A 2005 graduate of USC’s School of Cinema and Television, Lee Toland Krieger made his feature film debut in 2008 with “The Vicious Kind,” starring Adam Scott, from his own original screenplay. His latest film is Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg’s bittersweet “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” releasing this week and platforming throughout August. For ShockYa, Brent Simon had a chance to speak to Krieger one-on-one recently, about his new movie, the difficulties of mounting or landing an indie directing gig, “Back to the Future,” the story he heard about Steven Seagal getting kicked off of “Executive Decision,” and the rudeness in some of his encounters with the press. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: Your grandfather was an actor, but there’s a leap a lot of creative types take between enjoying movies or performing and then figuring out it’s something they can actually do as a career. When was that period for you, and what was it like?
Lee Toland Krieger: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly. I remember the first sort of moment (which was probably the same) for a lot of people my age — “Back to the Future,” which is still a perfect movie in my book. I was mesmerized by the magic of it. I kind of fell in love with special effects stuff based on that, and started trying to learn how quote-unquote movie magic worked. And then my neighbor growing up (Steve Perry), his daughter and I went to school together, and he was a very successful producer and saw me starting to shoot shorts. He invited me to the set of a movie called “Executive Decision,” which was this 1996 action movie with Kurt Russell and Halle Berry. I was 13 years old, and had never been on a set before and was I think mesmerized by the whole thing, and hooked from that point on. Steve was very kind and allowed me to sort of intern for him once I got my driver’s license. And then I decided to go to film school, I went to USC, and I started working for Neil LaBute and his producing partner at the time, Gail Mutrux. They were really great and generous with their time, and I learned a lot. So I don’t know if it was one of those singular moments, but if there was one it would probably be that first set visit to “Executive Decision,” and just seeing a guy with a Steadicam rig on.
ShockYa: That movie has such a deliciously weird history, given that it was swapped by Paramount with Warner Bros. for “Forrest Gump.” So were you privy to the Steven Seagal firing, or exactly how he came to be let go from “Executive Decision”?
LTK: You know, I remember the story I heard from Steve — though who fucking knows at this point, it’s a long time ago, and I have nothing against Seagal, this might be true or it might not be, so take it for what it’s worth — was that he literally didn’t know his lines. It wasn’t like he was having trouble with his lines, it was that he literally didn’t know a single line he was supposed to say. So they would sit there with cue cards right off camera, and he would read them off the cards. And I think it got to the point where the studio and producers said,” You know, this is not going to work for run-of-show. So we’re going to do a quick re-write, he’s going to die as the planes disconnect, and we wipe our hands clean of that. You have Kurt Russell, who’s a consummate professional and a total gentleman, and that’s going to be it. Life’s too short, let’s just deal with Kurt and Halle Berry for the rest of the time, and [make him the lead].” Look, who knows, but it’s a funny story to look back on — a different era, certainly.
ShockYa: Was the mentorship process with LaBute you mentioned formalized through USC, or something you kind of sought out on your own?
LTK: Not really. I throw that word out there some, but I don’t know that it was ever that formal an arrangement. What had happened was I started at USC, interning for Alex Rose, who produced “Norma Rae” and “Overboard,” but I wasn’t really getting the hands-on experience I was looking for. And out of luck another guy that I knew through film school told me that they were looking for an intern. I became close with Neil’s assistant at the time, and got to him that way. Slowly but surely I was starting to write more and read more of Neil’s work, and also shoot more, because I was in school. Neil was obviously a busy guy, but was also nice enough to take a look at my work, and become a sounding board for my writing. And I think it grew a lot by virtue of getting his feedback. And then, by the time I wrote “The Vicious Kind,” he read it and gave some really good feedback, and also said, “Look, I think you should try and make this, and if it helps I’ll attach my name to it.” And that did help, because it went from a script that nobody would read to a script that … [was] validated in such a way that it got people to read it, and got the ball rolling.
ShockYa: You know, in the brief roundtable interviews earlier today you spoke candidly and quite eloquently about the issues that led to “Celeste and Jesse” being made in the current incarnation in which it was–
LTK: Do you mean the question where they said, “How does a guy like you get to direct a film like this?”
ShockYa: No, I wasn’t in that room! And wow, that sounds rude.
LTK: Oh, you weren’t in that room? Yeah, there were some really rude questions, actually. (laughs)
ShockYa: I apologize on behalf of my professional brethren. Sometimes in roundtable interviews there are moments where someone else asks a question and you kind of want to crawl up your own ass.
LTK: Before your question, the second room I went in everyone was asleep, no one wanted to talk to me. I don’t really care. This (day) is for the actors, mostly. Andy and Rashida are so great in a room, but if you guys don’t want to talk to me that’s fine, I’m happy to sit here and kick back and enjoy the nice weather. But don’t sit there and ask rude questions and look like you’re totally bored to fucking tears. If I’m going to be there for five minutes, I’m going to give you my best answers, and at least act like you’re sort of paying attention. But anyway — thank you for not doing that. Table two, they can go fuck themselves. So: sorry.
ShockYa: (laughs) Well, I talk with a lot of directors, and my question had to do [with] all the sorts of stops and starts and heartache of projects that never quite come to fruition. Fill in that professional gap between “The Vicious Kind” and this a bit, if you would.
LTK: What’s interesting is that I think just now, three years later, “The Vicious Kind” is becoming a movie that people, well… it’s not (widely) known, but at least within town it’s a movie that people have started to see a little bit. I think the Indie Spirit nominations helped it get out there a little bit maybe more than it would have. By no means is it a perfect movie, but … Adam’s star rising (helps), totally. In between (that and “Celeste and Jesse”) there was this West Memphis Three project that I wrote and was going to do, and there was another project that I was going to do with Elijah (Wood) and that led, in some ways, to him doing (the small supporting role) this movie. I’ve done commercials and writing assignments. In the case of “Celeste and Jesse,” because until recently I’d sort of written off “The Vicious Kind” as a complete and total failure, I’d really given up on the idea of doing another piece that I’d written. Also, I wanted to do something that was much lighter and more accessible, because I’d seen a shift in people’s movie appetites, as it were. So when this came along, I’d been a fan, as silly as it may sound, of (producers) Jennifer and Suzanne Todd and the movies that they’d made, and I was a fan of Rashida’s too. But more importantly I liked the script and felt like I could offer something different to this. I felt like a lot of filmmakers would read it and want to do the big, popcorn rom-com version of this, and I told them that I see something that’s a little bit more heart, maybe, and is a little bit more grounded. It’s moviemaking, and if you’re Chris Nolan or Nic (Winding) Refn coming off of “Drive” it moves a lot faster, but for a lot of others it’s a lot slower.
ShockYa: Well, you’re really having to have a lot of irons in the fire at once.
LTK: Yeah. Somebody said to me recently, “I’m not getting offers left, right and center.” But you always want to be fighting for your next job, because if not then, A) it means you probably don’t care about it enough, and B) it doesn’t mean that you’re trying to take the next step up. I think there’s something to be said for that. For me, “Celeste and Jesse” feels like a step forward, because of the large cast, the producers and the three years in between. You can’t really make a living just making independent movies, I’ve discovered.
Written by: Brent Simon