Thursday, October 8, 2009

Jay DiPietro's PETER AND VANDY; a Q&A with Ritter, Weixler and the filmmaker


TrustMovies is high on Strand Releasing these days, as several of his favorite films of late have come from this distributor. Last month saw the theatrical debut of Give Me Your Hand from France, one of the more unusual gay films to hit screens in awhile; two weeks later arrived the little gem about writers and writing, The Blue Tooth Virgin. Now comes the uniquely told love story PETER AND VANDY, written

and directed by Jay DiPietro (shown at right) from his own play and starring two of our finest up-and-coming young actors Jason Ritter (Good Dick, The Education of Charlie Banks) and Jess Weixler (The Big Bad Swim, Teeth, Alexander the Last).

As in his play, DiPietro deliberately fractures the time sequences. But unlike playwrights such as Harold Pinter (Betrayal) or Jean Anouilh (Mademoiselle Colombe), who set their plays to move backward in time, leaving us at the beginning of the relationship, DiPietro skips around like crazy, highlighting this or that scene in the couple's relationship, including those involving friends and relatives along the way. From the film's first scene -- in which Ms Weixler as Vandy seems so positive and in love -- to the next, in which a major shadow crosses her face with some disturbing behavior to match, we're put on notice that we're not going to get a typical "relationship" movie.
All the better.

By disordering his scenes, DiPietro makes each of them into something special rather than a simple continuation of events, feelings and feel-good (or bad) fodder. Behavior stands out in new and different ways, calling attention to itself and sending out red flags that it might not, were it being viewed as part of the usual relationship continuum. So well-written and -acted are all these scenes, that some will no doubt go down in viewers' permanent memory bank: kitchen behavior regarding utensils, to tip (or not) bartenders at a wedding party, a family holiday meal.

The cast includes wonderful performers like Jesse L. Martin and Tracie Thoms (shown respectively, left and right, above), Maryann Plunkett and Bruce Altman, but the movie rightly belongs to its two leads, the chemistry between whom is superb. You feel their attraction, and just as much their fear and anger. Ms Weixler continues to impress in roles quite different from each other. There's a slice of the young Streep in her bearing and blond, good looks -- attractive without being gorgeous. Notice the photo below: There's a bit of Bette Davis here, too, but thankfully without any overwrought histrionics. Weixler is absolutely and always real.
She never overdoes it.

Mr. Ritter, below, adds another feather to his young cap. From the frighteningly out-of-control character he played in The Education of Charlie Banks to the super needy but very honest and bright lover in Good Dick, now, as the titular Peter, he's practically the poster boy for a "maybe" relationship: cute, smart, on the cusp of becoming a man but having trouble taking the responsibility that will help him cross over. DiPietro's writing is not particularly showy, but it's good and strong, and his scrambling of the scenes is his -- and the mo-
vie's -- ace in the hole. It's unusual to find a film these days that offers anything new on the subject of relationships. Peter and Van-
dy
, a small, challenging independent, is a revelation in that regard.

The movie opens tomorrow, unrated (and I can't think why: I'd certainly have taken my daughter to see it when she was a teenager) Friday, October 9, at New York City's Village East Cinema, in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Sunset 5, and in Irvine CA at the Edwards University Town Center 6. Other cities will soon follow, we hope.

*********

We had time for only a brief phone conversation with director Jay DiPietro and his two stars Jason Ritter and Jess Weixler. Below are highlights, with TrustMovies in boldface, the director and actors in regular type.

Where are you originally from?

Jay DiPietro: Massachusetts.

Interesting, because it seemed to me that Peter and Vandy is a uniquely east coast kind of movie. Settings, locations, clothes, even behavior. I can't imagine any of the specifics we see and hear happening on the west coast.

I think there are differences that do show up in the film.

When did you write your play?

2002-03. I did it with the help of Tom Noonan, who has been my mentor. It was optioned by a big company -- but in two and half years the movie never got made. So I found this other producer, Peter Sterling, who felt that we could find a nice little cast around this and get it done for not a lot of money.

How close is your movie to your original play, and what were the biggest differences/challenges in transposing it for the screen.

The short answer is the play was 10 scenes with two people in a living room. The movie had to take in a lot more.

Yours is a very interesting and different manner of handling time to create an oddly “full” relationship. This proves more challenging and richer in some ways than simply going from the end backwards toward the beginning, as has Pinter, Anouilh and some others. It makes us work harder, and also makes us come to terms with the odd moments that appear so paltry and unimportant but which balloon out of proportion to become deal-breakers. What was your purpose in scrambling the time frames in the way you chose?

When you are in the relationship, you learn everything about people when they are not talking about their feelings. Instead, it’s when they are getting ready for work, or when they are ordering food, or they are doing anything else. In the beginning, when you are falling in love, you are laying the foundation of the future. And you can tell so much from all of these other things.

The other day I was looking at videotapes of our kids. And you can hear my wife and I talking behind the camera. And it’s us. It’s all there, the whole relationship and the history. It really is such a continuum in some manner. You are always in everything you are saying and doing. We look back and remember things one way, but if you go back and look at actual videotape, you would see yourselves doing and saying the same things. Like with Vandy always wanting Peter to be more honest with himself. And he -- trying to balance being accommodating with being himself.

My companion and I wondered what was the actual finale: Are they back together? I thought so.

The scene where you see them at the wedding together, that’s the last scene chronologically. That is all happening after he sees her in the jewelry store and then later they go to this wedding. The final scene in the movie, though, is where he wakes up on the couch or when they’re in bed.

If the performances – all around, not just the two leads – were not so good and strong and real, a movie like this would fall apart. But actors like Maryann Plunkett do such as good job here. Did you cast these roles, or was it mostly your casting director?

We had a casting director help us out. But I met with all the actors.

Maryanne, for instance, did her whole scene in just two takes, and I didn’t even have to use the second one! I think I took everything from the first scene. These older actors who are such pros… there’s a reason why they are still acting.

I never made a single actor in the film audition for the movie. I’ve seen them all, already, and I know what actors are like -- I was one: I did the lead in my own play. You want your actors to come alive on camera. But the audition process doesn’t really help you. If they’re talented, they will come in and do what they do. The best thing I can ever say to an actor is, “That was great! Do it again!”

Anything else you want to say? Something you haven’t been asked but always wished you were?

There’s a whole color palette to the movie but I knew no one would probably ever pick up on it. When we sat down with Lucio Sexias, our art director, it was important because I didn’t want the audience to just see white walls all the time. In so many little independents, you see all these white walls, and that’s not really what most people live with. We ended up designing a very strict color palette: the beginning has green color all over. A green pillow when he says I love you, the benches at the Statue of Liberty, a lot of green… When things start to come apart, there is red all over. Then at the end when thing come back together, the two colors are co-mingling. I guess it's like a metaphor for the movie as a whole. If you really look at things, they are always the way they are. You can break up with one person and go on to the next, but you’ll find yourself in the same position.

Following our chat with DiPietro, we had a conference call with Ms Weixler and Mr. Ritter:

Was the movie shot in time sequence and then edited the way it ends up?

Jess Weixler: Yes. But it was written the way that you see it on film. We did shoot it chronologically so we could get to know each other, and feel comfortable with each other.

Had you two seen the play first?

Jason Ritter: I read the screenplay, of course, right before I went in and had the meeting with Jay.

Jess: The play was actually done four years ago, so it wasn’t anything we could actually get to see.

Can we talk about your careers: talent, timing, choice of roles and luck. Have you turned anything down at this point?

Jess: You know, in the indie world it’s been sort of a trial… When I was younger, I was just sort or praying to get cast in something. You’ll take anything. You sort of have to fight through that stuff for awhile. The Big Bad Swim was the first thing I ever did. After that -- after you do a couple of things and get a little credibility so people can look at some footage of you -- once you have these one or two things under your belt and have done a good job, then you can look at things and start to use a little discretion. I have tried to do projects that sort of moved me or touched me or seemed fascinating in some way.

And this one – Peter and Vandy -- seemed all of those things. It dealt with all the things about a relationship over the course of years, rather than just dealing with the usual: falling in love.

I feel good, honored, really, to be able to work on the stuff I have worked on. It’s not like I’ve been offered a whole lot of these wonderful roles, or anything. But it is good to be able to to pick and choose a little!

At this point, I have been able to do, for the most part, some of the projects that have resonated with me. And with first-time directors, you are never sure if the people involved quite know what they are doing. More often than not, I now feel I am working with people who can help me grow and with whom I can have a really creative relationship. Like, with Jason, I felt that we could push each other in the right way. With both Jason and Jay, we push each other’s buttons and trust that this will be a good thing. Sometime, though, it's important to realize that, when you’re feeling, “Oh, this person is getting to me in all the wrong ways, well, sometimes it’s good to be outside your comfort zone. But sometimes, when these things happen, they can initially feel like an insult.

It is very nice when you get to the point where you are don't keep getting cast as the same type of girl – or guy. For me, I had not played this kind of romantic lead before, so I am really happy that Jay trusted me enough to do this.

Jason: My career started off similar to Jess’. I wanted to work but not to always have the same kind of roles. And then it does become your responsibility, in a way, as an actor. So often we are just puppets for someone else’s vision. A lot of times your own vision as an artist will not match up with whatever project you are auditioning for. I think that a lot of terrible movies get made because, well... people don’t want to always be out of work.

And they don’t want to say no.

Right, but it’s important to take responsibility for the kind of movie you make. Some actors -- I will go see any movie they do. If I go, and it’s a terrible movie that they did just for the money, I feel betrayed.

Me, too.

It's like you’re a huge fan of Rembrandt, so you go to his latest art show, and there is just a bunch of stick figures. Regarding one’s career, I think those ingredients you listed before are pretty much right: talent, timing, choice of roles and luck. You never have complete control. But within your own world, I think you can start making the right decisions. No is hard world for me to say, but the idea of doing something I am not passionate about, and then hearing about some project that is just fantastic but I can’t take it because I am now involved in this other thing -- that would drive me crazy. I try to make choices that I can do and then look in the mirror afterward and feel good about what I see. Making money is important – it’s a great thing. But I also think you can take one wrong job, and it can destroy your whole career.

Is that really true, do you think?

Jess: I think it can be. Sometimes this is true. But I also believe in the great comeback. An actor does something really silly, and then, five years later, he does something genius. The way you put your self out there, the face you put out to the world, matters too.

Jason: You can do one giant movie, and that starts you down a path that says: "This is what I do. So pay me a lot of money to see me doing this one thing." But the more you can challenge yourself, the more different options and varied kind of roles you can choose -- do it!

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

went to see peter and vandy
Loved it

James van Maanen, said...

Glad to hear it. Hope many more of you follow suit....