Parents often stop at nothing to save and protect their children from other people who are determined to hurt them, even if it means putting themselves in danger. That’s certainly the case in the new crime mystery thriller ‘The Tall Man,’ which is now available on VOD and hits select theaters on Friday. Written and directed by French filmmaker Pascal Laugier, the movie chronicles how nurse Julia Denning, played by Jessica Biel, is determined to protect her son David from the title character, who’s on a mysterious mission to kidnap all of the children in their town.
‘The Tall Man’ is set in an isolated, dying mining town in the Pacific Northwest where children are vanishing without a trace. The towns people believe the children are being abducted by a mysterious entity known as The Tall Man. Julia is skeptical of the legend, until her son David, portrayed by Jakob Davies, disappears in the middle of the night. She frantically sets out to save her son as she lives every parent’s worst nightmare.
Julia begins to believe in the legend after seeing David being taken by the elusive supernatural figure, and declares she’ll stop at nothing to get him back. One of the local teenagers, Jenny, who is unable to speak due to her emotional neglect at home from her financially struggling family, offers to help Julia get David back. Jenny hopes in the process she, too, will be taken by The Tall Man and will be given a better life, despite the rest of the town’s outrage over the children’s disappearances.
Biel generously took the time to speak with us over the phone recently to discuss what it was like filming the crime mystery thriller. Among other things, the actress discusses what it was like working with Laugier, how she physically and emotionally prepared for the role of Julia and how the movie would have been completely different if it was made by an American filmmaker and major studio.
Question (Q): Did you see (the 2008 horror thriller) ‘Martyrs’ (which was penned and helmed by ‘The Tall Man’s writer-director, Pascal laugier) before you signed on for this, and did that make you cautious on what the concept might be?
Jessica Biel (JB): Is it weird that I’m about to say, yes, I did see ‘Martyrs’ and I loved it; I knew it was going to be torture, and I did it anyway? (laughs)
Q: What were your thoughts when you read the script?
JB: I was completely surprised by the script. Every page I got further into it, I had no idea what was going to happen, and I had no idea what was going on. After the first twist and the second twist, I said, I have to do this movie.
I know I just made a joke about ‘Martyrs,’ but I loved that movie. I thought it was so hard to watch and so brutal, but also so elegant. I was so impressed with Pascal’s work that I had to work with him.
Q: You’ve been in horror roles before, like in ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ where you’re going high energy all of the time. But in this movie, you’re the one doing the chasing, instead of being the one chased, in some respects. How did Pascal guide you to that place?
JB: Well, it was incredibly challenging to get through this performance. Pascal and I were constantly watching this tight wire of what is the right reaction for this particular woman in whatever moment we’re talking about. It had to be authentic for what she knew was happening and what was authentic for what we want the audience to know, which was very different. It was super challenging to get that right every time.
I was really interested in this woman who is, in the backstory that we created, part of an organization, maybe something like Doctors Without Borders. She was able to experience all these clinics all over the world dealing with underprivileged communities and families and kids and the bureaucracy bulls**t of trying to get through the red tape and help these people.
She was so distraught and overwhelmed by her inability to pretty much help everybody that she kind of broke a little bit. She became obsessed with saving all these kids. It’s sort of this micro idea in this macro way. That is really who this woman is.
She’s really just trying to do good and make a difference in the world, but has gone way overboard. She still believes at the very end that what she’s doing is right. The only way to get through all the BS is to do it in a different way and not deal with the politicians and the government.
Q: What was your approach to preparing for the character, because there are a lot of physicality to it, and it was also a movie that was very character-driven. When you were working on Julia, was everything on screen in the script, or did you and Pascal work on her while you were shooting?
JB: We really worked together to create a really intense human being that had all this backstory that we were talking about a second ago. She was definitely on the page, but we were constantly filling in. We also questioned, how can we make this moment more genuine and sympathetic, which is really what we were working for.
That really is Pascal’s specialty. Yes, he cares about it looking beautiful and the suspense and all of the scares. But he was so diligent and relentless with character that we would not stop until he got some particular performance from me. It’s almost like I had to surrender to it. I had to surrender to my own performance and transcend it before we could get something that was so magic. It’s that moment that you don’t even know what you’re doing anymore; the actual character and real emotion just comes out.
This was something that was really challenging, like how would a real person actually deal with this situation? Obviously, I don’t know, and I wasn’t able to talk to anyone who had this actual experience. I’ve never done anything like this, so we were just trying to understand as best as we could how to do that.
We did get to breathe a little in it. It’s about this woman and psychology and human need to protect, even if it’s in a messed up way. (laughs)
Q: Pascal both wrote and directed ‘The Tall Man.’ Do you prefer working with directors who also wrote the script, and what was your working relationship with Pascal overall?
JB: It’s different every time, I think. Sometimes if the director has only ever written something before and has never directed anything before, that can be a real challenge. But when you’re lucky enough to work with someone like Pascal, who has done a handful of movies before and is an expert in what he does, he knows the characters and has lived with them and made them and has breathed life into them. It’s nothing but good when you have that experience.
I had a very good working relationship with Pascal. I trusted him implicitly. As much as it was a challenge to do what we did mentally and physically, I needed him to push me the way he did. He pushed me everyday, to the point of breaking, and I respected that process, as much as I hated it at the same time. We have immense respect and fondness for each other.
Q: The ending, without giving anything away, is certainly not what you expect when you’re going into the film. Did you have any concerns about that, going into the movie?
JB: Definitely. The ambiguity of the ending of the movie is very disconcerting. No one knows how to market this movie, to be blatantly honest. It’s a real conundrum how we talk about this and put this out to a mass audience.
I know the ending isn’t fulfilling. I know you walk out of there sometimes feeling, I don’t know who I like, and I don’t even know how to feel. I think that was Pascal’s idea, that’s what he wanted. So we succeeded in doing what we wanted to do, even though it is a big challenge.
I think because the movie is the way that it is, is why it’s getting such a small distribution in the States. That’s really hard to swallow, because we worked so hard on it. It’s kind of like a foreign film, in a way. It doesn’t really wrap anything up, and you have to walk out of there, thinking a billion different thoughts and wanting to discuss it, and that’s what we want you to do. But it is disconcerting, for sure.
Q: Do you think that if an American filmmaker tried to tell this story over here, it would have worked as well?
JB: I don’t know, it depends. If we were talking about a studio movie with a big director, no, this wouldn’t have been the movie we would have made. This wouldn’t have happened. I think that what was interesting to me, I was doing something that was really different. It really is character-driven. If people don’t like the ending, oh well. We’re making art, and that’s what it is.
I’ve thought about this question a lot, and it’s hard to compare what a French filmmaker would do with this, as compared to an American filmmaker. On the surface, I guess you could say an American filmmaker would have made an entirely different movie.
But there are some directors who wouldn’t make it completely different. David Fincher, for example, doesn’t make obvious movies and endings. You walk out of is movies feeling so many different things from a Fincher movie.
I don’t know how to really answer that question. But I do know that we did what we wanted to do, even though it’s probably going to piss a lot of people off. (laughs)
It was a great opportunity for me to play an incredible character. I had to take that risk, because those moments only come around a few times in your career. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But I had a good experience.
Q: When you’re reading scripts and contemplating projects, what is it that you’re looking for in this stage of your career? How do you keep things interesting for yourself as a performer?
JB: It’s always different for me. I’m always looking for something that’s surprising to me that I find unexpected, or something that I have never done before.
I do my best work when I’m really challenged and I’m super-scarred, walking into things and I don’t know what I’m going to do or how I’m going to pull this off. I know myself well enough now to know that’s a really good place for me to be. I can find a good, creative space there.
So I’m looking for something I’ve never done and surprises me and inspires me and freaks me out. I’m also always looking for that bad-a** female in an action movie, in a horror movie, in a comedy, whatever it is.
Q: We got a little bit of that in ‘The A-Team.’
JB: Yeah, we got a little bit of it there. ‘Total Recall’s got a little bit more. I want to play something that’s not the girl to the guy. I want to find that female Bourne. I don’t know if it’ll work.
Q: Well, they gave Jeremy Renner his own ‘Bourne’ film.
JB: That’s true, I can be the next Bourne. (laughs) That would be a good idea.
Q: You’ve starred in lower-budget, independent films like ‘The Tall Man’ and bigger-budget, studio movies like ‘Total Recall.’ Do you take the same approach when preparing for every role you take on, or do you take a different approach for each film?
JB: I prepare them mostly the same. Except for the fact that doing something like ‘Total Recall’ or ‘The A-Team,’ you almost have to work harder and create so much more than the eternal life of a backstory. There’s so little screen time there and so little ability to make something genuine happen.
It seems so easy, like you just jump around on a wire and shoot some guns and look cool and tough in the face. But I find it to be a lot harder, because you don’t have the time to create the character the way you really want to create her.
But it’s pretty much the same for me. I break down the script in the same way. I go scene-by-scene and have all my crazy notes with motivational stuff and and stuff from my personal life. There’s also the backstory and the fabricating of the life and the research. I pretty much do all of that stuff the same. I just intensify it when I’m dealing with a movie where the character can easily be shoved to the side.
Q: Since you play the main character in ‘The Tall Man,’ did you create an intense backstory for Julia?
JB: Yes, definitely. Her backstory pretty much creates her presence. So Pascal and I really spent a lot of time thinking about where she traveled, where she worked, why she feels the way that she does.
Also, what were her experiences with her folks, did her mother die? Did she have a good relationship with her father? I know that sounds Freudian and weird, but it actually solves a lot of problems and questions and helps to understand why she makes her decisions. It’s probably why I sympathize with her and understand her in some way.
Written by: Karen Benardello