Joshua Leonard should look familiar to you by now. Not only was he one of the gang that helped revolutionize no-budget filmmaking with The Blair Witch Project, but he’s also become a go-to character actor over the last few years, including his acclaimed turn in Lynn Shelton’s Humpday. This week, Leonard releases his first feature as a writer-director, a dark drama-comedy titled The Lie, also featuring Jess Weixler (Teeth) and Mark Webber (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), which Leonard stars in as Lonnie, an unsatisfied family man and would-be musician who tells his employers that his newborn daughter has died in order to get out of work. I spoke with Leonard over the phone about his career move, the process of making the film, and the industry as a whole.
This is your first time directing a feature. What was it about the short story that made you say, this is it?
JL: It happened quickly and with only a nominal amount of premeditation. I consider myself someone who doesn’t get good ideas very often, but when I do they resonate on a very deep level, so I hold to to ‘em like a dog with a bone. And this flick happened…Mary Pat Bentel, my producing partner, and I had been trying to do another flick for a couple of years, and it kept almost going, and I was really sick of hearing myself talk about being about to make a movie. Fortuitously, when I read the short story, we were right in the thick of doing press for Humpday, which was getting a very warm audience response…and, y’know, I read T.C.’s story in the New Yorker and it just struck a chord, on many different levels, first and foremost because I’ve got a dark sense of humor and so it made me laugh, secondly, on a cultural level…subtextually, it was about something very familiar to me and people in my peer group, those of us who, our first memories are the rejection of the Reagan ‘80s, and the apathy of the Clinton ‘90s, and all of a sudden we wake up and find ourselves as adults, and don’t really have a template or a toolbox to deal with it. So, a story about these folks in their thirties trying to find that balance between the ideology of their past and the responsibilities of their present, especially given the fact that they have a newborn baby daughter…and lastly, from a production standpoint, it resonated because it was something that could be done in Los Angeles as a truly independent film, it was a story that could be told in large part with a group of collaborators that I already had surrounding me. I read the story and I saw actors that were friends of mine in my head playing the parts…Ben Kasulke, who shot Humpday with me, I knew he would be the perfect cinematographer for it. So it was something that, from a production standpoint, I felt like we could put together very quickly, and in fact from the time I read the story to the time we started shooting the movie was a sum total of three and a half months, I think. Once it got started, it really became a bullet that didn’t stop until we got in the editing room.
You mentioned collaborating – you shared the credit for the screenplay with Jess Weixler and Mark Webber, your co-stars. Was it a sort of planned, workshopping-style process, or something looser?
JL: Well, much like Humpday, there was barely any scripted dialogue for the movie, most of it was improvised. So the process became…I took the short story, we not only got the rights, we also got T.C. Boyle’s blessing to change and enhance where we needed to, because to translate from a short story to a feature film was going to require some structural work. So once we got the go-ahead from him, I sat down with my buddy Jeff Feuerzeig, who’s a talented director and writer in his own right, and who also happened to have a shared history with the protagonist of the film – he was a commercial editor’s assistant, he was familiar with the indie rock world – so I thought he would be a great guy to collaborate with. We wrote out kind of a three-act structure, a whole journey for these characters that we thought would hopefully make for an entertaining movie with stakes and obstacles and motivations, and all that very traditionalist Robert McKee story structure. And then, Mark and Jess, who I’d cast when it was still in short story form and was lucky enough that they said yes, came in, and the three of us spent about two weeks taking this kind of primary color arc of the story structure and figuring out the nuance and the details, and very specifically who these people were to each other, to themselves, how long they’d known each other, doing all the homework you have to do as an actor. I felt like they were huge collaborators, not only on the dialogue, but on helping to really create and inhabit the characters that they played, and I don’t just feel that way about Jess and Mark, I feel that way about all the actors in the film.
You’ve worked in all kinds of stuff, both in films and TV. Were there any particular experiences or directors which inspired you as a filmmaker?
JL: You know, I think I’ve learned as much from working with directors I did not like, or I stylistically differ from, as the ones that I loved. I guess the one thing that you learn, or that I personally learned, over many years as an actor, is that the best directors absolutely have a handle on their craft, and that’s the foundation first and foremost, but then they really direct in a manner that is truly organic to themselves – I don’t know that there’s a playbook that works for everybody. In fact, the worst directors I’ve worked with are the ones who feel like they’re doing what they think they should be doing, and it’s often the younger directors who feel like they have to overcompensate or be dictatorial, who I find often make the worst directors because they’re not actually sharing a creative experience because of their own fear or naiveté.
You sort of touched on this before, but I thought I’d get into it a little deeper – The Lie kind of connects to this recent trend in movies of depicting men in their thirties in a state of developmental crisis – neither angry young men nor experiencing a middle-age crisis. What do you think accounts for this trend?
JL: I think it’s generational. Whereas on one hand, I think a lot of these stories, hopefully with The Lie as well, get told with a certain amount of levity, because, I feel like there should be some self-awareness when you’re talking about the existential crises of white people in their mid-thirties, which, culturally, relatively, compared to a lot of the planet, we are lucky to have these problems, they’re sort of luxury problems. I find the best way to approach that is with a level of humor, to not take itself too seriously – because, you know, nobody’s curing cancer, we’re not getting shot at on a daily basis, there’s food on the table. If our biggest crisis is that we’re having a hard time pursuing a life that resonates with our spiritual interior, that’s pretty lucky – although very relatable, and very present, and something that most people I know grapple with. But in terms of those specific kinds of movies, I think it connects – we were always gonna hit our mid-thirties. What the fuck was gonna happen when we really convinced ourselves that it was OK to really not care about anything, and all of a sudden you get a mortgage and a kid, and if you made those decision, you have to care, you have to find a way to care. And I think a lot of us just don’t have, as I mentioned before, the template or the toolbox to deal with that.
You mentioned the need to deal with the material with a light touch, but I was sort of surprised at how much of the movie was straight-faced, given the premise. Did you struggle at all with getting the movie’s tone right?
JL: I think we were all on the same page as to what the tone needed to be from the beginning, which was as much humor and high-concept as you can get in there before you start sacrificing the reality of the characters, because I know people like Lonnie and Clover and Tank, you approach it with a certain amount of reverence. You don’t want to treat characters who are like people you know as caricatures. We always wanted to retain enough naturalism that hopefully people could really relate. But yeah, that tonal balance is really difficult, between the dark comedy and moments that are not funny at all, and a lot of that had to be found once we got into the editing room. On the editing room floor, there’s a lot more drama, and a lot more comedy. We would just do a pass on the film, show our friends, see what was getting a response, and we’d go back…to me, some of the funniest moments that we shot did not make it to the film, just because they took you out of the moment, because they kind of became funny for funny’s sake, so they had to hit the floor.
Coming back to some of the social themes that kind of percolate throughout The Lie, you mentioned economic responsibility, especially in a family context. Do you feel, as a moviegoer as well as a filmmaker, that movies are doing enough to represent economic realities?
JL: I’m probably not the best person to ask that question of, because, whereas…you go, what’s the social significance of doing another, do we need a third Transformers, really? Do we need a fifteenth Twilight? Studies have shown, and historically it’s shown, that often what an audience wants in times of the greatest cultural upheaval, is escapist entertainment, so I think that serves a purpose. In terms of dealing with where our country’s at right now, in terms of the financial disparity between the rich and the poor right now, are we doing enough to deal with it? I think movies are always a couple years behind the times. We’re seeing stuff right now like Margin Call, which deals with the issues directly, I think we’ll be seeing more of that in the next two or three years, but I also think that, to some extent, our job as filmmakers is to interpret a cultural situation and place it in the background, in the subtext. I think there’s a time and a place to deal with some of those issues head-on, and there are some vastly political filmmakers and documentary makers who take that stuff head-on. My approach has always been, you know, let it come through the stories of your characters – build that world around them, but remember…the things that have always affected me the most have always dealt with larger issues through a smaller lens, with human stories.
I read an interview with Alexander Payne recently, and he made a comment about the disappearance of the “medium budget” movie, which is basically what he does, speaking of economic disparity. Increasingly you have microbudget movies – which I assume The Lie qualifies as – on one end and Holylwood stuff in the other. Do you think that’s true?
JL: Yeah! I think that’s very accurate, I think it’s systemic. We’ve got a vanishing middle class in our society, and I think that permeates the film industry just as it does everywhere else. I think it’s the same motto, the rich get rich and the poor get poorer. For those medium budget movies…they started spending so much money between production and marketing on the top-level tentpole movies, that it gets so much harder to compete, and my favourite movies could be considered part of that world – the Alexander Paynes, the PT Andersons, the Wes Andersons, you know, those are mid-budget movies. Michael Clayton, probably on the higher end of things. Drive had some success – I didn’t love the movie, but it kind of gave me hope for something different than the regular Hollywood tentpole template succeeding. I think you’ve got a couple factors. It’s now easier to make movies for cheaper, so there’s more tools for the middle and lower class in the independent world, so we can tell our stories…you know, when we made The Blair Witch Project in 1997, we had to plant into that film why it looked so bad, because for $50,000, at that point, you could not make something that looked good. I think part of the reason that film worked is because it did look like shit, because they were student filmmakers filming themselves. Now you can make a movie that looks decent for that same budget level, because of where technology’s come to, but the trick has become, how do you get your money back, how do you get people to see it? And I think we’re still very much in the embryonic stages of figuring out how to connect with our audiences directly and monetise those films. So I think that middle-class film may come back when folks really figure out, if it’s not at the multiplex, if we can’t compete with the big movies at the multiplex, how do we really catalyze, seek out our audience, find them, and get them to support our films on that mid-level. Because certainly there’s an audience for them, we just don’t know how to necessarily make them pay for it yet. VOD, streaming, all of these things are in some way going to be the world where that happens, but I don’t think anyone’s hit on the formula yet.
I think there’s also the emergence of TV as the realm for the character actor and for richer stories. You yourself got to work on Hung.
JL: Yeah, and I think that…so often the case is, when I started out in the indie realm in the mid-90s, everybody’s dream was the Robert Rodriguez or the Quentin Tarantino, you made your little movie, you did it with friends and favors, and you sold your plasma or did whatever you had to do to get your film made, and somebody took notice and gave you a real budget to work with. Now, much more often that I see that progression, I see filmmakers making those same kinds of little personal independent movies, and hopefully, if they catch on, they go straight and try to sell a pilot to HBO. It’s become a different realm, and I think it’s become a much better realm for personal stories to be told, especially in the cable realm, than ever before, and that’s why you get so many talented people working there, because they’re telling a lot of the stories that people like Hal Hartley, Alison Anderson, Nick Gomez, the Coens, a lot of the filmmakers who inspired me to get into it, those kinds of stories are now being told on HBO, and Showtime, and FX.