Sundance 2015 Interview: Jemaine Clement And James Strouse Talk PEOPLE, PLACES, THINGS
James Strouse's third feature People, Places, Things finds cartoonist and teacher Will Henry (Jemaine Clement) thrust into single-fatherhood after his wife decides on her twin-daughter's birthday to engage in some extra-marital shennanigans in the bathroom.
A huge part of the success of the film relies upon Clement as the entire story revolves around him and those he either is related to or befriends. It's a gentle that nonetheless feels weighty, its story eminently believable and the comedy gently doled out and the laughs well earned.
I spoke with Strouse and Clement from Park City, Utah, during this year's Sundance Film Festival. I began by discussing one of the film;s bold revelations:
As per a conversation in the film, I understand that New Zealand is very pretty.
Jemaine Clement: NZ is beautiful, yeah.
And I hear that's where they filmed THE HOBBIT movies?
JC: Yeah. That [line] was a last minute addition, wasn't it?
James Strouse: It was. I was unsure and I think you were unsure if it needed to be in there, if it would work, but I love it, I love that little bit.
Was there any thought about not doing a NZ accent?
JC: Yeah, I went to a dialect coach and started learning an American accent, and in the first read through I did an American accent. I attempted it.
JS: You did a great American accent. I remember we recorded them and you graciously did American and then without the American accent and I listened to both.
JC: It was probably easier in the end.
JS: I thought of the character originally, in my wild imagination, I thought of him as from the [American] Midwest. When I met Jemaine it felt like there were a lot of parallels between the midwest and NZ actually. I was like, why would we need to . ..
I always say that NZ is the Canada of Australia. What brought you to this specific project? What's your involvement in this?
JC: Well, I liked it.
You got it at the script stage?
JC: Yeah. I've been weary about taking on a lead role before and I liked it enough that I thought I'm not going to worry about it. I was always worried about the pressure and I didn't really consider myself an actor so it wasn't like I was aiming for a career in acting. But then, at the time I got it, I just thought, Oh, who cares? I liked it enough that I didn't worry about the pressure I thought I would feel, which I haven't felt.
I don't look at Jemaine and think Midwestern. What had to shift if that was the original intent?
JS: [I wanted] someone kind of like stranded. Originally it was this guy from the Midwest who is in New York and kind of was alone. His family is not there, he's on his own. New Zealand makes that even more intense, the distance from New York. Beyond that, why wouldn't anyone want Jemaine in their film? He's amazing.
Was there a specific performance, were you friends ahead of time?
JC: The script was the first point of contact.
JS: A script and a phone call. We talked.
Was there a particular performance of his, a particular role?
JC: When we talked on the phone we connected over comics, we talked a lot about comics. We both like drawing.
When I first talked to Jim, I had a desk at this hotel, and I had this big white sheet on it, one of these pads that you rip off the pages. I was sketching this picture as [my character] keeps drawing self-portraits. I started drawing this self-portrait right there while I was talking to Jim and practicing drawing and then when I finished the phone call, I found out it wasn't a rip off sheet of paper - It was like a big, vinyl desk top.
I drew myself on my hotel desk. Then I spent about 40 minutes trying to wipe it off. There's a faint impression of it still.
I've always been impressed by people who write their names in graffiti, but defacing with their face takes it to a whole other level.
JC: I know, what will they think. That's the guy who was in the room. He's drawn himself on the desk.
What is your connection with graphic novels, with illustration. Was there ever a time in your life instead of wanting to be one of the funniest men in the world, that you wanted to just draw?
JC: Well, yeah, I think that it's kind of a secret. More like an ambition for a parallel universe where I would have. I thought for a long time that maybe I would do something like that, but I didn't know how I would get into it. This [film] was quite good actually because we went to the SVA [School of Visual Arts in New York] where they do the comics course and I learned how to use a quill and stuff like that. It was quite cool.
JS: He's very talented, he actually drew. Jemaine defaced the posters of various private thoughts, public spaces, and he hand drew and coloured the kites for the girls.
JC: But I'm no where near Gray Williams, who did the artwork. I tried to imitate his style, but it's just so perfect and I just couldn't do it.
So it was a stunt, when you would basically do it all, ink it and then you'd stunt erase the pencil marks underneath?
JC: They wouldn't give me too much responsibility as original artwork. It was like colouring the brick.
JS: [Williams] did some blue lines, bricks that Jemaine coloured over.
JC: Yeah, coloured in some black spaces. Ironically, the drawings that I did in the film, you don't see me drawing on screen.
JS: Well, you do see the posters.
JC: Yeah, you see them, but...
JS: You're mimicking.
JC: No, I'm drawing them on the posters, but you can't see, you know it's the wrong angle.
So basically, you're going to have colouring on your resume, that you're able to fill in the blanks.
JC: It's not even colouring.
Do you have a particularly strong connection with graphic novels?
JS: I love them. I love graphic storytelling. I love "Understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud. I teach it to the student filmmakers at SVA. It's sort of the guide to reading and making comics and it has so much to say about visual storytelling.
They did a retrospective of the SVA and the graphic novel a couple of years ago, this beautiful exhibit, and Art Spiegelman talked there and a lot of the biggest names in comic books taught at SVA at one time or another, and I just always loved it. I don't think it's fighting for legitimacy in the same way it has been for even the past 10 years, but it's still one of those things where people think, oh, comic books.
JC: I think the relationship works the other way round where comic books reference films a lot. We went to that course and a lot of the comment about stories from comic books reference films. Comic books are filmic in a way that films aren't any more. Films kind of hide that they're using a camera and things like that, but in comics, they have Dutch angles and go closer and closer in detail.
One of the more eloquent things that you say in the film when you try to convince a literature professor or even your students that it's what happens between the panels that matters. Films tend to not do ambiguity quite as much. At SVA, are these the types of conversations you guys have?
JS: With any institution, there's some frustration that there's all of these wonderful departments that aren't intersecting, so they stay pretty separate. One of my favourite essays I've read in recent years is by a comic professor at SVA about Herzog vs. Mamet. It's really informative and interesting about the styles and philosophies of storytelling and that's written by a graphic novelist. I've recommended that to students and said, listen, we're OK here in the film department, but there's other people you should draw on. Draw from other things!
So, Jemaine, you're the romantic lead in this film. Could you talk about hitting those emotional beats? Obviously, you're doing it in this very sardonic, laconic way, but none the less, you're not just bringing schtick to this, you're actually doing this quite a bit differently than other performances.
Stretching I think is a good word.
JC: Yeah. Even in the silliest things, I always think of it emotionally, it might not come across, but it's a way to start thinking about it. This is just a sadder story for a character, than other ones I've done. I found some of it heartbreaking and it's hard for it not to come out when you say that.
I think of it like reading a book. You know how you get a bit affected by reading a book? Well, reading the lines, it's the same, or more so maybe, saying them to someone and putting it out there. Sometimes even in stupid Flight of the Conchords things I would well up a bit. It just happens.
You also have the emotional connection with the kids. That must have been either a lot of fun or a lot of challenge. You're always told not to work with kids or animals.
JC: Well, we did become pretty good buddies. They called me "dad" early on, which worried me. After a while I figured out that they knew the difference. But yeah, our relationship was definitely the fun dad that Stephanie describes in the film. We played a lot and Jim was there so we were two dads in a way.
JS: I'd say what you see on screen between them didn't stop once the cameras went off. It was just, they were all so connected and Jemaine was so, their energy was endless and your patience was endless because they treated him like a dad. Like, lift us up, throw us around...
JC: It was good exercise. Between every take I had to lift them right up, "Me! One more, one more!"
You always hear that Viggo Mortensen, after his films, he buys his horse, I'm just wondering if you got to keep the kids at the end.
JC: I haven't asked. I've [already] got a son almost the same age.
Was there any blending between your own interactions at home and what was taking place on the screen?
JC: It was easy for me to imagine how heart breaking it would be for Will to spend so much time away from his kids.
Bringing the film to Sundance - What's that been like for you, and what has the response been so far?
JS: It's been great. Sundance has been so good to me. This is my 4th film, the 3rd as the director. I don't think I would have had the chance to make this film if it hadn't been for their support of the other films.
I'm very proud of this, I think it's the smartest, most mature thing I've ever made and so Sundance had a huge part in getting me to this place. I'm very proud that I had a chance to share it with Sundance audiences, who have always been so kind, and so far, so good. It's been a really great experience.
I really wanted to make a funny movie, but I also wanted people to have felt something and have a feeling that stays with them for a little while afterwards and I'm sensing that that's happening to some people and that means a lot to me because those are the types of films that made me want to, my favourite types of films are the ones that leave a little emotional residue with you.
Can you name a couple of those films?
JS: Off the top of my head, The Heartbreak Kid, The Last Detail, most anything Alexander Payne does. Elaine May, a lot of her stuff, it's funny but it respects the emotional truth of what's going on, so it's funny but also painful at the same time.
The Payne reference is really interesting, especially given the original intention to make it a Midwest thing. Jemaine, you were here last year with WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, how has this experience been different?
JC: Well, I suppose it's a more emotional project than I've ever done. It was a relief, I thought I wasn't going to be able to watch it, but I did and I enjoyed it a lot. Last year when we did Shadows I felt ill through the whole screening because I had a different responsibility. It was my thing, so we were responsible for anything that went wrong. But still I feel very much a part of this.
Is this the direction you're going in now? Strictly dashing and romantic leads?
JC: Well, I never wanted to do a romantic comedy, but it was different enough, because you know, it was a romantic comedy about a breakup, it's not about two people getting together, so that was, it had something different.
Well, you still got to kiss pretty girls on screen.
JC: Yeah, and I had that.