(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)
THE REELER: Take a second, if you don't mind, to tell us what August is about and what drew you to it.
AUSTIN CHICK: It's the story of two brothers; it's set in August, 2001, in the dot-com world of New York just before 9/11. I'd say that the core of the story is Josh Hartnett's character -- a guy who, as the dot-com market is crashing, is trying to raise a second round of financing to keep his company afloat. The market's already been crashing for a while, and most of the people he's dealing with see the writing on the wall and either don't trust him or don't believe the hype anymore.
One of the things that interested me initially is that [screenwriter] Howard Rodman really did a great job capturing this time in New York. It was really just an 18-month period; the market started crashing, but there was still the idea of money -- these young multi-millionaires running around town. Most of their wealth was on paper, yet there was this strange sense of decadence even while the market was crashing. People still believed it was going to turn around. It was a really interesting time in our near-history, both here in New York and the nation as a whole. It's something that disappeared after 9/11.
R: The film feels personal in some senses; a viewer might leave with the impression that you had your own intimate involvement with that period as well. Was that the case?
AC: I wasn't part of any dot-com venture, but I had a lot of friends who were. The company Pseudo.com -- it's mentioned in the movie -- I had friends who worked there. There are a number of companies mentioned in there where I knew people who worked there or who dealt with those companies. I felt it was pretty prevalent in New York from the late '90s until 9/11 -- everything was dot-com.
R: That very recent history you integrate early in the film -- news clips and events from 2001, for example -- really do feel like a different time and place. Do you attribute that sense of chronology to 9/11, or might it just be our accelerated culture?
AC: I think that 9/11 drew a really sharp line -- even though it's only seven years ago, it's a very different time. It was definitely a challenge to do something that was period when, in all the obvious ways, the world looks the same. The big challenge was how to establish that time period and remind audiences that this is not now -- a few years ago, in a very different time.
R: As a viewer, I've had a pretty mixed relationship with Josh Hartnett. Yet this felt like the right role for him at the right time. Did you have a similar impression when you cast and directed him?
AC: It's a very different role from the stuff he's done in the past. He gets cast in these kind of passive, pretty-boy roles, and I thought it would be interesting to take some of that boyish likeability and push him to play a more aggressive character who is in some ways a little more questionable morally -- a bit of a prick. I thought the juxtaposition of qualities would be interesting. And Josh definitely knew it was a challenge; I think that's what excited him about the project. It's also a much talkier character than he usually plays. It was a challenge for both of us.
R: I love David Bowie's role here -- he's funny, he's horrifying and totally surprising. How did he become associated with August, and how did you approach the challenge of directing him?
AC: Before we shot that scene he and I had spoken on the phone a couple of times, but we hadn't met about it. We hadn't rehearsed. He showed up, knew his lines and was an absolute joy to work with. He had a bunch of stuff he'd worked out on his own -- a bunch of different colors to the way he eviscerates Hartnett in that scene. He was really game to playing around with it, and one of the things that he and I talked a bunch about was the idea that Ogilvie really takes pleasure in what he's doing. He sees a bit of himself in Hartnett's character and sees this as an opportunity to teach a young man a lesson -- not destroy him forever. But you can tell he sort of relishes it. I spent the whole day saying, "Oh my God; I'm directing David Bowie."
R: But why David Bowie? And how did you get him?
AC: I got a call from someone saying David's agent had read the script and asking if we'd be interested in him for the role. I'm a huge fan, but I hadn't really thought of him. Yet even as he's this cultural icon, he also brings this power and class to the part. The first thing we were told, though, was: "David's read the script, and he loves it. But we have to warn you: It's really, really difficult to get him to commit to anything." They kept trying to lower my expectations. I got a call a few days later saying David's really interested in independent cinema and he sees everything, but that he watched my first movie, XX/XY, and it wasn't his cup of tea. And I thought, "Yes! David Bowie saw my movie." I didn't fucking care if he liked it. Anyway, he still had to think about it.
Two or three more days went by and I get this call saying David only watched the first few minutes of XX/XY. He watched the rest, and he loved it, and he wants to do August. Then we had that series of phone calls. Everyone was on pins and needles that day.
R: You went to Sundance with XX/XY as well. What are your thoughts or expectations upon returning.
AC: That was a long time ago -- six years ago. I actually went out last year before we shot August because there was another Josh Hartnett movie [Resurrecting the Champ] in the festival. But it was a completely different world. This time I'm going to try to take a little bit more time for myself; with XX/XY, it was kind of overwhelming. I have a better idea of what to expect and how to keep my sanity -- just take it as it comes.
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