Everyday poetry

Marc Turtletaub on Mike Leigh, Alfonso Cuarón, and the screenplay and locations for Puzzle

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Marc Turtletaub (with producer Wren Arthur) on Catholicism in Puzzle and an Alfonso Cuarón film: "I want it to be in the background, much like when you watch Y Tu Mamá También."
Marc Turtletaub (with producer Wren Arthur) on Catholicism in Puzzle and an Alfonso Cuarón film: "I want it to be in the background, much like when you watch Y Tu Mamá También." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Puzzle, co-written by Oren Moverman (Time Out Of Mind, The Dinner) and Polly Mann, stars Kelly Macdonald (Joe Wright's Anna Karenina), Irrfan Khan (Ang Lee's Life Of Pi), and David Denman with Bubba Weiler, Austin Abrams, and Liv Hewson. Based on an Argentinian film, Natalia Smirnoff's Rompecabezas, starring María Onetto (Damián Szifron's Wild Tales), first-time director and long-time producer Marc Turtletaub (Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton's Little Miss Sunshine, Jeff Nichols' Loving), sets up his protagonist's life with an elegant and surprising opening sequence that makes us understand in a flash the dynamics between Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) and her nearest and dearest and propels us into the personal riddles to be explored.

Puzzle co-screenwriter Oren Moverman with his The Dinner and Time Out of Mind star Richard Gere
Puzzle co-screenwriter Oren Moverman with his The Dinner and Time Out of Mind star Richard Gere Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Although the film takes place in the present, a sense of the past prevails. The houses (production designer Roshelle Berliner), the costumes (Mirren Gordon-Crozier), and the mores are tinted with shades of the 1950s.

Agnes, mother of two sons, Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and Gabe (Austin Abrams), wife to Louie (David Denman), a car mechanic, lives in Bridgeport, Connecticut in the same house where she was raised by her father. New York City, only a short train ride away from her suburban home, might as well be on Mars.

An inventor named Robert (Irrfan Khan), living in a beautiful old, mostly empty, house in New York City, is looking for a jigsaw puzzle partner for an upcoming tournament. In puzzles, pieces only fit one way, in Puzzle, the movie, as in real life, there is more freedom, more chaos, more decision making to do.

Marc Turtletaub and I start out in our conversation at Sony Pictures Classics with the beginning of Puzzle.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I loved how you were setting it all up for Puzzle - the story, the mood, the different levels of time. Because at the beginning of your film, we are not sure that this is the present. It's the pale green and yellow tones that produce a timeless zone. Were you going for that?

Kelly Macdonald as Agnes in Grand Central Terminal
Kelly Macdonald as Agnes in Grand Central Terminal Photo: Linda Kallerus - Sony Pictures Classics

Marc Turtletaub: It was intentional. The sense I wanted to create - we shot the early shots in silhouette - was to give a sense that this is a woman who is sort of trapped in time. A number of people said to me "It feels like 1950s or 1960s."

AKT: Right.

MT: And then when she takes the cellphone out of the gift bag, they go "Oh, this is today." It's the house she was raised in. That when her mother died, we find out in the backstory, that she took care of her father. It's now the house she lives in with her husband and her two children. I wanted to create a sense that she's been there and stuck in that place forever.

AKT: Every place you show has a history that looms back. The house in New York, Robert's house, very different type of ...

MT: Environment!

AKT: Yes, and still one that is filled with unspoken history, that you as a viewer imagine.

MT: You're very observant. It's true. I had a great production designer and cinematographer - Roshelle Berliner and Chris Norr. And in Yonkers, where we shot Bridgeport.

Marc Turtletaub on Grand Central Terminal: "It's a place that so many people come to from other parts of the country. That's the introduction to New York for so many people."
Marc Turtletaub on Grand Central Terminal: "It's a place that so many people come to from other parts of the country. That's the introduction to New York for so many people." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Bridgeport, Connecticut?

MT: Yes, it's supposed to be in Bridgeport but we shot it in Yonkers. In that house we wanted to have a sense that she was stuck in the place.

AKT: Also in the customs of the Fifties.

MT: Yes, exactly. And the costumes. The original dress, we made sure that it melded into the background of the wallpaper, that sort of metallic wallpaper. We didn't want it to be a perfect match, like Garden State.

AKT: Like The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg?

MT: Yeah. You know your film! I wanted it to feel like she was part of the environment and when she walks through the room no one pays attention to her. She's the unseen woman. It's not to say that being a wife or being a mother is not a valuable role in life. But it's not all there is. That's what we're trying to say.

AKT: It's a birthday you start with. Birth, resurrection, Cinderella from 1950, a phoenix - call it what you wish - the transformation starts there.

MT: Yeah, I think it's a real surprise. What I loved about the screenplay is that in the first five minutes you see her whole story. She's doting on everyone else. You think it's probably her husband's birthday and then you realise she's doing all this preparation and it's her birthday.

Agnes's son Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and her husband Louie (David Denman)
Agnes's son Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and her husband Louie (David Denman) Photo: Linda Kallerus - Sony Pictures Classics

AKT: Plus a plate breaks and she loses one of the shards, one of the puzzle pieces that she finds later on. Did some of that come from you or was it all in Oren Moverman's script?

MT: That was in the screenplay. What we did was, we reorganised the structure of the story. When I got the screenplay, that birthday scene came about five or six minutes into the story. And instead we put it right up in the front.

AKT: It's perfect there.

MT: It's a perfect introduction to the story. The screenplay was sent to me by two producers that I know and who thought that I might like to direct it. Much of what you see on the screen was on the page already.

AKT: I had to think about Oren Moverman's Time Out of Mind in connection to the Catholicism strand in Puzzle. At the New York Film Festival I talked with him about bunk bed number 33 for Richard Gere in that film and he commented that the movie also starts with Buscemi saying "Jesus Christ".

MT: Right.

AKT: And in your film, I was surprised to see all these puzzle pieces - sorry for the pun - of Catholicism. There's Ash Wednesday, Easter egg dying, the rituals of the church calendar. Can you talk a bit about that?

Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) with Robert (Irrfan Khan): "You felt the sense that this guy, this lonely guy, whose wife had left him was banging around in this big house."
Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) with Robert (Irrfan Khan): "You felt the sense that this guy, this lonely guy, whose wife had left him was banging around in this big house." Photo: Linda Kallerus - Sony Pictures Classics

MT: This was, as you know, based on an Argentinian film. The through line from Natalia (Smirnoff's) script to Oren's script to our movie, it was embedded already. The whole period from those 40 days before Easter was built into the screenplay when I got it. My editor [Catherine Haight] when I first started working with her, she had a whole chart of Easter and all of the symbolism.

And I said, yes, I love that it's there and I don't want to think about it. I want it to be in the background, much like when you watch Y Tu Mamá También [directed by Alfonso Cuarón]. A very different movie, you are focused on the woman and the two young boys that are driving in a car and you kind of feel the political surround. So I wanted the religious surround to be in the background but not in the foreground necessarily.

AKT: We don't necessarily think: Is she a Christ figure? Although, well, her name is Agnes, the pure one, the one associated with the lamb. The sacrificial lamb?

MT: Sounds like somebody was a Catholic.

AKT: I'm not actually. But I went to Catholic church a lot as a child with the other side of grandparents - as a Protestant outsider. I picked up some things there. I just wondered why these elements were so prominent in the story. It explains a lot about her life.

Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) and Robert (Irrfan Khan) work on a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle in competition
Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) and Robert (Irrfan Khan) work on a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle in competition Photo: Linda Kallerus - Sony Pictures Classics

MT: That's her background and her horizon. In the house in Bridgeport, we pumped a lot of smoke into the room so it would feel heavier and denser. Then when she gets to the house in New York - no smoke, took all the furniture out of the house, so it is open and you felt the sense that this guy, this lonely guy, whose wife had left him was banging around in this big house.

AKT: And the wife took all the furniture?

MT: In my mind. Also I wanted to create a different environment because so much is shot in interiors and I needed a feel of difference. Then she gets to Grand Central Station, of course, and her horizons open.

AKT: That's a beautiful scene

MT: Also, the limits of her world have been reached and that's what you begin to see. Before it was just her church and the church ladies and her husband and her boys and now a whole new world is beginning to open.

AKT: Which begins to open at Grand Central Terminal when she's looking up at that magnificent ceiling. I can't count how many times I've walked through there, it gets me every time!

Agnes's son Gabe (Austin Abrams) with his girlfriend Nicki (Liv Hewson)
Agnes's son Gabe (Austin Abrams) with his girlfriend Nicki (Liv Hewson) Photo: Linda Kallerus - Sony Pictures Classics

MT: We all do it, right?

AKT: It is a wonderful place that opens up your mind to others.

MT: It does. It's a place that so many people come to from other parts of the country. That's the introduction to New York for so many people.

AKT: It's a place that makes you think of the lives of others, as your movie does too. All these people walking back and forth and each has their story that isn't being told because it is the story of someone like Agnes.

MT: That's lovely. Somebody was talking about Mike Leigh, the director. I think it was Timothy Spall. And he said: "Mike Leigh makes the everyday poetic." I thought that was a lovely way to put it. There are grand stories that ordinary people live. That's what I aspire for in this movie.

AKT: It's interesting that you mention Mike Leigh. I was thinking of him in a slightly different context. I thought about how the film could have been named after Agnes, as the title. Like those classic Hollywood women's films like Mildred Pierce and Kitty Foyle with Ginger Rogers and Joan Crawford playing those. And along those lines, Mike Leigh's Vera Drake.

Robert (Irrfan Khan) with Agnes (Kelly Macdonald): "There are grand stories that ordinary people live. That's what I aspire for in this movie."
Robert (Irrfan Khan) with Agnes (Kelly Macdonald): "There are grand stories that ordinary people live. That's what I aspire for in this movie." Photo: Linda Kallerus - Sony Pictures Classics

MT: That's true. A name. We were thinking about it for a while.

AKT: You were?

MT: I thought about Agnes, different names.

AKT: What's her last name?

MT: Oros. But her maiden name was Mata, Agnes Mata.

AKT: That would have been a nice title.

MT: You're right on because I actually thought about that for a title. And all my friends said "No, no, you can't do that. No one will go see it."

Read about what Kelly Macdonald told us about working with Marc Turteltaub and her upcoming projects and her character in Puzzle.

Read our interview with composer Dustin O'Halloran.

Puzzle was the opening night film of the Edinburgh International Film Festival and had its world première at the Sundance Film Festival.

Puzzle opens in the US on July 27 and in the UK on September 7.

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