PARK CITY, Utah — One of the best parts about the Sundance Film Festival is witnessing a film and its filmmakers become sensations right before your eyes. At this year’s festival, no other film has arguably had quite as big of a debut as The Skeleton Twins, a comedy-inflected drama about estranged twin siblings Milo and Maggie (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) who reunite after 10 years when Milo attempts suicide. The film’s Saturday afternoon premiere was such a raucous, exhilarating screening, it was no surprise that by Tuesday, the film had been picked up by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions (for domestic distribution) and Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions (for all other territories) for a reported $3.5 million, with a planned release in the late summer of this year.
At least, it wasn’t a surprise to most festival attendees. When BuzzFeed caught up with screenwriter Mark Heyman and co-writer-director Craig Johnson the day after the film’s premiere, they were still not quite sure they could believe their good fortune.
“It was overwhelming, and I didn’t know if I could trust my judgment,” said Johnson. “It’s my first Sundance, and [Heyman’s] first Sundance, so we don’t have a lot of reference points. So it’s like, gosh, it felt like it was good. I’m a nervous, eehhhh, I can’t let my expectations get too high because then I’ll just be disappointed kind of guy. So I’m very measured in my response… [The film] is this mixture of the comedic and dramatic and happy/sad, and that can be a tightrope. I was worried that they would just like the dramatic parts where nothing was funny, or like where it was funny, but not be into the dramatic parts.”
Johnson and Heyman have been working on The Skeleton Twins for eight years, starting with a stint at a Sundance Screenwriters Lab. “Our dream was this script to somehow lead to Sundance,” said Heyman. “So for it to have finally made that journey to launch in this kind of way, it’s pretty unbelievable. I’m not sure if it’s fully sunk in yet.”
It was the first time either had watched the film with the audience, an experience Heyman said was akin to “watching figuring skating — you’re just worried if the next jump is going to land.” For Johnson, though, it was the film’s first real jump — the first time Milo and Maggie see each other in the film, and have a teasing exchange about the book Marley and Me — that allowed him to exhale. “People were really laughing,” he said. “I had just never heard that kind of reaction. I was like, oh my gosh, they’re getting it. They’re going to get the deadpan humor; they’re going to get how these characters interact. I kind of let myself relax I think after that.”
Then there was what’s become the most talked-about scene in the film, in which Milo attempts to pep up his sister with a crowd-pleasing, showstopping lip sync performance of Starship’s “Nothing’s Going to Stop Us Now” that had the Sundance premiere audience cheering by the end. “We knew that it was this little fun, sparkly moment in the middle of the movie,” said Johnson. “I did not anticipate the uproarious reaction, the applause, how with it the audience seemed to be.”
Indeed, it wasn’t that they didn’t believe in their film — it’s just that they never quite allowed themselves to believe it could play that well. “I tend to be very skeptical that anything good will happen,” said Heyman. “But I knew that we had a very solid film, and I had a feeling that audiences would really respond to it. Truthfully, I think it’s the kind of film where, audience to audience will be a little different.”
The only real downside: that Wiig, home sick with strep throat, could not be there to see it herself. “She was texting me wildly,” said Johnson, “and she was like, ‘I can’t swallow. I can’t get out of bed. What am I going to do?!’ Like, panicked sounding. And I was just like, ‘If you’re sick, you’re sick. Don’t hit the panic alarm. It’s OK if it doesn’t work out. If you can’t talk and get out of bed, you’re not flying to Utah.’”