Stephen Karam on adapting and directing ‘The Humans’ to capture ‘the soul of the story’

“Some of the earliest origins of the stage play were my love of the horror genre on screen and psychological thrillers,” Stephen Karam shares about the cinematic roots of his Tony Award-winning stage play “The Humans.” Five years after the drama opened on Broadway, Karam has adapted and directed the work into a new A24 film, bringing the DNA of the material full circle. “The way to make it a movie was so clear to me,” he continues, in part because he had “a lot of cinematic thoughts” “even when writing the play.” Watch our exclusive video interview above.

Karam drew on a number of theatrical movie adaptations as sources of inspiration while he developed “The Humans.” Since “The Humans” is Karam’s directorial debut, he looked to Oscar winner Mike Nichols’ first film, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” which he says “feels very open to me” despite its origins as a stage play. He also mentions Louis Malle’s “Vanya on 42nd Street,” which starred Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore, and others as they rehearse an American version of Anton Chekhov’s play “Uncle Vanya.” These are works Karam describes as “very closed down and interior” and yet they “feel open,” a dynamic he hoped to capture in his own stage-to-screen translation of “The Humans.” He also credits Edward Yang’s “Yi Yi,” which won Best Director at Cannes, as an influence on the film’s visual style.

SEE Third time the charm: Richard Jenkins (‘The Humans’) has best Oscar odds in tight supporting actor race

“The Humans” takes full advantage of its claustrophobic bi-level apartment setting, where six members of the Blake family reunite to share a Thanksgiving meal. Karam marries this everyday slice of life with the uncanny, as the dilapidated building seems to unsettle and even terrify the patriarch Erik, played by two-time Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins. He wanted to give the house “a sense of power” with the camera by capturing “wide shots behind architecture” to create distance between the audience and the family. Beyond his work as director, Karam emphasized how when you “strip away all of the technical aspects,” the “soul of the story” is ultimately about “the way this group of six people are processing their existential fears and anxieties and they way that their love for each other, however messy and imperfect, is helping them cope with these fears.”

One of the highlights of “The Humans” is an almost nine minute-long dolly shot around the Blake family table. Karam offers insight into the process of capturing this emotional moment, talking about how it required the actors to be “so present and alive” and the crew to carefully pace themselves. Karam says the shot captures the tricky balance of the film, which is both “boldly cinematic” and “unafraid to hold the camera steady and let life exist.”

SEE ‘The Humans’ reveals first look at family drama and surprise Showtime debut date

The film stars an impressive ensemble led by Jayne Houdyshell, who won a Tony for her performance in “The Humans” on stage, and Jenkins. “Jayne is just the best,” Karam shares, calling her “generous, authentic, and the hardest of workers.” He celebrates that his first film as director is also Houdyshell’s first leading role in a movie. He describes Jenkins as “also cut from that Midwestern, unbelievable cloth” and marvels at how Jenkins and Houdyshell built the feeling of “a family and a 40-year marriage in no time.” “The Humans” also stars Beanie Feldstein, Amy Schumer, June Squibb and Steven Yeun.

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