Stephen Belber is well-known as a playwright and screenwriter. He researched and helped write the acclaimed “The Laramie Project,” and wrote the screenplay for Richard Linklater’s “Tape,” based on his play of the same name. With “Management,” Belber makes his feature film directorial debut. The film follows the chance meeting of Mike Cranshaw (Steve Zahn) and Sue Claussen (Jennifer Aniston) when she checks into the roadside motel in Arizona that is owned by Mike’s parents. A bottle of wine jump starts a cross-country journey and courtship between two very different kinds of people who are both ultimately looking for the same thing – a sense of happiness. The film opens in limited release this Friday through Samuel Goldwyn Film, after debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall.
Please tell us about yourself…
I’m a playwright who got into screenwriting. I live in Brooklyn, NY. My son owns a hamster named Cookies.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
When a play of mine, “Tape,” was made into a movie, I started to really enjoy the challenge of making character and dialogue-driven work for the screen. I felt convinced, kind of, that audiences would enjoy prolonged stretches of “theatrical” dialogue – if it was done well. Having directed my first film, I’m anxious to take what I learned and apply it on a more kinetic, in-your-face level; i.e. incorporate more cinematic gestures into the base idea of character pieces.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
Not particularly; I want to keep writing in different “genres,” as well as direct again.
How did the idea for “Management” came about?
It came from a two-person one act play I had written five or six years ago, by the same name. (In the film, the ten minute play is broken up into two scenes.) I knew, having seen the play performed, that these were characters with whom I liked spending time; they were odd, awkward, funny and sad. And so, for several years, when I had little else to do, I would write ideas as to how, where or why they might re-encounter one another following the initial encounter of the play. And then one day I sat down to write it.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
I was influenced quite a bit by Richard Linklater – his films overall, but certainly his adaptation of my play “Tape.” The intimacy he achieved, while staying true to the play’s setting and soul, made me want to take a crack at directing. I knew I wanted to keep things simple and spare – from sets to costumes to lighting to dialogue to camera work. Were I to do it again, I’d probably move the camera more, thus allowing myself even MORE awkwardness in other areas. My goal for this film was to depict two people who are extremely ill-equipped in the game of human connection – and to see if I could make them connect.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?
Securing distribution is never easy when your film straddles small, off-beat drama and broader, almost Judd Apatow-ish terrain. Marketing people don’t love that. But I am excited to be working with Samuel Goldwyn Films and Image Entertainment on this. I am hugely grateful that they got what I was going for and completely went for it.
How did the financing and casting for the film come together?
We had several financiers floating around, waiting to see who we cast, which combination of actors. When we were lucky enough to get Jennifer Aniston, it came together. I wasn’t originally going to cast the female lead first, but it happened that her agent sent it to her, she read it quickly and we met. It turned out well, allowing me more flexibility in the male lead, and the luxury of not getting a “classical” leading man, but rather one whom I felt was perfectly suited to the role.
What, or who, are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
As I said, I love Linklater; Paul Thomas Anderson is quite excellent. Atom Egoyan I admire quite a bit. As a playwright I am a sucker for Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, Sam Shepard and many others. I listened to a lot of Bob Dylan as a child. My tastes don’t run hyper exotic. I like great work. Philip Roth often produces great work; Don Delillo; The Hold Steady. Peter Morgan. Caryl Churchill. Moises Kaufman. David Foster Wallace.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
People bemoan the death of indie film. They may be correct. I’m not aware enough to really know, or to moan. I guess an indie film would simply be the writer and/or director creating something that not one single marketing-mentality person could mess with until it’s locked.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker? What is your next project?
I’d like to write a thriller.
I’d like to write something sad with moments of happiness.
I’d like to write something about a bumblefuck-with-a-heart-of-gold arms inspector.
I’m trying to turn a couple of my plays (“Match,” “McReele”) into movies. Those are probably the closest things to actually happening.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Write exactly what you want. Then be open to smart notes.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
My play “Geometry of Fire.” Which 13 people saw.