Doris Miller, the heroine of Hello, My Name is Doris, began her cinematic life in an eight-minute film called Doris and the Intern, written and directed by then film student Laura Terruso. Michael Showalter first viewed the short while teaching film at Terruso’s alma mater, the prestigious New York University Tisch School of the Arts. He was immediately struck by the budding writer and director’s inventive sense of humor and fresh outlook on love.
“It was a very funny, very sweet, offbeat little film about a middle-aged office worker named Doris who marches to the beat of her own drummer,” Showalter remembers. “She develops a crush on a teenage intern and when she realizes that it’s unrequited, she steals his bicycle. Doris was a new kind of comedic protagonist with a lot of potential for development.”
Showalter, one of the creators of Wet Hot American Summer as well as a prolific actor, director and producer, is always on the lookout for new and original comic voices. “The character of Doris and her story were new and different,” he says. “To begin with, there aren’t a lot of movies that have an older actress playing the comedic lead role. She is an eccentric and, in a lot of ways, damaged person, but I also saw a great deal that I identified with and I think a lot of other people will, too.”
Eight minutes had given Terruso barely enough time to introduce Doris to an audience, so when Showalter and Terruso began developing the short into a feature film, they opened up the story, exploring different scenarios as they got better acquainted with Doris and her world. “Laura and I spent a lot of time talking about where we could take this,” the director says. “We expanded and refined the story line, added some other characters and spent a lot of time exploring Doris’ life.”
Eventually the pair developed a backstory for Doris that included a lifetime of taking care of her ailing mother and what Showalter likes to call “a clutter habit.” The Miller family home on Staten Island is a living museum, packed with “treasures” that Doris and her mother have accumulated over the years.
“We avoid saying that Doris is a hoarder because that brings in a whole lot of negative connotations that we don’t think apply to her,” says Showalter. “She certainly has a very strong relationship with her possessions. We came up with what we felt was a very authentic, very idiosyncratic way of being. Her wardrobe in particular has agency in the artisanal culture of New York City and she becomes an accidental hipster.”
Doris is a classic outsider, socially isolated by her temperament as well as her responsibilities for her ailing mother. At her job, longtime co-workers have been replaced by younger, hipper colleagues who view her as a vaguely amusing relic. When her mother dies, she is adrift. For the first time in her life, she is answerable to no one but herself.
“She is somewhat stunted emotionally, which in a lot of ways makes this an archetypal coming-of-age story,” Showalter says. “What happens is that Doris falls in love for the first time and has to learn how to navigate romance. Even though chronologically she is in her 60s, she also has her heart broken for the first time, something that happens to most of most of when we are teenagers.
“In a lot of ways, she’s unscathed by society,” he continues. “There’s a naivetÃ© about her that allows her to do things and say things that are both very funny and surprising, but also speak to her humanity. She still has the idealism of a child. That’s really appealing to me. She’s not jaded in the way that most of us become as we get older.”
With the character firmly in their sights, Terruso and Showalter passed the script back and forth, developing additional scenes, writing and rewriting. “Our earliest drafts of the movie were more darkly comedic,” says Showalter. “When we started working with Daniela Taplin Lundberg and Riva Marker of Red Crown Films, we began to find more of an arc and a catharsis for the character. We also started to focus on the comic aspects of Doris’ obsessive love for John, which helped us to figure out what is really motivating her.”