An outside presence

Jonathan Cake and Julianne Nicholson on Touching

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Julianne Nicholson with Phoebe Cake, Iggy Cake, and Jonathan Cake in Jonathan’s Touching, a Tribeca Film Festival highlight: “It felt like such a wonderful opportunity for us to come together as a family …”
Julianne Nicholson with Phoebe Cake, Iggy Cake, and Jonathan Cake in Jonathan’s Touching, a Tribeca Film Festival highlight: “It felt like such a wonderful opportunity for us to come together as a family …”

Three highlights of the 20th edition of the Tribeca Film Festival With/In program of shorts are Bart Freundlich’s Intersection, starring Julianne Moore, Talia Balsam, and Don Cheadle; Morgan Spector and Maya Singer’s Mother!!, starring Rebecca Hall, Maya Singer and Morgan Spector , and Jonathan Cake’s life-affirming Touching (with music by Mark Adler), starring Julianne Nicholson, Iggy Cake, Phoebe Cake, and Jonathan.

The last time I spoke with Julianne Nicholson was at the August: Osage County luncheon at Le Cirque, attended by Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, and Sam Shepard.

Jonathan Cake with Julianne Nicholson on Touching: “There’s an outside presence, looking in, that the film is kind of a response to all along really.”
Jonathan Cake with Julianne Nicholson on Touching: “There’s an outside presence, looking in, that the film is kind of a response to all along really.”

In Touching, we drop in on the Cake family relaxing in their cosy, wood panelled living room, with tall windows giving us glimpses of the mountain range outside. It appears to be tech-free time, and each one of the four is peacefully reading. Until a discussion erupts about encroaching on individual space and what in the world that could represent. With a lot of love and humour, the family finds a way to solve the conflict as they embark on a dance of pure joy, countering at least temporarily the ill winds brewing outside.

From Toronto, Jonathan Cake and from Los Angeles, Julianne Nicholson joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Touching.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi!

Jonathan Cake: Hi, Anne-Katrin! I’m really sorry, I’m in a quarantine apartment in Toronto and waiting out this interminable white-collar prison hell for Canadian immigration. I wait to do a TV show and I have no idea if this WiFi works very well. [Julianne Nicholson joins us on Zoom] Hi, Love!

Jonathan Cake: “In that Covid time, especially early on, you could experience things very intensely in very contrasting ways.”
Jonathan Cake: “In that Covid time, especially early on, you could experience things very intensely in very contrasting ways.”

AKT: I can see and hear you perfectly! Julianne, hi!

Julianne Nicholson: Hi!

AKT: Where are you?

JN: I’m in Los Angeles. I’m in our home.

JC: She’s in my office, we’re going to be specific. I’m afraid I can’t afford to be so curated.

AKT: Where were you for Touching?

JN: We were in this very house in Topanga, California.

JC: We were looking the other way, in fact from where Julianne is. [Julianne turns the laptop to show me the view]. The final shot of the family dancing, that goes into slow motion, that was shot on that little balcony outside into that room. That gives me a slight feeling of PTSD, just looking at it.

AKT: It’s a great shot, let’s roll it up from the ending. You’re throwing us out, that’s how it feels. You’re all happily dancing, telling us, you do your thing, go out with the birds! I loved that. I thought it was a great moment.

Julia Roberts cracks up Julianne Nicholson at the August: Osage County press day at the Essex Hotel on Central Park South
Julia Roberts cracks up Julianne Nicholson at the August: Osage County press day at the Essex Hotel on Central Park South Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

JC: That’s so interesting. That’s how you thought of it! We’ve been around making films and TV shows for as long as we’ve been actors, but we never made a film before. So this is, I guess, what happens. That you have something in your mind you hope this shot will suggest, but then when it comes to be viewed, everybody has their own subjective take on what they interpret it as, which is so fascinating to hear. Love, I didn’t think of it as kicking the viewer out?

JN: No, no.

AKT: In the most charming way!

JN: I like that take on it, though.

JC: I do too.

JN: Back to us-time again.

JC: The outside weightiness, or the situation in the outside world still exists. For the duration of nine or ten minutes of this little film, you’ve been so involved with the minutiae of this little family. It was meant as a bit of a distancing thing to remind you that there is this thing that is watching you, which you might call the pandemic, or a threat or something. There’s an outside presence, looking in, that the film is kind of a response to all along really.

Jonathan Cake on Phoebe Cake and Iggy Cake: “Iggy, you may have noticed, he always wants to jump on his sister’s back. Can we do a take where you don’t jump on Phoebe?”
Jonathan Cake on Phoebe Cake and Iggy Cake: “Iggy, you may have noticed, he always wants to jump on his sister’s back. Can we do a take where you don’t jump on Phoebe?”

AKT: That’s very interesting, I didn’t think of it as the virus watching in the end.

JC: A little bit that, maybe not quite so literal, but maybe the vague sense that what you’ve been watching was the too claustrophobic machinations of a family forced to be too close together. There’s the outside world that is the worry, the concern, the invisible enemy. We thought long and hard about the family dancing going in slow motion, but I think the effect of that and the beautiful piano theme that Mark Adler composed, our intention was to try to show something a little bit more bittersweet. That the exuberance of the family having this dance party wasn’t the whole story. That we were all, however lucky, and middle class, and bourgeois, we were all still having this bittersweet experience this whole time together.

AKT: What you managed to create with your segment was something very positive, very life-affirming. There is so much aggression in some of the other episodes, and you managed to put a lot of layers into your nine and a half minutes and avoid the aggressiveness and despair.

JN: Thank you so much. That’s such a nice thing to hear.

Julianne Nicholson and Sam Shepard at the August: Osage County luncheon at Le Cirque
Julianne Nicholson and Sam Shepard at the August: Osage County luncheon at Le Cirque Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: The “Am I Israel?” moment with your children is fantastic and brings in the whole world. Especially in the past few weeks, you must have thought: Tribeca is screening our film right now! How did it come about?

JC: Even early on in the pandemic, I think we weren’t alone in feeling a sort of heightened sense of everything. A heightened sense of a family’s love, of our sudden weird proximity. I was also aware of a heightened sense of luck, of extreme privilege. I wanted to try with the script to have fun with that. Our son at the beginning starts off the movie by saying “this feels special.”

AKT: Which month were you filming it?

JC: We were the first to go. It was last May.

JN: Early May.

JC: I wanted as a writer to poke some fun. It starts off being special, and then of course the kids start to do what kids do, which is argue over territory.

AKT: Yeah, “I have a Zoom at seven”.

JC: Yeah, which immediately makes the music end. From there on it’s never uncomplicated. When the dad gets into a throwaway comment about arguing over territory, which he likens to Israel and Palestine and then the kids start to weaponize it. What I was trying to do was show how people can get wildly into semantic ideological hot water with just one throwaway comment. And the dad, who is wildly out of his depth to justify or explain this. Kids’ lives have a momentum of their own. They will take anything you say.

Juliette Lewis,  Abigail Breslin, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale and Julianne Nicholson
Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale and Julianne Nicholson Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: You never know which sentences stick. We all know that from our own childhood. Sentences that nobody else in the world remembers, like “You’re Israel” or whatever. I thought that was well- captured.

JC: His lazy idea of geo-political comparison is exploded by them wanting to employ it in some really practical way. Proximity draws up all sorts of things.

AKT: The encroachment is very nicely done. And then comes this great emotional switch to you, Julianne, when suddenly the family history enters into the picture. That’s what really amazed me, in nine and a half minutes. There comes scarlet fever and the relative at age six or eight in the hospital. Can you talk a bit about that sequence that was so touching. Touching!

JN: I think it was just personalizing it to us and our family and also speaking about this time that we are going through. And that it’s not the first time that we’ve been here. For my generation, for many it is, but this is not a new experience.

AKT: Yes, it stretches the time.

JN: Yeah.

AKT: The birds in the end stretch the place, and this stretches it in time. The books were just what was there? Julianne, you have Shakespeare behind you. And you Jonathan are reading Nick Laird’s Feel Free. Because of the title, or is there more to it?

August Osage County press day with Abigail Breslin, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, John Wells, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Julianne Nicholson
August Osage County press day with Abigail Breslin, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, John Wells, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Julianne Nicholson Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

JC: Honestly, Nick is a poet I admire enormously and he just brought that out. I didn’t stop to think about the implications of the title and actually, I didn’t really want that shot of his book to be in, but it turned out continuity-wise to be the only version we could use. Talking about that sequence where Julianne gets emotional and is thinking back to some other diseases and viruses that had been at work, relatives of ours, my mother, experienced unvaccinated. She was in the hospital for six weeks, eight weeks when she was a tiny little girl. You’re completely right, the intention was to show how any family in proximity like that can live this crazy rollercoaster of things in nine, ten minutes.

AKT: You say it was May, so it was really early on.

JC: People we know were forced away from those vital connective rituals that we all have. Time loses its normal shape and duration. In that Covid time, especially early on, you could experience things very intensely in very contrasting ways.

AKT: Did you immediately say yes when you were approached about this project or was there some hesitation?

JN: We said yes right away. Our problem was, we didn’t actually realize what we are saying yes to. We had been making these little movies, videos, songs, just within the family for fun and to sort of send to family and keep in touch. And Jonathan had been writing these shorts anyway, as a way through experiencing the pandemic and just an outlet for that. He happened to have that story already written, that was the one that seemed to pop for everyone. Which is also why we were the guinea pigs.

Sam Shepard being there, hiding out in the back at Le Cirque
Sam Shepard being there, hiding out in the back at Le Cirque Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

And then the cases arrived, and we thought, hang on! Oh, like a movie-movie? A real movie we are making! Not just on our iPhone. But we said yes, we were very thrilled to be invited and it felt like such a wonderful opportunity for us to come together as a family and also take our minds off a little bit about what’s happening outside.

AKT: I remember early on Rendez-Vous With French Cinema was going on in New York and in the middle of it, everything got cancelled. Suddenly we heard nobody is coming. I was in the middle of one interview about to start and the director got a notification on her phone that the French Minister of Culture just got Covid. This crazy chaotic time.

JN: It definitely felt like that for us when we started filming. We were not going out. We hadn’t seen friends. It was very early on when everyone was still afraid and not knowing what we could and could not do. Even going to the grocery store, wiping down groceries, we were very much in that state of mind.

AKT: I noticed in the credits that you did everything together and spelled out “And Catering.”

JC: I think we might have contravened many child labour laws. Julianne is so right, we thought we were pretty hot shit before all this happened with our little home videos. Trick shot videos, we were doing little song skits. And then of course, someone dumps four Pelican cases of real equipment on your front stoop and you have no idea how to label sound files.

I can honestly say, we never shot a frame of that movie that we felt in complete control of. We were always chasing our incompetence. We made the crass technical error of having everybody in every shot. There was nobody to look through the camera. We simply pressed play and hoped that it would capture some of what we wanted to do. Our son Iggy, who’s now 13, he was 12 then, he racked focus brilliantly, I might add, and then walked into the scene to act. We were flying by the seat of our threadbare pants. It was kind of the end of our quarantine romance in a weird way.

Weston family dinner in John Wells’ August: Osage County
Weston family dinner in John Wells’ August: Osage County

AKT: Who did the choreography?

JC: Choreography? Oh, that was all just freestyle, us basically doing the Cake family dance party and we went for it. Iggy, you may have noticed, he always wants to jump on his sister’s back. Can we do a take where you don’t jump on Phoebe? He does a little bit of a wiggle.

JN: I wish we had a behind the scenes.

AKT: It worked beautifully. Julianne, we met before, many years ago at Le Cirque for a luncheon for August: Osage County.

JN: Oh, yes!

AKT: Sam Shepard being there, hiding out in the back.

JN: That’s right. And Juliette [Lewis] was there and Abigail [Breslin].

AKT: Yes.

JN: I remember!

AKT: Very, very different from this family film!

JN (jokingly): My goodness. Give it a couple of years!

AKT: Right, well, I don’t think so. Thank you so much.

JC: Thank you so much. I’m so glad you enjoyed the film, it really means a lot.

JN: Thank you very much.

AKT: It was definitely in my top three

JN: Nice, nice.

JC: I’ll take top three.

Coming up - Talia Balsam on Bart Freundlich’s Intersection, starring Talia, Julianne Moore, and Don Cheadle - Maya Singer on Mother!!, starring Maya, Morgan, and Rebecca Hall, and Morgan Spector on Mother!!

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