Interview: Jonathan Sobol

Citizen Duane screenwriter Jonathan Sobol makes his directorial debut this week with A Beginners Guide To Endings and with it being the first outing for a Canadian filmmaker you’d probably expect some sort of small-scale drama featuring a cast of 2-3 unknown actors discussing their feelings in a remote cabin in Saskatchewan, but Sobol’s movie is a stylish comedy with genre movie flavorings that boasts a cast stacked with the likes of Harvey Keitel (Mean Streets), JK Simmons (Spiderman), Jason Jones (The Daily Show), Paul Costanzo (Road Trip) and Scott Caan (Ocean’s Eleven). Bet you didn’t see that coming.

Pitched somewhere between a postmillennial quirk-loving indie comedy and a mid-90s slapstick crime picture, the film is about a group of brothers who learn that they have a drastically reduced life expectancy following their father’s suicide (Keitel, who killed himself because he signed them up for the medical testing that shaved off those extra years) and decide to make the most of it by taking insane risks like returning to boxing in middle age (Jones), entering a nail n’ board fight to win back a psychotic ex-girlfriend (Caan), and jumping over Niagara Falls in a barrel (Constanzo). Hey, nobody said they were the smartest set of brothers and Sobol nimbly jumps between the competing stories and tones to create a bizarre, dark, and unique dysfunctional family comedy. It’s one of the more singular and entertaining directorial debuts for a local filmmaker in years and a project that should hopefully set up budding director for a career of equally strange and funny work. We recently got a chance to chat with Sobol about the conception, production, and ridiculously talented ensemble cast of his first feature.

Dork Shelf: How did this project originate?

Jonathan Sobol: Well, with this particular project I knew that it would be my first film as a director, so I kind of used that as an opportunity as a clearing house for scripts and characters that I didn’t really have a home for in other projects. It’s kind of like the Island Of Lost Toys, a repository of characters that I had wanted to do for a while, but could never fit into other scripts, so I crammed them all in to this one.

DS: Yeah, it did definitely feel like a movie by a first time director unloading a lot of influences and ideas that you had been sitting on for a while. Did you have any specific films in mind as an influence that you’d always wanted to explore?

JS: Well, I think it’s the case for a lot of first time filmmakers that you want to swing for the fences and do as much as you can. I’m certainly no exception. There are a lot of films that influenced me and I draw upon. It’s a fairly diverse group of films. Coming of age in the 90s, you have that reemergence of American indie film that you kind of go to. I suppose there’s a little bit of Jacques Tati in there for sure. It’s sampling of many different influences. But more than anything else I wanted it to be fun, so I tried to infuse everything with a lot of style and action. Although we didn’t have a lot of money, it didn’t stop me from wanting to give it as much juice as possible and to try and make it as enjoyable as I could.

DS: I know that you grew up in Niagara Falls, so I was wondering if you could speak about using that as the setting. The city feels almost like a character in the movie, so did that come from growing up there and wanting to show a side of the city that you’d never seen onscreen before?

JS: I think that’s exactly it. Niagara Falls is almost a completely unused location. So, growing up there and understanding it a little bit differently than people who see it for its touristy affectation, I have a general love for the place. And I also feel that given the character of the city, there’s a certain magical realist quality to it. It’s slightly larger than life, over-the-top, and garish. I don’t necessarily even think that’s something that’s pejorative, I embraced that in the film and I embraced that in the city. I hope that affection shows. And at the same time, being one of those places with one of the 7 wonders of the world and a lot of over-the-top elements to it, I think it’s a great place to set films. I just completed my second film and it too has a large section of it set in Niagara Falls.

DS: The film has a very a aggressive and almost unrelenting visual style, so I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about why you took that approach?

JS: Absolutely. What can I say? You know, I love spit screens (laughs). I think audiences today are very visually savvy and you can use a lot of visual languages and approaches to communicate what you want to do. You know, it wasn’t that long ago that you would never cross the line of visual action at all costs. Audiences today are so visually literate that they are more than capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time so to speak. I kind of liked the idea of taking a visual scrapbook approach to a film like this where I’ll use split screen, I’ll use voice over, I’ll use graphic overlays, I’ll jump cut, I’ll break the line. It kind of works in the realm of lower budget films as well because you don’t necessarily have the time and luxury of having a hermetically sealed perfect, polished world. So I think the scrappiness of the stylization fits with the story and it fits with the tools that we had at our disposal. Plus, I just wanted to keep it fun, you know?

DS: Was it difficult to get an entertainment-driven film like this made in Canada?

JS: Well, it’s always difficult to get a movie made. Anyone who works in this system or any other will tell you that. It’s always a struggle. This was no exception. However, I think that people in Canada do want to make popular movies. The powers that be want to have films to well and reach audiences. There are other inhibitors to achieving that at times, but I think the appetite is there and as a whole we’re starting to see that happen a little more often. Jay Baruchel, who is in my new movie, wrote Goon and he did really well with it. There is definitely appetite in this country for fun and savvy 21st century films. I think that it’s only going to continue to grow. It becomes a more sophisticated marketplace when we’re able to make more films that appeal to a broad audience.

DS: How did you manage to pull together this cast? Did you just send the script out blindly and hope for the best or write with people in mind who you had some sort of connection to?

JS: The film was cast through the front door as they say (laughs). We just sent the script out with offers, at times not even great offers to their respective agents. I did have some people in mind. Jason Jones, I’ve known for a while and wanted to work with him. Harvey Keitel was the first person who we offered it to and he was able to do it after some scheduling issues. JK Simmons just read the script and signed on, same with Scott Caan. You know, it was just one of those situations where everyone who came onboard was kind enough to give us a shot, but you have to kind of question how well they thought it through when they realized they’d be shooting in Niagara Falls in November. But they toughed it out and I got lucky with all of them. To have that kind of talent level on your first film is very humbling and edifying. The fact that they were so professional and dedicated to the film was amazing and this isn’t just hyperbole, they were universally great to work with. And I’m not going to say it wasn’t intimidating on your first day working with someone like Harvey Keitel. That can be intimidating, but luckily he was very gracious, a great communicator, and a great listener too. You know, once you accept the situation that you’re in, you suddenly find yourself actually directing someone like Harvey Keitel. It was amazing.

DS: He was perfectly cast, but I was curious if after casting Scott Caan you were ever tempted to get James Caan to play the father?

JS: Well, you know, we offered the role to Harvey first and Scott came later. I actually think they already played father and son in a movie that Scott directed. I’m not sure what happened to that film, but I think it’s out there through IFC. And I know they have another project where they are slated to play father and son. So you know, you don’t want to tread on that (laughs).

DS: What made you think of Jason Jones to play the boxer? He was great, but it’s not the type of role that we’re used to seeing him in and I honestly didn’t even recognize him at first beneath that fantastic handlebar mustache.

JS: To be totally honest, I actually thought of Jason originally for Scott’s role Cal. But, knowing Jason, I knew he had so much ability than to simple be “funny man Jason Jones from The Daily Show.” You know, he’s a very skilled and versatile actor. In my next film he actually plays alongside Terrence Stamp and it’s fantastic. We’re actually talking about another project together where he would play a delusional celebrity chef. I feel confident that Jason could do any of these roles easily. I think he’s a really unheralded Canadian talent.

DS: What is the new movie you two just finished, is it the heist movie that has been bubbling through the internet gossip cycle?

JS: Yeah, that’s the one. It’s tentatively called The Black Marks, but the title will change. It’s a con-artist heist comedy starring Kurt Russell as third-rate motorcycle daredevil who hooks up with his ne’er-do-well brother to steal and then distribute the second most valuable book in the world. It’s a lot of fun and I’m actually editing it as we speak. My editor is about ten feet below me in my basement right now cutting it. We’re at the rough cut stage right now, but it’s fun and has a one-of-a-kind set up. So I’m really looking forward to finishing that one off and that will be released sometime next year. It’s with Alliance here in Canada and Dimension/the Weinsteins in the States and Sony overseas. So, look for that one in a year.

DS: Looking back at the whole first time directing experience, how do you feel about how it all came together? It turned out well, but obviously there’s a lot of learning on the job involved with something like that.

JS: Directing a film is the most exhilarating, humiliating, frustrating and confusing experience that anyone can have, especially the first time out. You learn so much on a daily basis as we continue to. Even on my second film I found myself learning new things every day and I hope that never stops. It’s a struggle to get there, it’s a struggle when you’re there, and it’s a struggle doing forward. But it becomes self-actualizing after a while. I was in the business for a long time before I got into writing and directing and I realized that the difference between not writing and writing is exactly that, the experience of actually doing it. The same is true of directing. You have such a limited opportunity for on-the-job experience so when you’re there you just have to savor every minute of it and learn everything that you can.

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