Writer-director Dennis Lee discusses his feature directorial debut Fireflies In the Garden, assembling this all-star cast, future projects, and more
Like many directors before him, Dennis Lee made short films before making the big leap to features. He wrote and directed the shorts Jesus Henry Christ and God is Good before making Fireflies in the Garden, which hits theaters on October 14. I recently had the chance to speak with the writer-director about Fireflies in the Garden, which stars Ryan Reynolds, Willem Dafoe, Emily Watson, Carrie-Anne Moss, Ioan Gruffudd, Hayden Panettiere, and Julia Roberts. Here's what the director had to say below.
I read this is based on the Robert Frost poem of the same name, but there are also autobiographical elements in here as well. I was curious when this story was first hatched, and when you started writing it?
Dennis Lee: Well, the semi-autobiographical section of the story is the part where the mother passes away from a car accident. It was 1999, Easter Sunday, and my parents were coming home from service, and a car hit them and took away my mother. In the fall of '99, I started film school, which was fantastic. My first career was as a teacher, so going to film school just let me completely immerse myself in learning something different. I went to Columbia University, and their writing program is the main draw there. I got to write this script and, in its first incarnation, it was a wish-fulfillment script.
I was curious about the relationship between Jane and Michael. It's said early on that she's his aunt, but they both seem around the same age. I was curious how that dynamic really works?
Dennis Lee: Right, they are. They are really more like close friends, young Jane and young Michael. They relate more to each other as friends than anything else, but there is that generational difference between the two of them. That definitely came from something in my life where my parents were the youngest in large families. They had siblings who were 20 years older than they were, that sort of thing.
I enjoyed this ongoing theme that nobody is really as bad as they seem to be, and, at the same time, they are almost worse than they seem to be. It's interesting to see all of these secrets unfold and it was great to watch.
Dennis Lee: Good, I'm glad you enjoyed it.
This movie is just shy of 90 minutes, but I noticed that there were several different cuts throughout the process, when it was playing at different festivals. Can you talk about the process of putting together this version, and what kinds of things didn't make the cut?
Dennis Lee: The cut that was done for the Berlin Film Festival in 2008 was a cut that all the producers... the producers on this film have been amazing, Vanessa Coifman, Sukee Chew, and Philip Rose. It was one of those things were we felt that the cut was rushed. It was rushed for Berlin and compromised, in terms of the type of story we wanted to tell. I've been asked the question, 'How does it feel, four years later, having this movie released?' My answer, I think, takes some people by surprise, but it's really been a blessing. It enabled us to go back into the cut and re-cut the film we had originally intended it to be. So, thank God it got delayed by four years, because now it's a film that I'm proud of, and I couldn't say that before.
When you see the trailer and you think about a movie like this, you don't think of it as a 90-minute movie. There is a lot in this movie, but it doesn't feel forced or rushed, it plays itself out naturally, even though it's a lot shorter than dramas like this usually are. Was that how you approached this new take, to get as much in as you could without affecting the pace?
Dennis Lee: When we went in for the re-cut of this movie, all I wanted to do was to cut the film regardless of the running time. Before, it was a question of, 'OK, we have to hit this mark, or this number of minutes.' I never really understood why. It seemed totally arbitrary to me, so for this cut, all of that was thrown out the window. Let's just tell the story how it should be told, and if that comes out to be 80 minutes, great. If it comes out to be 110 minutes, that's fantastic. It just hit its natural point, its natural mark, at 80-something minutes.
This cast is just phenomenal. Were these guys all at the top of your list, when you were starting the casting process?
Dennis Lee: No (Laughs). I don't think any first-time director has the expectation of getting this kind of cast. The first person who read the script was Carrie-Anne (Moss). She really responded to the script and said she was on the project. After that it was Julia (Roberts), and when Julia came on, then the project took on this life. It just became this tornado that really opened up a lot of doors for us, in terms of the kind of cast we could get. Then came Emily, and she is one of my heroes. I still remember being in a theater watching Breaking the Waves for the first time. I was like, 'I don't care about Lars von Trier.' It was this woman who I had never seen before who was just absolutely mesmerizing. I've always just thought the world of Emily Watson. We cast almost all our women, pretty much right off the bat, but it was more difficult to find the right Michael and the right Charles. Ryan (Reynolds) was someone who was suggested to me by one of my producers, Vanessa Coifman. She had just come back from Sundance and saw him in a movie called The Nines, and she said I should watch it. I saw it and it was kind of eye-opening. I had only known him through the Van Wilder movies, and here was this guy who plays three different roles and plays them really well. It lead to a meeting and we were having coffee, and he's so intelligent. He is bright, but not only that, he's quiet, which surprised me. The quietness of Ryan is what convinced me he would make a great Michael, because that's what Michael does. He's quiet most of the time, unless he's with the children. The last one was Willem. I flew out to New York to meet him, and I thought it would be this two-hour discussion about the script and the character, that turned into a 10-hour conversation. I have never acted in my entire life, but I was acting opposite Willem playing Charlie. We would go through character motivations and needs and wants and rewrite dialogue. It was this fantastic opportunity to hone the script down and develop the character of Charlie. I remember I left thinking, 'Did that just happen?' (Laughs). I got there at 10 and I left around 9 or 10, and I just thought to myself, 'Wow, did I just spend 12 hours with Willem Dafoe?' (Laughs). He was great.
I really enjoyed all of the performances here, but Willem's stands out for me.
Dennis Lee: One of my favorite scenes is when he's upstairs with Michael and he needs that hug, you know. Just the insecurities that come out, and he just can't help himself. He was so great.
Since this is your first feature, and with a huge cast like this, what kinds of things took you by surprise which were easier than you expected or harder than you expected?
Dennis Lee: Well, it was easier than expected to work with the children. The children were an absolute joy to work with. Maybe part of that is because it's easier for me to relate to them, coming from my previous background as a teacher, so that part was just fantastic. The hardest part on any film set, I think, is just waiting, especially on an independent shoot where time is money, and money is a finite resource. When I invite friends or family to the set, they inevitably leave after an hour because it's completely boring. They're waiting for the next set-up. The entire cast, all of them, they were all so professional. They knew their lines, they knew their motivations. Rarely did we have to go beyond four takes. One take, two takes, then, usually, the third take was for them, they could do whatever they wanted. Without that kind of professionalism, we couldn't have made our schedule. They're great.
Is there anything that you're currently developing right now, as a follow-up to Fireflies in the Garden?
Dennis Lee: I did a movie last year. It's called Jesus Henry Christ, which is based off the short film that I did at Columbia. We'll see what happens with that right now. Deals are being discussed, and hopefully something will be finalized soon for that theatrical release. Apart from that, there is one passion project that I have that I would love to do, but I can't talk about it. It's a political piece, but my producers have said, 'You can't talk about this yet.'
Finally, what would you like to say to anyone who's curious about Fireflies in the Garden about why they should check it out in theaters on Octoebr 14?
Dennis Lee: Please, just come check it out and... yeah, please, just come check it out.
Great. Well, that's all I have for you. Thanks for talking to me, Dennis. I really enjoyed your film.
Dennis Lee: Oh, thank you. Take care, Brian.