At the First Time Fest, there was a “First Exposure” series in which well known and accomplished directors would get their first directed films shown and have the chance to speak about the process. Some of these well known actors include Wes Anderson, Barbara Kopple, John Huston, Darren Aronofsky, Nancy Savoca, Michael Van Peebles, Hal Hartley, Sofia Coppola, Todd Solondz, and more.
In addition, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Ryan attended, speaking about their experiences while making Hoffman’s directorial debut, Jack Goes Boating. The film is about two adults (Hoffman and Ryan) having a crush on one another without taking any action to move forward in their relationship, all while they see the relationship of their friends ( John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega) fall. Curated by David Schwartz, the director of programming for the festival, here’s what they had to say about their film.
Amy Ryan: She’s looking for love like the majority of us in this world and especially in New York City, it’s hard and it might make you turn more inward than outward as you keep searching and keep getting older. That gave a lot of freedom if not judgment because, well, it’s because she is, because she does and that’s how these two characters are able to meet each other.
Philip Seymour Hoffman: It’s hard for people to admit they like Jack and Connie; they’re just like anyone we know really. It’s when you isolate them in a story all of a sudden you see all the flaws very closely. We always think people are much weirder than they actually are in life. They’re a story and we’re accentuating them. We’re really looking at them so we see everything. We all know Jacks and Connies, you know what I mean, or we’ve been Jacks and Connies at times in our lives. So that was important for us to play those parts that way. I remember when I did the play itself I really thought I wasn’t playing a part. It was too withdrawn, too inward too. I remember the film showing him too outward- he was truly trying to make an effort to have the pleasures that life brings, which is love and friendship. He was sick and tired of being alone; he’s sick and tired of being scared of those things. But those things are legitimately scary. I think they’re good people.
David Schwartz: One of the things that always strike me about this film is the use of the intimacy of it-the close ups. It’s a lot of close ups that you do and a lot of how the film flows and how it’s put together is just you following the emotions of the characters coming out. I was just wondering how you thought it out that way since it was very striking.
PSH: Well before I pulled any shots I treated the film much like a play and I did learn that from the theater. I learned that form Sidney Lumet who Amy and I both acted in a film with him, his last fil1m [Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead] and I still think of it as I’m so lucky I got that opportunity. And I did- I had a longer process that was very thorough. It was very cinematic and it came from the theater so everyone was in on the process and it gave Amy the opportunity to rehearse the script with us since we’ve all done it as a play. It helped all of us to refine the story again and I think that helped everybody. Everyone was there so we really did think about lets shoot it with all the actors. So on the set we were ahead of the game in a way that we’re all on the same page, we all knew the problem to solve. So it all got that we got close to each other. There are a lot of close ups but there’s also a lot of looking at people from far away. There’s a lot of stuff like that too, but whatever it is, the film is definitely on how to get the viewer as close as possible. I wanted it to be as uncomfortable and as comfortable as possible since the film’s about intimacy.
Schwartz: Amy, since the festival is all about first times, was there anything you noticed about working with a director who’s directing for the first time?
AR: There is a heightened level there especially since these are first time directors, but these are also first time notable actors. You know, the world is watching, can they do it? I don’t know if Phil was thinking that, I wasn’t thinking that. What strikes me more is working with first time directors, but I’ve been lucky that they’re also actors because they have the compassion and they have the language to work with the actors. And the case with Phil was unusual since he was also acting in the film so he was jumping back and forth between playing Jack and going to look at the monitor. That was quite a feat, I don’t know why anyone would want to do that. Maybe we took a little longer since we were doing a couple of takes, but it was quite fascinating to be in this situation. That was the beauty of it: you’re in the hot seat with the director.
Schwartz: How was that experience of acting and directing yourself as a director?
PSH: Peter [Saraf, the producer] was kind enough to add another week out of the shooting schedule, and it was a 5-6 week shoot. That’s when I realized I was going to do both jobs because although I really didn’t want to act in it, finding an actor was hard. I did find someone who I thought was going to be absolutely brilliant and then I lost him. I realized that if we don’t shoot it now it’s never going to happen, and he added on another week since it is time consuming. I didn’t have to watch the monitors; I could watch 8 takes in a row without watching the monitor, and sometimes I didn’t watch it at all. I was in it; I was like ‘I know I got it.’ With me, I would be lost sometimes that I would be focused on so many other things and I would start acting a scene and I wasn’t good. That was a really hard fucking thing to do. The writers and actors would try to help and I asked them to. Sometimes it’d be so bad that everyone would be gone and I remember thinking ‘Oh fuck if no one wants to deal with me at least leave me a note.’[Laughter] I struggled with that so yeah, Amy and the other actors would have to deal with that. I guess that was the one drawback for me too, we made it work anyway, but I don’t think I’ll ever do that again.
Schwartz: But I did read that you were very open to getting notes which other directors probably wouldn’t.
PSH: I mean directing was looking over the film and editing as much as possible, but with the acting, I needed a third eye. But I didn’t want to put that on the other actors but I asked them to tell me something and they did and we made it work.
Schwartz: Was there a lot that you learned in the cutting room?
PSH: That was the thing I was the furthest removed from. Everything else, I‘ve experienced- the directing of actors, writers, even the camera work was something I had done- I may not have understood the lingo but I definitely understood how to use the cameras. But the editing was a fucking amazing experience. It was mind blowing, it was so satisfying, and probably one of the best parts of making a film is sitting in the room. But I had to learn how to put me in it, and the other thing, I was really cutting around myself and it was awful. I remember one of my business partners Sarah saying as a joke, ‘Don’t cut yourself out of the movie’ and she went ‘haha.’ And I remembered thinking, ‘Oh fuck! My God the film is called Jack Goes Boating and I’m cutting around Jack.’ I didn’t realize that and I had to go back to the tapes and put me back in.
Audience Question: How do you adapt your approach from doing a character on film than doing it on stage?
PSH: Well I think it had nothing to do with the cinema aspect of it but I think it was more of “something” I didn’t like about my performance and I had to make it better. It was trying to support him more and to make him more part of the human race and it’s to push him forward. I did that with everyone’s characters- I really wanted it to be more. There are things that are different in the film opposed to the play. I mean the fight between the couple is much more brutal in the film than in the play- I really love it in the film, I love that they don’t make it. I love the idea that Connie and Jack watched something die, and out of that they still say ‘we’re going to do it anyway.’ That really is the truth of it all, when you watch the relationships around you, whether parents or spouses, you get hurt and you still do it anyway. It’s amazing that we do it and I wanted that to happen.
Audience Question: Did the experience of acting influence your approach later in directing?
PSH: In both ways I see myself off in other actors as well as directing. It’s really a humbling thing but it also helps me challenge the other actors because I know they can. I’m going to say that there’s something off we have to get here, let’s go because I know we can. So it creates both things, which I think is the best thing since you don’t want an environment when the actors fear the director. I want to be with somebody that wants to do better.
Schwartz: What is it that you have to keep yourself from doing when you’re in the hot seat with the actor who’s also the director?
AR: Well I’m always skeptical when directors say ‘Oh that’s great, you did perfect,’ and that’s with any job in our lives. I mean I signed onto this for a reason and when making art, you have to tell the truth and have disagreements without falling out. You can still be friends at the end of it but I’d rather have somebody tell me something very harsh, not be mean about it but be brutally honest because I’d rather see it in the end result. But also for me, the body doesn’t lie. If I start sweating a bit or if my stomach aches, something’s wrong. So it’s getting to that challenge Phil’s talking about that you have to go deeper.
PSH: And that’s the bad part- I was the other actor which is tricky since you don’t want to be the other actor during that. I would have to be the other actor, step out and give the direction at times. It’s nice to know you have somebody on your side, like when I’m thinking it’s not right and they come up and tell you it’s not, it’s nice to know you have somebody that agrees with you. I need someone to tell me it’s not working.
Co-Founder Johanna Bennett: What process went into the music choices for the film?
PSH: Well the Reggae thing is the character’s thought process as he tries to deal with life. But I needed music in it that had something to do with what I was feeling. So I compiled all these songs I’ve heard and got together with Sue [Susan Jacobs, the music supervisor] and she was an incredible source of information. Once she knew what I was thinking or feeling, she went out and introduced me to new bands and we got in the editing room and started editing the songs together. And Brian [Brian A. Kates, film editor] in the editing room started editing the different songs together so I could see how these different things would work. So the music is only there because it worked- it was a very satisfying thing.
Audience Question: What about your choice to film behind the characters in the limo scene?
PSH: Well that scene was only there for the snow in the windshield part so we set it up and we said ‘Let’s just run it for the beginning part, let the snow hit and we’ll cut it.’ And what happened was the scene ran- the snow hit- and I didn’t stop and neither did John [Ortiz]. And I thought ‘Wow, that went really good,’ so we did more takes. I didn’t know if it worked, but I really fought for it because that’s the scene they say they love each other. That’s the other relationship of the film: it’s really a love affair of those two friends. That’s what separates the film from others is that the relationship between two men is so tricky. What they’re saying is so hard to say so that’s why we’re not looking.
Audience Question: What was the rehearsal process?
PSH: Well we rehearsed for two weeks. For a film was a long time- that’s 12 days, 6 days a week. That’s a lot of rehearsal for a film.
Audience Question: When did you want to direct?
PSH: I started to direct in theater when I was 30, I’m 45 now, so I’ve been directing for a while now. Film was something I knew I would eventually be doing. Directing has been something that fit in my head since my 20s so it’s definitely not a late thing. It’s something I wanted early on as a actor. I liked the story telling and solving problems, I enjoy it.
Audience Question: What went through your minds during the bedroom scene?
AR: Well what do you want to know? He’s a very good kisser [laughter]. It is a intimate love scene because everything comes from the heart, it’s not so much a physical escapade but to be that close and open to someone, and a lot of the that is Bob’s [Robert Glaudini, writer of the film and play] writing. It really takes you there and teaches you not to judge what her fantasies and her desires are and what she imagines it to be.
PSH: It’s really hard stuff to do and the thing was I had to go watch and edit, and I wasn’t a really good third eye on myself. And that was the day that I said I’m grateful because Amy was there because not only is she acting but she’s also being sensitive. I really remember being so grateful that it was Amy and not someone else and that’s not because of how wonderful of an actress she is, but she understood something about me being the person that I needed to be. As a director, I couldn’t be that person so much, especially during that scene- I had to be the actor. It was a really tricky day and she did it brilliantly. It’s the scene that means it doesn’t matter if their life is going to be perfect or they’re the perfect person, but it’s the thing in life that sometimes you meet a person or a moment arises and it’s whether or not you’re going to do something about it because now is the time. That was the scene and I’m so grateful Amy was part of it.
Schwartz: To change gears a bit, this year’s performance you made in The Master, [applause]was so amazing- something about you playing a megalomaniac was perfect, so I’d like to know anything you experienced during the role
PSH: Yeah I guess what Amy said earlier about not judging is really important, so it was again another opportunity to display notes. It was a work of fiction based on several life stories, and it was very satisfying again. It’s like looking at someone and thinking how I could get behind that person or try to understand what they meant since they had a great idea. He was onto something, and he really was: that wonderful scene in the film, that whole process was perfect since what he’s doing is actually something meaningful. It’s like therapy at work, because I think how I could make him a megalomaniac and hopefully he’s as effective as I hoped. I was talking with Paul [director Paul Thomas Anderson] and other people, and the conversation really struck me. I mean how do you start a conversation with an actor and keep it going throughout the film? If you’re constantly talking about the film and character constantly through the end, you know what’s going on.
Here’s a trailer of Jack Goes Boating, which came out in 2010.