The director of the new black comedy starring David Duchovny and Demi Moore discusses his intriguing and compelling film
Former graphic designer and commercial director Derrick Borte makes his feature film debut with the new black comedy The Joneses, which opened in theaters on April 16th. The film stars David Duchovny (The X-Files) and Demi Moore (Ghost) as Kate and Steve Jones, a seemingly perfect couple that are actually part of a fake family commissioned by a marketing company as a way to introduce new luxury-level products to neighborhoods around the world, using undercover marketing techniques. We recently had a chance to sit down and talk with Derrick Borte about the new film; it's commentary on consumerism and working with the talented cast. Here is what the first time director had to say:
To begin with, how did you first come up with the concept for this film and what do you think would happen if a real marketing company tried this method today, would they be successful?
Derrick Borte: Well you know, stealth marketing exists in a variety of ways from alcohol companies hiring models to go to bars and order certain drinks over and over again, to cigarette companies doing the same thing and things like that. Builders who have houses for sale outside of L.A. will do an open house with a furnished home and hire out of work actors to pretend like they are a family. They say it helps the house sell if people think that there is a happy family living there. So when I saw this on this news program, I think it was John Stossel or somebody who was talking about it, I immediately thought, what if you took it to the tenth degree and throw a family out there.
Then it was time to figure out what kind of story is it? Is it a broad comedy; is it a political dark thriller? I was fascinated by reality TV and what happens when you throw strangers into a house together and this "forced intimacy" that really causes people to end up in these strange relationships. I felt like I wanted the personal stories to be in the forefront against the backdrop of the stealth marketing and the consumer culture. I knew that if I tried to make some kind of message be in the forefront that it would be preachy and people wouldn't want to see it. So I really wanted the personal stories to carry people through and hopefully afterwards they want to talk about something, I don't know what?
I just feel like coming from a visual arts background I was always taught that you can't follow your work around with you anywhere to tell people what its about or try to influence how they feel about it. For me, I just wanted to kind of shine a light on something that I was seeing. It seems to strike a chord with everyone and yet it something different to each person. Its like a Rorschach test where you ask ten people who have just seen the film what they got from the film and they take something different every time. It's sort of a celebration of consumerism and an indictment at the same time. That's where I feel the film is successful for me, that it just makes people want to talk about it without being heavy handed about any sort of message at all.
Over the past ten years, Demi Moore has semi-retired for the most part and is very selective about the projects she chooses, how did you convince her to step back in front of the camera for this film and what do you think it was about the material that really attracted her to the project?
Derrick Borte: You know I got a phone call one day and someone said, "Demi Moore read your script; she really likes it and wants to meet with you." So I went and sat down with her and she really got it. Everyone was loosely swimming around the project and it just all came together in time. I know how selective she is and she was really just passionate about this role. I felt like we could work together. I felt like she would be collaborative and that she would respect my ideas and wishes yet she would bring a lot to the table that I could work with. The first time I saw the two of them alone in a room together, Demi and David, they had such a chemistry that I just knew that they could play a couple and that they were right for it.
Can you talk about the character she plays, Kate, and why she is so determined to make her fake family and new job a success?
Derrick Borte: I think she is someone who ... you know I had to constantly ask myself why someone would take this job? She's obviously someone who jumped into this job for whatever reason, where you drop your life and move on and live this fake life. I think it was probably some kind of a protective thing as well as her drive but it has really become a prison for her where she can't really have a real and fulfilling relationship. Yet maybe for her she has enough of a relationship, where she feels Motherly enough with the kids, has some sort of relationship with the husband where she gets to play a wife and sort of run a household in a way without it really tugging on the heartstrings. It's like she's being a wife and Mother by proxy in away where she doesn't have to deal with the potential heartbreak of what can come with that.
Can you discuss the idea of family in the film and through this "fake" family the commentary that you are making on the modern family?.
Derrick Borte: I really wanted to focus on the isolation that these people would feel within their house. When they're not working they're all in their separate rooms doing their own things, I see that happening here to us, in our own families. I'm in my office working, my wife is on her computer in another room, my daughters are off in their rooms a lot and I think it is something that definitely happens to real families a lot.
If you look at the roles that David Duchovny chooses for himself when he is not doing an "X-Files" project, they are all very interesting and unique films like "The TV Set" for example, and this film seemed to fit in to that mold perfectly, so what was it that told you that David would be right for the role and that this was the type of project that he might gravitate towards?
Derrick Borte: You know, once again like with Demi he really got the character, got the story and the way that I was trying to tell it. He was so giving with his ideas and we just riffed on ideas together when we first met. I knew that he would be great to work with. As far as his choices, that's a strange one to me and I always wonder why he's not looked at in the same category of a leading man the way a lot of these other guys are because he is so smart, so funny and so talented. I feel like his performance is so spectacular in this film, maybe this will turn a corner for him, I don't know?
David's character Steve spent his whole life as a golf-pro, a used car salesman or a con-man of sorts so it's understandable that he would adapt to this job quite well but when he begins to question the ethics of it, it shows a side of him that he seems surprised to find is there. Do you think that Steve's unethical job actually taught him morals that he didn't know he had?
Derrick Borte: That's a good point, its sort of like King Midas who gets everything that he thought he wanted and realizes that he doesn't end up with what he needs as a result or him finding a moral center that he did not know he had, you're right. It just had to be about the personal stories of all of them really. That was really what I was focusing on.
Gary Cole ("Office Space") plays Larry, Steve's next-door neighbor who unfortunately gets wrapped up in the Joneses lies and deceptions, can you talk about how Larry's downward spiral causes Steve to reevaluate his life and what it was like collaborating with Gary Cole on the film?
Derrick Borte: I think Larry could be a version of Steve in who he used to be in someway. Maybe what happens with Larry puts a mirror up to Steve in away. I think that he has found his soul that he didn't know he had prior to that but I think it is that they have a connection in someway. I think that Steve really likes Larry. You know, when Larry gives him a gift, I think at first he's a mark, he's a target but once he sees that Larry is a good person it makes him question why he's doing what he is doing.
Gary is really, and I mean this in the best of ways, he's sort of a lunch-pale-kind-of-guy. He is so good at his job, he comes to work, he gives you so much, he is maintenance free, he just loves what he does and its obvious. It's easy for people who have been doing this for a long time to not realize how fortunate they are. This is work but who could ask for a better job? He really seems to be a guy who appreciates that on a daily basis and is so good at what he does. All the actors in the film are like that. Glenne Headly, who plays his wife in the movie, is on that same level.
Finally, as a first time director what did you learn about the process of making feature films that you will be able to take with you to your next project?
Derrick Borte: Before I started, a few people said to me that as a first time director people are going to test my vision and that I have to hold on to it pretty tight. I couldn't disagree with that more, in that if you have this iron-fisted grip on your vision of something then there are only two things that can happen, you're either going to hit that mark or fall short of it. Where is if you surround yourself with great people, foster an environment and spirit of collaboration, allow people to bring to the table what they do best, allow for happy accidents, growth and the process to be what it is, then that is the only way that you can ever come back with something that is beyond your vision. To actually go beyond it was my favorite part of this whole process. To actually get to explore the material, and the characters, and all these actors were so collaborative and brought ideas to the table. It allowed me to sit back and still guide things but not be heavy handed, to give them space to work. I think that they responded well to that and that is the only way that I want to work.
I think the biggest thing on a feature is to give your-self options in the edit room. It's not just a question of getting what you think is going to work in production, it's a question of getting it and then having some fun with it, trying some other things so that once you are in the edit room you have options. You kind of rewrite a film in the edit room anyways so the more options you have the better. That's really the biggest thing that I took from it, shoot anything and everything you can think of, whether you are going to use it or not but try different things and have fun. Get what you need but leave room for surprises? I've worked in commercials, production and post-production, directing for years so it's really like, on a commercial when you're working with an agency and they have a script, there really isn't a lot of room for experimenting. There is not a lot of room for deviating from the script, you know, they don't want you riffing on the material. So that was my favorite part of this was the freedom.
I feel very fortunate that all the actors in this film really appreciate their lives and was happy to be there. Like kids, they were just having fun, playing with the material and it was such a wonderful experience that I'm ready to get back on set again. I feel like in my daily life, when there is not a lot going on, I'm kind of a little hyperactive and stressed but when there is a set with a couple hundred people running around and the pressure is on, I feel like everything else stops and I'm in the moment and I can't wait to get back to that place. Hopefully it will be soon as I'm scheduled to direct a project called The Zero. It's an adaptation by Brandon Boyce who wrote Apt Pupil and Wicker Park of a Jess Walter novel. It's actually my favorite book that I've read in my life. I pursued it for a long time and got a really wonderful producer and friend of mine on board, he got the book and hopefully we'll see the first draft of the script in the next week or so. Hopefully we'll be in pre-production quickly and I'm excited.