Everything in its place

Jim Strouse on actors, music, art, feminism and People Places Things.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

People Places Things director James C. Strouse
People Places Things director James C. Strouse Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Jim Strouse's sleeper summer hit features an agile, very funny Jemaine Clement sparring with Stephanie Allynne, Jessica Williams, Michael Chernus (of Noah Baumbach's Mistress America), Regina Hall, Gia Gadsby and Aundrea Gadsby.

Virginia and Alessandro Nivola, The Elephant Man, playwrights Will Eno and Alan Ayckbourn with a touch of Alain Resnais and a John Singer Sargent portrait, form a frame to our conversation. I connect Jim's composer Mark Orton (out of Alexander Payne's Nebraska) to Walter Slezak in Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Silence De La Mer, Marlene Dietrich in Stanley Kramer's Judgement at Nuremberg and Madeline Kahn in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, and he connects Chernus and Clement to Men In Black 3.

Jemaine Clement as Will Henry:
Jemaine Clement as Will Henry: "He is very present and open…"

People Places Things, a sly comedy of parental manners, is more interested in the trembling sarcasm and honesty of attempt that shades the questions, than in any piece-of-cake answer. Is happiness a sustainable condition? Is the ear the face? Is this not a pipe? Jemaine Clement is Will, a graphic novelist, teacher at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, father of adorable cello-playing twins (the Gadsbys). During the girls' fifth birthday party, lovingly staged as a home-made Sargent-like Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, Will surprises their daughter's mother, Charlie (Stephanie Allynne) in flagrante, with her secret lover, improv artist Gary (Michael Chernus), in the bedroom upstairs.

Leaping a year into the future, we accompany Will on his search for meaning and order, love in chaos, and artistic expression that turns to Columbia versus SVA with Diane (Regina Hall) and Kat (Jessica Williams) confronting Will's will. While the past keeps coming up in most of the people surrounding him, Will, in a favourable evolution, starts to express himself in the moment, reacting to what happens right in front of him, leaving past, pent up trauma behind until the end.

Anne-Katrin Titze: First question: Is the ear the face?

Jim Strouse: Is the ear the face? What's that?

AKT: The ending of your film? The big showdown.

JS: Is it? Kind of.

AKT: It's like a scene from a western. Michael Chernus is really great.

Charlie (Stephanie Allynne) with Will
Charlie (Stephanie Allynne) with Will

JS: I love Michael Chernus. I've always been a fan. What's funny is that Michael Chernus and Jemaine [Clement] are in Men In Black 3 together as well. So I'm not the first one to think of putting them together.

AKT: Have you seen Mistress America?

JS: No, I haven't. But I hear he is great in it.

AKT: He is. In both films, yours and Noah Baumbach's, he is surprising and very good. I noticed in the end credits that you have a thanks to Alessandro Nivola and his mother. Probably not because of the dialogue where a character says "I'm not the Elephant Man"?

JS (laughs): No, but that's interesting. No, Alessandro is in my first film, Grace is Gone, and he lives in Brooklyn. He was one of the first people to watch a cut of the movie. I asked him and a couple other people to come and he brought his mom [Virginia]. I find in the editing process, bringing people you trust in, to give comments, a really important part that I rely on a lot. To tell me what's coming through, what's not coming through. Alessandro and his mom were two of the first people who watched it.

AKT: Alessandro and I meet about every season, every three months, to do an installment of what is now known as the Nivola Files at Eye For Film. Did he give you good comments on People Places Things?

JS: He had a lot of great comments. Essentially, he was really friendly towards it. Basically he and his mom let me know that it was working and helped pinpoint things that needed some attention.

Will with Clio and Colette (Audrea Gadsby and Gia Gadsby)
Will with Clio and Colette (Audrea Gadsby and Gia Gadsby)

AKT: You start the film with a birthday celebration. It reminded me of a homemade version of the John Singer Sargent painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.

JS: It wasn't that we were trying to re-create it.

AKT: Did you always know you wanted to start this way, with Will having a paper flower tucked behind his ear when everything unfurls?

JS: Yeah. The first scene that I wrote was this funny and emotional breakup. The flower came later, because we introduced the girls [Clio and Colette], the twins [Audrea Gadsby and Gia Gadsby] playing Jemaine's daughters. And I had to give them something to do. I wanted it to feel very feminine, the party itself. A little bit like a tea party. So we gave the girls these crafts to create these flowers.

I just loved the image, the idea of Jemaine wearing that flower. In one of the early cuts, as he is taking off the flower, he accidentally flicks off his glasses, so it's incredibly awkward. He says "I'm going to fight you," and he takes the flower out of his ear and his glasses fall off. It was too much. Just taking the flower off was enough, we realised.

AKT: There are some striking images, for example, the six-year-old twin girls practicing cello in the woods. During the same sequence I noticed the father and his two girls running into the lake with shoes. Splinters on the pier?

Columbia professor Diane (Regina Hall) with Will and Kat
Columbia professor Diane (Regina Hall) with Will and Kat

JS: They're wearing water socks, the girls are. That's one of those on-the-day decisions we had to make. That location was a boy scout camp in Staten Island. The decision was - you want them to run down this pier? Do you want them to get lots of splinters?

AKT: It registers for the viewer as a very caring gesture from the filmmaker.

JS: I didn't want them to get splinters.

AKT: The music you used as a theme when Will is drawing sounded a bit like an old German folk song: "Du, Du Liegst mir im Herzen".

JS: I don't know it.

AKT: Marlene Dietrich sings it [to Spencer Tracy in Judgement At Nuremberg], it's in Hitchcock's Lifeboat. It's in Melville's first movie, Le Silence De La Mer and it's used in Blazing Saddles by Mel Brooks.

JS: Oh, really? Interesting. Wow! I have to ask [his composer] Mark Orton! How is it used in Blazing Saddles?

AKT: Madeline Kahn sings it at some point. How did you place the music? Did you work with themes?

JS: Mark Orton is the composer. We talked about this macro idea. I like his music. He did the score for [Payne's] Nebraska. I think his music has a subtle playfulness to it but there also is depth to his pieces. We talked about a couple basic themes we wanted to run throughout. One was as Will is working on his story and then the opening sequence that's supposed to embody the life of this marriage and that has a few themes in it that come back throughout the story.

SVA student Kat (Jessica Williams)
SVA student Kat (Jessica Williams)

Hopefully creating this sense of building up in the audience's mind to have a really nice cumulative effect. That by the end of it, when you hear that little snippet of the score, when Jemaine is talking to his ex, it's a callback to the beginning and you feel this resonance that there really is a history. It's funny and sad.

AKT: It's interesting when Will gets angry, that he reacts very much in the moment, which seems very healthy, compared to other characters who seem to react to their own past history. Baggage that is at some point exploding but has nothing to do with the moment itself. That quality is rare to see in a leading man - one who says - now I'm throwing my coffee or that oatmeal-chocolate chip cookie. Do you agree?

JS: Yeah. I mean that's testament to Jemaine as an actor, too. He is very present and open to what he is feeling as he is saying the words. That's just him as a performer, he is very truthful and paying attention to what he is feeling and presenting that. And then the character, he has his art and his comics to help him through the past and to kind of deal with it, understand it. Whereas his ex, Charlie [Stephanie Allynne], she never had that. So she is a little more grappling with the past in light of the present and the future that she wants. She never had a chance to apply it, like Will did.

AKT: She just has her improv classes.

JS: Yeah, which is just starting. Thank you for these questions. They are nice. I haven't had anyone that had such a close read on the movie.

AKT: Let's talk about the posters in the movie.

JS: Private Thoughts Public Places.

AKT: Exchange thoughts with fears and you have the title of an Alan Ayckbourn play and the English title of the film Alain Resnais made out of it.

JS: I was thinking of Will Eno, actually. He is a playwright who has written a lot of monologues for the stage.

People Places Things US poster at the Crosby Street Hotel
People Places Things US poster at the Crosby Street Hotel Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: It's beautiful what Will does to the posters. That would definitely make me want to go see the performance. It has the opposite effect of what he intended.

JS (laughs): You know, Jemaine actually did that himself.

AKT: The title, People Places Things made me wonder. Your film, I would say, is mostly about people. Some places stick out - the obligatory baby feeding cafe is very funny. Which park did you film the wedding in?

JS: Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

AKT: I thought, I recognized it. And then he comes out at Grand Army Plaza at Prospect Park?

JS: Yes. Originally, the last shot was of him walking towards the arch in Grand Army Plaza and he sort of gets lost in traffic and people and the bustle of Brooklyn. But I cut that out. The title, in my mind…there's a line that I cut where Jessica Williams' character [Kat] comes to Jemaine's apartment with her notes on his book. One of the last things she says is "Oh, and you need a better title. People And Stuff is no good." So in my mind, the story he is working on is called People Places Things. But that reference never made it into the final film.

AKT: You teach at SVA. Did that inspire some of the students' lines?

JS: I showed the first cut to my students and the first thing they said after watching it was - "That's not us, right?"

AKT: Magritte, anyone? You don't show them in the best light.

The transformation of Will
The transformation of Will

JS: I love my students but it's undergrad and I find that a lot of their knowledge of film and fiction is shallow and I'm always recommending books and, you know, things beyond Quentin Tarantino. Film didn't start with him. There's a whole rich past that he borrows from. Especially for some of the male students.…

AKT: You have that line in the film, "My male students are idiots."

JS: I wanted to but this film sadly does not pass the Bechdel test. I was trying to present the women characters as three-dimensional. It's a film with a male protagonist, there's no way around that, he is in every scene. But he is dealing with a world of women and learning and growing from that.

AKT: Well, the two girls talk about ice cream and their mother and kid stuff and they have names, so maybe it does pass the Bechdel test? Doesn't that count?

JS: But he is with them.

AKT: They have to be alone on screen?

JS: I think so. My next film will pass it.

AKT: What's the next film?

JS: I don't know. I've written something for Jessica Williams. She is the main character. Even in writing it, the male lead, you don't learn his name until like 70 pages into the movie. I wanted to make a concerted effort towards telling a story that features a female protagonist and is about her path through life. The men are very much just in orbit around her. It's not another story about a man and the women who help him understand the complexities of life.

People Places Things opens in the US on August 14, 2015.

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