Lee Toland Krieger, The Vicious Kind
Opening with a blistering, misogynistic monologue by Caleb (a terrific Adam Scott), a newly unemployed construction worker who’s recent breakup has left him with an unquenchable hate for all things feminine, The Vicious Kind seems to announce its intentions very quickly: dramatizing the bitterness of a young, damaged man and the toll his misanthropy exacts on his small, middle class New England family over one long holiday weekend as his virginal brother (Peter Frost) and his gothy, bright eyed girlfriend (Brittany Snow) also return for Thanksgiving. However, as it slowly unwinds, The Vicious Kind reveals a family torn apart by long buried secrets and recriminations that can only be papered over with more deceit and subterfuge in ways that resonate long after its surprising final passages. This Sundance 09′ laureate is a throwback of sorts; shot in cinemascope 35mm, it has a widescreen expressiveness that is rare in low budget work, yet tells an intimate, four character story that is the stuff of Kammerspiel.
A bread and butter indie that focuses on a small cadres of terrific performances, Lee Toland Krieger’s second film, following his debut feature December Ends, gets great mileage out of its a terrific cast and quietly stunning lensing. Krieger, a 2005 graduate of USC’s School of Cinema and Television, inspired by the indies of yesteryear, began writing the film when he was just 22. We caught up with the young director to discuss his working methods, getting back to the type of adventurous indies that the mid 90s offered and just how much he gained from working at Executive Producer Neil LaBute’s production company.
The Vicious Kind opens in Los Angeles this friday.
Filmmaker: Its increasingly rare to see smaller to midlevel indies shoot in such well executed widescreen 35mm. Did you always conceive of the film in that format? What informed that choice and how were you able to persuade your producers to take on the expense?
Krieger: I’d like to think it’s coming from some of the influences my DP and I talked about when making the film. We were going for a Terrence Malick style of shooting, or to cite a more contemporary example, David Gordon Green, who was working in a similar style, at least before Pineapple Express anyway. [Laughs]. There’s a photographer and DP working right now named Adam Kimmel who shot Capote and Lars and the Real Girl. All of these directors and DPs, the three of them, have this quiet way of taking coverage. There tends to be an economy to the way these guys shoot. So when they decide to move the camera or they decide to come in for a close up or an extreme close up, it counts for something because of that economy. To cite the 180 of that, they are not working in a kinetic, all over the place, Michael Bay style of shooting, and nothing against that, it suits certain films, but its hard for any piece of coverage to stick with you or sink in. I think that for a film like this, which is really four talking heads in a sleepy town, we wanted to pick a style that would open up our actors to be able to work within the space, do anything, and not let the mechanics of the filmmaking get in the way. You see it in a lot of Woody Allen films, where he acknowledges that the films are about his writing and the performances, not about showing off what he can do with a camera. It doesn’t fit the world he’s trying to create.
Filmmaker: The genre in which you’re working here, the holiday family reunion rife with conflict, is a well worn indie mode. What drew you to it and how did you go about reinvigorating it?
Krieger: I was trying to write a tough little character piece about a small family. A lot of it comes from my own father, son experiences. I fortunately have a very good relationship with my father but that’s not to say there haven’t been times when it’s been tough to be a son and tough to be a first born. Any guy who’s had any sort of relationship with their father can understand and relate to that. So it sprouted from writing this Caleb character, I had this character in my mind and the story developed around him. The Robert McKee’s of the world probably have curdling blood when they hear something like that, because it doesn’t involve coming up with a concept and a great hook and being able to describe the story in twenty five words or less, but that was the genesis. What would make a guy like Caleb, who is so righteous in his ways, more vulnerable than anything would be returning home to a place that in so many ways made him who he is. So trying to pull back the psyche, layer by layer, that was the idea, what can we really do to make a guy like this squirm? Bring him back home and put him in a situation where a guy like that is a vulnerable as he can be. I didn’t want to do the veteran returning home. I’ve seen on some message boards that people compare the film to Dan in Real Life. I think the majority of those people see the two brothers in love with the same girl sort of thing and I get that but to me the story is as much about a father son relationship as it is about two brothers and the girl that they’re both drawn to.
Filmmaker: Your cast includes Adam Scott and J.K. Simmons, both of whom you get terrific work from while playing roles that are outside of the more broad and comedic stuff they’re known for. Simmons father in this film bears little resemblance to the one he played in Juno. How did you go about casting and working with them?
Krieger: I wasn’t super familiar with Adam’s work when we started the casting process. I knew of him from his really nice supporting part in The Aviator, where he plays Howard Hughes’ publicist, but I really didn’t know what his story was. My casting director and I were going through lists and she brought him up and I said “yeah, I know him, I like him, but I need to do my homework”. His agent sent over some stuff and I was really blow away by the wide variety of stuff he’s done. He’s a relatively well-kept secret at this point. We decided to make and offer and I think Adam responded to it, and like the rest of the cast, he found the humor in it. So we sat down and the first thing he said to me was “this seems funny to me, is it supposed to be funny?” I said, “absolutely”. That was a big sigh of relief. I knew we had seen him do dramatic stuff, like in Tell Me You Love Me, and of course the comedic stuff, such as in Stepbrothers or Party Down, but to see him do a blend of the two seemed like a nice opportunity. I’d seen him do both, but not both at the same time.
J.K. is one of those guys who I think everybody knows his face because he works so much. He was one of the guys we thought of right away. He was hot coming off of Juno, but he’s such a wonderful actor and we’d heard from everyone that he was the most delightful person to work with. J.K.’s MO is I do material that I like, weather it’s a big movie, small movie, TV, payday, not a payday, and fortunately for us we sent it to him and he liked The Vicious Kind. We met, got along great.
He and Adam are both highly trained actors. Beyond bringing those tools that they have everyday, they both have great respect for the material. I say that less about preserving my ego on set, but about how they both come in and know exactly what they want to do with the material. They have everything down, they’ve made some choices, but they’re willing to loosen the screws and try different stuff, even if its wildly different from what’s on the page. Not that its about coming in a trying to change everything on the day. There is, especially for Adam, a lot of tough material for the actor. We just cast the roles really well. I think both were waiting for really meaty roles that combine their comedic and dramatic skills.
The last scene J.K. is in really illustrates his professionalism. He’s talking to Peter at the train station and gets a little choked up. For any actor in that role, it would be the toughest scene. We shot that on our very first day of photography. It wasn’t by choice mind you. J.K.’s schedule was such that we had to shoot him out at the top of the schedule and we had to shoot that scene first. A lot of actors would have made a stink about having to come out first day and knock that out. But J.K. is one of these extremely talented, trained guys who just comes in and knocks it out. For me to watch a pro like that work was such a learning experience everyday. As a young director, to have actors like J.K. and Adam respect what’s on the page and come in and not try and fuck with this young director was really nice. They brought what they were going to bring to it, we worked on it a little bit and that was sort of that. Maybe it was too easy of an experience on me because I know if I’m fortunate to direct more movies, there may be actors out there who will rake you over the coals and run you through the ringer. I might not be prepared for that because my previous experience with Adam, J.K., Brittany [Snow] and Alex [Frost] was so positive.
Filmmaker: What did you glean from your first experience as a director with December Ends, which was made for significantly less, that you were able to apply to this film? What knowledge did the process of making The Vicious Kind give you that you’ll apply going forward?
Krieger: You’ve got to cast your film right. You have to crew up properly. Especially when you don’t have a ton of money and you’re offering both your cast and crew less than they are used to be paid and less than they probably ought to be paid. You’ve got to find people who really want to do the job. In my first experience doing a film for $80,000, I wasn’t relentless in finding people who wanted to do it just to do it. The work suffered and my experience suffered a bit because of it. With The Vicious Kind, I think my casting director and I were relentless in finding the right people. Not just the right kind of person for the role, but also the kind of person who was not going to make the experience shitty because they’re doing a little million dollar movie and they don’t have the kind of things that they’re used to.
What I learned on The Vicious Kind was that, and perhaps this is obvious, but actors like to be directed. In my experience and talking to directors who’ve worked a lot longer than I have, actors want you to give them direction. Its something I fell a bit short on with this film and would like to improve upon the next time around should there be one, to really not be afraid to direct the actors. A lot of times, especially early on in the shoot, I had this feeling of, “well, J.K. Simmons has been acting for thirty-five years, I’ve not been living that long, why the fuck should he have to listen to me. What do I have to tell him?” The bottom line is J.K. and Adam and even Brittany and Alex have more experience working that I have. Yet being the writer, I have an advantage, in that I’ve spent more time with this material than anyone. I do have an opinion about it. That doesn’t mean I have to go all Otto Preminger on them, [Laughs], but it does mean I shouldn’t withhold thoughts on it simply because I feel they have to be right because they’ve been doing it longer. I think next time I’ll be even more relentless in getting every beat exactly as I have it in my head, as long as the actors are comfortable and taking it there. I not disappointed in any of the performances they gave, I think they’re all quite good, but the actors are putting their faith in me and I owe it to them to be relentless to finding the very best beats in every moment of the film.
Filmmaker: Neil Lebute (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, Nurse Betty) is listed as one of your executive producers and one can’t help, when watching your film, but associate the interest your film has with the various manifestations of misogyny and masculine cruelty with the themes he frequently explores in his films and plays.
Krieger: When I was at USC studying film I interned for Pretty Pictures, which is Neil’ production company. I didn’t get to know Neil at all in that period because he wasn’t in the office, he was out making films and spending time in London and all over the world with his plays. What I did get to do was spend a lot of time with his material. The first thing I did when I started interning there was read all of his plays and screenplays. I spent a lot of time with his stuff, trying to figure out what’s worked for him, because he’s got a voice and he’s been able to find a niche with that voice and he’s been very successful because of it. I was draw to his work for the same reasons a lot of people are. It’s got an edge, it’s got a bite. I like that it made me feel uncomfortable at times. I don’t think everybody should be writing Kate Hudson romcoms. I like those films as much as the next guy but sometimes I need something to make my stomach churn a little bit. That was the beginning of getting to consider how I wanted to approach my writing.
When I wrote The Vicious Kind it was kind of out of this attempt to do something that… it was an attempt to write something that had a bite in the same way that films in the early to mid 90s did. I’m talking specifically about American movies. You had this nice little window where you had films like In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Buffalo 66’, they all felt like a rebirth of that John Cassavetes sort of filmmaking where American filmmakers were looking around and saying, “you know what, the Europeans kind of have us beat here and we got to change the game a little bit.” The films of that era, before we got into the indiewood movement, were so interesting, you had so many voices emerge out of that era. They were trying to make films that were going to get bought by specialty divisions for huge numbers. They were films that were saying we want to create different characters and stories than the studios are, that’s how we’re going to separate ourselves. We’ve all seen the Little Miss Sunshine’s of the world take over the festival circuit. They become platforms for studio jobs for the filmmakers. I like those films, I’d like to maybe make a studio movie one day, with The Vicious Kind I really wanted to do something that wasn’t necessarily accessible to everyone and had a bite and didn’t have a story structure that every studio exec would love.
Watch Ben Kingsley’s performance in Sexybeast. That is a terrifying performance. I wanted to do something like that. Neil’s work had a huge influence in my desire to do something like those earlier films. In terms of getting the film made, he read it, responded to it. We had given to him really in the hopes of just getting some notes and he came back to us and said, “I really like this. If you think it would help get it made, I’ll attach myself as an executive producer.” Of course we loved that idea. That helped us run it up the flagpole at ICM where Neil is a client and that was really the genesis of getting it started. Having ICM come aboard as our packaging agent and having Neil’s name lent enough legitimacy to it that we could get actors to read it and get financiers to take it seriously. Neil really kick started getting it made for us.