Interview: Kirk Jones of ‘Everybody’s Fine’

Posted on December 13, 2009 at 9:43 am

Kirk Jones, a British writer/director, is best known in America for the delightful comedy “Waking Ned Divine.” His first American movie is Everybody’s Fine, a remake of an Italian film, with Robert DeNiro as the father of four adult children who don’t feel they can tell him the truth about what is going on in their lives. I spoke to him about parents, children, and an outsider’s view of the American landscape.
NM: How do you decide how much to protect your parents or children or how much to tell them?
KJ: That’s a fantastic question. It’s the first time I’ve been asked that but I was expecting to hear it a lot more often. I have to say I don’t know the answer. It’s an incredibly fine line. We should all be totally and completely honest with each other. But we’re all sophisticated enough to know and our emotions are sophisticated enough to know that there are times when if you don’t need to fill people in on every detail of every situation then that can only help protect them and their own emotions. I’m certainly not proposing that we keep huge secrets from each other but it is human nature to want to protect the person you care about the most and at times that means not being 100 percent honest with them
NM: How did you as someone from outside the US use the settings to help tell the story?
KJ: I was very aware that as an English writer and film-maker that I needed to take this road trip very seriously, so I flew to New York and went cross-country to Vegas mostly on Greyhounds and Amtrak. I drove a little bit as well just to get off the main highways. And I went across the country on a three-week trip. I took about 2000 photographs and interviewed about 100 people.
A number of things happened. I felt I really got under the skin of this country and felt I was much more qualified to go back to London and write a road trip movie that takes place here. The second thing was on a daily basis I was inspired with ideas that I saw out of the window of the bus and the train and they went directly into the script. Things like Frank’s occupation. I knew it was important. I knew I wanted it to have some relevance. I kept looking at truck stops and factories, trying to work out what he could do. Literally, I was traveling from St. Louis to Kansas on an Amtrak train. I looked out the window and my focus shifted to the telephone wires, and I just thought how beautiful and elegant they were and I looked at the wire and I thought, “Someone has to cut that wire and someone has to protect it from the elements.” And what a beautiful irony it would be if Frank had helped all these people communicate and protected the line of communication but was struggling to communicate with his own family. So that kind of dropped into place.
And I realized this was a chance to show these stunning landscapes. This country is so beautiful. Most of the people I talked to have not traveled as much as I did. I think that’s very common. I haven’t traveled very much in the UK. We take our own homeland for granted. We feel like we know it because we see it on the news or we see it in pictures, read about it in encyclopedias or studied it in school. But I think it is very important to get out there and appreciate the beauty of your own country.
I knew I wanted to include these landscapes but I didn’t want to just insert them in the movie as I think happens in other films just because they’re pretty pictures. I wanted to dramatically have a reason for them being there. So, I thought, the wires are stretching between the poles. The poles are incredibly graphic, these wooden crosses stretching across the country, through deserts and mountainous areas. So there was a dramatic reason to include the poles and the wires and we could hear the conversations and at the same time it allowed me to present the beautiful landscapes.
NM: Your stars in this film are all very accomplished and talented actors but they have very different styles of acting. How did you make that work for the movie?
JK: I was very keen that the level of acting throughout the film should be very natural. This is a film about a real family and the real problems they have. As a film-maker, I always find that it’s more effective to present a realistic view of the world because then you have a better chance of the audience believing in it and therefore investing in it emotionally. So the brief for the actors in general was to underplay, to keep it believable. As the younger daughter, more insecure, drawn to the bright lights, Drew’s way was to overcompensate and be bubbly and charming and more affectionate. I think that is often the way with the youngest.
NM: Is there one theme you keep coming back to?
JK: In the modern world, the importance of us communicating as families. It’s common for us to consider keeping in touch as something on our to-do list. When we used to live more predominantly in communities, more people had direct contact with their brothers and sisters and parents and children. Now it’s much more common for people to say, “I need to be in LA” or “I need to be in New York.” Supposedly we have more sophisticated ways to keep in touch with cell phones and the internet and texting and Skyping and video conferencing. But it takes quite an effort to make that call. Even though it is easier to keep in touch I am not sure that translates to actually keeping in touch. So many people leave this film saying, “I have to ring my Mum. I have to talk to my brothers and sisters.” That is a very fulfilling theme to be able to address.

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Behind the Scenes Directors Interview Writers

Arlington Road

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This is a very scary movie about a very scary subject — terrorism. Indeed, its release was delayed due to concerns about the sensitivity of the material. Jeff Bridges plays Michael Faraday, a professor who specializes in terrorism, still grieving for the loss of his wife, an FBI agent who was killed in a Ruby Ridge-style shootout. He is befriended by a new neighbor, Oliver Lang (Tim Robbins). At first, Lang’s family seems like an all-American family straight out of an “Up With People” concert, but Faraday begins to suspect that under their bright smiles and peppy friendship might be something very sinister.

Faraday’s friends think that he has become a little unhinged from his wife’s experience. But as he continues to investigate, he discovers more and more disturbing information about the Langs.

This movie will give thoughtful teens some things to think about — balancing the need for security against individual rights, the difficulty of deciding whom to trust, and the factors that lead to hate crimes. The references to acts of terrorism in the US that are so close to reality you will think you recognize them make this more thoughtful than the usual thriller. The very first image, of a boy walking in an immaculate suburb, bleeding from an accident, sets the stage for the unsettling story, and the ending is not only scary, but hauntingly so.

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Drama Horror Thriller

My Dog Skip

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This is a good, old-fashioned boy and his dog movie, based on the memoir of Willie Morris, who grew up in 1940’s Mississippi, a small, sleepy town of “ten thousand souls and nothing to do.” It is lyrical and very touching, with many important issues for family discussion.

Willie (“Malcolm in the Middle’s” Frankie Muniz) feels like an outsider, bookish and unathletic. He does not have a single friend to invite to his 9th birthday party. But one of his birthday presents is a friend, a puppy he names Skip.

Willie’s “lively and talkative” mother (Diane Lane. luminous as always) gives him Skip over the objections of his “stern and overbearing” father (Kevin Bacon). One of the most interesting scenes in the movie for older kids is the parents’ debate. Willie’s mother says, “He is a responsible boy who needs a friend.” His father says that pets are “just a heartbreak waiting to happen.” Having lost his leg — and much of his sense of hope about life — in a war, he wants to protect Willie from loss as long as he can. But Mrs. Morris knows that loss is the price we pay for caring, and that what we gain from caring — and from loss — is well worth it.

Skip and Willie find “unconditional love on both our parts.” Skip is a good listener and a loyal companion. Together, the boy and dog explore an ever-widening world. Skip helps Willie develop confidence and make friends with other boys and with the prettiest girl in school. Willie grows up in the segregated South, but Skip makes friends without regard for color, and takes Willie along.

Some of the adventures Willie and Skip share are scary (like an all-night stay in a cemetery that turns into an encounter with moonshiners) or sad (Willie’s hero, a local sports star, returns from combat in WWII very bitter and humiliated). Willie learns about the world with Skip. He learns about himself, too. Angry and embarrassed at his poor performance in a baseball game, he hits Skip, who runs away, devastating Willie. Taking responsibility for his behavior and facing the consequences start him on the road to his adult self.

Families who see this movie will have a lot to talk about. Parents should give kids some background to help them understand WWII-era America, with ration books and scrap drives. Be sure to point out the evidence of segregation, including separate ticket booths and seating areas at the movie theater and an adult black man calling a white boy “sir.”

Talk about what makes bullies behave the way they do and how the skills that make a child successful are very different from the skills that make an adult successful. This is shown by Willie and by his althetic friend Dink, who went to war filled with bravado and returned badly shaken. Discuss the way Willie and his friends respond to Dink’s return, especially in connection with Willie’s comment as an adult that “loyalty and love are the best things of all, and surely the most lasting.” Ask kids what they think of the way Willie’s parents disagree about whether he should have Skip, and how parents want to protect their kids, sometimes maybe too much so.

The movie tells us that even as a grown-up, Willie thought of Skip every day. Ask kids what there is in their lives right now that helps them grow up, and what it is that they will think of when their “memories of the spirit linger on and sweeten long after memories of the brain have faded.”

Warning: spoilers ahead. Parents should know that there are a couple of strong words in the script, a deer is killed by hunters, a child tells a scary story, menacing bad guys threaten Willie and Skip, and Skip is badly injured. When Skip finally dies (of old age) it is still very sad. A four-year-old boy sitting near me was inconsolable and kept repeating, “Skip died?” all the way to the car.

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Based on a true story Drama Epic/Historical Family Issues For all ages For the Whole Family Inspired by a true story
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