As well as talking about the unfair criticism Kristen Stewart gets, alternate endings and method acting, he spoke about the research that went into the film and what he’s working on next.
Please note – this interview contains spoilers.
HeyUGuys: It’s obviously a very character-driven film and at times I felt that it was remarkably natural, as if any sense of a set script had been stripped away. Were Gandolfini and Stewart actually given free reign in regards to improvisation?
Jake Scott: First of all, thank you for saying that. It’s a massive compliment, actually. It’s so interesting to me how the British have responded to this film compared to the American critics. It’s weird. It’s like they just seem to get it more. I found with American critics there almost wasn’t enough emotional guidance or something, you know? It’s interesting. Yeah, with actors like that you find because they’re already really committed to the work that it makes the director’s life fairly easy. I really learnt on this film that you get your casting right, you don’t have to work that hard. You have the room to explore and investigate various ways and different dimensions of the character and the relationship. I mean, James is a method actor and Kristen’s not really formally trained, but the relationship they had in the film is very much the relationship they had off set. He really was her caretaker and he really guided her and when we’d come in in the morning onto set, you know, it was such a small film and there was nothing really to set up other than the scene with the actors. We would do like forty-five minutes of rehearsal on set to see how we could make it better and as a result there was a lot of improvisation. The first scene was the most improvised – Kristen improvises everything. She can be quite frustrating for a writer because she kind of just makes her own words up. She takes what’s written on the page and then just makes her own sense of it. She wouldn’t warn you she was doing that, she would just change the words. She’s very comfortable with improvisation, but the scene when he first goes to her place, the house, was almost completely improvised. When she rolls the joint, it was guided by the script, but I just let them go, it was great.
As you mentioned Gandolfini being method, I’ve heard that Stewart went slightly method, depriving herself of sleep and mainly eating junk food in preparation. Do you find it hard to come across young actors who are willing to throw themselves in that way?
Well, I haven’t really done enough to have had that problem. I guess in the actors I’ve met, young actors I’ve met, there are many who I feel don’t seem to – and this seems unfair because I haven’t worked with them. But I cast Kristen because she was so genuine and authentic. She’s been criticised for being very twitchy and there’s some negative things said about her in regards to her acting affectations, but they’re not affectations, they’re who she is and that’s how she is. And she’s very open and honest and authentic in herself and it really comes down to authenticity. And anyone who’s worth their salt and is driven by the want to do great work is always going to want to plunge themselves into something like that. The ones that are in it for, you know, the ‘other’ glories – there are many who are like that, who are driven by desire to be adored – are probably not going to go there and do that work. I cast her right and it’s really my first experience of working with somebody that young who was so determined to do justice to the girl she was playing. And she did a lot of work in New Orleans where I put her in contact with a stripper, even though you don’t really see her stripping in the film – I didn’t want to show that. I felt that the audience didn’t need to be looking at strippers, it would have felt like a cheap shot to me and there’s too many films with strippers in where the filmmaker exploits that and I felt that actually this film was about the exact opposite of exploitation. But nonetheless she felt that it was very necessary to put herself in that position and actually go to a club and strip and learn how to work a man in the VIP room, you know, all that stuff. And she did, she ate badly, chain smoked, didn’t sleep, stayed out of the sun and made herself generally really ill.
Continuing in that vein with the research, your film also deals with the very sensitive issue of losing a child. Were there people you and Ken Hixon (scriptwriter) formed a relationship with to get a greater knowledge of the fallout and consequences, for example the agoraphobia and adultery?
No. I mean, I read a lot about it and I knew a woman who was partially agoraphobic and in terms of grief, I have children of my own and I found the best work I could do was to consider the unconsiderable, really, which was what it would be like to lose one of my own children. But grief in general was something I’d been around a lot in the last few years and death has been something I’ve experienced a couple of times with the loss of family members. But it was something that really resonated with me when I read the script because of that and I just drew from those experiences more than anything else. The loss of a child, you do enough research and you find, actually, that more often than not, marriages won’t survive it. When we were at Sundance, a man came up to me who was not in the film industry but was a punter from Salt Lake or a film lover who had come up to me with his wife and said, ‘I just want to thank you for this film. We lost our son and this is very true to our own experience and we commend you.’ And it was great to hear that because since the release of the film on DVD, as it’s been reaching a bigger audience, I’ve been receiving a lot of letters from people who have lost their children, which is great because to know you got that right is wonderful.
There can’t be anything more humbling to a director, surely?
It is, it really is so humbling because film is artifice, essentially, so when you’re dealing with a serious subject matter you feel very privileged and also very responsible to get it right.
I’ve heard rumours of an alternate ending. Is this true? And if so, why did you choose to go with the one you did?
Because the other ending was awful. It was just crap! Ken’s a bit of an old softie, you know, he’s a bit of a romantic and he’d written a script that I really liked but there were things in it I really hated. In the original script, you saw the daughter and Doug and Lois were seen in flashbacks with the daughter. It was actually noted in the script that the girl who plays the daughter also plays Mallory, but with a different haircut. So it was like a doppelganger thing. And the end of the film, Doug and Lois and Mallory all end up living together in New Orleans as a family and there was this scene where Doug is sitting on the sofa watching telly with Mallory and he’s massaging her feet while Lois is in the kitchen making sandwiches. And I’m like, ‘You can’t do that! It’s terrible!’ And with teenagers, someone like Mallory, I felt the story worked because by the end somehow she’d found the courage to change and to move on. Maybe not completely changed, maybe still trying the stripping thing, but trying to move on, trying to move out of this dreadful life she had and that she’d always somehow be connected to Doug, but she’d have to do it on her own. She could never take up residence with them as a daughter, it just wouldn’t work at that point as it would take years for her to trust them and one of the themes of the film is trust and about trust and the nature of trust and so for that reason I thought it was far too easy to have her move in with them at the end. It was silly.
For me, one of my favourite things about the film was the beautifully subtle moments of quirky comedy between James and Kristen, especially when they’re sitting outside the cafe. Do you ever think you’ll ever revisit the comedy genre, a la Plunkett & Macleane, or is it purely about script for you?
Plunkett & Macleane didn’t really have a script, did it – that was the problem! It’s all about the script for me, I really learnt my lesson on Plunkett. I’m not going to do that again, it was horrendous. It’s about character, it’s about script, it’s very much to do with the theme being present throughout rather than being presented at the end. But yeah, it’s entirely to do with that.
Finally, you’ve done a lot of really interesting documentaries – U2, The Cranberries, Smashing Pumpkins, Cypress Hill, even. I’m really intrigued by the prospect of Mystery White Boy. Is there anything you can tell me about it?
If you’re familiar with Jeff Buckley and his music then I’m trying to tell a very faithful, but very intimate, portrait of what I think is probably one of the greatest recent artists in music history. He was a poet, that guy, and I think his music has lasted and still resonates with people because it was so from the depth of his being and soul, you know? I’m not somebody who ever thought I’d make a music film, but I love him so much and his music so much that I couldn’t resist it when it came along. The kid I’ve got to play Jeff is called Reeve Carney. This kid is going to be a big star. He really is. I mean, this kid is going to be huge, I have no doubt about it. He’s going to be a new one for everyone. I think this will be the first film he’s been seen in that people will really see what he’s capable of – he’s an amazing musician, so hopefully we’ll get it made!
So it’s completely authentic, with everyone playing their own instruments?
Oh yeah. We’re having the same producer as Control, which I thought was a fantastic film and that’s how they approached it in that film, too, so we’re going to do that. I think Control’s probably the best film about modern music ever made, really – that and 24 Hour Party People – and I think that’s a good lesson, a good guide for us.