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Capone talks to ADAM writer-director Max Mayer !!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here, following up my interview with ADAM stars Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne, with a chat with the film's writer-director Max Mayer, whose only other feature film was the 1998 movie BETTER LIVING, starring Olympia Dukakis and Roy Scheider. Although Mayer has done some TV directing as well, his primary focus for most of his career has been directing for the stage on the East Coast (BETTER LIVING began life as a play Mayer had directed). This might be an interview better suited for reading after you've seen ADAM, since this piece contains details that might be considered Spoiler material. Most of the questions concerning what ADAM is about are probably answered during the interview, so let's dive right in. Enjoy…
Max Mayer: Hi, nice to meet you. Capone: Well, I just got finished up with Rose and Hugh downstairs. MM: Good. Capone: I’m sure the expression “Disease of the Week” film has come up more than once? MM: Not a description fortunately, but…[laughs] Capone: Not at all. For me, it’s how you have managed to avoid those pitfalls. How did you set out to avoid the pitfalls of the worst made-for-TV movies? MM: I guess the most honest answer is that I wasn’t making a movie about Asperger Syndrome. I felt like the more I learned about Asperger Syndrome, the better metaphor it felt like to me for relationships in general, so although I wanted to be accurate and represent the syndrome realistically, the movie is about the relationship and the essential human condition that all of us desire is connection or intimate connection or romantic connection or deep connections to other people, and yet we sit up here in our own brains isolated and not being able to actually get into someone else’s mind and walk around and see their interior landscape or feel their feelings or see the world through their eyes. So that’s essentially what the movie was about for me and then the other half of it, I think, the more I learned about Asperger Syndrome… Actually there is a saying in the Asperger community, which is “If you know one person with Aspergers, then you know one person with Aspergers, “ so people with Aspergers are as various as the rest of us and so I was very careful to write a character, not write a syndrome. Capone: It helps that Adam is not dying. It’s just a part of him; you could look at it as just a personality trait, a pretty big one. MM: Or an obstacle. Capone: Right, but I was marveling at Hugh’s ability to play a character who doesn’t have all of the expressive resources that we do and isn’t always able to interpret others as well. I have seen Aspergers portrayed a couple different ways, but you are right, it seems different every time. What was it that you wanted him to convey about his character? MM: Two things occurred to me, his desire for connection with this woman and his capacity to listen. I think that the fact that he was not connected on a certain level and could not read certain social cues that the rest of us had, like we have this sort of larger bandwidth in terms of the stimulus that we respond too. He has a smaller bandwidth, but he is focused on that bandwidth that he picks up very intently, and Hugh himself is a remarkably active and keen listener and is remarkably intelligent, as is Adam. I think he did an amazing job, in a very subtle way, of engaging us while remaining true to the integrity and limitations of the character. Capone: How long have you been working on this film? From page to first day of shooting, it seems like it’s something that you could have worked on for a long stretch of time. MM: I heard this interview, which was the genesis of it with this young man, and I believe that was nearly six years ago, so then I would say I did about eight months of research or something like that before I started thinking in this character and then thought “Maybe I can write this.” So in that process, outlining it and all of that, was probably another year and rewriting it was all the way up until we started shooting. Capone: Had you been thinking about writing and directing a film before this? MM: Yeah. I directed in theater for a long time and I directed one other movie that came about almost haphazardly in that it came out of a play that I directed, and the playwright and I adapted and then Olympia Dukakis, who was the lead in the play won an Academy Award and she said “Did you guys ever write that screenplay that you were talking about?” We were like “Yeah…” She said “Well, let’s do it!” We were like, “You mean make the movie?” She was like, “Yeah yeah!” So we did it and it was wonderful working it. Roy Scheider is in it and Edward Herrman and a couple of other people who did terrific work in it, but I would say it never quite stopped being a play, mostly because I did not understand some things about the medium, but it was a great experience. I loved doing it and I felt like I could do it better. In writing screenplays and plays and stuff I was always sort of on the lookout for an idea that I could write that was small enough that I might get an opportunity to direct it. Capone: You said you did not really know that much about the medium; did you do anything between that film and this film, to say “OK, I need to learn about visual style and cameras, etc.?” MM: Yeah, I did a lot. First of all, during that time, my wife and I went to LA supposedly for three months and that was nearly eight years ago, and we have been there ever since. Then I got a job through Paul Haggis on a TV series called "Family Law", so I spent a year on that set and directed three of those and worked with all of the directors who came through there and then did an "Alias" and a "West Wing," and at the same time, I took a bunch of the UCLA extension classes and did some work with cinematography and visual storytelling. Capone:So you became a film student. MM: Well, I basically had a twenty-five year internship in theater, so I figured I could spend five on film. [Both laugh] Capone: There is a great mixture of humor and some very serious things in this film, could this film have been cut a different way to make it a drama? Did you have enough material there that you could have cut it differently to say, “Maybe we should not be this humorous, maybe we should get rid of the humor and make it a straight relationship drama!” MM: I would have hated that movie, but yeah we could have done that probably. I mean, the shoot was really fast and we gave ourselves some choices; we gave ourselves quite a few choices in editing, and there was constantly a balance. I think the biggest challenge with balance was balancing his presentation, and I guess the first half there with the building of their relationship. One of the things that I found, which I think is fairly accurate to relationships involving “typical” Aspergers people, often humor is the thing that makes it all survivable. People maintaining their sense of humor is a huge aide in maintaining relationships, which I think is true for all of us. Capone: That is true. The FORREST GUMP line is almost like you defused that criticism or joke that people could make about the character. Clearly you acknowledged… MM: …that it's both indebted and different. Capone: Exactly. You have a great collection of actors in the supporting roles, too. I think we might have just created the Frankie Faison Fan Club downstairs while we were talking about him, but I have loved him for as long as I can remember. Tell me about him and getting Amy Irving and Peter Gallagher and especially Frankie. MM: Well those three guys were all people I knew from the theater, so they were all sort of fortunately people that I could actually send the script to and say “Do you want to come do this?” You have got to get something for being alive a little longer than other people. Capone: Right. [Both laugh] MM: So yeah and Frankie was just a doll and Frankie was actually playing Willy Loman in a regional production in New Jersey when we started the first week of filming this movie, so I don’t know how he did that, because he would come play with us in the day time and then actually go play Willy Loman at night and on the weekends and I know that all the rest of us were dead, so I am amazed that he could do it. Capone: I think the first time I ever saw him was on stage in New York when I was in college probably. MM: Do you think it was one of those August Wilson plays or something like that? Capone: I don’t think so. I think it was at the Public Theater, and I do not remember what the play was. If you told me the title, I would probably remember; I'm sure I still have the playbill somewhere. MM: But he went through the NYU graduate program a few years before I did as an actor, and so I knew of him from then. Capone: Tell me about the relationship that he has with Adam, because at first I was thinking, OK, well he is his de facto-father, except that the father is only recently dead, so tell me about their relationship before the father died and in your mind, did that change at all once the father died? MM: Well, I think Harlan's--or Frankie’s--sense of responsibility changed after the father died. I don’t know from Adam’s point of view, certainly the relationship did not change, except that I think by the end of the movie, he is asking Harlan for things that his father used to take care of, like bills and things like that and making sure that he was not getting taken advantage of. In the script, there was a fair amount more about Frankie’s relationship to the father, which I missed to one extent, but all stories sort of tell you what they will bare and what they need. I think it’s because Adam himself is so present tense--his experience of the world is so present tense--that no matter how good Frankie was, if you spent too much time on a story that is retrospective, in some way it just did not fit into the movie, which I did not know that even from writing it. We found that out in editing. Harlan has known him since he has been alive, and Harlan and Adam’s father were in Vietnam and so… I’m trying to remember your question now. Hopefully Harlan gets something unexpected from Adam towards the end of the movie, which is nice. He sort of shames him into making a connection of his own. Capone: The focus of the film obviously begins and ends with Adam, but there is a moment in the middle in between those two months where it kind of shifts to Beth’s story a little bit more, with her family. Tell me about that transition, and why was that trial so important to this story? MM: I’m glad it worked for you. It is tricky, because in some way, its Adam’s story and in another it’s the story of the relationship, and in order for the story of their relationship to work, it felt to me like we needed to understand Beth’s investment. She needed to be at least as rounded a character as Adam for us to understand what she was getting from this relationship, or why she would be magnetized by him to a certain extent. I think that part of that had to do with her being at a moment in her life where she is being confronted on by lies in various ways, both in terms of the relationship that she has just been in and then sort of climactically for her, her sense of her family and who her father is and what the relationship between her parents was about that I think up until the time of the movie is kind of idealized in her mind and there is a sort of crumbling of that. At the same time, Adam presents another possibility in the world that is sort of diametrically opposed and finally she chooses neither, which is as it is. I think that the slick idealized figure of her father, or the romantic idealized figure of her father, is where she had been keeping on going to that well subconsciously for a long time, and even unconsciously he begins to whither and crack and all of that, so the possibility of Adam or something else sort of grows. Capone: I did consider that part of the reason she eventually started going out with Adam was to just rebel a little against her father, knowing that her father would not approve. MM: I think that is right. Capone: Not in a vicious way and certainly not in an insincere way. MM: I don’t have a judgment about the right or wrong about that, but I think we all do that. Capone: You would not be the first. I also love Adam’s relationship to the city. You spend a great deal of time showing us the corners of New York where he seems to feel safe, where by and large I think he does not feel safe without a guide, but going to work or going to the park or going to the planetarium.Can you talk a little bit about the role of the city in his life and in the film? MM: I grew up in New York as an only child, and I love paradox in general and New York is a sort of icon of paradox, so for me and for Adam in the sense that yes it is his comfort zone and showing the truth of that, of how sort of welcoming this unbelievably intimidating metropolis can be was the fun of that to me. It was like finding the nook or the place or whatever and then realizing that you are in this place that would otherwise feel incredibly intimidating and I guess that was kind of visually emblematic of what was going on in the story in terms of what you could get out of this relationship and what you give up. Capone: Yeah. Now you mentioned that you pulled some of your cast from theater. Rose and Hugh, I am guessing, you did not work with in theater, obviously two non-Americans. How did you find them? MM: My casting directors were huge fans of Hugh’s and they gave me some of his work. I’m embarrassed to say, but I think all I had seen at that point was ELLA ENCHANTED, because I have a seven year old daughter, so to me he was “The Prince,” so they gave me ELIZABETH, which I remember particularly with Helen Mirren in it and right as we were casting, EVENING came out, and whatever you do or do not think of that movie, he stood out in some very fast company between Vanessa Redgrave and Meryl Streep. I thought “Wow, that’s a pretty neat trick,” so we got him and he was interested enough to meet, so it started from there, and I had to get over his easy first impression of being charming and affable and confident. Capone: I was telling him how I found it fascinating how he would pick a role where he could not draw, as I put it “arsenal of charming behavior,” because he is quite the opposite. MM: It’s very funny, because he told me later that he had just turned down a role that his agent suggested that he take, and he was trying to figure out what it was and what he could say about the director, because he had had a couple of conversations and he finally called the director up and sort of had hit on it and he said “You know, my problem with this role is it does not scare me and I would really like to do something now that scares me.” He said that night he read ADAM and it scared him to death, and he thought to himself “Oh damn, I think I’m going to have to do this, because I've said it!” Capone: What about Rose? MM: Rose was another great… My producer and actually theater partner, we founded New York Stage and Film together a long time ago, Lelsie Urdang, was a big fan of Rose’s, so again they gave me a lot of work of hers and I was really impressed and thought that she would be great. We contacted her agent, and her agent said “Forget it, she's in India and she’s not coming back. She's doing her TV show and she is going to come back for that, and she was offered and turned down a big Hollywood movie where she plays so and so's girlfriend and she turned it down, so she’s not going to do your movie.” And our casting director was like “Just send her the script.” Finally, they sent her the script and we got word back two days later, “Yeah, I can come back to do this.” I thought “Serious Actor. That’s our girl!” Capone: They both mentioned--I’m not sure if this is a conversation you had with them or just sort of a mantra that you had while making the film--but they said “We kind of made the film thinking that no one would really see it,” not because of the quality, just because of the nature of smaller films. MM: I think that that’s a reasonable expectation for when you do any small budget movie and the Catch 22 is, yes, you may really like the people and you may really like the material, but you are pretty sure that it’s never going to be seen. Whereas if you do a bigger movie, you may not like the people, you may not like the material or some element may be way off, but it will be seen. So it says something wonderful about their relationship to their craft that they want to do it anyway and then once in a blue moon…[laughs] Capone: I was going to say, your Sundance experience must have been pretty exciting. MM: Oh yes, it was great, but you know what? For me, which was really annoying to my producers, we got into Sundance and I went “OK, everything else is gravy!” It was like “We got into Sundance and we are going to show it there and people are going to see it and ain’t that grand?” Then there was a sort of horrifying moment when you come face to face with “Oh, this is a movie that I have only ever shown to five or six people at a time,” and you realized when that lobby fills up and it’s 1,350 people or whatever it is. Hugh and I remember looking at each other and having the exact same feeling like “This movie is really small for this many people.” Then for the first five minutes I was sort of terrified and then you hear the audience start to go on the ride and then you get sort of greedy and you go “Oh, they really like this? I bet they will really like that,” and that was certainly the most fun part of the process, that first audience. Then at the end, their response was overwhelming. So that was the best thing about it, even thought everything else has been great. Still sitting and having an audience and having it be meaningful to audiences and have it be entertaining to audiences is the best part of it and then we had the classic Sundance experience. Actually, Peter had a screening of SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE; it was the 20th anniversary there, so we all went straight from our first screening to that screening, then after that screening our producers turned on their cell phones, and it was like the phones were screaming at them, like “Who turns off your phone after the first screening at Sundance?” Fox Searchlight had made an offer, which was good for that day, and we got whisked up to the Fox condo until two o’clock in the morning, which was a break open the champagne and signing papers and stuff. Capone: They have had quite a run with picking really solid smaller films. They are really better than anyone right now. MM: Their reputation, as far as I’m concerned, is unbelievably well deserved. I saw the first draft of the trailer and was like, “These people really know what they are doing!” Capone: Have you noticed a difference between now that it’s starting to show to non-festival audiences, is there a difference between the festival reaction and the real world reaction? MM: Not too much. Even at the festival, there was an audience there in Salt Lake City, which everybody said, “That’s a better gauge.” It was not that different, really. There are audiences that take it a little quieter and take it a little more seriously or whatever, and there are audiences that half kind of "laugh leaders" and those audiences tend to get lead in a direction of responding a little more vocally, but sitting in theaters my whole life, audiences are like that. Actually in Scotland, I went to Edinburgh FILM Festival, it was closing the festival, and that was an audience that was quite reserved, and they said, “Don’t worry, they were all Scottish.” Sure enough in Munich, the audience was raucous and the Germans were rolling in the aisles at ADAM. Capone: Germans know comedy. [Both laugh] MM: Who would have known that? I was a little frightened to got there myself. Capone: That’s great. Those were all of the questions I came armed with. MM: It was a pleasure talking to you! Capone: Thank you so much.
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