Jesse Zwick talks to The Wrap about working as a reporter at The New Republic, writing and directing the Tribeca favorite “About Alex”
In 2012, Jesse Zwick was a successful young journalist working for The New Republic, covering politics in Washington, DC. When he could find some off time from his hectic day job, however, he was working on a different kind of writing, churning out spec scripts and screenplays with his eye on heading west to Hollywood.
One of those spec scripts ended up earning Zwick a staff job on NBC's “Parenthood,” and so he returned home to the West Coast and began to forge his own path in the family business; his dad is Oscar-winning director/producer, Edward Zwick. After a year of working on Jason Katims’ domestic drama, another one of those scripts that Jesse had worked on back in DC, “About Alex,” got the green light and commitments from a star-laden cast, and so he suddenly found himself, just about a year after working in DC, directing the likes of Max Greenfield and Aubrey Plaza, among other big-name actors.
“About Alex” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, and earned strong reviews and great applause. It's a true ensemble piece, featuring seven co-leads. Jason Ritter takes on the title character, a depressed guy who attempts suicide as a sort of call for help, which unites his formerly tight-knit crew of best friends from college for a weekend of rediscovery and confrontation. Greenfield plays Josh, a cynical PhD candidate who hates on the future; Plaza plays idealistic but lonely Sara; Max Minghella is the geek-turned-successful financial maven; Jane Levy is his younger girlfriend; and Nate Parker and Maggie Grace are the one couple that made it all these years later.
Zwick spoke with TheWrap on Friday to discuss the film, taking inspiration from his own life, social media, and his transition from journalist to director.
Did you show this movie to your college friends?
Jesse Zwick: A couple of them were at the premiere last night. I think it's always weird. It's not literally them, but I did steal things here and there, and I think it is a weird experience when you read or see something that you recognize even a small part of yourself, you can't help but think the whole character is you. I think that probably was a little weird and led to a tiny bit of strain to have that experience, but they were there to support me and I'm happy to say we're all still friends.
In the last two years, you've gone from being a reporter at The New Republic to being a writer for “Parenthood” and now a film writer/director. Your head must be spinning.
At times, it felt like it was taking forever, because when you're focused on getting a movie made, every day just feels like, oh man I want to get there. But from all I hear and all I've talked to people, it seems like it happened remarkably fast and I feel very lucky about that. When I was in DC, writing, I was writing screenplays and pilots, and I wrote a pilot that allowed me to get that job as a writer on “Parenthood,” and I also wrote the first draft of this story while I was still in DC, and I kind of tinkered with it for a while, while I was first out in LA while I was out on the TV show.
Then there was a certain moment when I was trying to put together the movie when I was sort of on hiatus, and it wasn't quite a reality yet, but it started to seem like it might be, and I kind of had to make a choice about going back to the show or making this happen. It was a great choice to have, but it felt like in indie cinema, getting together funding and the kind of cast we had, making all the stars to align was such a rare thing that I just had to jump on it. Even though I would have loved a little more time to prepare, I just had to say here we go.
This had to be a story you've wanted to tell through your twenties.
Yeah, it kind of just came out and I'm happy that I was able to. It is small and personal and part of it was just trying to write a story that was just small and self-contained and on a budget, because I really just wanted the opportunity to make something.
You made Max, who had so many deep opinions about social media and modern technology, a PhD candidate, I assume so that he could just really enunciate his opinions and make it easier for you to deliver those thoughts through him.
For me, I didn't really have an axe to grind, I didn't want it to be one of those stories that said, “We think we're connected, but we're not and social media is horrible.” For me it was an exploration of the ways that that qualitatively affects the way we interact with one another, and what we learn and what we don't. We had different viewpoints within the story and people could express that, and Max took a very cynical and hard line, and Aubrey felt a different way, and everybody had a different way they relate to it. I think we have all those feelings, we're all those characters, in our attitude to it.
I like that anyone on a high horse gets smacked down almost immediately.
I didn't want it to be too preachy, or if somebody does get preachy, hopefully they get called for it in the movie itself.
Between your work as a journalist and on “Parenthood,” you've got the writing down. Which part of directing were you most worried about learning and doing?
The directing was very new to me, that's definitely how I sold it to people, the actors and producers. This is something I've written and I do have a certain vision for it and I can carry that out. That said, being on set is a slightly different story and there is so much going on. I was really lucky to work with an excellent DP (director of photograph), a guy named Andre Lascaris. I spent three weeks or so going through the script and shot listing, and that was really helpful in many ways because when I did get to set and there were 8000 other demands, I could leave a certain part of that in his hands and it allowed me to focus on the actors and performances in a way and I could know that I could trust him to do great things with the camera…
We didn't have a ton of time or money but I think he made a really beautiful looking movie. We shot most of it on dollies, we did very little hand-held sort of stuff, in part because we wanted it to feel like a slightly bigger movie.
Working with actors was also a slightly terrifying thing, in part because they all had so much experience on set, and working with directors than I had. Some of them had worked with incredible directors, famous ones, Denzel Washington and Clint Eastwood and all sorts of people. The only thing I kind of knew not to do was give line readings. I said I'm not going to do that and I'm basically just going to try to give them prompts and things to think about and try to help them when I can. I just tried to be really collaborative and work with them because I figured they all have something to add.
You do come from good blood lines, which had to help in some way.
Growing up, my dad was often on location on set, and I'd visit, but growing up it didn't seem like the thing I wanted to do, and growing up you discover that it seems exciting for ten minutes, but if you don't have a role, you feel useless and bored. So I'd visit my dad on set but I didn't often spend much time or pay much attention, because again, I didn't think I was going to be doing this, so I was like, ‘Oh man why do they keep doing the same thing over and over again.’ So I definitely learned things from him and got advice from him throughout the process.
It's a small contained film, so were you obsessive about coverage? Because if you're in a house nearly the whole time, it must be hard to mix it up…
It was a challenge because I didn't want necessarily to just cover every normal angle, but at the same time, when you have these kinds of fast talking complicated dialogue scenes, you want to get a certain amount of coverage to work with. It was a funny thing for me because when I wrote the story, I was certainly conscious of, I want to make it a small story, contained in one house, it'll be very easy to shoot, and on one level that was true, but on another level, I didn't really fully factor in the fact that every time you add another person to a scene, you kind of create this exponential situation of more angles to cover. Especially when everyone is talking to everyone.
So suddenly you have these seven character scenes that are five pages long and in these tight corners. We would shoot all night because we had one camera, so occasionally we'd have 21 set ups for a scene, a long scene that we were doing a few takes each, that was our whole night. The actors had to be real troopers and do it a lot of times.