"Roger Dodger" director Dylan Kidd and I hit it off right away when he was in San Francisco to discuss his new film, an adaptation of Helen Schulman's mystical romantic drama "P.S.," but then I knew we would because I had a hook to get our conversation off on the right foot -- I went to high school with his friend and singular cinematographer, Joaquin Baca-Asay.
I haven't seen or talked to Joaquin in nearly 20 years -- and I didn't know him all that well back in the '80s. But as an interviewer working in the entertainment industry -- where journalists are shuffled into and out of hotel rooms all day for their 15 to 30 minutes with the "talent" on a publicity tour, anything you can do to get a subject off autopilot is a good thing.
So thank, Joaquin. And by the way, I love your work.
That's what I told Kidd, which got us off and running on the minutia of the lighting and imagery in "P.S." before I realized I'd better dig in with some more accessible questions about its talented cast and unexpectedly down-to-earth story. The film stars the incomparable, astoundingly unaffected Laura Linney ("Mystic River," "You Can Count On Me") as a Columbia University Art School admissions director who is thrown for an emotional loop when an applicant, who playfully calls himself F. Scott (Topher Grace), arrives in her office bearing an uncanny physical, psychological and artistic resemblance to the love of her life, a boyfriend who died when she was a teenager.
|Q: I love that the "in" to the story -- her notion that this art student could be her high school lover reincarnated -- is just a jumping-off point. There's so much going on in the story that this potentially gimmicky plot point becomes almost academic.|
A: Well, it's fun to sort of drop a conceit like that into an otherwise very grounded universe. There's something interesting about establishing Laura Linney in this real world of academia, then bringing in this mystical element and it's this thing that doesn't mix with anything else. For me, this uncanny resemblance is just a way to get into talking about trust issues, and projecting your anger at the wrong person. (There's) a way to read this that he really is reincarnated, but as long as the audience doesn't quite know what to make of F. Scott and is feeling protective towards Louise, that's enough for us. It was really tricky figuring out how hard to push the mystical element. We're not making a movie about a ghost. But that has to be in there.
|Q: So did you have to be constantly aware of being on a slippery slope in that regard?|
A: Yeah...and we cut a lot of stuff that I thought played too much into that aspect. I felt it was more important for the audience to see that this woman was just in a bad place in her life -- she's sort of drowning and this coincidence is a life preserver she's grabbed on to. She's...inventing a story. She's creating a narrative in her head.
|Q: But the question is left open, because it turns out not to be pivotal.|
A: What I always liked structurally about the book is this idea that if you think of this coincidence -- or this uncanny resemblance, this gift from the gods, this second chance, or whatever this thing is that's happening -- I always loved the idea of starting off with this thing feeling like an incredible gift, but as the movie goes on it becomes more and more of an obstacle. It becomes this thing she has to fight through.
|Q: I love the way the confidence she has as woman, as an adult with professional responsibilities, just evaporates when she thinks she's seeing a part of her past reborn before her eyes. And yet at the same time, this fact makes him strangely confident. It emboldens him.|
A: Yeah, yeah. Well, it's because she's willing him to be Prince Charming, so he plays the role. I always thought of her character as someone who didn't know she was waiting for something until it happened.
|Q: And it's not just that he falls into that role. He's observing her; kind of figuring out what he thinks is going on in her head, and then deciding he's just going to roll with it.|
A: That's Topher's great gift -- his ability to layer that stuff. Unlike a lot of young actors, he doesn't push. He doesn't try to torture himself like James Dean. He's totally relaxed, and so the audience leans forward, you know? In the interview scene (when he first arrives in her office with his portfolio), you're able to experience him as a slightly snarky, flippant kid, but at the same time you know that he's just overcompensating because he's nervous. But you can almost see the moment when he goes from thinking, "this is really weird" to deciding to just go for it. You're 24, she's beautiful, if a little older. You're not going to cut anything off. You'll see where the ride takes you.
|Q: Speaking of the way she changes, there was a subtle juxtaposition in the film that I thought was brilliant. The first time you see Louise, she's walking on campus and is somehow very apparently a faculty member, an academic who has little in common with the students she's walking past. But when she comes back after her encounter with F. Scott, she looks like she fits right in. There's a vitality...|
A: Well, thank you for watching so carefully! That's the little directorial stuff that you do, and you wonder if anybody cares.
|Q: Well, it's not overt. It hits you subconsciously. I was just paying a little more attention because, 1) I knew I would be talking to you and Laura, and 2) I just watch Laura Linney very closely because she's just...|
A: [Enthusiastically]...she's incredible. She's unbelievably talented.
|Q: [Even more enthusiastically] The steamy scene on the couch -- when she pulls back from him, she's genuinely flushed! This isn't acting. She's in the moment body and soul.|
A: I know, I know! I remember seeing that for the first time in dailies, and I've never seen anyone look so...like she's just been kissed. I love that she's an actress who not only has access to all this stuff that allows her to do this, but she also has this wonderful pale skin, so that every time she blushes or flushes, it's like a rose blooming. It's so sexy. Part of what I love about that scene is that it's shot in real time, so by the time she climbs off (his lap), they're all sweaty, and she's all flushed. You really feel like they just had sex! [Laughs] You try to make it just, you know, a few percent more real than a normal sex scene. But what happened there, it was all the actors. They did such a great job.
|Q: Is that something uncomfortable for you? Shooting something like that?|
A: Oh, totally. Totally. But the good thing about doing a sex scene is that you can actually judge how well you're doing by how uncomfortable you are watching it happen. So for me, whenever my toes would start to curl, whenever I felt I should look away from the monitor, I'd think, "OK, this is clearly good."
|Q: [Laughing loudly] I'd never really thought about that.|
A: It was a tough day, but it was the day it was easiest to tell when we were on the right track.
|Q: Pardon me for ending on such obvious question, but atmospherically, this is almost the polar opposite of "Roger Dodger." Was that intentional, or was this just a story you were drawn to?"|
A: Completely unintentional. The only way I know how to conduct my career is to refuse to get involved in any project unless I just have to tell the story. Unfortunately, I'm incapable of thinking strategically. If I'd gotten a book that was another angry male protagonist that I responded to this strongly, I'd have to have made it. If it doesn't resonate to my deepest core, I wouldn't do a good enough job. I mean, for a year of your life, you have to get up every morning equally psyched to tell this story. So for me, it's just a self-protective thing. I don't think I'd be any good if I was just doing something because I felt it would be a good career move. So hopefully, that will continue to coincide.