Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal are an American writer-director duo. They wrote 2010’s Tron: Legacy and have recently written and directed their first movie, The Words, about a writer who has to deal with the consequences of plagiarising someone’s work, featuring a star-studded cast including Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Irons, Zoe Saldana, Olivia Wilde and Dennis Quaid.
The film, whose script was developed at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, also had its world premiere at the 2012 edition of the Sundance Film Festival and is now premiering at the Mumbai Film Festival. In the interview, the duo talks about the rights and wrongs of plagiarism, the process of collaboration and how Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali has inspired a scene in their movie.
Before we start talking about the movie, I’m interested in knowing your personal takes on plagiarism. Having made a movie on the topic, do you overanalyse your work now?
Brian Klugman (BK): Not really, because I think, we are all subconsciously inspired by the writers and artistes we see and read. But stealing someone’s work verbatim is certainly a cardinal sin for writers.
Lee Sternthal (LS): Yeah, I feel the question about plagiarism is: At what point does something become outright thievery? At what point does it go from being inspiration to being something you have copied, so to speak? I’ll give you an example here. Brian loves and speaks a lot about the films of Satyajit Ray, and they are a huge influence on him. There’s actually a scene in our movie that we ended up cutting out later, which was inspired by Ray’s Pather Panchali. In the scene, Bradley Cooper’s character is on the bus, going to work, and he’s got so much hope in it. And then later, he’s coming back on the same bus and he’s totally broken.
So here, we’re quoting Ray’s work as inspiration. We used his scenes as a, sort of, jumping off point for our own work. And so, hopefully, in being inspired, we have used that work that came before us to discover our own voice and what we are trying to say. So that’s a good thing – when your engagement with somebody’s work inspires you to push yourself to discover what you are trying to say, as opposed to copying down something to get a result – that’s bad.
BK: I think art was anyway intended to be a dialogue, you know.
You guys you have had this script for 12 years. What was the starting point for it, and what made you both sure that this was the right project to debut with as directors?
BG: We set out as much to talk about plagiarism as we, kind of, wanted to address the realities of being an artiste and the realities of being a man, and being confronted with your own limitations. It actually started off as a conversation about writers who’ve lost their work, especially Earnest Hemingway, whose wife accidentally left some of his manuscripts on a train. So Lee and I really got into this conversation that made us think about how Hemingway would have reacted and what would have happened to the man who’d have found them? It was an incredibly fertile ground, so over the years, we kept coming back to this project.
LS: We saw a very personal connection to the film and to the character that Bradley Cooper plays in it, a young ambitious writer, who cheats himself out of the possibility of finding out how good he can be, when he plagiarises a story. We also connected to the character of the old man, played by Jeremy Irons, whose work disappeared from his life long ago, and when he confronts it again, he is also confronted with his past. It was just something very real and something we really wanted to tell.
BG: And then, as we moved forward, there were elements of real life that made it more interesting for us: the film is also a kind of comment on our society in general, a comment on this desire of getting everything immediately, the desire of getting an immediate gratification. So we connected to the many layers the story had.
Isn’t it a big gamble to be co-directing with your best friend? When did you guys first click as a collaborative team?
BG: Well, we have been friends since we were kids, so, I guess, we started making stuff up together since a very young age. I think that kind of history has been incredibly helpful to us in collaborating in that we never really talked about the details of how we would go about this. We never really outlined how it would work, we never defined it… it was just a very natural thing for us to do.
LS: You know, when it’s two people instead of one, people just want to know who wins the fights (laughs). But it’s not about that – before we actually got this film, before we did anything actually, we were constantly having all sorts of conversations and arriving at a single vision of what we both wanted to do. So when we got into filmmaking, the most important thing was to have one voice, so people aren’t getting two different messages from us. And we communicated the same that to all the people we were trying to work with, whether behind the camera or in front of the camera. We are two different people with two different perspectives, but we really respect each other and we enjoy finding the middle ground. That makes it worthwhile and that’s the joy of it.
Do you guys compartmentalize by departments or do you take a decision on everything together?
LS: We collaborate on everything together, but are there things Brian does better than me? Yeah, there a lot of things (laughs).
BK: I think, in filmmaking, no rule can be steadfast because it is such an incredibly improvisational process. But when you are on set, it’s probably the best to have one voice coming out, and one person speaking to the cast and crew. So, in general, Lee and I settle on a single message for the actors, for the cinematographer, and so on – we collaborate on everything and then go separately on delivering these messages in our own ways.
LS: Brian has a lot of experience as an actor… so he is really good with them and really understands what the actors are going through. On the other hand, I enjoy getting into the technical aspects more… whether its the design aspects, the cinematography and things like that. So there is no steadfast rule, but these are the kind of things we gravitate towards, based on our skill set and personalities.
You guys were writers for quite long, before you decided to take up direction. How did your strengths as a writer help you during direction?
BK: I think they are two different beasts but they definitely are connected. When you are a director, it is a wonderful tool in your toolbox if you are a writer as well, you know… especially when you are dealing with budgetary constraints. To be able to write yourself out of certain situations, is a wonderful skill to have.
LS: I think, as a writer you have a certain degree of luxury of sitting and thinking about things. For example, if a problem comes up that you don’t know how to deal with, you just come back to it later. But when you are directing a film, especially a low budget film, where you don’t have as much time and money, you really don’t have that luxury. If a problem comes up, you have to come to an agreement and make a decision and go with that. And that’s kind of the thrill of it too, you know. That’s really exciting.
For a film shot in $ 6 million and in 25 days, how did you guys even manage to get such a star-studded cast?
LS: Well, no one told us that we couldn’t (chuckles)! And that’s what it was. Bradley’s our childhood friend, he liked the script and agreed to do it. And then, an executive producer on the film had worked with Jeremy irons before. She passed the script to Jeremy and when he got interested and came on board, we suddenly had two huge actors of each of their generations in an independent film! That made the movie interesting to people, and all of a sudden, Dennis Quaid wanted to come in, and then we got Zoe Saldana and Olivia Wilde and wonderful character actors like John Hannah and JK Simmons to come in too. So we got really fortunate – once it started happening, people just wanted to come in and be a part of it!
Bradley Cooper is both the lead actor and executive producer of the film. Isn’t that a tricky situation to be in?
BK: No, not at all. You’ll see that a lot, but in our case, it was really nice to have an actor who wanted to help your project. When you are making an independent movie, a huge portion of it is just trying to get it off the ground and getting actors to read it, especially if it’s your first film. So to have an executive producer who is also an actor in the movie and wants to help get it made was very fortunate.
LS: And you know, we’ve known each other for such a long time that there was a lot of trust between us. The foundation was collaboration and after that, things were only really good.
You’ve got two projects lined up – Break My Heart 100 Times and Johnny Depp’s Rex Mundi. Tell us about them, and also about your dream project, if you have one.
BK: Break My Heart is a young adult novel that’s got a wonderful story. It’s an emotional thriller and it’s got a lot of scope to it and we are rewriting to direct it. The Johnny Depp movie is something we are working on as writers. It’s an incredibly exciting epic piece set in alternate history, in Paris in the 1940s.
LS: It’s sort of like Raiders of the Lost Arc, it’s that kind of a fun adventure. And you know, for Brian and I, we always really enjoyed the idea of telling epic stories. So we are writing this one, but at some point of time, we’d like to direct such a movie too.
BK: Yeah, I would love to make an Indian Jones kind of a movie at some point of time. It meant so much to me as a kid but I don’t think we have the knowledge to pull that off yet.
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.