Outside of Biaggio being pretty strange, the kids do have a realness that doesn’t come off as written as the adult stuff, which does feel more heightened. A lot of teen movies and coming of age movies do have the problem of kids sounding like their words are written by an older person.
I’m glad you feel that way. The adult’s world is pretty crazy. It’s borderline slapstick. In my mind it should be through the lens of how these kids perceive them, all absurd and crazy. So the whole world of the adults is a little left of center. Biaggio, as ridiculous as his stuff is, he’s a character that we wanted you to simultaneously know nothing about yet everything you need to know. You understand that somehow this and loyalty and friendship are the most important things to him. He’s like a loyal dog. He does become a sort of emotional through-line for this movie and this very Sam/Frodo relationship develops at a certain point. You need the audience to be invested in who he is and realize how important it is.
But with Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick, particularly, the most important thing there was just getting that chemistry right. To me the movie would have been a failure if the audience didn’t look at the chemistry of all the boys and have a very pure sense of nostalgia elicited. Either nostalgia for what they went through or a nostalgia for things they didn’t necessarily experience. The truths of what growing up is are pretty universal. We just needed to be grounded in that. You don’t walk out of Stand By Me or Goonies and think to yourself, “One of those kids is good.” They’re all great. They’re all awesome.
Remember when we were kids and you’d get back from a movie and you and your friends would decide who was who and play as them? That’s important. It’s important for an audience to be able to choose who they want to identify with and see who they see themselves in. I just knew from the beginning that it was important that all the kids be great. Not just one of them.
I want to go back and talk about the look of the movie and the cinematography and how you wanted this to be cinematic. I’ve seen people mention obvious coming of age movie influences and then I’ve seen it referred to as “Malick-like.”
My DP and I have been working together for a long time. We have a pretty serious shorthand. I just don’t think that comedy needs to be mutually exclusive from being beautiful. It’s sad to me. When was the last time you walked out of a comedy and thought, “Wow, that was beautiful,” or, “That was visually stunning.”? That doesn’t happen, and that sucks. There’s no reason for that. For some reason we’ve just played in this really boring box. One thing that was really important to me with this was, look, we’ve seen a lot of coming-of-age stories before. We’ve seen variations on this, variations on these themes. How do I tell this story in a nontraditional way? How do I make it seem like it’s a new addition to the canon?”
Those old Amblin movies are really technically well-crafted. I love the idea of taking that technical craft and merging that with really contemporary alt comedy and ultimately trying to make the dumbest Terence Malick movie ever. Basically seeing if we can combine really lyrical, ethereal, beautiful imagery that is impressionistic and helps elicit the feeling of how beautiful the woods are and how the kids are perceiving it and how those moments feel. And then smashing that right up with really ridiculous absurd comedy.
I’m so glad that the look of this is being called out. I hope we can get out of this phase. Comedy and movies in general don’t look that great anymore. You look at a rom-com, which is a dirty word these days, and then you look at Annie Hall, and it’s a beautiful movie, really tonally weird, really inventive. I just want to get back to an era of filmmaking when we don’t have all these rules of what things are supposed to look like.
I don’t want knock anyone in particular with you, but that makes me think of David Gordon Green, one of the most Malick-like young directors aesthetically. He’s turned to comedy, but his comedies don’t look as great as his early stuff.
There are a lot of mumblecore movies that I love, and I have a lot of friends who are mumblecore movie directors, but as far as I’m concerned it’s a visual medium and to not exploit that part of it is missing part of what makes film great. I think there’s a larger issue at play here, which is that people rarely go to the movies anymore, and they barely walk out and say, “I’m glad I saw that.” I didn’t want to make a movie that went to Sundance and then people saw on VOD. I wanted to make a movie that people walked out of the theater from and said, “Wow, that was beautiful. I’m glad I saw that on the big screen.” We didn’t want to make a dinky little indie even though we had no money. We wanted to make an indie that felt cinematic and had scope and ideally reminded people why going to the theater to see something is worthwhile.
You said that you had to fight for the job to direct this script. How did you come across it in the first place? What made this the script you wanted for your feature debut as opposed to something you or someone you know wrote?
I came out here because I want to make movies. I’ve been looking for a long time for a script that I wanted to make as my first feature. I’ve been making shorts and I sold my TV show and we were gearing up to do a full season of that, Successful Alcoholics played at Sundance… So in general I was showing up on lists at studios. All the executives keep these tracking lists of who they think the next young first-time directors are. I’d been meeting on stuff and people were talking about stuff and there were projects that would come along where I was like I could do this or I’m excited about this, but this is the first thing that came along that I read and just fell in love with.
I honestly thought it was a joke. I thought somebody was playing a prank on me by giving me this script, like, “Why are you doing this? Somebody is clearly attached to a movie this good.” “No, it’s an open directing job right now.” Chris and I didn’t know each other. We had a lot of mutual friends. In fact, we had a lot of friends saying, “Oh you two would love each other; you should meet.” And in fact a couple friends sent me the script months and years before. And I never read it for some reason. Then when I finally did read it I fell in love. It wasn’t that I wanted to the movie or could do the movie or was excited about it. I felt this visceral need to do it. This is a story I have to tell.
John Hodges at Big Beach had seen Successful Alcoholics and they knew Toy’s House, as it was called at the time, was going to require a really tricky tone of balancing comedy and drama and heart. They also were interested in what I really wanted to do with it, which was to balance it that way and to say you don’t have to cut the tonal spectrum off. I firmly believe you can have laughs as big as Superbad but emotional beats as heartfelt as the best John Hughes movie or as earnest as Stand By Me. Overall I sold them on how it should feel cinematic and how there should be visual wit to it and it should feel as technically crafted as old Amblin films did.
There are a lot of places out there that say they want to trust first-time directors and everyone says they want to break new talent, but you wonder why there are so many directors out there where you’re like, “This guy hasn’t made a good movie in a long time.” Honestly, for a lot of executives I know it’s a safer bet to hire someone who they know can at least execute and make something and deliver on time and on budget over someone who might be a really exciting option that hasn’t done it before. What I came to learn in pitching on a movie and winning it is the process of convincing a set of producers that not only are you the best person for the job and can pull it off but you understand the material better than they do at that point and your vision is the correct vision of the movie.
Back to the idea of that tracking list. A lot of young filmmakers get put on these shortlists we hear about more and more, lists for stuff like Star Wars and remakes of family classics. Is that something you will probably end up doing or are interested in doing, something nostalgia based that’s not an original?
There are some projects that I’m talking to people about that are not necessarily remakes but properties that have been made in some capacity before. For me it’s about access point. I legitimately believe that you can make a good… If you want to shit on remakes as a general idea, I think that’s misguided. People forget that The Thing is technically a remake. Scarface is technically a remake. I think if you have the right access point you can make anything great.
What movie would you remake in a second if asked?
Oh boy. That’s a good question. [literally 15 seconds of silence pass.] I’m trying to think of something that… It’s tricky. You read Soderbergh‘s whole thing on the state of the industry, right? One part is about how we shouldn’t be looking to remake movies that were good before but movies that had cool ideas but didn’t necessarily work. I think that’s relatively warranted. What do I love enough but wouldn’t feel like I was just screwing up? Most movies I love I wouldn’t want to touch.
Well, one thing I thought about while watching the Mint in a Box short about Star Wars toys was that producers probably see that and think, “Oh he knows what Star Wars is, so maybe he should make a Star Wars movie.”
Oh look, I would love to. At this point, now that that’s like a possibility, if I die and I haven’t directed a Star Wars movie, I will be very upset. Those are all my actual Star Wars figures in that short. That was a weird cathartic thing for me because I’d collected all the Power of the Force series of the action figures when I was a kid, and they’re not worth a large amount of money but I just had a ton of them and they were sitting in these boxes. I couldn’t figure out what to do with them. I don’t want to sell these or the little kid in me will get real upset. The only thing that made sense at one point was that if I had a kid, just pening this room and saying, “Here, do whatever you want with them. Open them, do whatever you want. I don’t care.”
But the thing that made the most sense was to use them as a set piece for a short, as a piece of production design. Robert Rodriguez used to talk about how you should use what you have access to when you’re a young filmmaker. He had access to a bus so he put that in his film. It’s production value. I had access to Star Wars figures so I designed a set piece around it.
And did you guys really destroy all of them?
Yeaaaaah. There were some that I said, “These are off limits. Try not to bust these up.” Surprisingly not that many of them got screwed up. That was a really interesting moment, because it was one of the few times on set when more people were watching how I was reacting than the actor. But it was really cathartic.
It’s not really a remake, but at some point depending on what they do with the Star Wars franchise, I would love to. I’m in this business because I’m one of those kids who watched Star Wars and found there was a world presented in front of him. I just fell in love with movies.
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