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One Conversation About Many Things: An interview with Jill Sprecher

by Kevin Clemons

The central theme of Jill Sprecher's Thirteen Conversations About One Thing is happiness, and to speak to Jill one immediately recognizes her as an authority on the subject. Raised in Wisconsin before moving east to New York, Sprecher made her debut with the sharply written Clockwatchers, a film also co-written with her sister Karen. Sprecher's gift for humor as well as sharp insight into nearly every aspect of life is as evident one-on-one as it is in her scripts. digitallyOBSESSED had a chance to speak with Ms. Sprecher about the release of her critically touted second film.

dOc: There was an incident on the New York subway in which a bad memory had been brought back to you and you found consolation in the simple smile of a stranger. Is the Beatrice character in the Thirteen Conversations... based on that incident?

JS: Her character is definitely autobiographical for me. I used to be nice when I first moved to New York and I always smiled at people. And then I was mugged twice within a three-month period. The second time a guy hit me in the head with a bottle—I had to have brain surgery and have my head shaved. Her character's trajectory pretty much follows what I went through. I remember I was told by the brain surgeon to not ever get hit on the right side of you head again, as if you can control that! So a year later, after my hair had grown back, I was still very bitter. I was sitting in a subway car and a grown man walked through and hit me on the head and kept walking. I was just stunned and I thought, Everybody is a jerk, and started crying. I remember reading once where New York City is the kind of crowded place where you can just cry with nobody bothering you. Here I was in this crowded car and I wasn't sobbing loudly or anything. Then I noticed this middle-aged man sitting across from me who had seen the whole thing and he smiled at me and it was great. It just lifted that cloud I had been carrying for a year. That was a moment that my sister (Karen, who also helped write Thirteen Conversations...) and I wanted, that kind of very quiet moment between people who don't know each other, to be the closing scene of a film. And Clea's character also recounts something similar, so we decided that it would be nice to actually reenact the scene with two different characters.

dOc: It is interesting to hear that you wanted that as the end sequence, because I remember P.T. Anderson said, right after Magnolia was released, that he knew the end and beginning and went from there. Is that how you approached writing this film, considering that you knew the ending you wanted?

JS: It is funny you bring up that movie because we wrote Thirteen Conversations... four years ago and we had a meeting with a studio. They liked the film and said "But we don't do multiple character, multiple storyline films." Then, a year later, we read that they were doing Magnolia for around thirty million dollars. So when I first heard about that movie I though, OK, now ours can get made.

[Before] we wrote anything down for Thirteen Conversations..., we started with the story that became Alan Arkin's character's story.

dOc: That seems to be the centerpiece to the film. The whole movie resolves around that.

JS: Yes, he is based on some people we know and kind of the idea of being resentful if you are not exactly happy with those who are happy. We always thought it would work better as a short story. Rather than try to blow it up into a whole movie, we kept trying to come up with a book of short stories that are based on the same theme. The way we wrote the script is that we came up with each storyline and we wrote down the basic structure on note cards. We looked for places in each story that would seem almost like a natural ending to a statement, where you could switch to another character. We did have the very end scene in mind and then the other parts came along and we juggled things around so we could find nice moments to switch between characters.

dOc: It seems as though an ensemble film is the hardest to write for the simple reason that you have to know from the outset how everything is going to go...

JS: Beyond ensemble or multiple storylines or anything you write, it is good to know what your goal is, because you have something to write towards and you know your destination. Particularly in screenplays for movies, they are all about the ending because that is where your message is contained. Paul Newman said that a screenplay is all about the first five pages; a movie is about the last five minutes. Because if you don't hook a reader in the first five minutes they aren't going to read the rest of the script, but with a movie the central point of the film is in the last five minutes and that is what you walk out with. That is what the story is about.

People will stick with you even if they are not sure where they are heading, and they will be a little more generous at the start. But the end is where you want to drive your point home. That's why in the studio system—where movies are tested and they change the ending—it is no wonder to me that the movie feels forced, because that was never the original intention. So everything that should have pointed in that direction the entire way was just not there.

dOc: Did you test Thirteen Conversations...? JS: I don't mean to sort of make fun of showing movies to an audience, because that is how you learn. But we have the benefit of having read the script and... we wondered if people would get what we were trying to say. We know what we are trying to say and even people who read the script can stop and reread the last paragraph. But someone just watching is never going to know. So throughout the editing process, we brought in friends, as well as people we recruited who had not read the script or anything about it.

I think an audience can tell you a lot. The best audience is an unknowing audience, because they have not read anything and they are just reacting emotionally to just what they have seen.

dOc: Did [editor] Stephen Mirrione bring a lot of experience, having worked on Traffic, a film with interlocking storylines?

JS: Stephen is a friend of ours. He also did our first film, Clockwatchers and he always wanted to edit Thirteen Conversations....? He was the first person that Karen and I sent the very first draft to, four years ago. He gave us notes while we were rewriting and during the three year period it took to make the film, he was working on a lot of other films like Go, Traffic. He kept getting more jobs and we were afraid of his inavailability, but he was able to fit us in between Traffic and Ocean's Eleven. And what was great about having Stephen was that he knew our original intentions from the very first draft.

dOc: I would imagine that helped a lot.

JS: Well, it has probably been well documented by now that our financing fell through the day before we were supposed to start shooting...

dOc: I wasn't going to ask about that...

JS: Things that I had wanted to shoot certain ways had to be done differently. When we got to the cutting room, Stephen was able to go back in his mind to when he read the very first script and assure us that things would work out perfectly, because he knew what we were trying to say. It was helpful. We were able to edit so quickly because we had each sat with the material for so long. It only took us six weeks to edit film.

dOc: And you wrote it in eight weeks, right?

JS: Yeah, with the first draft, we spent time trying to get money [and] it was a lot of "hurry up and wait." We didn't want to be just sitting there, so we went in and kept doing small revisions on the script during the waiting period. But it is funny how the finished script is very similar to the finished draft.

dOc: While your and your sister write the films together, you have directed both Thirteen Conversations... and Clockwatchers. Is it difficult to excise scenes that you are proud of or loved on a writing level that just didn't work in the finished film?

JS: It is hard because we know how hard it is to write and when you take entire chunks of dialogue out, it is hard. The biggest difference between the first script and the finished film is that half of the dialogue is gone.

But it is what you aim for as a director, because on the one hand it is like, Oh my god, we don't need Alan Arkin or Matthew McConaughey to say that, because just the look on their face says everything. I guess the two fight against each other in a way, because it took us so long to write the dialogue. But you realize that you have to do what is best for the movie. When we write, we basically look at it as trying to approximate an idea. And then you have the added benefit of a talented crew, so all of those things contribute to what you are trying to say. We are glad sometimes when words are sort of the least effective thing and we can get rid of them.

dOc: The correlation between Clockwatchers and Thirteen Conversations... is that they deal with the working class, and happiness. Was this a subtext that both you wished to set or was it just something that happened?

JS: I think it just sort of happened. [Laughs]

I think both films have grown out of our own personal experiences in that we identify with the underdog, because that is who we have always been. We have never been on top, and you could argue, Well, you made a movie, but it is still very much that we never feel like the ones in charge. On a movie, we are never in charge, maybe it is being from the Midwest that we try to make everyone's time very pleasant. I started off working for free on films, and actually still do work for free on our own films. We are used to being the ones taking out the trash and cleaning the toilet and even on Clockwatchers, we did that.

dOc: What I loved about Clockwatchers was that the budget helped everything in terms of ambience.

JS: That was really a piece of life imitating art in that we had to shoot that movie?in L.A., which was never the ideal location, but it was the cheapest at the time. We shot in August?in an abandon office building and when you are shooting you have to turn off the air conditioning, because it can show up in the audio. So after being in a?hot office people did start to go crazy. We tried to shoot the interior office scenes in sequence and it mirrored the script in that the actresses knew each other better as time went on. Parker [Posey] actually had gone out shopping and brought in her own office supplies and toys for her desk and at the end of shooting some of the little things on her desk had gone missing...!

dOc: Like in the movie.

JS: It was funny, because the lack of funds on that film helped. In terms of the aesthetics.

When we were writing it, [we thought] it would be great to have this huge office where you look down a row of fifty desks like in The Apartment... the reality of the budget was that we could afford six desks. I wondered how this was going to work, because the girls are supposed to be anonymous and they are in this teeny tiny office. That space was not very big, it was far from the sort of Kafkaesque sort of thing we had written in the script. But we had a great production designer who had the challenge of trying to make something pleasing to the eye, but also the opposite, a place where you just would not want to work. So she came up with this green color scheme that was sort of vile. Still visually interesting [but] uncomfortable. We filmed that little office space from all different strange angles so it would look a lot bigger.

dOc: You also made an interesting choice in colors in Thirteen Conversations.... The film has no bright colors to speak of. Everything is very much green and blue, especially in the John Turturro storyline.

JS: We picked out a variation of a color palette for each character. For Clea's character, everyone simultaneously—the production designer, cinematographer and the costume designer—sort of gravitated towards golden colors, at least in the first half of her story. And John Turturro starts off in that apartment with Amy Irving and it is very cool green, almost mossy, like it is really stagnant. God, it was fun working with the colors. When we got together for the first time—Dick Pope (cinematographer) is from London, Mark Ricker (production designer) is based in New York, and Kasia Maimone (costume designer) is Polish. They all three showed up at the meeting with the same Edward Hopper painting! It is really strange, because it is never referred to in the script, but they each got this similar feeling and that is real synchronicity.

[Note: The Hopper picture is entitled Morning Sun and can be viewed through this link.]

dOc: Is it safe to say that the central tone of the film, the "One Thing" referred to in the title, is Happiness?

JS: That is what we wrote it about, but it is interesting because you know that was on our minds and it is certainly what the thirteen conversations are about, or they touch in some way or another on the idea of happiness. But it is interesting [that] we have read different things about the film and people have different ideas as to what the film is about. One critic wrote that the one thing was about design. Someone else wrote that it was about chaos, which is in a way the opposite of what is happening. Some think the movie is about fate, luck, faith. I find that it is really interesting. IWe were not purposely setting out to be ambiguous, but there are so many interpretations and certainly all of those ideas are things that we touched on. It shows how different people interpret the same incident, which in a way is what our movie is about. Like looking at the same situation from either a positive angle or a negative angle. We find it interesting that we have been told by several people that the movie is really melancholy or a downer, and of course when we wrote it we thought that it was so optimistic and hopeful. And there are others, like Matthew McConaughey, who was working in Ireland when we sent him a tape of the finished film. He called and said he had this huge grin on his face when the film was over. So, he found it very uplifting. I think it is interesting that people who have sort of a melancholic view of the world find the movie sort of despairing. And people who are optimistic find it very optimistic, so it sort of carries over whatever your world view is. Certainly Matthew is one of the most happy-go-lucky guys in the world.

dOc: Every person that I know who has seen the film has a different interpretation of it. I think you may be the only person to make a film where the title is actually a McGuffin.

JS: [Laughs.] We weren't trying for that, but things work out, you know...

dOc: You showed the film at the 2001 Toronto Film Festival on September 10th, and then of course the events that occurred the next day shut down the festival. What was it like, going from such a high to what then happened on the 11th?

JS: Our movie was one of the fortunate ones that was screened before that. It was very much high and low. We went through a lot to get the film made and then everything happened. We had friends as well as cast members in New York at the time. It really humbled us, because one of our friends died in the second tower, so it was kind of like going from an incredible high on the 10th and then the world had changed.

dOc: In Clockwatchers, you were blessed with a dream cast in which each has gone on to great things. Now, with Thirteen Conversations..., you have possibly the best cast in any film this year. How did you assemble a cast as diverse as John Turturro, Amy Irving, Matthew McConaughey, and Alan Arkin?

JS: When we started trying to get the script to actors we had come up with a wish list, but we never hoped to get these people on our budget. I think maybe one reason we are such big fans of these actors is that they take chances and they are very kind people. I think that maybe they were too kind to say no. We got Alan Arkin through Bob Balaban, who we both knew, and we asked for him to put in a good word. Michael Stipe and Sandy Stern were producers and they knew Matthew and were able to get a script to him. It is amazing that they all said yes and their schedules worked out, considering we had a short shooting period.

Matthew studied film at the University of Texas and it is interesting because he started off in indie films. He is really interested in the whole filmmaking process and I think he would be a great director. We shot some exterior scenes in late November in New York, when it was freezing. Whenever he wasn't in the shot, he would stay on the set. I told him to go in and get warm, but he kept saying "Oh no I want to watch," I would see him quietly over to one side, just sort of watching everything.

dOc:What are your thoughts on DVD?

JS: God, I am a pariah, I don't have a DVD player. But I plan to get one now because they are down in my price range. I love the idea of DVD, I think it is great because I studied film and have a masters [degree] in cinema studies. I wish DVD had been available then! The commentaries and deleted scenes are simply food for film buffs.

dOc: Speaking of commentaries, did you enjoy the commentary process?

JS: Well, I hadn't done it before and we were doing the low-budget version where they run through the film once and there are no second takes, so I have no idea what is on it. Anything that came out of our mouths I don't think was censored, and of course, when the time was up, I was filled with the numerous things I should have said.

dOc: Is there anything you needed to leave on the cutting room floor that you wish you could have included on the DVD?

JS: Mainly, we just cut dialogue, and we aren't sorry about that. What we have in the movie is so much better, where the actors gave performances that did not rely on the dialogue. Each storyline lost maybe two scenes, but none of them really added to the story. I am bummed that there is a long, four-minute take featuring Matthew that I love that no one will ever see. We kept the shot in the film for as long as possible, but it just didn't work.

dOc: What's your next project?

JS: We are working on writing projects for several actors that we love to work with. We are doing writing for hire right now—until we pay back some bills—but it will be awhile before we can do another indie film. Hopefully, we will get to do another one soon.