Interview: Justin O’Neal Miller Chats About His Award-Winning Comedy ‘Peggy’

Justin O’Neal Miller’s short film Peggy finds humour and fun in the interactions between parents at a children’s birthday party.

Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge caught up with Justin to chat about the film, being a parent and his work on Damien Chazelle’s First Man.

Q: Did the idea for this comedy short come from your own experiences as a parent?

A: The core concept behind Peggy absolutely came from being a parent of four, and from my wife and I attending a lot of children’s birthday parties.

In particular, I remember my oldest son opening a bunch of presents that I would never let him have otherwise: rot-your-teeth-out candy, violent video games, and the like. It felt like everyone was trying to sabotage our parenting style, and as I looked around at parents drinking beer, and co-workers without kids there for the networking, I realized that kid’s birthday parties these days are more about the adults than the kids.

Q: You utilise inner speech to hilarious effect and to highlight the covetous subtext of the adult’s interactions. How much fun was it getting into their thoughts in this way?

A: Getting into a character’s head is always a part of the writing process, but it really was a delight on Peggy. We built a lot of history between the characters, so that they each have their own flavors of admiration and envy. The friend who really just wishes she were Peggy, the jealous neighbor, and the tired husband.

It was also fun, and challenging, to design the cinematic mechanisms required to make sure the audience knew who was “thinking”.

Q: Peggy is somewhat of a suburban goddess. Can you talk more about the Peggy character and the touches you added to make her seem so enviable?

A: Oh man! I’ve never heard her described that way, but it is perfect! The Goddess of the Hearth.

We wrestled with the character of Peggy, and striking the right balance between coveting and loathing her. There was a moment where we had a chance to make her a part of the 1%, which we shied away from. It was important to me to make sure that she remain an attainable level of upper-middle class. Someone that you really could see yourself becoming if only you worked hard enough and the world would cut you a single break.

The character was written with actress Sarah Blackman in mind. She is capable of an incredible range, and her subtle, nuanced performance probably does more than my writing or directing to bring the character to life, making her both real and impossible at the same time.

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Q: I love the casting in this short. Can you tell us about working with this team?

A: I couldn’t have dreamt up a better cast for this project. While casting with Jason MacDonald (who plays Peggy’s husband, Brad), we looked for actors that could bring a comedic layer to an otherwise dramatic performance.

I’d say that these characters aren’t aware that they are in a comedy, and even a comedic foil like Smidge is played pretty straight. There was a really thin line we wanted to skate with the performances, and the cast was pitch perfect, provide us a wealth of opportunities that almost made it hard in the edit room.

Q: You’ve worked in the art department on a number of acclaimed films such as First Man, Baby Driver, American Made and Prisoners. What have you taken away from those experiences and added to your game as a director?

A: I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the best working directors in the world, and I always approach my job as an Art Director with the intent of learning from them.

I’ve learned that making movies is really hard, but there is a humane way to persevere in the most difficult of predicaments. That creative camaraderie is a precious resource, and while you can never make it perfect, you try and try until time runs out.

In the heat of the moment, you are never quite the director you want to be, but I try to take away the pieces I admire most, and put them in my pocket for the future.

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Q: Do you have any fun or interesting memories from these project?

A: Among other things, I was something like a Vehicle Art Director on Baby Driver. That portion of it involved managing all the duplicate cars with different capabilities and damage. My friend Jeremiah (Peggy Production Designer, and Uncle Jameson actor) and I spent an afternoon driving cars (quite gently, with seatbelts attached) into each other, to mimic the damage that had been established on camera the previous day. My job is not typically that fun, but it’s something different every day!

One of my favorite on-set memories is of First Man’s Director of Photography, Linus Sandgren, while working on a set I was art directing. It involved pieces of several spacecraft, and was one of the important shots intended to “sell” zero gravity to the audience.

The shot took a very, very long time to work out and the crew became impatient. Linus turned to all of us and said that this was “the good stuff”, the exciting stuff that we get to figure out first. The stuff no one has ever done before. He instantly changed the mood on set. Everyone became re-energized, and motivated to make it work. That’s the kind of leader and problem solver I want to be.

Q: What is next for you?

A: Peggy’s festival success has honestly been beyond my wildest expectations. I really hadn’t thought much about her, beyond the scope of the short, but people kept coming up to say they “want to see more of THAT!”.

Since its premiere in October of last year, I’ve been developing it as a half-hour comedy series, with an intent to preserve the cast. I’m also in late development on an adventure-comedy feature called The Last Blockbuster, with intention to take it into production later this year.

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