Interview: Kelly MacDonald and Marc Turtletaub of “Puzzle”

Posted on August 7, 2018 at 8:00 am

Copyright 2018 Sony PIctures Classics

In the midst of the summer blockbuster season, a quiet film about a neglected wife who does jigsaw puzzles is getting a warm reception from critics and fans, with special praise for an exquisite performance by Kelly MacDonald as Agnes in her first lead role. I spoke to MacDonald and director Marc Turtletaub about the film.

There’s a timeless quality at the beginning of the movie as we see Agnes getting the house ready for a birthday party. We don’t know if it is set in the past or just today in a place that has not changed very much over the decades. It’s a surprise when one of her gifts is an iPhone because until that moment it could have been taking place in the 1950’s or 60’s.

Marc Turtletaub: Yes, it was intentional. You do it in the production design and the cinematography. Those early scenes are shot in silhouette and there is a lot of smoke being blown into the room by the cinematographer. It creates an atmosphere in which it feels almost like Agnes, the central character, is stuck in time, and she is as a character. She’s in the house she was raised in, in the house where she took care of her father, the one she raised her children in and so we wanted to create a sense in the environment that it was almost from another era.

It’s not only in the cinematography but it’s the production design and the costume. I spent way too much time picking out a dress for Agnes that would meld into the wallpaper we were picking out so you’d get the sense that not only was she stuck in time but that she was almost unseen in part of the environment.

Kelly MacDonald: There is a book, The Yellow Wallpaper, and that’s exactly what happens to her as she disappears into the walls.

MT: And in Garden State where it’s a complete match. We didn’t want to go that far. We did have a reference though, Bonnard. I was at a museum and I saw some of his work and I was so taken with how the study had a woman in front of the background and they melded so perfectly I went, “ That’s it, that’s what I’m looking for.”

Kelly, you had an unusual opportunity and challenge because you created the character without any words for the first part of the movie.

KM: I’ve always been interested in what it would be like to be in the silent era like Lillian Gish and just solely rely on expressions. So this was like my opportunity. I hadn’t realized when I read the script quite how much of the film has Agnes on her own. I just find those scenes were quite lonely because I got used to being around boys and family and everything and so there was a bit of that but I did quite enjoy just being able to express things without words. Quite often I’m trying to get rid of extraneous dialogue anyway. I’m happy without words.

Your character solves the puzzles very quickly. How did you make that look so natural?

KM: It brought back how much I like puzzles. So I was doing them when I would finish work for the day. I stole a couple from work and I would go back and decompress by doing puzzles. It’s very Zen and relaxing.

And I’d be presented with the prop of the day puzzle and then I would start to find a spot and take the best side that I wanted to work on and then place them on the table and try and remember where I put the pieces I’d be using. It was good brain training. And then I would start do it as fast as possible.

You were acting with one of my absolute favorites Irrfan Khan. Did you consult one another on the chemistry between your characters?

KM: I don’t think we really did discuss it. It was just suddenly he arrived as a fully fledged oddball. The first scene we filmed together was when I tell him I know he is an inventor. That was a good introductory scene to do actually because it was quite a long scene and we got to be face to face. I got to be awkward and he got to be just sort of bemused by this strange woman. When I think of him in the film I think of him in that doorway just being so physical and brilliant and just compelling I think.

There are a number of literal reflections in the film. What does that, well, reflect?

MT: I think of one that probably stands out most of all to me and it’s about it’s the moment where Irrfan Khan’s character Robert talks to Agnes about how active her mind is and the fact that she has nowhere to express it, no one to express it t. He sort of nails it and says something to her that no one has ever said to her but at the same token he actually listens to her. He can be a bit of a mansplainer but he also sees her in a way that maybe no one except her eldest son somewhat sees her.

There’s this wonderful moment after that where we hear Ave Maria and then she walks off and she goes down the street and we set it up so that as Kelly walks you see her reflection in the windows of the stores. And then she stops in front of one store and she flips her hair up and she puts it on top of her head and she pulls it behind her ear. As soon as I read it, that’s the visual I had in my mind. I wanted to see her looking at herself maybe for the first time in years as a woman and thinking about being more self-conscious.

We wanted to show different images (I call them portraits) of her at different stages of the movie and some were more successful than others; that was a successful one. I think another successful one is some of the reflections in the train and we just tried to capture Agnes at a different point in time to see how she’s evolved during the course of the movie.

Marc, You have an unusual career path for a director. What does being a CEO teach you that helps you as a director?

MT: I’ve had a strange life, not just career and I’ve had a lot of experience in a lot of different things. What I think I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is how to collaborate. People who are leaders in whatever endeavor and become successful over a long-term learn how to encourage other people. That’s something you do as a director. You encourage others, whether you’re a parent doing that and leading your children or whether you’re running a company, you’re encouraging. You hold a vision, you know how to set a boundary when you need to but there’s so much about encouraging people to do their best. And when you have people like Kelly and (I really say this in all candor) and Irrfan and David Denman and the young people we had, it makes the job really easy.

I love the way that recognizing her gift for puzzles inspires Agnes to notice more of what is going on around her. She even tells her husband she thinks they should begin watching the news. And she notices for the first time how unhappy her son is.

KM: It isn’t that film about a sort of savant which is great. She’s good at puzzles and she is fast but it’s not the through line of the film. What it does is remind her that she used to really quite like math. It just starts this little thing inside her brain, like this little scratch, and she wants to know what life might have been if things had been just even slightly different.

I just love that. The thing I love about her is she’s kind of got Truth Tourette’s — she just says what’s in her head. She does lie in the film but she does quite a bad job of it and struggles. But when she’s relaxed she can’t help but just see and some things that she says are totally brutal.

She’s a grown woman but she’s like a child. She is being kept like a sort of child-woman and it’s quite right that she has to at some point start discovering herself.

And her oldest son completely sees his mother and what she is and who she is in a way that Agnes isn’t even aware of. but he hasn’t spoken about it and it’s when she starts to sort of change slightly in these tiny ways to normal people but to her family it’s just seismic and it’s the tremors, the after-effects that touches them all. It’s really a beautiful thing that as she’s beginning to sort of open that door inside herself.

When you’re so trapped inside yourself it’s hard to see anyone else. If you do not see yourself with any depth how can you see depth in other people? This experience gives her the ability to just recognize her son’s in real trouble and she’s a very good mom and I think it’s lovely.

MT: She frees him.

KM: And it’s not a romance film either. It’s not about who is she going to end up with, who is going to make her better because it’s her journey. She could have fallen into either set of strong arms and the problems would remain and she would still have a lot of work to do on herself.

Marc, as I look back on the movies you have produced, it seems they are all about imperfect people trying to do the best they can.

MT: I try to. That’s like all of us, right? Audiences are hungry for real people realistically displayed. Mike Leigh said it beautifully: He takes the mundane and makes it poetic. That’s what we aspire for in this movie, to have ordinary characters but their lives stand for something so much bigger.

KM: Ordinary stories that move you, When people talk to us about how this movie makes them feel, they touch their hearts, literally put their hands on their chests, and I love that.

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Actors Directors Interview

Brave

Posted on June 21, 2012 at 6:00 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some scary action and rude humor
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including scary animals with big teeth
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 22, 2012
Date Released to DVD: November 12, 2012
Amazon.com ASIN: B005LAII08

“Brave” is not just one of the best movies of the year for any age; it is one of the best movies ever made from a female point of view.

It has been a long time coming.  Pixar’s unprecedented series of outstanding critical and audience successes has been justifiably criticized because its leading characters have almost always been white and male.  While “The Incredibles,” “Finding Nemo,” and “A Bug’s Life” had important female characters (you might also include “Wall•E”), it was the male characters who were at the center of the story.  With its 13th film, Pixar has given not one but two female characters center stage.  As we expect from Pixar (well, as we hope, following “Cars 2”), “Brave” is smart, fun, funny, and exciting, with gorgeous settings and endearing characters.  But this is something more.  It gives us a teenage girl in the leading role who is not pretending to be a boy (“Mulan”), unsure of herself, or trying to attract a boy (just about every movie ever made).  She is strong, independent, and completely comfortable with who she is.  It’s the rest of the world she thinks needs some change.

Merida (Kelly Macdonald of “Boardwalk Empire” and “Gosford Park”) is a Scottish princess and by tradition, she will marry whichever of the sons of the local lairds bests the others in an athletic competition.  But she has no interest in marrying any of them.  Her mother (Emma Thompson) makes her dress up in a confining outfit that barely lets her breathe and hides her wild , unmanageable hair.  But Merida splits the seams of the dress, takes out her bow, and wins her own hand.  In some other movies, that would be the end.  Here, it is the beginning.  To split the seams of tradition the way she burst through the confines of her regal attire, Merida asks for help from a witch (Julie Walters, Mrs. Weasley in the Harry Potter movies).  She says she wants to change her fate.  She should have been more specific.

Things go terribly wrong, and soon Merida finds her relationship with her mother turned upside down.  Merida learns what it like to have to take care of someone.  Her mother has to learn something, too.  Their new situation (I am trying not to give too much away here) gives the queen a chance to take a new look at Merida and see how capable and trustworthy she is, while the queen herself begins to lose her connection to civilization.  And all of this is in the midst of antics from Merida’s mischievous triplet little brothers, the struggles between the clans, the witch’s travels (her voicemail equivalent is hilarious), and a very scary bear who once took part of Merida’s father’s leg and may be back for more.

Action, comedy, and heart are expertly balanced and the mother-daughter dynamic gives the story a powerful appeal.  For me, it felt like a rare chance to hear a story in my native language.  There was no need to translate.  The wild beauty of the crags and tors of the Scottish landscape provide a bracing environment for Merida’s real and psychological journey with her mother.  Merida is a winning heroine who does not define herself by getting or being a boy and it is a pleasure to share her story.

(more…)

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3D Action/Adventure Animation DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Family Issues Fantasy

Interview: “Brave” Producer Katherine Sarafian

Posted on June 20, 2012 at 3:55 pm

I love Pixar’s new movie, “Brave,” and it was a thrill to be able to talk to the producer, Katherine Sarafian, who told me what she learned from her trip to Scotland, what it meant to have a female lead character, and what matters most at Pixar.  And of course about the HAIR!

Merida is such a wonderful heroine!

It was really important to us that we create a girl who did not want to be a boy.  There are so many movies about tomboys.  She’s proud to be a girl, she likes wearing dresses, she’s quite feminine, and she is adventurous and likes driving things forward.

I remember Brad Bird telling me that the biggest technical challenge in “The Incredibles” was Violet’s hair.  And that was relatively short and very straight.  Here you have a heroine with a magnifient head of unmanageable curls!  It must have taken as many lines of code as a moon launch!

It was was quite intricate.  The character is this untamed, wild child teen.  When she walks into the room, before she even opens her mouth, we wanted you to know who she is, with that kind of presence and that rare shade of red.  It speaks to what a unique type of lass this is going to be.  The story required it and the technology didn’t really exist, so we had to build it, based on what we learned on previous films.  Brad Bird saw this and said he was jealous of how much we could do with the hair!  We really had an opportunity to let her act with the hair and had it as part of her character.

Tell me what your job was as producer.

I was responsible for bringing it in on time and on budget, assembling the crew of people, selecting the voice talent, working with the scoring, and keep everyone motivated over the long haul — six years.  I really try to get the director’s vision on screen.

What was your most difficult challenge?

The number one biggest challenge in all Pixar films is the story.  It’s really really hard to tell a good story.  It’s easy to shoot the first draft of any script.  It’s hard to say the first draft is the starting point of a long creative odyssey with a lot of twists and turns and challenges.  We do it the hard way.  We never give up on making the story the best it can be.  And that’s hard, a lot of toiling in the trenches of story for a long time.  It’s easy to fall into stereotypes of a teenager and conflict with parents.  But it is harder to make rounded characters and appealing and where they both grow and learn, and the kingdom and its mythology is all in there, too.

You were the producer of one of my favorite Pixar shorts, “Lifted.”

It was fun because it was without words, so every language can understand the idea of a teacher and a student in a sort of driver’s ed test on a spaceship.

And the short with this film is also worldless.

Yes, it’s an Italian family story called “La Luna,” but it is also very universal.

You have wonderful voice talent in the film.

We’re thrilled with our cast.  Billy Connelly and Emma Thompson as the king and queen brought the heft and weight and importance of a royal family but also the warmth and humor and heart of parents.  It would be easy to make the queen unappealing and the king a buffoon, but you really wanted them to have that rounded quality, real rulers with real problems and real heart.  And Kelly MacDonald has a beautiful voice and key into her teenage self so wonderfully well, and great humor, too.

Did you go to Scotland to research this film?

We had two significant creative research trips and I also went back for voice recording.  We trekked through the highlands in late 2006.  We studied the Gallic history and the rhytym of the accents and hiked through the dark forests and touched the heather and the guys even took a dip swimming in the loch.  It helped us understand the setting of the story better.  Scotland is almost a character itself in the movie.  The region is steeped in storytelling and folklore and myth.  The land itself has such diversity to it.  The glaciers melted and showed off this volcanic landscape with jagged peaks an crags and rocks and because of the dampness everything is covered in something, lichen and moss, so it’s totally softened.  There’s something growing on every surface.  And there’s design everywhere, very tactile, very rugged, Pictish carvings and ancient patterns, and the standing stones.  The texture of the land is very rugged.  And it changes so much and it moves so much from very wet areas and very rich areas to very barren, stark areas.  It changes and moves so much and that influenced every area of our story, the weather, the light, and the landscape change.  The story is about a journey and change and setting it there made sense to us.  The ruggedness of it and the dark forest made it a place for big adventures and it was a great place to set the story.

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