it's true. I hope not.
Odenkirk: I don't think it is. I mean, Valentine's Day is great, I have no issue with it.
I love the cast in the film. It's amazing, the collaborative performances that you were able to get out of everyone, Michael. As a director, tell me what it's like to work with Bob and this cast.
Stephenson: Oh boy. Look, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine making a narrative about a failed greeting card writer that starred Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Amber Tamblyn. Y'know, it was fun casting for this movie because, as Bob and I went through casting different roles, we knew we needed to strike a balance to where we had people who understood comedy, some people who wouldn't dismiss it as just a joke. I will say that it's incredibly intimidating. I've looked up to Bob for years, and I did the dumb thing years ago where you, like, write down your goals, your dreams. My wife was like, Let's write down what we want in life! She wrote down all positive things like, "Let's get out of debt, let's buy a house," and I wrote down, I kid you not, "I want to work with Bob Odenkirk."
Stephenson: Strangely, it evolved into this thing. When I look up to somebody like Bob, it's intimidating, because I'm like, Wow, I have to be perfect! Bob encouraged that idea about perfection—y'know, like, Hey, try something! If it doesn't work, who cares? We'll try something else. For a first time director, to have that sort of support and direction, that was incredibly freeing creatively, especially coming from somebody you looked up to for years. Everyday, I wanted to sit down with Bob and say, Why do you trust me with this thing? I shouldn't be here doing this thing with you! It's a dream really.
Odenkirk: I appreciate it, really, but what's great about Michael is that, on the page, this is a really silly script. If you played it like a normal comedy all the way through, you'd just run out of steam a quarter way through. I really believe this thing picks up its impact as it goes. By the time you get to Shelby and David as the two ex-racists, it's really hit its stride, and it just keeps getting stronger, and that's because we played it with utter seriousness. When we get to silly dialogue and scenarios, there's a lot of people who would push that too far to where it would break any strand of reality. Michael, he wanted that to be the reality, and he did it. He did it. It's got a strong sense of where it is and it's fixed to that. Do you agree?
I do agree actually. I think it's very funny, but it's got a poignancy, and a sense of drama that's really wonderful. I think you guys did a great job, so thank you for it.
Stephenson and Odenkirk: No, thank you!
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