Jonathan Kasdan Interviewed – IN THE LAND OF WOMEN

     April 17, 2007

Opening this Friday is the first feature from Jonathon Kasdan and it’s called In the Land of Women. If the name Kasdan sounds familiar to you it should as he has a famous dad named Lawrence and a brother named Jake who is also in the industry. His dad wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and has recently signed on to write the remake of Clash of the Titans. His brother made Orange County, The TV Set, did some episodes of Freaks and Geeks and is now directing Walk Hard.

You could say he comes from a pretty successful family.

Anyway, Jonathan wrote and directed In the Land of Woman and the film is about a guy (Adam Brody) who gets dumped by his celebrity girlfriend and is forced to regroup. What he decides to do is visit his grandmother in Michigan with the hopes that while he’s there he’d finally write his big high school novel. Obviously things don’t exactly go as planned as his grandmother is a bit more to handle than he originally expected and he also meets his neighbors – the Hardwicke women – who are played by Meg Ryan and Kristen Stewart. They play a mother and daughter and their family is loaded with problems that Adam gets involved with. Through the relationship with these women and the separation from Los Angeles he’s forced to examine his life and all that is in it.

Simply put, if you’re looking for a huge budget action extravaganza you should probably skip this film. But if you’re looking for a solid character piece this might fit the bill.

During the roundtable interview Jonathan talks about where the story came from, what’s its like to live in a movie household, his writing process and what it was like to get his big break working on Freaks and Geeks. Of course there is a lot more to the interview than what I just wrote… but those are great starting points.

As always if you’d like to listen to the audio of this interview click here. It’s an MP3 and easily put on a portable player or you can burn it to a CD and listen in your car.

If you’d like to watch the trailer before reading the interview – click here

In the Land of Women opens this Friday at theaters everywhere.

Q: Was this film kind of autobiographical for you?

JONATHAN KASDAN: This was, maybe too autobiographical. What may not be as obvious is that while the Adam character is very much me and has a lot of parallels to my life, all the other characters do as well and in fact, the two women just as much. The Meg story is very much about a particular time in my life dealing with Hodgkin’s disease, going through the experience of being treated for Hodgkin’s disease, and I wanted to write about that in a way that wasn’t literally about myself. I wanted to see if maybe I could expand to something a little broader. The Lucy character is also about yet an earlier period in my own life a little bit and about certain feelings of shame and sexual confusion that I’ve experienced and that I hope there are some universal ideas in there about trying to figure out your identity a little bit and wrestling with your parents’ identity too. Oddly enough the character who sounds the most like me in day to day is Grandma. Absolutely. If you were to spend two hours with me, you’d think ‘this is Olympia Dukakis.’

You’d go to the door without your pants?

Absolutely – with no pants and I’m like out of control.

What was the biggest challenge directing your first feature film?

Well, there are so many things. I have to say that the first biggest challenge was finding a guy. When I finished the script, it seemed to me that I’d almost unconsciously written it for Meg Ryan. I had not been thinking of her while I was writing, but when I was done, it just seemed so obvious. Through a lot of happy, very lucky accidents, the movie gained a little momentum between Castle Rock and Warner Independent, and we were in a position to take the script to Meg Ryan when there was something behind it and we could say to her, ‘This is a real thing. This isn’t something you would need to get going.’ She really responded to the character and she responded in exactly the way I’d hoped and fantasized she would. The moment that happened, it really started to solidify and then it became clear that our whole issue was finding this guy. I really do feel as much as Jerry Maguire, Risky Business or whatever the movie, the soul of it has to be in this guy and his journey and how he reacts to these women and how he is able to hopefully be generous with these women in a way that they need at that particular moment in their lives. So we looked for a long time. We looked to two months and I met everyone in New York and L.A. and I could not find the guy and I was getting nervous about how to make the movie, especially since Meg and Christian sort of fell into place and they’re both really dynamic screen presences. They’re actors with whom I think there’s a real … You need to have something to hold the screen with those two people. You know, there needs to be a real quality there because they are magnetic. We kept looking and then eventually we decided that we were going to see if we could maybe consider some television actors that weren’t available to us and that wouldn’t be available to us for at least 8 months. Adam and I sat down at the Coffee Bean on Sunset and Fairfax and then promptly left to go to a bar, and it was the first meeting that I had in this area of consideration and we cancelled the rest because I knew he was the guy. Hopefully, it’s obvious in the movie and it’s certainly obvious from seeing him that he is a John Cusack type. He does have something about him that you can relate to that is very rare and special.

While you were shooting, were you and Adam really the only guys on set?

We really were. You know what’s so funny is occasionally, for like a moment, we’d have a guy like Clark Gregg who oddly enough was the only actor that I knew I wanted to write a part for. I was a huge fan of Clark Gregg from various things but most significantly from Sports Night and The West Wing. He came onto set for maybe four days and you could see Adam and I were just so enamored of him. We were just so relieved to have a dude there to talk about movies with. [Laughs]

You’ve remained friends?

We’ve remained friends since. I’m sure it’ll be over after this weekend because who knows how it’ll do. He’ll probably abandon me for Jason Reitman but, other than that, we’ve remained very close.

Can you talk about what you learned from your family growing up?

It’s so much that it’s almost hard to quantify. I’ve been on movie sets really as early as my memories take me, they involve movie sets. My parents really made an effort to take my brother and myself with them when they would go somewhere when we were young. There were no nannies in my family. You know we were always on the set. So the result is that slowly and increasingly over the years, Jake and I started to express a real interest in the machinations of how it works, of shooting, literally being on the set, how the day works, and what your concerns end up being. I have to say when you show up, the intensity with which those anxieties present themselves aren’t clear until you’re actually there and you’re the guy, you know. But I do feel like I had this incredible preparation for what it was – the idea of getting your day and the idea of feeling like maybe you didn’t get everything you needed and how the thing is going to cut together and all of that, you know, way more than my year at film school, comes from growing up in this household. And also, even more profoundly I think, this idea of writing incredibly personal screenplays that are about the values and concerns that you have in your life is certainly something that wouldn’t have happened if not for my father and the movies he’d made.

Everyone has a memory as a child, an embarrassing moment with their parents, whatever. When you were a kid on set all the time, did you ever walk into the middle of a shot or something like that that you remember?

Well the thing that I feel that my whole life will be most famous for is the first scene of The Big Chill with the baby singing in the bathtub which is me. [Laughs] I have a very vivid memory of sitting in this bathtub and it was a fake bathtub and being naked – don’t even get me into the parental issues that that inspires – but I was naked and singing in the bathtub and I was totally freaked out and they sort of talked me through it, but, in retrospect, they powered through.

Are you comfortable in a nest of women, both older and younger?

I certainly designed this for that reason and I wanted to be and I feel like to a certain extent I am, though certainly the ideas about understanding and a deeper understanding of people, I still feel, as much as I think the character is supposed to, that there is so much that I don’t know and there’s so much I don’t understand. I hope the movie is about the struggle to understand that stuff and ultimately [arrive] at some sort of peace in that you can never really be wise or at least you never really get it.

Are you surprised that your first film is a ‘chick flick’?

Totally. Shocked. In fact, I mean that’s another thing which is that when I wrote the script and when we went into developing it with Warner Independent, it was really designed to be a small, independent film. It was a hard R-rated movie and the language was very explicit and there were explicit scenes. What happened was in my decisions to use Meg and Adam and even Kristen, although Megan and Adam primarily, and because those two parts are so enormous, a sort of sweeter tone emerged from the movie than I had anticipated it would be ever. That’s not what I’m like in life exactly. I had a moment in the middle where I thought, ‘well I can either embrace this or try to force it into something that it clearly will never be,’ and so we did and in fact to the extent of making changes in the script to better suit the movie that we were clearly making. Hopefully, that’s good. I knew the movie was going to be called In the Land of Women and I knew that would be interpreted in any number of ways, but I did not have any idea that I would be entering the Nancy Meyers canon of cinema. [Laughs]

Olympia Dukakis seems like the perfect Jewish grandmother. She is kind of you, but how much?

Actually she’s the most straight forward character in the movie. She’s absolutely half me and half my father’s mother who is feisty and hilarious and sort of surprisingly wise at moments and just totally out there. She and I have a relationship that is not incredibly close but we really like each other and we get along, and it seemed clear that this was something that I wanted to write about a little bit.

Can you talk about your writing process and how long it took?

Absolutely. This one is funny because I’ve been working in television for several years. I started out on Freaks &amp Geeks and then I went on and spent a couple of years working on Dawson’s Creek which was a great experience because it was a show that almost no one I knew was going to be watching, and it allowed me the opportunity to experiment and do a lot of work in a short period of time and really just try things and hear how dialogue sounded a little bit. And then after that, I came out of it and I wrote a couple of pilots, and in both the pilots that I had written, there was sort of an emerging story that I clearly wanted to tell about an older woman and a younger man, and that story involved them running into each other and going for a walk together, and that was related to something that had happened to my life, though not a sexual thing certainly but sort of a moment in my life, and I’d been writing some version of that story for about two years. This script, that said, wrote in about four weeks. You know it was the fastest I’ve ever written anything and I guarantee it’s the fastest I ever will. [Laughs] It was because this element was so clearly mapped out to me, the rest of it sort of took shape around that.

Who are the most influential women in your life?

Well certainly the most influential woman, no question, is my mother. She’s a huge part of my life. We’re very involved. In a strange way, the movie has a lot to do with our relationship because I think that the issue of … I hope that the Kristen/Meg story is really about trying to be generous with the people that love you and the people that are generous to you. I think that’s a real thing. It’s certainly something I hope people get from the movie a little bit. She has been my role model for that in every way. She has a selfless quality to her that I admire and I don’t understand and I can never believe the extent to which she’s… especially you’ve got to imagine between my brother and my father and I, it’s just a neurotic, artistic household. She’s holding it together with both hands.[Laughs]

Do you believe that people are destined to meet at a time when they can help each other?

I don’t. That’s certainly hasn’t been my experience. I love it in movies. If there is a suspension of disbelief that you want to take to your movies or if there’s a way in which life is not as good as the movies, it’s that kind of thing. It’s the serendipity of meeting people when you want to. You know that’s happened to me occasionally but mostly it’s not like that.

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Can you talk about what you’re writing right now?

I’m writing so slowly. I guess I’m trying to write something personal and something even more personal than In the Land of Women. At this point in my career, I’m focused, not just because I’m trying to imagine how this movie will be received, but really for larger reasons of Hollywood and the careers of my brother and my father. I’m trying to imagine a way to make movies even cheaper than this. This movie was made for $10 million which for a Warner Brothers movie is extraordinarily low, you know, but obviously the business is heading toward a place where in order to do this kind of character work about these kind of ideas, the smaller you can do it, the more freedom you have to really explore that kind of stuff.

Did you finish your High School?

You know I finished a version of it. First of all, it was absurdly expensive because at the center of it, the first 20 minutes, there was a sequence that actually came out of something that I was aware of and a real thing that was going on when I was a teenager in high school. There were these kids who would take their parents’ sports cars – talk about your overprivileged, nutso L.A. thing – and race them down Sunset Blvd. at 2 in the morning in the most dangerous way in the world, just reckless and risking the lives of everyone on the road. And that image was always essential to that story and almost unshootable. It was so massive in scale. The version of that story that I’m talking about in the movie, I don’t think we’ll ever see, but certainly aspects of it will just keep popping up in my work.

Do you enjoy directing as much as you enjoy writing?

I do. There’s ways in which directing is way more fun because it’s collaborative and you get the benefit of a lot of incredibly talented people helping you to create something. It’s sort of like the best cheat in the world. You get all these brilliant craftsmen helping you create this thing and giving you all this input. At the same time, writing is… I think I identify myself primarily as a screenwriter. I think that’s certainly where it begins for me. Whenever you finish one of these things, you’re right back there. It’s sort of where it ends too. That’s how I think of myself, but I love directing.

What kind of input did your female actors give you, particularly Meg Ryan? Was there something about her character that she gave you?

She did. It’s interesting because Meg has spent a lot of time thinking about some of these issues and certainly related to fidelity and marriage and relationships. She’s led a life very much in the public eye and dealt with a lot of these things in the most public way that one can so you can see, even despite what an assault that must be, she has a very kind of straightforward, objective way of looking at the relationships in her life and she’s clearly still trying to find out what all of that means. I think since the movie is trying to figure those things out, she really responded to that and this search is evident in her face, you know, the kind of quest to be even more enlightened. The cancer thing is something she did a lot of research on and she met a lot of women and she really got into that. Part of our dialogue was the comparison between the experiences she was hearing about from breast cancer survivors and my own experiences that I’d heard about and between those two things we sort of figured out a voice that we hoped would represent something pretty accurate to that experience.

How close is the girl with the two guys, the football player and your friend? Was that from your life too?

No, no, that in fact if anything is the most movie conventional thing in the world and that is a thing that I love in movies. I love the dynamic of there’s two guys and there’s one she should obviously be with and there’s the one she shouldn’t and she doesn’t get it ‘til the end and then she does get it. I think that only happens in the movies and I love it when it does.

Can you talk about working on Freaks &amp Geeks?

I had an incredible experience. Another thing that should be mentioned is that Freaks &amp Geeks facilitated all the TV work that I did after and perhaps in some way everything that followed. I was at NYU and studying film and I’d written a couple of screenplays and I’d been working pretty steadily. My brother directed the pilot for Freaks &amp Geeks and they never expected to get picked up. It was one of those shows that no one on earth felt they were going to pick up. When they did, they were shocked and delighted and then this great period of trying to figure it out. They thought that there’d be some real value, particularly Judd (Apatow) and Paul Feig who really were the creative force behind the show, felt there would be some value in having someone fresh out of high school. The only flaw in that plan is that the show was really about growing up in the eighties, so the references that they’re making were totally to their lives and what I had to offer was maybe not necessarily that useful. But the effect was I was assigned a script that was literally the last script in the rotation that we ever shot. I ended up being able to spend the entire time, that entire 5 months, whatever it was, really present for every second of it. And while I feel like my contribution was minimal, it was definitely the most intense learning experience you can have. It was great to be associated with something that people really liked. It was very satisfying, but I certainly can’t take any of the credit.

What’s been the reaction from last year’s Cannes until now?

There was almost no reaction in Cannes. None of us went. It was at the film market at Cannes and not in the actual festival which is akin to the AFM (American Film Market) here. There was a booth and a poster and one guy, one foreign sales rep, and the only effect of it was this review in Variety that I thought was nice and told me he got it a little bit. It was certainly a tiny bit of good feeling but there was almost no reaction. What’s been going on in the year since Cannes is this very slow search for a date which given the way the movie evolved, starting at Warner Independent and then becoming distributed wider by Warner Bros., it wasn’t green lit with a date in mind which is a tough thing in the studio system. Usually these movies are very clear. I was talking to my brother last night and he’s got a movie coming out on President’s Day and they’re already sending him posters. It’s unbelievable. Usually that date is certainly ballpark and this movie didn’t have that. There was a lot of down time just trying to find a weekend where they could put us out there.

Which one of your Dad’s movies would be closest to the kind of movie you would want to make?

That’s a tricky question because I’m a huge fan. It’s weird, but I am. Putting aside that he’s my father, I’m a huge fan. To me, Body Heat is perhaps the most elegantly designed of all those movies. It’s very muscular and you can’t aspire to much more than that. The kind of storytelling that’s in Grand Canyon and The Big Chill is really what this movie is akin to I think. That‘s the personal stuff, those are the voices that I really like, and I’d also love to write Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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