Wednesday, June 27, 2012

"It’s just this dance. It’s not forever. It’s going to change": A conversation with Sarah Polley



Named after Leonard Cohen’s exquisite homage to the poet Federico García Lorca, Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, the acclaimed actress’ second feature as writer/director, is in many regards the inverse of Away From Her, her debut, trading wintry places and care facilities for sweltering summer heat and urban cafés, somber earth tones for shimmering drunken fruit punch hues, a couple in their 60s and married for decades for one in their 20s and only just slipping into those first years of familiarity (and, perhaps, stagnation). Both films are equally distinguished by Polley’s preternatural insight into the nature of trust, lust, dependency, secrets, and the thorny complications of long-term love. It’s been noted that the events chronicled in Take This Waltz, which is basically a love triangle, mirror events in Polley’s own life. This may be the case, yet the result is hardly a mushy confession; lived experience only texturizes and at times actually lightens (unbearably) the film’s unnerving truthiness. For all the right reasons it is probably not a good date movie.


Which isn’t to say that Take This Waltz isn’t problematic in its execution. Michelle Williams’ Margot, a married copywriter drawn to another man, is captivating, a sponge. Her every hesitation brims with wildly varied urges; we never lose track of where she is emotionally. Yet her scenes with Luke Kirby, the artist and rickshaw driver she falls for, lack chemistry, their first exchanges feel especially forced, while those with Seth Rogen, so endearing and sympathetic as her husband, an author of cookbooks containing recipes for nothing but chicken (read: comfort food embodied!), are intermittently undone by Polley’s determination to impose a sense of well-developed intimacy. (Though there is something rather ingenious about the couple’s ritual of whispering sweet nothings to each other that sassily describe torture and murder.)  


Still, I can’t emphasize this enough: no matter how many reservations or accusations of bum notes one can lob at Take This Waltz it is nonetheless decidedly adult, wordlessly articulate, sexy, sweet, brutal and very much alive—an extraordinary film about the vagaries of desire, which is to say, something extremely rare. The last act in particular, which is both the fulfillment of a promise and the exhaustion of a longing, is haunting and brilliant in its conclusions. (Or lack there of.) I admire this film far more than I do many others that have far fewer flaws. Also: it is a heartfelt, if geographically confused, love letter to Toronto.


I was late for my interview with Polley at Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel. My flight was delayed and my taxi stuck in late afternoon traffic, but Polley waited for me. I was flustered; she was gracious, relaxed and responsive: an ideal interviewee. We spoke only a short while yet I think we managed to cover a great deal.

JB: Did you have a lot of ideas after Away From Her? Was it difficult to decide which idea to run with?

Sarah Polley: There were several things I’d started. This was the one I was enjoying the most. It felt like the one I could learn most from as a filmmaker. It would allow me more freedom to explore with the camera and the actors than I’d had on Away From Her. A second film feels like an opportunity to do what you really want to do, as opposed to what you think you should do.

JB: Films about romance often focus on how the lovers are meant to be together. So they’re to some degree about destiny. But Take This Waltz is very much about desire. Desire is a central character, a foil, something greater than the individuals.

SP: I wanted to explore the theme of life having a gap in it. Of emptiness. Of the way we use desire to fill that gap. I wanted to envelop the audience in that feeling of the beginning of desire, when the world’s popping in Technicolor and everything seems new and brimming with possibility—the possibility of reinventing yourself. From there we can follow desire through its natural life cycle and see what happens.


JB: I found your exploration of those feelings very resonant, very real, but I also sensed a very deliberate use of artifice, the punched up colours, or the idea that the object of one’s desire, though found in another city, might live right across the street.

SP: I definitely wanted the world to feel believable but then at moments have this fairy tale quality. This extends to the depiction of Toronto. That’s Toronto in the movie, but it’s also a somewhat idealized Toronto. I romanticize the city. It doesn’t actually look the way I see it. I wanted it to be a little too vibrant, a little too colourful. I didn’t want to be shy about injecting moments with coincidence or magic, of having a dance happen in the middle of a very messy human story.

JB: At what point did the Leonard Cohen song come to you?

SP: Right at the beginning. I was listening to it so often. There’s something about its circular nature. I found it so beautiful and romantic and sad. I wanted the film to capture that same tone.

JB: It’s a song I adore. I almost find it hard to listen to. One of the things I love about it is that it feels particularly unresolved, partly because of the waltz time, partly because the lyrics whisk us through these baroque scenarios yet never seem to land anywhere.

SP: Exactly. It almost feels like it could go forever. The song kind of tangles itself up in the same way that I like to imagine the characters do with each other.


JB: I think of how both the song and the film end, with this idea that the waltz is “all that there is.” Being in motion, being between things. We leave Margot feeling like she’s still between things.

SP: Absolutely. Perhaps she’s a little more at ease with being between things, but that feeling of emptiness has followed her. And there’s something about the title: ‘Take This Waltz.’ It’s just this dance. It’s not forever. It’s going to change, to mutate. But you go with it anyway because those are some of the greatest moments in life, when you just go with somebody, surrender.

JB: I was also fascinated by your repeated use of ‘Video Killed the Radio Star.’ Is it me, or does this very different song not allude to the film’s most devastating piece of subtext?

SP: Absolutely. To me that song addresses what the film is about completely. One thing replaces another, but it’s not necessarily better, and it too will be temporary.



JB: This sense of being caught between things works its way into several aspects of the film. Being a recovering alcoholic, like Sarah Silverman’s character, means that you’re sort of always between drinks. Margot and Lou’s home seems perpetually between renovations.

SP: Matthew Davies, the production designer, was responsible for a lot of that. He really made that house feel like something in progress. You could see the layers of different families who’d lived there. He also brought a lot of the heat to the film. He made those rooms feel sweaty. There’s always a sheen in the paint or a shiny wallpaper. Every material he put in that house exudes heat. But yes, our discomfort with feeling between things was something I wanted to film to embody. Everybody was playing with that, including Lea Carlson, our wardrobe designer. She would sometimes dress Margot like an adolescent, as though she’s still going through this in-between phase.

JB: One thing about being an artist that some people find hard to fathom is the fact that your whole career keeps you between things. Most of your time is spent between one project and the next. Is that something that gives you anxiety?

SP: Professionally, I love being between things. I don’t love it in the rest of my life. Being between things professionally means you’re always trying to make things happen, but during those gaps you don’t always have to be doing it, which is also great. I love making films, but I also love just thinking about making films. And I love sleeping through the night, which you’re generally not able to do when you’re making a film.

JB: Are you at all interested in directing yourself as an actor?

SP: I don’t think so. Not unless I get way better as a director and way better as an actor. I’m so amazed that anyone can do both things simultaneously. Maybe one day I’ll try it, though I worry it could be miserable. I enjoy directing and acting so much, but I feel like doing them at the same time would compromise both experiences.

JB: I ask because I’m every now and then struck by how certain actors wind up doing their best work when directing themselves. Off the top of my head, I think of, let’s say, Clint Eastwood or John Cassavetes as actors who might be best when directing themselves.

SP: Now that’s actually inspiring. I never considered that. As you said that I suddenly had this flash of what it might be like to do exactly what you want to do and not have to worry about someone else’s opinion. That could actually be really fun.

JB: Perhaps if it was a very low-stakes project with a small crew, something you could take a lot of time with.

SP: Ooh. I love that idea. It’s weird. That’s the first time that’s ever sounded attractive to me. The idea of feeling less inhibited, not trying to please anybody. 

JB: Alright, then. Now I want to see Sarah Polley direct Sarah Polley.

SP: [Laughs] I’ll have to think about it. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

"If you were to go to Carthage today and get in line at Sam’s barbecue, you might find someone telling you how Bernie should have done it": Richard Linklater on Bernie, gossip, death and Texas



Richard Linklater’s fourteenth feature chronicles the strange but true tale of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), the young man who arrived in Carthage, Texas with some neatly pressed shirts and pants, a smart little moustache, a gift for politeness and a mortuary degree, and Mrs. Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the crabby, extremely wealthy old widow loathed by everyone in town. Bernie and Mrs. Nugent became close companions, so close that, despite Bernie’s apparent homosexuality, many wondered if their relationship didn’t include a sexual component. But that relationship became increasingly oppressive for Bernie, and one day in 1997 Bernie shot and killed Mrs. Nugent, hiding her body in a freezer. No one discovered her for nine months.


Inspired by Skip Hollandsworth’s 1998 Texas Monthly profile of the case, which much of the film quotes directly (Hollandsworth is credited as co-scenarist), Bernie comfortably hovers somewhere between semi-staged documentary and true crime feature. It’s a black comedy and place study narrated by a chorus of townsfolk (the cast mixes actual Carthagians and hired actors, including a very funny Matthew McConaughey) speaking direct-to-camera from front stoops or greasy spoons or seated before farm equipment. Their Bernie is a Robin Hood figure, killing the rich and donating to the town: murder as a benevolent act. “He had the ability to make the world seem kind,” one of the locals says. Linklater, a Texan himself, exudes affection for his subjects and their things (check out the attention to detail in the set dressing, ie: the horse painting lampshade on Scrappy Holmes’ desk). Told from the inside out, Bernie neither condescends nor soft-pedals, and seems ever-fascinated by its own incongruities and enigmas.

Richard Linklater 

I’d never spoke to Linklater before but found him just as friendly and easygoing as I’d always assumed he’d be from watching his films, some of which feature an occasional director’s cameo. He appears in Bernie as a deadbeat dad engaged in one of those weird contests where you have to keep your hands on a car for as long as possible. 

JB: I realize that the film is called Bernie, but I was really struck by how beautifully it works as a portrait of a community.

Richard Linklater: When Shirley first read the script she said to me, “Really, it’s the gossips’ movie.” I laughed. To some degree that’s true, because it’s seen through their eyes.


JB: That’s just it. The film refrains from psychoanalyzing Bernie. It offers little about his roots. It doesn’t try to get inside his head. Instead you build your portrait as much as possible from the perceptions of the Carthagians. You let them author your Bernie.

RL: We’ll never know what really happened between Bernie and Mrs. Nugent, but we do know the effect their relationship had on Carthage. It always seemed like the most interesting choice to hear these multiple voices testify to how the events reverberated through the community. Such events are more poignant in a small town, because everyone really does know each other. Small town gossip has this unanimity to it: Bernie was the nicest guy in town and Mrs. Nugent was the meanest bitch. Life is high school. Ultimately you are what everybody says you are. If you were to go to Carthage today and get in line at Sam’s barbecue, you might find someone telling you how Bernie should have done it—without getting caught.


JB: For all the movies that have been made in Texas, I feel like very few have paid close attention to a sense of place, to how it really feels to live there. I think of The Whole Shootin’ Match...

RL: [Laughs] Speaking of Sonny Carl Davis! You know Sonny Carl is in Bernie, right?

JB: I had no idea.

RL: He’s the guy with the map of Texas.

JB: Holy shit. I didn’t recognize him.

RL: Well, it has been 34 years since Whole Shootin’ Match. He’s a real character. I’m glad I finally got to work with him. He’s one of a handful of actors that I mixed in with the, quote-unquote, real people.

JB: One of the really intriguing things about this whole story is the way the theme of disguise and the denial of death weaves its way through Bernie’s vocation and right into his crime.

RL: Even in death we disguise ourselves. There’s that telling line from the opening scene, where Bernie’s demonstrating his craft: “You don’t want him to look unhappy to be there.” Put a little smile on the dead man’s face, you know? [Laughs] I heard that from a lady who dresses the dead as her job. She was our consultant, giving me some pointers. I thought it was hilarious. I don’t think she thought it was funny.


JB: The casting of Jack Black struck me as really inspired. He’s very funny as Bernie, but he also has this quality, this very particular pathos, that feels both native to the character and distinctly Jack Black.

RL: I’m so proud of Jack’s work here. When you’re funny no one thinks you’re a good actor, but the truth is Jack’s a great actor. And a great singer. And both skills are required for this part. It’s hard to think of other actors who could bring all these things, the right kind of charm. Jack has this ingratiating element; he wants to be liked. But then there’s this tinge somewhere in Jack that’s a little off. This edge. That edge itself is funny. It’s forever intriguing. That’s what makes him a movie star.  



JB: You’ve been carrying around this idea since 1998. Did your concept of the film change a lot over the years?

RL: Not much. All I did the whole time was think about the tone, and that was beneficial. Everything clicked when we met the actual Bernie. I had been writing to him for years, but when Jack and I got to visit him in prison and spend some serious time, it kind of confirmed my hunches about Bernie. He truly did seem like the nicest guy who did this one horrible act. To me, that was the story. He’s not a psychopath, so the question arises as to whether any of us, under the right circumstances, could be driven to kill somebody. 

JB: The scene where Bernie pulls the trigger really isn’t especially dramatic. It’s just this moment where the barrier between fantasy and action becomes so slim.

RL: And it’s so easy with certain weapons. It happens in a flash.

JB: Have you given any thought to whether you’d like to be buried or cremated? Would you like someone like Bernie to prepare your remains for your grieving loved ones?

RL: [Laughs] That’s a great question. You’re first person to ask me that! I’ve spent all these years thinking about the death industry and you’re the only person to ask me that question. So I’ll tell you honestly, because you deserve it: I will in no way let the death industry get close to me when I die! [Laughs] I’ve been researching this and there’s this thing called green burial. You die, they put you in a biodegradable stack, bury you vertically so you don’t take up much room and you immediately return to the soil. You don’t kill a bunch of roots. They just throw you out in the woods, really. It’s the least you do can do and it only costs about $200. Not $10,000. The idea of putting all these fluids in your body and going through all this rigmarole to act like you’re not dead is just crazy. It’s a horrible industry, really. So expensive. They treat the bodies like shit. There are these companies where you go to the funeral home and then they ship the bodies to Mexico immediately because it’s $75 cheaper. It’s ridiculous.


JB: I know. This whole idea that you can buy a casket that will keep worms off your body for an extra hundred years. At some point, when the people that loved you and even all your grandchildren have all died, you know, maybe it’s time to finally let go. I’ve always liked the idea of cremation, though I hadn’t really thought about the pollution aspect.

RL: That’s an issue. And it’s expensive because of the fire and because they still do all these things to treat the body beforehand. Mind you, they make you think you have to do so many things but if you check the books there’s actually very little that you’re obligated to do, legally.

JB: Well, I hope that neither you nor your loved ones will have to be thinking about your death rites for a very long time. 

RL: Thanks, but we all get there sooner or later. Thinking about it’s not so bad. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

One of our khaki scouts is missing



Wes Anderon’s Moonrise Kingdom, co-written with Roman Coppola, is set in September 1965, on the New England coastal island of Penzance. An oracular figure (Bob Balaban) provides a smattering of direct-to-camera details about the island’s history before warning of a great storm that will batter Penzance before our story ends. The storm he refers to is a perfectly literal meteorological phenomenon, but he may just as well be referring to the tempestuous love affair—between two 12-year-olds—already underway as our story begins.



Bespectacled orphan and decorated Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) flees camp one morning, prompting his Scout Leader (Edward Norton) to organize a search in tandem with the island’s sole police officer (Bruce Willis). Sam arranges to rendezvous with Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), the eldest daughter of unhappily married lawyers (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), whose distinctive make-up anticipates the visage of Lana Del Rey. Sam, with his survival kit, and Suzy, with her yellow suitcase, cat in a basket, library books, binoculars, portable record player and beloved Françoise Hardy LP—at one point the couple takes an inventory, a variation on Anderson’s favourite activity, the visual list—set out to make it on their own in some hidden cove, pubescent lovers on the run in a world more bucolic but just as cloistered as that of Gerardo Naranjo’s similarly premised I’m Gonna Explode!



The kids are never annoyingly ingratiating; flat delivery is clearly the default here and works beautifully. Their stabs at adult stoicism are simultaneously funny and sincere. “Was he a good dog?” Suzy asks of a terrier accidentally killed during a melee with some fellow scouts. “Who’s to say?” replies Sam in his best Hemingway Jr. “But he didn’t deserve to die.” Likewise the more experienced and creatively, often ingeniously adult cast, among them Jason Schwartzman and  Harvey Keitel with a Civil War moustache, exude far more than their characters express openly, leaving the A-story in the kids’ capable hands while filling the margins with an almost palpable sense of melancholy.







Capitalizing on the design-everything imperative of his animated film The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson makes every home a dollhouse, observed through tours that allow the camera to slide vertically and horizontally through walls and floors; every landscape a storybook spread, sometimes misted over to resemble old postcards, with objects looking like toys when seen from a certain distance. His use of music is typically winsome, with Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra working as a theme for kids dreaming of adult seriousness and the songs of Hank Williams becoming the theme for adults whose lives seem rife with regret and resignation. With great playfulness and narrative concision, Moonrise Kingdom weaves artifice and emotional gravity into a beautiful fable about being, to the core of one’s being, truly, hopelessly love-struck. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Our ages or our hearts?



Harold and Maude (1971) opens with young Harold, played by Bud Cort, enacting one of his elaborately staged faux suicides, part of an ongoing, splendidly morbid art project for an audience of one: his mom. Okay, two if you count Harold himself, a Goth avant la lettre, with a pale, round face and a bowl cut that makes him look like he’s 12, though Cort was 20 at the time of filming. Harold hangs himself in the parlour, but his mom barely even notices. “Try to be a little more vivacious,” Mother suggests in withering tones, speaking in one of the film’s many puzzling Transatlantic accents. (It all takes place in the Bay Area.) Given the oppressive mother-son relationship and Harold’s shyness that hides a very, very dark streak, I find it hard to go back to the film for the first time in many years (the occasion being Criterion’s handsome new DVD/Blu-ray release) and not instantly think of Norman Bates. I must not be the only one to make the connection because many years later Cort would play a mentally disturbed parent-killer who inherits Norman’s property in the TV movie (and would-be series pilot) Bates Motel (1987).



If you don’t know this story already, Harold and Maude chronicles a love affair between Cort’s death-obsessed rich kid and a nearly octogenarian, wildly eccentric, always smiling, life-loving, funeral-frequenting Holocaust survivor who lives in a train and who’s also a car thief and drives like she wants to die spectacularly and take as many people with her as possible. That’s Maude. She’s played by Ruth Gordon, who was so truly, deeply frightening, as well as hilarious, in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), for which she got the Oscar, and it’s such a curious thing to see her behave so similarly in Harold and Maude and yet be so utterly endearing. Her ongoing barrage of platitudes, most of which are of the carpe diem, elder hippy variety, stuff about singing and flowers and so forth, can grate on your nerves a little, but if you surrender to the film’s vibe it’s hard not to see how Harold could fall in love with her. Harold’s big on death and Maude’s relative proximity to it is no doubt a key part of her allure. But she teaches him to live. It’s sweet.



Hal Ashby’s second feature received a half-assed release from Paramount and didn’t do good box office at all, but it did become one hell of a cult film. By the time it reached me a couple of decades later I was in my teens and it was presented to me by an older girlfriend with the reverence one reserves for a first listen to Dark Side of the Moon or the loss of one’s teeth. People feel pretty strongly about Harold and Maude. I feel kindly enough toward it. I understand the sentiment. I still shed a tear at the end. I think it works best on the young. It’s also pretty corny, very much of its time, very much a generation gap movie, simply trading the “Don’t trust anyone over 30” mandate for “Don’t trust anyone between 30 and 75.” The result of this sensibility is that every single one of the supporting characters is a one-dimensional, one-joke, rather tedious cartoon buffoon: the mom, the priest, the shrink, the one-armed uncle in the military. Other than the two leads the only presence in the film that has any soul at all is Cat Stevens, whose songs are lovingly woven into the film’s highly memorable soundtrack and are rarely too on the nose.


Okay, actually there’s one other exception: Tom Skerritt in his un-credited cameo as a motorbike cop who tries to take Maude in on a reckless driving charge. His character is a doofus too, and for some stupid reason his gun doesn’t even work, but at least he tries to make something of his two goofy scenes and doesn’t tremble or salivate when he talks. Tom Skerritt is awesome, in case you forgot. I think Tom Skerritt should get a special award for playing more men in uniform—see War Hunt (1962), M*A*S*H (1970), Fuzz (1972), The Dead Zone (1983), Top Gun, Space Camp (both 1986), Knight Moves (1992), Smoke Signals (1998), Tears of the Sun (2003), or his roles on shows like Combat (1962-67), Twelve O’Clock High (1964-67) or Picket Fences (1992-96), and that’s just stuff I can remember—and playing them well, than perhaps any other postwar actor in Hollywood. 
  

Sunday, June 17, 2012

"People are inconsistent philosophical creatures": Patrick Wang on theatre, resourcefulness, and keeping it In the Family



Unfolding as a deeply immersive slow burn, in quiet rooms warmed and lived-in and painted by soft autumnal light, In the Family leads us to a place few films do: it is at once its own very specific world and a world that almost anyone can recognize. When the film is done you feel you’ve lived there for a time. The quotidian calm of the opening scenes is ruptured by an ordinary tragedy, a car accident that will throw everything into disarray without ever resorting to forced theatrics, and the film goes on to tell of a somewhat unusual conflict—a custody battle between a gay man and the family of his dead partner—in terms that are both realistic and generous in spirit. It takes its time to get where it’s going, and there are detours along the way, but every moment is filled with small discovery, a dialogue between memory and the present that builds steadily and complicatedly toward a powerful emotional release.

In the Family is the first feature from Patrick Wang, who has a degree in economics and a long history in the theatre and is originally from Texas. In the canon of great American debuts the film feels closest in spirit to Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me. (It’s worth noting that Lonergan also has a background in theatre.) Wang worked long and arduously to get everything right, so right that he wound up writing, producing, directing, starring in and even distributing his film himself: despite its scale, In the Family is very much an artisanal film. Wang made it in Martin, Tennessee, because it seemed like “a place where you could find anyone.” Though Joey, Wang’s character, isn’t just anyone; he’s a man of great integrity, and it’s rare that protagonist so fundamentally decent can be so captivating. As is Wang himself. We spoke about his career and In the Family as the film began trickling into Canadian cinemas a couple of weeks ago.


JB: How did you move from economics to the theatre?

Patrick Wang: For many years I was doing both. My fellow economists were always fascinated by theatre, while my fellow thespians were always asking me about economics. [Laughs] I don’t see them as all that different. In the sciences there’s a great need for creativity, while in the arts there’s a lot of room for analysis. They use different muscles in different proportions. Obviously, it’s very different work.

JB: Had you worked in theatre primarily as a director or actor?

PW: When I started my own company my background was mostly as an actor. So I had lots of questions. I did my first directing with the company. That’s where I learned. And what I learned in the theatre is what got me through this film. I learned to talk to collaborators. I didn’t have a very visual background and always thought that was my weakness, so dialogue with designers was something I worked to cultivate. Theatre is pretty low-key in terms of certain barriers, such as getting people to teach you how they do their work. That inviting atmosphere was everything to me.

JB: In the Family holds this nice tension between what might be regarded as theatrical and cinematic elements. So often filmmakers are taught to think of the theatrical as a bad thing.

PW: All my favourite filmmakers have been people of the theatre: Tony Richardson, Ingmar Bergman, John Cassavetes, Orson Welles. Where they land is pure cinema, but there’s a certain confidence, a set of priorities that includes performance and literature. They know what performance can do on its own without adding all these other elements to support it.


JB: Was it always your intention to write, direct, produce and act in In the Family?

PW: I started with the script and assumed that was the only thing I’d be doing. I thought I’d leave the rest to the professionals. I looked for producers and directors and other people to work on it. There’s nothing in this project that promises to do wonders for anyone’s career—you just have to love the project. I’m sure there are people out there who would have been perfect matches, but you start down this road and at some point wonder if this search is very good use of your time. You start to wonder what would happen if you tried this or that hat on. Can I do these tasks with the proper respect the roles demand? Will the project lose something because of it? Those are hard questions. The roles accumulated over time. First came writing, then producing, then directing, then acting. I was most resistant to the acting.

JB: The part seems tailor-made for you.

PW: When I wrote the part I did not see myself in it. And we didn’t rewrite him for me. I think that over time I simply moved more towards the character. You start to feel this need to defend a character or a story, a play or a film, because you worry that it can be so easily misunderstood. You want to be there to help it, to foster it.

JB: Working in theatre teaches you to take long breaths, and In the Family is a film composed of long breaths. It allows each scene the space it needs to breathe. The result is that it’s 169 minutes long, which is kind of audacious for an unknown filmmaker making his feature debut, with no stars. But the film’s duration is essential for it to do what it does emotionally, to tell its very particular story.

PW: The running time did make me worry for the film’s life. I kept thinking there’s got to be some way to cut it down. But every time I tried I became only more convinced that this was the length the film needed to be. Otherwise you risk losing its uniqueness. You wind up making things more obvious. The film as is doesn’t clearly signal where it’s going. It takes false turns. It feels more honest. Our lives tend to favour a certain tempo. We’re used to movies and TV that function at this accelerated rhythm. But I think the reason people can roll with In the Family is because it’s inviting. It doesn’t tell you things; it lets you find things. It gives you the space to put your own life up there. We don’t get many opportunities to really meditate on certain heavier moments in life. So perhaps it’s a kind of luxury to sit and deal with these things.


JB: Physical space seems just as integral to In the Family as temporal space. The house your character lives in, this house he’s helped construct, this house from which a huge part of his life has suddenly disappeared: that’s one space. The house that Cody’s sister inhabits is a very different space, one that says a lot about her. The most interesting contrast comes from the house that Joey’s client is having renovated. So space, domestic space, is hugely important, but again, when you’re working with a very limited budget it can’t be easy to define such spaces so precisely.

PW: A lot of our budget went to locations for exactly the reasons you’re addressing. Sometimes you just need the right space. Maybe you cut a day out of your production, but it’s worth the investment. The right space and right density of detail. There’s something about production design that, even when on location, can feel false. Sometimes it’s too neat; sometimes it’s too self-consciously cluttered. I was able to work with a very talented production designer, and we spent a lot of time on density of detail, on searching for that feeling of home, the way a home can change its character over the course of a day. Especially when it’s empty. I think people recognize that, the feeling of an empty home on a Saturday afternoon when the neighbour’s cutting the lawn.


JB: I want to ask you more about Joey. Your performance is very rigorous about not pushing the emotion. But I don’t think it’s correct to say that Joey’s emotionally reserved; he’s very unobtrusive. It’s a quality that becomes apparent early in the film, in the hospital most obviously. He never makes it explicit to the hospital staff that Cody is his partner, that he should be in the room with him.

PW: It’s not that Joey resigns himself. He keeps trying to get what he wants, but not in a way that’s abrasive. I appreciate the care you take with words when trying to describe him, because a lot of people call him passive. I don’t believe that to be correct. In terms of getting things done in his life he’s a very active person. But he’s a peaceful person, and that’s typically seen as anti-dramatic.

JB: He takes enormous risks.

PW: He places his trust in people. His risks hinge on the idea that people can change.

JB: Which I think brings us to politics. In the Family is densely political in so many ways, not the least being the sheer fact that its protagonist is at once Asian-American, gay, Southern, and working class. But nowhere in this film will you find anyone coming out and articulating a polemic. No one’s waving flags. I’m not even sure that anyone even uses the word “gay” once in the entire movie.

PW: You’re right. It’s never used. I noticed at some point in the writing that this language of identity wasn’t coming up. I thought that was interesting. You expect there will come a moment when a character will explain the conflict. But these people just don’t talk that way. I think you see more of what’s it’s like to be of a minority race in this film than a lot of films that place race firmly in the foreground. People are more than any one thing, and in Joey’s case you’re never sure what part of him people are responding to. People themselves might not know what they’re responding to. People are inconsistent philosophical creatures. For a film to neglect that aspect of human nature doesn’t feel as interesting to me. If we talk about this film as an exercise of sympathies, then there has to be some kind of distance for us to cover. We need to stretch a little to reach out to these people. We need to make that investment in faith.