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Michael Cuesta: 12 and Holding

When I first saw Michael Cuesta's debut film LIE I was stunned. It is extremely rare to find a director so in touch with the deep and complex issues facing children as they make the transition into adulthood. Cuesta brought these sensibilities to Six Feet Under where he served as director for several seasons of the show. Now his second film Twelve and Holding arrives on DVD and I had the opportunity to talk to Michael Custa about the DVD, his work on Showtime's new series Dexter and his experience on Six Feet Under.

In Twelve and Holding and LIE you deal with the deep issues children can face as they transition between kids and adults. Often this space can be considered 'dangerous' territory to really explore and few writer/directors seem willing to venture down that road. What has drawn you to this genre and what's the source of inspiration you tap into inorder to tell this emotionally complex and often dark stories?

Many reasons why I chose this genre'. Mostly, the reasons are unconscious but my two favorite films are The 400 Blows and Clockwork Orange. Both films inhabit innocent, dark, and dangerous worlds where there's vulnerability and moral complexity. I think my movies have to be tough for me to stay interested.

LIE was such a staggeringly strong debut; do you feel that it typed you in Hollywood as a specific kind of writer/director? With Twelve and Holding were you concerned about doing another film that had such strong thematic connections to LIE?

I didn't consciously search for a particular movie idea. I just responded to what I read, in books, in scripts, and then went from there. I was moved by the first read of Twelve and Holding, couldn't shake it. The next morning I was on a quest to put it into a visual form. As far as being type cast, pigeon holed. If that's my fate, so be it. I just trust my instincts and the only thinking that's involved with decision-making is "Do I want to spend the next two years of my life with this story and characters".

Twelve and Holding divides up key issues faced by adolescents into three connected but divergent storylines. Was this how Anthony Cipriano's original script was structured or was it something that developed through the production process. How do you feel this structure impacted the way you told your story?

I did a certain amount of work the writer and in the editing room to balance the narrative, and of course balancing the tone was the trickiest part.

Which of the three main characters do you feel the closest identification with and why? Are there snippets from your childhood sprinkled into the film?

All of them, equally. They all have this longing need to connect. That is always the driving force of any good narrative, in my opinion. When there's emptiness in a character, something that's missing, that character must go on a journey to connect, to fill that void. They want to connect to a lover, or a peer group, an estranged parent. These are bits from Twelve and Holding, and LIE. And I think this theme will prevail in any later projects that I work on.

The fire in the tree house in Twelve and Holding has been seen as an iconographic nod to 9/11. As a New Yorker how did 9/11 impact you as an artist, and do you ever plan on delving deeper into the effect of 9/11 on adolescents (beyond of course what you did in Twelve in Holding)?

Mostly, the reference to 9/11 would be the last shot in the film. When the parent sees her child on the porch. A child that has just made a huge sacrifice for that parent. And now that young person most now suffer the sins of their parents/ the so-called authority figures. It's hard not to have a story or make a movie in today's world that doesn't relate allegorically to 9/11.

Jeremy Renner seems to be doing a lot of phenomenal work, but isn't quite getting noticed for it. What was your experience working with him and do you feel he'll break out as a more well recognized leading actor?

Working with Jeremy was working with a person with a similar sensibility. We understand each other's processes as well, we like the same kind of movies, and we both prefer tough, dark stories. I think he understood this character from the first read. He instinctually connected with the character's flaws, needs, and demons. I think all of Jeremy's characters need to be dark. He needs to battle a plethora of demons to care about his job. I think Jeremy has done brilliant work. And I think he's been recognized buy whom he thinks is important.

If dealing with difficult adolescent issues in films is a ground most directors fear to tread, directing child actors is another arena where very few directors seem to really excel. In Twelve and Holding you've got three of the strongest performances from any actors I've seen this year and to get those from kids is just jaw dropping. What's your key to succeeding where so many fail?

Be patient in your casting process because you live and die by that. And bit of luck thrown in because these kids are right for the part for only a short time, maybe 6 months. They grow so fast. In terms of the style of working with them, you have to get out of their way and let them be themselves, trust what comes completely natural to them. When they try to act, it's false, so keeping them honest to what they do without thinking is always best.

Has there ever been any talk about bringing you on to do one of the Harry Potter films?

No. But I would love to tackle a project of that scale. But as we all know, Hollywood is a popularity contest, so if your film isn't in the top ten, B. O. wise, they'll ignore you.

Between L.I.E and Twelve and Holding you worked on Six Feet Under. How was your experience working with television different than working in film and how did your experience there impact your work on Twelve and Holding?

I feel honored to have worked with a great artist like Alan Ball and a great talented cast. I was lucky to have been involved with a work of that stature. I think it helped me working with actors. Knowing when to talk and to direct them, and when not to talk and not direct them. I think the problem for directing television when you're not the writer of the show, is that it's a writer, producer medium. I think I need a certain amount of authorship of my work to truly emerge myself in it. Not that I wasn't committed to 6ft. It was an incredible experience. I just feel more liberated and at ease with my own authorship on my own set, and my own set of ideas. Maybe I'm a control freak. TV in general, in my opinion, doesn't allow for much poetry. The medium always feels like it needs to explain everything, fill in the blanks it doesn't allow the visual to direct us through a narrative or story. There's too much talking. I would love to do a show that had very little dialogue.

How different an experience is it for you when you are both writing and directing something versus working on a series where you've been brought in to direct? Do you prefer one over the other?

A huge difference. TV's a writer, exec producer medium, and Film is a director's medium. My favorite artist's are film directors regardless if they've written the screenplay or not. It's a visual medium, first. To answer the question, do I prefer film? I started out as a photographer so everything has to make sense visually, first. The setting, tone, and atmosphere are first for me then the story and words hopefully come and make sense.

You've had the experience of directing Michael C. Hall in both Six Feet Under and in Dexter. What has it been like directing the same actor tackling such amazingly different roles?

I feel very comfortable working with him. At this point, we have a short hand with each other and trust each other. I trust what he brings to the set, and he trusts that I capture it in the most interesting and honest way. He's incredibly gifted and I think we think the same way. We're both very intuitive, always trusting our instincts. He's an actor that's very precise, and at the same time he's fluid, open, and unpretentious. He's an actor that believes in the visual medium and understands the power of what the camera is capable of.

What was your fondest memory working on Six Feet Under and which episode are you most proud of?

Rachel Griffith barking at me when I told her to have an orgasm on cue. The camera needed, in my opinion, to be in the perfect spot to get the maximum climactic effect. She couldn't do it. She needed to just let the camera roll so she can build up to it. When I called cut, I told her it was "perfect, the best I've ever seen" she then said to me, "I guess you're one of those guys who doesn't know when a woman is faking". I loved the episode, "You never know". It's the episode where Kathy Bates' character is introduced. She and Ruth struggle to get Patty Clarkson off of Vicodin.

How much of the first season of Dexter are you directing, and are there any plans on having you be involved with any of the series' writing?

I directed the pilot and four additional episodes, including the season finale.

What do you like the most about working on Dexter? How does it differ from working on Six Feet Under?

For the first season, I'm also a Co exec producer, which has allowed me to have more input then a gun for hire, episodic director. I find that that position has worked for me relative to the TV medium. Also, because the first season is based on the first Novel written by Jeff Lindsey, We all feel that we're co-creators of the show.

What project is next for you? Do you plan to keep your feet in both the film and TV worlds?

I'm developing a Horror, thriller project with Dimension films and I adapted the novel, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint for Michael Stipes' company. Hopefully, I'll be behind the camera on one of the two in 2007.

Be sure to read DVD Talk's Review of 12 and Holding

- Geoffrey Kleinman

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