Christy Hall Shares How Dakota Johnson Helped Snag Sean Penn for Her Filmmaking Debut ‘Daddio’

Christy Hall was a playwright living in New York City — which means she had several side jobs, including walking dogs and bartending. “There’s a great quote saying, ‘you can make a killing in theater, but you can’t make a living,’” she notes. She had always dreamed of working in film and television, but it never felt completely realistic to her.

Today, Hall is the writer-director of “Daddio,” an acclaimed two-hander starring Sean Penn as a taxi driver named Clark and Dakota Johnson as his passenger, known only as Girlie. The film is both a love letter to New York and a reminder of the importance of human connection set almost entirely inside a cab ride from JFK Airport to Manhattan. The two strangers reveal secrets, offer encouragement and display both humor and vulnerability over the course of the film, which was shot in just 16 days.

After a festival run, “Daddio” hits theaters June 28. Hall spoke to Variety about her circuitous journey to the big screen, full of as many twists and turns as the cab ride into the city.

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Daddio was originally written as a screenplay — then a play — that “changed my life.”
When Hall first had the idea for “Daddio,” she saw it as a film. “You want to be able to see her on the phone and feel the claustrophobia of the cab and feel this very distinctive drive,” she reasons. “But as a playwright living in New York, I thought, I don’t know how to make movies. So, I formatted it as a stage play with the thought that one day I could make it into a movie.”

Only problem was, nobody wanted to produce it. Tired of working day jobs and worrying about health insurance, Hall began to consider shifting away from writing. In a last-ditch effort, she submitted the play to Julliard for their playwright’s diploma, thinking it would give her more cred. “Like maybe if I had a more sexy resume, people would talk to me,” she says with a laugh.

In April 2017, she met with Julliard’s literary manager, Adam Szymkowicz. “He said, ‘Chris, do you know why people come here to Julliard to get a playwright’s diploma?’” She recalls, “I asked why, and he said, ‘To learn how to do what you’re already doing. How to build a play, how to work with actors. The problem, is no one knows you exist.’”

Saying he didn’t want to waste her time in academia, Szymkowicz sent the play to agents and managers, leading Hall to sign with her manager, Harry Lengsfield of Grandview. One of the first things he said was that he saw the play as a movie. After giving him the screenplay, Hall found her script the buzz of the town, landing on The Black List, a catalogue of best unproduced features, pilots and plays for industry professionals to consider.

Dakota Johnson came on board as star, producer and unofficial casting director in getting Sean Penn on board.
The script found its way to Johnson’s TeaTime Pictures, and Hall credits her with truly championing the piece. “She was also the one who said, ‘What do you think about Sean Penn? We’ve been wanting to work together,’” Hall says. Obviously, she gave her permission, and Johnson dropped the script off with Penn. “Within 48 hours, Dakota told me Sean wanted to talk to me,” she recalls. “We got on a Zoom, and it was remarkable. He’s a theater kid, he’s been on Broadway and he worked with Sam Shepard. He said, ‘Reading your script made me want to be on stage again. So, if you’ll have me, I would love to do it.’”

Hall has endless praise for her cast, who jumped into the no-frills shoot with enthusiasm. The actors share an easy rapport that has led some to assume the script was at least partially improvised — but that’s not the case. “They are word-perfect,” Hall reveals. “I understand why people ask — they’re so organic and natural and it feels so raw and real. But that’s the magic trick they pull off.”

Hall rehearsed for two days with her cast, not wanting to overdo it since the characters are supposed to be strangers and she wanted to keep natural reactions. The first day was table work, and the second day they did some rough blocking. Since the characters don’t face each other and only make eye contact in the rearview mirror, Penn opted to mimic the effect by strapping a hand mirror to a broom and duct taping it to a chair. “We just kind of marched through it with them sitting that way in Sean Penn’s living room,” Hall says. “I was like, ‘I can die right now and be perfectly happy.’”

Despite the one location, the shoot was “complex in its simplicity.”
Though most of the film takes place entirely inside the cab, it doesn’t mean it was easy. She couldn’t film the actual drive practically for continuity reasons and was averse to using a green screen, which never looks quite right.

Instead, Hall and DP Phedon Papamichael chose to shoot on a set where the cab was surrounded by LED panels. Her crew used nine cameras to film the actual route Clark takes through New York City, then used that footage on the LED screens. “It created an immersive experience for the actors,” says Hall. “So, when Dakota looks out the window, she sees actual cars passing by. It was very realistic. At one point, Sean even said, ‘I’m afraid I’m going to hit somebody.’”

The set was so tight, however, that Hall had to primarily communicate with them by way of microphone. “Every time I wanted to talk to them up close, I had to literally crawl under this technology and delve through panels to reach them,” she says with a laugh. “But it was absolutely worth it.”

Stephen King offers great advice.
When asked about writer’s block, Hall defers to a quote from “On Writing,” a memoir by Stephen King. “He says, ‘Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work,’” says Hall. “I don’t have the luxury to have writer’s block anymore because this is now my job. And I’m so grateful for that.”

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