People often struggle to find their true purpose with life, and what paths they should be following, as they feel pressure to live up to other’s expectations. This is certainly the case with the title character in the new drama ‘The Trouble with Bliss,’ which is now playing in select theaters. In the Michael Knowles-directed and written film, 35-year-old Morris Bliss (played by Michal C. Hall) struggles to find his identity, as he’s unemployed and lives with his father, Seymour (portrayed by Peter Fonda).
With his father looking at him in disdain, Morris finds himself in a sexual relationship with 18-year-old Stephanie Jouseski (played by Brie Larson), the daughter of his former high school classmate, Steven (portrayed by Brad William Henke). While trying to figure out how to end the relationship before Steven finds out about it, Morris is also pursued by his married neighbor, Andrea (played by Lucy Liu). Morris realizes that despite his dilemmas, he’s finally figuring out what he wants to do with his life.
Knowles generously took the time to discusses what it was like shooting ‘The Trouble with Bliss’ in New York City’s East Village with us over the phone. The filmmaker, who lived in the neighborhood for almost 13 years, also spoke about how he became involved in the movie, and how Hall came to appear as the title character.
ShockYa (SY): You wrote the screenplay for ‘The Trouble with Bliss,’ basing it on Douglas Light’s novel ‘East Street Bliss.’ What was it about the book that convinced you to write and direct the film, and how much knowledge did you have of Douglas’ story before you took on the project?
Michael Knowles (MK): Well, Douglas Light and I actually co-wrote the screenplay, so we adapted his novel together. I had read his novel, because Douglas and I go to the same cigar lounge in the East Village here in New York City. So we kind of know each other, and I knew he wrote this novel. I read it, and I asked him, hey, do you want to make this into a movie, and we’ll write the screenplay together?
So I was really familiar with the material from the very beginning. I loved the story and the characters. I felt that they were funny. I felt there was something quirky and funny about the whole story and the characters. Yet there was something really touching with the father-son relationship. So I felt there was something there, and nice methods to it all. But it was told in a way that it was subtle, so I enjoyed it.
SY: What was Douglas’ reaction when you first told him you wanted to work on the movie with him? Did he immediately embrace the idea?
MK: Yeah, actually he did. Initially, I didn’t immediately say that I would direct it. I just started with the notion that we would write the screenplay first. I was never completely attached to it, and said, okay, I have to direct this. It was more like, if it makes sense at any moment, I would be the director.
But if the script had gotten to a big name director who was going to do something spectacular with it, and I felt really confident, I would have let somebody else direct it. I usually try to make decisions on what’s best for the project, and not just my own ego.
But Doug was super open to the idea right away, and I think me offering to have him write it with me was something that was appealing, because he wanted to learn about the screenwriting process. So I think he was pretty excited about it.
SY: When did you actually decide to direct the film? Was it after you wrote the script, or when you were in the process of writing it?
MK: No, it wasn’t actually until the point when Michael C. Hall got on board. I said, that’s it, I’m directing it. I was really the one who got him attached to the project. I realized, I know this script inside and out. It just made sense for me at that point.
Up until then, we always approached it as, when we let people know about it, we said Michael Knowles isn’t necessarily attached. He can step up at any moment and direct it, if it makes sense.
SY: Speaking of Michael C. Hall, who is most well-known for his title role on the hit Showtime series ‘Dexter,’ he portrays Morris Bliss in ‘The Trouble with Bliss.’ What was the casting process like for Morris, and how do you feel Michael transitioned from ‘Dexter’ to the film?
MK: Well, Michael and I have a mutual friend. I edited this documentary for this filmmaker named Carolyn Corbett, who’s good friends with Michael, and they went to NYU grad school together. So his name was always in my mind.
When I had this script, I kept thinking, Michael C. Hall would be great in this role. It’s a little bit different than what he’s done. I knew, just by watching his work, specifically in ‘Six Feet Under’ and ‘Dexter,’ I knew he was a great actor. If he could do ‘Six Feet Under’ and then turn around and do something like he did in ‘Dexter,’ I thought he could do anything.
So I had him in mind for I guess a couple of years, from the time I finished the script. So I just approached him, and got my friend to give him the script. He read it and loved it, and we sat down and chatted about the character and the script. I said, that’s it, let’s do it. So it really wasn’t as much of casting, as I asked him if he wanted to do it, and he said yes.
From what I gather, great actors, like Michael, I don’t think he transfers from Dexter to Morris Bliss. It’s more of he just steps back and then looks at the character and says, let me analyze this character.
The first time we talked about it, Michael used one word that I felt was a great description of Morris Bliss, and he said he’s rudderless. I never thought about it that way, but he did. In the beginning of the movie, he’s this wishy-washy character, and goes wherever the wind blows him. If he was a boat, he would be rudderless. I just realized that Michael was an intelligent actor, and I had faith in his work, I knew he was a talented actor.
SY: Michael has discussed how when he was in grad school, he lived in the East Village, and it was a great experience to be back, working there. What was your experience like, filming on location in the Village?
MK: Well, it was similar in some ways to Michael, because I lived in the East Village for most of the 13 years that I lived in New York City. So a lot of these locations, when I was reading the novel, a lot of locations I was picturing, as I knew them. As we planned and prepped for the film, it was a lot of fun.
I was visiting places I had even gone myself, like the Velvet Cigar Lounge, and that’s how the movie actually started. So it was cool to walk around and go into these different stores, and talk to them about possibly shooting the film there. It was very exciting to come back to New York, after having lived in L.A. for a couple of years. My first project was to come back to New York and shoot a film.
SY: Did you actually have a lot of locations that you filmed in?
MK: Oh, yeah. All of them were on location. We shot everything on the streets and in locations in the East Village, except for the Bliss apartment. We actually ended up having to go up to Harlem, so that we could actually find an apartment that was big enough to fit what an East Village apartment would look like if a guy like Morris and Seymour lived in it for a number of years.
But everything else was in the East Village, on location. It was awesome and great to shoot on the streets, and having the feel of the East Village around us.
SY: Did actually filming on location on the streets pose any kind of limitations on what you could shoot, or did it enhance it?
MK: It enhanced it, without a doubt. It did 100 percent. I remember, we rehearsed for a few days before we began shooting on location. We would go to the location, like Essex Street Market, and we’d rehearse right in front. That way Michael and Chris Messina could feel the traffic, and that influenced how they spoke to each other. So it was very real.
I think sometimes when you’re not on locations, you don’t really get to feel that environment. So it made it very real. When we were rehearsing, it was great, because people would walk past, and we would feel the energy of the whole population. It definitely influenced how we did everything.
SY: Michael also said he created a back-story for Morris between his high school days and the present day. Did you also image a back-story for him as well?
MK: No, I usually don’t do that myself. I don’t like talking about it, but I will talk about it if there’s something he’s not sure of, and he says, hey, do you think this will help or hurt? I feel that’s the actor’s job to do. I’m glad he did that.
The good thing is that we had the novel as the source material, and he could reference that. In the novel, there was a lot of back-story about what Morris was doing through those years. So I know Michael read the novel, and I know he got a lot out of it. I’m sure he used that as a jump-off point.
SY: You’re also appeared in films, so when you’re working as a director, do you draw on your experiences as an actor?
MK: Oh yeah, big time. I feel like it helps me with the writing process and with the directing process. I think I’m very sensitive to the actors’ situation, understanding when they need room and when they don’t need room; sometimes someone comes in and says this is what I need, and sometimes it’s good to back off and let them do what they’re doing. Being an actor myself, I think it helps me tremendously to understand those different times.
I’m very focused on the camera, and everything working around the actors and the characters, as opposed to the other way around. I found myself as an actor that sometimes it’s the other way around. Everybody’s so focused on the camera, that they don’t focus as much on the movements and the behavior and the life of the characters. That’s why sometimes I feel movies feel very stilted, and actors feel very constrained. I try to keep the focus on the actors, and what will be natural and interesting behavior, as opposed to what will fit inside the frame.
SY: Many of the films you have worked on as a director, you have also written the scripts for. Do you feel being a director who also writes the scripts helps you in your directorial duties?
MK: Yeah, absolutely, because I think a director needs to be in some ways the master of the universe that he’s trying to create. He has to know everything about it, or have enough knowledge to have an intelligent conversation about that world that he’s trying to create.
So having written it, I feel that I have the inside track in that area. I know the reasons why stuff was written the way it was written. I can also say, I know why this wasn’t said, also. I know when I talk to the actors, I can say, yes, I know exactly what the writer was thinking, because I wrote it.
SY: One of the relationships Morris starts in the film is with the 18-year-old Stephanie, the daughter of one of his former high school classmates, Steven. Do you feel that when Morris finds out she is Steven’s daughter, he wants to mature and move on with his life?
MK: Well, I do think it’s a punch in the gut for Morris in that moment when he realizes “wow, I just did something with a girl who’s the daughter of a friend of mine from high school.” I think it’s a punch in the gut when he realizes, “wow, what am I doing with my life?”
I think Michael nails it in that one scene when he walks into the bathroom and looks at her, and he says Steven Jouseski, and she kind of clears it up for him. He thinks, I can’t believe I did what I just did.
The fun part about what I think we did though was we created something tender about that relationship, so it makes it a bit of a struggle for him. On some level, he thinks, this isn’t right. But on the other side of it, it feels right, because there is something compatible.
SY: Brie Larson, who portrays Stephanie, is a popular up-and-comer who has achieved fame in films and on television. What is it about her acting that convinced you to cast her in the role, and would you be interested in working with her again in the future?
MK: Oh yeah, I’d love to work with Brie again. She was great to work with, a lot of fun and is really smart. I wasn’t really familiar with her work before we were looking for Stephanie. Her manager sent over her reel, which a lot of it was scenes from ‘The United States of Tara.’
I think, the same with most actors I work with, I can feel a certain depth to everything she was doing. There are many layers in every word she’s speaking, and every pause that she’s taking. Once I feel that from an actor, I know they’re going to do a great job. They’re breaking a lot that most actors can’t bring, like their heart and their soul to everything they’re doing.
SY: ‘The Trouble with Bliss’ features veteran actors, including Michael, Peter Fonda and Lucy Liu, as well as newcomers, including Brie. What was the working relationship between the actors like, and why was it important to blend the cast with veteran and up-and-coming actors?
MK: I didn’t even think about it (blending the cast), about whether it’s important if they’re veterans or not. I just look at if they’re good actors. If I can see that this actor’s going to be good in this role, then I go, yeah, that’s it. Once we had Michael on board as Morris, we said Michael C. Hall’s a great actor, a lot of people want to work with him, which is a real positive for a film, and all the roles around him were good, juicy roles.
So we said, we’re sure we can get some really great actors who want to come in and do these fun, supporting roles. Fortunately, we went after everyone who we thought was a good actor and popular. It helps get the movie out there, and it helps get attention to a movie. Fortunately we had that great combination of great actors who are also popular.
Then somebody like Brie, I look at her, and say she’s up-and-coming, and some people would say she’s already there. Like Chris Messina, he’s done a lot of big things, but I don’t know if a lot of people know him. Lucy Liu, of course, everybody knows her. Peter Fonda, everybody knows him.
The working relationship between these guys is like every film I do, it’s very simple. We keep the focus on the work. There’s no air about anybody, and I think Michael C. Hall kind of sets the tone for that. He’s pretty serious about the work, and he comes ready to work. At every rehearsal we did, it was like, okay, Michael’s working.
I think it’s true to say that everybody will work off the main guy or girl on a film, and feed the cues from them. I definitely set the tone. As the director, I let people know, I expect you to be ready to rehearse, not learn your lines on set. Not learn your lines in rehearsal, but really be ready to play when we show up.
Written by: Karen Benardello