DVDTalk Interview - Jill Sprecher, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing
by D.K. Holm
Jill and Karen Sprecher are the Coen Sisters of indie cinema. The mid-west natives make films solely from their original screenplays, which Jill directs and Karen produces, although these traditional divisions of labor blur and interact. Jill Sprecher went to the University of Wisconsin, where she received a degree in philosophy and literature, then moved to New York where she studied film and worked on the periphery of the film industry, as a production coordinator among other jobs.
Clockwatchers made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival and won prizes at other international festivals in 1997. Thirteen Conversations About One Thing was a favorite film of many critics and viewers in 2001. Here's a DVDTalk review of Thirteen Conversations. A little like the early Woody Allen, who inserted references to The Denial of Death, and other serious works, the Sprechers are absorbed by large questions of happiness and meaning in life. In both Clockwatchers and Thirteen Conversations an unhappy main character performs a selfless act. As Bertrand Russell wrote in The Conquest of Happiness, "So long as [a person] continues to think about the cause of his unhappiness, he continues to be self-centered and therefore does not get outside the vicious circle … The happy life is to an extraordinary extent the same as the good life."
DVDTalk interviewed Jill Sprecher via e-mail recently in connection with the release of Thirteen Conversation on DVD.
Both Clockwatchers and Thirteen Conversations fall into a relatively recent genre I call, for want of a better phrase, "heroic alienation." After years of Hollywood more or less ignoring the "working person," suddenly there have been numerous films about corporate life: In the Company of Men, Office Space, Fight Club, American Beauty, and among foreign films, Time Out. Actually, most of these films are not strictly "Hollywood." But anyway, what do you think is "in the air" to cause these films to emerge?
It's interesting, now that you name the films, I do see a kind of trend. I think traditionally, Hollywood movies tend to be "bigger" in all respects. The kind of mundane, slice-of-life stories have been the domain of European and Japanese films. Two of my favorite films are Il Posto (not to be confused with Il Postino!) by Ermanno Olmi, and Les bonnes femmes by Claude Chabrol. I think they were in the back of my mind when we were writing Clockwatchers, although I haven't seen either in a very long time. I'm not sure why these kinds of stories are in vogue in the U.S. now, though. Maybe it had something to do with the end of the millennium, people examining their daily existence. Or maybe there are just more working stiffs who have managed to sneak into the film business.
Was the time line of Thirteen Conversations easy to plot out?
The timeline of Thirteen Conversations was not difficult for us. We wrote the storylines separately, putting the major scenes on note cards. Then we looked for moments in each story that might be a good place to switch to another character, so that when the two stories abutted, they would make some kind of statement.
The finished film is quite a bit like the original script. We wanted to end where we began, in the bar, but we also wanted kind of a prologue and epilogue, which the Amy Irving story adds. During editing, many of the producers wanted to cut the opening scene between Amy and John Turturro; but we held on and fought for it, because it so perfectly sets the tone for the movie. I think they thought the movie had two opening scenes. My response was "So what?" Who said there has to be just one?!
I love the way that in Clockwatches Iris (Toni Collette) is slowly stripped of all her friends and surroundings. The movement of the movie really does capture that life experience when everything begins rosy before slowly turning to crap. Of course we wouldn't have "stories" if life weren't this way.
I guess Clockwatchers is kind of the anti-female-bonding movie; instead of grouping together and empowering each other, they feed on each other's neuroses. Karen and I wanted to do some things backwards. Like the usual "whodunnit" starts with many "suspects" and whittles them down to one; we sort of moved in the opposite direction.
We also wanted to move from a kind of talky beginning, to less and less dialogue as the story progressed and the communication broke down among the individuals. In the script, almost the entire third act is silent. Of course, when we went to edit the film, many of the silent sequences were cut. The first assembly of the film was nearly three hours. We finally decided that 96 minutes of nothing happening was probably the limit, in terms of what an audience would tolerate!
There are some beautiful, sometimes surrealistic shots in Clockwatchers, of odd office moments that are in fact perfectly realistic. When you write a screenplay are the two of you thinking "visually" or do you come up with such images collaboratively on the set?
Most of the "odd office moments," as you put it, were indeed in the script, like Jamie Kennedy sniffing a magic marker (something I still do), Lisa Kudrow painting her nails with Liquid Paper and the like. Of course, the actors embellished what was on the page. Lisa decided that while she was doing her nails, her character would also be "working on her accents." I think in the script we wrote that Stanley DeSantis, who plays the supply guardian, was linking paper clips together into a long chain; but Stanley felt it was "wasteful" and outside his character, so he came up with the idea of linking marker tops together. There was a moment after Parker gets a memo that makes her angry, we wrote something like, "... she tears it up with a flourish." When we went to shoot, Parker rolled out of her cubicle on a chair, tore up the paper, and tossed it into the air like confetti. Perfect.
Isn’t a lot of the excitement of making a movie in thinking up the little details? Such as in Clockwatchers: the oppressive ironic counterpoint of the Muzak; the different watches the temps wear that help define these clock watchers; the way Iris and Cleo (Helen FitzGerald) are sort of rendered mirror images of each other?
The fun is definitely in the details. We had a great time picking the Muzak when we were editing Clockwatchers. Stephen Mirrione, our editor, and Karen and I spent so much time picking out the most obscure and perfect song for each cue, really great Muzak of all different styles. Then we went to license it, and it added up to something like a million dollars, which was most of our budget! So we found a composer, Joey Altruda, who wrote his own songs, inspired by what we had picked out.
We really depend on everyone working on the movie to add to the details. Our costume designer on Clockwatchers, Edi Giguere, really put a lot of time into choosing each character's watch. And the actors themselves went out and bought a lot of the items for their desks, so we can't claim credit for any of that!
Gene (Alan Arkin) changes subtly through the course of 13 Conversations…; he becomes a kind of silent guardian angel to the optimistic guy, Smiley Bowman, whom he originally didn't like, in an unlikely and no doubt unintended allusion to Magnificent Obsession. Then he smiles at a stranger (Amy Irving) on the subway with no way of knowing how significantly he is contributing to her life and mood. Am I a hopeless sap, or is the film ending on a note of optimism?
We also intended for Thirteen Conversations to end on an optimistic note. A friend of mine who read the original script way back when thought the ending was practically Disney (for us), it was so upbeat! Of course, some people think the film is melancholy, but that wasn't the intention. Alan Arkin's character makes amends to Smiley Bowman, primarily out of guilt. We took that a step further with the ending, to have him do something selfless, with no baggage or strings attached or hidden agenda, which would signal a positive change for him. And of course, to hint at how the small gesture might really make a difference to the recipient, especially because she is not expecting it.
In both Clockwatchers and Thirteen Conversations … a woman has a hopeless crush on a boss figure, and innocent people are suspected of thievery. I'm sure these similarities are unconscious. As a writer, what preoccupies you the most? That certain key ideas and observations are rendered accurately? That everything makes sense? That the actors have good lines? That there aren't so many settings that you will go over budget? Or all of the above? Or none?
For us, the most important thing is that the audience care about the characters, that they understand them, and perhaps see a bit of themselves, even when they do negative things. The least important thing, for us, is dialogue. Of course, we spend hours laboring over the right words, but we're also looking for ways to get rid of it on the set!
I had occasion to observe Clea DuVall in person recently and she looked much different (small, slight) than she does on screen, where she seems big-boned and tall. If my observation is true (it might not be) what other general, unexpected differences are there between the screen and “reality”? How does a filmmaker accommodate such differences while planning and making a film?
Clea is very petite, indeed. She's had some butt-kicking roles on film [Ghost Planet], though, carrying machine guns and the like, which may be why seeing her in person was a bit of a shock. She's also very soft-spoken. My first meeting with her was over the phone, and I fell in love with her voice. I didn't actually meet her in person until she showed up for the filming. She is a real sweetheart, and a wonderful actress.
So far I haven't been too surprised by meeting the actors we've worked with in person; but I must say I was pleased to find that there were no "star egos" with any of them. In terms of the difference between the screen and reality, as [cinematographer] Dick Pope says, "Film is the great equalizer." It can make a large room look small, or a small one large. That's a trick we made use of in Clockwatchers, for example. In the script, the setting was supposed to be a massive, Kafka-style office, with hundreds of anonymous desks. On our budget, we could afford six desks. We had to constantly move them around and shoot the small space from odd angles to fool people into thinking it was much bigger.
What was one thing about the movie business that really took you by surprise once you got involved in it?
I guess the most surprising thing about the movie business is how slowly it moves. Everything. It's strange. People have cell phones, they take meetings, they look really busy, but nothing gets done. Sort of like Clockwatchers. When we were trying to raise money for both movies, we would hear things like, "It's January, everyone is at Sundance." Then it was, "It's April, everyone is getting ready for Cannes." Or "August is a bad month. Nobody reads." Nobody reads, period. You can't even hand someone a one-page written synopsis, you have to do a "pitch" and try to act everything out. Which is difficult, if you're not an actor. My sister and I happen to be two of the laziest people we know. I guess we finally found an industry that moves slower than us.
Movies are so hard to make at every stage of the process, why would anyone want to make one? What is it that drives someone, in the face of monumental resistance, to assert that they have something to say and that the audience needs to listen?
What drives someone, in the face of monumental resistance, to assert they have something so important to say? A giant ego, of course. Actually, come to think of it, I don't really have that kind of urgency or drive. As I say, I'm pretty lazy. With both movies, my sister and I never really expected them to happen. They just kind of kept moving along. We were waiting both times for someone to stop us. (Not that people didn't try…) But once they started to snowball and others got involved, we felt a responsibility to keep everything going. It's only when we look back in retrospect that we can't believe we finished them.
So I guess I should change my answer, then, to pride. We were too stubborn, and embarrassed, to allow them to fall apart.
Reversing the cliché question, what special, particular problems do male directors face today?
I think the biggest problem any director faces is finding financing. Especially for independent films — men and women are on fairly equal grounds trying to scrounge for funds. Other than that, I'm not really sure what specific problems male directors would face. They do seem to get their next jobs slightly faster than their female counterparts.
There seems to be a vast gulf between successful and unsuccessful moviemakers. Yet once a filmmaker has "made it" they seem to join a club where they all know each other and drop each other's names on DVD audio tracks. Do you feel as if you have entered a private club?
I know the gulf you're talking about between "successful" and "unsuccessful." We happen to be on the unsuccessful side of that chasm. I'm $150,000 dollars in debt, which I won't be able to get rid of any time soon. When I started working in the film business, I was a gopher running errands for free. Many years later, I'm still working for free. I did not get paid to direct Thirteen Conversations, and my sister and I used our credit cards constantly. In a way, I don't really consider myself in the same business as the successful filmmakers. They exist in a different world, with assistants and paychecks and job offers. This does not mean, however, that I am unable to drop a few names, but that is mainly because if you've been out there for a while, you run into the successful people at festivals, or work for them or something. So I'm sort of in the private club, just not as a full member.
You might have had a career in academia rather than in cinema. In your experience, what are some similarities and differences between those two worlds?
I think if I had an academic job, I would be struggling in that arena too. It's just as competitive as the film business. And there is the same pressure to "produce." (What's the saying? Publish or perish?) The main difference would probably be that I wouldn't have to read criticism of my work. Although, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe there's some equally embarrassing form of evaluation.
If you had you become an academic, you would have been one of those people writing about and teaching books and/or films. Do you have any thoughts on the continuity between the creative and the critical act, if such there be?
I think sometimes the critical act gets in the way of creativity. For me, anyway. When I first moved to New York, before I studied film, I loved movies. Then I started taking classes and began analyzing why I loved them. Pretty soon I was picking everything apart. It kind of ruins the experience. I guess I'm like the John Turturro character, I have a tendency to overanalyze. I know this will sound like heresy, but I find that I don't enjoy movies as much as I used to. I've gone back to reading for enjoyment.
Who is your favorite philosopher?
In college I used to read a lot of the French existentialists. You could say that Clockwatchers was probably inspired by Being and Nothingness. I also like Bertrand Russell; one of his books [The Conquest of Happiness] was very helpful when we were writing Thirteen Conversations. My favorite contemporary philosopher would have to be Noam Chomsky. I've been reading a lot of his books lately. When I'm really depressed, though, I read Viktor Frankl. Technically, he's not a philosopher, but Man's Search For Meaning is one of the best books ever written about what's truly important.
Chomsky the political theorist or Chomsky the linguist, or both?
Chomsky the media critic! (Actually, I like anything by him. One of my professors studied linguistics at MIT under Chomsky.)
Since this is a DVD website, and you are a filmmaker, what do you think of DVD technology? Why have so many filmmakers embraced that medium with so much more alacrity than VHS tapes? Or are you a technophobe?
I must confess, I don't own a DVD player. But now that they're getting into my price range (under $100), I hope to own one soon. I think the clarity of the image is much better than video, and usually the DVDs keep the original format. (The video transfer of Clockwatchers was not supervised by me or the cinematographer, and consequently is much brighter that how it was filmed.) Fortunately, Dick Pope, who shot Thirteen Conversations, supervised the transfer, and the finished product resembles the print. I'm into the idea of added footage and explanations at the end; I wish that had been available when I was studying film. I've got a lot of catching up to do.
I predict that you will one day receive a Macarthur "genius" grant. What will you do with the money?
I'm not in danger of winning a Macarthur grant. Which is probably a good thing. It's supposed to be "free money," but I wouldn't think of it that way. Can you imagine the pressure of trying to create something of "genius" caliber? Even though I'm broke, I don't like the idea of being paid in advance for something. That happened to me once. It created it's own special hell. I couldn't even think, it was like my brain purposely shut down.
Are your screenplays going to be published?
As far as I know, the screenplays are not going to be published. Which is probably a good thing, since Karen and I don't own them any more, and it would just piss us off.
Why don't you and Karen cast yourselves in little bit parts in your own movies the way other directors do?
Karen and I are two of the most self-conscious people we know. We have no business being in front of a camera. And I'd like to extend that to having my voice recorded, which, if you get the DVD, you'll understand why. I'm still astounded every time I hear my nasal Midwestern twang played back and can't believe that's what I sound like. It's very offensive. I did manage to rope Karen into filling an empty chair in John Turturro's classroom since we were short on extras that day. She was terrified. John kept threatening to call on her. Later she told me she felt she "overacted," which seems impossible, given that she was just sitting in a chair. So she's not comfortable being in the spotlight at all.
To fill out the picture of Jill and Karen Sprecher, and also to unearth some of the autobiographical elements that went into both their films, there are numerous interviews with them on the WWW, among them one at Film Freak Central, and another with Paula Nechak. Also try the short Austin Chronicle interview. Here's another. And there are two detailed Q&As about writing screenplays, one here, and another for Movie Maker magazine.