Exclusive Interview: Stephen Karam on bringing his Tony-winning play The Humans to the screen

When Stephen Karam approached adapting his 2016 Tony Award winning play The Humans for the screen, he realised that the only way to do it successfully was to take it “completely apart” and “reassemble it so that it would work again as another kind of creature”. As well as writing the script, following his film adaptations of Chekhov’s The Seagull and of his own 2007 play Speech & Debate, Karam also took on directing duties. The result is a stunning piece of cinema; exquisitely executed, compelling, haunting, and darkly comic.

In the film, Beanie Feldstein plays Brigid, an aspiring musician who has just moved into a shabby apartment in Manhattan’s Chinatown with her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun). She decides to host a Thanksgiving dinner for her older sister Aimee (Amy Schumer), their parents Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), and grandmother Momo (June Squibb), all long time residents of Scranton, Pennsylvania. A foreboding sense of unspoken anxiety pervades the gripping ensemble piece, a nuanced dissection of an Irish Catholic American family, which takes place more or less in real time in one location, with stunning cinematography by BAFTA-nominee Lol Crawley and atmospheric sound design by Skip Lievsay that immerses in Brigid’s apartment.

Stephen Karam. Photo credit: Jessica Antola.

Ahead of the film’s release in theatres and on Showtime this Wednesday November 24th, two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, Stephen Karam had an exclusive conversation with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about how he approached the adaptation, his use of the camera, the queer identity of one of the characters, and his queer influences.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: to what extent did you always see cinematic potential in The Humans?

Stephen Karam: “A lot of tropes from movies and genres I love, like psychological thrillers, had influenced even the writing of the play. That’s evident I think when you’re going to end with a Hitchcockian situation of a man in the dark and a spiral staircase with a lantern. I’d been thinking about a lot of different films and I was very interested in crafting a stage thriller, but I wasn’t thinking that The Humans would ever become a movie. I was surprised to discover that the way to adapt it well and truthfully would be something that felt very new. I’ve never had that feeling before, that an adaptation would actually feel almost like making a new thing.”

Stephen Karam on the set of The Humans directing a scene with June Squibb, Beanie Feldstein, Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, and Amy Schumer. Courtesy of A24.

Did it make you look at The Humans afresh?

“Totally. In fact, I think the only reason that I wanted to do it was that I couldn’t believe that the way to adapt it and be faithful to it felt almost like taking the thing that worked in one medium completely apart to reassemble it so that it would work again as another kind of creature. I was so proud of what the entire creative team accomplished on stage that if it had felt that the best way to adapt was just a very polite, easy filming of the play I would not have been interested. Everything that was challenging, but also new and fresh about it was the whole reason that it ended up happening.”

Stephen Karam’s The Humans. Courtesy of A24.

Watching the film, it made me think that there’s often a lot of wasted opportunity in how little attention is paid to physical spaces on film because in The Humans it’s done in such a rich and atmospheric way. I love the damp patches, and peeling paintwork, all those details that make Brigid’s apartment a living, breathing space. What were your guiding principles for creating and using that space on screen?

“On stage, the cast is dwarfed by an entire dollhouse set for the duration of the play, it becomes a mechanism that they’re swallowed by, going up and down the stairs and into different rooms. When it came to the film, I quickly fell in love with the way I could highlight the space in a number of ways that felt not just cinematic, but so connected to the emotional pulse of the story and the characters.”

“At first it felt right storywise to meet the family as a bit of a voyeur, not just from a distance in those wider focal lengths, but also hiding behind architecture so that you actually start to realize your role as the audience and how the story will be told with people coming in and out of the frame through doorways. I was influenced by a lot of foreign filmmakers I love such Yasujirō Ozu and Edward Yang. Yang’s film Yi Yi: A One and a Two… about a Taiwanese family is an incredible movie. It’s very patient with lots of still shots. Once I’d landed upon that approach I was then really amazed by how much of the dialogue fell away because of the space and watching the actors behave in it on film.”

“One example is a scene early on with the parents getting Erik’s mother Momo, June Squibb’s character, out of the bathroom into a wheelchair and simply into the apartment down a hallway. That was something where just by acknowledging the real dimensions of this space and sitting tight and watching the actors navigate it, you get a kind of history of their marriage. You get a sense of how long they’ve likely been married, how long they’ve been taking care of the mother, and what the toll of that is on their bodies and on their psyches. So there are moments when you can direct careful attention like that in cinema, that in 1000-seat theatre where everybody has a different vantage point you have to almost throw out exposition in lines, because not everybody’s staring at the same thing in the same way.”

Amy Schumer in Stephen Karam’s The Humans. Courtesy of A24.

“I loved the the way we could watch Amy Schumer’s character Aimee walk down that blood red hallway and take in the true confines of the space. At every turn, I found that there was a relationship to the camera and the actors that was totally thrilling to me, including being far away and very close, as well as shots that start at a distance and become close ups. That’s something that happens multiple times with Jayne, like at the end when you’re in the opposite room and you creep towards her almost three minutes before the cupcakes land in front of her. Same thing with Erik telling his nightmare. At the end, you’re at the table with Richard Jenkins and the lantern, but the camera goes from being very close to taking quite a journey back.”

“With Amy Schumer some of the close ups on her are uncomfortably close, like when her character Aimee is in the bathroom with Instagram reflected in her eyes as she’s scrolling through all those moments, processing her heartbreak as she’s watching her ex and seeing a picture of her ex kissing someone else. Anybody who’s been there will be able to relate and those moments feel so much better served by a visual landscape like that, getting lost in someone’s eyes, than by a monologue. Almost at every turn, I was enamored with the relationship of space, the camera, and the emotional journey of the actors.”

Stephen Karam’s The Humans. Courtesy of A24.

When it comes to Aimee, we find out that she’s queer and she’s got a lovely relationship with her sister, and the parents at this stage in her life appear accepting of her sexuality. Her mother is making sure that Aimee knows she’s OK with it by mentioning the story about a lesbian who has committed suicide, which leads to a darkly comic line. Essentially her queerness is just one aspect of who she is, not a defining feature, could you give us an insight into the depiction of the character?

“I think what’s interesting about those stories is that it probably was a big deal at some point. When it comes to my own experience, I was raised in a Maronite Christian household—Maronite is the Lebanese version of Roman Catholicism—and my dad’s side is the classic immigrant story, so it’s about assimilation. There’s not a lot of room for queerness and so figuring out how to come out was not the easiest set up for me in Scranton, Pennsylvania. So I have a real interest in both the struggle and the push and pull of forming an identity outside of your family unit, and then folding yourself back in. What does that push and pull of having your parents see you how you really are look like and how much do they want to see? How much are they able to see? There’s a dynamic between the sisters that I think is really interesting, where you do sense that Amy’s character, who is queer, who is mourning the loss of this eight-year relationship with her girlfriend and now finds herself at home of all places, is wandering with this heartbreak.”

“As somebody who’s almost 40, you don’t get the sense that she came out yesterday, but I’d fantasize about her situation all the time, based on comments that the mother makes like ‘Hey, did you see in the news, this terrible thing happened. A gay child was bullied and then killed themselves.’ I think that there’s so much backstory in comments like that because she’s both trying to connect and I think she’s trying to make up for what we don’t experience in The Humans, which is probably a horrible reaction at first or maybe even a selfish one where she just needed to process it. I know in my family, I had to come out multiple times. It always felt generally okay, on the favourable side of not having to worry that I was going to lose my family. I came out and and then when I first brought a boyfriend home it felt like I had to come out all over again, like the reality of it for them hits. It’s like there are waves of acceptance. I do think we meet Aimee in that special zone where you see that they’ve gotten past that as best they can, and yet what are the remnants of that for Aimee being able to be herself, even as a grown woman, in this moment? I find that all really fascinating.”

Richard Benjamin and James Coburn in The Last of Sheila (1973). Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Finally, what’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?

“Oh, my God, I feel like there are so many culty things that I watched when I was young and now looking back on them I’m like, ‘That was gay!’ Like, why did I watch The Last of Sheila 400 times when I was kid?! Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim wrote the screenplay and it got made into a movie with Dyan Cannon and Raquel Welch set on the French Riviera. Looking back on it, that was definitely a gay experience, my relationships to that film and Bette Midler song on the closing credits, Friends.”

James Baldwin in New York, 1963. Photo credit: Dave Pickoff/AP.

“More seriously, I think of the profound influences on me, like getting slipped a copy of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, and the relationship from me in Scranton to writers that had queer voices that didn’t just excel in the world of fiction and storytelling, but had views that were so much more expansive than anything I had even begun to see. It was like windows and doors getting opened. You think you’re in a closet and then you realize you’re in a building and then you realize you’re on a city block. For me, James Baldwin was one of those people where the deeper I went down his cannon, including his interviews and essays, the world got much more expansive and complex.”

By James Kleinmann

The Humans is released in theaters by A24 and streaming on Showtime from Wednesday November 24th 2021.

The Humans | Official Trailer HD | A24

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