As a publicist, Megan Zehmer helped navigate Schitt’s Creek’s rise from beloved CBC comedy to streaming juggernaut that eventually won seven Primetime Emmys for its final season in 2020.
Some two years on from that awards show, Zehmer found herself after hours at the Musee de L’Orangerie on a location scout in Paris for Levy’s directorial debut, Good Grief, which was also Zehmer’s first film as a producer. Remembers Zehmer of the moment, “I was thinking: My god, I first met Dan at some random building in downtown L.A., and there was a man in the office next to us clipping his toenails, and now we’re sitting in L’Orangerie by ourselves for this movie that we’re making.”
Good Grief (out Jan. 5 on Netflix) follows Marc (Levy), a man mourning the death of his beloved husband, Oliver (Luke Evans). After a year of grieving and being rocked by a recent revelation about his marriage, Marc and his two best friends, played by Himesh Patel and Ruth Negga, spend a weekend in Paris where the learn about themselves and one another.
Ahead of the film’s release, Zehmer talked to THR about making the jump from PR to producing, securing a Parisian Ferris Wheel, and getting a Real Housewives of New York clip into the film.
What was behind the decision to jump from PR into producing?
With Schitt’s Creek, I saw firsthand how art affected real people. So, the next natural step was to try to be part of something like that in a more creative capacity. That felt natural and logical. Obviously, making that jump is not easy in general, but it was made a lot easier in my case because the person on the other side knew me as a person and knew that I had integrity. I knew that he trusted that I would always protect the integrity of the work, because that was paramount to me as a publicist. There are so many things that I felt, before I made the jump, were directly transferable, especially knowing how to manage and operate from a place that’s void of ego, because the work really shouldn’t be self-focused. Also: Endurance, managing the energy in a room, setting expectations, knowing how to effectively message, and protecting talent in a way that empowers instead of intimidates, which is an approach that I always tried to take with PR. By nature, I feel like I am a learner, not a knower. I try to approach things from curiosity and tap into a level of humility that is required to know where your capability starts and ends because, as a producer, you’re accountable for that.
The movie shot on location in London and Paris. Did you ever consider cheating those locations?
We had this conversation pretty early on because so many of the actual locations are written into the script and always have been from the first draft, like Musée de l’Orangerie and the Paris Ferris wheel and Pied de Cochon. We just felt like you just can’t really cheat Paris. So, we thought if we could find ways to make that work, we were going to make it work.
What was the hardest location to secure?
The Ferris Wheel. So, turns out they only put it up twice a year [in Paris]. That was fun to learn! One of the times that they put it up was right when we had gotten to London for prep, so we had had basically just missed it. And then we kept just missing it. When we finally did catch it, we were told we’d have a lot more access and time with it than we ended up with, which was access to only two cars and only a few hours total. It’s in the middle of the Christmas market, so it’s basically a fair, and we were shooting with the rest of the real people on the actual Ferris wheel.
In one car was the three actors [Levy, Negga, and Patel] and then our DP, and then in the next car it was our focus puller, our first AD and our script supervisor. We could only fit four people per car. So, I was on the ground under the Ferris Wheel with our version of video village, which was just basically one monitor. We had to be discreet because there was a fair happening and we didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves in case it would compromise what we were shooting. We had to get the exact timing of how long it takes to do one rotation of the Ferris wheel, because needed to be really mindful of continuity. If we had to stop a take and do it again, we started back up at the same place in the actual rotation because the backgrounds had to match.
You have some great cameos in the movie — with Kaitlyn Dever playing a young adult film actress and Emma Corin as a performance artist. How did those come about?
When we were still developing the script, something Dan and I talked about was how celebrities tend to have this uncanny ability to center themselves when someone else dies in a way that it feels outrageous to those of us who are on the outside of that. But there is something truly sad about it, too. So, that was a touchstone for [Dever’s] character. The juxtaposition between her eulogy and Oliver’s dad felt true to our own life experiences, because grief often feels like it turns on a dime, moment to moment, going from deeply serious to something that feels beyond satire. With Kaitlyn, we never even thought that we’d get her. Even though it’s small, the role is against type, and she’s so game for anything. Outside of the funeral scene, she also did a whole photo shoot with us in full costume and hair for the fake film poster that Marc walks by in Paris. And then for Emma Corin, Dan and Emma are friends, so that came together pretty quickly and easily in terms of their involvement. We really tried, with both of the cameos, to have conversations early on in the casting process about those parts needing to be additive to the story and not just stunt casting.
How did a clip from Real Housewives of New York make its way into the cut?
Dan doesn’t watch Housewives at all, but he had at that point spent years listening to me talk about what an anthropological wonder I feel it is. So, I remember he wrote Thomas’s line [“You know, it’s almost Shakespearean if you think about it, the level of betrayal.”], and sending it to me saying something along the lines of like, ‘Does this make sense? I don’t watch these, but I feel like this is how you talk about those shows.’ I’m grateful for Dan and [editor] John [Corn]’s patience throughout that process of choosing a clip from Real Housewives because I just leaned into it as much as I could. I pitched them 15 to 20 different clips from across franchises, and I physically presented them to Dan and John in the cutting room. I would rant about how well the clips parallel our film. New York felt like the right franchise because it successfully towed the line for many years of comedy — natural physical comedy — and true melodrama.
The movie is an adult drama, which isn’t the most popular genre to make in Hollywood right now. On top of that, Dan was known for comedies following Schitt’s Creek. How did you all set expectations?
It really crystallized at the table read that this didn’t fit into one defined box. I knew that there was so much expectation and pressure on Dan, as it would be with anyone who’s coming off of something like Schitt’s. He didn’t want to be pigeonholed, he had more to say, and I knew what he was capable of. I tried to prioritize blocking out the noise, which is something that as a former publicist, is muscle memory at this point. We knew it wasn’t going to fit into a box that people would be comfortable with. Netflix really was supportive during the entire process, and that takes guts. I will always respect anyone in this industry who doesn’t overtly try to exploit an artist or capitalize off of a commercial. I would imagine it was scary for them too, especially knowing that he’s proven he can execute a certain tone successfully. When we were first talking about this movie, Dan and I talked about how we turn to art to feel less alone, especially when we are grieving. We felt strongly the only way to achieve our end goal of making the people that watch this movie feel less alone is to make the characters feel like real human beings.