Screenwriter Maya Forbes (“The Larry Sanders Show,” “Monsters vs. Aliens,” “The Rocker”) decided to make her directing debut to ensure that this semi-fictionalized account of her late-‘70s childhood in Cambridge — with a high-strung blue-blood father who can’t hold a job and a driven African-American mother (Zoe Saldana) — would capture the spirit of their unconventional life together.
There are many humorous moments to enjoy, given that Ruffalo’s manic-depressive Cam is as likely to make a perfect crepe or sew a fabulous last-minute flamenco dress for a school talent show as he is to forget to pick up the girls from school or refuse to buy a new sponge to replace the one rotting on the sink.
But most compelling is how the mood swings caused by his mental state, not helped by the fact that Cam rarely takes his meds and prefers alcohol to calm his demons, are both harrowing and entertaining. Also a plus is the unvarnished emotional honesty in the performances, enhanced by having one of the real-life participants calling the shots – and also by having Forbes’ now-13-year-old daughter, Imogene, in front of the camera as she plays her mother at age 10. Wallace Wolodarsky, a former scribe for “The Simpsons” who is Forbes’ husband of nearly 17 years and a frequent writing partner, is also a producer on the film.
The main reason that Forbes’ mother made the tough decision to pursue a career in another city while leaving her husband as the primary caretaker was to afford to send Forbes and younger sister China (called Amelia and Faith in the movie) to private schools. The sacrifice paid off. Both earned Harvard degrees and found success in the arts, as China became the lead singer of the cocktail-lounge-style musical ensemble Pink Martini.
It has been a long road since “Infinitely Polar Bear” first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2014. But first-time helmer Forbes, who turns 47 in July, seems none the worse for wear as she enthusiastically discusses her labor of love. Perhaps unintentionally, Forbes – looking cool and crisp while visiting muggy Washington, D.C. on the publicity circuit — was attired in an apparent homage to her father’s onscreen penchant for preppy Izod polo shirts, a royal-blue jersey shift bearing the company’s famous crocodile mascot.
Susan Wloszczyna: This is a rare movie that, when it was over, I actually wished was longer than 88 minutes. I wanted to spend more time with these people. They had reached this special spot in their lives and then that was it. I thought, “what happens next?”
Maya Forbes: Mark Ruffalo, when he saw it again the other day at a screening, said, “Why can’t it go on?”
It could be a TV show, although they might have to tame the language in spots.
It could be on cable. It would have to be cable.
You and Wally have two other children, an older daughter and a younger son. They didn’t want to be in the movie?
The boy was too little. My older daughter is actually in the movie at the end. She is one of the lacrosse players. She’s the one who says, “How come your dad always comes to practice?” That’s her. She was in school and she was too old to play the older daughter. She is now 16 and my son is now 6. It was really important to me that the kids still seem like little kids and not teenagers. Imogene was 11 when the film was shot.
Your father died in 1998. What was the cause?
He had pancreatic cancer. Not good. He was only 59 years old. All that smoking, too. It did not help.
And your mom?
My mom is still alive. She will be 74 in September. She lives in Northern California. And my sister lives in Portland, Ore. We are all on the West Coast.
Did your parents ever officially divorce?
They did ultimately divorce. After 10 years of separation when I was a senior in high school. I think it was really hard for my mother, too. She remarried right before my dad died.
The movie often defies your expectations of what you think would happen under these circumstances. After you see the wild-eyed father riding on a bike and wearing only a red bandana and undies in the winter cold, you think, “This is going to be like something out of ‘The Shining.’” But then you find out he isn’t going to be locked away after his breakdown. Instead, your mom appoints him to be in charge while she goes off to get her MBA in New York. She is actually giving him more responsibility and she is trusting him. Which might be the craziest thing in the world after what we just witnessed. You don’t see that usually in portraits of mental illness.
Which was a hard thing for me in terms of writing the script. I thought, “How am I going to explain why this is happening, that the girls have been left with the dad?” Is she divorced and she has gone off? Or the mother died and so there is no choice? But then I thought that the interesting story is the true story. Which is that she kind of knew that he needed some stability. We needed somebody who was around. He took care of us and we took care of him.
It’s a very unique take on what a family is. He does indulge in irresponsible behavior, such as going out to a bar at night and leaving the girls alone without telling them. But you and your sister didn’t fall apart from that. You seemed to have eventually figured out “this is our dad. We love him and we have to find a way to live with him.”
I think, if you examine any family, that is what the story is. None are perfect and would you even want it to be?
It was nice to see a home life that is messy in this way. Because real life usually is. When did you decide “I need to tell this story” and that maybe it would be a good movie? Did you think writing it down would help you put things in perspective?
There was that. I struggled with the story, wanting to tell the world about my mother and my father, and I had been trying for years: picking it up, trying to write some scenes and then putting it aside. And then, when my daughters were 5 and 7, that was around the ages that my sister and I were when my father had a big breakdown and everything kind of changed. We moved out of the country and moved into a small apartment in the city. Life just seemed like it had exploded.
Just looking at my own daughters sent me back really strongly to that time. And I was heartbroken for those kids – at a distance. I was heartbroken for two little kids having to deal with that. I think that is a key part – I’m sad for those kids. Those two little girls, fighting so hard. But at the same time, I was telling sort of bedtime stories about my father to my daughters and things that we had done and stories he had told me, because he was a great storyteller. He had so many. My father gave me so much. And I started reflecting on these gifts I got out of that time. And how I went from being this sad little girl to a not sad little girl anymore. I learned a lot. And I really loved him, and the best thing that came out of writing it is that I really understood why my mother did what she did and I had such a deep appreciation for it. I was so grateful.
Had you been resentful previously?
Not at the time as much. I had to figure out motherhood and career and all that kind of stuff. I was a bit confused. I felt you either do one or the other. I thought, “If I don’t leave my career, will I still be able to take care of my children?” I understood what she was up against and I understood how grateful I was to her that she had sent us to these schools. I saw all these choices she had made that had benefitted me. And I hadn’t suffered because I had this great relationship with my father, who I appreciated and who had taught me so many other things. So it evolved. It was a really sad period, but I see the end results. I feel such love towards them. I always felt very loved by them. That is the key. That’s it. I know they were wrestling with all these external and, for my father, internal issues. But I don’t know — I just felt really grateful.
But even if your parents could not stay together, you still feel there is love there, and respect. She didn’t just toss him aside because he is broken. She wants to help him get better and also help herself. She had to be the breadwinner because he couldn’t hold a job.
I don’t think being a mother means you can’t be ambitious. Maybe I felt that, but I don’t think so now. It went on for a while, her being in New York. Then my sister and I both went to boarding school. The school at the end of the film was a stand-in for Shady Hill, a very nice progressive academic school in Cambridge. I went there for two years and then went on to boarding school. I left the bad public school I was at and went there. My sister ended up going there from sixth to ninth grade. She had a little bit longer there. It is interesting, because my sister and I had a very similar experience. But because she had those two extra years at the nice private school, she had a lot of academic benefit that I didn’t have. That also underscored what my mother was doing. Even if I have an innate intelligence, it really matters where you go to school. I was completely unchallenged in my public school, the bad one. I went to a lot of schools.
I read something that suggested you started writing this 40 years ago – at age 6?
[Laughing.] No, but I started processing it. Instead of writing it, I started watching this all unfold and processing these emotions.
Did you go to movies with your dad?
We loved to go to the Orson Welles Cinema on Mass Ave. in Cambridge, particularly, and the Harvard Square theater, too. But the Orson Welles was a revival house and we loved Buster Keaton movies and Billy Wilder – “Some Like It Hot” was a big one. “Citizen Kane.” There were three movies that I ended up seeing a lot because, for a short time, my mother worked at a movie theater in the office. So we were kind of put into a theater as a babysitter. It was this movie “Small Change” by Truffaut – I saw it a million times. And this other movie, “Outrageous!”
It’s a Canadian film starring a terrific female impersonator, Craig Russell. It was a midnight movie staple, and one of the first films with a wider release to have a gay theme.
He is a manic depressive, right? Which is not something you should show an 8-year-old.
Actually it was his friend, a girl, who was a schizophrenic.
That’s right. I saw “Outrageous!” probably a million times and what were we, 8 and 6? Craig Russell was amazing. His Marilyn Monroe. My sister could do that. And the third movie was “Young Frankenstein.”
So, one day, you just happened to run into J.J. Abrams in the park and he decided to be a producer on “Infinitely Polar Bear”?
It is true. I knew J.J. from the park in Santa Monica, where our kids played together. It wasn’t the first time I met him. We were talking because our kids were playing . This was in 2008, or maybe a little earlier. Because I finished the script in 2008. He is always asking, “What are you up to, what are your hobbies, what are you doing?” He is a very curious person. I said, “I’m working on a script. It’s very unusual and very personal.” He said, “That sounds really interesting. I’d love to read it when you are done.”
I gave it to him and he said, “Wow. I think this is really something and I would love to help you get this made.” And that was really helpful, because to get the money for a movie about these issues is really hard. Especially a first-time director. I’m saying, “It’s going to be funny” and everyone is saying, “No, it’s not. Are you kidding? It’s heavy and sad.” And I’m thinking, ”It’s not sad. It’s full of life.” It’s embracing of all the emotions we all feel all the time.
You know, there were polar bears on “Lost.”
A complete coincidence.
But did anyone at any time say perhaps you should change the title? When I first heard it, I did think it might have been about Arctic animals.
Some people love the title, some find it confusing. But no one has ever asked me to change it. No one did.
You do have your sister in the movie say, “Totally polar bear.”
I was urged to put something in the movie that spoke to the title. The title actually is my father’s own self-diagnosis. I used it because it felt to some degree appropriate. Again, it is really personal – which was my whole philosophy on this movie was to just be really personal. So it stuck. What does “Reservoir Dogs” mean?
It’s difficult when you touch on a subject like mental health and the situation involved is so personal to you. But everyone is bound to have an opinion. Even though it was fictionalized, were you true to your dad’s condition? I read Mark did watch home movies of your dad, and you filled him in. Is it funny because you wrote it that way? Or was it funny to live through this? He can be charming, but when he comes on too strong, he is scary. He frightens the other residents in the apartment building away.
The funniness is in the clash between the parent and the kids. It’s funny because they are much more on the ball than their father. So often that is what is funny. It’s funny because he is being so ridiculous. To me, it’s funny when he says, “Don’t you know who we are?” He had this attitude that we were something special. To me, I was really thinking, “Yeah, we’re the people in the really crappy car with the disgusting apartment. Am I supposed to be feeling special about that? I don’t feel special.” I certainly was very sensitive. I wanted to portray a person with mental illness in a humane, respectful way. But I didn’t want it to be maudlin or dour. I wanted to capture the whole person. It’s not like my father was defined by mental illness. I directed Mark towards the way my father would have behaved and, as an adult, I realized — because Mark was doing such a good job – how theatrical my father was.
Some people might think that’s false, though.
Oh, my God. When my father sighed, he wanted you to know how sad he was [she demonstrates by heaving a dramatic expulsion of air]. He looked at you and sighed, and he made such a meal of it. Same with his cigarettes. He just was a really theatrical person. He loved the movies. He loved the swaggering characters in the movies. He loved Jean-Paul Belmondo. “Breathless” was it for him – he wanted to be the cool guy like that. Having grown up in that era, he had all these things that he kind of took from the movies, which was fun.
“Infinitely Polar Bear” is very much a family affair even off the screen. Your husband is one of the producers but he also acts in it?
He is that dweeby guy that Maggie, the mother, drives to New York with. He is in the van next to her. And he has the worst haircut. He just did a small part in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and Wes Anderson had given him this horrible haircut. He came back and I thought, “This is a horrible haircut,” but he thought he should keep it for the part.
And your sister wrote a song for you?
My sister wrote the song that plays over the final credits. And she performs it. It’s a really beautiful song, “The Northern Line.”
And your daughter is making her acting debut. And she is really good. It’s not nepotism.
It’s not nepotism. It was too important to me to put her in it just because I could. We had the benefit of doing a table read with Zoe and Mark when Imogene was only 9. It was a big audition. I realized then that she could do it. I’m not going find anyone who is going to do it better. And I had a shorthand with her, too. And every night, my husband worked with her when I was busy being a director. She knew the stories and she felt comfortable. She definitely wants to act. She did a musical and a play at her school.
How did you get Keir Dullea – Mr. “2001: A Space Odyssey” – to play Cam’s dad?
I was so happy to have him. He must have just read it and thought, “I would be happy to do this.” He was so great. Both he and Beth Dixon, who plays his wife. They came just one day and it was such a fun scene.
My favorite moment might be when Mark is in the fancy restaurant after being taken to task by the maître d’ for not wearing a tie. He is talking a mile a minute about the drugs they are trying on him while tying this perfect bow tie without a mirror. It’s like a special effect.
He had to learn how to do that. He had to do it a lot. I think he should get an award for that alone.
Why did you pick Mark and Zoe for the roles?
I really thought Mark had the humanity and the eyes to do this part. He is so soulful with his eyes. He tells you so much. He is such a good person. With Zoe, I wanted someone who would play the mother with a lot of vitality, energy and optimism. Her character always thinks he can do it. She really believes in him. And it is so hard to give up on him.
You and your husband have collaborated on scripts in the past. Are you working on something now?
We are working on a script that we want to direct as a pair. It’s for Jack Black. It’s a true-life story. It’s based on this guy who came to America from Poland and he became big a polka sensation in Pennsylvania. The Polka King of Pennsylvania — Jan Lewan. We had a table reading and he was great. It’s very dynamic. He’s an immigrant who is always selling a dream. He believes in his dreams and tries to make other people’s dreams come true, too. And he is singing and he’s dancing. So it’s entertaining, too. And a great costume. We are going to try to do it independently.
“Infinitely Polar Bear” opens Friday, July 19 in select cities.