INTERVIEW: "Spring" Breaks; Tom Gilroy's Cinema of Pause
by Katherine Dieckmann
(indieWIRE/ 12.8.00) — [indieWIRE asked filmmaker Katherine Dieckmann (“A Good Baby“) to speak with Tom Gilroy upon the release of his critically lauded debut film, “Spring Forward,” which stars Liev Schreiber and Ned Beatty as two Parks and Recreation workers who develop a friendship over the four seasons, and which IFC Films is releasing today in New York.
The two writer-directors met through a mutual friend — Michael Stipe — in 1986 and “came of age” together culturally in New York. Dieckmann introduced Gilroy to “one of his all-time favorite movies,” Gillian Armstrong‘s “High Tide,” and one rainy night, they, together with Jim McKay, one of the producers of “Spring Forward” and a director in his own right (“Our Song“), saw Wim Wenders‘ “Wings of Desire.” “We were soaking wet and went, ‘What the fuck is this movie?'” laughs Gilroy. Adds Dieckmann, “It was a whole symbiosis of influences that a certain group of friends at that time really shared.”
“If it were the 60s, we’d be a movement,” says Tom Gilroy, an established theater and film actor, “but instead,” he continues sarcastically, “Jon Stewart‘s a movement.” The comment is typical of Gilroy’s criticism of our commercial times, and he has reacted against it with a movie that defies commercialism in its sensitivity and pureness of heart; critics and audiences have clung to the film at U.S. festivals like a life preserver. As Village Voice critic Michael Atkinson writes, “‘Spring Forward’ exemplifies what American indies — so often pie-eyed with genre hypercoolness, egomania, and fatuous ambition — should be best at: modesty, attentive realism, conceptual rigor, believable performances, and a healthy, uncommercial respect for real people, real talk, and real life.”
Dieckmann spoke to Gilroy about the film’s structure and silences, shooting in four installments in sequence, and being radical. — Anthony Kaufman]
Katherine Dieckmann: The first thing I wanted to ask you about was why you chose this structure, where you have these huge dialogue scenes with not a lot of cuts, and then you would do these [visual] tone poems between scenes.
Tom Gilroy: So many of the ideas in this movie came out of my 15 years as an actor and being so frustrated with not saying anything — this kind of truncated excuse for relationships, story and narrative. If I could just pile everything I would ever want as an actor into a film, this is what it would be. Parallel to that, I feel like our society — and the media is a big part of that — is getting further and further away from actually communicating. And I thought, I’d really like to make a movie about one person having to sit with another person and how relationships build in the boring moments. I wanted to have a film where the older guy had to sit there and listen to the younger guy and sit through the uncomfortable silences. So, it was important for me that there not be any time-cuts, for example, so if they walk from here to there, you walk with them and they’re either saying nothing, or they’re saying something stupid, but you’re there the whole time, because that’s how those relationships are built. Not like: “Let’s have a serious conversation so we can get closer.” Relationships are spelled out in so many different facets, other than just the linear. When I first wrote it, a lot of people who read it, said, “This is like a play.” But it’s not like a play, at all. You know the movies I grew up with, like Antonioni and the biggies. . .
Dieckmann: I thought a lot about Cassavettes, even though the style is very different, because you have no handheld camera. But still, a very restrained camera style. But there’s something in the dialogue that reminded me of a line in “Husbands” where Ben Gazarra says, “As men, we’re having the freedom to be free.” And there’s something about paying attention to two male characters in that way which reminded me of “Husbands.” I think that’s really radical the way you pay attention to male emotion. But back to my question, when you wrote it, did you script in those little [visual] chapter breaks? It’s almost like a novel, in a way.
Gilroy: That was the year that we wrote the haiku book. And as you know, as soon as you become obsessed with haiku, it imbues your vision everywhere you look, and I knew I wanted it as an element in the film. And two, I wanted to have without any kind of narrative or linear foreground mucking things up, I wanted to show time passing and the seasons passing. And three, I wanted to give people a break from all the fucking dialogue. Because I knew that’s the challenge of this film, in a lot of ways, in addition to the no time-cuts, is nothing happens really. And I figured the best way to do this is give them, I think it’s 90 seconds, of just imagery — it’s almost masturbatory to just sit there, and go this is beautiful, I love this, and just cleanse the palate. And then they start talking again.
Dieckmann: But it’s more than that. Those images also suggest this whole world outside of where you’re seeing these characters. You can’t help but think of Liev Schrieber’s childhood or Net Beatty thinking about his son. In a very non-narrative way, those shots give you a sense of a larger world where these characters live in.
Gilroy: As Liev pointed out once, “This is really great, because these are all the other people in a town that another film could be about. And we just happened to choose the two guys that were driving by these scenes.” As a creator, I love to take credit for all kinds of shit I didn’t attend, but that’s a really good way to think about it. Originally, I did it, because of the three reasons I just told you. But as we started to shoot, I began to delude myself, with thinking, oh, I get it, the dialogue scenes are really the Paul character, that’s how he’s remembering the year, and the visual scenes, that’s how the older guy remembered the year, because his son is dying. And then as we got further into it, I realized I can’t really sustain this, why labor it with this shit, and just move people on.
Dieckmann: And it’s more interesting. In the very first sections of the movie, when the Campbell Scott character shows up, I was really struck by how much you were taking your time. When you were directing the actors, did you encourage them to take that time; did the pauses, and the rhythm develop out of the script?
Gilroy: There’s almost no improvisation in the movie, so every little interruption is there, and a lot of the pauses are written in to the script; it says, A PAUSE. So it’s clear. And then when we rehearsed, it was in the Sidney Lumet-style where everything was taped out on the floor in exactly the dimensions of the actual location. So they had the real thing. And then we rehearsed it like it was a one-act play, because there’s no time-cuts and they’re all theater actors. At some point, if I felt like there should be a longer pause or something should be going on more in the pause, I would say, “Take your time.” And they’re all really good actors and they know what that means. A lot of the pauses that are not on the page were just them as feeling actors responding to the lines and to what’s going on. As an actor, myself, I was like, yeah, that’s organic, let that go.
Dieckmann: When you finished your first cut, did anybody pressure you to cut it down?
Gilroy: We showed it in Toronto, and afterwards [editor] Jim Lyons and I went back in and took out 11 minutes. The IFC never asked to see any of the film. Most of them, the first time they saw it, was when it premiered in Toronto and they loved it. When I saw it big, on screen, with a full house of people, I began to see things that I thought were dragging or repetitive. After the screenings, the IFC said, what do you think? And I said, “To tell you the truth, I’d really like to go back in.” And they weren’t even sure what I meant, as if I was going to make it longer. And I told them, “I want to take some stuff out,” and they said, “Oh fine, great.” And they said, “If you want, we’ll tell you where we think it drags and we could have test screenings, we’ll finance that, if you want.” And we did a couple of those, just to get a sense.
Dieckmann: You want to know what I would cut? I would have cut an entire scene, and it’s not that I don’t love things in it, but I would have cut the entire painting sequence. Because the scene with Peri Gilbin pushes to such a strong opening in the character, and the next scene takes you back. I understand its presence and I love the presence of the kids, but then you go to Autumn leaves, smoking the joint, which is incredibly strong. That was my only criticism.
Gilroy: We cut that scene back a lot. A lot of the reason we wanted that there was I felt like, again, as an actor, while I was editing, I’d let my heart look at the relationship, I would say, is this a direct step, do I feel like their relationship has gone from there to there? And I feel like it’s too big of a leap without that scene.
Dieckmann: I would have bought that leap, because the season changes. I wouldn’t necessarily have to see that stuff, because I know it’s coming. In that interval, a lot of stuff has happened, but I don’t need to know about it.
Gilroy: A lot of people ask in Q & A’s, why didn’t you bring back the Peri Gilbin character. They almost think it’s a mistake, because they have come from watching a billion Showtime movies, so they’ve come to expect what a MOVIE should be. I look at it as this uber-sense of marketing, like the marketing head that people have. A film should do this, box office and blah, blah, blah. It’s like this whole market paradigm that people put over their aesthetic pleasures.
Dieckmann: Absolutely, that’s why there are so few interesting movies to see. That’s why your film is such a rare case. People who try to make those movies are so desperately discouraged from it, so it’s like, shit, I better follow those rules if I ever want to do anything. It’s great to be brave, but so often, people who are brave get nothing for it. That’s very cynical, but I actually believe that.
Gilroy: I think that’s true also, but a way to suck out that cynicism — and I don’t believe that this thought is delusional — is to say that by not being successful is the surest sign that you did do something radical. I feel like your storytelling and our media-industry says if you don’t toe the line, you’re instantly marginalized, so you have to be weary of success.
Dieckmann: So what was your budget, finally?
Gilroy: It was under a million dollars. It was 24 days of shooting, in all. The deal was that each time, we were going to take what we had cut together and bring it to people to try to get money to do each subsequent scene. So the IFC didn’t commit until after the first two scenes, and at that point, we had exhausted all of our friends and family money.
Dieckmann: How did you keep the momentum up? I know from shooting my film, even shooting things out of sequence, people got lost as far as the emotional reality was sequentially of their character. I can’t imagine breaking the narrative into four parts, breaking the crew, breaking the actors and then reconvening four separate times?
Gilroy: Part of it was the luck — some people say it’s a curse — of shooting in sequence. Even though you’re breaking down and coming back together, literally what you’ve already done has already happened. And you’re about to embark on something that you really don’t know where the relationship is going.
With the crew, again it’s like curse verses blessing, if you’re not paying anybody, the only thing you can get them with is a really good vibe. One thing I learned from Ken Loach is that at the end of every day you shake the hand of every single person that worked for you and you say, thank you. So there’s a communal atmosphere about what we’re creating here and you make sure all the crew had read the script, and each time before we started a successive shoot, I’d have a screening of what had come before, so they would all think they were part of this thing. It’s just like, we’re all here together for this period of time, let’s make it as pleasant as possible. We’re all in this together. I think a lot of what’s counter to that is this hierarchical system in any business that Americans are obsessed with. This rock star attitude about like, I’m the auteur, I’m bossing people around. Why don’t you just be the head of IBM or Dick Cheney?
One of the rules we had was no matter what happened, no matter what disaster, no one could ever be chewed out. Because I had been on films as an actor where a producer was just reaming into somebody and it’s the most uncomfortable unproductive — you can’t act once you’ve seen some P.A. get their head ripped off because they got back from Starbucks late and the fuckin’ cappuccino’s cold.