Here’s how Hollywood works: Writer-director BenDavid Grabinski moved to Los Angeles in 2005 hoping to break into the industry. Six years later, he made a slick short film, Cost of Living, a calling card that immediately landed him gigs writing blockbuster-sized movies. A few scripts got attention — his name is on an Adventure Time movie script somewhere in the Warner Bros. archives — and Paramount even eyed him to direct a “big expensive action movie.” But by 2018, he still hadn’t actually made a movie. Nickelodeon handed Grabinski the keys to its reboot of Are You Afraid of the Dark? but still, it wasn’t a movie.
Adrift, he wrote Happily, a sci-fi thriller rom-com (?) mystery box that defies all conventional wisdom on the kind of movies that Actually Get Made Today.
“This is the only thing I’ve ever written that doesn’t have an explosion in that,” Grabinski admits. But it’s the movie that people with money in their pockets finally let him make.
“I had been trying to write movies where I’m like, ‘Well, what would other people like to greenlight?’ And this is the thing I wrote where everything was purely gut-oriented, from writing to casting to directing to finishing it. And I think [it took off] because it was so specific. It was one of those things where, if you read the first 15 pages, you’re either gonna go, ‘What the fuck is this?’ or in a positive? ‘What the fuck is thiiiis?’”
Happily stars Joel McHale (Community) and Kerry Bishé (Halt and Catch Fire) as a husband and wife who, years into their marriage, still bring the lustful fire in everyday life. They love each other — and their grumbling married friends are all kind of sick of it. What happens next is the genre twist: A mysterious agent arrives at their door to “cure” the couple, someone winds up dead, and a previously planned vacation retreat gets extremely awkward as suspicions rise over what’s really going on.
Grabinski says that while the movie is deeply personal, it also started with a nagging element of so many movies and TV shows he loves.
“The way my dumb brain works is that I combine things in really odd ways,” he says. “The original genesis of this idea was just me really liking the parents on The O.C., Friday Night Lights, or Poltergeist — these really loving, conflict-free couples — and wanting to make a movie about a couple like that.”
And let’s be clear: Grabinski loves him some Sandy Cohen from The OC. “As much as you want to love Ryan Atwood, he packs up to leave to Chino way too many times, and Sandy does not pack up to leave, man. [...] They’re just the shit, you know? But if Stephen Root [who plays Happily’s shady agent Mr. Goodman] showed up at their door and said that there’s something wrong with their marriage, I would have watched that season arc of The OC.”
As Grabinski trudged his way through the day to day of “making it” in Hollywood, his appetite for watching and rewatching classic movies only intensified. You can tell that from Happily, which nods to everyone from Brian De Palma to Dario Argento to John Carpenter. There are also multiple MacGruber Easter eggs. “I couldn’t make it without having some egregious references to MacGruber,” he says. “But [the references are also filtered through a very heightened theatrical, cinematic silly delivery system.”
On top of all the visual references, Happily is also the output of a student of style. Grabinski admits that he meticulously planned his shots in order to give his directorial debut high production value — from vivid wide-shot compositions to moving camerawork and the kind of lighting you don’t typically see in an indie film — and the result is a movie stacked with comedic actors (Paul Scheer, Breckin Meyer, Natalie Zea, Natalie Morales, Jon Daly, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, and Charlyne Yi round out the cast) that’s framed like it’s a paranoia thriller.
Still, he still hopes to make something explode on screen at some point.
“The next thing I wrote is weirder, and has a bunch of action scenes in it. So let’s go.”