Ever since Frank Whaley first moved behind the camera with the semi-autobiographical “Joe the King” in 1999 after establishing himself as a most welcome presence in any of the classic films in which he appeared as an actor – whether it was the world’s most tortured Hollywood assistant in “Swimming with the Sharks,” the unfortunate recipient of hitman Jules’ infamous Ezekiel 25:17 address in “Pulp Fiction” or assaying the guitarist Robby Krieger in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” – he kept a looseleaf notebook of titles that he created as alternatives.
“The original title of my first film was the street that I grew up on, “Pleasant View Avenue’ because it was loosely autobiographical, but when it came time to finish the film, I was urged by people who were still alive in my family not to use it,” recalls Whaley, who drew on a painful childhood for the story of a young boy fighting to transcend an abusive upbringing for “Joe the King.” “’Like Sunday, Like Rain’ was on that list. I don’t know why, but just the way it sounded, the poetry…when I was growing up, Sunday always seemed to be raining, and for me, [the title] evokes some sadness, which I always like.”
It would take 15 years for Whaley to find the right place for it, but in that time, he’s honed a distinctive voice as a filmmaker, one who deals in melancholy and finds satisfying endings not in the major life-altering victories that so often come at a movie’s conclusion, but the small ones that arrive in accepting life on its own terms and leaving his characters in a better place than when he found them. “Like Sunday, Like Rain” continues that tradition, dropping into the lives of a frustrated musician named Eleanor (Leighton Meester) and Reggie (Julian Shatkin), the 12-year-old cello prodigy she’s hired to take care of in her day job as a nanny. Beyond their shared affinity for music, the two are bonded by far more in spite of their considerable age gap, both products of neglectful relationships, whether it’s her immature ex-boyfriend (Billie Joe Armstrong) or his globetrotting mother (Debra Messing) who thinks nothing of joining her husband in China and leaving Reggie in the care of someone she barely knows.
The two eventually form a friendship more profound than either has ever engaged in before, an unusual thing to see onscreen all on its own before considering the depth Whaley brings to it. Like his previous films, there’s a bittersweet touch to the film, which captures just a fleeting moment in the lives of these two characters, but feels as though it will shape their futures considerably. As the film begins to make its way around the country, Whaley took the time to reflect on the ongoing themes in his work as a director, the impossible search for his young lead actor, casting Green Day lead singer Armstrong in his very first film role and the ill-considered way he could’ve ended his latest film.
The idea came to me around 2007 or ’08. My wife and I were walking through Manhattan and bumped into somebody I hadn’t seen in 25 years. We worked together for a brief amount of time, but he had a real impact on me when I was at that period in my life. I had just forgotten. We had met randomly and we went our separate ways in a random way, which I thought was interesting. People in New York City have a tendency to come in and out of each other’s lives, at least in the life that I was leading as an artist anyway.
That’s where the nugget of the idea came from. At its core, it’s really a story about how these two people randomly are thrown together and spend a pretty brief amount of time together. Nothing monumental happens in the story, but something monumental happens between them in a very subtle way. Then poof it’s gone. Either consciously or subconsciously, the effects of the two of them meeting will have resonance and consequences through the rest of their lives in a positive way. And really, the seed of the story came that evening as I was walking.
What was interesting to me is that your previous three films have been different from one another, but this film seemed to have thematic elements from all three of them. Did you in some way see this as a culmination or a continuation?
Thematically, it’s similar to all three of the films that came beforehand, in different ways. “Joe the King,” my first film, tells the story of a very lost and lonely child but on a different end of the socioeconomic spectrum and how he is let down by the adults around him and the world at large. The same could be said about this film. This is a film about a young boy who is let down by those who are supposed to be responsible for him with regards to his well-being. It’s also about loneliness, and the loneliness that accompanies being a child, whether you are rich or poor, or where you live. In terms of “The Jimmy Show, yeah, it says something about being heard and expressing yourself in an odd way in art. And most notably, it touches on friendship and the brevity of relationships, but how they endure even after they end, [like] “New York City Serenade,” [which] is about two friends who for both of their well being, and for both of their futures, must separate.
I tend to write about sadness, the dysfunction of human relations, and people who are scratching and clawing and trying to get someplace and can’t. That’s probably why nobody goes to see them because they’re very sad and dark.
Well, you’ve got at least one miserablist fan here.
As long as I can reach a few. I was watching the Oscars last night and I was watching some hapless somebody being interviewed and is kind of cliché, but they said time will tell essentially. I hope over time people will begin to find them, particularly “The Jimmy Show,” because there’s more ways to do that now. My films are pretty obscure, but I think they’re all unique. As you pointed out, there’s a voice behind them and it’s uniquely the author’s voice. That’s something that, with a few exceptions, is a lost art these days. There’s a homogenization to most films these days, even in the independent world.
I agree. Let me ask about one of the ways I think makes this film so distinctive is how you’ll let music take over in a lot of scenes, carrying the emotional weight while not being manipulative. Did you have it in mind before actually shooting the film?
The music was something that when I wrote the script I knew that the pivotal moment in the first act is when she is walking into the auditorium where he is rehearsing. She’s walking to see him for the first time. When I was preparing to make the film, that piece of music had to be profoundly beautiful for us as an audience, but also for her to hear. It’s got to deeply move her, so when she opens the door and sees it’s this little child sitting there playing that melody, it’s got to be a very strong piece of music.
When I was preparing to make “New York City Serenade,” I was out in California, driving around and listening to “Morning Becomes Eclectic” [on KCRW]. I heard Ed Harcourt singing a song of his, just a movement of his guitar, maybe a keyboard and I knew that was the song that I wanted to be the theme for that film. I’d never met him before, but I called him and said, “Would you be interested in writing the score for this film. He said, “Yeah, sure.” I sent him the script and he composed the score, which is beautiful and amazing, in about two weeks.
When I was preparing for “Like Sunday, Like Rain,” I sent him the script and that piece of music came to me in an e-mail a couple of weeks later. I thought this is a miracle, it’s perfect. It’s exactly how I heard it [in my head]. What we did is build the whole score around that melody and every piece of music in the movie is based around that theme. It’s with strings, it’s with keyboard… there’s a version with this strange instrument that sounds like a steel drum, but it’s on the same melody. So to answer your question, yes, I wanted the music to take over at certain moments because these are two people who live and breath music. We find it out about her as the story progresses, but with him, it’s his whole life. I wanted these sweet, loving melodies to be in the air throughout the film.
You’ve also always had a great eye for composition, which is also a credit to your cinematographers of course, but is that something you pay a lot of attention to?
I’ve made all four of these films in less than 20 days on shoestring budgets. This film was made for less than half a million dollars in 20 days and what you must do in order to accomplish that, and to do so with any degree of success, is to be prepared. My first two films I had a really brilliant guy named Mike Meyers who was my cinematographer, then my third film was with Ryan Samul and for this film I worked with a guy that I’d known for a long time, but never worked with before. His name is James Jones and he’s brilliant as well.
Because of the time constraints, I usually have the luxury of four shots tops in any given scene, so I map out in my mind each scene shot-by-shot. That demands me to be economical with my shot selection. I’ve learned a few tricks along the way in terms of the way I compose a shot with two or three people in the background, with somebody [being] the main focus in the foreground. It’s a style that I have derived out of necessity to get the most out of my time and also to make an interesting shot. I love Francois] Truffaut, and when I made my first film, a lot of the shots I had thought of were inspired by “The 400 Blows,” and the other films he was doing at the time.
For “Like Sunday, Like Rain,” it was a similar thing. I like scenes that don’t have a lot of cutting and for my lighting and my type of filmmaking [specifically], it disrupts in large part what I’m trying to do. I like scenes where you see everything in one shot. Also for the first time, I used two cameras, so I had an abundancy of footage on the film, which I was lacking in the past because I shot film on my first three movies. You’re able to film a wide shot or a close-up and you get more angles. You get more footage, but I ended up not using that much.
Leighton Meester has said you actually sent her Julian Shatkin’s audition tape to prepare. How much did you want to foster that relationship between the two of them versus letting them develop it on their own?
I knew that was going to be something of great consequence. Thirty seconds after they meet, depending on how that’s going, is going to have a lot to do with the way this film comes out. Because he’s a 12-year old child, she’s an adult, and I’m off conducting the orchestra, I needed somebody to engage that kid, and they’re together every second of the way. It was really important that they get along. From the beginning, I had a hard time casting that role. I saw hours and hours of tape on different actors and none of them understood the part. None of them could grasp the depth of it. Then I got this tape from my casting director, and stop the presses. It was a brilliant audition. I sent that tape to Leighton and said, “This is somebody we’re really lucky to have found this guy.” She was astounded as well.
We had maybe three weeks of prep, which isn’t very much, and that’s every aspect of the production [with me] going from meeting to meeting and finding locations, but somehow I was able to put together seven or eight hours of rehearsal over three or four days. That was the time that those two had to really just sit and and spend time together. I let them do a lot of that. I would take a 30-minute break here and let them hang out. They were immediately very comfortable and friendly. One of the many beautiful things about Leighton Meester is she has such a childlike quality about her. She sees the world in such a free and easy way. Not to say that she’s not one of the most intelligent people I ever met, because she is. She knows so much about acting at such a young age. But these two people were very similar. They just got along.
One of my favorite moments in the film is on the subway. We had to steal a lot of shots, but that one we had to go down with the camera and grab, because if you get caught down there they take your cameras, they shut you down, they fine you $100,000. So we would sneak down there, stick them on the train, and when nobody was looking or was in the shot, we’d say, “Go.” We just kept the camera rolling. We weren’t rolling sound so I’m not sure what they were laughing and talking about, but it’s how they were always together, just hanging out. I know that they’re still very close friends and probably always will be.
You’ve said a studio exec had told you after seeing a draft of the script that you weren’t going to find a kid who could play this. Did you write this knowing you might’ve set yourself an impossible task?
Yes. Believe me, there were many times that I was never going to get this movie made, for many reasons. Mostly because I finished the script in 2008 and 2012, ’13 came and I still was trying to get financing for it. Mostly people would [say], the same thing I’ve heard on all my films – “Nothing happens, where’s the story? By act one, something astounding should happen. There’s no dramatic conflict. What about if this happens?”
I tried to change the ending at one point, and rewrite it so Dennis, the character Billie Joe [Armstrong] plays, Dennis, comes back in the end and shoots everybody – crazy stuff like that. I was doing anything I can to get this movie made, until I let my wife read it. She said, “This is not the script that you’re trying to make. Don’t even bother.” She threw it in the trash, and said “If you want to make a dumb movie, make a dumb movie, but give it a different title.”
I sent it to a guy named Dylan Leiner, a very, very smart movie guy and one of the really good creative studio guys out there. He read it and said two things – you’ve got to change it back to the original ending, because he read the ending where Dennis kills everybody and then kills himself. Then he said the only problem with this is finding that kid. “I don’t think there’s an actor out there that age that can play that role.” He was right, to a certain degree. I had almost come to the end of my rope trying to find that kid, then suddenly there he was. I got really lucky. There was a moment there where I was on the phone with my casting director saying “What are we going to do?” We had a couple of choices pending before we saw Julian, but nothing compared to Julian.
His first time really, yeah. My casting director had the idea for Billie and that character really evolved with him because prior to casting Billie, the character had been a guy who was kind of scary and dangerous. The [casting director] said what about a musician? I didn’t know Billie Joe Armstrong did acting. I heard about the Broadway thing, but I didn’t know, and he’d done an episode of “Nurse Jackie.” That was really good. I watched that and I thought if he wants to do it, let’s bring him in. It’s funny because he was nervous and the guy has performed in front of hundreds and thousands of people. But he’d never done this.
What happened with the role is because of who Billie is and how he saw it. That’s a testament to his abilities as an actor, even as green as he was, so to speak. I know he’s done another film since, and he’s going to get better and better because he’s serious about it. The interesting thing he did is he took [the role] from this menacing guy and turned him something almost likable in a whiny kind of way. I think it needed that because you’ve got to understand why somebody like Leighton would be with this guy. He’s kind of a lovable puppy dog, but a real dick at the same time. I was really happy to be responsible for his first movie role.
Being an actor yourself, is there something specific you look for in actors as a director, regardless of the part?
I’m just looking for the person that’s best for the role. In some cases, with these films, you have to get somebody who is going to help you out in terms of the financing. Sometimes they may not be the best for the part, but you have to be flexible in your thinking. But in my experience both as an actor and as a director, with so many different types of actors, I’ve figured out a way to collaborate with them all. That’s something you have to be able to do because actors are really insecure, crazy people. They need a lot of help along their way in their performance.
I was really lucky with this film because all the personalities were in sync. That’s not happened in any of the previous three. There was always some kind of craziness going on. But between Leighton and Julian, there was such a synchronicity there. I also had the benefit of having a lot of really good friends along the way. J. Smith Cameron, who plays Leighton’s mom, is a brilliant, brilliant actress, and I was so lucky to have her. Jim McCaffrey, who plays Dale… these are folks that I was lucky to be able to get on the phone, and have them come in. They want to be there. For the kinds of films that I’m making, I want actors that really want to be there, and are okay with the lack of creature comforts, but are also actors that are good actors, who are willing to listen, because I am very specific with the way I direct and what I want.
As a screenwriter, there is a certain rhythm to the way I write and the way I like to hear it. Some actors have trouble with sticking to the script. I’m pretty adamant about that – because I spend a lot of time adjusting and honing – unless it’s something we’ve all agreed on. But like I said, working with an eclectic bunch of actors and directors over the past 30-something years, I’ve seen it all.
Have there been things you’ve picked up from directors you’ve worked with?
To a small degree. Oddly, I think I’ve picked up more from directors that I’ve admired watching than directors I’ve worked with, with the exception of Oliver Stone. Oliver has a way of working like no other director I’ve ever seen. The directors that I see fail are those who are not in complete control. That doesn’t mean a controlling freak, but just [someone who] knows what he wants, collaborates with everybody, sees everything and knows every element. He’s listened to, and he’s the captain, because that’s the only way you can make a film. Oliver’s a complete and utter collaborator. I watched that, and I admired it. You have to know every answer to every question that’s asked, without pause. You have to have things the way you have to have them, and that’s how Oliver was. He is probably the person that I emulated the most. But in terms of my writing and the kinds of movies that I like, the French New Wave and the early Scorsese films are more or less in accord with me.
“Like Sunday, Like Rain” opens in New York at the Village East Cinemas on March 13th and in Los Angeles at the Encino Town Center 5 on March 20th. A full list of additional theaters and dates are here.