James Morosini on the Real Life Catfishing Story That Inspired 'I Love My Dad'

James Morosini on I Love My Dad
“The heart of it was the motor throughout [the film], we needed to really understand why Chuck was catfishing his son, and that he's doing it potentially to try to save his son's life,” James Morosini told Newsweek’s Parting Shot with H. Alan Scott about his new film 'I Love My Dad.' Sela Shiloni

"Cringe comes from pretending to be someone you're not and then it being witnessed. I think it makes us realize, oh, s**t, that's something we all do."

Imagine you get a message from a beautiful stranger on social media, only to find out that that beautiful stranger is actually your father. That actually happened to James Morosini. It's the subject of his new film, I Love My Dad (in theaters on August 5, on demand on August 12).

Morosini wrote, directed and stars in the film as Franklin, a troubled young man who cuts off communication with his father, Chuck (played by Patton Oswalt). This action sets off a comedic, cringey yet somehow heartwarming chain of events, leaving Chuck with no other choice but to create a fake profile just to have some kind of communication with his son.

"The heart of it was the motor throughout [the film], we needed to really understand why Chuck was catfishing his son, and that he's doing it potentially to try to save his son's life," Morosini told Newsweek's Parting Shot.

Listen to the full conversation between Morosini and Newsweek's H. Alan Scott on the latest Parting Shot. Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.

SUBSCRIBE TO THE PARTING SHOT WITH H. ALAN SCOTT
ON APPLE PODCASTS OR SPOTIFY

Are you prepared to have a lot of people share how uncomfortable they were watching the film, because it's gonna happen really soon for you?

I hope they do. Part of me wanted to capture the discomfort and the embarrassment one gets from a parent.

What's even more surprising is that a lot of what we see in the film actually happened to you.

Yeah, for sure. I think cringe comes from pretending to be someone you're not and then it being witnessed. I think it makes us realize, oh, s**t, that's something we all do. It makes us uncomfortable having to reckon with that fact. Conceptual movies about somebody pretending to be someone they're not. So cringey is pretty inherit with that concept. And I wanted to heighten that as much as I possibly could. Because it felt right for the story.

James Morosini on 'I Love My Dad'
Patton Oswalt and James Morosini in I LOVE MY DAD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

I feel like in a lot of situations we're all kind of putting on a front, but it's when we're confronted with it, that's when you become your most honest self in a lot of ways, don't you think?

Yeah, I mean, when you look back at the first your first posts you ever made on Facebook or Instagram, they kill you, because you see so clearly the kind of person that you thought other people would like, and see that you're not doing that good of a job at trying to be that person. It makes you cringe because you're like, what if I'm that transparent, trying now? What if people can see me trying to be cool or likable? You're kind of caught off guard and surprised by your own obviousness. Just go like, I thought I was hiding it better than that. That's how Chuck is doing. He's hiding his true intentions, but we're seeing them so clearly throughout the film.

I hate it when Facebook does that "memories" feature, where they show you an old post.

You just see it and you're like, "Oh, I now hate myself." It's just embarrassing reminders of how we were trying to signal to other people our likeability.

While you were writing the script, how did you find that balance between finding the heart of the character of your dad while at the same time recognizing that his actions are really messed up?

The heart of it was the motor throughout [the film], we needed to really understand why Chuck was catfishing his son, and that he's doing it potentially to try to save his son's life. So I wanted to pose that moral question to the audience: How do we feel about doing something wrong for the right reasons? Is that OK?

It's not something that I'm totally clear on. I was really trying to reckon with that throughout the writing of it. And in order to get on board with the story, we really needed to know that Chuck was doing this because he loves his son, but he's never doing it romantically. Also, I wanted to kind of poke at this notion of romantic love versus familiar love, and how at its root, it's just wanting to feel seen and understood. So even though it's a different form that Franklin thought the love was, he still ultimately experiences the love and connection, regardless, which is confusing and interesting to me.

James Morosini in 'I Love My Dad'
Patton Oswalt and James Morosini in I LOVE MY DAD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Both Chuck's motives and Franklin's motives are oddly similar: they just want to connect with someone. Did that stand out to you?

I'm a believer that our entire experience around intimacy is ultimately connected to the ways we experienced intimacy as kids, and that's kind of our model of what intimacy is. That's usually reflected throughout our lives. I think a lot of us have a feeling that if we were totally ourselves with people in our lives, they wouldn't love us as much.

But when we're online, we have a certain anonymity or flexibility in our identity, we can be whoever we want to be. We're able to almost be more ourselves. So the idea of two people revealing themselves to one another under false pretenses just crushed me and fascinated me at the same time.

Do you think how we connect with people online has changed since social media first started? And what era of social media is the story set in?

That's such a great question. I think he's maybe in a slightly earlier day of Facebook. That said, it was important to me that he had a degree of vigilance and was skeptical of this person communicating with him because any of us would be. Throughout the film he's enjoying the connection but there's also a part of him that knows, maybe this person isn't who they say they are?

So it was important to me that the audience felt like he was really pushing for those answers, otherwise it would just feel like he was too gullible and we wouldn't be on board with his character, we would just think he was being stupid. Now, we're very savvy when it comes to social media, we can very quickly detect when somebody's pretending to be someone they're not. I mean, my mom was recently hacked on Instagram. And when people would message me and say, "Hey, is your mom really into crypto now? She's asking for my backing." I would say, "Dude, come on? No." It's pretty obvious.

James Morosini in 'I Love My Dad'
James Morosini in I LOVE MY DAD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

In the early days of social media, I was very active. I'd connect with strangers, even give out personal information. Did you have that experience? Were you an active social media person? And have you waned since then?

Yeah. The first iteration of the script was called Age, Sex, Location, because of early AOL chat rooms. You'd ask people, "ASL?" When I was like 11 or 12, I had access to the internet. And so you're hopping on chat rooms, asking people ASL, getting into all kinds of mischief. So I definitely feel like our generation is a product of that. Those early mishaps of technology has kind of changed our brains in a way with how we interact with the world.

And because you're at such an impressionable age, when you're 11 or 12, you're really building the model for how you see the world. I was really excited to be talking to all these strangers at that age. So I have a more disconnected relationship to Instagram and social media and stuff, because I think I'm more aware of how addicted I am to that, how I use it for validation. So I try to keep it at arm's length and just use it as functionally as I can, as opposed to entertainment.

What was it like working with the incredible cast? Especially Patton Oswalt?

I mean, Patton, he's very emotionally intelligent. He is able to detect nuance on the page. He plays everything with a lot of heart and brings a lot of heart to everything he does. But he's also hilarious and he's able to bring levity to darkness. So I had him in mind while I was writing it and working with him was one of the best creative experiences of my life. I think it was one of the most vulnerable ones for both of us, where we were both really bringing ourselves in full process.

And the rest of the cast is amazing. I mean, Rachel Dratch and Lil Rel Howery are both hilarious comedic actors, but they also have so much depth. Amy Landecker is just an unbelievable person as well as an actor. She spent time with my mom. She became good friends with my mom. She took the role so seriously. And then Claudia Zulewski just blew me away with her commitment to the role and how authentic and invested she is throughout the process. I couldn't have gotten more lucky with this cast.

Admitting that this story is based on a true story that happened to you is very vulnerable. Are you prepared for the kind of reactions you might get?

To be totally honest, I have no idea, but I do know that that's what excites me about being a storyteller in this way. Having a certain recklessness when it comes to this kind of thing, those are the storytellers that I love. When there's risk, real risk, being taken by the storytellers themselves. Those are the stories that I lean into most.

It's also a way for me to make sure that I'm staying really engaged with the stories, because I've intentionally put so much skin in the game. I am motivated to make it as good as I can and to put every ounce of myself into it.

I think, at our core, we're all a lot more alike than we are different. And when we're forthcoming about what's really inside of us, that's when people are able to see themselves the most, as opposed to pretending to be someone we're not. And that's really, thematically, in line with the movie.

I have to ask, how is your relationship with your dad?

My dad has, luckily, a great sense of humor and he loves the movie. This movie really is a love letter to him. There's always been that mischievous sense of humor between the two of us. So he gets it. And it's given us a chance to celebrate our conflict and celebrate the complexity of our relationship as father and son and overcome those difficulties and connect with each other regardless of how difficult it's been up to this point.

Listen to H. Alan Scott's full conversation with James Morosini on Newsweek's Parting Shot. Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. Twitter: @HAlanScott