Seeing a progression

Marc Turtletaub on Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman and Puzzle

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Marc Turtletaub with his Puzzle star Kelly Macdonald at Sony Pictures Classics
Marc Turtletaub with his Puzzle star Kelly Macdonald at Sony Pictures Classics Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

First-time director and long-time producer Marc Turtletaub (Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton's Little Miss Sunshine, Jeff Nichols' Loving, Marielle Heller's upcoming You Are My Friend starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers), with a screenplay co-written by Oren Moverman (Time Out Of Mind, The Dinner) and Polly Mann, based on Natalia Smirnoff's film Rompecabezas, 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. So clearly the focus of the story, Agnes resembles even earlier movie heroines whose names became titles of the films - Kitty Foyle or Mildred Pierce may come to mind.

Marc Turtletaub on working with Kelly Macdonald, David Denman and Irrfan Khan: "These are some of our great actors."
Marc Turtletaub on working with Kelly Macdonald, David Denman and Irrfan Khan: "These are some of our great actors." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

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

Agnes is the mother of two sons, Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and Gabe (Austin Abrams), wife to Louie (David Denman), a car mechanic, and lives in Bridgeport, Connecticut in the same house where she was raised by her father. She prepares a birthday party, a plate is broken, and is stopped by her husband when she looking for the missing shard. When Agnes carries in the cake, she had so meticulously decorated, and invited guests start to sing, we find out that it is her own birthday that is being celebrated.

Nobody else bothered to throw her a party and it seems like the most natural thing for them that she is serving them, even on that day. Agnes receives two opposing gifts: Her first cellphone and a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. One of the presents will change the course of her life, when she meets an inventor named Robert (Irrfan Khan), living in a beautiful old, mostly empty, house in New York City, who is looking for a puzzle partner for an upcoming tournament.

Anne-Katrin Titze: The husband's portrayal is quite a challenge.

Marc Turtletaub: David Denman, yeah.

Marc Turtletaub on the strange vegetable thing on the table: "It is a salad made in the shape of a fish."
Marc Turtletaub on the strange vegetable thing on the table: "It is a salad made in the shape of a fish." Photo: Linda Kallerus - Sony Pictures Classics

AKT: He's walking a tightrope as someone who is completely oblivious - which doesn't make it any better. Still he loves his wife, obviously. When he says "Fishing is the most important thing in my life," you think, right, that's probably the truth. Tell me about him.

MT: Yeah, in the casting I very much wanted to have characters that were real characters, not stereotypes. With the Louie character that David plays, it would be very easy to make him a stereotype. The heavy husband that browbeats his wife and is oblivious to his children. And that didn't interest me. I'm much more interested in real people that are multi-faceted.

I wanted to see in this case his heart. I wanted to see that he loved his wife, he cared about his kids but he was unaware. He's oblivious. So the casting was critical. First thing when we sat down, I said to David Denman, "I know your background as an actor." I said "I want to make sure you bring your heart." Because then we'll feel for every character, even when he does things that make you cringe, you go, but he loves his wife.

AKT: It's his sincerity. He is sincerely offended that she didn't buy the cheese. We totally believe that he thinks: How can she do this to him! His favorite cheese.

MT: It's all he knows. That's the world he knows.

Marc Turtletaub on David Denman as Louie: "I wanted to see in this case his heart. I wanted to see that he loved his wife, he cared about his kids but he was unaware."
Marc Turtletaub on David Denman as Louie: "I wanted to see in this case his heart. I wanted to see that he loved his wife, he cared about his kids but he was unaware." Photo: Linda Kallerus - Sony Pictures Classics

AKT: Kelly Macdonald, of course, is wonderful.

MT: She is. I had several gifts. Those are the actors in this movie - that's one of them. To be able to work with Kelly and David and Irrfan [Khan] - these are some of our great actors. But she, of course, is in the centre of every scene.

AKT: The Robert character …

MT: Irrfan, yes.

AKT: … has some very tricky scenes to play. Especially a man opening a door in a robe is no longer the same as it was a year ago.

MT: And I cut that scene dramatically down for that very reason. I wanted to make sure there was no inkling in this day and age of impropriety. But he's oblivious. He's so caught up in watching his newscast.

AKT: She tells him "Put on some real clothes."

MT: She's very bold going to a strange man's house. That shows you how she's truly following her passion.

AKT: The two gifts she gets for her birthday are her first cellphone and a puzzle.

Marc Turtletaub on Robert (Irrfan Khan): "He can't accept the messiness of life, that things don't always fit inside a rectangle or square."
Marc Turtletaub on Robert (Irrfan Khan): "He can't accept the messiness of life, that things don't always fit inside a rectangle or square." Photo: Linda Kallerus - Sony Pictures Classics

MT: You sure know the film, don't you?

AKT: I take good notes. I saw it in June. The gifts represent two ends of the spectrum. One changes her life and it's not the one people would expect. Yes, the phone allows her to make certain calls.

MT: It's for emergencies, she says.

AKT: And it allows her to hide certain actions she takes. Whereas the puzzle changes her life on another level.

MT: It's a doorway to something new. Although the phone in some ways shows … she embraces it at one point. She's texting Robert and she takes it to bed and holds it to her chest after she's texted him. Then at the end she's researching chefs for her son. It shows again her horizons are beginning to open.

AKT: They talk about the puzzle and say when you complete a puzzle, you know you've made all the right choices. It's something Robert says. But when you complete a puzzle, you managed this tiny square. I could never really understand the fascination with doing that.

MT: You know, we don't have to. I'm not a jigsaw puzzler either. I think it's not a movie at the end of the day about jigsaw puzzles. That's why the competition is so small. It's a movie about a woman over the age of 40, finding her authentic self.

Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) with Robert (Irrfan Khan): " By the end she is wearing a beautiful blouse, a black top with some red floral around it, and she's becoming much more self-aware ..."
Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) with Robert (Irrfan Khan): " By the end she is wearing a beautiful blouse, a black top with some red floral around it, and she's becoming much more self-aware ..." Photo: Linda Kallerus - Sony Pictures Classics

She could have become interested in film editing. She could have been interested in field hockey. It just turned out she was interested in jigsaw puzzles and she followed that passion and her life begins to open.

AKT: But still, field hockey or editing doesn't give you that sense of completion. I think the point that you CAN make the right choice, that philosophical point the puzzle offers to her is vastly important for the story.

MT: It especially gives it to him, too. It's subtle in the movie, but I think the Robert character is struggling and his wife has left him and he wants that perfection. He can't accept the messiness of life, that things don't always fit inside a rectangle or square. So for him it becomes very important and yet what connects him to himself and his joy again, is not a puzzle. It's a relationship.

AKT: As always, it's never the things.

MT: It's other people.

AKT: It's other people. Although I have to say, he has beautiful tea cups. As for the costumes, nothing screams fashion about Agnes, it's all very much her, which is nice.

MT: I had a great costume designer in Mirren [Gordon-Crozier]. We looked at each scene Agnes is in and we wanted to see a progression. As you pointed out, her dress in the opening scene feels like it's from another era. By the end she is wearing a beautiful blouse, a black top with some red floral around it, and she's becoming much more self-aware of herself as a woman in her physicality.

Tom Hanks to star as Fred Rogers in Marielle Heller's You Are My Friend, produced by Marc Turtletaub
Tom Hanks to star as Fred Rogers in Marielle Heller's You Are My Friend, produced by Marc Turtletaub Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

There is a beautiful moment that I love. When I read it in the screenplay I immediately had it in mind - after Ave Maria, she would walk down the street and catch her reflection after spending time with Robert and she would flip her hair and put her hair up on her head. We wanted her for the first time to become aware of her physical presence. Throughout the movie she became more aware.

AKT: Her obliviousness is shown with the son's [Gabe played by Austin Abrams] girlfriend Nicki [Liv Hewson] who is a vegan. And Agnes is making chicken. You have some strange vegetable thing on the table there!

MT: Oh, you are amazing! How did you see that?

AKT: I was puzzled. What was that? Chopped cucumber and other vegetables?

MT: No one else has ever seen that! And I didn't get a good shot of it. It is a salad made in the shape of a fish.

AKT: There comes the religion again.

MT: There's that and also the humour in that there's this young lady she is hosting who is a vegan and she's going to have even the salad in the shape of a fish. It's beautiful, it had little eyes and a tail. I was so busy watching the actors, I didn't get that. I can't believe you saw it.

Puzzle poster at the Langham Hotel in New York - opens in the UK on September 7
Puzzle poster at the Langham Hotel in New York - opens in the UK on September 7 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: This is not your last excursion into directing?

MT: No, I'm just beginning. I came to directing late. I've been producing for a while.

AKT: I know. So the directing experience was a good one?

MT: People ask me often what was the most difficult thing about this movie. I'm sure I'll pay for this in my next movie, but this was the easiest movie during the production process, even the editing. There was not one night that we worked after 11:30. And there was not one argument in the crew in 30 days that I was aware of.

AKT: Is there a new project?

MT: I am waiting. I am reading. I am looking for my next one.

AKT: Thank you. Looking forward.

MT: You saw things I can't believe anybody else did. Lovely to talk to you.

Read what Kelly Macdonald had to say on working with Marc Turtletaub on Puzzle and her upcoming projects with Julian Farino, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly.

Read what director Marc Turtletaub had to say on Mike Leigh, Alfonso Cuarón, the screenplay, and locations for Puzzle.

Read what Kelly Macdonald had to say on Mirren Gordon-Crozier's costumes, cinematographer Chris Norr, and her character in Marc Turtletaub's Puzzle.

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

Puzzle is in cinemas in the US and will open in the UK on September 7.

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