About 12 years ago, James Morosini, now 32, fell in love online with an attractive fantasy woman his father created. Claudio Lichtenthal, a ski instructor in Colorado and divorced from Morosini’s mother, had reasons to catfish his son. And his son, who wrote, directed, and starred in “I Love My Dad,” had reason to forgive his father, played by Patton Oswalt.
It won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award when it premiered at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin last March and is now showing on demand. Morosini, Lichtenthal and Oswalt met over a video call to discuss the film and its inspiration. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Thanks for zooming in on this possibly awkward meeting of a group of fathers, sons, actors, writers and directors. At the top of the film, it says, “The following actually happened. My father asked me to tell him otherwise. Truth?
Claudio Lichtenthal truth.
James Morosini My father and I had a conflict and I decided to cut him off. So I blocked him on social media and put him in the do not answer option on my phone. But I was going through a rough time and he was worried about me. I came home one day and this really cute girl sent me her friend request on her Facebook. I started feeling a lot better about myself and found out it was my dad.
How long did it take you to find it?
Morosini longer than i wanted.
The real question is what were you thinking, Claudio?
lichtenthal I wanted to know what happened to him. I wanted to know if he was safe. Since we weren’t talking, I felt very helpless and useless. This was the early days of Facebook. I think I almost invented the idea of catfish fishing because no one was doing catfish fishing at the time.
Do you take credit for inventing catfish fishing?
Morosini But he called it James Fishing. So it wasn’t the same.
Patton, you played Chuck, the film’s producer, the maniacal father. Did you find it hard to play a liar and emotional manipulator who had to have cybersex with his own son?
Patton Oswalt I was playing someone who keeps spinning a bunch of plates for what he thinks is a good reason. I relate to those moments when I deceive myself into actually being a hero, even when my motivation is based on self-interest, greed, fear, or simply not being the bad guy. I remember wondering, “Why do I want to do good things and not get credit for my work?” I think that’s why this role has become so universal for me. It wasn’t specifically about parenthood, it was about life. Also about reading what you want to read in social media conversations.
Your Twitter followers are over 4 million. And you have a teenage daughter. Is she worried about her and the internet?
Oswalt She hasn’t ridden it yet. Social media feels like a new drug that hasn’t been thoroughly tested in the lab. I think we’ll eventually see the impact decades later.
lichtenthal I had an early interest in the Internet at IBM. Now everyone is talking about negative things. But social media doesn’t always equate to bad.
Oddly enough, father and son are back together in real life and in this movie. And it eventually makes them grow. For a twisted comedy, it’s very emotional.
Morosini As you know, all the characters in this movie are part of me because I wrote them all. My son Franklin, who I play, is the embodiment of my anxiety and depression.
How about creating your father’s version?
Morosini My father was more there for me than Chuck was for Franklin. But for movies, certain things have to be simplified or exaggerated. The real excitement of writing Chuck was understanding my own father more fully. And I think we have a stronger relationship because of that.
Patton, did you learn anything about being a dad playing this?
Oswalt I learned what not to do.
Your father was in the military, right?
Oswalt He is a Marine and has toured Vietnam three times. But like most veterans, the last thing he wanted me to do was be in the military or go to war.
did you thank him?
Oswalt Not later. All my friends had cool parents who made them smoke weed and throw parties. When I was much older, I learned that they wanted boring, stable parents. I touch a bit on my first album about giving kids the gift of being bored.
I don’t think it’s you, Claudio.
Morosini My father is one of the funniest people I know. Patton is another.
But Claudio, what was it like having to face the messed-up character your son based on you?
lichtenthal At one of the first screenings, I had to participate in a Q. and A. panel. So there were two tracks going on in my brain while I was watching. One was, “How are you going to protect yourself?” Another was, “This is a great movie and I’m proud of my son.”
Morosini Dad, how did you like the home video you took of me that I used in the movie?
lichtenthal I wish I could go back in time and see my children again when they were little. It takes time. You see children as adults, but you can never see them as children again. I always tell people with children to use their precious time wisely.
Even though the text message was sent by the fake girlfriend he created, it still comes across as the father’s idea of the movie. What do you want people to take away from your movie, James?
Morosini The most meaningful thing is when people come in after the screening and tell me they’re going to call their dad because they haven’t spoken to him in years. I would appreciate it if you could get a chance.
Oswalt And it would be interesting if it made people rethink online dating. Amidst all the laughs and grunts, it might fix some things.
lichtenthal Before I go, may I take this opportunity to ask Pat if he would like to play James in my movie? I call it “I Love My Son.”
Oswalt I have to do keto weight loss for about 3 weeks. But yeah, I’m happy to do it. Would you like to play James in my movie?
lichtenthal Anything for fame, Pat. Anything for fame.
Bob Morris, a frequent contributor to The New York Times, explores the relationship between fathers and sons in two memoirs.