A pinch of wry fatalism, and the ability to step back and view the trials and tribulations of adolescence as moments in time, fixed suffering on a much broader horizon, is an attractive quality in teenagers (and especially so once they age out a bit more, into their twenties, and begin to reflect back on younger years). It’s that sort of emotionally jumbled ironic detachment that drives writer-director Gavin Wiesen’s feature film debut, ‘The Art of Getting By’, a coming-of-age tale in which bright but undermotivated slacker George (Freddie Highmore) is befriended by and finds a kindred spirit in Sally (Emma Roberts). We had a chance to speak one-on-one with Wiesen recently, about his previous filmmaking experiences with Gwyneth Paltrow’s dad, the fierce hormonal grip of teenagedom, and his movie in general. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: Perhaps this reveals too much about my own high school experience, but for me the title The Art of Getting By rang true, and was so evocative. Yet when your movie played at Sundance it was called Homework, a title that has its own kind of resonance, and puts its own cant on things. How did that switch come to be?
Gavin Wiesen: The title was always Homework forever and ever, for the three years that it took to write the script and get it out there to everyone. One of the things that happens when you make a movie for years is that you become attached to something like a handle, and it almost takes on its own meaning, it becomes iconic to the people making it in a way that doesn’t necessarily hit other people in the world. I always loved the title because it came to me with the idea itself. It felt both ironic and metaphorical. Here was a kid who hated doing homework, and yet had all these other things that he would have to do if he wants to get by, if he wants to get to the next stage and make something of his life. So to me it always resonated because it encapsulated so many things about life — family and love and girls and sports and art. All the things you care about feel like homework at some point, you have to do that grind. But I think that after we exposed the movie at Sundance and Fox Searchlight bought it they were really looking with a fine-tooth comb at how it was hitting pople, and it started to occur to me, and them, that sometimes things like irony and metaphor get lost in the marketplace. The one thing I didn’t like about the title, which occured to me belatedly, was that if you just took it literally… that just was a bummer.
ShockYa: The definition of unsexiness.
GW: Exactly. On the one hand I saw it in these big, ironic capital letters, being about exactly not homework, and then I saw 50 percent of the people out there not getting that, or caring about it at all. So the thing about The Art of Getting By was that it really had a ring and cadence to it, it reminded me of a young adult coming-of-age novel that you almost would have read years ago when you were younger. I had it in the back of my mind, and when it became clear that we wanted to change the title I was lucky enough to have it. Fox Searchlight is so gracious in terms of how they deal with the dilmmaker; they were not forcing me into anything. They were definitely anxious about the title, and there were certain forces in that company that liked it a whole lot less than others. They were generating titles. I think they were having an intra-office competition for who could come up with the best one, but they were not going to ever force one down my throat. And I think the whole time I was aware that they were doing it, and started privately generating my own list of titles that I could live with. But it’s funny, because this one came along later in that list-making process, and I really liked it.
ShockYa: People take many different paths to become a director, and while you went to film school you also had some very striking and unusually pronounced, practical hands-on experience with Bruce Paltrow on Duets, right?
GW: After film school I spent a lot of time thinking and [feeling] very confused, honestly, about how I was going to realize this deream, this insurmontable task. On some level I felt like I was going to very naturally be drawn torward teaching or writing about film. I was a cinema studies minor, and almost liked more watching movies and writing papers about movies than learning the technical details. I loved the craft of filmmaking in film school, making my own shorts, but I never thought that I was technically proficient enough to go be a cinematographer or editor first which, which would have been a pheonomonal path if I could have handled it. There were things that were daunting to me because of the level of technical know-how. I think that one of the frustrations of filmschool is that it feels like war games as opposed to the actual thing. I just knew that the minute I was done with school I had to get to L.A. and get into a real work situation seeing real movies get made, just to see how the movies that I loved happened. And the greatest thing that could possibly have happened was that I ended up working for Bruce Paltrow, because first of all he was such an amazingly genuine human person who was so inclusive and collaborative. He really brought me inside the process, so on Duets I saw it from the devlopment stage, where it was going through a million rewrites and the money and cast kept falling through, all the way through production, right up until the DVD release. I felt like it was an amazing viewpoint of every step of the process, of basically being his righthnad man. And once I was done with that I started to try to do it myself, [starting] with some very small projects.
ShockYa: Projects from first time writer-directors are often seen, rightly or wrongly, as intensely personal stories. How long did this story live with you, and/or how easily did it come?
GW: I’d been avoiding writing anything personal for about seven years of writing screenplays. I was determined to write in every genre out there — I had a political thriller pilot that I wrote with a friend, a comedic multi-generational family saga that I wrote with another friend, and an indie rock band comedy. I was determined to learn the craft of writing, and I think that if you start with writing something intensely personal then you’re just journaling. So I didn’t use to believe in it. None of those things came to fruition. I came very close to getting one of my things made a as a writer-director, and then after three years it fell apart. So I think I came to this place where I felt like I had one last shot at it. When you’re younger you always think this is your last shot, and I remember thinking that this is when I need to re-learn who I really am as a writer, dig as deep as possible and maybe go do the thing that I’ve been trying to avoid, which is tell something as personal as possible, which will maybe help me discover really who I am as an artist, which maybe I’ve been avoiding. So in a way it was servicing my desire to make a movie, but it was making sure that I met that emotional level to a degree that would let that emotion come through in the piece.
ShockYa: I think people tend to view the opposite or desired sex through the rubric of their own personal experience and that of their friends in adolescence. One of the unusual things about The Art of Getting By for maybe many kids or not-too-long-ago kids is the fact that George and Sally each have some desire, but there’s not as much action on their feelings for one another. Was there a Sally in your own life?
GW: For starters, that would just be less interesting to me because that’s the traditional version of the narrative regarding that type of boy-girl relationship. But I absolutely remember having it experienced it firsthand. It felt to me in high school that 10 percent of the kids were the cool ones running around jumping into bed with one another and the other 90 percent were walking around wondering why they were such losers, and they were bored and frustrated and angry. And they discovered themselves in college. So one of the things that I thought was interesting about this movie was that in script form it was an examination of all the difficulties for all the kids who aren’t yet confident — how they first arrive at that moment where they’re like, “Oh, I know how to connect with someone I like, I know how to express desire and put myself out there.” That’s something that really takes a lot of people a long time, and it comes with all this nuance and fear and hesitation and anger, all these emotions that get wrapped up in desiring someone and not knowing how to make it happen.
Written by: Brent Simon