|Title:||The Squid and the Whale|
|10.27.05||Paramount||This Screening is part of event: Austin Film Festival 2005|
Closing night: Sad at not seeing any more movies, happy to get bad to real life and better theaters. Tonight they scheduled the movie I was looking most forward to such that it would run over all the second shows. It's for the best, I suppose. I'd hate to go from a movie I liked as much as The Squid and the Whale to some flick that sucks and have that be my final AFF experience. Best to just leave it with this:
The Squid and the Whale is about a family undergoing divorce in mid-80s NYC. The focus of the story is Walter (played by Jesse Eisenberg who a lot of you might recognize from Cursed but was also in The Village and Roger Dodger), the teenaged son of the family, as he deals with adjusting to this new situation. Whereas Walter sides with his Father (Jeff Daniels in a really great role), younger brother Frank (played by Owen Kline, son of actors Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline) sides more with their mother (another consistently good Laura Linney performance) although both children exhibit lashing-out behavior that we get to see in all its awkward uncomfortable glory. Filling out the cast is Anna Paquin as one of Daniels' grad students and perhaps a career-reviving performance by William Baldwin as a burnt-out tennis pro who calls everyone "Brother."
Although the subject matter is painful and depressing, the movie has charm enough and finds humor in the minutiae to elevate it above something like Winter Passing into a realm closer to Royal Tenenbaums or Rushmore, perhaps no accident due to Baumbach's current proximity to Wes Anderson. I was personally a bit worried that this film would follow the highbrow intellectual ennui of Baumbach's previous films but maybe spending some time with Anderson and his surreal familial drama has helped him to move on, ultimately yeilding a much more mature film than both Mr. Jealousy or Kicking and Screaming (I haven't seen Highball). It's still populated in a world where the most biting insult is calling someone a "philistine" but the film never gets caught up in its wit or mistakes its importance as anything more than personification of these particular characters. There are great moments here of growing up, seeing your parents as humans with flaws, understanding mistakes as you make them, and several other staple coming-of-age ideas that sound overdone and boring but really aren't in this movie. I mean where else are you going to see semen smeared on school library books? Don't answer that.
So yeah, this is a film worth seeing for sure.
Afterward, actor Jeff Daniels came out for a very candid and rewarding Q&A:
-First off, the actor seemed very comfortable up on stage and welcomed all questions openly and honestly. Hearing him talk about acting and his job gave me a feeling of maybe what it would be like to be there for an Inside the Actor's Studio session or something before Lipton became a self-parody and called people like Rob Schneider brilliant. It was pretty cool.
-In the film, Daniels' character (Bernard) is very unsympathetic. He doesn't apologize for his actions and what's more he never changes. He is who he is right from the start and never strays as the film unfolds. When asked how he got to that place, Daniels explained that the main concept behind Bernard is that he doesn't know his life is unraveling. He sees himself completely as the victim and that he's already done everything he possibly can, and a general feeling of under-appreciation amped up to the Nth degree fuels his every action. Daniels explained that he lives in Michigan and has written around 10 plays for his theater company there so he had an inkling of what Bernard must feel, which is a severe lack of attention that he feels he deserves. So, Daniels said, he just doused that with gasoline and lit the match and he was there.
-He said the part was very complex, difficult and challenging; very unsympathetic, painful and tragic yet also very funny. He met with writer/director Noah Baumbach after reading the script and Noah mentioned that he was the first person to see the humor there. Apparently, the part had gone out to a few different people who had turned it down because it's too unsympathetic, and was out to one actor who was taking his sweet time getting back with an answer when Daniels read the script. In essence, he "stole" the part by getting a lunch with Noah and really impressing upon him his willingness to do it. He mentioned that there was a small period of sizing up where he could feel Baumbach looking at him and thinking "can this Dumb and Dumber guy really pull this off?" but ultimately he won him over and got the part.
-Daniels' main thought about Bernard is that he never gets a pet-the-dog scene. In most films, usually toward the end, you see the unsympathetic character sort of break down and acknowledge that he's a bastard and pet the dog, thereby gaining sympathy with the audience. Daniels mentioned that that's why several actors passed on the part and also why he was so interested in it (Daniels: "Cruise has that scene in every goddamn movie he does! He Does!!"), so for him it was really refreshing to play a guy who just is who he is. The conflict in the story is with Walter, not Bernard, so Bernard can just be Bernard and it's up to Walter to deal with that.
-At that first lunch meeting, Baumbach told Daniels that the script was very autobiographical and that the part of Bernard is based on his father, famous critic Jonathan Baumbach, who is alive and well. Through the course of preparation, Daniels met Jonathan and could directly see where some of the "writerly" phrases like "an elegant block" and "the filet of the neighborhood" came from. He said that Jonathan would throw out a word here or there that was very unusual and get a little glint in his eye, sort of testing to see if Daniels would catch it or not: all mental fodder for character filed into Daniels' brain. Daniels also mentioned that Jonathan Baumbach's writing is indeed very dense.
-The problem came afterward during rehearsal when he felt he was stuck in imitation/mimic mode with Noah's dad. He had to really talk it out with Noah and personalize it to get beyond the mimicry into the real spirit and soul of the character, which was the big challenge for him. That's where the whole underappreciation thing came in and he was off and running. Daniels said that this was the main difference between independant film and studio projects. Here it was just he and Noah sitting in a room hammering it out. There weren't 20 producers on cell phones all saying "it isn't working, it isn't working!" to one another in increasingly frantic tones.
-They had two weeks of unpaid rehearsal before shooting, which Daniels was very grateful for. "You can make a lot of mistakes and not have to pay for them," he said with regards to the relatively cheap expense of rehearsal time versus the every-second-counts crunch of being on set with equipment rented and crew standing around. The movie was shot in 23 days (July/August 2004) in Brooklyn for 1.5 million dollars (Daniels: "Basically a buck and a half") which i personally find really amazing.
-"I'm the guy they call when they have to deal with kids AND animals." Daniels describes working with children and young actors as a constant battle. The most important thing to do with them is to establish trust and get them comfortable enough to shed all the nervous energy of a child actor and arrive in a place where it's NAR: No Acting Required. Really the only way to do that is to spend enough time with them so they know that in the midst of all the craziness going on, they can look to you as a source of trust and safety. You do that, Daniels says, by just spending tons of time with them, talking about things they're interested in, and making that transition so smooth that by the time you get around to the script, they're treating it just like any other subject. He mentioned that Laura Linney did the same kind of thing with both Owen Kline and Jesse Eisenberg, which is how the four of them got close enough to act like a real family in two weeks. Because of this rehearsal time, they hit the ground running because all of the problems normally had during the first week of shooting had already come up and been dealt with. He advises any independant filmmaker out there to stress the importance of rehearsal. Treat it like the theater, which uses it religiously.
-Someone asked about what kind of preparation 12 year-old Owen Kline went through to do all the uncomfortable and embarrassing stuff that he had to do in the film and Daniels answered pretty candidly by saying that he didn't really care. Acting is big time and if Owen couldn't do it they would get someone who could. He then said that both Phoebe and Kevin talked a lot with him in preparation and the big trick in acting at any age was to not judge the character. You may do things as that character that you wouldn't or couldn't ever do as a person but that's the character on the page and it's your job to bring him to life. He also said that it was important to supply them with positive-yet-vague reinforcement after the scene, like saying "hey I heard your scenes went well yesterday, good job! Want some ice cream?" Not speaking about it in specifics to bring up anything potentially embarrassing but letting him know that he was doing a good job.
That said, when asked if it was weird that he had to kiss and feel up Anna Paquin, Daniels answered "yeah, that was weird. We never really talked about it." Daniels played Paquin's father in Fly Away Home so it probably was pretty... uncomfortable, but he told a great story about how when they were setting up for their first kiss, he looked out the window and asked Paquin if she saw any geese. She said no and he yelled "Rolling!"
-Someone also asked about the circa-2004 cars on the streets in supposedly 1986 period. To that, Daniels said that they could only afford five period cars (one of which belonged to the 1st AD) so they tried to use them as much as they could but they just didn't have the money to keep those pesky SUVs out.
-Another person asked if they shot the movie in sequence, to which Daniels explained the whole process of how, in most cases with films, they shoot by location since that's usually the most limiting aspect of scheduling a film production. Therefore, you shoot completely out of sequence just because you have to get everything at location A shot while you can then you move on and get everything at location B and so forth. He said that's where working in the theater really helps actors because you need to have a firm grasp of where your character is emotionally at every step of the picture so you can dial it up or down and have it come off as consistent in the finished piece. With plays, everything's sequential so it's easier to feel that scale incrementally.
-For the record, Jeff Daniels does not play tennis, but considers himself an excellent high school athlete. Besides, he mentioned, Bernard wasn't supposed to be too good anyway so he thought he fit the role pretty well. it was Billy Baldwin that had to act like he knew what he was doing.
-To end the night, someone asked Daniels if he's heard Noah's father's reaction to the film, since Noah mentioned that he never showed him the script. According to Daniels, Noah's dad Jonathan came up to his son after he first saw it and said "I'm very unsympathetic." Noah tried to comfort him a bit, saying stuff like "no... I don't think so. Some people even like you!" and Jonathan answered "No, I'm very unsympathetic. But I'm also very proud of you."
With that, a huge "awwww" swept the crowd and they wrapped up our time with Jeff Daniels, The Squid and the Whale, and the 2005 Austin Film Festival, leading us out of the Paramount theater into the October night. Luckily for me, There's a pair of Alamo events scheduled for the weekend to keep the energy rolling. Back to the Alamo, back to my netflix, back to dreaming of Kier-la.