This movie creates a real sense of disconnect between its young characters and its adults. It prompted me to think about parenting, and children wanting to investigate life on their own terms. Bonnie has worked with Steven Spielberg for a number of years, but “The Chumscrubber” is not a ‘Spielbergian’ movie. Is this film Bonnie’s way of breaking away and doing something different – on her own term? Is this an accurate metaphor?
Bonnie: Is it my way of growing up? Yeah! I just came to that realization five minutes ago. When you go through the bones of a film – really immersed in it – there’s a sort of birthing process. What I love about filmmaking is that as you go through a process with a project, it reveals more and more layers – not only of the project, but of yourself, too. I think that in hindsight, something in the film must have reflected how I was feeling. I needed to work on projects that creatively, were fascinating enough for me to merit giving two years of my life to them. I find working with Steven fascinating, but at least currently, films that have 500 visual effects shots are not creatively interesting to me. I think they will be. I think I’ll grow to that being exciting for me, but yeah – I really gravitate more to “Schindler’s List” and “Private Ryan,” and things that we worked on that were more character oriented. But yeah, there’s a lot of truth to your question. We all want to grow up. When I sat down with Steven, I told him that I love working with him, because he’s my professional father. But I really wanted to work with my brother, (points to Posin) I guess. I wanted to grow up a bit, and make the movies that are creative and interesting, about subjects that I’m passionate about.
There is a huge canvas of characters populating “The Chumscrubber.” Did director Robert Altman influence the structure of your film, with its multiple, interconnected stories and large cast?
Arie: Oh, yeah – absolutely. “Nashville,” and more recently, “The Player.” Altman, for sure. But there are a lot of other influences. I love Krzystof Kieslowski, who does a lot of that, especially in his series, “Blue,” “White,” and “Red.” There are all of these intersecting characters and storylines. People are living near each other, but are on separate planes. Also, (there’s influence) even going back to Elia Kazan, and some of those earlier movies. My father used to say, ‘Everything old is new again.’ I sort of grew up on two streams of cinema. One was mainstream American movies. Also, being in this immigrant family, and my dad being a director in Russia, I got a lot of the European cinema, too. So there’s a sort of crosscurrent, where one sort of influenced the other. Also Fellini and Bunuel…
“Un Chien Andalou?”
Arie: That’s the only movie I actually quote (in “The Chumscrubber”), with one shot. Mainly because the movie has this sort of surreal feeling to it, and I wanted to say, this is deliberate. This is a shot for people who know Bunuel, who are going to say, ‘I know what he’s doing.’ Plus, it’s so great. It worked back then, and it works today.
Jamie Bell is virtually unrecognizable from his breakthrough role in “Billy Elliott.” If Billy Elliott had not found his passion, is this the way he would have turned out? Obviously, in that movie, his character found fulfillment in his dancing. In contract, you’ve got Dean in “The Chumscrubber,” who seems to almost sleepwalk through life. Did you see that when you cast Jamie in the film?
Arie: One of the very first times he and I met to talk about the movie, we spoke of the two ways you can interpret “The Chumscrubber.” Dean’s father believes that Dean is the crazy one in a very sane world. The reverse interpretation is that he’s the only sane one in a completely mad world. That’s what Jamie and I talked about the first time we met. He talked not so much about “Billy Elliott,” but about his life when that movie hit. He suddenly found himself in the eye of the hurricane, traveling all over the world, receiving all of this attention. He’s from a small town north of England, and he’s fourteen. He suddenly finds himself in a mad world. It was that kind of disconnect from your environment that he related to, which is part of the reason he was interested in the role to begin with.
The reason I chose him was because he has a unique ability to do something that blew me away. The character Dean is a contradiction on every level. He goes through this traumatic event at the beginning of the movie, but he doesn’t outwardly show anything. He doesn’t express that. And yet, every step of the way we have to feel that he was deeply affected, or we don’t go on the journey with him. If we know he was deeply affected, and that he’s not showing it, we want to see how things are going to resolve. What’s the resolution? Hopefully, we get that at the end and we find out how he’s feeling and what he went through.
As an actor, how do you play a character who is bottled up and doesn’t show anything, and at the same time, show that he’s feeling – a lot – all the time. That’s his gift. In his soul, he has a gravity and a depth that he can do something like that; something that actors can practice for fifty years and not be able to do.
How did Lawrence Bender enter the “Chumscrubber” mix?
Bonnie: I think we all would have eventually found each other, even without this set of circumstances. With Lawrence and Arie and I, there’s some sort of really wonderful triangle that has happened. Arie sought Lawrence out.
Arie: When we started working on the story way back when, the idea was not to try and sell the script, but to make it. I just wanted to shoot. I said, let’s do this together – I’ll go out and make it. I was going to shoot on video, or whatever I could afford on my credit cards.
When we finished it, my girlfriend said, ‘I know you don’t want to send it to everyone in town and do all that, and that you just want to make it, but why don’t you just make a list of five producers that you like, that you think might get it? Just send it to those five. It’s such a specific, handmade movie, that maybe if you choose specific people, they’ll get it.’ So I did that. I didn’t know of Bonnie at the time. At the top of the list was Lawrence Bender, for two reasons. Number one, he had worked so long with Quentin Tarantino, through all that success. I thought that spoke so highly of a producer that a filmmaker like that, who’s so idiosyncratic and unique, would stick with the same producer through all that. It said to me, ‘he must be really filmmaker-friendly.’ Also, you look at Lawrence’s filmography, apart from his work with Tarantino, and he has stuff like “Fresh” and “White Man’s Burden.” It’s clear that the personality behind it has a social consciousness, and something to say about the culture around him. That very much fit into our motivation for doing this movie.
So we sent him the script. Two or three weeks later, I got a call from him. He said, ‘I read the script and love this project. Who the hell are you?’ It was the call you dream about getting. So he and I met and we talked, and he said, ‘Look, I’m in. I love this. I wanna do it. But I need a partner. I need someone to do this with me. If you’re OK with that, let’s go find that person.’ I said, great. One of the very first calls he made was to his agent, Mike Simpson. Mike said, ‘Do you know Bonnie Curtis? She’s the best producer in town.’ He knew she was looking for a small movie. That was it. I think we were sitting together two days later, and it was clear that we were all of like minds.
Bonnie: I had also been an admirer of Lawrence’s work, and saw him as a bit of a renegade. The guy that didn’t take anything from anybody, and sort of did his own thing. And Quentin’s movies speak for themselves. I don’t know Quentin, but you feel like you do when you see his movies. I went over to meet Lawrence during a general meeting, and I found him very refreshing, because he was very straightforward. He was practical and common sense-oriented, and I really clicked with him on that level. By the end of the meeting, he asked me to read the script. The role that Lawrence immediately assumed – and we were all very communicative of this – was of my ‘Godfather.’ He said, ‘Go make the movie, and call me when you need me.’ And boy, did I call him, ‘cause the indie game was very new to me. It was very natural, a good triangle. We all bring something different to the table.
It’s liberating when people get together in a seemingly unlikely combination, and it works…
Bonnie: That’s always fascinating to me. Entertainment is a gamble. But when you see combinations of styles, you can say, ‘either this is going to work or it isn’t. Let’s give it a shot.’ To me, as a film fan, I pull myself back and I see… Spielberg’s producer plus Tarantino’s producer and a first time filmmaker – what is this gonna be? To come from that perspective and watch the movie is fascinating to me.
Arie: It kind of seeps down into the whole movie. People have described it as a very commercial art-house movie. Someone called it the first art-house movie for teenagers. Even on the business level, we have a partnership with two distributors that’s also very unlikely. We have Picturehouse, the most incredible company for indie movies, and also Dreamworks, the studio. So on every level, there’s kind of this lending of an indie sensibility with a studio sensibility. The movie was shot on an indie budget, but the production values are very much studio quality.
An interesting melting pot…
Bonnie: One of the reasons we were able to deliver that was sheer ignorance on my part. Lawrence provided this indie, guerilla attitude of having to scratch and claw for every penny you get. And I had these silver-spoon visions of grandeur; that we’d get everything that we asked for. That combination of styles proved to be fun and challenging and productive.
On the subject of unusual blends combining together, the film was funny, but also painful, with its characters struggling to communicate. If you were to counsel the kids and parents in the film, what advice would you give them, to narrow that chasm between the generations?
Arie: The first thing I would say is, ‘be aware of the state we’re in.’ It’s a very complex problem, with many dimensions and lots of layers. But that’s why we made the movie. To say, ‘Here it is.’ You could interpret it as a surreal, absurdist look at the world, which is perfectly valid and true. But some people see the movie and find it a lot more real than other people.
Bonnie: As a child, you want your parents to hear you. You keep saying things again, and again, and again, the same way, and they still don’t hear it. You realize, maybe I need to change the message a little bit. Maybe if I say it differently, they’ll hear. But I think it goes both ways. I think we’re all in this together. I know that my parents have said things to me, exactly the same, for years and years. There’s stuff I didn’t start hearing until this year. I don’t know if that’s the process of having been immersed in this subject matter for the last two years, or what it was. Arie’s father was a filmmaker in Russia, who made protest films. He always said that film was a way to shine a spotlight on some of the dark corners of society that we may not always look at, because they are dark. And to be able to do that, and laugh at the same time, makes it more digestible to all of us, so that we can leave the theater and talk about it.
There were many laugh-or-cry scenes in film, such as the repeated image of Glenn Close mourning the death of her son. She’s often interacting with neighbors, insisting, ‘In no way do I hold you responsible for Troy’s death.’ Where did that line come from?
Arie: I see that every day. I certainly remember it sharply growing up, where people say exactly the opposite of what they mean. We’ve all seen people go through very painful things, and some of us have gone through traumatic events ourselves. I think the first reaction is that there’s a wall between you and the mirror that you have to get through, to look at yourself. Before you can do that, you look outward, and that’s what that character is doing through most of the movie. Luckily, she ultimately finds a way to look at herself, and that’s what the end of the movie is about. The Dean character kind of holds her hand through that.
It seems like empathy, or putting oneself in the other person’s shoes, would be a helpful skill for the characters to learn…
Arie: From the very beginning, I’ve always said that we’re not so much making a movie about teenagers, as we are trying to make a film that shows the world from a teenager’s point of view. If you’re a parent of a teenager, hopefully you step inside for an hour and a half, and see the world the way a teenager does – or at least on a more personal level, the way I remember it being when I was a teenager.
Each character clings to some kind of quick-fix mentality, whether it’s the father pushing psychotropic medication onto his son to “balance” him, or the woman who thinks her upcoming wedding will solve all of her life’s problems…
Arie: Most of the characters are smart, and they feel that something is amiss. And they’re all trying to treat it in different ways. For Dean’s mother, it’s vitamins. For Dean’s father, it’s pills. Everyone has his or her solution. The obsession with making the perfect wedding. Getting your kid to go to college and succeed. They all have something that’s terribly important to them, and feel that, if I can just do this, everything’s gonna be fine.
What do you think it is that makes people happy? Obviously, these characters are grappling for these things, without much success.
Bonnie: My mom used to have this poster in our house. It was a purple poster, with a butterfly on it. I read it every day of my childhood. It said, ‘Happiness is like a butterfly. If you chase it, it will elude you. But if you turn your attention to something else, it will come and sit quietly on your shoulder.’ I would read that every day when I would leave the house. I was raised to believe that happiness is a state of mind, and it is a choice. My absolute goal is to be happy. It’s not money, and it’s not a big house. It is to be happy. That’s the ultimate goal. I don’t wake up every morning with the goal to be sad at the end of the day. I make an effort to be happy. I was also raised by a mother who did a lot of things for other people. And doing things – accomplishing things – makes me happy because it makes me a good producer. Also, working with people who want to do the same kinds of things that I want to say. Everyone’s got a different theory on what makes you happy, but I think it’s a choice. I could choose to be miserable. I’ve got a terrible headache right now (laughter)! What about you, Arie?
Arie: At the risk of getting too philosophical, I think that happiness is different for each one of us. But I think the trick is to look inside yourself emotionally, and if you connect deeply enough with what is fulfilling to you, create a world around you to reflect that. That’s happiness – finding a balance between what’s external to you, and what fulfills you.
It sounds like both of you love the filmmaking process…
Arie: We’re happy (laughter)!