Sometimes the best way a person can find success is to reject society’s perceptions about what defines happiness. That’s certainly the case for the troubled title protagonist in the new mystery drama, ‘The Vanishing of Sidney Hall.’ The film captures the essence of people mustering the courage to walk away from their perceived happiness and accomplishments to start a new chapter in their lives.
Shawn Christensen directed and produced ‘The Vanishing of Sidney Hall,’ whose script he also co-wrote with Jason Dolan. The movie, which is now available on DirecTV, is also being released in theaters today by A24. The official release comes after the drama had its World Premiere at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.
‘The Vanishing of Sidney Hall’ follows the title character (Logan Lerman) through three different periods in his life, when he’s 18, 24 and 30. As a high-school student with a natural talent for honest writing, Sidney is inspired to pen his first novel, in order to share his feelings about the recent tragic suicide of one his classmates. With help and encouragement from one of his supportive teachers, Duane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the teenager secures a book deal. The contract allows the protagonist to escape his tense home life and relationship with his mother (Michelle Monaghan). He also uses his new status to help him win over his neighbor, Melody (Elle Fanning), who he has developed romantic feelings for.
At age 24, Sidney and Melody are shown to have gotten married early, and are now struggling to make their relationship last. The trouble is due in part to Sidney’s novel becoming a best-seller, and being nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Upon it’s distribution, the book became controversial among readers, who are apprehensive about the way Sidney wrote about the dark subject. As a result of some young readers even imitating the subject matter, some states have even banned the book. But the author is able to look past the backlash, and use his new-found fame to try to fix his marriage.
After turning 30, Sidney is still struggling to contend with his writing, especially after he scribed a second book that has also become a best-seller. After the two novels, he was left artistically unsatisfied, and realized that he no longer had a passion for writer. So he disappears off the grid, and travels across the country with a dog and few possessions. His movements are only traced by an inquisitive man (Kyle Chandler) who’s searching for him. The man tries to tack down the writer after bookstores report that someone is setting fire to all the copies of Sidney’s novels. Believing that the young author is responsible for destroying his own books, the man will stop at nothing to find him, and uncover the reasons why one of America’s most promising young writers willing left his successes behind.
Lerman generously took the time recently to talk about starring in, and producing, ‘The Vanishing of Sidney Hall’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the actor-producer discussed how he felt the strength of Christensen’s writing really highlighted the filmmaker’s vision for the drama, which convinced Lerman to sign on to the project early in its production process. The performer also noted that starring in a movie that highlights three different time periods of his character’s life, and doesn’t show those stages in chronological order, was a challenge, but he was aided in the process by his close relationships with the rest of the cast and crew.
The conversation began with Lerman explaining why he was drawn to play the title character in, and why he liked the overall screenplay for, ‘The Vanishing of Sidney Hall.’ He noted that he “read the script about two-and-half-years ago. I signed onto the project early, as both an actor and producer, and helped put the project together. So it required a bigger time commitment than most of my other films, which I just act in. But my interest in this project grew from when I first read the script-the strength of Shawn’s writing really attracted me to the project,” the actor-producer revealed. “I then met with him, and fell in love with his vision and pace in what he wanted to do. I thought that maybe I could do this movie with him, and figure it out. Overall, it was a great journey to take with him.”
Further discussing his experience of both producing and starring in the mystery drama, Lerman divulged that “I was involved in every conversation throughout the process of pre-production to production and post (production). On other films, I try to stay away from the production process, and let the filmmaker make the movie they want to make,” he also shared about the experience of only acting in movies.
But whether Lerman’s just acting in, or both starring in and producing, movies, “It’s always a process of making last-minute decisions, so that you can make your day. I think it’s important that every department is involved. Everyone who’s working on a production is as equally invested, and try to do the best work that they can during the time they have to execute their job.”
The actor then delved into the process of showing Sidney’s experiences when he’s 18, when he’s first developing the idea for his first acclaimed novel; 24, during the height of his writing career; and 30, several years after he stopped writing and left his public life. The fact that the events in the film aren’t told in chronological order was a bit of a challenge, Lerman admitted. “At first, we had all of these grand ideas about how we could shoot for a couple of weeks, and then take a hiatus so that we could lose or gain weight and change our hair, in an effort to define the ages,” he explained.
“But then as we got more realistic about scheduling on the days we had with the production’s budget, we had to compromise a lot of those changes. We had to make the physical changes over a couple of hours, which made it difficult to execute the different stages of Sidney’s life,” the performer confessed. “But we had a wonderful team of artists that worked hard in prepping the transitions. I’m proud of the work that we did, given the time that we had to do it.”
While there some challenges in having time constraints on creating the look for each of the three time periods in Sidney’s life that were shown on screen, Lerman cherished the time he had to build the intense relationships between his title character and all the people in his life. “We were so lucky to work with such extremely talented and good people. Elle, Michelle and everyone else involved were completely committed, generous and lovely to work and explore themes with. They’re all good friends of mine,” the actor gushed.
Lerman added that “I love the time we had before shooting, when we were able to sit down somewhere with the script, and talk about our scenes and relationships. We were able to get down to the root of what was going on in each moment…We had a great time working together.”
The actor-producer then followed up on his working relationship with Christensen, and described their experience of working together was like on the drama. “We put a lot of time and thought into the film. There weren’t any days off, and we worked 24 hours a day, and we enjoyed it. It didn’t really feel like work; we were compelled to always think about how we could fully realize the project. But ultimately, it was really Shawn’s vision that we really realizing,” Lerman disclosed.
The performer also described the co-writer-director-producer as being “a smart individual, and he’s now one of my closest friends. We had a blast working together. But it’s not always enjoyable to make a film, as it can be tough. But I think we rode through the tough days really well, which I think defines a healthy relationship.”
‘The Vanishing of Sidney Hall’ was shot on location in New York City and Upstate New York. While then discussing the process of shooting the film on location in New York, Lerman shared that he doesn’t “really have a preference between (filming in) studios and on location. I’ve done a variety of different films and approaches to production”
As for shooting in New York, the actor thinks “it’s really circumstantial. It fits this movie, but at the same time, it also has a tax incentive that attracts productions to shoot there. It’s a wonderful place to work! I feel incredibly lucky to be able to make movies in New York, because there are incredible crews and people there.”
Lerman added that “this is a truly independent movie. It was a pure and honest approach to production. We were all supporting Shawn’s vision, and it wasn’t corrupted by any other influence or motive. We were there to make the movie that he wanted to make. So in that regard, it was a pleasure to go to work every day.”
While ‘The Vanishing of Sidney Hall’ played at several film festivals before its official release, including Sundance, the performer admitted that he finds it uncomfortable to watch the movies he stars in in theaters with audiences. “It’s not something I look forward to, and I get anxiety about the idea. Those types of events worry me more than anything,” he divulged. “I have to be alone while I’m watching the film to really be able to take notes. But hearing other people’s responses really scares me!”
Despite his qualms about watching his movies with audiences, Lerman feels that “getting accepted into Sundance was an incredible honor. So that was the type of situation where I’ll sit with the audience (to watch the film), because how many times in your life are you going to get that great opportunity to do that? So I sat through that and enjoyed it, even though it’s hard for me to watch myself on screen, or relive those moments,” the actor also disclosed.
“I take tremendous pride in both independent cinema and Sundance, particularly as an American filmmaker. So for this movie to get into our nation’s greatest festival, and be included with all of the great filmmakers, was a great honor. I really enjoyed that process,” Lerman sentimentally shared.