Thirteen Conversation about One Thing
With only two films under her belt, director Jill Sprecher, who co-scripts her films with her younger sister, Karen, certainly merits the best actors for her quiet, detailed movies. Clockwatchers starred Parker Posey, Toni Collette and Lisa Kudrow and was a precise and perfectly rendered look at the hell envisioned by a temp worker in new and impersonal corporate surroundings; Sprecherıs new movie, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, features Matthew McConaughey, Alan Arkin, Amy Irving, John Turturro, Clea DuVall and Barbara Sukowa as New Yorkers weaving through five stories about fate and events that have an impact upon one another, finally forming one significant tale with a single message and meaning. ³We count them happy who endure,² says a title card in the film and it, considering Sprecher herself survived a fateful encounter with a stranger in 1985 when he smashed her in the head with a bottle, is mostly about finding the courage to change for the better. We change because we have to, certainly, and Sprecherıs carefully integrated, expositional morality play that encompasses past, present and future tense, hope, and in my mind, dignity, is a work that embraces everyday urban existence and survival and turns the ordinary into something extraordinary. Sprecher met to talk about her movie during its screenings at the 2002 Seattle International Film Festival.
Paula Nechak: So, how many responses have you had to the ³one thing² of the title?
Jill Sprecher: Itıs great because people are seeing a lot of different things. Some have said faith or grace, others happiness. We read somewhere that someone thought it was about dissolution or entropy. Itıs interesting, when my sister, Karen, and I had the title; initially we were sure people were going to assume it meant sex [laughs]. All the answers are great.
PN: Thereıs a very interesting color palette in the film. In Clockwatchers everything was florescent and too bright. This film is full of dark greens and soothing colors which really bounce against the subject matter. How carefully do you integrate script and the visual look?
JS: Itıs weird because my sister, Karen, and I write certain details into our scripts and one of the things we envisioned in this film was that we didnıt want any white in the color palette other than as a motif that would float through the stories to link them together, like the white shirt. We wanted to differentiate the characters, creating individual environments by making slight variations on the color but still having one overall movie and having an audience psychically link these people. We took the script to Dick Pope, our cinematographer, as well as our production and costume designers and when we took our first meeting everyone separately brought up a painting by Edward Hopper. His paintings are sort of a reference now for urban isolation and so we used a couple of his works as a springboard.
PN: in both your films you allow story to unfold on its own terms, thereıs time, quietness, honesty and dignity in there. Even when your characters behave badly they still maintain a kind of innate dignity. Is that something essential to you as a storyteller?
JS: I love the way you said that, I never thought of it that way but as you know a lot of the material is autobiographical, including the people who do terrible things. My sister and I havenıt gone to the extreme of say, Alan Arkinıs character, but weıve certainly felt his envy. I think because we so understand these characters we donıt see any of them as bad people. Theyıre flawed but theyıre probably their own worst enemies.
PN: Is it your view of the world that there are patterns of quiet? Is there more said in the unspoken than the spoken?
JS: Yes. There was a sparseness to the script and maybe it subconsciously influences the performances, Iım not sure. The actors also dictate the way a movie should be edited. Thereıs a tendency now to quickly get out a line and quickly get the reaction shot. Iım lucky to have worked with Stephen Mirrione twice now and heıs the best editor in the business. I like to think we discovered him and heıs been stolen by bigger people in the business [he cut Steven Soderberghıs Traffic] but heıs very attuned to the nuances of performance and he edits based upon performance.
PN: Iıve heard your film compared to Mamet or Kieslowski - do you find it difficult to wear comparisons when you write from your own experiences?
JS: Thatıs good company [laughs]. Now I know where the Mamet comes in - probably from Glengarry Glen Ross - somebody compared Clockwatchers to it, a female version, though I wasnıt thinking of it when we wrote it. But Mametıs very specific about language and having actors say it as written and my sister and I always look at the script as a blueprint which is handed over to experts. Itıs more a living organism that grows while youıre doing it. But if I had to pick a cinematic reference for this movie I think it would be Stanley Kubrick. He has a great sense of isolation with his characters and I was very struck, when I was studying film, by the structure of The Killing. It jumped all over in time but you always felt you were moving forward.
PN: Your films are ensemble pieces and you opt to work collaboratively with your sister in the scriptwriting. What do you think of the auteur theory?
JS: I think a movie is total collaboration and Iım such an inexperienced director that in going into Clockwatchers I was like, ³One of these people doesnıt belong in this group² [laughs]. I thought if anyone asks me something at least my sister and I wrote it and we know what we were trying to say and we know the characters and so I can answer on that level. In my mind a director is an ultimate decision maker but I like to learn from everyone on the set. I understand the auteur theory, especially if you see a body of a personıs work and see interests or stylistic things appear, but itıs weird that when we wrote the script for Thirteen Conversations About One Thing we thought we wrote something opposite of Clockwatchers. We were stunned by people constantly telling us they saw similarities.
PN: For a woman whoıs endured a ³random attack² and participates in a business thatıs as uncertain as you can get, thereıs irony in the fact that your scripts try to find order in chaos.
JS: Thatıs something Iım obsessed with in movies and in life. When I got hit in the head with that bottle I remember making a choice that day - I could have either called a messenger to run something around the corner or I could have saved six dollars and delivered it myself. You start to think, ³If I had only turned this way instead of that.² Itıs natural to say ³what if² or ³why.² Plus I studied philosophy undergraduate and youıre trained to look for meaning [laughs]. Thatıs the whole reason for writing - to take apparent chaos and find order in it.
PN: Where do you think a film is actually ³made?² Itıs a question I like to ask directors. John Sayles says the editing room, James Ivory says itıs the casting -
JS: Itıs between the two. The directorıs most important job is picking the right people who will be involved in the movie and once thatıs done itıs about trying to create an environment thatıs comfortable for everybody to do the best work they can. Editing is the final rewrite of a movie, so many things can happen that you canıt predict while youıre shooting and usually they turn out better than you think. Stephen Marrione read every draft and it took us three-and-a-half years to get the money for the film, which we lost while shooting, so he had a very short window to edit the movie. We had to go back and re-envision things in their simplest form so it was wonderful to go into the editing room with him because he knew the essence of it and he cut it in six-and-a-half weeks.
PN: Youıve said you and your sister are very similar. Does that symbiotic element make it easier or harder to write and bounce ideas off of each other?
JS: Iıve written things on my own but theyıre nothing Iım proud of. Itıs fun for us because writing is so solitary. It becomes less like work and more like fun because itıs a dialogue. I say weıre similar because obviously we share a gene pool and background experiences. But in film she has more mainstream taste and mine is off the path. Sheıll tell me, ³Thatıs too weird, youıre the only person in the universe whoıll get it.² So we balance each other out. Maybe it would be better to work with a polar opposite but weıre so comfortable it feels honest. It saves a lot of time in the end.
PN: You cast phenomenally well - between both films youıve had Parker Posey, Toni Collette, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew McConaughey, Alan Arkin, Amy Irving, John Turturro, Clea DuVall and even Barbara Sukowa in parts. You use real actors, not personalities. How do you like to work with your actors? What experience would you like them to have when they work with you?
JS: I canıt believe they agreed to be in the movies. And I donıt think Hollywood knows what to do with Matthew because heıs a character actor in a leading manıs body. He was amazing and so smart. First, rehearsal is a luxury on any movie and with this budget it was out of the question. Getting a schedule for all these actors was so convoluted. In the end they really took it in and did the research. They did the details and they just got it. From the initial meeting we were all on the same wavelength and each actor had their own method to make the character his or hers.
PN: I love the ending of Thirteen Conversations... because the current trend in contemporary literature and movies is to not have an ending thatıs in tune to whatıs come before.
JS: We would never dream of doing anything unless we knew the ending. I think it was Paul Newman who said ³a screenplay is all about the first five pages but a movie is about the last five minutes.² An ending is so important to a movie. I read about studio films thrown out and tested and they go back and re-shoot the ending, and it always feels tacked on because itıs not organic, itıs not moving toward the point and the message and thatıs what you have to move toward.
PN: Finally, Iıve read about your legendary shyness...
JS: [interrupting] Can you believe it meeting me now? I really was a very introverted person and the change hit my parents when they came to the Toronto Film Festival. The film premiered there and I thought nothing of it because Iıve now done this a lot but they were shocked. I had to get up in front of 1500 people and announce the film. I guess getting hit with a bottle, well, after that - and I donıt think change happens overnight, itıs cumulative - I realized I was much stronger than I thought and I changed a lot of my behaviors. I had a victimıs stance, I had been mugged twice in a three-month period, and I realized maybe it was something I was sending off. When you live in New York City you get bolder. When my sister and I started Clockwatchers it snowballed and we thought letıs just keep going until someone says ³frauds.² We really were waiting for someone to just stop us. All of a sudden we were shooting and I remember there was a moment when forty people on the set turned to me for an answer. Itıs a ping-pong because part of the time the job of writing is socially isolating and then all of a sudden youıre thrown into something on a set thatıs a miniature society. [laughs] Itıs kind of one extreme to the other.