EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling first-time feature directors who have films screening at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
Premiering at Sundance ’08, director Noam Murro makes his feature film debut with “Smart People,” a dark comedy starring Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church and Ellen Page. Previously an award-winning commercial director, Murro’s first feature is the story of a widowed literature professor, Lawrence Wetherhold (Quaid), who falls for Janet (Parker), one of his past pupils. Sundance’s John Cooper finds that “People” “surely signals the beginning of an accomplished new career in feature filmmaking. Mixing comedy genres, including just a hint of slapstick, Murro proves he has an assured grasp on what any good adult comedy needs – an expert balance of pace and pathos.”
Director: Noam Murro
Screenwriter: Mark Jude Poirier
Producers: Bridget Johnson, Michael Costigan, Michael London, Bruna Papandrea
Cinematographer: Toby Irwin
Editors: Robert Franzen, Yana Gorskaya
Principal Cast: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Ellen Page
U.S.A., 2007, 93 min., color, 35mm
Please introduce yourself…
I am Noam Murro, 46. I was born and raised in Israel, where I attended the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. I moved to New York, in the late 1980’s, and currently live in Los Angeles.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking? And are there any other creative outlets that interest you?
Growing up, in Israel, there was no TV. However, my father, who spent time in the United States, returned from one trip with a 8mm projector and two movies, “Woody Woodpecker” and “Laurel and Hardy.” As a gesture to his friends in our community, he would screen them at all of the kids’ birthday parties. That made me his assistant, helping him set up the projector and screen the films. Needless to say, I probably watched both of those movies 2500 times! With an initiation like that, you either love the cinema or you hate it. Lucky for me, I fell in love. Other creative outlets? Well, I’m no Leonardo da Vinci or John Donne, but I do own a stills camera and a Bic pen.
Have you made other films, and did you go to film school?
“Smart People” is my first full-length feature. No, I didn’t go to film school. I think you learn filmmaking by watching movies, and then going out and making mistakes, and then watching some more movies, and then making some more mistakes. And, I think if you’re honest about it, this process never really ends.
What prompted the idea for “Smart People” and how did it evolve?
Like the making of any independent film, the road was long and hard. I read Mark’s script, years ago, and fell in love. The project went away, came back, went away, and then, with the help of Groundswell, finally became a reality.
Elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
The issue, for me, was always how to keep the film simple. Not because we had limited shoot time, but because I wanted to get close to the characters, and I want the audience to have a chance to do that, too. I guess it’s a delicate dance between comedy and drama, and then stylizing that, to a certain extent. You’re always tempted to make the frame more beautiful, more arresting, just more, but my goal with this movie was to be honest, in every directorial sense: lighting, production design, camera moves, everything. I tried to find a classic, simple solution, every time. Influences? There are so many, and on so many levels.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
God knows I’m not the first to make an independent film. And I think all of us filmmakers – independent filmmakers – go through a similar process. This picture was challenging, if only because the characters are not necessarily people whom you immediately love. That naturally makes it a film that’s harder to get people to invest in and make. Thank God, for people like Groundswell and Miramax, who can see past the challenges, glimpse the beauty of it, and bring it to life.
What are your specific goals for the Sundance Film Festival?
Sundance is a platform for such a plethora of amazing films. I think it would be presumptuous of me to have goals. I’m just honored and grateful to be included.
What are some of your recent favorite and all-time favorite films?
I just saw “The Savages,” and I am so envious. As for other all-time favorites, God, I wouldn’t even know where to begin.
How do you define success as a filmmaker?
In my mind, a successful filmmaker is the one who gets to do his next picture.
Are there any other projects in the pipeline?
I’m working with Mark on a few things, and have others in development. But, in my good, Jewish tradition, I can’t be more specific, at this time, lest I jinx them.