INTERVIEW: An Improv Delight: "Tumbleweeds" with Gavin O'Connor and Janet McTeer
by Anthony Kaufman
"It never once crossed my mind that I was making a chick flick," says Gavin O'Connor, director/co-writer/co-star of "Tumbleweeds," one of the success stories to come out of Sundance '99 (winning both the Dramatic Filmmakers Trophy and a distribution deal from Fine Line). "If it was about a father and a son, I would have approached it the same exact way. Human emotions are human emotions; I think you can have some testosterone in your body and still have a point of view on these people." O'Connor has proved himself up to the task; his tender mother and daughter story continues to charm audiences, particularly the performance of Tony Award-winning British actress Janet McTeer, who was honored at the 1999 Gotham Awards for her role as the feisty, fun-loving, and unstable mom, Mary Jo Walker.
Four years in the making, from memoirs written by co-screenwriter Angela Shelton, the script landed in the helpful lap of exec producer Ted Demme ("Life") and was then shot for 24 days on a shoestring budget. Recently, O'Connor and rising thespian McTeer chatted with indieWIRE about their debut American feature film, from casting to financing, rehearsing to Sundance. "Tumbleweeds" opens today and goes wider on December 10.
indieWIRE: So I saw in the notes that Gavin also has a theater background. How did that prepare you for your feature film?
Gavin O'Connor: It didn't prepare me at all. I only did one play. I made short films. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to make films. That's really all I ever wanted to do. So. . .
iW: But the spontaneous aspect of the film, it's very much actor-friendly, this is what makes it so precious. . .
O'Connor: But that had nothing to do with my play. It was great to be on stage, and take a character from A to Z, and if you're fucking up, you can't just go 'Cut, let's start this over again.' That was amazing. And the immediate response from the audience is great. I wrote the piece, too, so when it's working as a writer, it felt great. But in regards to working with actors in that way, no, no. (Pauses, looks at Janet McTeer) What are you looking at?
Janet McTeer: I find you a fascinating figure. You were a privilege to work with.
iW: Janet, you hadn't worked in film, per se, before? You'd worked in British television drama, which is pretty much the same thing, but . . .
McTeer: British independent television is exactly the same as independent cinema. Very low budget, interesting, cutting edge stuff. It's always [shot] on film. It's not television.
iW: But as loosely structured as "Tumbleweeds?"
McTeer: No, that kind of improvisation is very American. I loved it. Took to it like a duck to tosh. I had no problem with it.
O'Connor: That's the thing, you have certain actors who can handle that. It lends itself to exactly the style of film we were trying to make. The spontaneity, and that very organic way of working, you never wanted it to feel like it was a scripted film. We wanted it to feel almost as if it was a documentary. Though I wanted it to look pretty, I also wanted a very rough, documentary feel, where you're capturing very intimate, truthful moments, with this mother and daughter and hopefully, you suck them into the story where you don't feel these are actors, just a mom and a kid. That was the style, everything from the way we used the camera and staged the scenes.
iW: So did you have a script?
McTeer: Some of the scenes were line by line and were never changed. And some of the scenes, like the opening scene, we had no scripted lines to do.
O'Connor: Oh yeah, there were certain scenes, like the opening fight scene, we sat down, the three of us, and we just worked out a history with the two actors. When they met? How long they had been together? What happened the night that lead to this fight? So the story was there, they knew where it was coming from.
McTeer: In actual fact, there were two written lines. Which was "Make sure my lawyer sees this" (pointing to a fictitious bruise). That was the only written line and the rest we worked out as we did it. My favorite line in the movie wasn't written (breaking into harsh Southern accent) "God damn friggin' TV!"
O'Connor: I didn't feel that there were that many surprises for me as a director, because we knew what the scenes were about. There were several scenes, the scene where Mary Jo quits, that was pretty much all improvised. And then there were many scenes that we stuck exactly to the dialogue?
iW: How much time did you have to rehearse prior to shooting?
O'Connor: We had one, very long, intense week. None of us thought that was going to be enough time.
iW: Janet, you were used to months of rehearsal, yes?
McTeer: We only had one very short week, but I had been attached to the project for a year, so Gavin and I and Kimberly [Brown, co-writer of "Tumbleweeds"] had many meetings. So it wasn't like we just jumped into it. We had endless discussions, going about the house with the whole subject matter, talking about it a lot, the themes. . .
O'Connor: Janet was involved in a lot of the rewrites. As the script involved, she had an input in that.
iW: You had three years to develop the script. It just seems like this kind of film needs that much time to grow. . . .
O'Connor: I would say to my brother many times as this took longer and longer, I kept saying, it's a good thing, it's a good thing, because it allowed us to plant a seed and we just started to watch it grow. And were all on the same page, we were all making the same movie.
iW: I read while you were trying to get financing, you had already cast Janet, but producers said that that wasn't enough for them, they wanted another name. How was that taken by both of you?
O'Connor: Expected. I wasn't surprised by the rejections. It was funny because we'd go into these meetings with these companies -- the usual suspects -- and she was incredibly revered and they'd say, "She's amazing, she's amazing, she's amazing. But 99.9% of the country never heard of this woman." And I'd be like, "I know, that's exactly why she's playing the role," beyond a lot of other reasons, but that's . . .
McTeer: That's why? I was just found on the street. "She's tall, she fits into the clothes we've got, she'll do. . ."
O'Connor: But I mean, it's among many reasons, of course, but that was the point. When this is over, people will know who she is and isn't that the idea of independent filmmaking to discover people. And because, obviously, she's amazing and she was perfect for the part and no one knew of her.
McTeer: You know, when the going went really tough, and they were offered a lot more money for this and they insisted on doing it with me. I just think that's really amazing. Because obviously there were times when they thought it might not happen.
iW: How about your performance, Gavin. You also chose to act in the film?
O'Connor: I can't watch it. I can't. I had a problem cutting the film. I had a difficult time with that.
iW: Would you ever do it again?
O'Connor: I don't know. It was difficult, because it would have been very easy to play him a cliched bad guy, make it very black and white and the audience would go, she should definitely leave him. I wanted some people to say yes and some people to go, I don't know why she left him, he wasn't that bad. I didn't think he was a bad guy, I just don't think he was the right guy for her. I wanted to play in the gray area and try to humanize the guy and give him some sort of depth, even though he was pretty shallow. So, it was hard. Sometimes, we'd be shooting for 14 hours and I'm so worried about the story and the performances, then I have to go shift gears, it was hard, sometimes. I guess if you have money, you have the time, like Clint Eastwood hires an actor to do all of his part until he shoots. That could be interesting, because then you could have that outside perspective. But we didn't have that luxury.
iW: So people are starting to hear about next year's Sundance; what was your Sundance experience like?
O'Connor: Well, it's why we're sitting here now. Sundance is going to be a defining moment in my life. But the unfortunate thing about Sundance, is when you have a film there, you can't have the opportunity to see other films. That was disturbing, because I really wanted to see some films. Sundance was scary. We submitted a rough cut well over 2 and a half-hours long and then we got in. Then Greg [O'Connor, Gavin's brother and "Tumbleweed" producer] and I looked at each other and we were like, oh boy, we have a lot of work ahead of us to make the deadline. . . . So we struck a print on Tuesday and got there on Thursday, and we had to screen on Sunday. So as you can imagine, it was terrifying. You work so hard on a film, and you make all these creative decisions than we know we respond to, but we don't know if the public will like it, or respond to the film. It was scary.
iW: What are you working on now?
O'Connor: I have a script called "The Cello Player," which I'm writing with a friend of mine, which I hope to direct in the Spring or Summer time. I haven't given it to anyone yet, I haven't turned it into anyone yet. It's not ready to be read. It's getting close. . . It's not a big budget film. I purposely wrote something small. I'm not going in to ask for 20 million dollars. I really can't describe it, because it's a little out there. It's "Broadway Danny Rose" meets "The Sting."