Marshall Lewy is an American independent writer-director whose new movie, Robert Carlyle-starrer California Solo was an official selection at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and is now premiering at the Mumbai Film Festival.
California Solo is the story of a former Britpop rocker who faces deportation from Los Angeles after staying their many years, and has to confront the demons of his past and present. Marshall, who has worked with an Indian producer on his first film, Anna Paquin and Breckin Mayer starrer, Blue State, and has lived his fantasy of visiting a film studio in Mumbai 10 years ago, talks about writing a script in 16 days, working with the powerhouse performer Robert Carlyle and why he finds political themes interesting.
How does one manage to write a script in 16 days? That’s sort of a superpower.
Marshall Lewy (ML): (Laughs) It was actually a story I’ve been thinking about for a few months, and there’s actually another film of mine that had fallen apart and this film came out of the ashes of that one. I just wrote this because I really wanted to have a film at Sundance and I think it was from a lack of caring in the sense that I wasn’t worried about what would happen with it. I had this little idea about a certain guy who gets into trouble because of immigration and the steps he has to take to stay in the country and that these steps lead him down his personal path as well, and I think with that as my map, it became easy for me to write it quickly.
So, I actually didn’t write it that fast because it was a singular experience where I had spent a while thinking about it and then because the story was very clear to me, I was able to write it very quickly. Some other screenplays I have written are about more complicated stories so they take longer to figure out.
If you had Sundance in mind, what made you attempt a drama in the limited time you had? The assumption would be that it’s far easier to make a romantic comedy like first movie, Blue State, than a drama.
ML: Yeah, you would think it’s faster to write a rom-com, but the thing about a rom-com is that even though it’s more likely to happen, it’s also more difficult to make one that’s original. With Blue State, for example, I really tried to take the romantic comedy structure and use it to tell a political story, to do something a little bit different. And to be honest, I haven’t had a lot of interest in going back to that structure because it’s been done so often, unless I come up with an idea that’s very fitting and very interesting.
You wrote the film specially keeping Robert Carlyle in mind. What is it about Robert as an actor that made you write for him?
ML: I’ve always liked him - he’s a guy who has played very sympathetic and compassionate characters, and he’s also often played villainous and angry characters. He’s very well known for Begbie in Trainspotting, he was this crazy person in The Beach, he’s on TV right now on Once Upon a Time as Rumplestilskin. So something about bring those two together – having that anger and danger lurking under somebody who’s otherwise charming and affable was something I thought I hadn’t seen as much, so I thought he’d fit into the character I had in mind. And through the years, I’ve always thought he is a great actor and that he should be playing leads in American movies. So the idea of taking someone who’s such a great Scottish actor and putting him at the heart of an American independent film set in LA was interesting to me.
How do you go about directing an accomplished actor like Robert Carlyle? He’s also actually friends with many Britpop artistes – so what did he bring into the role from his end?
ML: I was certainly very open to the idea that it was a collaboration between us, especially in a film like this which is such a character study. I based the film on some of the great character study films of the ‘70s and the ‘80s like Kramer vs Kramer, Tender Mercies, etc. So while it’s obviously my job as a director to steer the ship of the film, I was very aware of giving Robert the space to inhabit the character and bring his ideas, and it was just fun to watch him.
Every actor’s going to bring a lot but Robert, in particular, brought a lot of stuff to this role because I he actually knows Britpop artistes – the Gallagher brothers from Oasis are his friends. That’s also one of the reasons I cast him was because Trainspotting and The Full Monty happened at the peak of the Britpop era. So he became famous at the time when the character in California Solo was supposed to have become famous, in that very scene. So he brought a lot of those details to the movie – the idea always was that certain bands and songs have been really huge in the UK and not so much in the US, so that’s why there was a chance for him to hide out in the US, because he doesn’t want to go home.
You dealt with borders and deportation in Blue State too, and now California Solo is also thematically similar. What’s your fascination with that subject?
ML: (Chuckles) I don’t know, actually, because funnily, my next film, Exodus is also thematically similar. It’s actually a heist movie but it’s about people who steal money and move to a Caribbean island and you know, cut all their ties with their past. So the fascination… I think, there’s something personal in each of the films I make, but I do treat the subjects differently; like California Solo is very different in tone from Blue State, which was a comedy. Both have similarity in that both are very focused on character, and a portrait of a person who is searching, and is denying their past, who are lost in their lives, and their circumstances are carrying them towards a greater acceptance of their reality.
But the best reason I can think about why I keep coming back to these ideas of crossing borders and pushing yourself to be on your limits in some geographical way, is that for a long time I’ve had the ‘Grass is greener’ syndrome. I think there’s something better on the other side I’m missing out on (laughs) and that I should be a part of.
Another theme common in both movies is that they both make strong political statements. Are you an overly political person?
ML: Not overly… I did volunteer and work for the John Kerry campaign for an year so some of Blue State was from my experience – going door to door, actually driving to Ohio to do that, but I didn’t actually move to Canada like the character in Blue State. So the most political thing I’ve ever done in my life is making a movie on politics (laughs).
So I think, in general, I want to say something in the films I make, and I think with Blue State and that particular time in America, it felt very important to say something explicitly political, and in California Solo, there’s a lot of very interesting angles under discussion about immigration policies and the bureaucracy that can be very inhuman in a lot of cases. In the story, Robert Carlyle’s character is a permanent legal resident, he has a green card and been living in the US for over 20 years and yet he faces deportation. A lot of people who’ve seen the movie and who have a green card and assumed that they were as good as being a citizen, which is sort of the conventional wisdom, didn’t even know this was possible. I was less inclined this time around to have overly political statements being made, and hence decided to make it a bit understated, but I would still hope that all my films say something about the world, even if they’re carried in a different sort of vessel.
This film was made on a really small budget. Do you think in terms of budget when writing a script?
ML: Yeah, I’m always aware, I always think about where I want the script to go, what the intention is. If it’s a script if I think I’m writing and I’m directing and if I might have a hand in putting the project together then yeah, I think about it. So in California Solo, I was aware that I wanted a script that I could make even if I didn’t have that much money to make it. I wrote it with that in mind and tried to keep it to locations that I knew in LA… a lot of the locations are just a few miles from where I live, and I knew there would be favours to ask for and friends I could get in touch with (chuckles), so I could make it for as little money as possible. Whereas in the other stories that I write, if the story and my intention dictates that it’s going to be a much bigger movie, I am not worrying about the money and I’m trying to make it as big as I can, because that will probably get more interesting.
What’s the learning from your first indie film that helped you here? Are these movies leading up to a bigger budget mainstream Hollywood film?
ML: One of the most important things was picking the right crew and collaborators - to really try and find people who I shared a common vision with, and with whom I felt like we were all making the same movie. So being able to really trust all the people I was working with was really nice.
But yeah, I think, someday I’d be happy to make a big budget movie but I like them both and I don’t feel like smaller movies are a step - or that every film has to be bigger than the last one. That’s especially not the case in today’s world, because it keeps getting cheaper and more possible to make better smaller films. So if I had $50 million, for example, I’d rather make ten $5 million movies than one $50 million movie (laughs).
Tell us about Exodus and Born to Run, your future projects.
ML: Born to Run is a book I read early on through my agent, before it came out and became a bestseller. I optioned the book and started working on it, without knowing it would become a phenomenon. Peter Saarsgard, the actor, also read the book and fell in love with it so he got in touch, wanting to get involved as a director. So we did some sittings in a room, spoke a lot on the phone, and collaborated on the project, where I was always working on, only as a writer. The book’s based on a true story, so it was a really fun time working on something like that.
I also have another project lined up based on a true story, called The Imposter’s Daughter. That’s a graphic memoir about a woman who find out that her father, who she’s always looked up to, is a con artist and a fraud. So the story’s about her uncovering the truth about what her father’s up to her whole life.
As for Exodus, it’s the same larger project that had fallen through before California Solo happened. It’s thankfully happening now and we plan to shoot sometime next year. As I said, it’s basically a ‘paradise lost’ sort of a film – about what happens to and between these guys who’ve stolen some money and moved to the Carribbean Islands.
Nikhil Taneja is be doing a series of interviews with directors whose features at the 2012 Mumbai Film Festival. Coming up next a conversation with Brazilian director, Luciano Moura, on his film Father’s Chair.