Is “weird” a genre?
It’s an interesting enough question from “Entanglement” director Jason James, when asked if the film, which premiered this past weekend at the Seattle International Film Festival, is more than just a romantic comedy.
The Canadian flick stars Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch as a newly-divorced man on a mission to find his almost-sister, after learning his parents had adopted a baby girl before he was born, only to give her back after learning they were pregnant. When he does meet his “sister,” Hanna, he’s swept into a whirlwind of emotion and passion. But something isn’t quite right.
We sat down with James, writer Jason Filiatrault, and producer Amber Ripley to discuss the film, which will open the Brooklyn Film Festival on June 2. There’s also one more SIFF screening remaining, on Wednesday night at 9:15 p.m. at Lincoln Square.
What drew you all to this production?
James: Jason and I were developing a movie, and it didn’t really go anywhere. And then one day he sent me a script for ‘Entanglement,’ and just said, ‘What do you think about this? Do you have any notes for me?’ And I remember reading it, and emailing him right away, just saying, ‘I want to direct this movie, I have to direct this movie,’ and I created a Tumblr page of images and music and ideas, to show him this is how I would execute this film, and I don’t think I’ve ever pitched a writer …
Filiatrault: No, I played good hard to get.
James: Yeah, he did. I’d never pitched a writer that hard to get a project, and it was just such a unique, original, emotional, fragile story that I really just responded to, such a unique take on the romantic comedy, and for me as a director I’m always looking at a script and looking at perspective, and what’s cool about this movie it’s so much from Ben’s unique perspective with his psychosis, and so, visually just with the camera you can do a lot more, and that’s what really excited me about it.
Did this remind you of any other films you’d either seen or worked on?
Filiatrault: I mean there were touchstones for me in the writing, for sure. And when you’re dealing in magic realism, there’s certain ideas, certain people that come to mind. Michel Gondry comes to mind, Jean-Pierre Jeunet comes to mind, you know a lot of sort of more European things are sort of influencing that. But when it comes to romantic comedy, I’m kind of a nerdy classicist for that stuff. Like, “When Harry Met Sally,” I love, ‘His Girl Friday,” the old Howard Hawks stuff, and that kind of banter-y screwball stuff, you can get a sense of that with the Ben and Hanna stuff. There’s a feel of like, that sort of goofy, fun rom-com element in it that kind of enjoyed, but it just, it goes to a weird dark place, and it’s that kind of interplay that I think works really well, and that Jason really brought out in it.
James: And that’s what I love about Billy Wilder too, it’s sort of like, on the surface it’s these very broad, fun, romantic comedian movies, but underneath there’s like some very dark themes and ideas that are being discussed in these films.
Filiatrault: People remember, “The Apartment,” and they just remember, like, Jack Lemmon with a tennis racket and spaghetti and then they forget that like, Shirley MacLaine tries to kill herself with pills. People forget the whole other aspect of it.
With a lead like Thomas Middleditch, was that a matter of writing a deadpan character for this role, or having him put his own spin on it?
Filiatrault: The writing was what it was, but getting Thomas on board was all Jason James. Him having a vision for it and explaining that to Thomas, and convincing him that he could, that we could make this movie properly and that he would be able to do everything he wanted to do with the character. It’s not like he’s struggling to find offers or find movies to do, so a lot of it was Jason James sitting down and convincing him he could do it right.
James: When you’re casting a movie, and I have three movies that are casting right now, and they’re all, it’s been a year-long process on the newer films. This film, Thomas was the first person we sent the script to and he really responded to it, and that doesn’t happen. I think that speaks to the quality of the writing and the unique idea and premise, and Thomas had always been seen as this sort of goofy, nerdy comedic guy, and he really wanted to show a different side of himself in this film, and his performance is really beautiful and dramatic and grounded, so I think people will get to see a different side of Thomas than they’re used to. And I think he was the perfect, he was just such a great choice for Ben. I was saying earlier, whenever I’m casting a film, I always watch interviews with actors as opposed to, like, auditions or other work. I just want to see who they innately are as people. I remember this one interview that he did at Sundance for a film called, “The Bronze,” and the interviewer asked, like, “What are your guys’ favorite songs?” and he started talking about Neutral Milk Hotel’s “King of Carrot Flowers” and he started crying. And to me, that’s Ben, is this guy whose either on the verge of cracking up laughing or cracking up crying. There’s this fragility to him that I think Thomas just really has innately as a person.
Right from the beginning of this movie, mental illness and depression factor heavily into. How did you feel you had to handle those topics?
Filiatrault: Honestly, as long as we were truthful about the experience, in terms of how people experience some of the symptoms, in this I think was more important. And it wasn’t really — for me it wasn’t about the medical aspect, just how it feels, was more about what I wanted to get to. I didn’t want to write a movie that was fitting a disease for the plot, I wanted it to be about that experience, and to make it part and parcel, so it was very much, what does it feel like? How do you go through those emotions, and I’ve had friends who have been through these experiences, almost exactly, and just the idea of not quite knowing where you stand, that this whole world is your shifting ground, is a big part of their day to day, and I think that feeling is really hard for people to deal with a lot of times.
James: And for me it was like, just trying to get inside of it, viscerally what does that feel like, what does that look like? And not to go to this really dark, dramatic place, but what is the, there is some poetry in that too, but I also wanted it to feel very real, and not like a caricature of a ‘crazy guy.’ So I met with a psychiatrist and had her read the script, and she diagnosed Ben with a schizoaffective disorder, bipolar subtype, and then so we talked about what medications he would be on, what are the side effects of those medications, how might he walk when he’s coming off those medications. He taught me a lot, and talked to me a lot about patients, and their unique kind of character traits, and Thomas and I kind of talked about that too, and he developed some of that, or threw it away or held on to some of it. It was an interesting way to kind of develop a very real character about this very real difficult important thing that a lot of people deal with, but, not to glorify it or make it more intense. Not to cinematize it.
How would you character the genre of this movie? Would you just say it’s a romantic comedy, or would say there’s more to it?
James: Is weird a genre? Weird movie.
Filiatrault: From my initial pitch, I was always calling it a curious romantic comedy, in that it’s not quite normal. It’s certainly, you know … I don’t how you quantify it. There’s drama, there’s elements of comedy, there’s romance, it’s a bit all over the map in terms of that. I mean, it’s an indie film, it is what it is. It’s a Northwestern indie film.
Ripley: I say a romantic comedy with surreal elements to it, dramatic elements to it.
How does it feel to be at this point where you’re screening this film for audiences, and getting the film out there?
James: It’s exciting. I think it’s great. There’s a lot going on in this movie, and I think everybody relates to it in a slightly different way. They hold onto to different things, and, I won’t give any spoilers, but the discovery of who Hanna is, people come into that at different points along the movie, and I just love hearing how people respond to it, and as you make a film about mental illness and depression, then you realize how it affects a lot more people than you know, and how people come out with these stories about something personal or something that happened to a family member or friend. That’s really fascinating. You create this thing sort of in a bubble or a vacuum, and then when you bring it up you see how people to relate to it. And being at the Seattle International Film Festival is also really exciting, I’ve made eight movies as a producer or director, and I’ve sent every one here, and this is the first one that’s screened here, so that’s kind of cool. Victory, at last!
You created elements in this film that are whimsical at first glance, but later take on a less playful significance. How did you go about creating those moments that have that double meaning?
Filiatrault: In the writing, it’s easy, because you can write anything. You can imbue this meaning into things that you hope somebody will figure out how to do later on, to be honest. When you write a pool full of jellyfish, it’s just so easy to write things, and that power, and the other half of that journey is finding somebody who can actually pull it off, and pull it off at the budget level we have. And as hard as Jason may say he try to sell me as him as a director, I got so lucky in having him and having Amber producing and putting this project, because I don’t know of anybody else in Canada that would have made a movie that came out as this did, or that has these performances. So much of what makes an interesting script on the page is about the execution of it down the road, and that is all in the production, and James Liston, the cinematographer is amazing. He’s a rockstar, and what I’m excited about in watching this movie with people tonight is just how gorgeous it looks. That’s the first comment anybody makes is like, it looks so good, and it’s just exciting for people to see that.
James: Yeah, when I first read the script and was pitching Jason hard, I remember saying I wanted it to feel vinyl, I wanted it to have this sort of handmade kind of quality to it, this rough kind of feel, and it was just in meeting with — there are visual effects in this film — visual effects companies who always want things to look slick and real and cool and J.J. Abrams, and I was like, ‘I want the opposite of that. I want, when you see the fireworks, I want them to look weird and fake, and when you see these deer I want them to look not real,’ and tap into this collective subconscious of these images and ideas, and just kind of play with that. I wanted the visual effects to bump against reality as opposed to feel part of reality.
In 30 seconds, what is your elevator pitch to people to come out and see this film?
Filiatrault: This is a weird, fun, insane, undefineable movie. That’s my pitch. It’s the movie you’re going to wish you’d seen after everybody else had seen it.
James: I would just say, Entanglement is a magical realist romantic comedy about a guy whose sort of mentally unstable. He’s having a relationship with a woman who is everything he wants and need in his life in that moment, and he discovers that she may or may not exist, and he kind of has to deal with what is real and what is fantasy.
Ripley: Exactly what he said. I think I got that elevator pitch when we first met, and that was what drew me to want to read that script and get involved.