Sundance Features

January 16, 2008

Craig Lucas, Birds of America

"So much of what matters in the story is in the white space, and the lives felt lived instead of 'conceived.' "

(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: For those of us at the disadvantage of not having seen Birds of America, can you supply a brief overview?

CRAIG LUCAS: Three siblings; the older brother raised the younger sister and younger brother when the parents died around the time of his 18th birthday. The younger sibs are not too tightly wrapped and the older brother blames himself for their problems. Like all families, some people act out, but everyone is really limping along in some way -- not all suffering is as visible to the naked eye, but everyone has it. It's difficult to love people we did not choose to have in our lives anyway, but when they all descend on us when we're in crisis, someone should really be beheaded.

R: I was surprised to see that you are directing another writer's script. How did you determine Elyse Friedman's story was one you wanted to tell?

CL: I loved the script because so much of what matters in the story is in the white space, and the lives felt lived instead of "conceived." She created beautiful situations with real people struggling and that's a rarity in any medium.

R: The ensemble here -- including Matthew Perry, Hilary Swank, Ginnifer Goodwin and Ben Foster -- is impressive. It also sounds like a handful. What was your experience directing them?

CL: They had different approaches. Matthew is long accustomed to making magic happen with a company of players who all know their characters already and have over a long stretch of time. This was the kind of challenge I enjoy most: to create someone who has none of Matthew's natural wit and charm and fluidity. This is a guy who can't take a shit. Literally. Matthew threw himself into the task, but doing so meant cutting all the nerve endings in his limbs and features; the brain is firing and the heart pumping, but the impulses don't get out. I've never had a better time with an actor than I did with Matty. ... I'm very fond of him and we're looking for something else to do together.

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Ben had been thinking about this role and this story for quite some time before I came onboard, and he had strong feelings about the guy [and] the dilemma. This is the person in the family everyone has a different opinion about: he needs to be medicated, he needs to be understood and indulged, left alone, treated, etc. Ben works quietly and internally, and it's pure joy to watch. We've had similar pasts, and we shared a lot of that.

Ginny came into the project very late and she threw herself into it. She treated me like a guru and kept asking what I could teach her to make her acting better. (God, I hope I said the right things.) The character has done some unseemly things, and Ginny was unafraid of letting those things really sting; she didn't care if it was going to appear sympathetic or not, which is the mark of a true actor versus a movie star. Whatever it was going to take to give this woman her specificity and veracity, she wanted to find it. Contrary to movie wisdom, this character has to be moving all the time, within the frame and in and out of it; that's her M.O. Ginny found ways of keeping this going that stemmed from real discomfort and need rather than just "showing" it, and I think it's incredibly subtle.

Lauren Graham also came in at the last second, and she's used to having to do a lot of the internal work on her own. She's very sensitive and private, and these qualities gave her an edge in the story -- an outsider quality -- that she was able to use. She doesn't like to be reassured, and when she's having difficulty, she likes a little bit of room around her. I tried to respect that without abdicating my responsibilities. She had a fine-tuned hypervigilance about not turning her character into a cliché, and there was indeed the danger of that in the text; the wife is such a Swiss-watch of a person, high-strung and better-behaved (outwardly) than the sibs. Lauren functioned as a kind of dramaturge for the well-being of reality and truthfulness in the story itself, and I'm hugely grateful to her. She gives a bravura performance, as you'll see.

Hilary is the only person who didn't come to rehearsals or get into the real process of shaping the overall story with me and the other actors, so I can't say we had much of a relationship other than a straightforward professional one--she came prepared and left the second she was done, all very straightforward. But since she's the only person I have never actually spoken to about the content of the movie, I was forced to make some decisions about her role on my own. I didn't understand why such a character would be so caught up with spying on her neighbors if there weren't some additional problem within her marriage, so the actor who played her husband and I came up with a subtext that he had a crush on Matthew's character, thereby giving the wife some grounded reason for her obsession with monitoring her neighbors' behavior. I think it helps to make the neighbors feel less like a contrivance, but I have no idea how Hilary feels about it.

R: Sundance's reputation is alternately overshadowed and bolstered by its long legacy of comedy-dramas about eccentric families. To what degree (if at all) do you anticipate or think about audiences perceiving Birds as part of this continuum?

CL: I'd never crawl out from under my bed if I began to anticipate or think about audiences' perceptions. God bless them, I hope they have long fruitful lives, each and every one of them.

R: You also have a long history with the festival, and you're two-for-two as a director. How would you classify your relationship with Sundance, especially in terms of its creative and personal influences?

CL: I love going there and seeing new movies and meeting directors, but as you know, the whole thing is a huge clusterfuck of trust-fund kids who think they know about acting and music and editing because they financed a movie with a good actor in it. Movies, like all the arts, are about real experience and real knowing. Having a huge paycheck or buying up properties has nothing to do with the nuts and bolts of moviemaking. Everybody has an opinion, and money makes people think their opinion is really, really valid. I guess that's the way the real world works, but I don't necessarily love to have my nose rubbed in that; Sundance is a grand dance of MY OPINION REALLY MATTERS, MOTHERFUCKER! So I tend to stay in my room and read.

R: What kinds of nerves, apprehensions and/or expectations do you have going into your Sundance premiere?

CL: I've had so many flops, so many things I loved that people dismissed out of hand, or things that got rave reviews and disappeared from theaters within minutes, I really try not to waste one waking moment worrying or anticipating anything. I put all of my attention onto my current work and what I'm going to do next. Otherwise I try to concentrate on meeting smart, kind, funny, sexy people who really want to sleep with me.

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