My husband and I have a tradition of bringing in the New Year with an argument. Stay in or go out? In 2015 we broke the tradition. We were in complete agreement about staying in, inviting friends over and watching Second City alum Cathryn Michon’s Muffin Top. The film is a unique rom-com. Its theme, “love yourself now, not five pounds from now” makes it uplifting in a real-life way. It’s one of my favorite comedies of all time. By New Year’s I’d seen the movie four times.
On New Year’s Eve, Muffin Top was as fresh and funny the fifth time as the first time I’d seen it. Our guests, a crowd of men and women, all loved it. At times I couldn’t hear the movie because so many people were laughing and cheering so loudly.
Several months later, I’m realizing it’s been too long. I need a Muffin Top fix. So it’s a good time to watch the movie again and to move my interview with Cathryn from The Patch to here and to let you know that Muffin Top is now available on Starz until June 30.
Visit http://www.muffintopmovie.com for additional viewing options, including Amazon instant video and iTunes.
FILMMAKER CATHRYN MICHON GOES UN-HOLLYWOOD, TELLS WOMEN, “CELEBRATE YOUR TRUE BEAUTY” (Originally published December 15, 2014)
It’s a tradition for Second City alums to revolutionize entertainment and that’s exactly what comedian, writer, actor and filmmaker Cathryn Michon is doing. Michon’s groundbreaking,myth-busting romantic-comedy Muffin Top: A Love Story has a drastically nontraditional message for women: “Love yourself now … not 5 lbs. from now.” Michon will appear at the film’s Chicago premiere on Thursday, December 18 and will lead a discussion after the screening. Muffin Top is also available on demand along with an abundance of free extras. More about that in a moment.
Michon, who had Graves’ disease as a child, has long advocated for realistic standards of beauty. Originally trained as a singer,the Minnesota native found her true calling at Chicago’s Second City and went on to become an award-winning improviser, stand-up comedian, author, television writer and television host. She has written for shows as diverse as China Beach, Designing Women and South Park. She now adds movie director and social media entrepreneur to an already impressive list of credits.
Michon adopted Muffin Top from her 2004 novel, The Grrl Genius Guide to Sex (with Other People) and co-wrote the screenplay with her husband, author W. Bruce Cameron (8 Simple Rules for Dating My Daughter, A Dog’s Purpose, The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man).
Muffin Top is the story of Suzanne Nicholson (Michon). To the outside world, she is a successful women’s studies professor. On the inside, her self-esteem is in a death spiral, sent into a free-fall by lethally unrealistic media-endorsed body images and dealt a final blow by her husband’s affair with a perky, younger, skinnier co-worker. Eventually, after several hilarious self-improvement disasters, Suzanne’s authentic, most beautiful self emerges. And when it does, it is an explicit and very funny rejection of everything Hollywood wants women to believe.
The writing and the cast represent comedy at its finest. The greatness includes Michon, Maria Bamford, Marcia Wallace (in her last film), Marissa Jaret Winokur, Retta, Melissa Peterman, Dot-Marie Jones, Gary Anthony Williams, Diedrich Bader, David Arquette, Markie Post and many other talented cast members. No one has been photoshopped, rotoscoped or cinematically altered. Michon’s actual muffin top makes several appearances and audiences will agree: this muffin top is refreshingly normal, an essential component of the film’s honesty and – sisters, take heed — in no way diminishes the star’s beauty.
In addition to the very real storyline, Michon is also breaking ground with the movie’s promotion. Although investors financed the film, Michon’s “movie-ment” was funded on Kickstarter by fans and fans-to-be who were enchanted by the finished trailer. The campaign quickly raised 122% of its goal and went viral. Michon also set up a Muffin Top page on Facebook where she personally responds to fans’ posts and has built true friendships and community.
The movie-ment includes an official movie tour to major cities with an option for fans in other locales to host Muffin Top in their hometown (via http://www.tugg.com/titles/muffin-top ). In addition to Michon’s appearance and discussion on Thursday, moviegoers will be invited to walk the Red Carpet for a “Step and Repeat” photo shoot before and after the show. Tickets for these screenings tend to sell out fast. For the moment, seats are still available for Thursday night. (See details at end of article.)
Want to download or stream the movie right now? Michon has created a free “Girls’ Night In” kit for those who would like to host a Muffin Top event at home. You’ll find the kit on the web site (www.muffintopmovie.com). It includes a free cookbook with recipes by Michon and the fast-growing Muffin Top community. The movie is available on demand on a multitude of platforms including Amazon and iTunes. See the movie web site for a full listing.
Audience enthusiasm continues to propel Muffin Top like a rocket. As of this writing, the movie has a 95% favorable rating on the review site http://www.rottentomatoes.com, besting several Oscar contenders including Birdman and The Theory of Everything. Comedy guru Judy Carter said that Muffin Top is “better than Bridesmaids.”
Michon kindly spoke with me by phone about comedy, the making of Muffin Top and Hollywood’s impact on women’s body images. Please read on for an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: How did you get into comedy?
A: I was trained as a singer. When I got into Northwestern, it was to both the opera school and the theater school. There was a very famous opera teacher there, Mr. Gay. One time, we were doing Mozart and he said, “You’re so funny. You should be in comedy.” You know, because Mozart is mostly funny.
So I started taking workshops at Second City in Chicago. I was part of their training program and eventually, while I was still in school, I was in their touring company and I started my own theater in Chicago where we did sketch and improv.
I’m not supposed to pick favorites because we’re going all over the country with the movie and I’m excited to see how the movie does everywhere. But Chicago is going to be a fun one for me. It feels like my comedy home.
Q: It really is a great place despite the weather, which says a lot.
A: It’s interesting because there are so many people in Muffin Top who are Chicago or Minneapolis natives. Part of that comes from relationships, but I also think extreme temperature might make people funnier. You know, there aren’t a ton of comedians from Hawaii. What do you have to make fun of in Hawaii? Why would you be sarcastic in Hawaii? You’d be a jerk to be sarcastic in Hawaii.
Q: Was Second City an egalitarian place? What was your experience like?
A: It was fantastic. Joyce (Sloane) was the queen of Second City. Bernie (Sahlins) ran the theater, but Joyce was like the mom. She was a really strong female figure who was powerful and in charge, but also super maternal. When I went to the memorial for her here in Los Angeles, it was completely packed. Everybody who spoke had the same story. The story was, “She loved me best.” “Wait, no, that’s my speech!” We all felt she loved us best. That’s the kind of person she was. So for me, now in a ridiculously male-dominated profession, to have had a real role model who’s the boss who could also be feminine and nurturing and care about your future … that was amazing for me. I loved her so much. And she did love me best.
I can’t say enough good things about her and that time and those people. I never felt at Second City that a woman was second class. And that goes back to its roots. No one ever said Mike Nichols is just carrying Elaine May. Elaine May was a genius. Second City might be the least sexist place that I was ever involved in in show business. They were strong women.
Also, it’s a real equalizer when everyone shows up to a theater and no one has any idea what they’re going to be doing. It puts everyone on an equal playing level because it’s so scary, so risky and by the way, you get to cast yourself. With the rules of improv, you can say, “Hi! I’m President of the United States.” And then under the rules of improv, [everybody responds], “Yes, and …”
A: I’ve worked for amazing people. John Wells (China Beach, The West Wing,Shameless) gave me my first job in network television. He is enormously egalitarian. He has been president of the Writers Guild twice and does a lot [to combat] sexism and racism. Linda Bloodworth-Thomason was the first person to hire me in comedy. She’s a pioneer. Pam Norris who hired me for Designing Women was the first female head writer on Saturday Night Live. She’s a comic genius. She mentors me to this day. I’ve had amazing experiences [although] this business can be really sexist.
I draw attention to [sexism] because I want people to be aware of it. I want female movie audiences to become conscious consumers and not to accept the idea that only 15% of Hollywood films have women in significant speaking roles. You vote with your dollars.
My personal philosophy is I don’t like to be against things. I like to be for things. I directed a small independent movie that you can watch on video on demand and when you watch my movie you’re voting for a movie like my movie. You’re saying, yes, I want to hear the story of a woman who is obsessed with her body image and does a lot of crazy, hilarious stuff and eventually gets to a place where she becomes a more authentic version of herself. It’s a story worth telling that feels familiar to me, that feels like things I struggle with in my own life and I’d like to laugh at it, too.
Q: What was the evolution of your philosophy that our looks don’t define us and that we are not our fat? How did you first begin thinking that it doesn’t have to be this way?
A: Being in Hollywood is a good focal point for that. We create these images and put these images out to the world and I see how they’re created. As an actress, I know what the difference is between me in the morning with freaky hair and me after hair and make-up in beautiful light. It’s like a different creature.
Any actress knows that even the most ordinary image in a feature film or television show or a talk show is not how you really look. You think of the person who is looking at [that image] and feeling bad about herself. I was on the cover of my first book, The Grrl Genius Guide to Life. I had a whole section in the back about what had been done to me to create that image. I’m not going to put out this book and just have people go, “Look at her, she’s cute!” It’s a cute picture. But it’s a cute picture that cost $5,000.
Q: Are photoshopping and rotoscoping (a word I learned on the Muffin Top Facebook page) going to force everyone and everything to appear perfect? Or do you think movies like Muffin Top will persuade the industry to be more honest because I think that’s what audiences want.
A: Well, you’ve just stated my dream scenario which would be for people to be conscious viewers. At least know that when you’re looking at an image in a two-hundred-million-dollar tent-pole movie that it’s like a cartoon. And I like cartoons. I mean, I love Jessica Rabbit. But Jessica Rabbit does not make me feelinsecure. Because she’s a cartoon. I want people to get to that place. I joke about how my hair has been lovingly restored to my natural hair color … from when I was two. I want people to be conscious about it. I don’t want people to feel bad about themselves because of it.
Q: Can we change the industry or is it only possible to change ourselves?
A: I’m always about the inside job because I have control over my own perception. And I hope I can create a piece of art that inspires you to think, “You know what? I felt really bad about that magazine cover while I was checking out, but I forgot that that’s Jessica Rabbit.”
In a larger sense, I would like to change my industry. But it starts with conscious consuming. Hollywood doesn’t value the notion of hand-selling a movie. They don’t really like Twitter. They don’t really like Facebook. They don’t like Instagram. They don’t like things where people say, “Oh my god, I saw this really funny thing!”, or “Don’t waste your money! It’s horrible!”
They don’t like that.I love it. It goes back to standing on stage at Second City and not having any idea what the show is going to be about and saying to the audience, “We need a suggestion and a location.” I value the audience and the interaction with the audience and it being genuine and two-way.
It’s why I created the Muffin Top page on Facebook. I wanted there to be a place where people could gather and strategize and then become ambassadors for the film and its message.
Q: It’s also wonderful how you’re accessible as the director and star and writer. That’s a rare thing.
A: Again, it goes back to my roots. I like having conversations with the audience. I think, actually, that’s the rise of Twitter. Twitter is the first thing that’s allowed a lot of really famous people to do that in a safe way. They get to a place where they’re protected and have all these layers. No one can get to them and they don’t really hear what their audience is saying. They’re not connected anymore. Then all of a sudden, Twitter came along and they could be connected. So artists love it. But record companies and movie studios and TV studios don’t like it so much because they don’t really want their artists to have direct communication with their fans.
Q: Because they lose control of the message?
A: Of the message and of the imaging. But I think social media is the best thing that’s happened to artists in my lifetime.
Q: It’s great for the audience, too. It’s so much fun to have a connection. It dissolves that feeling of “us” and “them.”
A: And it’s actually accurate. There is no “us” and “them.” Anybody who writes a book or makes a movie or makes a record, all they ever wanted to do was connect with the audience. That’s why they do it.
If the goal is just to try to make a lot of money, god,there are so many other things you could do. Nobody gets into it for that. Everybody is in it because they really wanted to say something and to connect.
Q: With the message of Muffin Top, what do you think is the first step we can each take today to begin dismantling our own sense of shame and self-consciousness?
A: Think about the people who love you. See yourself in their eyes. See yourself in your best friend’s eyes. Or your husband’s eyes. Or your brother’s or sister’s eyes. Whoever it is who really gets you. Because that’s your true beauty. That’s who you really are.
I had a conversation about this with Dot-Marie Jones who plays the transgender person Christina [in Muffin Top]. Dot is 6’ 4”, an athlete, the world arm-wrestling champion of men and women. She plays Coach Beiste on Glee, so she has become an advocate for anti-bullying.
She said that what she loves about the movie is that the biggest bully in your life is usually you. You say things to yourself that no one would. “Oh, my god, you look shitty.” “You look awful in that.” “You’re so disgusting. ” Would you not cut someone from your life in an instant who ever spoke to you that way?
Ninety-six out of one hundred women say they think at least one bad thought about themselves every day. When Marissa and I heard that statistic we said, “One bad thought about your body every day? We’d love to get it down to one.” And those other four girls are lying.
This is specifically female. I know there are men who have body issues. But they do not do this to themselves the way we do. This is an extra burden that we have taken on. It takes up extra space in your brain every day of your life. You could be using your brain power to think of something else, solving something else, inventing something else, doing something else.
Q: Why is comedy the best way to make these points?
A: Comedy opens you up emotionally. You feel comfortable and happy and you’re able to hear the truth of what the movie is trying to tell you in a deeper way. A movie that changed me was Dr. Strangelove although my parents took me to it way too young. But it demonstrated how with comedy you can talk about a serious issue and have much more impact. There have been many [other] movies about how things go wrong and the world blows up and no one remembers them.
Also, comedy is how I cope with the world. It’s my chosen defense. I’ve spoken at a number of funerals,including my own father’s, and I’ve never not gotten a laugh. That’s how I approach the saddest of things.
Q: What was it like writing the screenplay with your husband?
A: We went to couples therapy which I recommend to any married couple working in any business together. We created a rule system for how we would arbitrate disagreements. That meant creating a system of who got the last word on various topics.
A: Well, he was the only dog available … to me. But I had to train him. It took me two months. A dog does not want to be in a Baby Bjorn. When we started out, I would lie on the bed, put him in the Baby Bjorn and feed him chicken. So as far as he’s concerned, that thing is the fastest path to chicken that he’s ever seen. He loves it now. He sees it and he starts wagging and jumping and going nuts.
Q: Chicken is the currency of dogs.
A: Well, actors get paid. For the human cast, most of them are people I have known for a long time and I specifically wrote the roles for them. The exception to that would be Dot-Marie Jones who I met through a very dear friend. It was a gift that she was available and is so perfect in the role.
And Marissa Jaret Winokur who actually came from a casting director and was the one part for which I just couldn’t find the right person. There was nobody else who had the quirkiness that I wanted in that part. She’s become one of my best friends.
Q: Was any part of Muffin Top improvised?
A: There are definitely moments. The whole thing is scripted but in directing it I structured it so that there were places where we could jump off the script and just play. Like the sequence where my lips explode and [Melissa Peterman] is trying to fix it with accessories. I had three written jokes and then I had a table of props and I said, “Just start picking them up and say whatever you want and I’ll say whatever I want.”
Q: I also wanted to ask you about the sound track. I understand it is the first all-female soundtrack in a romantic comedy. It’s wonderful from the first moment of the movie.
A: I’m so glad. I’m so proud of it. Michele Featherstone is our composer and has four original songs in the film and then there are all these other great artists who came to us. We had a woman music supervisor whom I loved who got us our composer. I met with a bunch of music supervisors and said, “I want a woman composer.” And a number of them said, “There are no woman composers.” And I’m like, “Yes there are. There have been women composers since Mozart’s sister who was a composer.”
Erin (Dillon), who was our music supervisor, never said that. The idea of choosing only women singer/songwriters for the soundtrack also appealed to her. Her company did the music for Crash. They do all of the Tyler Perry movies. They’re a big company. She loved the movie and was willing to accept our ridiculous budget and found all these wonderful artists. We’re in the process right now of making the soundtrack available on iTunes.
Q: What is your favorite memory of the Muffin Top experience so far?
A: Marissa’s first day on the set. Our location budget was zero. We did end up having to pay for a couple of locations, but the goal was to get places for free. I’m lucky that I am friends with the couple that owns Mel’s Diner. And not only do they own Mel’s Diner, but they have a beautiful beach-front home in Malibu where they let us shoot. Location fees are thousands and thousands of dollars, so it was out of their kindness. The house that Melissa Peterman’s character lives in – it has been in a lot of movies. Big fancy house. All of these people let us use their houses. Contractually, we had to pay them so they each got a dollar a day for their homes.
So I was on the set and I’d just met Marissa and she was watching as one of our locations fell through, which happened almost every day. She was watching us stress and she said, “Oh my god, you should have asked me! You could totally shoot at my house!” I said, “You just met me today! I am going to give you the opportunity to take back what you have just said. I’m an independent filmmaker. I will take your child. I will take your car. I will take your house. I will take whatever you will let me shoot. So you need to think about what you just said and take it back.” She said, “I’m serious! You can shoot at my house. It will be fun. My husband will love it.”
Three days later, I wrote her an email and I said, “Have you ever dreamed of being a stay-at-home actress? For the princely sum of one dollar, I can load six grip trucks in your driveway on Thursday.” And she said,“But I’m not working on Thursday.” I said, “I’m writing you into the show on Thursday. I will shoot at your house and you’ll get an extra scene in the movie. What do you say?” And she said, “Oh my god, that’s awesome.” And we did. We shot at her house and actually it’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie (the scene where Retta tells me that I’m going to lose my job.) It’s just emblematic of the whole spirit of the thing.
A: I’m so glad. That’s really what was happening. We were becoming friends on that day. And you know, she’s a very, very successful actress. She didn’t need to be in my little no-pay movie or have a bunch of guys walking around her house hanging lights.
Q: What else would you like moviegoers to know?
A: I really am hoping that people will go to muffintopmovie.com and download the “Girls Night In” kit and make those drinks and have a party with their friends and upload their pictures to Facebook so we can share that. It really is a fun movie to download or stream with a group of your friends and then to laugh and talk about the stuff that we’re all so ridiculously insecure about. That’s my dream and my vision.
The free cookbook on the home page at muffintopmovie.com is really good. It’s totally been created, including the photographs and images, by real people. I didn’t do it. I have one recipe. It’s actually a recipe that was in the book that the movie is adapted from. It’s my chocolate chili recipe. It’s very good. And that’s all I did.
What other movie has fans that got together and made a recipe book? Wow. It’s amazing. The kit and cookbook are absolutely free and if you buy the movie on iTunes and you invite your friends over, see the movie, have chocolate chili and a muffintini, it makes for a great evening.
The Chicago premiere of Muffin Top: A Love Story is on December 18th, Kerasotes Showplace ICON at Roosevelt Collection, 7:30 P.M., 1011 South Delano Court East, Chicago IL 60605. Purchase tickets at https://www.tugg.com/events/12095
Muffin Top: A Love Story is also available on demand for download or streaming. For purchase or rental, visit Amazon.com, iTunes or www.muffintopmovie.com for multiple other platforms.