Director Maya Forbes Talks INFINITELY POLAR BEAR, Tackling the Issue of Mental Illness, Mark Ruffalo, the Difficulty of Getting Films Made as a Woman, and More

     September 18, 2014


One of the rare films to play at both Sundance and the Toronto International Film Festival was writer-director Maya Forbes’ Infinitely Polar Bear.  Based on her own childhood experiences, the film takes place in 1978 Boston and stars Mark Ruffalo as a manic-depressive father struggling to raise his young daughters while also trying to win back his wife (Zoe Saldana).  Loaded with fantastic performances and a great script that’s able to keep Ruffalo sympathetic even when he’s causing serious problems, Forbes’ debut feature really impressed me, and you should look forward to seeing it for yourself next year in theaters.

Shortly after the TIFF premiere I landed an exclusive interview with Maya Forbes.  During the interview she talked about getting to be part of Sundance and TIFF, her first cut of the film and what she cut out, the subject matter and how there is an element of fortuitousness to the timing of the movie with mental illness being talked about in the media, putting together the financing, casting Mark Ruffalo, being truthful while also making an entertaining movie, when we’ll see a trailer, and a lot more.  Hit the jump for what she had to say.

mark-ruffalo-zoe-saldana-infinitely-polar-bearQuestion: To be part of Sundance and to be part of Toronto means you’ve made a good movie.  

MAYA FORBES:  Oh, that’s nice.  Thank you.

What does it mean for you to be in both?

FORBES:  When we were making the film, we had to go to Sundance.  We had to sell the movie at Sundance.  For my financiers and everything, that was the big goal.  I’d never been to Sundance and I think anytime you’re making your first independent film, that’s sort of, you’re thinking, “Oh God.  I hope I go to Sundance.”  It was great, I loved it.  Then this is just a very different experience because I’m not trying to sell the film, and that is a big difference.  It’s nice.  I just feel I’m so excited, I’m excited to see it again with an audience because I actually haven’t seen it since Sundance.  It’s been kind of dormant and since it’s not being released until next year, it was this weird thing.

My entire life was about making this movie and it’s been sort of asleep, hibernating for the last five months or whatever.  It’s great to be here in Toronto.  I like this festival.  I feel like I’ve gotten to see some movies and at Sundance I had so many screenings, it was really hard for me.  I will say, I saw seven movies at Sundance.  I felt like that was a lot.

Most people I speak to are happy if they see one.

FORBES:  Yes.  It was my goal to go see movies because I felt like, “That’s why I’m here anyway.”  But it took a lot of effort.  Here, it’s been easier, I’ve figured it out.  I like being in the city.  It seems like a great festival, I’ve enjoyed it.  I’m very happy to be here.

Toronto is not a competition, it’s just movies.

FORBES:  It feels nice.  The competition element of Sundance, I didn’t know about it because I had never been there.  You get there and you definitely feel it.  It’s a bummer.  You don’t want to feel that way about all the people around you who you know scrapped the same way you did—desperately trying to make their film.  I don’t like that element of it but I liked Sundance because I like the energy of the movies.  I like seeing all those first time movies.  That was pretty cool.

How long was your first cut of the movie?

FORBES:  My first cut or the editor’s cut?

We can talk about the assembly cut and then your first cut.

FORBES:  The assembly cut might have been two hours and I think my first cut was probably 105 minutes.

infinitely-polar-bear-mark-ruffalo-zoe-saldanaWhat’s the final release?

FORBES:  88 minutes.

So you lost 15 min.  Was it stuff that you were really disheartened to see go or stuff that was deleted for a reason?

FORBES:  I’m trying to think if there’s anything I was really sad to let go.  Was there anything I was really sad to let go?  There was one scene I was really, really sad to let go and I held on to it.  It was actually my producers were urging me to cut it and it was a scene I loved.  I thought Mark was really funny in it and the kids were really funny in it.  When I finally could just sit and watch the whole sequence, it was sort of as if you were in a really happy place, heading in a happy direction then you’re in a really bad direction.  Then you’re back going to the happy place again.   It just interrupted the flow of emotion.  It was confusing and there was nowhere else I could put it.  It was sort of a movable piece except for the fact that it dealt with the end of the dog.  So, I couldn’t put it anywhere and I was really sad to let that go.

There’s always the Blu-ray.

FORBES:  Yes.  I was like, “Okay.  I can put that somewhere.”  We also had a funny scene—there were some scenes that had some good scope and it was hard.  There was a scene where Mark drives backwards in a one-way street to pick up Maggie.  We had a street, we had cars, we had them going backwards and we had honking, pedestrians, and it was like, “Oh look, there’s scope.  That’s my scope.  That’s all the scope I get.”  It also was not a necessary scene but I was sad to lose that because I was always so excited if I ever got those kinds of things.

Because of recent events, the subject matter is even more powerful now because mental illness is being talked about.  There’s an element of fortuitousness to the timing of the movie.  Could you talk about that?

FORBES:  I’m happy that for conversation that’s happening more because it’s been so neglected.  I’ve been trying to make the movie for a long time, it’s just how things worked out.  I think what’s happening is that people are recognizing that it really happens—it’s very common.  That was a thing that was so striking to me at Sundance.  Ever since I wrote the script, actually.  People have read it and then they’ve told me their stories, which I love people stories so that’s been nice for me—about growing up with whatever.  And sometimes it was a single mom, “I was raised by my mom and she really struggled hard,” or sometimes it’s, “One of my parents is bipolar,” or sister or “I am.”  It was this interesting thing where I didn’t even know it because it has been not talked about but it is so much more common.  And I think the more we know this the more chance there are that there will be better research and resources, and treatment, and help.  I think it’s such a complicated thing because different things work for different people.

It’s really kind of overwhelming and staggering to me how many people I know that have mental illness and there’s not one thing that works.  You just have to go on your search.  It’s like a journey of, “How am I gonna get well?”  Because sometimes there’s different medications, it can be one of those, it can be sleep and exercise, it can be talk therapy.  What is the combination that’s gonna help me?  I am happy it’s being talked about and I hope I will contribute to that conversation.

mark-ruffalo-infinitely-polar-bearIt’s not some magic pill that fixes it all.

FORBES:  No.  And in some ways that’s a very difficult thing but I also think it’s such a hard disease and there’s such various degrees of difficulty in it.  I know people for whom the search for how to be well has been a positive journey.  It’s empowering to face your issues and try and take care of yourself.  It can be positive too.

What was that phone call like for you, when you first got funding for the film?

FORBES:  Well, I got that phone call many times.  There was one day when I had two phone calls.  It was like, “This person wants to do it and this person wants to do it but they don’t want to do it together.  Oh, I got two options!”  And you know, these things fall apart.  I had that phone call many times so I will say that the one nice thing about it, the one thing I can cling to as I got and lost the financing is I never lost the financing for a really long time.  When somebody would fall out, somebody else who’d expressed interest would come in.  There was a series of people who said that they wanted to finance the film.  When we finally did get this company, Paper Street out in New York, who said they were gonna do it and they said they would commit to doing it by themselves if they could not find a partner, it was contingent upon me face-to-face meeting them.  They were in New York.

My husband and I hopped on the red eye—my husband’s one of the producers too, Wally Wolodarsky.  We hopped on the red eye immediately, we got to New York, and we met these guys and they seemed really enthusiastic about it.  It seemed like it was going to work but you’re just there the whole time with your fingers crossed.  You just don’t know.  I did take to heart what everybody told me, which was, “Keep your foot on the gas, never let up.  Never ever.”  Mark was doing Foxcatcher and his hair was all different and the way I was hoping his hair was going to be.  Then I was worried about weather in New England.   I decided I was going to push shooting a month, so that I’d be able to bridge two seasons as opposed to just getting winter.  I wanted to see if I could get some different feelings.  We pushed it and people said, “Don’t.  You’re taking the foot off the gas!  When they say they give you a date, you’re going, you never move it because that could be the end.”  Anyway, I did it and it all was fine.

And thank God we didn’t shoot it when we were supposed to shoot it, starting in February.  Because it was a really, really cold February and it would’ve been hard and it wouldn’t have given me all the looks I wanted.

Mark Ruffalo is riding a crazy tidal wave right now, which I’m sure really helps the movie.  

FORBES:  It’s a great time to be in the Ruffalo business!  That is just so lucky.  I love Mark, I’ve always loved his work and then I met him and I loved him as a person.  I feel like on this one I was guided by all these nice principle, which is like, if I’m gonna do something this personal it’s gotta be with somebody I will love.  I will love working with him, I will love collaborating with him, I will love him as a person, he’ll be a good person, I will not ever be sad that I made a movie about my father who I loved, with this guy. I’m so thrilled for him because he’s so fucking good and he’s so good to work with, and his performances are so different.  These are really a range of great performances because he’s just so human.  I guess that’s another thing about mental illness.  The people I know who suffer from mental illness, sometimes they do connect you to what it is to be really human.  There’s a vulnerability there, there’s something very potent.  I feel like Mark has that.  He has that and that’s why I think he’s the greatest Hulk ever.  I feel like he’s always connected.  You’re always connected to that man, the man inside that Hulk.

infinitely-polar-bear-mark-ruffalo-zoe-saldanaYou can make the argument that it was his performance more than anybody that made the movie what it is.

FORBES:  I would make that argument.  I think he’s amazing.  It was funny because I saw it when I saw Avengers, I was like, “Oh yeah.  This is really good preparation for Infinitely Polar Bear.  Hulk is the ultimate bipolar.”  Even one of my aunts said it too, she’s like, “I just saw The Avengers and I really think Mark’s gonna do a great job as Cam.”  It’s great!  I think people really love Mark Ruffalo.  He’s a great actor but I think people like him.  I’m optimistic, I think it will help our little movie.

How much were you trying to make scenes that were really happening as exact as they were happening versus making a movie?

FORBES:  Those scenes were written.  I feel like I really went into my memory and felt the way everyone interacted but they had to be in the service of telling a story.  They had to be in the service of making an entertaining movie.  Authenticity and reality were at the top but I didn’t have a journal that I was referring to or anything.  I was definitely very conscious of, “I want to tell a story with this subject matter but I don’t want it to be dreary or dull or self-indulgent.  I want it to feel alive.  I am telling a story but I want it to come and sneak up on you that I’m telling you the story.  I want it to feel like life is happening and, Oh there’s a story that’s happening—that’s actually being told.”

This family is on a journey.  I was very conscious.  I’ve been a writer for a long time but I kind of had to get rid of a lot of the things I learned in Hollywood but I kept some of them too.  And things I kept were:  don’t be precious, kill your darlings is always good, give it dynamics—you don’t want it to be all joyful, all sad.  You want to go on a journey.  I really was thinking about Terms of Endearment, I love that tone.  Keep it warm.  In terms of what I learned in Hollywood, it was trying to make it entertaining.

What is the release date for this film, what is the release agenda?

FORBES:  I can talk about the release agenda.  Sony Classics, after this festival is done, I think they are going to look at what the playing field is because there’s no place we have to go.  It’s going to be sometime in March/April, after award season is done and all that is over because that’s very distracting.  I think the agenda is to release it in March.  I would love the Grand Budapest weekend, that would be good.

Fox Searchlight has done well with that weekend.

FORBES:  Yeah.  It’s a really good weekend.  That would be great.  I don’t have a date and everyone keeps asking.  I’m like, “I don’t know yet.”  But we will have a date soon, I think.

What’s the plan for the trailer release?

FORBES:  I think they’re working on the trailer now and I’m hoping that it will be able to play before—it’s around November when Foxcatcher is.  It’d be great to hop into that.

What’s the plan for you?  Do you have another project that you are itching to direct?

FORBES:  I have a bunch of things.  My husband and I right now are writing a script that we would like to direct together.  I have a couple other things, books that I’m looking at, maybe try an option.  But I definitely want to do it again.  I love doing it.  It took me a long time to get up the guts to do it and when I say that, that doesn’t express how hard it was to make it.  It makes it sound like, “Then I just decided I wanted to do it and it then it was fine.”  Finally I decided I wanted to do it and then it took forever to get somebody to give me the movie to do it.  I really loved it and I hope to work with Mark again.

It’s a lot easier once you have something to show people.

FORBES:  I hope so.  Some people say it’s harder.  Women have a harder time getting their second film made, which I hope I don’t.  Next time I talk to you, I hope I’m not telling you why that is—how that’s true.

I think women have a hard time getting films made, period.

FORBES:  Yes.  It sucks.  What was so interesting in my movie is that I found out that my cast was considered diverse because it had over 50% female characters.  That’s just in the movies.  Women are a minority.  Tons of people want to see movies about women but they don’t want to make them.  I don’t know why.  I think that’s insane because look at some of these big movies like Maleficent, they’re huge.  It’s ridiculous.  So, it is really hard but I’m determined to do something about that.

Maya Forbes Infinitely Polar Bear Interview

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