About a dozen years ago, James Morosini, now 32, fell in love online with a delightful phantom woman created by his father. Claudio Lichtenthal, who had divorced Morosini’s mother, and is a ski instructor in Colorado, had his reasons to catfish his son. And his son, who wrote, directed and stars in “I Love My Dad,” had his reasons for forgiving his father, played onscreen by Patton Oswalt.
The film, which won the grand jury and audience awards for narrative feature when it premiered at the South by Southwest festival in Austin last March, is now in theaters and on demand. It will make you cringe but it might also inspire you to give your parents a break. Morosini, Lichtenthal and Oswalt gathered on a video call to discuss the film and its inspiration. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Thanks, gentlemen for Zooming in for this possibly awkward father, son, actor, writer-director group encounter. Right at the top of the film, there’s a title that reads, “The following actually happened. My dad asked me to tell you it didn’t.” True?
CLAUDIO LICHTENTHAL True.
JAMES MOROSINI My dad and I had a conflict, and I decided to cut him off. So I blocked him on social media and put him on my phone’s do not answer option. But I was going through a tough time and he was worried about me. I got home one day and this really pretty girl sent me a friend request on Facebook and she liked all the same things I did and had all these amazing pictures. I started to feel way better about myself, and then I found out it was my dad.
How long did it take to find out?
MOROSINI Longer than I wish it had.
The real question is what were you thinking, Claudio?
LICHTENTHAL I wanted to know what was up with him. I wanted to know if he was safe. I felt very powerless and useless because we weren’t talking. So, I had my brilliant idea. This was when Facebook was in the early days. I guess I almost invented the idea of catfishing because no one was doing any of that back then.
You’re taking credit for inventing catfishing?
MOROSINI But he called it James fishing. So it was not the same thing.
Patton, you’re a producer of the film and starred as the frantic father, Chuck. Did you find it exhausting playing such a lying, emotional manipulator who has to have cybersex with his own son?
PATTON OSWALT I was playing someone keeping a lot of plates spinning for what he thinks are good reasons. I related to those moments when you kind of con yourself into thinking that you’re actually the hero even though your motivations may be more based on self-interest, greed, fear or just not being the bad guy. I remember all those times in my life when I wondered, “Don’t I get credit for wanting to do the good thing?” I think that’s what made the role so universal to me. It wasn’t specifically about parenthood, it was about life. And also, about reading what you want to read into social media conversations.
You have over four million Twitter followers. And you have a teenage daughter. Do you worry about her and the internet?
OSWALT She’s not on it yet. It feels like social media is a new drug that hasn’t had enough lab testing. I think the effects of it are going to ultimately be seen a couple of decades down the road.
LICHTENTHAL I was into the internet early at IBM. Now everyone talks about the negative. But social media doesn’t always equate to bad things.
Well in a weird way it brought a father and son back together in real life and in this movie. And it ultimately forces them to grow. For a twisted comedy, it’s very emotional.
MOROSINI You know, every character in this film is a part of me because I wrote them all. Franklin, the son I play, is my anxiety and depression embodied.
What about creating a version of your father?
MOROSINI My dad was there for me a lot more than Chuck was there for Franklin. But for a movie you need to simplify and exaggerate certain things. The real excitement of writing Chuck was to more fully understand my own dad. And it was very healing overall. And I think we have a much stronger relationship because of it.
Patton, did you learn anything about being a Dad from playing this one?
OSWALT I learned what not to do.
Your dad was military, right?
OSWALT He was a marine, did three tours of Vietnam. But like most war veterans, the last place he wanted me to be was in the military or going to war.
Did you appreciate him?
OSWALT Not until later. All my friends had cool parents who let them smoke weed and throw parties. I found out when I was much older that they were wishing they had boring, stable parents because their parents were all getting divorced and it was chaos at home. I do a bit on my first album about giving your kids the gift of being boring.
I don’t think that was you, Claudio.
MOROSINI My dad is one of the funniest people I know. Patton is another.
But Claudio, what was it like having to face the screwed-up character your son created based on you?
LICHTENTHAL At one of the first screenings, I had to be on a Q. and A. panel. So, I had two tracks going on in my brain as I was watching. One was “How am I going to defend myself?” The other was “This is a great movie and I’m proud of my son.”
MOROSINI Dad, what was it like seeing the home videos you shot of me that I used in the movie?
LICHTENTHAL It made me wish I could go back to the past and see my children when they were little again. Time steals. You see your children as adults but never get to see them as children again. I always tell people who have kids to take advantage of this time because it’s so precious.
That comes through as the father’s idea in the movie, even if it is texted by the fake girlfriend he created. James, what do you want people to take away from your movie?
MOROSINI The thing that’s meant the most is when people come up after screenings and tell me they haven’t talked to their Dad in years and they’re going to give a call. I’d love it if this film made people a little more inclined to forgive one another.
OSWALT And it would be interesting if it made people rethink some encounters they’ve had online. In the middle of all the laughs and cringe, it may repair some things.
LICHTENTHAL Before we go can I take this opportunity to ask Pat if he would like to play James in my movie? I’m calling it “I Love My Son.”
OSWALT I would have to do a keto weight loss thing for like three weeks. But yeah, I would happily do it. And would you be willing to play James in my movie?
LICHTENTHAL Anything for fame, Pat. Anything for fame.
Bob Morris, a frequent contributor to The New York Times, has explored father-son relationships in two memoirs: “Assisted Living: True Tales of Double Dating With My Dad” and “Bobby Wonderful: An Imperfect Son Says Good-Bye.”