James Roday’s latest directing and writing adventure, “Treehouse,” will premiere March 1 on Hulu. Featuring an ensemble cast of accomplished women in their own right, “Treehouse” explores the injustices and struggles of women, set in the realm of horror, Roday’s favorite genre. Actor Jimmi Simpson has a leading role in the film, as his character travels to a family vacation home, unaware of the monstrosity that awaits him. The project is part of the “Into the Dark” horror anthology series, in conjunction with Blumhouse Television. In a recent interview with Roday, he expressed his hope that "the film will be received as openly as it was made."
When did you start writing the script for “Treehouse?”
The idea was laying around for years, and when the opportunity presented itself. We dusted it off and actually wrote it in record time. We had about a month to both write a script and start prepping the movie so that we could shoot it before I had to go to Vancouver to start season one of “A Million Little Things.” It was a pretty crazy endeavour, and I don’t know if anyone outside of Blumhouse is crazy enough to do stuff like that. I’m very thankful that the one studio who will take a wild swing like green lighting a movie over the phone and putting it into prep the next day was the studio that called.
It took a lot of work to get “Gravy,” your first horror film, off the ground, and then to get this movie approved over a phone call, that had to be surreal.
So ridiculous the extremes that exist in this business, but yes, that’s the perfect microcosm of how insane filmmaking can be. It’s eight years to get the first one made and a 45-minute phone call to get the second one. [laughs]
Where did the inspiration for this script come from?
It was definitely influenced by listening to my lady friends over the years share experiences, talk about injustices, stuff they had experienced in the workplace, and just basically being a woman on a day-to-day basis. ... And I thought maybe there was a cool way to make a horror film that also addressed this issue at the same time. Julianna Guill, one of my besties, was the sounding board for a lot of the initial story-breaking of that movie. We got it two-thirds of the way down the field, and we couldn’t figure out how the movie should end. That’s why it got set aside for a while.
In the interim, some major movements were born, MeToo and Time’s Up happened between us starting to talk about this movie and this opportunity presenting itself. … I know that’s a huge part of why we were able to get this done so quickly and get it green lit so quickly, is because it was so timely.
What issues does this film explore?
It’s about the systemic normalization of inappropriate male behavior, since the beginning of time, really, and how we’ve gotten where we are and what we can actually do about it. That’s the backbone of the movie. It’s by no means an indictment of all men. The spectrum of reaction to that Gillette ad that came out a couple of months ago was so truly shocking to me. I found it fascinating how differently people could interpret the same thing. We’re all watching the same ad. It seemed so obvious what the intentions were, to me. There were six other people that saw it six different ways. I think this movie will probably fall into a category like that. We as filmmakers certainly had an intention, and we definitely had a message we wanted to put out there. How it’s received is anybody’s guess, especially with this issue. I’m happy to put it out there. If nothing else, this is a conversation that needs to keep getting louder, frankly, and I know will continue to get louder. To just participate in it is a start, for us as artists. I’m ready to put it out there, for sure.
Did you have particular people in mind that you wanted to play the roles you had written?
Jimmi (Simpson) and Julianna (Guill) were in before we even started writing. The rest of the cast came together closer to when it was finished. Those characters became the women that we ended up casting, and they made them their own. I think it was less of writing with people in mind and more of, ‘Hey, here’s this blueprint. You’re so good, take this and make it yours.’ Which is what happened, across the board. Then Sophia Del Pizzo is Jimmi’s special lady friend, so that was an opportunity for them to get to work together, which was very exciting.
Did a particular character take on a new life once you saw them step into their role?
The ladies, especially. Jimmi and I talked Peter (his character) to death before we started. We were on the same page about exactly what we wanted out of this guy and what the approach was going to be. When you see the movie, you’ll understand why it was really important. The ladies all made these characters their own. Shaunette Wilson put a spin on Marie, Stephanie Beatriz definitely did her Stephanie thing with Elaina and brought comedy to a role that may not jump off the page. Nancy Charles, who plays Agnes, gave that character color that I never would’ve imagined until I saw her do it. Michael Weston is probably not what anybody had in their head when they were reading the script, and yet, I can’t imagine anybody else but him playing this character now.
I really do think that this cast elevated these characters across the board and made them their own. When there’s room for that to happen and you have incredible actors, that’s a win as a writer/director. You can sit back and really watch magic happen. … That’s just the best.
Are you in the film?
I am not. I did not even Hitchcock myself into this one. There’s a grand total of zero Roday.
I do have a couple of fan questions. The first one is from Kathy. She asked, ‘With this movie shedding a light on the MeToo movement, was there a moment that sparked the drive to do this, or was it an overall sense of it’s past time for survivors to be seen?
I think that’s probably the latter, except that we were feeling it even before MeToo happened. Once it happened, everything just felt louder in our brains and felt more urgent. We felt like the time is definitely now. It was knowing that we should do something and having that evolve to, ‘Oh, we’re going to do it now.’
The other question is not related to the movie, but Sharon wanted to know how you prepare for an emotional scene, and how do you decompress afterwards?
The truth is, I’m not a good enough actor to be able to go into a corner and have a process and know that it’s going to work. It’s always a little off the cuff. You just try to be as present as humanly possibly in the scene and try to lean into the words as much as you possibly can. Sometimes it comes, and that’s great. It makes it so much easier, and sometimes it just doesn’t, and that’s what they call acting.
You’ve definitely had to do some emotional scenes in “A Million Little Things.”
Nobody has gotten off free from the emotion on that show. Part of it is just being surrounded by really great actors and being in scenes with them and watching them do their stuff. That certainly helps. For me, I’ve admittedly had to do the least, and I certainly feel lucky in that regard. When somebody like Stephanie Szostak (Delilah) is essentially crying everyday and I have to do it twice in a season, I better be able to pull my weight. [laughs] The pressure is definitely on.
Do you have any other horror films or scripts in the works?
I’ve got three different ideas that we’re kicking around and trying to figure out which one we’re most excited about. We don’t want to waste too much time, because we’ve got one coming out on Friday. The best time to have the next one ready is when you’ve actually got something people are talking about. We’ve got to get on the horse and pick one and get moving. The good news is Todd [Harthan] and I write pretty fast.
How many writing partners do you have?
On “Psych” I wrote with just about everybody. It was just a function of how that show worked. By the end, I don’t think there was a single writer I hadn’t teamed up with. For movies, it’s always been Todd. It’s the one thing we know we can come together and do, even if we’re both off on different shows. … It helps keep us connected, it helps keep the creative juices flowing. It’s a great thing we know we can always come back to.
We’re all excited “A Million Little Things” was renewed, and the second “Psych” movie is coming up. What can you reveal so far about it?
Everybody is really excited, and front and center is the return of Carlton Lassiter (Timothy Omundson). That’s what this movie is really about. That’s the one thing I can promise we will deliver to all of you Psych-O’s is some sweet, sweet, sweet Tim Omundson. It will be good for the soul.
Do you have any other news you want to share or anything else you have on your plate right now?
This has been good. It’s been a pretty full plate. I’m happy to get “Treehouse” out there. I’m happy that we got some Lassie coming back. “A Million Little Things” has been a great experience, and I’m very thankful to all the people that have decided to tune in and watch us. With the finale being tonight, it’s got a lot of payoff, which I think the fans have earned. I’m excited to see what people think and how it lands with our fans. It’s been an exciting week.
A full casting list for “Treehouse”, provided by Roday, includes Jimmi Simpson, Mary McCormack, Shaunette Renee Wilson, Maggie Lawson, Stephanie Beatriz, Julianna Guill, Michael Weston, Amanda Walsh, Sutton Foster, Cass Bugge, Sophia Del Pizzo, Nancy Linehan Charles, Kylie Rogers and Cyrina Fiallo.
Some photos via Julianna Guill and Jimmi Simpson.
"Treehouse" premieres on Hulu March 1
James Roday, Gordo the peacock, Jimmi Simpson and Sophia Del Pizzo on the set of "Treehouse"
Jimmi Simpson in "Treehouse"
Some of the ladies of "Treehouse": Shaunette Wilson, Mary McCormack, Julianna Guill, Sophia Del Pizzo and Stephanie Beatriz
Maggie Lawson in "Treehouse"
An image from "Treehouse"
James Roday on the set of "Treehouse"
Stephanie Beatriz, Sophia Del Pizzo, Julianna Guill and James Roday at a screening for "Treehouse"