Interview: Adam and Mark Kassen of ‘Puncture’

Posted on September 28, 2011 at 8:00 am

Brothers Adam and Mark Kassen co-produced and co-directed “Puncture,” the true story of an idealistic but drug-addicted young lawyer from Houston who took on the mammoth pharmaceutical  companies on behalf of a quirky inventor who came up with a simple and inexpensive new life-saving technology to prevent health care workers from being infected by used syringes.  Because the big companies did not own the retractable syringe technology, they would lose revenues, so they fought to keep it out of hospitals.  Chris Evans (“Captain America”) plays Mike Weiss, the young lawyer, and in addition to co-producing and co-directing, Mark Kassen plays his law partner Paul Danziger.  The cast also includes Jesse L. Martin (“Law & Order, ” “Rent”), Michael Biehn (“Terminator”), and Kate Burton (“Law & Order”).

I spoke to Adam and Mark about the movie and about why so many successful Hollywood teams are brothers.

This is such a powerful story.  What message do you want this movie to carry about the role of corporations in healthcare?

Mark: Adam and I are focused primarily on the movie’s mission and the more it can get out there we hope it will connect to a larger conversation.

Adam:  We’re not investigative reporters.  This is a film, not a documentary.  It is entertainment.  But we hope that it has a larger message.  We hope people will watch it as entertainment and then start a conversation afterwards.

There’s kind of a connection between your flawed hero, who is addicted to drugs, and the industry he takes on, which is addicted to money and power.

Mark: That’s a cool analogy.  It’s an addiction to money, an extra $40 billion that gives nothing back to the industry, growing itself at any cost.  And a drug addict will get high at any cost.  It’s a more fertile ground to an already-burgeoning problem.

Adam: These group purchasing organizations run by the health care industry started out with good intentions.  It was a more streamlined way to get the products to hospitals at the best price.  But that became, like almost everything else in the health care industry, guided by the profit motive.  It turned into the opposite, squeezing out products that doctors want and nurses want, but because of politics, money, and corporations they cannot get them.

You assembled a remarkable cast.  

Mark: Adam’s been trying to get me for a long time.  I had my mom do the negotiation.

Adam: He had so many demands, a big trailer…

Mark: Adam agreed to give me the part if I finally told him he was right.    Well, first and foremost, we had to get the right actor to play Mike.  We were introduced to Chris Evans by a mutual agent.  We had seen “Sunshine,” the Danny Boyle film, which he was great in.  And whatever he was in, he is always great.  We wanted somebody for that role who would have a sense of tragedy but not self-indulgent but dynamic, charismatic, exciting.

Adam: Like the real guy was.  Chris is this multi-layered actor and he knocked it out of the park.  We cast around him with really great actors.  Jesse L. Martin is a good friend of ours and did it to help us out and because he was excited about the material.  Kate Burton (who plays the Senator) came down for a day.

Mark: There are upsides and downsides to making a small movie like this.  Once we got Chris, we that means you have just this much money to get the movie made.  So, people say, “this guy plays a second lead on that TV show, so he’s worth this much money,” and we didn’t do that.  With our casting directors, we were able to get just good actors, the best we could.  Brett Cullen is actually from Houston.  The last scene in the movie, the camera shoots out the window, you can see the Cullen building.  In Houston we got so many great local actors.  We were surprised by how many people we could get from the area.

For a lawyer who appears in court, Mike was a very flamboyant dresser.

Adam: We talked to so many people who knew Mike, opposing counsel, judges, people he went to high school with and one of the most consistent through-lines beside his brilliance was the way he dressed, where he had them tailored, where he bought them.  There were all these stories about his suspenders and wild colored shirts and how he thought he was the Man!

It’s surprising how many brother teams there are in Hollywood today — the Coens, the Farrellys, the Wachowskis.  What is it about the brother relationship that works in film-making?

Adam: We’re used to being around each other.

Mark: In all honesty, if making a film is all about communication, you’re used to being able to communicate with each other on an intimate level and that gives you a good start.

Adam: There’s a lot of debate and conversation and exploration involved, in a good way, with the actors, the editors, the DP.   Being brothers, we’ve been debating for a long time, and if you are friends as brothers that means you have done it successfully.  Being on a film set is stressful at times, but no more stressful than doing the dishes together after dinner with your parents.  You’re used to debating in that high-stress environment.  And you know each other so well.  You recognize that look that’s been making you angry since you were 10 years old that someone else might not notice.  But it’s over very quickly as well, so arguments don’t resonate.  We have similar creative sensibilities and that really helps.  And we have that basic level of trust.

 

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Interview: Claire LaZebnik of Epic Fail and Families and Other Non-Returnable Gifts

Posted on September 27, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Claire LaZebnik is the witty and wise author of two new books, both highly recommended.  Families and Other Nonreturnable Gifts (for adults) is the story of Keats, the “normal” child in an unconventional family with poetically-named siblings Hopkins (a brilliant doctor) and Milton (a reclusive computer geek) and divorcing parents who disapprove of her long-time boyfriend.  Epic Fail, for YA (young adult) readers, has the daughter of the new principal of a tony prep school meet the son of Hollywood stars in a Pride and Prejudice-style romantic comedy.  LaZebnik is as much fun to interview as she is to read and it was a treat to get her to answer my questions.

You are a big Jane Austen fan — which book is your favorite?  How has she influenced or inspired you?

My favorite Austen novel used to be Pride and Prejudice, because it’s the most unabashedly romantic of them all.   Darcy and Elizabeth spar so beautifully while they’re falling in love–the romantic tension is phenomenal.  I’ll never get tired of rereading it.  But at some point after college, I started to prefer Emma.  Emma is such a wonderfully flawed heroine. She’s conceited and overly-confident and a snob, but she’s also smart and beautiful and lovable.  And Mr. Knightley is . . . <happy, dreamy sigh because words can’t capture how I feel about him>  . . .  There’s just something about the way he’s guiding her and loving her and forgiving her all at the same time that I find even more romantic than the Elizabeth/Darcy sparring thing.  But I had to grow into that.

Austen’s inspiring because she was limited to writing about the world she knew, which was a very restricted world of parlors and teas, but she still managed to capture an entire universe of human behavior.

Also,  Austen wrote in her sister’s house, in the midst of chaos.  I do most of my writing downstairs, surrounded by the family and pets, in the midst of chaos.  If she didn’t complain, I’m not going to.  (Okay, that’s a lie.  I always complain.)

When you began Families and Other Nonreturnable Gifts, the story of upheavals in the life of an unconventional family, did it start with an image or a character or an incident?

With a contrast actually: I wanted to contrast a middle-aged mother who’s dating a bunch of different men with her young daughter who’s in a longterm relationship.  I like that they both play against people’s expectations.

Why do we all feel like outsiders in our own families at times?

When you’re a kid, you buy into your family’s mythology.  You believe that the way your family does things is the right and proper way to do them–maybe even the ONLY way to do them. Then you leave home, go to college, fall in love, get to know other people’s families, go into therapy . . . and you suddenly have a different perspective on your childhood.  You walk into your old home and realize that there was nothing universal about your upbringing, that it was specific to your family and that certain aspects of it probably could have been better.  And once you realize that, it can be strange and alienating.  You can go home again but you’ll never look at it quite the same way.

How do you have a first-person narrator tell a story so that the reader understands some things before she does?

A friend once told me that even though her boyfriend was difficult and jealous, she loved him and intended to marry him.  I could tell she was actually trying to gather the courage to break up with him.  Sometimes we telegraph our intentions before we even acknowledge them to ourselves.  And that’s what happens with my narrators sometimes–they manage to communicate to the reader their underlying emotions without stopping to examine them.

You have some vivid and sympathetic portrayals of characters with social interaction issues, not often seen in novels.  What does this add to the story?

I just think it’s realistic: I know lots of people who have mild agoraphobia or autism or depression, and there are times when these things can really interfere with forward momentum.  So I find that interesting to include in a novel, especially since how their family members deal with it–whether they’re supportive or enabling or dismissive–reveals a lot about those characters too.  And I think readers really root for someone who’s struggling to overcome any kind of inner paralysis.

Do you have a particular audience in mind when you write?

My editor, mostly!  I’ve had the same editor for my last four adult novels.  She’s wonderful–smart and receptive and kind–and I feel like if I can please her, I’m on the right track.  She’s also kind of the target audience for the book–she’s young,  and well-read.

Why does Keats, the “normal daughter,” remind you of Marilyn in the old Munsters TV show?

Cousin Marilyn was the odd man out in the Munsters, because everyone else was a monster and she was blond and pretty and human.  Keats, who’s competent and lucid and socially outgoing, feels like she’s the weird one when she spends time with her brilliant, quirky, incompetent relatives.  Normalcy is relative: out in the world, Keats is normal, but at home she’s the oddball.

How did you pick the three poets that inspired the names of the main character and her siblings?

That’s such a good question!  I didn’t even realize how much I was hoping someone would ask that until you did.  Yeats is my all time favorite poet, so I would have liked to have named my protagonist Yeats but that’s just TOO weird.  No one even knows how to pronounce it.  But Yeats makes me think of Keats . . . and that seemed much closer to a real name.  So she became Keats.  Hopkins wrote my favorite line of poetry, one that’s stuck with me for decades–“There lives the dearest freshness deep down things“–so I’m fond of him.  Plus, Hopkins sounded like a cool name to me.  And Milton is a real name, and also one of the greatest poets of all time, so he seemed like an obvious choice.

What has surprised you most about readers’ reactions to your books?

Their concern about characters I haven’t thought that much about.  I don’t want to ruin anything, but one character does get his heart broken in this novel, and several people emailed me to say, “I’m very worried about him–please promise me he’ll be okay.”  Someone even asked if he could get his own sequel. In all honesty, I hadn’t given him another thought once he was out of the picture . . .  but it’s kind of gratifying to know that readers feel that invested.

Your books are very funny — what makes you laugh?

Many things make me laugh, but my kids most of all.  Like, a few months ago we were all trying to figure out what movie we should go to and my husband and I wanted to see “127 Hours,” so we were describing it to the kids, and my 11-year-old son said, “I don’t think I should see that movie and I don’t think I should have to be the one to point that out.”  Every time I think of that, I start laughing again.  He was so right.  And it was such a great way to put it.

What was the first piece of writing you got paid for?  What did you do with the money?

Wow.  I’m not positive, but I think it was probably an essay I wrote for GQ magazine.  My sister was a magazine writer at the time and they asked her to do an “All About Adam” essay (I don’t know if they still have that feature–women writing about men) and she was too busy but she told them they should give me a shot at it.  So I did and they bought it and that was the beginning of my magazine career.  I think it was like a dollar a word, so a few hundred dollars, maybe?  I’m sad to say that I’ve never been one of those people who earmark earnings for something special.  I always stick checks in the bank and they just become part of my savings, although sometimes I will think, “Well, that last check paid for this” when I buy something indulgent.

What’s the best thing about writing for a YA audience?

The fan mail.  I get the most mind-blowingly wonderful emails from teenage girls.  They care deeply about the characters and really want to connect with me to discuss them.  And a lot of them are interested in a writing career, so I love having the chance to encourage that.   I answer every email I get.  If someone’s taken the time to write me, I’m going to let her know how much I appreciate it.

Your characters often use humor to connect with or deflect each other — how do you create the humor personality of each character?

My romantic leads tend to “find” each other through their similar senses of humor.  I often have the main characters tease each other in a way that other people in the book just can’t keep up with.  I’m not interested in snarky or nasty humor–there has to be a positive and playful energy to it.  And they have to know when it’s time to be serious.  Not everything should be a joke.

What is it about the Elizabeth/Darcy conflict that makes it so enduring and relatable?

I don’t know if I’d say it’s relatable so much as it’s a truly satisfying fantasy: I mean, the most sought-after bachelor in your social circle falls in love with you AGAINST HIS WILL.  He knows he shouldn’t, but he can’t help himself.  It’s the most romantic thing in the world!  And the reason he falls in love with her is that she’s so funny and smart.  Honestly, there are so many clunky romances these days where you never actually see the attraction, where the authors assume that having characters be rude to each other is the same as Elizabeth and Darcy sparring.  E and D are never RUDE.  They’re smart and witty and have good conversations, even before they fall in love.

How is high school like Austen’s insular communities?

There’s a clear hierarchy to both, one that might not be obvious to outsiders, but is very clear to anyone inside the community.  And those social divisions are almost impossible to cross or change–it’s very rare for someone in one group to fall in love with someone in another, and if it happens, it sends ripples throughout the entire community.  Plus everyone knows everyone else’s business–it’s virtually impossible to keep a secret!

 

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Free Tickets to a DC Screening of ‘The Way’ — Revised RSVP Code

Posted on September 27, 2011 at 10:30 am

Sorry about that!  I have just twenty passes to give away (each admits two), so respond right away by clicking this movie pass link and entering RSVP code: BLFWJZ3

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Free Tickets to a Washington DC Movie Screening: ‘The Way’ with Martin Sheen

Posted on September 26, 2011 at 3:13 pm

If you live in the Washington DC area, I’d love to give you free tickets to see a special advance screening of The Way, Thursday, Oct. 6.  It stars Martin Sheen and was written and directed by his son, Emilio Estavez.  Sheen plays  an American doctor who comes to St. Jean Pied de Port, France to collect the remains of his adult son (played in flashbacks by Estevez), who was killed in the Pyrenees in a storm while walking the Camino de Santiago, also known as The Way of Saint James.  The doctor decides to complete his son’s journey and take the historical pilgrimage himself. What Tom doesn’t plan on is the profound impact the walk will have on him.

NOTE: A TICKET DOES NOT GUARANTEE A SEAT.  PLEASE BE SURE TO GET TO THE THEATER EARLY.  SEATING IS FIRST-COME, FIRST-SERVED.

I have just twenty passes to give away (each admits two), so respond right away by clicking this movie pass link and entering RSVP code: BLFWJZ3

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