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Interview with "Around the Bend" Writer/Director Jordan Roberts

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Jordan Roberts Around the Bend

Writer/director Jordan Roberts on the set of "Around the Bend"

© Warner Independent Pictures
How tough was it to direct an actor playing a character based on yourself? How hard is it to distance yourself from the character?
Well you start by casting someone who is the most handsome person working in Hollywood. You’ve got to start there. Right there by itself you’re distinguishing yourself from him. I think that’s a really good plan.

I think a lot of that distancing work took place in the writing. The character’s difficult. I think he’s the most difficult character in the film, I think without question, because he’s the least externally interesting character in the film. Yet he’s clearly the protagonist because the journey that plays out, plays out in him.

I would say if this movie could be summed up it’s a movie about a young man finding it in his heart to accept the wrongs of his father. That’s what the movie’s about. That’s the journey I’m attempting to take. Whether he does that or doesn’t is the drama of the film. But if there’s a drama being played out, it is is this adult man played by Josh Lucas going to receive this visitor - metaphorically - in his home, in his heart? Is he going to receive him? It’s his film, in that sense.

Obviously other characters have as rich and complicated emotional lives, but they’re not the center of the film. So because he’s the center of the film, he’s obviously the most complicated character and took the most time to get it right because, you know, intentionally I’ve introduced you to a character - played by Chris Walken - who’s the absentee father who shows up on the doorstep. He’s highly charismatic and fascinating and interesting. Instantly you’re fascinated and drawn to him. Not just because he’s played by Chris, but because he’s this compelling figure in this otherwise odd little family. There’s a ring at the door and suddenly there’s this compelling black-cloaked figure in the courtyard. He just carries with him great iconography. He’s a powerful presence and the audience instantly is riveted by Chris’ performance and Chris’ character. And so you have a protagonist who is keeping himself apart from the most interesting character in the film.

It was a great challenge, both as a writer and as a director and as an editor - with my editor Francoise Bonnot – to make this story work because you had to be very careful not to make the protagonist too far behind the audience. Because we like [Walken’s character] Turner, he’s fascinating. He’s great. And yet you have this son who appears to be holding onto this almost abstract grudge, which if you take a moment and think about, it makes perfect sense why he would be hostile to this schmuck who shows up after 30 years for a night. It makes sense why he’s pissed off. But from an audience point of view, you don’t like it when someone doesn’t like the character you like. It was very tricky, very tricky.

But to have somebody play me? I think ultimately, because I think this is a part of the writing process, I’m as much of Turner as I am of Jason. I couldn’t write about what it felt like for my father to be ashamed of having done horrible things. I wrote about what I feel like because I don’t know what my father experienced. I can imagine – but I had to write about that from the point of view of what are the terrible things that I’ve done. Why do I avoid those things? Why do I not want to go to the scene of the crime of those things? Why do I not want to face up to those acts of horror? So in a sense all the characters are me.

How much did you allow your actors to play with your words while they were trying to develop these characters?
Again, the luckiest writer in the world, my three actors decided that they didn’t want to veer from the text. That was their decision – and it’s never going to happen again (laughing). They all made the decision that they believed the text should not be messed with. They all understood going into it that it was an extremely delicate piece of machinery.

Any film that deals this much in relationships… There’s not a lot of plot in our movie. The plot is defined by relationships. It’s defined by proximity and distance between characters. That’s really it. That’s usually subtext in other films, but that’s the plot of my film. There’s some other machinations of storytelling that exist, but the journey is sort of defined by how proximate these two central characters are to one another. I think everybody has been around long enough – the actors – to recognize that those are really the hardest stories to tell and the easiest to mess up. You change one line and you change the dynamic.

The film is so economical and because of the narrowness of its scope and what it’s attempting to explore, I think that’s a very deep theme but it’s a narrow piece of narrative. We wanted to keep the film economical and because it was economical, if you change a line arbitrarily you might lose a piece of exposition that’s going to really mess you up. So, no, they did not want to improvise. The little boy liked to improvise (laughing).

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