Amongst the bombast of colorful holiday fare this Thanksgiving season stands a very funny, emotional look at growing old that will captivate parents of any age. Joshua Leonard and Jess Weixler star in The Lie, which finds out how one absurd untruth can derail a family.
Joshua Leonard also co-writes, with Jess Weixler, Mark Webber, and Jeff Feuerzeig, an directs this emotional rollercoaster of laughs and cringe worthy moments. It's definitely a film you need to check out before the end of the year.
We recently caught up with Joshua Leonard to chat about fabricating The Lie. Here is our conversation.
I don't usually get too emotional when I watch a movie, but that last scene between you and Jess hits hard. The delivery on Jess' part is so natural, and honest. Was that in the script? Was it rehearsed? Or did that conversation, and those words, come out of that moment, there in front of the camera? Cause it's such a great moment, and it really gives the film an emotional gut punch...
Joshua Leonard: Aw, thanks man... Jess Weixler barely says anything in that entire scene. And then she has those two lines that absolutely take my breath away. Both of which were entirely improvised, by the way. The "I'm not proud of us anymore" and "You're a good dad". They're both simple. There is nothing showy about them. But her delivery, and when and where they come out, they just devastate me. She really tapped into something there. That scene...Let me backtrack for a second. The film is adapted from a T. Coraghessan Boyle story that I read in 2009, that I just absolutely fell in love with. We contacted T. Coraghessan Boyle and asked him if we could adapt it. In the middle of that, we had the audacity to go, "But we're going to have to change a lot of things." Because we're dealing with a first-person narrative story. You barely get to know anyone except the protagonist, and we have to make a three-act feature film. He was kind enough to let us not only adapt the story, but to put our own spin on it. Really, what the story established was the high concept of this guy telling this absolutely life-alerting lie. How that spun his life out of control. Lonnie, in his short story, was a commercial editor's assistant. He had the same general internal conflict. He was trying to hold onto his former ideologies, and battling with the responsibilities of his future. In figuring out the film, we had to find out who his wife was, and who these other people were. The Mark Webber character, Tank, is mentioned once in the story. So we had to make up his entire story from that clothe. He is in there to represent from whence this couple came. Tank was their pot dealer in college. He officiated their Pagan wedding ceremony. Now he is appalled that Clover, Lonnie's wife, is taking a job at a major pharmaceutical corporation. Lonnie is living this life where he is not taking responsibility for the most important things he has taken on himself, which are his wife and child. The short story ends where the third act begins. The short story ends where Lonnie gets confronted with this despicable, life-altering lie. He walks out the door, and in the short story, he walks away from his child, and he walks away from his marriage. He walks away from all of it. As a filmmaker, I was much more interested in...Because we have the time and freedom to play a little bit, to take these characters with real flaws...These aren't movie flaws, where the characters just work too hard, or they care too much...But real flaws, where the characters do real things and they hurt each other. Its altruistic. It's selfish. At the same time, they're not bad people. They live in fear. They make mistakes sometimes, as I certainly do, and have, in my own life. At the end of the day, the big lie in the movie is a placeholder for all of the little lies, and what the systemic problem is with their relationship. Which is much more a compilation of omitted truths. Where they have stopped telling each other things, and their relationship is no longer current. So there is this deeper lie between each other, in their own lives, in the way that they are living their lives. And it takes the course of the movie for them to really get back to that. Now, I am interested to get back to your original question after a huge detour. In wrecking everything, taking this couple to a seemingly irrespirable place in their relationship, and then seeing if, by telling the truth and having compassion for each other, they can get beyond it...Not to a perfect place, but they can work through it. Because I think that's what you have to do in a relationship. That's what that final confrontation, that sit down scene, is about. It's about taking the reality and the ugliness that we have just walked through, and having this couple go, "We have a kid. We love each other. Is there any hope for us? If here is, how do we go about finding it."
Maybe this is a dumb question, because I don't know your personal backstory too much. Maybe you and Jess have been married for five years and I don't know it. But how did you work through finding that onscreen chemistry. I know it sounds cliché, but watching the two of you on screen is like watching a real couple that has been together forever.
Joshua Leonard: Someone asked me about onscreen chemistry the other day. I think its one of those things. First you have it, and then you also build it. Jess and I met, probably a year before, on the festival circuit. She was touring with Peter and Vandy. I was touring with that film Humpday. I'd loved her in Teeth. There was a mutual respect there already. I think you just meet some people, and you say, "Oh, man, I want to get into the trenches with you. I want to get in the creative sandbox, and see what we come up with." Going in, we were both excited about working with each other, especially in terms of our style and similarities. Then, it became about the homework of the two of us building a credible history. Building a dimensionality around these two characters. Where they met, how long they've been together, what they like to eat. All of those very basic actor homework assignments, where you find out the texture and the specificity of what this relationship is.
In talking about the reality of this movie, these tiny lies that Lonnie tells, leading up to the big lie, are all things we've said at some point to get ourselves out of something. The lies are never outlandish, or play to any specific joke. How did you find that line of what seemed natural as a lie, and when a lie might be going too over the top?
Joshua Leonard: Part of it is...You would be amazed at how many people have come up to me and said, "Look, I've said that my dad died, maybe...But I've never said that about my baby!" You don't realize how taboo that one specific lie is. Because, of course, the vast majority of us have told a self-serving lie at some point. What we wanted to do was...Try to do our best job possible in showing a real character. To show the crisis that he is in. To show the motivation he would have to tell such a lie, but also not justify the lie at the same time. That is the point of the movie. What we've all heard as a child is that it's a tangled web. A lie rarely works out well. And it does not for our character. You also have to understand why he is doing this. There has to be some level of empathy there. Otherwise, he is jus a sociopath. Also, finding the humor in the film was a huge part of that. Letting people laugh at this hapless jackass. He doesn't mean too, but man, he keeps fucking up. (Laughs) Giving the audience permission to both cringe and laugh at Lonnie as he digs the hole deeper and deeper in his own life.
I was wondering about some of those moments of humor. One scene really sticks out in my head. There is this tense moment between Lonnie and his boss, and another co-worker. They think the baby has died, and they bring him a collection bag full of money. The audience is cringing the whole way through that uncomfortable moment. Then Gerry Bednob bends over, and we see his visible panty line. Like, what the fuck? It's too funny. How does that happen. Is that a moment that is discovered on set? Is that in the script?
Joshua Leonard: Honestly? I have watched this movie more times than anyone should ever have to. And I have never noticed that. So much of the film was improvised, and we were just following the actors as they went. The great thing about shooting like that is you do get some of those great moments where something magical happens. (Laughs) I know exactly the moment that you mean. But it was never planted to be a joke at that time. He leaned over, and I guess his pants were a little too low.
Its something you normally see on women. And this guy is such a surly fellow. It's the contrast of that, that made me laugh...
Joshua Leonard: You really watched this thing closely, man! Damn.
I have a bad habit of paying to much attention to the small details when I watch a film. The first thing my girlfriend said when this came on was, "Oh, my god! I love Jess Weixler. I need to watch Teeth again. Please, go buy that off of Amazon right now"...As you said earlier, that is what you remembered her from when you first met her...
Joshua Leonard: Oh, I love Teeth. I think that everyone should see it if they get a chance. It is hilarious. Especially, I think, for the men. It's a real horror film. I think she is fantastic.}
Yeah. My girlfriend waned to watch it again the minute she saw Jess come on screen. I guess its one of those true girl films...
Joshua Leonard: That's so funny.
Along with Jess and Jerry Bednob, you have some fantastic players in The Lie. How did you go about assembling the cast for this movie? Did you go through each character, and pretty much have someone in mind as you were writing this?
Joshua Leonard: The whole film happened so quickly. From the time I started writing the script to when we were shooting was only three and a half months. I don't get very many good ideas, but when I do, I hang onto it. Like a dog with his bone. From the moment I read the story, I pictured a bunch of my friends in it. I had the unfair advantage of having spent fifteen years as an actor, where I could just call on folks that I knew. I could beg them to come out and do me a favor. They could spend a couple days working on our independent film. I think that is the only way this film ever had a chance of being successful. I would be the director. We didn't have a lot of money. And the advantage that we did have is that I have a vastly talented group of collaborators around me who I already had relationships and established trust with.
When you know, and have worked with, your cast, does that make things easier on set?
Joshua Leonard: It really depends on the experience. Sometimes you walk onto a set, and everyone jells. Sometimes you wrap a movie after three months, and you still don't know your co-stars. For this particular movie, straddling the directing and the acting, I don't know that I would have ever been able to pull it off if I didn't trust my scene partner, my director of photography, my producing partner to call me out when I have reached the level of diminished objectivity...And be able to ask them, "Did I suck in that take?" And get an honest answer from them.
Jess, and Mark Webber, who plays Tank, both get screenwriting credits. Did they directly collaborate with you on the screenplay? Or did they work on it once you were finished?
Joshua Leonard: What we did was, I took the original short story, which was sixteen pages, which was phenomenal, but it needed a lot of work to translate it into a feature film. My buddy, Jeff Feuerzeig, who is a very talented writer in his own right, and I did a pass where we figured out who some of these other characters were, how we could propel this other story along. Try to hold people's interest for an hour and a half...We did a very rudimentary color pass. Then, Mark Webber and Jess Weixler, who were on the project almost from the moment we began, came in and built the texture and the specificity of those relationships. All of the actors brought a ton of personal information to their characters. Then, we shot using a fifty-page treatment. There was no scripted dialogue. All of the dialogue in the film is in the actor's own words. So, everybody knew what they had to do in terms of motives and obstacles in any given scene. But we didn't know before we shot it how that was going to be approached in the text. That's why they both get writing credits
I am at the age where most of my buddies that I partied with in college are having kids. They would love this Soul Crusher baby T. Is that something that exists? Or was that made specifically for the movie?
Joshua Leonard: Oh, the soul crusher shirt?
That would make a great Christmas gift...
Joshua Leonard: That wasn't made. It was photoshopped on after the fact. But, yeah. Someone should start making those shirts. I want a commission.