While it’s fairly easy (and somewhat lazy) to toss Josh Radnor into the Zach Braff category of sitcom-actor-turned-screenwriter-and-filmmaker, the association is reductive of the talents required on both the small and big screen. As the star of “How I Met Your Mother,” Radnor has displayed a very different set of tools than those utilized for his debut feature “Happythankyoumoreplease.” And while that Sundance Audience Award-winning film didn’t quite break out the way one might expect, Radnor has soldiered on, and now, two years later, has arrived with “Liberal Arts.” Starring rising actress Elizabeth Olsen, the film centers on Jesse (Radnor), a 35-year-old man who can’t leave his college life behind as he comes to grips with the responsibilities of adulthood. Olsen plays Zibby, a 19-year-old college student who falls for Jesse over their mutual love of music and literature, but their difference in age starts to get in the way as Jesse moves farther away from a hedonistic lifestyle.
“Liberal Arts” premeired this week to good reviews, and our man Cory Everett got a chance to sit down with Radnor to discuss his influences on the film, the differences in directing new and veteran actors, and whether or not he’d direct something he didn’t write. Warning, there are some mild spoilers below.
Congrats on the movie, it’s had a great reception here at the festival. There are a lot of flattering comparisons being thrown around but can you talk a little bit about what your actual influences were for the film?
Well those [Richard] Linklater films, “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” have really influenced a lot of people, but I just adore those movies. Instead of having two people walking around European cities and falling in love, I have two people walking around a college campus falling in love. Movies like that give me a kind of bravery in terms of [because they can make] conversation’s dramatic. I can watch people talk and it can be riveting. If it’s moment to moment you’re actually seeing something happen. I like movies that are about real people in real time with real problems. Someone used a term that I rather liked last night, “funny/sad.” They’re like, “You’re funny/sad, your movies are funny/sad” and that’s a good term I think.
And it was great to see Elizabeth Olsen in a role where she’s not being tortured, psychologically or otherwise. Had you seen “Martha Marcy May Marlene” before you cast her?
I hadn’t. We had the same agent and Rhonda [Price] said, “You’re not going to want anyone else besides Lizzie Olsen for this role, it’s hers.” I met her and I agreed.
What was it like to work with an up-and-coming actress?
She’s new but she’s such a savvy actress and she has this astonishing ability to be both technically precise and emotionally fluid all at once. And it’s like I feel like the camera is still falling in love with her and discovering her and she’s very available to that discovery. It’s one of those weird chemical mystical processes like why certain people open up in front of the camera or why the camera leans in to certain people. I don’t understand it exactly but you know it when you see it. And she’s that kind of actress.
Minor Spoilers ahead…
She’s such a mature screen presence that it doesn’t seem that weird that there is a 16 year age difference between the characters. Were there any versions of the script where your characters do get together and then deal with the repercussions of that decision?
Yeah, it didn’t get that far, but it was very clear in early drafts that if we got more physical than we ultimately got in the final movie, it started to cross a line where you’d go, “Oh, I don’t want this to happen, this doesn’t feel right.” But we also shot a few versions where they don’t kiss, where they kiss a little more, just so we had the option in the editing room. We kind of settled on this little moment.
On the flip side you had the opportunity to direct more seasoned and distinguished actors like Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney. What was that like for you?
That was something that scared me. Richard [Jenkins] was in my first movie, he did a cameo and I just had a few hours with him. And the first movie was with an eight-year-old boy and contemporaries of mine, all the same age, so that felt like I had the right to be giving people direction.
With Allison [Janney] and Richard, I admire them both so much and am such fans of theirs that it was definitely intimidating at first to dare to speak to them in some ways. But I found [that] they’re real actors who respect the script, the writer, the director. They were never hostile or combative, it wasn’t like that at all. They were really open to what I said when I said stuff. And each of them wanted different things from me. The thing I found about Richard was give that guy three or four takes [and] you’re going to get a lot of choices, pretty much everything you need. Sometimes I’d just ask for a little extra something. Allison, the thing we worked on the most was giving her permission to be as grand and as weird as she is. Like really chewing the words, over enunciating them and attacking the language in a very dramatic, English professor kind of way [to the point] where she was worried; “Is this too much?” “Am I going to far?” I was like, “You can go even further with it, I think.” If you give a note to Allison Janney what she’ll give you is 800 times more than you were thinking. She has this ability to fill every moment, it’s incredible.
Your last film “Happythankyoumoreplease” was a big hit here at Sundance but didn’t quite catch on when it was released in theaters. What did you learn from that experience?
You know, we had a couple of weird twists and turns along the way with different companies and ended up coming out a year after Sundance, and I kind of buried my head in the sand about the business stuff, and that was not what I should have been doing. But I found myself very invested in creative matters and less invested in the business stuff. I’m trying to take my head out of the sand and really engage more in the process for this one, but of course every filmmaker wants to have the great theatrical run.
But at the same time, what’s happened with that movie, I feel it’s got this weird life now and this weird momentum. I keep hearing of people who have discovered the movie and people keep turning their friends on to the movie and that was always my hope for it, that it would catch on in some way, and that it didn’t in its theatrical release didn’t bother me that much. And I did a pilot years ago with Rob Reiner, we’ve stayed in touch and I showed him the final cut of this movie, and he was really great and super supportive and said you judge the success of your previous movie by if you get to make another movie. So it was so interesting, I got the financing for “Liberal Arts” the day that “Happythankyoumoreplease” came out in theaters. So there was something about getting that financing that day that made me feel a great support, like encouragement from the universe, like “Go on, keep doing this, you’re going to keep doing this.”
I couldn’t be prouder of it as a first movie. I am sure as I go on and make more I’ll look back and cringe at it, but in the moment, given what I knew about film and given the resources that I had, I couldn’t have done any better.
You mentioned you’d like to direct something you didn’t act in but would you be open to writing a script that you didn’t direct? Or directing something that you didn’t write?
That stuff comes up all the time. If I got sent a script as a consideration to direct it — which I have been sent and nothing has demanded that I do it — I feel like I would have to fully understand it at its roots. The thing about directing my own stuff is that I understand the DNA of it. I’m underneath it already. And I wonder about writing something I didn’t direct. I’d have to again have great faith that the person understood the tone.
Stepping back in front of the camera, do you have a wish list of directors that you’re dying to work with?
Well like I said I’m a big Linklater fan. I loved “Moneyball” this year, Bennett Miller, I think he’s super talented. I’m a big Alexander Payne fan. I like movies about people and movies that have a beating heart at the center of them. So I should probably have an answer locked and loaded for that one but I don’t.
“Liberal Arts” continues to play at the Sundance Film Festival. —Interview by Cory Everett