The story of "Mighty Fine" is fictional, but it draws to a great extent on writer/director Debbie Goodstein's vivid memories of her childhood. "My father had anger issues, ups and downs, and living in his world could be a bit of a rollercoaster ride," says Goodstein. "He loved his family but had self-destructive impulses and a rage that made life with him unpredictable and sometimes very scary." Many of Goodstein's friends also had fathers similar to her own, and she contrived the character of Joe Fine as a composite. Goodstein sees Joe as a creature of his time, someone who couldn't exist today: "Joe Fine is the king of his castle, like so many men of the seventies. But even then, things were changing rapidly, and men like Joe, with all their bravado and patriarchal dominance, were poised for extinction. Today, with so many women in the workplace, that castle has become more of a stronghold of equanimity."
Joe is a charming, larger-than-life character who wants to be Super Dad, and during his good moods, that's exactly what he is. Unfortunately, his low moods take him to very dark and dangerous places. "At the root of Joe's violent temper is fear and a very fragile psyche," says Goodstein. "Like so many men, he feels that his self worth is defined by his wealth. He loves his family, but when faced with failure, his insecurities flare up and make him act out in crazy ways, almost like a child having a tantrum." Goodstein continues: "When Joe is feeling rich there's nothing he won't do for his family, but when he's feeling poor and trapped by the prospect of failure, he becomes a caged animal‹any slight against him is responded to reflexively and aggressively.
Goodstein selected award-winning actor Chazz Palminteri ("A Bronx Tale," "Bullets Over Broadway," "The Usual Suspects") to portray Joe because of his likeability and warmth. "I needed someone who could be aggressive and filled with rage but still remain sympathetic and even loveable." Says Palminteri: "Joe needs therapy, but he's one of these guys who don't believe in therapy. A lot of times with people who have mental problems, as long as they're doing really well, they don't surface. And in this case, when his business starts going down, that's when things start to unravel. That's when he has to confront his own demons."
As the son of an abusive father, Joe definitely doesn't want his kids to have a childhood like his. "I did some investigating for the part and I spoke to people who were hit by their father or mother," says Palminteri, "and the thing that pops up again and again is anger. Joe can be very violent. He's never hit his kids--he does slap Maddie at one point--but he's never really hit the kids or his wife." Says Goodstein: "Joe draws the line at physical abuse, as he encountered it in his own youth. He doesn't seem to realize that emotional abuse can be equally destructive."
Like Goodstein's own mother, Stella is a holocaust survivor. But while Goodstein's mother hid with relatives--her mother's sister's wartime story is told in Goodstein's first feature, "Voices From the Attic"--Stella survived alone. "Stella's story is even more frightening than my mother's," says Goodstein. "She was all by herself when Joe saves her, so she is forever in his debt. She doesn't have a strong enough ego to impose her will upon anyone, especially Joe. She spends her life trying to make him happy, so much that she has lost all sense of herself." Goodstein saw a vulnerability and fragility in Andie MacDowell ("Groundhog Day," "Four Weddings and a Funeral") that she felt was right for Stella. "There's something old world about her, and along with her Southernness, Andie evokes a fish out of water sensibility," says Goodstein. "Stella can never fit in anywhere, even in her own family, because no one will ever be able to relate to her experience." Another reason Goodstein picked MacDowell was because she felt she could relate to Stella's emotional pain and denial in very real terms. "Stella loves Joe and doesn't know how to set any boundaries," says MacDowell. "She's been abused for so long that abuse is normal, and she can't conceive of the idea that she can make it go away." MacDowell continues: "I understand Stella because I lived that life myself. My mother was an alcoholic. My job in my home was to keep the peace."
Although MacDowell worked with two vocal coaches on her Polish accent, she found a lot of her guidance and inspiration from a Polish actress who lives near her North Carolina home. The woman had been in America long enough so that MacDowell could hear how her accent had acclimated itself and changed‹the sounds she still had and the sounds she had lost. MacDowell also discovered that the actress had lived a difficult life that paralleled Stella's in uncanny ways. "She shared a lot about her life with me," says MacDowell, "and I thought, 'Oh God, this is what I need!' It wasn't just her accent that I stole, but I stole part of her personality. There was something really feminine about the way she talked and the way she moved that I fell in love with and thought would be perfect for the character. I kind of snipped this woman's essence for Stella."
Most of the conflict that takes place in the film is between Joe and his 16-year-old daughter Maddie, (played by Rainey Qualley). Maddie is at the point in her life where she is starting to think for herself, seek friendships outside the family, and recognize her father's dysfunctional behavior for what it is. "Maddie's the only one of the three female characters who's brave enough to stand up to her father," says Qualley. "She feels a lot of responsibility to take care of her sister and her mother, so when she acts out or does something that affects her father, it might seem like she's the one who's causing the problem--but the truth is she's just a nice person who wants what's best for her family." Says Palminteri: "Joe can't control Maddie, and that's why he has most of his fights with her. When he comes home, he wants peace. If he says, 'you can't do this or you can't do that,' that's the way it's got to be. But Maddie defies him."
Qualley, who makes her film debut in "Mighty Fine," plays opposite her real-life mother, Andie MacDowell. "I cast Rainey because she has a transcendent beauty and a sweetness about her that softens Maddie's edginess and makes her antagonism less off-putting," says Goodstein. "Because she is Andie's daughter, the dynamic was already in place for her to be allied with her mother and the love was palpable."
As it was her daughter's first film role, and she wanted her to do her best, MacDowell encouraged Palminteri to go all out in his scenes with her. "Chazz kept pushing her, he scared the hell out of her, and she was breaking down," says MacDowell, "and it was torture for me to watch it. In a sense, I was really living the scene in the same way that Stella was." Says Qualley: "Chazz was very hands on in helping the scenes get to the right state. There are times in the movie where there was some slapping going on‹and it was real. But I think it was harder for my mom to witness it than it was for me to go through it."
Natalie, the younger Fine sister, is played by Jodelle Ferland ("Eclipse," "Tideland"), who, at age 16, is already a veteran actress with fifty TV and film credits to her name. "Natalie acts as a quiet witness to the struggles within the Fine household," says Goodstein. "I chose Jodelle to play Natalie because she has a quiet, pensive intellect, which made her appear vulnerable and soft-spoken, even shy, on the outside, but deep down she has an undeniable strength." Says Ferland: "Natalie always stays optimistic and tries to see the good side of people even when they're not at their best. When everybody else is having a really hard time, she is as well, but she's able to express herself through her writing. There are only so many ways you can vent your anger at what you're going through--and I think writing is one of more healthy ways to do that."
Palminteri has high praise for Goodstein's openness and willingness to collaborate. "Debbie listens to everybody's opinions, filters them through her eyes, and then makes the final decision," says Palminteri. "She knows that it takes just as much talent to recognize a great idea as it is to come up with it yourself." As the story was so personal for Goodstein, MacDowell felt she offered especially insightful support: "We all learned from her because she had lived through it. She also gave us a lot through the honesty she showed in being able to share her life, which was really dark and difficult."
Goodstein selected New Orleans for the film's location because she felt it was a place that a Jewish family from Brooklyn might find isolating. "New Orleans can be a haunting place," says Goodstein, "and the anti-Semitism in the South during the seventies reminds us of Stella's persecution in Europe and highlights the fact that intolerance, insolence and anger exist everywhere."
Shooting began in June 2010 with a very short shooting schedule of twenty days. The production faced its biggest challenge when black mold was discovered in the house that was being used as the Fine home. The filmmakers had to shut down production for several days while the set was being made safe. Time was also lost due to frequent storms--the film was shot during hurricane season--and they frequently had to rethink and rewrite the locations of scenes: shooting interiors when weather made exteriors impossible and exteriors when the mold in the house set made filming inside impossible. Due to these problems, Goodstein had to make the film in only seventeen days. "We were forever in crisis management mode, which tested our flexibility along with our patience and sanity," she says.
The story of "Mighty Fine" is told from the vantage point of a grown up Natalie, looking back on her childhood. "I decided that having the older Natalie tell the story would anchor it in the present, and give the sense that Natalie came through her ordeal in good shape, and possibly add some gravitas to the story through the words of someone older and wiser," says Goodstein. "We were also hoping to give the film a nostalgic point of view that others could relate to when thinking back to their own childhoods." Ferland feels that it is the Natalie's more forgiving personality makes her particularly well-suited to be the narrator. "If it was Maddie telling the story it might have been about a father who was completely unfair and never did anything right, but Natalie loves her father no matter what he does," says Ferland. "Even though it's really hard for her to love him, she still does. So I think it's a lot more innocent through Natalie's point of view than if it was somebody else's." Goodstein chose actress/activist Janeane Garofolo to voice the present day Natalie. "Janeane has the intellect, strength, and wit of the person we saw Natalie becoming once she made peace with her past. She is a superb actress and her voice isn't immediately recognizable which made her an ideal choice as well."
Although the story it tells of a dysfunctional American family is a dark one, "Mighty Fine" is ultimately an optimistic film. "Even though the family is going through so much, and a lot of people would just give up at some point, the family is able to deal with it somehow," says Ferland. "and although it's really difficult for them, in the end they actually become closer because of it." Says Palminteri: "I think that there's always hope, no matter how bad the situation, if people really love each other, and people are willing to seek help to fix the problem. Those two factors have got to be there. If you're not going to seek help to fix the problem then it's just going to go right back to the way it was. But by the end of the film, you realize that there is a chance that maybe they can make this last."