How breaking the fourth wall in ‘The Good House’ brings out character
September 30, 2022
There’s nothing traditional about The Good House. It’s a story with a protagonist who has her AARP card. It’s a story about a drunk who often has her act together. It’s also a story in which protagonist Hildy Good (Sigourney Weaver) breaks the fourth wall to narrate her own life, and speak to the viewer.
Breaking the fourth wall is such a rare and specific choice. Some screenwriting books may even define it as a dangerous one. That said, movies that break the fourth wall often get under your skin and stick with you. Notable examples are such classics as ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ to ‘High Fidelity’ and ‘American Psycho’: these characters will let the audience in on their specific point of view. There is no wall, and the line of who exactly is the subject of the movie - the one on screen, or the one in the movie theater seat - often becomes blurred.
Strangely, female protagonists have rarely gotten in on the fun when it comes to film over television. The only notable live-action filmic example that even comes to mind is ‘Amelie.’ That’s why the bold choice here in Good House feels both familiar and fresh. Not to mention the one steering the ship in letting the audience in is one of the country’s most beloved actresses, and titan of American cinema in Sigourney Weaver. It’s easy to trust her, and that fact actually gives the filmmakers much to play with here.
It doesn’t hurt that the story itself is incredibly personal. Ann Leary wrote the book of the same title largely inspired by her own recovery process, and filmmakers Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky wanted to remain as true to the novel as possible. Forbes elaborated: “I have a personal connection to a lot of the themes in the book. I think it really causes us to ask do people we know have a problem with this? Do I have a problem with this? Is this ok? Where is the line? And is it ok for me to say someone else has a problem? All those considerations you have when you are wondering about someone you care about and their drinking habits were very interesting for us to explore.”
Wolodarsky stressed that the book was always the touchstone when breaking the fourth wall: “Hildy is an unreliable narrator, and we were drawn to a lot of the richness in a person trying to convince you of something that isn’t exactly true. We wanted to preserve that spirit, and I mean, we had Sigourney Weaver! We wanted to see her face when we hear her talk. And Sigourney was very game. That was our way of getting into the story and how can we preserve the spirit of the voice.”
Forbes continued: “Hildy is trying to sell you and everyone else that ‘I don’t have a problem.’ She’s even trying to sell herself on it. Hildy is in denial and wants to convince everybody and herself that everything isn’t what it seems, and Sigourney brings a fun dynamic to the narration. She’s who we all want to believe." Forbes also wanted to note for those wanting to attempt breaking the fourth wall: “It’s a device. You have to know why you are doing it, and not just do it to do it. Is it serving a purpose? Then it’s worth trying. The other thing about it: you can always just get rid of it, so it might be worth trying when you know why the character is doing it. Why is the character looking at the audience and what are they trying to do?”
Wolodarsky noted there’s also a delicate balance at play: “The screenwriting mistake when you are using any device is to over use something. Execution is important, and if you find the person talking to you every three pages, then you start to have a problem. This is when we are just leaning on this crutch and it’s not serving us. To reiterate what Maya is saying is that it highlights the unreliable narrator. It can get you on their side and sort of does, and then when we are just understanding this person, we realize they are not being fully honest. It’s also a powerful device when our narrator is saying one thing and we are seeing something different.”
“When we screened it with an audience and when Hildy says: ‘Rebeca has a problem,’ we got a big laugh. We realized the audience understands - they are onto Hildy, but Hildy’s deep denial also gets us on her side. That’s what’s fun about the fourth wall, and Sigourney was talking to the camera like talking to her friend. She really did have the relationship with the camera. She went in determined to get us on her side.”
The other challenge the filmmakers took on in The Good House is writing about addiction and making an addiction comedy. But they were more than up for the challenge. Wolodarksy stressed he listened to the voices of people who have been there, talking to friends who have been through recovery and again leaning into the book: “There’s no one way to talk about it… and sometimes the bottoming out, the bad stuff, can be really funny… of course there are big, heavy things that happen, but funny things are always happening parallel to that or in conjunction to that…” he said. “We also were really careful to try not to teach a lesson, but tell a story about a person that was both hopeful and entertaining.”
Forbes said what always excited her about the story was being able to center a movie on a woman in her 60s: “She had many things going on in which addiction was just one of them. Drinking was a coping mechanism, and drinking was a thing holding her back. I think coming at it through the character and what the character, and thinking about the whole life of this person was very exciting.”
Perhaps having Hildy narrate (through the vessel that is Sigourney Weaver) was just the icing on the cake. The Good House both embraces and breaks the tropes of fourth wall movies beautifully. Hildy is unreliable but charming, can win over the camera while also breaking your heart, is complicated and dynamic while coming to her narration with an express purpose and POV — she’s selling you to be on her side. All excellent reasons to venture into breaking the fourth wall.
When asked for any final advice Wolodarsky and Forbes (who’ve been collaborators and partners in marriage for over two decades) stressed it’s all about making each other laugh. “You just have to enjoy that person,” Forbes said with a smile.
The Good House is now playing in theaters.
Written by: Lindsay StidhamLindsay holds an MFA in screenwriting from the American Film Institute. She has overseen two scripts from script to screen as a writer/ producer. SPOONER, starring Matthew Lillard (SLAMDANCE), and DOUCHEBAG (SUNDANCE) both released theatrically. Most recently Lindsay sold PLAY NICE starring Mary Lynn Rajskub. The series was distributed on Hulu. Recent directing endeavors include the Walla Walla premiering (and best screenplay nominated) TIL DEATH DO US PART, and the music video for Bible Belt’s Tomorrow All Today. Lindsay is currently working on an interactive romcom for the production company Effin' Funny, and a feature film script for Smarty Pants Pictures. Lindsay also currently works as an Adjunct Screenwriting Faculty member at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. You can follow her work here: https://lindsaystidham.onfabrik.com/