Papa Vinyard has a long chat with Leland Orser about his directorial debut, MORNING!!
Papa Vinyard here, now here's a little somethin' for ya...
For Leland Orser, it all started with a bladed strap-on. Even though he'd previously popped up in B-movies and shows like CHEERS, HERMAN'S HEAD, DEEP SPACE NINE, and THE X-FILES, it was that famous scene in SE7EN that really got his career started as a serious cinematic character actor. Since then he's appeared in a huge range of films, starting with his bit parts in INDEPENDENCE DAY and ESCAPE FROM L.A., leading to more substantial parts in films like ALIEN: RESURRECTION, VERY BAD THINGS, and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Recently, he showed up as Liam Neeson's resourceful buddy in the two TAKEN films.
A few years back, he tried his hand at directing with a short entitled MORNING, which he then expanded into a feature film. The film made the festival rounds in 2010, but was shelved for three years due to reasons we discuss below. Now, the film is gearing up for a limited theatrical release in New York, L.A., San Francisco, and Tulsa, Oklahoma (the reason for which he also mentions in the interview). It's a low-key, emotionally unrelenting film that manages to both devastate you and, somehow, provide a little bit of hope while telling its story of two parents getting over the recent loss of their young son. It has a crazy ensemble cast for a film of this level of intimacy, including Jeanne Tripplehorn (Orser's wife), Laura Linney, Kyle Chandler, Elliot Gould, Julie White, Jason Ritter, Charlie McDermott, and Orser himself, and every actor meets the level of honesty and naturalism that the material requires of them. Tripplehorn, in particular, is a revelation; it shouldn't be a surprise that what could very well be her career-best performance was directed by her husband, but every moment she's onscreen she defines the film with a tangible sense of maternal anguish and emptiness. Orser shows a natural talent for using his camera to make everyday locations (the film was shot in and around L.A.) seem like ripe battlegrounds for the couple's internal warfare, and also for evoking terrific, lived-in performances from his cast.
I was able to talk with Mr. Orser for the better part of an hour about his first trek behind the camera, the long road from pre-production to distribution, and lessons he's learned from the prolific directors he's collaborated with in the past.
VINYARD: Hi, this is Vincent with Ain't It Cool News.
LELAND: Hey, it's Leland.
VINYARD: Hi, how're you doing?
LELAND: I'm good, Vincent, how're you doing?
VINYARD: I'm very well, thanks.
LELAND: Glad you called when you called, 'cause I had a big piece- mouthful of bread about three minutes ago. I was hoping you wouldn't call-
LELAND: I was hoping you wouldn't call three minutes ago.
VINYARD: Well, I'm glad you got your lunch!
LELAND: Basically, that's what it was. Now, I'm drinkin' an iced tea.
VINYARD: Lovely. I'll just jump into the questions if you don't mind.
LELAND: Let's do it.
VINYARD: Okay. So MORNING is based on a short film that you made three years prior in '07. Can you describe the short, and what was the experience like expanding that to a feature film?
LELAND: I wrote the short on an airplane, a Southwest Airlines flight coming back from Sundance Institute where I spent the summer- Robert Redford's Sundance Institute- and this idea just dropped into my mind, and I realized that I had to write it down immediately so I wouldn't forget it. Got cocktail napkins from the stewardess, got a pencil, and I wrote 14 pages of the treatment that was the short, which came as a reaction to an article I read while I was up there about a couple surviving the loss of a child. The percentage of those who stayed together versus the percentage of those who grew apart was a much smaller number, and I think that's where the germ of the whole project, the whole idea, really came from, and I found that incredibly upsetting and disturbing. It affected me, and I guess this is how I processed it. I did the short film about a week later with a bunch of my filmmaker friends in Los Angeles. I was the only actor in the film. The only word spoken in the film was the word "Hello." My wife, Jeanne (Tripplehorn), did that voice-over on the phone. Finished it, did the circuit of festivals around the country, very positive experience. Michelle Satter, the head of the Sundance Institute, saw it, said "Now what are you going to do?" And I hadn't thought ahead that far, and I said, "What are my options?" And she said, "Continue doing what you're doing, continue showing it around at festivals, use it as a calling card, be a director, or is there a bigger story that this is the beginning of that you want to tell?" And that was the question that I responded to, so I sat down and wrote out the rest of the story.
VINYARD: So was the short initially just about your character's- basically what's in the finished film about your character in the house alone?
LELAND: Correct. Camera was locked off, it was just witnessing the very beginnings of four mornings in the life of this guy. The wife has already left the house, and it was basically processing this event through his eyes. Very still, very simple, very silent, but in having done the short and written the short, I had to know the story around it, as you do with anything you write. You have to know what happened before, what's happening during, and what's gonna happen after. You have to know those things, obviously, as you know, as a writer, so a lot of those things were in my mind when I was writing the feature. It was already there.
VINYARD: You chose to put more of a focus on the character of the wife than on your character in the finished film. Is there any particular reason?
LELAND: Yes, I think I told the husband's story in the short, and I wasn't really interested in it anymore, in elaborating on it. I felt that- I liked the idea of telling his story in silence, which I did in the short. I liked the fact that he didn't interact, that he doesn't interact with anybody but her in the opening sequence in the film. I liked the fact that the characters in his portion of the film are…objects: furniture, and food, and clothing, and toys, and alcohol, and flowers. And that also made it a lot easier to direct myself; that was a choice as well. If I had put myself- once I knew that I was going to do it, if I'd put myself into a lot of scenes with other actors, it would make things very complicated. It's very- I think it's actually impossible to direct yourself in a film, 'cause once you step out from behind the camera, you're no longer directing the film, in my opinion. The director needs to step back and watch it all. Ben Affleck did it in ARGO, so that disproves me, and he won a fuckin' Oscar!
LELAND: So he's a better man than I am, because I think it's impossible.
VINYARD: What's the process like, directing a performance from yourself?
LELAND: I worked with an acting coach to create a strategy, to sort of map out my journey, so I knew exactly what I wanted to do where and how. Then, um, I had a couple of people I would defer to when I was done with a take. My best friend- one of my best friends flew in from Arkansas, he's a documentary filmmaker. He works at a organic food store in Arkansas, and he took a leave of absence from work to come out and be my right hand man- my right arm, on the film, and he was basically my stand-in. So he'd go in and do all the actions, and I'd watch it, and then- all I really wanted out of what I gave in the film was truth. And honesty. And I just wanted a true, honest, you know, clear, pure performance. If I felt it was so, there were two other people that I would talk to. One was the cinematographer, Paula Huidobro, and third is, interestingly enough, the makeup artist, who had an amazing eye, and years and years in the business, and…fucking got it, you know what I mean? Those were the three people. I would look at them, if yes, thumbs up, if no, they'd say, "Let's do another one." If I got three thumbs up, then we'd move on.
VINYARD: How did you hook up with Ms. Huidobro?
LELAND: Originally, Emannuel Lubezki I met socially, and he, as you, I'm sure, know, is one of the greatest cinematographers alive.
LELAND: And we got to talking. He was doing color correction on, uh, CHILDREN OF MEN. He invited me down to the…wherever it was where he was working, somewhere in La Brea or Highland. I went down and I watched- he showed me the sequence that, to this day, we all think is an uncut oner, but there's one cut where it goes by a post, that amazing sequence in CHILDREN OF MEN. I had, in the car, a copy of my short. We got to talking, and he asked what I was doing, and I told him, and he said, "Bring me the short." So I brought him my short, and gave it to him, and he watched it and really responded to it. He was about to go and work with…Terence Malick (on TO THE WONDER) at the time, and he showed him my short. (Which makes me go) "Fucking no!!" But anyway, he said to me, "Look, if you ever do anything beyond this, I want to be the first person you can call." And to me, it seemed so nice and polite, and what a sweet thing for somebody to say. The very first person I gave my script to was him. He had a hard time getting through it. He had to put it down several times, and then he said to me, "I'm yours. When can you do it? Here's my schedule." I had money for the film at that point. We lost the money. And losing the money meant we lost the two months that "Chivo" was available, so we lost him. I mean, he was in between doing movies with the Coen Brothers and Cuaron, so, you know…it was a near-impossibility that it was gonna happen in the first place, and it went away. But, in his parting gift to me, because he was going to be working for the next three years of his life with these guys, was he said, "Look, you should meet this girl. She and I had met at King's Road cafe, she's 27 years old, she's like 5'9", she's gorgeous, she's physically very fit." And we hit it off immediately, and she read the script, and she and I went into pre-production long, long before the film did. We screened films together, we met together, we talked together, and we storyboarded the film, and figured out what we were doing long before we went into preproduction with the rest of the department heads, which was a fantastic luxury.
VINYARD: What kind of films did you screen with her to prepare for the movie?
LELAND: Well, we each brought (work from) filmmakers to our meetings that we loved. I don't think that I could be a filmmaker without having watched THE DECALOGUE by Kieślowski. I don't think this film could've been made without the inspiration of the Dardenne Brothers. I think them, of all, the Dardenne Brothers mean, what they have done, and how they do it, and how they spill their film gifts out, you know, over so many years. It's the same thing with Terence Malick, "When it's ready, it's ready, and when it's not, and it takes 10 years for the film to come out, so be it." We looked at those, we looked at- there was this incredible film about this Amish- they're not Amish, but they're like Amish- maybe they're Amish- group in Mexico…VISIONS OF LIGHT, or something of light, I'll check that, and if you want to know exactly what it is I'll let you know (note: I couldn't find the film he was referring to). It's the most amazing movie, and it's all shot with natural lighting, and naturalistic- we studied that, we studied RED, WHITE, and BLUE, we looked at those- there was a lot of stuff that we looked at where we'd say, "No, we don't want it to look like that. Yes, we do want it to look like that." And then we kind of developed our look from those screenings.
VINYARD: What about the score? You got Michael Brook to do the score of the film, and it's a really haunting-
LELAND: Oh! Oh my god, totally! So check this out, I get a call- I think it may have even been through Paula, who was the cinematographer, who tells me- now we've moved into the office, and we have a greenlight for the film, and we're in preproduction. She says, "Chris Douridas wants to meet you, wants to talk to you." "Do you mean Chris Douridas from (the KCRW show) MORNING BECOMES ECLECTIC?" She's like, "Yeah!" And I said, "Why in the world would he want to talk to me?" And she said, "If I were you, I would just get on the phone with him." Got on the phone with him, met him for lunch, and…this is out there, he's told this story before, so I'm not telling something that isn't already out there. He confessed to me that he was a member of this club. He called it, "The Club," referring to parents who have lost children. He lost a daughter, and it was a defining experience of his life, and always will be. He will carry it with him forever. It was a very emotional lunch together. He said to me, "I'd like to work with you on your film," and I said, "Look. Seriously. What I'm doing here is fiction. You have lived through it. You can't- they're so different, I-". He said, "Look, it might be good for me, and it actually might be good for you." And, as you know, he's a fantastic music supervisor, connected to everybody, everywhere, and everybody adores him and knows him because of his radio show on Saturday mornings. And I said, "Look, okay, if we were to do this, in which now the stakes are incredibly high- you know, the measure of this film, and the responsibility of making this film…now I'm telling somebody else's story. It is not my story." I said, "That aside, we have no money." He's like, "I don't need money, and I don't want money. Let's stop talking about if, how, why, where. Let's move forward." From that moment on, he became the music supervisor. He said to me, "Look, who do you like? What music, what scores do you like?" And I said, "I have the answer for you. The sound I'm looking for is a cross between Gustavo Santaolalla, who did the music for BABEL and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, and Michael Brook, who did music for INTO THE WILD. That score is a soundtrack that I listen to to this day, regularly. He said okay, and called me the next morning, and said, "So, Gustavo Santaolalla has agreed to give you any piece out of his library, out of sketches that are already in existence, you have his permission to use, and he would like to be part of the movie." I had told him, "This is the sound that I want to sound like," not, "This is the sound I want to have!" So then, he said, "We're going to go over Michael Brook's for coffee in Malibu, are you free?" So the two people who I used as- to explain the sound that I wanted, I ended up meeting. Michael Brook and I hit it off, and as you know, he wrote an original score for the film. Plays 10 different guitars for it, his wife plays the cello on it. I think that his experience- he's very good friends with Chris, it was a very, very emotional thing for all of us involved. It's very intense. And then, and then, and then, Patty Griffin…somebody came up with the idea of Patty Griffin, 'cause we'd used a song by Joni Mitchell in the temp score to lead you out of the film at the end, "Both Sides Now", which is remixed- just really beautiful, but it's a big piece, with a lot of back…background backing in it. So we drove around with some of these creatives in the middle of the night, listening to Patty Griffin, and goddamn, she has the most beautiful voice! It turns out, we then see in the paper the next day, she's coming to town, and she's going to play the Greek Theater that night. We all jump into Chris's car, drive over to the Greek, bust in backstage, into her dressing room, and we pleaded our case. And she said, "I'm in!" She's like, "I'm in a writing mood anyway. Give me the film, give me the script, and talk to you in a few!" So we went about our business finishing up the film, and what looms ahead of you at that point is the final mix, where all the elements are locked and loaded into the final print of the film, and we're waiting, and waiting, and waiting for this Patty Griffin song to come. Her manager contacts us, and says- again, it's all for free, at this point- her manager contacts us, and says, "Look, I don't know if she's going to get this done in time for you, why don't I give you a couple of her other songs that she said you could use. They're already, you know, done." We listened to those, and Chris said, "What do you think?" And I said, "They all work, (but) I want what it is that she's working on," 'cause she'd said to me that she was actually still working on it at that point. The day before the final mix, I'm sitting in the sound editing bay, and I see an e-mail with an attachment drop into my inbox that says "Patricia Griffin".
LELAND: I put on my little white earphones, for my iPhone, and went outside and listened to it, and it was so beautiful. I sent it to Chris right away, and he said, "I have one question for her. Did she record it on two mics? Does she have her voice and the piano on two separate mics?" She called, and she was like, "No, no, I just did it on the piano in my kitchen, I got it on a snowball mic, I did it off my laptop." And we we were like, (in high pitched voice) "Oh, sick!!"
LELAND: Anyway, that's what we ended up using, because her performance and her voice on that original demo, that temp that she sent us, was terrific. Jeanne's brother, Jason, who lives in Austin, he plays in a bunch of bands in Austin, and three of his bands that he's in are on the soundtrack. He's the drummer, so we used that in there as well.
VINYARD: Well, Ms. Tripplehorn, gives- if I could just jump over to the performances for a second- Ms. Tripplehorn gives a really heart-wrenching lead performance in the film. What is it like directing your wife in that kind of a role? Is it easier to direct her because you're so close, or is that a sort of obstacle that you had to overcome?
LELAND: First of all, I'm sitting in a car parked on the street in Tulsa, Oklahoma right now. That's where she's from, that's where we are. We're doing a benefit screening at the Circle Cinema on Route 66 tonight. Just to sort of put into perspective where we are, what kind of people we are. We're at home, we come home to her home to bring the film to them, so just…check that. That's a pretty special thing that's happening here. I've never had any kind of issues. I was like, "You can do this. You'll be great at this, and there'll be no issues between us whatsoever. Let's just do this thing." And she was the one who said, "This subject matter is crazy. We've got a happy marriage and a happy home, why would we fuck with that? We keep our personal lives and our professional lives separate?" And I was like, "You know what? I think…you might be right." She said, "You could get any actress in Hollywood to play this part." That's what she said. "And I said, "I don't want any actress in Hollywood to play this part, but let's take a step back." She went to New York, to the Whitney Biennial, called me in tears standing in front of some artwork somewhere in the city, and said to me, "What are we doing? We're artists! Why in the world would we not create art together? This is an opportunity, we can do this, we will do this." We gave ourselves guidelines, very strict guidelines and structure. We never spoke of the film under our own roof, never. I moved out of the house into a room that we have over our garage during the filming of the movie. We were adamant that our personal lives remain untouched and safe from our work lives and from our subject matter. And a few days before the film, I suddenly got very nervous, and I thought, "Oh my god, what the fuck have I done? All these people have come onboard to do this with us and for us, and what have I done? Are we gonna be okay?" Well, the first day of shooting, we arrive on set separately. She goes through hair and makeup, she arrives on set for the first day, which was a scene with Charlie McDermott at the house. (Charlie) is the young actor from FROZEN RIVER who plays her friend Mary's son. She stepped in front of the camera for rehearsal, and she looked exactly as I had imagined that she would She was ready, she'd done her work, her preparation, the research. We did a quick little rehearsal, I went and sat behind the monitor, I put the headphones on, never done this before in my life, and the sound starts to roll, the film starts to roll through the camera, and the camera was on her, and I was so mesmerized by her, and her face, and her performance that I forgot to call action! Somebody nudged me and said, "You have to call action, they don't know what they're doing!" She knew what she was doing, I knew what we were doing, and we never looked back. She's a- first of all, she's what every director wants in front of the camera. The camera adores her physically. She is…beautiful to behold in front of the camera. You gotta just say it. Number two: she has an instrument as an actor that is finely tuned and educated; she went to four years in Juilliard. She has an emotional range that is extremely, extremely difficult to find. It is so vast, and she has access to that emotional range on cue. She is every director's dream. And I think, as I think you're suggesting (I was), that she's given the performance of a lifetime here. I think she's gone places that she's never gone before, and I think we both went places we've never gone before because we trusted each other, and we felt safe in each other's hands.
VINYARD: Absolutely. Gina Marelli, has a really lovely, completely silent performance in the movie as the family housekeeper. What was the genesis of that character, and how did you end up casting Ms. Marelli?
LELAND: God, you ask good questions. She…I met with a grief counselor, I scheduled sessions with a grief counselor before I'd actually put pen to paper writing the script because I wanted to make sure that I was accurate in the things that I was writing and portraying. The grief counselor said to me- I said, "How do you survive something like this?" And she said, "Those people who come in here with a faith, when they believe in something larger than them, have the best chances of walking away- damaged and scarred, albeit- but of surviving. I thought it was really important to have a character in the film who had a direct connection, and in the case of the housekeeper, a direct dialogue with God. Just gonna say it. The couple clearly does not. They are untethered, they have nothing to hold them down to Earth, and she does. She is the angel, she bookends the film, she is the messenger, and she is there to guide them back to redemption and, ultimately, salvation and survival. We did a take of her in the back of the house where she puts her little altar up- in the Catholic religion, the Deus, the deceased is up, and the saints- and she punched the saint over one day in anger. We didn't put that in the film, but it moved me so much, her relationship- how angry she was at the saint, and at God, for what they'd done to this family, but how openly accepting and ultimately understanding she was. Debbie Zane, who cast the movie, brought in some women, and they were good, they were fine, they were professional, they were…jaded. They'd been around the block. And we didn't find her, and then one day, the door knocks- it's just Debbie and I, there's no assistants, there's nobody, it's just the two of us- door knocks, door opens, and this woman who you see in the film was standing there. She stared at me, and I stared at her, and something happened, and I decided I wouldn't open my mouth and say a word. I felt my interactions with the others, there were just too many words, there was too much exchange. The character was silent. So we just stared at each other, and I decided I wouldn't say anything, I would wait for her to say the first word, and she never said the first word. It just- having written the script, and having written the character, to realize that the woman was standing there in the threshold of the door, so I said to her, "Would you please come in and sit down." She came in and sat down, still refused to speak. It was understood between her and I, at that point, that this was going to happen. I said to her, "Look, you're gonna have to stay up really late. You're gonna have to get up really early. It's gonna be cold. We're gonna be working in the middle of the night. You're gonna have to walk to the bottom of the pool. You're gonna have to walk up and down the hill a lot of times." And she looked at me, and she said, "I know." And that was that. Looking back, her courage, it just killed me.
VINYARD: Yeah, she's great.
LELAND: That face! My god, that fucking face.
LELAND: And I love the fact, about her, that I discussed with the wardrobe designer, and it's written in the script: if you look closely, she's wearing galoshes, and a rain hat, and a raincoat, and is carrying an umbrella from the first day, and she's in fucking L.A. dude! It never rains in L.A., but she's gonna bring that fuckin' rain if it kills her. And the rain, for me, is the revert, the redemption, the washing away, the cleansing, if you will, of this poor couple, and allowing them to start again, and she brings it. She brings the rain. Her name is "Lluvia", which means rain.
VINYARD: Not only does she bring the umbrella and shield your character at the end, but she's also- in one of the scenes with Laura Linney (who plays a grief counselor), we find out that she was actually the one who informed the mother about what happened to the son. She said, "Boy no swim, boy no swim!" So, in more ways than one, she's sort of the guardian angel for the family, and it really comes through.
LELAND: Oh my god, it was like- yeah, and then when you hear Jeanne's character say the words, and you know that she said them, it all just sort of comes together in such a profound way. I tried so hard to stay away from exploiting the actual event.
LELAND: I didn't want to be that. I didn't want it to be…I didn't want to use that, or see that, or exploit that. I'm telling somebody else's story here, and I feel there's like the same responsibility in having done it. And now that the world is going to see it, the responsibility's even bigger, and I just don't know what that responsibiliity is. I don't know how to answer it, you know? It's heavy, heavy.
VINYARD: On the more comedic side...
LELAND: Yes, let's go to comedy.
VINYARD: Julie White! She comes in 15 minutes into the movie with this mannered, quirky, highly physical performance that actually sort of reminded me of some of the parts you've played in some of your character parts over the years.
LELAND: (laughs) Oh God, she's just a wonderful actor, and she's been around, and she nails it every time. She's a Tony Award-winner, she's beloved in Manhattan, she's a big star on the streets of New York. I think she's developing her own series at HBO. Her character, and she just- Debbie said to me, from day one, "Julie. It's gotta be Julie." And you're dealing with money people, and they all want you to go down their list of people they think need to be in your movie, so Debbie said, "Let them work their way through that, but ultimately, we have to land on Julie." The part of Mary is the well-meaning friend, who, you know, trips over herself and everyone in front of her, supposedly doing the right thing. She's so damaged by her own imperfections and her own aborted experiences with grief that still remain to this day unresolved, and I think she just got it so well. Referencing God, referencing spending, referencing drinking and eating, like "No, just shut the fuck up and listen! Don't say a word! Just be there, and hold the person's hand!" But she's incapable. It always comes back to her, which is just so fuckin' pimp, I think.
VINYARD: And she thinks she knows what she's talking about because, as we find out, I guess she lost her husband, but of course it's a completely different scenario, and she really doesn't know how to engage.
LELAND: You know, her name is Mary, her husband's name is Joe, and their child's name is Jesse. What the fuck I was thinking about, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus? I don't know!
LELAND: But I do know that the character that Charlie McDermott plays (White's character's teenaged son), which is what could have, and what would have, and what should have been Jeanne's child- Alison's child. He's the embodiment of, I thought…and he's the only one who looks her in the eyes, and sees her and understands her, and gets through to her.
LELAND: I saw him in FROZEN RIVER, and just fell in love with his performance. He and I met, he was so sick the day he came to meet me, and I was just like, "Please, just do the movie. We have to officially meet." I just loved what he did with it, in the end. The stinky adolescent role, the tendency, and the pot- he's a stoner maybe, and he's out getting stoned by the pool. Just the beauty of a grown boy that she will never see, or at least thinks she will never see.
VINYARD: At that point.
LELAND: They were a great family, I thought he and Julie were so great together while he's just sitting there, rolling his eyes, probably high, just listening to his mom going on and on and on, and she's drunk at the dinner table. And I loved that Alice takes Jesse's side, and just like, she's not even listening to him! He wants to be excused, so he can just leave the table!
VINYARD: That's a great moment. You think that she (Alison) is the one who's feeling offended and ignored, and then you realize she's just sympathizing with him (the son).
LELAND: And water is obviously a very important element in the film. He goes swimming in the pool, she looks out the window of her friend's house, and when he comes to her in the car, he's just out of the pool and he's dripping wet. I think that scene between the two of them through the car window is…pure, just pure simple dialogue. I was elated that night after shot that.
VINYARD: Can you talk about the water metaphor a little bit more and how it related to the story?
LELAND: Obviously water was the cause of the loss. If you think of the rites of baptism…I think it's pretty biblical, is what it is, and I think if you literally go back and look, there's water throughout, down to the emptying of the pool with the big blue hose, there's sprinklers spraying in the end, to the drop in the faucet of the sink that continues to keep track of the time. Time marches on, you may have lost somebody, but the world keeps spinning, the faucet keeps dripping. I think there's a faucet outside that's finishing the water. The world keeps spinning, and you gotta find your way back to it, you gotta get your feet back on the ground. When you experience a loss as huge as this, you're not in time anymore, you're living between time. I think water represents the steadiness of time; the sun comes up, the sun goes down, morning comes every day. The alarm clock goes off every day, like it or not, with or without you.
VINYARD: Sure. In terms of distribution for the film- the film was playing festivals three years ago, back in 2010. Why did it take over three years to get the movie into American theaters?
LELAND: (sighs) Because…there are…people in this world who do not see things the way other people see them. When you're contractually obliged to others and they don't do things the way they should do them, lawyers become involved, and things get locked up. We were in a legal lockdown for a year and a half with this film. It got worked out, and thank god Anchor Bay was standing there at the end of the journey saying, "Yeah, we still like the movie, and we still want it, and we'd like to buy it, and we'd actually like to put it in theaters," which, as you and I both know, is a miracle. But, you know, that's the part of filmmaking that they don't teach you about in school, or in seminars, or online. It's…what about the business of filmmaking? What about the- I think every filmmaker should have to pass the Bar Exam just to understand what they're getting into when they…when you sign that dotted line saying, "Yes, I'm the filmmaker, you're the investor, and you're the producer," you gotta read that shit…
LELAND: Because it's not…if you get in bed with someone who does not have your best interests in mind, you can end up in a lot of trouble. I think it's happened to a lot of films, and I think that a lot of people don't see films because of the legal disputes and fights over interests and money and stuff like that, so I won't go into details, but it's the part of filmmaking that they don't teach you about but they should.
VINYARD: I actually took a "Business in Filmmaking" course back in NYU, and the teacher could not emphasize enough that, "Everything I'm teaching you is bullshit. You have to do it. You have to go out there and do it, because you don't know what to expect." And that seems to be what happened here, but I'm glad it all got worked out.
LELAND: I would've thought that the 21 days would be the 21 most difficult days of my life, the shooting of the film, when in fact, it was like being in an Olympic event! You are in it, and you are in it to win it, and you're not looking down, and you're not looking back. You get into this world, going to festivals where the film should now be sent and on its way, and you have to like sit down in offices with lawyers, and you're like, "What?! They didn't say this in Screenwriting 101," you know? You gotta be really savvy. Here's the deal with a film. A film is like having a child. It ain't over the moment the baby pops out of your wife's belly. It's not over. It only begins. And every day for the rest of your life, you'll be a parent to that child. And it's the same thing with a film. You need to stay on that film and watch that film and care for that film every day of your life, until it's reached as many possible people as it possibly can. Hardcore.
VINYARD: You think you're gonna direct anything in the near future?
LELAND: I know I am! (laughs) I know I am, and I was gonna start right after all of the openings for MORNING, but I'm gonna go do an acting job- have you heard of a guy named Riley Stearns? He did a short at Sundance last year called THE CUB, look it up, it's online. It's very funny, it's very good. He's married to a woman named Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who did a film called SMASHED, where she was so great, with Aaron Paul. I'm going to do a movie with them. It's just the greatest script I've read in 20 years, and it's the greatest part I've ever read. I'm gonna do that soon. After that, I've written another script, and it's a 180 from MORNING. It's not dramatic, it's not dark, it's a thriller, it's fun, I like to say it's kinda like "crackerjack". It's got twists, and turns, and screams, and a little action- not action, it's not like an "action movie", but it's fun. It's told in the same way that MORNING is told, but it's not at all like MORNING. So yes, I'm ready to do that, and I'm…as you begin, so you proceed, I want to find the right family. I don't want to- I've learned a lot from this experience, and I don't want to make any of the mistakes that I made the first time around. I'm sure I'll make a million mistakes, but at least I won't make the ones I've already made.
VINYARD: Well as an actor, you've worked with some legendary directors like, you know, Spielberg, John Carpenter, David Fincher, Philip Kaufman, Philip Noyce, have any of these guys influenced you as a director?
LELAND: I love how you put John Carpenter second.
VINYARD: It's Ain't It Cool, what can I say?
LELAND: I know, it is, right? I loved doing that movie (ESCAPE FROM L.A.) with him. It's so funny, when I had my first meeting with John Carpenter, I was sitting in his office, it was I don't know where, and I had cottonmouth. I was kinda nervous to go in and meet him. So this woman had this thing of Red Vines on her desk at her office, and I said "Would you mind? Could I have one?" I took a fistful of Red Vines and I started eating them, and I got a big mouthful of Red Vines, and somebody opened the door and said, "Come on in." I looked around, there was nowhere to spit them out, and I had a mouth full of Red Vines, like a lot. I came in, and I couldn't talk to him! (laughs) So for the first three minutes of our meeting, I'm chewing. That was pretty funny. But anyway- have I learned from these guys? Yes, in fact. When I did my short, I took it over to Dave Fincher's production offices, he's got this great setup. I went in, and he was editing ZODIAC at that point, so he showed me some stuff from ZODIAC on his Apple, and, you know, what an amazing movie, and what amazing footage he was showing me. And then he's like, "Okay, now let's pop your short in!" So I'm on this big screen where we just watched David Fincher stuff, we're now gonna watch mine. I bugged eyeballs at that point, but I was like, "Fine, let's do this thing." So we put it up, and he leans forward, and is like six inches from the screen, and like devouring every inch of the screen as he was going through, commenting throughout, pointing at things, talking about things throughout. He gave me some tips, I took his notes and incorporated them. That was a really great experience. When I did my short, the night after I finished it- I shot it on MiniDV- and I was in my dining room, with all the tapes sitting in front of me. It was like 8 o'clock in the morning, and we'd just returned all our gear to the rental house, and I realize that I have no idea what to do next. Like, "What do I do with these tapes? What do I do next?" And I'd just finished shooting THE GOOD GERMAN, and I had the office number for Steven Soderbergh. So I went, "Oh shit, he'll know what to do!" I picked up the phone, called him, he happened to be in the offices early, answered the phone. "Steven?" "Uh, yes?" "This is Leland." He goes, "What's going on?" I said, "I've just shot a movie, and I don't know what to do!"
LELAND: And he said, "What are you talking about?" And I said that I had a bunch of tapes, and he'e like, "If the tapes are near anything warm, move them away from it." That was his first bit of advice.
LELAND: He said, "And now, you need an editor. Do you know how to edit?" And I said, "I do not." He said, "Well, you need an editor." And I said, "Okay, how do I find one of those?" He said, "Where are you?" I said, "I'm in Hollywood," he said, "What's your number there?" Gave him my number, he said, "Stay by the phone." 15 minutes later, Matt Absher, who's an editor that works with Steven, calls me and he says, "Steven told me I have to call you." And I said, "Oh, good!" He's like, "So what's the deal?" And I say, "I've got this thing," and he says, "Okay, great, I'll be over in an hour." So he came over, he moved up into the room above my garage, and edited the film that week. When it came to doing the feature, I called Steven again, and I basically was saying, you know, "Can I have Matt again?" Matt was busy on something he was working on, but Steven said I want you to call this other guy who I've worked with before. You'll really like him. He's also a teacher at AFI." And that's how I met Stan Salfas, who ended up editing the film. Steven- whenever I would come up against a wall, I'd call him or would e-mail him, and he'd give me tips. He said, "Make sure your blacks are black, and make sure that everybody can hear all the dialogue. Turn your dialogue up a little."
LELAND: It's like so simple! "Just make sure everyone can hear the stuff you've written." I invited him when the movie was done. I said, "Would you please come watch it?" And he said yes. We got a screening room in Beverly Hills, and he came and he sat in like the fifth row, and I sat in the back row, and it was just the two of us and the associate editor on the film, Rita DaSilva, who now edits for J.J. Abrams, so talented. I sat there, of course I'm watching the movie, but I'm watching back at his head, he's sporting a 'do. The movie's finished, the credits roll, and he's thanked in the credits. His last name begins with "S", so he's thanked at the very end of the credits, and when his name comes up he applauded! He didn't applaud for the movie, he applauded for himself!
LELAND: And I'm like, "Okay, good. This isn't gonna be embarrassing, this is gonna be okay." I came up, and stood up, and came over and sat on the back of one of the seats, and I said, "So, what do you think?" And he said, "Two things. A good thing and a bad thing." And I said okay. He said, "The good thing is you've made a beautiful film." I thought I would burst into tears when he said that, I really did. But I was still waiting to hear what the bad thing was! So he said, "Good thing is, you've made a beautiful film. Bad thing is, you've made a beautiful film." (laughs) He's like "I have no notes for you. My only note for you is try and put this film in front of as many people as you possibly can in whatever way you possibly can." This is not a film for commerce. There is no business side of this film, just the artistic side of this film.
VINYARD: I think that's a good place to wrap up. I'll let you get back to enjoying Tulsa.
LELAND: Thanks, man.
VINYARD: I really enjoyed this conversation, and thanks for making the movie, it really touched me. I really enjoyed it.
LELAND: I am so grateful to you for reaching out and for your support, and your welcome, and I thank you. I'm a big fan of your guys' site, and your writing in particular. I just love what you guys do. I love your love of film so thank you, thank you very much.
VINYARD: Thanks a lot, that means plenty.
He ended the conversation with a promise to answer any further questions I had, particularly regarding my curiosity of the shooting of his famous scene in SE7EN. He could not have been a more open, friendly talent, and I'm happy that he's been able to dig his film out of the legal doldrums and is getting it played in actual cinemas rather than only on VOD. I'm looking forward to the possibility of talking with him again when his next project hits theaters.
MORNING opens in select theaters this Friday, September 26th.
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