Australian-born director Fred Schepisi has a varied filmography, spanning “Roxanne,” “Six Degrees of Separation” and “Fierce Creatures,” among other credits, but one of the steadiest through-lines in his work is a keen grasp of human imperfection. It’s interwoven into his latest effort as well, “Words and Pictures,” which stars Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche as New England prep school teachers — he’s a rakish if blocked writer and functional alcoholic, she’s a prickly abstract painter stricken with rheumatoid arthritis — at odds over which mode of expression can convey greater meaning. For ShockYa, Brent Simon had a chance to speak to Schepisi one-on-one this week, about his movie, language, the educational inspiration he found in a monastery, and the keys to directing on-screen drunkenness. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: “Words and Pictures” feels adult in a good way — it can be loosely described as a romantic comedy, and yet its main characters have all this baggage as well. Part of its charm is watching these actors spar and flirt with one another in what feels like real-time. Was this a movie that you felt you had to rehearse any more or less than some of your other films, if that makes sense?
Fred Schepisi: Yeah, it does — and in fact we rehearsed less, I think. I like to rehearse, talking about all the scenes and the overall intent, occasionally reading a scene and then coming back later on and getting a little more into it — running key scenes until you just get to feel the hair stand up on the back of your neck, where you say, “Stop, don’t do any more, save it for the scene.” And you’re doing camera tests and wardrobe fittings and all the rest. I use all of that as rehearsal, which actors may not really be aware of. But it’s all part of the process — when you put on a shirt, half of your character is going on in a way. So I like all that, and I like the actors telling me from their point-of-view things that you cannot see, because they’re deep in and specific in relation to just [their characters], and little gems come up out of that, that you just tweak and pull out of them. And when you see two people having a great sense of humor and respect for one another, a great rapport, don’t get in the way of it for God’s sake. Just take advantage of it — make a little suggestion for one, don’t tell the other one, a little bit of that stuff, you know? In the process, also, you ask them questions and kind of work out what each needs — how little or much you have to do, what upsets them, what encourages them.
ShockYa: Gerald Di Pego’s script had the quality of an adaptation, it felt dense and novelistic, even in some of its quirky asides.
FS: You know, he’s done a lot of scripts and a lot of work, he’s very proficient, and I think this is one of those subjects that — well, it didn’t exactly pour from him, but in a way it does. Virginia Woolf writes about this, and there’s a play that’s very much about this called “A Play of One’s Own,” that there are some subjects that are just perfect for the writer — that all the things they want to say and do, and contrive things to put across, attitudes, they don’t do that, it just comes out naturally with the subject. They’re not even consciously doing it, they’re just writing the story and somehow that lets out all the stuff they have, and I think this movie is one of those. I hadn’t worked with him before. So the script just came my way through (producer) Curtis Burch, who was apparently a fan of my work, which was nice — he just thought I’d be perfect for it, so he sent it to me and came and met with me and we hatched a plan.
ShockYa: What’s your perspective on the argument at the crux of the film — that pictures came before words, but words also evolved out of necessity, and that we needed language. The narrative focus took me back to high school speech and debate class, where you have to argue two sides of an issue, and I think it’s a credit to the movie that you don’t really feel a thumb on the scale.
FS: It’s an exploration, it should speak for itself. Sometimes words are far more effective than a picture — like if you’re having an argument, sometimes words are very effective, a little too effective! (laughs) Other times a picture expresses something in a way that you otherwise can’t. And sometimes the combination of them is much more powerful. Words are probably more about communication between people, and pictures can be more about an individual interaction — like a more private sort of thing that stimulates thoughts. Not that words aren’t. When you read a novel, of course, words are akin to what a picture is doing. And then there’s music.
ShockYa: Which is also touched upon a little bit in the film. It reminds me that the most trite expression can pierce your heart when sung in the right arrangement.
FS: And when you’re in love all those goofy bloody songs really mean something.
ShockYa: Yeah, you want to turn the radio up. I’d be interested in your perspective, having had a career that’s successfully spanned multiple decades, on the marketplace for so-called adult movies. Will theatrical distribution always be a key element, or are we trending toward a different model in your opinion?
FS: Everything goes through cycles — when television came in everyone thought movies were going to be dead. And I suppose we have the equivalent of television with pay television, its effect — you have adult movies, sensational movies and now Netflix coming out with “House of Cards” and stuff. It’s going to be ever-evolving, but if you’ve had the misfortune to go on VOD before you release — it’s impossible! I don’t know why they can’t clean it up and just tell you what the bloody movies are about — you have to go through so many dialogue boxes to find out what the movies are about. …If they can refine that and make it intuitive and informative without being a pain in the butt and without that thing screaming at you in the corner about the eight movies that someone’s paid to have up there (advertised), it’ll be good. I think the theater will always be there. Unfortunately, there are less and less outlets, and in all the noise that’s out there, it’s very hard, unless you’re lucky, to get people in. Every year, there’s four of them I guess that break out and have an appeal, but the people distributing movies have an idea that only this or that bracket of people will go and see it. We’re lucky — we at least have some money, and the private investors invested in what they call prints and ads, although they’re not really prints anymore, so we actually have even a little bit of television exposure, and if we do okay in the opening weekends then more money will come in to go behind it. So at least there’s a bit of a chance, because audiences are clearly enjoying the film, and I think younger audiences will too.
ShockYa: I can see that, because whether they’re still in high school or college or are recent graduates, it triggers those tripwires of memory about teachers that inspired and perhaps challenged them in unusual ways. Did the film trigger any of those memories for you as well?
FS: Oh, yes. Okay, this will sound strange, but when I was in the monastery when I was 13, there was a teacher that taught — and he was a monk, that’s what I was training to become — geography, Latin, English literature and expression, and one other subject which I can’t remember. No one failed in his classes, because he was totally inspirational — his clarity of presentation and clear affection for it all was palpable, and he just swept you up, particularly in English. And history too, I guess, that was the other subject. And he made Latin interesting, for God’s sake, and exciting, the stories from Ovid and all that. And that’s kind of what I was seeing in Clive’s character — the passion he has for words and literature, and the frustration he had that, A) he wasn’t writing, and B) he was spending time with a bunch of deadheads.
ShockYa: This may seem silly, but I’d be interested in your opinion and view on directing scenes of drunkenness, because there’s a good bit of that herein, and there’s nothing that can pull a viewer out of a movie quite like someone drunk done badly.
FS: (laughs) That’s right. We charted that very, very carefully, as to how drunk Clive’s character should seem, and also what you’re like when you’re drunk. So is there a little stagger? Most drunks are actually trying to hide the fact that they’re drunk. And Clive kept checking with me, and sometimes I’d say, “No, we went a bit too far there, let’s pull back.” But we were very conscious of exactly that, and it’s those little slips that are good.
ShockYa: What’s next for you?
FS: Yeah, I’m going to do a film from an Australian novel called “The Olive Sisters” with Sarah Jessica Parker and Josh Lucas and Anthony LaPaglia, Melissa George. And then I’m going to do “The Drowsy Chaperone,” which is a musical, which I haven’t done before.
ShockYa: So you’re still breaking new ground.
FS: Exactly. (laughs)
NOTE: “Words and Pictures” opens in select theaters from Roadside Attractions on May 23, and nationwide on June 6. For more information, visit www.WordsAndPicturesTheMovie.com.
Written by: Brent Simon