“Why are you looking at me like that?” shrieked Haley Lu Richardson, attempting to explain the fizzy chemistry she had with her “Young Kieslowski” co-star Ryan Malgarini, whose frazzled expression said it all.
“This is my resting face,” Malgarini replied, without missing a beat, no doubt the reason the actor was cast as the perpetually exasperated title character of Kerem Sanga’s college-set comedy about a young man named Brian who stumbles into his first sexual encounter at a party just off the campus of CalTech and is shocked to discover his partner Leslie (Richardson), also a virgin when they meet, has become pregnant with twins. While writer/director Sanga gets plenty of comic mileage from watching the two freshmen being forced to grow up fast, the film itself displays a mature perspective from the start, unusually considerate of Leslie’s internal struggle with becoming a mother so soon after enrolling in college and the ways in which Brian needs to become more selfless if the two are ever going to be as happy as they were before ever laying eyes on each other.
The mix of hilarity and heart is not surprising when you learn the film was produced by Danny Leiner, mastermind of far smarter than it needed to be fare such as “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.” Yet “The Young Kieslowski” clearly draws on the energy of its two leads and writer/director, who took time after the premiere of the film at the L.A. Film Festival to talk about the trust they built to take on such touchy subject matter, how Sanga’s start as a production assistant led to the director’s chair and why Richardson, who also appears in another LAFF selection, the sci-fi flick “The Well,” came off like an experienced pro so quickly after being a newcomer to the business.
How did this come together?
Danny Leiner: Kerem wrote a great script is really how it came together. He was PA’ing on a movie that I was directing in Texas and when he came to LA, we stayed in touch and he would send me material. He sent me this script, which was a working draft that was pretty good, but I said you’ve got to make it great. He went off – it’s like when Bob Dylan just left. He was pretty good musician, then he came back six months later he had learned guitar and become this incredible…
Kerem Sanga: [laughs] So just like Bob Dylan.
DL: I actually think Kerem stole the script from someone and brought it back, but it became a really great script. He started willing the movie to happen by just going to do it for whatever money he had to make it happen. Having read that draft and loved it, I helped facilitate making it to a little bigger movie and bringing in some people who could help finance it. It was a collaborate effort [between] Kerem, myself and the other producers on the film, Dave Hunter and Ross Putman and Ben Ross and Chris Colbert and we got this fantastic cast. Haley was like the first one on the whole movie. Ryan was the last person.
Ryan and Haley, what attracted you to the script?
Ryan Malgarini: What really got me to this one was the story was pretty generic — it was a boy and a girl having a kid – but there was just the way that it was written …
Haley Lu Richardson: The fact that you were the star.
RM: [laughs] The fact that I was number one on the call sheet. But the quirkiness of it, the little sly wit of it. What really drove it home for me was the heart. It was really sweet and true.
HR: I got the script through Seth Caplan, who is another producer on the movie and I was working with him on another movie [“The Well,” a horror film also premiering at LA Film Fest] and towards the end of filming that, he was like, “I have this other script that you wouldn’t have to get covered in oil and blood for.” I read it and I loved it and I could immediately envision myself in it, but it also scared the shit out of me because of the stuff that my character has to deal with. It was very very foreign to me, but I wanted to test myself because that’s how you grow. That’s really what pushed me to want to meet Kerem.
KS: She did meet me.
HR: I did meet him. I was a few minutes late.
KS: Close to an hour, but she walked in and she was very charming and very sweet about it all and made me forget that she was that late. She was one of the very first people that we cast and it just seemed right. It was really important for me too that they looked very young, actually young people who are in over their head.
I’ve heard the story was inspired by Kerem actually being a twin.
KS: Yeah, more than that — my parents having me and my twin brother in college. They were both at the premiere and like I said before the movie, it’s a total work of fiction. But the premise is the same. Even my dad said that he identified with some of the emotional parts of it.
One of the more interesting ideas in the movie is how while they’re both students at Cal Tech, Brian seems to approach life from reason whereas Leslie, who considers herself a Christian, comes more from faith. Was that an interesting dynamic to create?
I thought it would be interesting too because on the one hand, that’s not really why she wants to keep the kid. On the other hand, it is just a phase that she’s going through. There’s all sorts of ideas that are swirling around if you are in that position [of being pregnant at a young age]. Your worries and what you think you’re supposed to do. Everyone’s got their own opinion of it. At the end of the day, I wanted it to come through that this was just something that she wanted and it didn’t really have anything to do with what what phase she happened to be passing through at that moment. But I think it confuses the issue, which I like.
Since Danny has always struck a balance between madcap comedy and something smarter going on underneath, was he someone who was a resource as far as the tone was concerned?
DL: That is something I love, what you just said and I thought that was inherent in the script when I got it. Actually, I pushed Kerem to go a little bit more in that direction than I think he was prone to do because I thought that was some of the best stuff in the script – that line of funny with this big stakes surrounding it. As the shooting went on, he embraced that and got more comfortable and it was reflected in what was happening on set.
KS: [Danny] definitely guided me, just helping me realize what was already in the script. I feel like it wasn’t so much me embracing that as it was seeing what the movie was that was happening. Danny was very influential in that regard — keeping the sweetness to it but then also not being afraid to go …
DL: …Get different. I preach getting modulation in performance and working with actors. You get to zone in on something that is great, but then also to try different things and have the freedom and the confidence to experiment where you could get something a little more serious, something a little lighter, something in a different tone, which is great in the edit room. Then you have choices to create whatever reality in there that you want. Sometimes they surprise you being better than what you think might be the best in the moment. That’s what’s great about creative performances.
RM: You guys had lots of choices.
HR: At the beginning, Ryan and I, with the conversations we had before we started filming, both thought it was definitely more of a quietly sad relationship story, so [we went in] with the mindset that it was less of a comedy. I thought there were funny parts, but I didn’t really think it was a comedy. An actor could have gone in there and really pushed the funny of the movie, but Ryan and I both went into it thinking that it wasn’t that.
KS: [Ryan] came in and saw a cut of it and he saw the scene where she tells him that she’s pregnant and he looked over, like, “I didn’t realize that scene was going to be funny.”
HR: Yeah! You put in those little tick-tock noises and it’s like, “Wait, what?!?”
RM: It is now one of the funniest things in the film, but it was so weird for me.
KS: For him [on the day of shooting], it was dread, just just abject horror. I’ve got to get out of here. He’s abandoning her. He just leaves. There’s nothing funny about that. But yes there is. There’s something very funny about terrible behavior.
So Haley and Ryan got to work on their rapport before filming?
RM: We had a lot of a lot of rehearsal time, more than I’ve ever gotten on a project before. We only had a week-and-a-half, two weeks, but it was intense.
HR: It was really concentrated. We went through every scene.
RM: The one thing that blew me away with her, she’d only been out here for a year when we first started filming this. and she was able to get to a place where we could just connect. Sometimes you run into a lot of actors who just can’t do that. They have this wall when they’re first starting out and, right off the bat, she was able to just bring that wall down. It was so easy for me to connect with her.
HR: That’s a two way street. And Kerem and I’s relationship while we were filming this movie also really evolved. Kerem has these little things turning in his mind constantly and sometimes it’s really hard to see where he’s coming from, but he knows exactly where he is coming from. I have this strong vision of what I’m going to do with the character and he has 50 strong visions of what he wants me to do with the character and sometimes they clashed, so sometimes it was hard for me to trust him and let that in. There were a couple scenes where we had to go down a rollercoaster to find that high place where it was really vibing, but I’m glad we had to go through that because it got us to that high place. The things that Kerem had me do once I really opened up were better than anything that I ever imagined.
KS: It was really the alchemy of it, like Haley said. The way that [our ideas] mixed, our conceptions of what the character should be and what it was going to be. It was the same for everybody, but I think [Haley was] more vocal about it. Everybody brings their own ideas to it. It’s my job to be open to the best idea regardless.
RM: I love thinking of a way I want to do something, and then he comes in and tells me something completely different. Even if I totally disagree, I love to say yes because it challenges you.
HR: It’s hard to do that. That’s another thing that I learned from this is that you’ve got to be open to that. First of all, you hopefully end up on projects where the director and the people that are telling you what to do are smart and they have amazing ideas, which we were lucky to have on this project. You have to let your walls down not just with the other actor, but with everyone that is working on the project. When they’re telling you what they envision and giving you ideas, you should take them.