A few questions with director Rob Burnett

<i>The Fundamentals of Caring</i> director talks Atlanta, Selena Gomez's fan base, and Paul Rudd's universal appeal

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Rob Burnett’s new film The Fundamentals of Caring, an indie dramedy featuring Paul Rudd and Selena Gomez, opens the 40th Atlanta Film Festival on Fri., April 1. Adapted from a novel by Jonathan Evison, The Fundamentals of Caring tells the story of Trevor (Craig Roberts) who has muscular dystrophy and is confined to a wheelchair. Trevor’s new caregiver is Ben (Paul Rudd), a father who recently lost his child. The two embark on a road trip and along the way pick up Dot (Selena Gomez). A former producer for the "Late Show with David Letterman," Burnett infuses comedy into the heartwarming drama. The movie has already had a promising start: It was picked up by Netflix and had a great run at Sundance, where it played the closing night. The film promises to be a light-hearted yet emotional film. Plus it was filmed in Atlanta and PAUL RUDD. WHO DOESN’T LOVE PAUL RUDD? Here Burnett talks about his movie, filming in Atlanta, and what it means to work with two Hollywood stars with opposite types of fandom.

What from the book spoke to you and how did you decide to adapt it into a comedy?
Rob Burnett: I thought that Jonathan Evison, the author of the book, did such a beautiful job taking very difficult material and treating it in a funny and non-sentimental way. There’s a version of this story that we’ve seen a lot of which is you have kind of an irascible caregiver come in and breathe life into the injured or ill person and bring them back to life. Which can be a beautiful story … but what really got my attention is that the caregiver, Ben, Paul Rudd’s character, is every bit as ill and injured as Trevor, Robert’s character. One paralyzed emotionally, one paralyzed physically. And I thought it was interesting to see these two guys come together and almost accidentally breathe life into each other.

As soon as you decided to do this book you immediately thought of Paul Rudd?
RB: I did. There are a lot of funny actors out there and there are a lot of great dramatic actors. It’s very hard to find somebody that can do both. And Paul’s on a very short list of people that can deliver nuanced performances and also be hilarious. Because among other things, I did want this movie to be really funny, and that was a real challenge.

Is it true that the movie is being picked up by Netflix?
RB: About a week before Sundance, Netflix purchased the subscription video on-demand rights to the movie. They gave us a terrific offer and we were absolutely thrilled. So this moment in time we are discussing different theatrical options. We have a lot of offers on the table that we are sorting through right now.

Well that’s really exciting.
RB: Yeah we’re really excited laughs. It made the Sundance experience fantastic. Because Netflix having made such a generous offer, I think you probably saw it was reported at $7 million, that took off all the pressure. We could just go there and enjoy it and hope audiences enjoy it. Which thankfully they did, which made the week just a delight.

It seems that by having Selena Gomez in your movie, it really upped your Instagram popularity among her fans.
RB: Well it’s hilarious for a man in his early 50s to have an entire Instagram following that are Selena Gomez fans. I would tease them a little bit. One time I posted a picture of my hotel door and said “the sexiest woman in the world is about to walk through this door,” and then the next picture I posted was a picture of my wife walking in and they just went crazy saying, “We want to see Selena! Show us Selena!”

Was there the same effect with Paul Rudd? Are his fans quite as adamant? 
RB: Paul is definitely different. First of all I don’t think Paul participates in social media at all, so that aspect of the Paul Rudd universe is not there. Whenever you say that Paul Rudd is in your movie, all you get is, “Oh I love that guy”. It’s 100 percent There’s no margin of error. One hundred percent of the people that have heard the name Paul Rudd say, “Oh I love that guy” in that exact phrasing. It’s amazing.

I’ve heard you say that it snowed while you were in Atlanta?
RB: It did snow. You know, nobody loves Atlanta crews more than I do. One of the great things about shooting in Atlanta, in addition to the beautiful tax rebate that the state gives you, is that there’s so much work down there that you get really high-quality crews. I am spoiled in this regard working for the David Letterman show in New York for so long, we had the best crew in all of television for years and years. So I went to Atlanta and I didn’t know what to expect, but these guys were right up there. They were amazing. However, having said all of that. I’m a guy from New England, and when you get 1/32nd inch of snow, I’ve never seen a reaction from a city like this. So one day, we had to shut down at noon. Although the one great thing that came out of that was while it was snowing, I literally on the fly told them to run the camera outside, and we have a beautiful establishing shot of Trevor’s house in the snow, which we never could have afforded, so it was the Good Lord’s production value.

We have a lot of stuff that films here now, and one thing I’m curious about, I believe it’s called film fatigue, where the newness of filming wears off and people start to push back because they realize that you're filming on streets and having to shut things down. Did you experience anything like that?
RB: We didn’t because we weren’t on streets that much. One interaction that was very interesting had to do with Selena. We were at a cool diner roadside stop that’s out in the middle of nowhere, not anywhere near Atlanta proper. When we got there, we had a lot of work to do. And at some point, the word gets out that Selena is there. We don’t know how that gets out, it just does. And by the end of the day, I think the entire high school is shut down. Honestly, there must have been 400-500 kids lined up wanting to get a glimpse of her. I worked for the David Letterman show for a long time I’ve seen all levels of fame; all colors shapes and sizes of it. And hers is a molten hot level of fame. It’s liquid, it’s palpable and it’s constant and it’s everywhere she goes. I think for most people it would cause them or enable them to behave badly. She amazingly does not. She’s extremely down to earth. She was super nice to my daughters when they visited the set. She doesn’t travel with giant entourages; she has very reasonable needs, no extravagance about her. She's a big kid, I’m proud to know her.

The Fundamentals of Caring Fri., April 1, 7 p.m. $50, includes admission into the opening night party at Paris on Ponce. Plaza Theatre. 1049 Ponce De Leon Ave N.E. atlantafilmfestival.com.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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