The Cosmic Dance

Night Drive writer and co-director Meghan Leon on her love affair with TV and movie characters who have no idea what the fuck they’re doing.

If you hadn’t noticed, there’s a lot of bad shit going down right now. The ocean was literally on fire. The pandemic continues to ebb and flow, as we observe passively. The Olympics are a fiasco that would put the characters in a Christopher Guest movie to shame. Even when things are good, it’s been difficult to muster the enthusiasm to feel any positivity. I have a film, Night Drive, coming out on August 6. I wrote and co-directed the film with my creative partner Brad Baruh. It’s a massive achievement, something I’ve been striving for since I was 10 years old and caught the moviemaking bug. And yet I, like countless other people, have been struggling to celebrate in the midst of so much uncertainty. Putting a movie out into the world is both incredibly personal and impersonal. The film says so much about me, with its tone and voice, but I will not get the opportunity to experience an audience watching it. The past 18 months have left me feeling unmoored.

Meghan Leon with Bradford Baruh (left) and AJ Bowen (right) during the making of Night Drive. (Photo courtesy Meghan Leon.)

Recently, my dog injured her back. She’s 11, but bounces off of beds and sofas like a one-year-old. The diagnosis: a bulging disc. Prescription: some pain pills, plus weeks of restricted activity. Luckily for both of us, my job hit a lull during the first week of her recuperation, and I was able to take time off to keep an eye on her. After a masochistic day or two of reading the news, I finally relented and logged into Netflix. My parents have been extolling the virtues of both The Kominsky Method and Grace and Frankie for years, and every time a new season of either show would drop, I would get a disappointed spiel from them about what I was missing. When I finally watched them, both shows washed over me, bathing me in a warm sense of comfort and relief. It took me a day or so, but I was finally able to pinpoint what was causing that strangely peaceful feeling: it was seeing older people who have no idea what the fuck they’re doing.

Growing up, we’re fed this bullshit line about adults being founts of knowledge. We’re indoctrinated to believe that once we finish school and turn 18, we will be adults and somehow magically equipped to handle everything life throws at us (navigating the DMV, dealing with health insurance, buying a car, etc.) But the older I get, the more I realize that no one knows what they’re doing. We’re all fumbling blindly, making one shaky decision after another, crossing our fingers before we jump. This is why people seem so irate about the CDC changing pandemic recommendations. We want free will, but we also want to be told what to do. There’s something comforting about being guided by self-assured people, but there’s nothing about a mutating virus and changing science that lends itself to any sort of assurance.

Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin in The Kominsky Method.

The truth is that it doesn’t matter if someone is 25, 55 or 95, we’re all just trying to figure shit out. It’s both incredibly frustrating and reassuring.

After two seasons of The Kominsky Method and a season or two of Grace and Frankie, I began to seek out films with similar buoying characters. As a bit of a Turner Classic Movies geek, I began with The Sunshine Boys. Starring Walther Matthau, George Burns and Richard Benjamin (in a role that suits him much more than his character in Westworld) and based on a Neil Simon play, The Sunshine Boys revels in the begrudging reunion between an old vaudeville act, played by Matthau and Burns. Both are well past the end of their careers and are closing in on the end of their lives, but have found themselves in contrary circumstances. The affable Burns lives in the suburbs with his equally lovely adult daughter and her family, while the cantankerous Matthau searches for significance in a world that has long left him behind, shuffling around his cluttered apartment and eating cured meats that his nephew (Benjamin) drops off from time to time. The film is a constant battle, both literal and figurative, between the idea of aging gracefully and holding on to relevancy for dear life. You’re torn between loving Burns’ character and hating that he has so willingly given up his drive. You want Matthau to stick it to his sleazy nephew, but also hope that he stops sabotaging himself by giving everyone so much shit. They’re naturally two sides of the same coin, as many characters in two-handers are, but the film has a greater impact because the characters are in their twilight years. Many people in creative fields tend to reject the idea of retirement, not only because of financial concerns but also the drive to continue creating as long as possible. Artistic output is simultaneously depleting and invigorating. It’s a call that must be answered and an obstacle that must be overcome. With The Sunshine Boys, I found myself relating to the irascibility of Matthau’s tenacious character. I hope that when I’m old (which, for a woman in film, means about 45), I will still be as driven and intractable as he was, even when navigating the brave new world of 1975.

The Sunshine Boys Life Lesson: Roll with the punches, but be ready to punch back.

The next film I queued was The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. I remember seeing this in the theater when I was a child and loving it. Directed by Terry Gilliam and starring John Neville as the titular aristocrat, the film embraces magical reality, myth, science fiction and humor with aplomb. Set in the 18th century, the washed-up Munchausen interrupts a performance of a play based on his life in order to set the record straight and tell the audience what really happened when he battled the Ottoman Empire (which, naturally, is exponentially more fantastical and extraordinary than the play). His corrected version naturally includes a trip into space, a run-in with Roman gods, and unrelenting visits from the Angel of Death. Constantly faced with his own mortality, the Baron is open to inspiration from any number of sources: beautiful women, encouraging children, his own ego and concern for his legacy. He is both resigned to death and then easily rallied to fight on. What drew me to the film as a child is also what I find so consoling about it now: Munchausen sees the potential of the world, the fantastic awe-inspiring randomness of existence, the inexplicable wonder that is all around. This is a viewpoint that we have as children and get it scrubbed out of us as we age. Seeing an older person lament the impersonal rigidity of life is reaffirming. Plus, it’s wonderful to revisit a film from your childhood and react in a completely new way to the same material.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen Life Lesson: You make your own reality.

The third film I watched is one I watch often, and that is Harold and Maude. Hal Ashby’s May-December friendship/romance/uncategorizable opus pairs 79-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon) with 20-year-old Harold (Bud Cort). She’s an impish, life-affirming firecracker and he’s a dour rich kid who puts on performative suicide attempts as a means to rebel against his domineering mother. It’s another two-hander, but one that is much gentler and more probing than almost any other film. In contrast with the older folks in The Sunshine Boys or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Maude completely embraces the fluidity of life. Whereas the Sunshine Boys want to stay relevant, Maude wants to experience life to the fullest. While the Baron celebrates the spectacular, Maude meditates on the small wonders around us. Her lust for life inspires Harold, as well as the viewer, so that at the end when she informs him that she’s taken a lethal dose of sleeping pills on her 80th birthday, we’re as devastated as he is that she’s dying. But we’re also completely convinced that she has lived her life with conviction in the manner she wanted, and she’s leaving the world satisfied. Her character, more than any other, embodies the sort of mindset that I would love to have: to know that you don’t know everything, you can’t know everything, you shouldn’t know everything. The magic of life comes from the not knowing.

Harold and Maude Life Lesson: Don’t cheat yourself out of life.

Our film, Night Drive, comes out on August 6. It tells the story of a man who thinks he has life figured out and slowly realizes that everything he thought he knew about the world, and himself, was wrong. I hope people like it. I hope it makes people laugh. I hope that it inspires people to think about their own paths the way the above movies have for me. Come find certainty in the uncertainty. Everyone is welcome.

Meghan Leon is the writer and co-director of the darkly comic new thriller Night Drive, out in theaters and on VOD on August 6 through Dark Sky Films. Driven by a passion for storytelling from a very young age, Meghan attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts to study Film and Television. After graduation, she parlayed her skills as a writer, editor and producer into crafting a variety of on-set documentaries for Marvel, Disney, Universal and Paramount. She is currently the writer and editor of Disney Gallery: Star Wars -The Mandalorian and Marvel Studios: Assembled, both streaming on Disney Plus.