Set in present-day downtown New York City, the indie drama Generation Um follows John (Keanu Reeves), the quiet and withdrawn driver for an escort service that includes Violet (Bojana Novakovic) and Mia (Adelaide Clemens), two women who are as manipulative as they are beautiful. When John impulsively steals a camcorder, he decides to use it to explore their deepest secrets, pushing their friendship to the limit.
At the film’s press day, actress Bojana Novakovic and writer/director Mark L. Mann spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how the film came about, what the casting process was like, shaping the character dynamics during rehearsals, working with Keanu Reeves, being as open and free as possible during shooting, and the extra footage they have for the DVD release. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
MARK L. MANN: I think the whole thing began with having experienced repetitive patterns in my life. At a certain point, I had a moment to look at them and juxtapose the way the different chapters played out and consider why that happened. And then, I began to take various characters that I had encountered in my life and put them into a story that was representative of the mood that I was trying to describe.
Was there an aspect of the story or any particular character that came first, for you?
MANN: The girls came first. They were actually based on a couple girls that I knew, who were very important in my life, at the time. They were just amazing characters and amazing forces. It was one of the more honest relationships I’ve had, even though I didn’t really get to talk very much. They taught me how to listen, essentially. That’s where it started. It started with meeting these amazing people, and it stuck with me, for many years. I actually didn’t really know what to do with it, until I turned 40. I was living in New York and I had this strange crisis. For some reason, it just connected. You make this thing and it comes from this reality that you mold and chip, but then you have to find people who can actually externalize that.
Bojana, how did you get involved with the film?
BOJANA NOVAKOVIC: I got a script and I knew Keanu [Reeves] was attached. And then, I read the script and fell in love with it. I think I even forgot about Keanu, when I read the script. That’s how good it was to read because it’s such a densely packed story. Not much actually happens, physically. It’s not a plot-drive piece. But, there’s all these lives and all these things that happen in conversations and circumstances. It was just so incredible to read. And I knew, reading it, that it would sound even better read out loud or spoken. The way that Mark writes, the vernacular is natural and mad and unique. I loved it! I just loved it, from the moment that I read it. It seemed complicated, too. There were bits that brought up more questions than answers, on the page. It’s really nice to read something like that, as an actor, but then it’s a whole other thing to actually get the job. I actually auditioned for Mia first. Mia’s description was “early 20s, and doesn’t need to do anything to get the adoration of men.” So, I was being still, thinking I was drawing in Keanu Reeves with my stillness. So, I got a call the next day and the agency said, “They loved you! But, they love you for Violet.” I had to go look at the other character because I didn’t even read the film for Violet. I look at it and it said, “Violet: a withering beauty in her mid-30’s.” I was like, “I’m 29. Is this what happens in Hollywood to 29-year-old?!” I was actually really offended, and I said no. I was like, “I’m not gonna do that! That’s offensive!,” which was bizarre because it’s such a good character. I cannot believe that my own pride got in the way. And then, Mark called me and we discussed it. I was so excited because it’s the first time that anybody has ever really seen me for something I really truly believe is my essence, just in my soul.
NOVAKOVIC: I don’t drink at all, like her, but I used to. I think Violet is absolutely, unequivocally the person that I would be, if I’d continued drinking. But, I haven’t drunk in seven years. During the shoot, I was like, “This is my life. This is absolutely my life. It’s just the path that I didn’t take, thank god.” You wear that. You can’t hide it. And I think Mark saw that. The whole process of shooting was like that. He saw things that I didn’t necessarily see that I was giving.
How did the dynamic between the three main characters take shape and evolve, once you had the actors cast in their roles?
MANN: The dynamic of communication on set is an element of the performance. That’s what made it fun and interesting to be on set. You’re there and, as you’re going through it, it’s all about building an emotional pyramid, so that it would be where it needed to be. Each take would be a little bit different.
NOVAKOVIC: When the three of us met in the first rehearsal room, that’s when we started to piece together the film. On a film, you do your own work, you come together and meet on set, and then you shoot. It’s great. It’s a beautiful, competent performance, and then off your big-budget film goes to get branded and graded. But, this was amazing because we had a rehearsal period, and Mark refused to give me the job unless I went to rehearsals. I was working in Australia on something and had to put it on hold, and they were willing to do that, thank god.
MANN: I was available to answer, or not answer, questions. I don’t like to answer questions, but I will. But, the rehearsal process is evident in the movie, which is really cool. That’s where they established their backstories and the way that they interacted with each other.
When you had Keanu Reeves auditioning people, did you find that a lot of the actresses were too wrapped up in that?
MANN: Some. He has that thing. He’s a charismatic vortex. I had to get used to it, too. When he turns it on, it’s something. It’s visceral. You feel it. And it photographs amazing. So, when you put somebody in the room with him, they have to be able to handle that, and Bojana eats it for breakfast. She’s good with power. Ultimately, the movie is about power, and it’s about being able to manage power. So, some people would sit in the room and go in a direction that wasn’t quite right for the character. That’s what I’ll say about that. When you stick actors together, it’s about the communication. There’s an energy through-way. They funnel through each other. This movie is about a specific kind of funneling, and that was ultimately it.
NOVAKOVIC: Yes! Nudity doesn’t bother me as much as the emotional intimacy does. For me, it’s far more challenging to be emotionally open, especially with this character because it is very revealing of who I am. Things that I don’t want to show about myself or things that I’ve tried to negotiate and tame, I had to really let out. But, I actually don’t think the physical stuff is as interesting. That’s why I don’t do it. We had a choice of showing Violet’s boobs, but I just thought it wasn’t as interesting as actually seeing someone who’s in pain and having it be emotionally explosive, as a result of that. That’s where the vulnerability is. I think it’s funny that she’s running around in her underwear and you see those bruises. The only bruise that was made up was the one on my ass. Every other bruise was completely real, from that character. That character gave me bruises, and I still don’t know how. This was a really intimate experience and exploration for both Adelaide [Clemens] and I. It’s an actor’s wet dream. It’s pretty narcissistic, but it’s our job. It was a great process, and I loved it.
MANN: The character work was intense. The movie itself feels like it doesn’t have a lot of structure going on, but it is very heavily structured. When you watch it the second time, you see that everything about Violet makes sense, at the end of the movie. As you’re watching it, you don’t really know because it’s out of context. But, Bojana played the moments with an understanding of where the character was going. It wasn’t just getting in and playing it. You have to watch it a second time to see it.
NOVAKOVIC: I don’t know. I think I played the moments the way that Mark directed me because he could see where it was going. I knew where she’d come from. We were all co-dependent and collaborative.
Do you have a lot of deleted footage for the DVD?
MANN: Wait until you see the DVD extras. We shot these enormously long takes that will be on the extras. Watching Bojana clean a table is one of the most fantastic things you’ve ever seen. Watching her try to take Advil is amazing. It’s four minutes of her trying to open this bottle of Advil. In the movie, you get the sense that it’s going on, but I couldn’t leave all of that in. She states at a coffee pot brewing, and there was a toast thing that was one of the most amazing things, ever.
Generation Um opens in theaters on May 3rd.