Love and war over the power of literature versus painting take center stage in Fred Schepisi’s witty romantic drama, Words and Pictures, opening in theaters May 23rd. Battle lines are drawn when a prep school English teacher and one-time literary star Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) challenges a new teacher and once celebrated abstract painter Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) to disprove his conviction that the art of the written word trumps the visual arts in its ability to convey meaning, ideas, and emotion. The declaration of war galvanizes their students, but as Marcus and Delsanto square off, they suddenly realize they may have met their match.
In an exclusive interview, Schepisi talked about the appeal of Gerald DiPego’s complex screenplay, the ways it touches on the impact of today’s technology and our obsession with social media, how he landed Owen and Binoche in the lead roles, the emotional depth they brought to the story, his thoughts on the importance of words versus pictures as a filmmaker who works in a medium that relies on the power of both, and his upcoming projects including The Olive Sisters starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Anthony LaPaglia, Josh Lucas and Melissa George, Drowsy Chaperone, Burnt Piano and Last Man. Hit the jump to read the interview.
FRED SCHEPISI: Curtis Burch made me aware of the script. Apparently he liked my work and thought it was going to be a good match. I did like the script, and we sat down and had a good talk about it and decided to go for it.
What was it about the story and DiPego’s script that you found compelling and made you say this is a film I want to direct?
SCHEPISI: There are so many things going on and that’s what I like. It’s not just one simple little story. It’s a complicated story where people are dealing with real problems and facing a stage of their life where maybe they either haven’t been able to achieve or have been prevented from achieving what they wanted to do in life. Or maybe they had to come to the realization that they’re never going to be able to do what they thought they could do, but there are other things that they can do that they’re good at and coming to terms with it and moving forward. So, that complexity and then the whole art of words and pictures and music and all of that was something to explore. And then, the bonus of having everything that’s going on in schools in the technological age, including bullying and cyber bullying, but also the encyclopedia against the internet, what are people clinging onto, what should they embrace for the future, and what effect that’s got.
How were you able to land Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche in the lead roles and what do you feel they brought to the story?
SCHEPISI: Clive loves words. Clive is classically trained. He’s come from a fairly working class background or area originally. He fell into acting and found out what he loved about it. He loved words. And then, he went to become classically trained at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London). I’ve seen him in Croupier and The Boys Are Back and films where it requires a different side of his acting. When he was doing Gosford Park, I was doing Last Orders in England. I met him and had to keep my wife away from him. (Laughs) We talked a little bit. He just seemed like the right person for this. When he read the script, he jumped on it immediately.
With Juliette, I went to her quite early on. I had discussions with her many years before on doing Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Steve Martin’s play. She doesn’t remember, but I do. I was aware that she did a little bit of painting. I was not aware the extent of her talent, and wow, what a fantastic thing because you don’t have to fake it. You can just go for it. And then, they met and you could see they both respected one another and had wanted to work together. When they met, it was nice to find out that they had a rapport and a similar sense of humor. I thought half of my work is done. This is great.
SCHEPISI: Sometimes I use words to throw you from once scene to the other, and sometimes I use words to pull you from one scene to the other. You might not be aware of it, but I may have overlapping words one way or the other. So, I’m actually using words. Sometimes I do that visually or with music in a similar way, but it’s a different thing. So, I’m always working with them. I’m married to an artist. My Director of Photography (Ian Baker), my Production Designer (Patrizia von Brandenstein), and I get a lot of inspiration from art, from the lighting in art, from the compositions in art, from the textures, and all of that. We’re always playing with it. I like when I use music in film that it isn’t just gilding the lily and it isn’t telling you how to feel. It’s giving you something, some other information that you cannot otherwise get in the scene. Something happy might be going on, but there can be this little sad tinge underneath that tells you something. It might tell you about longing. It might tell you about fear. It might tell you any number of things, but it tells you something different. There’s a scene in the film where they have an exchange. In the studio, there’s a rapid fire banter between them. The composer wrote a whole piece for that, but the music was already there. It was clear when you put it up, it just made it too obvious. It was meant to be a funny scene, and in doing that, then it takes out the other element in the scene. And then, there’s just sound. We do a lot of work with sound, because even if we just had a camera on you and I, there would be a series of sounds that I could do, that without ever having to see it, we would know where we were and why. To get a film that lets me muck around with all of that is terrific. (Laughs)
SCHEPISI: No, probably not. The day you shoot something, everything changes. You still have the same overall vision and approach. You create a world that you’re going to be true to or the film tells you what you’re going to do. And so, it’s like you’ve got a philosophy of what you’re doing. You might do something in one take. You might do something static or moving. You try and have that changing texturally over the movie. Ian is lighting rooms and things differently at all times for different times of day and mood. You’ve got interesting textures and rhythms going on all the time, but you’ve got to keep an eye on them because you don’t just do them arbitrarily. They’ve got to be what is exactly right for that moment. And then, if you find you’ve done a particular kind of set up three times that is right for the moment, make sure that you don’t do another one. Find another way of doing the same thing as you’re going along. You’re learning the whole time. I always say halfway through a movie, you’ve got a lot of ideas, a lot of things that maybe you’ve learned and that you then wish you could apply, but you can’t. You just have to finish the movie in that world that you’re in. Maybe what you’ve learned you can apply somewhere else (laughs), but not often.
Can you talk a little about how a film evolves as you collaborate with the creative team you’ve put together? When you get to the end, does it ever look like what you originally envisioned?
SCHEPESI: Hopefully it’s better because everyone’s contributed. The thing is, and I always say this to young directors coming up, everybody you work with sees what you’re doing from a different point of view, a very specific point of view. So, if someone is lighting, they’re seeing it from that point of view. A production designer is seeing it from the placement of furniture that tells you about the character. Everything that goes into the room should tell you about the person who lives in that room. For example, the costuming, you never let an actor go into wardrobe on their own because half of their character goes on right there. All of those things are contributing and growing through a film. Let’s say it’s a diamond and suddenly someone is seeing this facet or that facet. No matter how good you think you are, there’s stuff you’re not seeing. The actors also have gone so deeply inside their character that there are little individual things that they think come through to them. And so, you have to encourage all of that to be contributed and focus it into where the picture is going to take advantage of it. Even the dolly grip is seeing something from a different way and he will maybe suggest shouldn’t you be around this. Shouldn’t you go there? The dolly grip on this film – I had a Vancouver crew — said one day, “Oh I’m loving this movie. It’s a real movie, a real story. You’re shooting it with a sense of place. No one does that anymore.” If you’re getting that from a dolly grip, that’s fantastic.
What do you have coming up next that you’re excited for audiences to see?
SCHEPISI: The Olive Sisters will be next. It’s a film I’m doing in Australia about two generations of an Italian family, one in the late 50’s and the other now [in the present] with the granddaughter. It’s all about prejudice and changes in prejudice and farming. It’s a beautiful story. We have Sarah Jessica Parker, Anthony LaPaglia, Josh Lucas, and Melissa George. Next year I’m doing Drowsy Chaperone if we can get everybody’s goddamned schedules together. Burnt Piano is a very beautiful piece that I’ve been trying to do for a while and I’m trying to assemble a cast. The others I’ve been beating my head against a wall, but maybe one day they’ll be made. Last Man is an unusual Vietnam War film from the Australian perspective.