Thirty-eight-year-old Michael Cuesta changed careers after a successful run as a commercials filmmaker and still photographer working alongside his mentor, legendary fashion photographer Irving Penn. In a fine feature film debut Cuesta has made what might be the year's most controversial movie. L.I.E. stands for Long Island Expressway, the place where songwriter Harry Chapin died in a smash-up and a couple years ago, talented director Alan Pakula died in an accident as well. For the young protagonist of Cuesta's film, fifteen-year-old Howie Blitzen (newcomer Paul Franklin Dano in a heartbreaking performance), the expressway also has recently taken his beloved mother's life, leaving the boy adrift with her memory and a preoccupied developer dad who is juggling a crooked career and a young girlfriend, leaving little time for his son. Howie hangs out with the charismatic, sophisticated Gary (Billy Kay), a charmer with a dark streak and secret; Gary urges Howie to help him break into houses in the upscale middle-class neighborhood and one night they crack the lock on the house where Big John (Brian Cox) lives. Big John is an ex-Marine and a proud war veteran. The boys intend to steal his guns. But Big John catches them in the act and though they get away, he manages to tear the pocket off Howie's jeans. Big John confronts Gary, who, being pimped by the older man, and Gary tells him Howie instigated the break-in. Big John ambushes Howie only to discover that Gary has lied. Nonetheless, the realization of his friend's dual life, compounded by his loneliness and sexual confusion, pushes Howie into a tailspin of difficult self-discovery. Big John edges his way into Howie's life, becoming a surrogate dad. It's a relationship that is built on tenuousness, since Big John in a pedophile and Howie is vulnerable. But somewhere in the older man, a state of grace and decency exists. He realizes Howie is different and that the trust that has begun to bud is to be honored, much like his old vow to the military and the American way. Cuesta has crafted a movie of subtlety, balance and dignity and L.I.E. is quite remarkable in it's ability to mine subtext and thought from its characters. The film has created a furor with its "sympathetic pedophile" angle but it's more Howie's story than Big John's. And Cuesta refuses to go to that exploitative place that so pervades Larry Clark's puerile movies (Kids, Bully). Instead he allows his characters to reveal themselves and he doesn't smugly revel in sexual opportunism and voyeurism. It's refreshing, moving, cautionary and redemptive. I talked to Michael Cuesta to find out just where L.I.E. was conceived, how it grew, and why this small film that could challenges the notion that a commercials-maker can't make a movie of substance.
Paula Nechak: I'm thrilled that you've kept an exploitative edge and a personally invasive eye and ego out of your film. It's my major complaint with Larry Clark's movies. Thankfully the understatement in L.I.E. is remarkable as is the way you let the characters alone to reveal themselves.
Michael Cuesta: Thank you. That was very much in the writing. Like Brian Cox said recently at the Edinburgh Film Festival when someone asked him what he did to prepare for the role of Big John, "I read the script."
PN: Was it easy to keep that objectivity, that balance?
PN: How did a seasoned theater and film actor like Brian Cox work with young pups Paul Franklin Dano and Billy Kay? Did they look up to him and ask his advice about performance and technical issues?
MC: He was Big John in a way. That dynamic was there and when I saw it I said, "Brian, I like this." Part of my finding him in the character and shaping the role was seeing him be that guy in between takes. He and Paul had a banter that was great. I told them, "Guys, we've got to get that in the dialogue. Let's pick it up."
PN: There's a homoerotic undertone between the boys and it almost turns into a "don't-wish-too-hard" scenario. It's like the manifestation of that unfulfilled energy arrives in the form of Big John.
MC: I think people, and this may not answer what you're saying, but people always thought, well, in the straight community Howie is straight and in the gay community, Howie is gay or will end up gay. I love that kind of cocktail party conversation, which we have everywhere in this world. The ambiguity of Howie's sexuality exists, I know. but to me, he doesn't know, he's exploring who he is. It's just palpable enough to put your own experience onto it rather than just define it, you know? Everyone goes through it. I'm married and I have kids and I'm straight but I remember being in that position with a kid I wanted to be. There's a whole world of exploring that and I put that into the movie. Once I put that sexual aspect in the film really began to develop.
PN: Going with Lot 47 Films as a distributor is smart. They also distributed The War Zone, another arguably difficult film to market. One thing that concerns me is how the outside world will perceive the surface, not the subtext of the film.
MC: That concerns me but the reasons I went with Lot 47 is for the reason you mention. They had a history of taking on difficult subject matter and Jeff Lipsky is a champion. If he loves a film he truly loves it, and in my case even more than I love my film. (laughs) I tell him "I can't sit through my film anymore" and he says, "I can't sit through it enough." How can you pass up a guy like that? To me it was important to find the company that would believe in L.I.E. not just know how to cut the trailer. It's not like "how do I market this movie, it's I love this film." Sony Pictures Classics saw it and Michael Barker really loved it and considered buying it. He was sitting next to Kenneth Turan from the Los Angeles Times after a screening and Turan said, "Yeah it's very good. I think we just watched the best film about a sympathetic pedophile," and Barker responded, "Oh f*ck, how am I going to market this one?" So, like Jeff Lipsky says, distributors are lazy. They don't do the homework on how to market movies they really like. Something gets in the way that's difficult and even though they're passionate about it, they won't buy it. Jeff had to accept the NC-17 rating because of the United Artists theatre chain. He has a good relationship with them and he knows most of the money will come from them and because they only take rated films, not unrated one, we would have to accept an NC-17. (laughs) He also knows the NC-17 would provoke some discussion and get some press.
PN: You had a successful career as a still photographer and as a commercials filmmaker. What, at age thirty-seven, occurred to make you tell yourself that you had to go in this other direction? Was it a logical extension for you?
MC: I always wanted to make a film. Doing commercials made a nice living and I bought a house and had a life. But L.I.E. was always around, for many years actually. On and off, shelved and un-shelved. It's why it probably ended up being what it is, it had time to evolve. But now I have the bug and I'd like to make another film with the next year.
PN: What do you think of the backlash against the empty beauty projects that are made by ex-commercial filmmakers like Ridley and Tony Scott, Adrian Lyne, Michael Bay...
MC: Some guys also make terrific films. I'm a big David Fincher fan. I also loved Being John Malkovich and you can't get a more commercial background than Spike Jonze. Yet he made a very fun, smart film.
PN: Did memories of your own youth come back to haunt you while you made L.I.E.? Was it a therapeutic purging for you?
MC: Yeah, in a way. But going back to the backlash against filmmakers of commercials because I didn't really respond [to it], I think the biggest mistake commercials directors make is they can't decide between the two mediums and they're very different. Michael Bay doesn't know the difference between Pepsi-Cola and an historical piece. I don't think Ridley Scott does either. Commercials directors probably are not very good script readers.
PN: What kind of responsibility did you feel to Paul, especially, and Gary - one had limited experience the other none at all. How did you trust them to respect the autobiographical details of your life that were injected into the movie and do it justice?
MC: A lot of directing is being open and caring and not over-directing. With kids it's really important to let them be who they are, let them be natural. They're not learned actors and they don't have the skills Brian Cox brought to the table. L.I.E. was very much about doing that and not letting it get unwieldy. You don't discuss the characters, you know? They're kids. Filmmaking isn't an intellectual process anyway, I think it's the opposite. It's intuitive and more an emotional process though the results are intellectual. But making it and creating it is very much different than working with actors. As Antonioni, one of my favorite directors, said, "The most important thing is to get the actor to be at his natural state."
PN: Since the film took awhile to get created, what changed from the first inceptions to the end result?
MC: One of my favorite scenes was made up. One of my other favorite scenes was created in the editing room. I think every director's dream is to tell the story without words; to be a silent film director. But would I do it? No, I like movies that talk.
PN: Were your expectations met by the actual experience?
MC: I actually found it very easy compared to making commercials. Still photography is so different. But in commercials I'm expected to make it better and I'm always stressed out. With L.I.E. I trusted my script and I trusted my casting. To me it was sitting back and enjoying the ride because I knew it was all working.
Click here to read Cynthia Fuchs' review.