10/24/2011 10:22 am ET Updated Dec 24, 2011

Director Jonathan Segal talks about cancer and comedy in his new film

When you've got a main character who's pretending to have cancer - and whose father is actually dying of the disease - and your movie is at least partially a romantic comedy, well, let's just say that tone becomes a tricky thing.

But Jonathan Segal found a way to balance it out in his movie, Norman, which opened Oct. 21 in limited release.

"That balance was something I paid close attention to," he says. "I was careful to avoid melodrama. I wanted some things to be funny. Even in the face of tragedy, things can be funny. I think that's why a lot of people have a strong reaction to the film - because that's the reality of life. Something terrible goes on. But at the same time, you find things to laugh about in the midst of it."

Norman stars Dan Byrd (Cougar Town) as the title character, a high-school student suffering through more than normal coming-of-age dramas. His mother was killed in a car accident; his father (Richard Jenkins) has been diagnosed with stomach cancer. So Norman, who's never had much luck with girls, is contemplating suicide.

Then he meets a girl, Emily (Emily van Camp), who seems to like him. But, reeling from a terminal diagnosis for his father and hassled by a friend for his lack of reliability, Norman blurts out that the reason he's been unreliable: He - Norman - has cancer. Once that genie is out of the bottle, there's no putting it back.

"He doesn't say it to gain popularity - though he does get that," Segal says. "He's not trying to get over on his friends. Part of allowing himself to perpetuate that lie is about his urge to kill himself and lashing out at the shitty situation he finds himself in. He says it to get an upper hand on his friend. He sticks with it because he's struggling with his own thoughts of suicide."

Part of that self-proclaimed cancer diagnosis involves Norman shaving his head to convincingly play the part of the cancer patient, something Byrd does on camera.

"That was a big day," Segal says. "It was exciting - and a logistical challenge. That's a one-take moment; once we did it, we couldn't go back. And it's one of those quintessential things for an actor: gaining weight for a role, or shaving your head. Dan was nervous about it but it went pretty quickly. We had to prepare meticulously. It was an exciting day."

Norman is Segal's second film as a director; his first, The Last Run, came and went in 2004.

"I look at that film now and see all the things I would have done differently," he says. "It never quite became what it should have. There are 15-minute stretches that I like. But I'm harsh on my own work."

He knows that Norman could face a challenging commercial environment: "Dramas are a tough sell," he says. But the film has played 15 festivals in the past year and Segal hopes it takes him to another film.

"I'm interested in psychology and story-telling," he says. "The craft of filmmaking is a fusion of the two. Every time you approach a scene, you're trying to reverse-engineer an emotion: where do you put the camera, how do you want your actors to be, what do you want the audience to feel. It's like a Rubik's cube - there are so many different ways to approach it."

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