IN A SIT-DOWN WITH JENNY SLATE, DIRECTOR MARC WEBB TALKS CHILD ACTORS, SIMPLICITY IN FILMMAKING AND HIS LATEST PROJECT, GIFTED
Interview by Jenny Slate | Photography by Zach Gross
In Marc Webb’s upcoming film Gifted (out April 7), a blue-collar bachelor named Frank, played by Chris Evans, is raising his child prodigy niece Mary (played by Mckenna Grace) and is pulled into a custody battle with his own mother—the crux of the conflict being the young girl's school life. Frank wants Mary to have a normal education while Frank’s mother has other plans. Jenny Slate plays a schoolteacher who has recognized the mathematical ability of the young girl and developed a close relationship with her.
Webb has said he chose to direct Gifted because it was a step away from the choreographed intensity of his films Spider-Man and 500 Days of Summer, and his earlier career in music videos (Green Day, Maroon 5). The film is stripped down and relies heavily on the raw emotional performances of Slate, Evans, young Grace and Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer. For Malibu Magazine, Slate interviewed Webb over the phone, and talked about Webb’s process, his relationship with actors and his desire to direct a warm, minimalistic film that manifested in Gifted.
JS What is the main change in your process from your first film to the most recent film, Gifted?
MW I am much more comfortable collaborating with actors and more respectful to the script, and I try to adhere to the spirit of it. People react to humans on screen, not just words. The gift writers give us—the words, structures, story, beginning, middle and end—is the foundation, and I am more comfortable with thinking on my feet and understanding context. I am more comfortable trying to engage in something spontaneous. A lot of my processes I developed when I worked on music videos. [It’s like] when you are doing stand-up, you exercise certain muscles, and you get comfortable with being present. Some of my process remains the same in that regard. I’m less susceptible to people badgering me from the studio and being fearful of that.
JS I think being affected by other people’s wants and desires is a big part of [growing]. As you look at the timeline of your work, do you feel it represents how you have changed as a person, and is it as valuable to you as the work is?
MW I think [it’s] hard to understand [as a director] why you engage with a movie or a story at any one time. A lot of it is chance, and it does connect to something. [With Gifted], I have nieces who are Mary’s age, and I think about them a lot. One of them is very good at math, and it was an easy thing to connect to in the script. There are other reasons: It may reflect where I am at as a human, but not in an obvious way, not just because I’m thinking of childhood or education. I wanted to do a small movie that was minimal, where I could go off and be creative, and not be obliged by a huge crew. The process was a need to get back to my roots and do something very simple with people I liked and cared about and could relate to. This is reflected in the movie, but not in an obvious way. The protagonist was not about finding simplicity for himself; it was, in a way, the opposite—someone who was trying to engage in more complex relationships but not sure how to do it.
JS That is the essential human struggle. You have directed a lot of movies and music videos. 500 Days of Summer (2009) was a very musical film. This was a different type of movie, but would you say there is a musical element to it?
MW Not in an explicit way. Math prodigies often have an overlap of math talent and musical talent. There is that sequence in Gifted in which Bonnie [Slate’s character] is connecting with Mary. It was all about connection, the whole intention was about making eye contact with her. I couldn’t crack that sequence until I listened to the music from the soundtrack of The Untouchables. It was a very romantic sequence. The pinnacle is when [Mary] looked up to you and smiled. It was a very subtle thing where the girl connects to that person, and a very deep moment where she realizes she has a friend. I would have never gotten to that moment without listening to music. It is just a part of the process and helps me meditate. It is not reflected musically in the film itself, but it is how I think and get myself away from the world and get in touch with myself.
JS What do you think you learned about working with a young actor, and what would you do again or not do?
MW Every kid has their own language, and learning how to speak that language is a very powerful thing. They are still developing it, and they have their own words, pauses, securities, insecurities. I think in terms of what I learned, Mckenna was pretty extraordinary because she could act out emotions on cue and could get to places [we] needed to get to in order to have that really ... emotional experience. I think that is raw talent and extraordinary, having looked at all actors we did. Dealing with more groups of kids, you can’t fake it. In order to get authentic behavior, you need to create a situation where they are feeling those feelings but, of course, less traumatically because you need to protect kids in those regards. It is a fun type of directing; you create a scenario where they need to feel, and you put a camera 10 feet away so they are unaware, and you record like a documentary. That was the process we developed in the movie that was very fun. We had a code word; when we said “Garfield” that meant to roll camera without saying action.
JS [Laughs.] I didn’t know what that meant, and I didn’t want to seem like an amateur, so I never asked.
MW We brought the kids in, and they behaved like they were in class and became the best actors in the world.
JS Part of what is interesting for me about working with you is that you respect the fact that everyone has his or her own code, and there isn’t one way an actor is going to work. It is demoralizing if they are forced to do it one way. One thing you said to me is that I could say 70 percent of what you asked and 30 percent of whatever I feel like. You created a really safe environment on the set, and we all became truly close—went out to dinner on the weekend and played games and became close friends. Did you feel it was important for this closeness to happen, that you had to get yourself very deep and be the leader of the closeness or set yourself aside? What was the balance for you?
MW I think I needed to feel warmth. Having just come off of these big movies that have powerful global presences, as a human I needed to be nourished. In a way, I was careful to select humans that were not just actors but allowed for that warmth. I have never felt like I needed to sacrifice myself. I learned that if people have possession of their own characters and departments, you will get a richer experience because of it. People tend to be respectful if I request something specific, but I am allowing people to have a fullness of their characters. In terms of the closeness, I feel like I needed that in that moment of my life. And given the warmth of the movie, it was really crucial. I thought there was a version of the movie with a lot of warmth there, and I tried to photograph that and keep it edgier in how we executed it so it wouldn’t be as contrived as it could be. I think it required naturalism. That kind of filmmaking is very specific and less rigid and more fun.
JS It was very fun. In addition to the naturalism, there is a “bayou-feel” of the movie, which is such a specific environment. What else would you say are the major differences with Gifted and The Amazing Spider-Man or 500 Days of Summer? Those are more heightened films, whether it’s heightened action or magical realism. With 500 Days of Summer, when I think of that movie I think of a big, red, cartoon heart—I think of candy, and it’s wonderful and makes you feel a specific appetite.
MW 500 Days of Summer was really technical. There was no improvisation. There was the “reality/expectation” sequence, and [the actors] had to hit their marks at an exact pace—the camera moved, and it was really rigid. I like that kind of filming; it was what I did with music videos. With Gifted, I didn’t want to be obliged to a technique. We kept everything handheld, and we shot everything on location. There was a very simple filmmaking philosophy. The lighting was pretty natural. We didn’t have a huge lighting unit, and it was there to make as little of a footprint as possible. Even at the beginning of the movie, there is no credit sequence. I just wanted to be minimalist. I didn’t want to show off. I was just watching To Kill a Mockingbird, which is an incredible movie and will bring you to tears in 20 minutes, there’s so much good shit in it. And there is a great little opening credit sequence with the box [of trinkets] that Scout collects, and I thought, “Oh, I should’ve done that.” And then I was like, “No.” I wanted to keep it simple, and that was the philosophy I was going to adhere to. I didn’t want to make it technical; we weren’t using special effects or green screens. [We kept it] very real and very natural; we were not trying to show off and just keeping it about performances. I think it really worked. I think when audiences watch the movie, they respond to a very honest, very warm movie. It’s refreshingly uncomplicated and un-cynical. I liked that, and I’m proud of that—even if it isn’t a director’s showpiece. It reassures the audience about positive things, about nontraditional families. I really believe in the message and warmth of it. It is important to put out into the world.
JS Going forward now, especially with the way that our world is and a sense of anxiety and aggression and a sense of others feeling being pushed out, do you feel a responsibility or inclination toward creating more work like this that has warmth?
MW I think there are so many different, great things to do with art, and not all of it is being warm. I think you have to challenge yourself and be intellectually rigorous. Movies that are daring and propose ideas that are uncomfortable to people are really important. Those aren’t always warm movies. I was [in the middle of] making a movie when Trump got elected ... and half of our crew was pro-Trump and half were Hillary supporters. It was a complicated situation. Every filmmaker I know had an awakening in that moment and felt like we have to do something about this, and whatever that may be is personal. It made everyone sit up and take notice. ... Your question was about warmth. I think it’s an important component but not the only system that needs to be firing. MM