Interview: Max Mayer of ‘Adam’

Posted on August 5, 2009 at 3:59 pm

Max Mayer is the writer/director behind the sensitive and insightful new film, “Adam,” the story of a young man with Asperger Syndrome (Hugh Dancy) who is befriended by his new neighbor (Rose Byrne). He is an exceptionally thoughtful and engaging person and I truly loved talking with him about the film.
Tell me how this film came about.
I listened to an NPR radio show with a young man who had Asperger Syndrome, talking about his challenges, how the world seemed to him, about trying to figure out how to interact, how it felt when people nodded and smiled and he was feeling outside of the joke. I was really moved by that, and I am not that moved that often. I thought I should figure out what this is about and the more I learned the better it seemed a metaphor for human relations in general.IMG_5233.JPG
And then this guy started talking in my head. And the script began to come together.
Did you and the cast do a lot of research on Asperger Syndrome?
Yes. By chance, Hugh is engaged to Claire Danes and she did a movie about Temple Grandin . So, Aspy is spoken here.
Many people with Asperger Syndrome become extremely focused on fact-intensive subjects, and in this film Adam is very knowledgeable about astronomy. Is that a particular specialty of yours?
The spaceman metaphor happened organically. I’ve always been interested in cosmology and astronomy, but as soon as it becomes mathematical I can’t do it any more. And it is always on the list of interests for people with Asperger Syndrome. It made sense to me that Adam’s dad would have gotten him a space suit that was a prize possession, and he would wear it not for fun or to pretend but because it was utterly logical and sensible to use.
How do you project yourself into the mind of someone whose thinking patterns are so different from those of a writer, who is at the other end of the spectrum in terms of being attuned to others?
I was a psychology major at college, but it was all about rats and chemicals so I retreated into theater. I was trained as an actor to begin by interpreting the text extremely literally. It’s the first time I’ve thought about this but that was part of why it felt easy to me to write this guy. It is so easy, especially for young actors, to read sarcasm or irony or some sort of off-kilter interpretation into the text and not investigate what the words mean, and that was beaten into us at NYU, to begin with just the words. And that is how Adam speaks.
The movie treats all of its characters with great tenderness.
When I first wrote it, it was a bit bleaker, he was more clearly on his own. But the people who read it said, “You can’t do that! Why was I watching this?” Then I tried it the other way and let them get back together, but I didn’t like it and had to figure out why I didn’t like it. It was like saying “just kidding” about the rest of the movie. I did want to say something positive about their development and make it clear that they had ended up some place that was a good place for them to be.
I got so enthralled with Adam that as I started to write it Beth was a little bit of a cipher. I had to round her out and round her parents out. I wanted to make sure everyone had a legitimate point of view. The father makes the point about care-taking, to give the stronger point of view in the voice of the heel. It needs somebody that good because it comes late in the movie structurally.
Central Park plays an important role in the film.
I love Central Park. And it is like Adam and Beth. Manhattan is a rock with buildings, and then there is this romantic splash of green in the middle. As they say in the film, they weren’t supposed to be there, but they were. It’s Adam’s place, a place he feels comfortable, in the midst of an unbelievably intimidating metropolis.
Your background is in theater, so as you begin to work in movies, who are some of the films and film-makers who influenced you?
“The Last Emperor, many of Stanley Kubrick’s movies, Hal Ashby’s movies, including “Being There” — some similarity to “Adam” in that one, “Midnight Cowboy,” “The Graduate,” the way some of the music in that film is used — and “Adam” has a scene where we see the characters reacting very differently to that movie. I was also influenced by playwrights like Sam Shepard, Eugne O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Shakespeare, of course, John Patrick Shanley.
What makes you laugh?
Miscomunication makes me laugh, “Who’s on first,” Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, George Carlin.
I can tell you are a writer — that answer is very word-oriented.
Theater is language-based. But what I love about movies is that I still feel like a freshman which is really great. Movie directing is every bit as good a job as it is cracked up to be, working with the actors and finding the moments. In movies, it doesn’t have to be replicable, you don’t have to get there every night, and after it is all over you get this unbelievable time called editing. When you are in the editing room, you can make them do it over and over, make them look at what you want them to look at, you never give it over to the actors. In the theater, you can go out for a smoke when the audience comes in. But in a movie, the director has the final word.
TOMORROW: Interview with Dancy and Byrne

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Interviews: ‘In the Loop’

Posted on July 23, 2009 at 7:59 am

“In the Loop” is a scathingly funny satire about politics and politicians. While it names no names of individuals or countries or conflicts, it is inspired by the British and American government in the run-up to the Iraq war. But it is perpetually timely for its take on the pettiness and thuggery of complex organizations. Think “Dr. Strangelove” meets “The Office.”

I spoke to actor David Rasche and director Armando Iannucci, who also co-wrote, when they came to Washington DC for a screening and question and answer session.

Rasche has shown a skill for deadpan comedy as the title detective character in “Sledge Hammer!” But this is not his first political role — he played a CIA staffer in “Burn After Reading” and the President of the United States in “DAG” and “The Sentinel.” He is a confirmed political junkie and was really looking forward to seeing the movie with a Washington D.C. audience.

What do you think will be special about showing this film in Washington?

Various cities have various characters but I’ve found my group here. My wife can’t wait to go to the screening and see Washington look at itself in the mirror.

How did you prepare for this role of a State Department official who is both hawkish and bureaocratic?

I’ve been preparing for this role for eight years, five hours a day watching CNN, MSNBC, and Fox. So I brought all of my ammunition to that character, and made him arrogant, self-serving, condescending and belittling and supercilious. If that reminds you of Rove, Rumsfeld, or Addington, well….

Mimi Kennedy is also very, very political, and she also spent five hours a night watching the news. She was very familiar with the terrain not just through watching the news but through her own work with Truth in Voting.

The script gave us an adversarial relationship. It told me a lot of what I thought about her. And we drew some of our performance from Washington itself. This place is fierce! People will talk to you as long as they are interested. And everyone is always like “My take on this is smarter than yours is,” or “Bob told me, he didn’t tell you??” Every moment is a contest. As they say, Washington is Hollywood for ugly people.

This is a British film that shows the contrasts — and similarities — between the UK and the US. Is there a difference in audiences or styles of humor?

There’s no difference in humor. This is a British film but it has the same two strains of DNA as in American comedy, the verbal wit and the situational.

Your character seems to believe that facts would only distract him from the truth.

I think there’s some Illinois in that. My dad was a little like that. You’d say, “Want to try this new kind of curry?” And he’s say “Nope! Nope! Nope!” I think that is just what Rumsfeld felt. He already had everything he needed. I’m from Illinois, too! I can sing the state song!

You cannot talk about this movie without discussing the astonishingly inventive invective, the avalanche of profanity and insult.

The funny thing about it is that it is volcanic but somehow innocent because of the sheer magnitude. There’s so much of it, it’s silly. This is ornate, it’s oriental, it’s unbelievable, embroidered. In London, if you have less than three c-words in a movie it’s 13 and under. One of the writers specialized in this and when they needed some sort of over-the-top rant they would ask him for it.

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Actors Directors Interview

Happy Birthday to The Worst Director Ever

Posted on June 23, 2009 at 12:00 pm

Uwe Boll is now pretty much universally considered the worst movie director alive, if not the worst ever. Not only are five of his films in the IMDB’s all-time worst 100 list (a record), but Boll has inspired a petition begging him to stop making movies. Like Ed Wood and other legendarily awful directors, Boll is better at raising money to make movies than at making them. He licenses a pre-sold brand, a video game, and then makes a completely incompetent movie about it. About his film “Alone in the Dark,” I wrote ” Reid delivers her lines as though she is calling for another round of Mai Tais for the house.”

I have to admit, I got a kick out of the corporate governance element of his commentary, and this short film (brief crude language) is much more entertaining than Boll’s movies.

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Interview: Tannishtha Chatterjee and Sarah Gavron of ‘Brick Lane’

Posted on July 25, 2008 at 10:00 am

Sarah Gavron is the director and Tannishtha Chatterjee is the star of the new British film “Brick Lane,” based on the best-selling novel by Monica Ali. While the book covers three decades in the life of its heroine Nazneen, a Bangladeshi girl who comes to London for an arranged marriage, the movie shows us just one transitional year. I spoke with Gavron and Chatterjee in Washington D.C.

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In the US, everyone but the Native Americans is very aware of his connection to the immigrant experience, though that does not necessarily translate into being welcoming of newcomers. How is it different in the UK, which had a very homogeneous and colonialist way of looking at the world for so long?

SG: London is now a fascinating place to live because it has so many cultures, even if you’re a born and bred Londoner, you’re growing up around people who have been displaced, so you get it once removed. Sometimes you have to wait quite a long time to hear English being spoken.

Naznnen is homesick for much of the movie and yet when she has a chance to go back, she does not. Why not?

TC: There is an image she has of Bangladesh, but that Bangladesh is gone, it’s changed. The image they have in their minds is not what it was.

Do women and men find different challenges in navigating a path between assimilation and identity?

TC: In certain ways yes, especially women like Nazneen who are homemakers and don’t have an outlet outside their home or make friends through work or get to know the culture from outside. Creating a home is a bit claustrophobic because they don’t connect to anyone outside. Men in some ways have a connection but in other ways face the harsh reality of the outer world, and feel more like an outsider. Nazneen does not even know their world.

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Actors Directors Interview

Interview: Jonathan Levine of ‘The Wackness’

Posted on July 20, 2008 at 12:00 pm



Writer/director Jonathan Levine has been getting great reviews for “The Wackness,” the story of the friendship between a teenage drug dealer (Josh Peck) and his customer/therapist (Ben Kingsley). I spoke to him about what inspires him and about what it feels like to direct an Oscar-winning actor with a “Sir” title.

One thing everyone who sees the movie talks about is the specificity of period detail. It is set in 1994, a time so recent that we don’t really remember how much has changed. It wasn’t that long ago that everyone had to use pagers and pay phones instead of cell phones and Nintendo Game Boys instead of PSP.

It’s a fine line. We didn’t want it to become “I love the 90’s” but to have audiences bring their own nostalgia to it it brings an energy. The nostalgia I put in there interacts with yours — that’s all part of it. As long as you’re aware of it and polling when it gets too much then you’re okay. You can see where it becomes a little too much, and we cut some of it out.

You worked with actors from a wide range of backgrounds and your two leads in particular could not have been more different — one a classically trained Oscar-winner with a very long, distinguished career and one coming from a Nickelodeon sit-com. And then there’s Mary Kate Olson who grew up on television. How do you work with them?

I have to figure out how they like to work. It’s almost akin to throwing a party and you want the right people sitting next to the right people. I have to make sure everyone is as comfortable as possible and working in the mode they like to work in.

With Olivia (Thirlby) and Josh (Peck), they are closer to my age and I can intuit what they’re going to dig. With Sir Ben I had to ask him how he likes to work and he knows. He knows what environment he flourishes in. He said, “You have to tell me when you’ve got it and then we can play around with a few more.” In the movie frequently it’s one of his first two takes and frequently some of the others. He said, “Tell Josh that he’s going to be leading our scenes.” That made everyone comfortable, empowered us in a way, and it mirrors the dynamic the two characters have in the movie. He told Josh that, but then as everyone got more and more comfortable sometimes Sir Ben would take the lead.

Working with smart actors makes everything a lot easier. No matter what your kind of background it works as long as you have a shorthand, and it is much easier to communicate with intelligent people. This group was all very easy communicating, even with Mary Kate.

Take Josh, his show is so broad and big and he’s like this Jackie Gleason character. But he has an acting coach he’s worked with for a while and so he has serious training. I had looked him up on YouTube, too, and saw Mean Creek. He’s not afraid to go where he needs to go. He embraces the entire character, foibles and all. There was nothing that had to be taught or learned. We talked about what of his experiences were relevant. Sometimes I would say, “Bring it back a little bit,” or “Do it again.” All I wanted was the most naturalistic thing possible.

Now I see Drake and Josh all the time, it seems to be on whenever I turn on the television. And he’s into some wacky hijinks! To me the one thing after working with him that may have helped him or informed his work here is that he has an accessibility and vulnerability and ability to empathize, and that is what appealed to me. He is not afraid to be vulnerable, to show all sides of the character good and bad.

I wish I could take credit for his performance, but it’s all him. I can only take credit for casting him.

What were some of the movies or performances that influenced you in thinking about telling this story?

The references I watched during the screenwriting process were looking at May/September buddy movies like Harold and Maude, Rushmore, Wonder Boys, but movies I didn’t watch that were so much a part of who I am and growing up, the ones I tried to capture their spirit, were films by Cameron Crowe and John Hughes. We did watch Almost Famous. I didn’t have to rewatch it because it is so much a part of my memory of growing up. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is Hughes’ “Citizen Kane.” The real heart of the movie is Cameron; that’s where the movie’s heart is. The scene in the museum is beautifully done. It is all about these characters and the things they’re going through. Even though what you remember is the music and the clothes, those movies influenced me more than I knew.

I’m sure everyone wants to know about Mary Kate Olson!

We offered her the role and it was a small role and she thought she could have fun with it. I was really impressed with how down to earth she was. I’d be looking for her between takes and find her in craft services, eating grilled cheese with the grips. And she’s got this amazing charisma! Considering that she’s had such a crazy strange life, it has to be so hard for her. Walking down the street in Sundance, we had this strange group of people, everyone noticed the other guys but they were tripping over snowbanks trying to get her picture. I was glad to show her in a new light. I like the fact that in independent cinema you can take people who have preconceived notions about them and show everyone something new.

Was there a moment in this film that was your starting point for thinking about the story?

The first scene in the film is the first one I wrote, the one where everything began. I started with it four years ago in film school. As everything else was rewritten and edited, this therapy session with drugs exchanged for therapy was the center, and we built the layers around that.

How did the actors change or enlarge your ideas of the characters?

Working with Josh and Olivia was incredible because they brought such realism and a natural grounded feeling to their scenes, something the actors of the John Hughes movies had, the bravery, the willingness to embrace going to every place that you need to go to show a three-dimensional character. Olivia’s character — I don’t claim to understand women. It was incumbent upon her to fill in the blanks, to make her sympathetic in spite of the fact that what she was doing was not very nice. She gave me a new empathy for all the girls in my life, and I am very grateful for that.

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