Jeff Lipsky on Marriage and Flannel Pajamas

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Interview By Sara Schieron

When Flannel Pajamas won over crowds at Sundance in 2006, the press was affectionate as well, offering high-pedigree praise and comparing this exploration of marital challenges to similarly themed films by the likes of Cassavetes and Bergman. Such a comparison is not made loosely as writer/director Jeff Lipsky, a film distributor turned filmmaker, distributed the works of those two greats and so many influential others. Respectfully crediting their influence, Lipsky has created a film very much in the tone of the 70s era, European-inspired New York independent films. Lipsky's protagonists, Stewart (a hubris-infused Justin Kirk) and Nicole (a slight but humanistic Julianne Nicholson), are highly exposed, imperfect minds and bodies, exhibiting as much mutual affection as mutual repulsion. Littered with events that feel as literal as they are metaphorical, and featuring characters whose experiences seem to outlive their time on the screen, Flannel Pajamas moulds a bittersweet reverie out of the ineffable experience of couplehood and strikes chords that resonate in the minds of the married for days after the film has ended.

 


We meet Stewart and Nicole on a blind date, organized by their mutual dermatologist, and this sets the stage for a very psychoanalytically aware story. I'm sure you've been asked this before: how autobiographical is this film?

The impetus to write the screenplay is very much autobiographical. It was inspired by my own, short-lived marriage from '89 to '92. About ten years after the divorce, I was moving from Los Angeles to New York and I was packing and I actually came upon the album of photographs from my wedding. It'd been years since I'd really reflected back upon it and... maybe I needed the distance. With the period of time that'd passed, I came to look upon the pictures and representing this idyllic, enchanted period of time, and I was wracking my brain asking: Were there any signs? Any indicators? What could possibly have gone wrong? And suddenly, I saw them. Suddenly, I found them. Suddenly, I could see the chinks in the armor. Suddenly, I saw decisions I didn't make or gulfs between us and hints of things that should have been addressed and not glossed over; compromises we were both willing to make in favor of "the bigger picture" that we couldn't afford to make, when we were facing the possibility of a relationship that's supposed to last a lifetime. I thought this was a dramatic conceit that would serve a love story very nicely if I created a tapestry or mosaic of largely fictional characters to support and better inform the core relationship. Anyway, that's a long story, but that was the motivation.

It's funny, I half-expected you to say something about how the film was a means of exorcising old demons, but it seems like you're saying it's almost prescriptive.

For young audiences, it is a cautionary tale. For older audiences, who are in great, 30-year-long marriages, they love the movie because they've triumphed over similar pit-falls. Many people have asked if, when I was writing or directing or editing the film - if that provided any closure for me. I say, "No." I think what I'm trying to do is celebrate the notion of relationships and marriage. I believe in marriage, but I think you can't enter these things with blinders on. Flannel Pajamas is all about two people who fall in love with each other at two different times and at two different stages in their relationship. What's missing from the relationship from the start is a sense of total empathy. It's easy to love another human being, but to actually inhabit the other person's psyche, mind, feelings, soul, fiber - you need empathy, and that's something that's very rare - that's the essential element that defines a good marriage.

Empathy isn't the only issue to your characters - they also have some issues standing up for themselves. The title, Flannel Pajamas, refers to the annual gift given to Nicole by her father who was "once told that's what girls liked," and though she doesn't wear them, she never corrected him.

That's what it refers to literally.

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