LYMELIFE Interviews: Director Derick Martini and Kieran Culkin

     April 2, 2009

Written by Jenni Miller

Lyme disease broke out with a fierceness in Long Island in the 1970’s, and it’s this tick-borne disease that sets the stage for Lymelife, a family dramady about neighboring families and their interwoven struggles. The film has been in development since brothers Derick and Steven Martini began working with Kieran Culkin on the project during 2001’s Sundance Film Lab, and although they’ve all worked on other projects since then, they all knew Lymelife had to become a reality.

This affecting drama stars Alec Baldwin as the proud but flawed provider for his family, the Bartletts; his oldest son Jimmy (Kieran Culkin) has joined the Army to escape his parents’ unhappy marriage, while his youngest son Scott (Rory Culkin) still idolizes his larger-than-life father. Director, writer, and editor Derick Martini and Kieran Culkin sat with journalists to discuss finally getting Lymelife on the big screen, bullshit-detecting brothers, and fighting Alec Baldwin.

This is a film that has been incubating for a long, long time… You wrote Goat on Fire and Smiling Fish but weren’t really happy with it. What made you sure about Lymelife?

DERICK MARTINI I think Kieran likes Smiling Fish better than me. I know Rory did… You do a lot of things in between that are more for the money, unfortunately, sometimes — TV and rewrites and stuff like that — and I just didn’t really want to put myself and my actors through a movie that was mediocre that no one cared about, because that’s like a curse. So it has to mean something to you.

If it means something to me, hopefully it will mean something to my actors and then when we have to do press and we have go to the festivals and do all that stuff, it’s a lot easier because we’re all proud of the film, as opposed to with Smiling Fish. My brother and I were very young and kinda proud of it but not really — [Lymelife] is like, I think we really pulled off a tremendous amount of work in a short amount of time on a little budget. It’s all about performances, this picture, for me. That’s really the most important thing, so I’m always proud of my actors in this.

And some of your actors have been on some of the ride, if not all of the ride.

MARTINI: I dragged Kieran along.

Kieran, what made you decide to stick with the project?

KIERAN CULKIN: It’s tough for me to even answer that question. It was just so easy for me… It’s always just about how good the script is and how good I think this movie could be. So it’s just easy when it’s like that; I don’t have to think about it. I did the Film Lab with them — how long ago?

MARTINI: Eight years ago?

K. CULKIN: Yeah, and when I found out it was becoming a real movie — how long ago was that?

MARTINI: When it first fell apart?

K. CULKIN: Yeah. [laughing]

MARTINI: It fell apart on us once. The day before shooting, and I was trying to get Kieran to come to set [both laughing] — I was like, “C’mon, Kiernan!”…. It’s a blessing that it fell apart. I wouldn’t have had Kieran; he wasn’t available at the time.

K. CULKIN: I wasn’t really working at the time.

MARTINI: He just wasn’t available, and I compromised on that role, in my opinion [at that time]; I got compromised on a couple of roles, in my opinion, because the way it came together [then] — you know, everything happens for a reason. I’m really glad it fell apart; I wasn’t at the time, obviously, I was devastated, but now I got the cast that I really wanted and all the performances are, in my opinion, stellar, and to me it was just a blessing that it fell apart then.

K. CULKIN: Rory [Culkin] grew up a couple years in there, and I think that really helped it. I think he matured a bit as an actor and as a person, so I think it really helped it a lot.

It’s been since a long gestation, and I’ve read that there were different people attached at different times, and at one point you [Kieran] were meant to play Scott…

K. CULKIN: Never really. I played Scott at the Labs, but even then I felt like I was probably a bit too old, and by the time the movie came around — it was never really my part, to be honest. It was always Rory’s.

But when you had different people, eight years ago when you had this in mind, maybe you were working with different actors —

MARTINI: I never really worked with different actors. That sort of stuff that you see on the Internet is real rumored stuff that’s not… I’ve always had the same cast, except for one person, Jennifer [Jason Leigh], who couldn’t do it because she wasn’t available, but everybody else…

K. CULKIN: I remember Rory saying that. He’s like, “So Lymelife’s coming back.” And I was like, yeah? And he’s like, “The whole cast is back.”

MARTINI: Alec and Tim and Cynthia and Rory and Kieran.

Can I ask you a bit about Alec Baldwin? It says in the production notes that you wrote the part for him.

MARTINI: Well, I wrote it with him in mind because… Of course I saw him as a kid in Streetcar [A Streetcar Named Desire] on Broadway. I remember cutting school to see The Hunt for Red October. I always admired him. I think he’s one of the finest actors of his generation, if not the finest of his generation, so I wanted him from the beginning. By hook or by crook, I was gonna get him in this role.

And what I really wanted was to [do was] push him performance-wise, because I know he’s got this range that’s really great, that’s really wide, you know, but he sort of gets cast in these things where he’s doing the same thing. So what I wanted to do was, earlier in the picture he plays that guy, but as the picture unfolds, and he loses the only son who still has respect for him, and the family, he loses their respect, I really wanted to capture that vulnerability in him and give him something to really act and perform and dig in to.

And there was an issue with 30 Rock and filming?

MARTINI: He would shoot three days for us and three days for 30 Rock, so he was coming back and forth and going in and out of different characters, going from the character he plays on 30 Rock to Mickey in our film. A great actor can do it.

Kieran, can you talk a little bit about your fight scene with Alec?

K. CULKIN: I was a bit nervous going into that, I think, but Alec was pretty great. He just said, “You do whatever you want. You grab me by the throat, you shove me up against the wall, you wanna hit me, you fucking hit me. You do it.” He just told me I can do whatever and he was also really good at getting stuff from me, too. He just slapped the shit out of me, like, over and over again… He was just easy and great to work with and luckily working with this guy [Derick] he’s not so specific. He’d let us play around, you know? And let us do our thing.

MARTINI: Yeah, it’s really important for me to make sure that none of my actors felt — look, I worked with them really hard on memorizing the lines and then the whole agenda was, now that they know the lines, we can actually make what’s on the page better on set… I had the reins on during rehearsals and the lines and this and that, sort of was a little tight about that, knowing that once I got on the set that they would have their lines and then I could let them go. And that’s what I was looking for.

K. CULKIN: It’s kind of a dream, actually. You don’t really get that that often. We get to do what we want to do; we all work together and talk about it, but you know, when we actors are on set doing it, you’re kind of just finding the best way to shoot us as opposed to telling us how you want us to be shot.

MARTINI: When you have great actors, you bend your equipment around your actors… I had a really specific shot design. Then when these guys would come up with these brilliant moments, I was able to just readjust where the lens was in order to capture those very realistic, organic moments.

Is it hard for you to watch with your family? It’s a very personal film.

MARTINI: It’s this very odd dichotomy. It’s embarrassing. At the same time, I’m proud of it. So I really enjoy watching it, but there are a lot of moments where I get really embarrassed and humiliated, like certainly during the sex scene with Rory and Emma where, you know, [shudders] everyone’s gonna know that was me.

K. CULKIN: That was you, yeah. [laughs]

MARTINI: It’s just, uh…. Uh, you know, yeah. But I’m so proud of it, so there’s a lot of pride wrapped up in that too, so it’s a double-edged sword for me.

Kieran, when you’re working with your brother Rory, it feels very honest. You know each other so well; is it a different experience acting with him?

K. CULKIN: Yeah, there’s just no bullshitting that guy. He knows me better than most anybody on this planet, so you just can’t bullshit. You can’t phone in anything, not that I would try to do that, but I would say some dialogue, and I’d look at him, and I’d just see in his eyes, just like, just something behind there, and [I’d think], “Oh, you know I’m full of shit. All right, all right, let me do that again.” So you really have to step up your game. I’m sure it was kind of the same for him.

You got to slap him upside the head a few times.

K. CULKIN: Yeah, that was fun. That’s just instinct.

MARTINI: That’s just Kiernan. That wasn’t in the script.

Can you talk a little bit about Scott Pilgrim?

K. CULKIN: I can’t yet. I just sort of started doing that.

Any other future projects?

MARTINI: I’m doing A View from the Bridge; I adapted the Arthur Miller play. We’re shooting this summer.

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