Writer-director Jon Kasdan discusses his high school romantic comedy The First Time, currently available on DVD
Writer-director Jon Kasdan has filmmaking in his blood, as the son of director Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, Silverado), and the brother of Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story). After making his feature directorial debut with 2007's In the Land of Women, he brings us his follow-up The First Time, debuting today on DVD. This tale of high school love stars Dylan O'Brien as Dave, a young man who pines for the most popular girl in school (Victoria Justice), even though she only thinks of him as a friend. One day, Dave meets Aubrey (Britt Robertson), a girl from a nearby school who, through a series of awkward events, becomes Dave's true first love. I recently had the chance to speak with Jon Kasdan about his romantic comedy, and his first professional writing gig ever, on the beloved but short-lived show Freaks and Geeks. Here's what he had to say.
I saw that you started out doing some TV writing before moving into features, like Freaks and Geeks, which is still one of my favorite shows.
I love that show so much.
Jon Kasdan: Oh, thank you. I wish I could take more credit for it. My brother (Jake Kasdan) directed the pilot, and I was at NYU in the filmmaking program. They were staffing up, and I had written a script that was sort of floating around Hollywood about growing up in L.A. and so forth. There was this anxiety that sort of happened in the staffing of Freaks and Geeks, where they realized that every one of the writers was in their late 30s. It was a show entirely about teenagers. I think in one of the meetings, Jake said, 'Hey, my brother wrote a script about high school. You guys should read it.' They read it, and they hired me to write one script, and the result was that I sort of got to be in the room and present for that experience. It directly lead me to some other TV writing, and it was a great way to start out.
That's awesome. Coming from that background, also writing for Dawson's Creek as well, can you talk about the transition between TV and features? Was there something about that TV experience that helped you out and lead to features?
Jon Kasdan: It's a tough transition. I will say that, for everyone in my family, everyone I'm related to had done some work before they directed a movie. But, when they finally did direct a movie, including myself, it sort of came down to this thing of writing a script that was of a scale that was reasonable enough so that you could say to people, 'Well, if you like this thing, you're gonna have to let me direct it.' That's always the scariest moment, because a lot of people say 'No thanks.' If you're really lucky, you find someone who likes the material enough to take the risk. That's how I got my first directing job, and a lot of people, not just my family, but a lot of people I know also. It definitely does help encourage people you can do it if you've had some experience. Certainly, working in television is a rat race of a world, and it helps studio executives imagine that you may be able to direct a movie, but it's always a leap of faith when someone lets you direct your first movie.
When did you craft this story for the first time? Was this something you had on paper even before your TV stuff?
Jon Kasdan: It's the kind of thing that was certainly related to my own stuff, my personal childhood and experiences, specifically just wandering around and driving around in hopes of meeting a girl (Laughs). That's sort of been in a lot of the writing I've done, over the course of my life. It sort of evolved, and there's been elements of that thing in a lot of different scripts that I've written, that have never been made, and are problematic for different reasons. The way that I tend to work is I'll write a script, and I'll feel like it doesn't work. Then I'll feel bad about it for a couple of years, then I'll come back to it and say, 'Well, there was this one thing in it I liked, so maybe there's a re-phrasing of that idea, in some other concept, that could work.' This one, it had been about four years since I had last made a movie, and I was frustrated and nervous that I would never do one again. I wanted to do something so small and inexpensive, that you could almost make it for no money. You could Kickstart it if you needed to. Between the seed of an idea that's been in a lot of my work, and that impulse to make something very feasible, this thing sort of came up.
There is really a diverse array of talent in the cast, from Dylan O'Brien and Britt Robertson, Craig Roberts, even Molly C. Quinn from Castle. Was everything just hitting on all the right cylinders when you went out to cast this?
Jon Kasdan: I'm surprised you even saw Molly C. Quinn in there (Laughs). She's a great girl, but she didn't have enough to do in my movie. Some of it just didn't make it into the final movie, but that's always a thing. Sometimes you get people so great, and you just can't use them the way you wish you could. The struggle this movie has had, through right now, is it's very hard to make a movie without movie stars, to get any kind of exposure for it. There's no one to blame but myself, since I wrote it for exactly that reason. I wanted to write something that was young kids. In my first movie, there was Kristen Stewart and Adam Brody and Meg Ryan. Specifically, Kristen and Adam, I had a really great experience working with people that young, who were not yet formed and really movie stars at all. There was something very exciting to me about that, and I enjoyed it. I liked the idea of making a movie that wouldn't be dependent on casting some huge star that has an enormous amount of power, and just finding some kids that I liked and who I thought had the potential for that. In all honestly, if I'm cocky about anything with In the Land of Women, and there's very little I am because I have big problems with that movie, it's that I was able to see clearly, whether you like her as an actress or not, that Kristen had some real potential, in terms of star power. When I wrote this thing, part of me thought that it's possible that I could locate a kid that had exactly that kind of potential. Sometimes, even by the time the movie has come out, they've realized that potential. A perfect example is, if you make a movie with the wonderful girl from The Descendants, Shailene Woodley, if you made that movie between the year they finished that and when that came out, you'd certainly find a big star. Sometimes that happens, and that's something you can never predict. What I'm getting at is when we went in to cast this movie, we just read everybody. There was no requirement on how famous anyone had to be, or whether or not it would sell in the foreign markets. We just thought we'd find people who were exciting. We read everybody for the two leads, and when we arrived at Dylan and Britt, I cast the other parts almost entirely with people I had loved for the lead, but weren't exactly right. Craig Roberts, who is in the wonderful movie Submarine, had come in to read and clearly was one of the funniest guys I could find. James Frecheville from Animal Kingdom came in, and he was really exciting and dynamic. It was really an organic process of auditioning and whittling it down to who we liked. Christine Taylor was the exception to the rule. She was someone who had worked with the casting director, and the casting director suggested the possibility that we could get her. I was excited by it, partly because I thought she made sense as Britt's mom, and she agreed because she's the sweetest person in the world, to come and spend a day with us. With Joshua Malina, he's someone I've admired for a decade, from Sports Night through The West Wing through all of his work. When I wrote the movie, he was the first person I asked to do it.
You had him in mind while you were writing it?
Jon Kasdan: There were like two people I were thinking could play this part, and he was one of them. I really wanted him to be in the movie, and I've always really wanted to work with him. I just think he's got the greatest timing of almost anyone.
I can't imagine you had a very inflated schedule in shooting this. I believe you shot in Northridge and other parts of L.A. Was there anything specific you were looking for, in terms of locations?
Jon Kasdan: We didn't have an inflated schedule and, when you're shooting a movie, you think, 'This is impossible. It's never going to happen.' And you just barely get it. You become very aware of all these stories you hear about people who are making movies for $50,000 and they shoot it for 10 days. Then you see the movie, and sometimes, they're really good. Sometimes, you think, 'Man, I could barely get it done in 25 days.' I think, to some extent, no matter what your schedule is, it's always a struggle. My first movie was something like 40 days, and that was a struggle. Whatever the parameters are, you find yourself just barely making it. With this, I had intended it to be somewhere in the Midwest, like Michigan or Chicago. Your number one priority is 'How can I get the most resources to make the movie in the most time?' Wherever I can do that, I'll do that. We ended up shooting in L.A., and I wanted to do a version of shooting in L.A. where it could pass for something else. We drove around and we found what we wanted in that area of Northridge. I took the attitude that this whole movie took place in this little universe. Part of it has to do with it's a movie that takes place in such few locations, and we're able to distill it pretty easily.
Is there anything you're working on now that you can talk about?
Jon Kasdan: Yeah. It's funny, because when I heard we were going to talk, I realized I had spent the last five months writing, and I have not thought about The First Time at all. I was worried that I had forgotten, but I'm O.K. No, I've been working on an action picture for Universal, a rewrite of a clever script about a Risky Business type of movie called My Spy. It's exactly what it sounds like, but it's sort of in the spirit of Risky Business and a little bit of Superbad, I guess. I'm excited about it, but you never know with these things. They're always big maybe's, and certainly with that one, it's a larger movie. So yeah, I'm finishing that script then hopefully I'm going to start writing something else.
Jon Kasdan: They should pick it up because I think it's a sweet high school romance, and that's all it was ever intended to be. I'm proud of the kids' performances, and I think they were able to convey exactly what I hoped it would be, which is a little movie that's about, very literally, what it's like to start to like someone, and that weekend of falling in love. I certainly had that experience, and if they were able to capture even a little bit of what that feels like, I think it works.
Thanks so much, Jon. It was a pleasure to talk to you.
Jon Kasdan: It was a pleasure to talk to you too. Take care.