The film feels like New York City even though it doesn’t beat you over the head with it. Were you self-conscious about making a New York City film?
Well there are a million New York movies made every year, and to make my New York movie — the way I made it different — was to film it in Brooklyn. But we never went north of Clinton Hill and Bushwick and those terrible places. We were only in the city one day. And the visual style was meant to bring out the beauty I see in my part of town, and to bring out a quality that is not usually seen in that part of town. That was just sort of the way that it felt personally relevant to me.
Can you talk about the score a little bit? Especially for someone like me who knows nothing about jazz and is not an audiophile.
I’m not either!
Well, I loved the score.
Thank you! The deal with the score is that the editor, Robert Greene, and I were starting to cut the movie, and the music that Robert picked was jazz, and we weren’t really sure it was working. And then Keegan DeWitt came to us with this jazz score. Then, when we showed it to the producers, they couldn’t even tell that we’d swapped out Miles Davis for Keegan. It basically came together without missing a beat. It had the same rhythm that we were looking for in the editing room.
This is a movie about miserable, unlikable, literary people. But I feel like Philip becomes more likable as the film progresses. Am I crazy? It’s definitely at odds with the voice-over narration. Did you mean for there to be tension between what we hear in the narration and what the actors do?
And I could also see why you wouldn’t want to answer that question.
No! I think Philip is incredibly likable because he’s smart. He’s funny. He’s talented. He’s good at what he does, and he’s curious about the world he lives in. These are all the traits of a very likable man… to me. But, you know, he has bad manners. He’s not kind to people. He has a short temper. That doesn’t mean he’s not likable.
To me the idea of using the narrator, as in a book… you’d never read what is between the dialogue as anything other the complete truth, in a novel. We take him at his word. If what he says contradicts ever so slightly from what we’re seeing, then hopefully people won’t take it as a puzzle. Maybe they’ll just think that sometimes people aren’t saying what they’re thinking. I wanted to use that ambiguity a little bit.
Can we talk about the connection to Philip Roth? It didn’t really come across, to me, as an adaptation of his work. It seemed more “inspired by” Roth and other writers. Also, you’ve done similar things with the work of Thomas Pynchon, in Impolex.
Well, no matter what author puts a thought in my mind, if it’s Roth or Pynchon, it’s less to say, “What kind of world can I make out of this book?” and more to say, “If this were a parallel universe and you guys were writing scripts for a low-budget film, what would those scripts be like?” and to take the spirit of a body of work that I love. That’s a lot more fun for me than distilling the films into, “This movie means that [in the book], it needs this style, this syntax.” That’s just not an interesting way to make relevant or lively cinema. It’s entirely pastiche. Literature to me is much more vibrant than that.
You’ve been the recipient of some pretty stellar praise from strong film writers like Richard Brody and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. Do you read a lot of film criticism? As a cinephile…
By the way, I do not consider myself a cinephile at all. To me that’s a term that means that your appreciation of cinema is linked to an academic styling system. It does not involve any sort of emotional connection to the movies you watch. That, to me, is a little bit of a slippery slope. It’s really not where my head is at when it comes to cinema anymore. But you know, of course if Ignatiy writes something respectful and beautiful about what I made, it’s great. And when he writes something beautiful about something I’ve never seen, well, that’s fun for me too.