A couple of years ago, screenwriter and actor Todd Berger, whose new film It’s a Disaster opens today, knew he wanted to write a movie about a group of people trapped in a house together during a disaster. “When I write, I like to take archetypes and attribute them to characters so I know where I’m coming from,” says Berger. “I began thinking about how people deal with tragedy and imminent death. That’s when I stumbled onto [the works of] Elizabeth Kübler-Ross.”
Berger was referring to Kübler-Ross’s On Death and Dying, published more than four decades ago, and which names what she called the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Because he had eight characters, Berger researched further. “Many psychologists have added extra stages,” he says, which prompted him to include shock, panic and hope into the mix.
The result became It’s a Disaster, his dark comedy about four young couples – “the seemingly happily married pair, the swinging pair, the eternally engaged pair and the couple just getting to know each other” – whose goal for the day was meeting for a suburban brunch, until a terrorist attack involving a fatal nerve gas screws up the proceedings. He knew he could further differentiate these characters by using the grief archetypes. “I took those feelings, attributed each to a specific character, and worked backwards,” says screenwriter Berger, who also wrote and directed The Scenesters in 2009, and is part of the Los Angeles-based comedy filmmaking collective called The Vacationeers.
He runs through some of his characters’ reactions on hearing the dire news. Hedy, a chemist, represents shock. “She sits comatose and then behaves irrationally,” he says. “She’s the only one who’s smart enough to realize there’s no hope for the group. Buck, though, represents hope and the idea that everything is going to be fine, which is why I made him a free-wheeling, Matthew-McConaughey type of character. Lexi represents denial, thinking the event is simply a prank.” (Berger appears as Hal, the neighbor who’s ultra-prepared and wears a hazmat suit.)
Berger would like nothing better than for people who’ve seen It’s a Disaster to ask themselves how they would have acted under the same circumstances. “Would they take charge or curl up in the fetal position?” he asks.