Joseph Cross and Adelaide Clemens in "The Automatic Hate"

In the films of Justin Lerner, there are heights reached that are difficult to fathom for any other filmmaker simply because there are places they wouldn’t dare to go. That may be a bold statement with just two films under his belt, but the writer/director has already developed a distinct signature, challenging the traditionally accepted social order of things with bone-deep dramas so smoothly rendered and rich in all their elements that it’s as if he draws it from the sap of the wooded environments he’s been known to set them in.

His latest, “The Automatic Hate,” is actually split between the country and the city, the story of two sides of a family that have been divided by a grudge held by two brothers long enough for at least one generation to be completely unaware of each other. However, that all changes when Alexis (Adelaide Clemens) reaches out to Davis (Joseph Cross), a chef in Boston she finds through a book written by his father (Richard Schiff), a psych professor. Connecting the dots from clues she’s learned about her own father (Ricky Jay), she seeks out a relationship with what she believes to be her first cousin, who as it happens is looking for connection himself after learning some disturbing news from his girlfriend (Deborah Ann Woll) and suffering through the final days of his grandfather’s life. The two make up for lost time, becoming nearly inseparable after Davis decides to leave Beantown for the sticks to see the other side of his gene pool, but when their respective fathers get wind of their newfound kinship, the past rears its head in the ugliest way possible, particularly as Davis and Alexis’ bond intensifies.

While family drama is a tale as old as time, Lerner tells it in a way that’s timeless in “The Automatic Hate,” not only due to a clear attention to craft, with every frame a product of significant consideration, but also a profoundly human touch, with characters constantly fighting against their conditions and cultural expectations to do what’s right for themselves or, if opportunity allows, for others. For the director, true beauty comes out in complexity and as in his first film “Girlfriend,” he works with a cast capable of carrying such weight, especially with standout performances from Clemens and Cross, who walk a dangerous line as their characters’ feelings towards each other constantly evolve. Shortly after the film debuted at SXSW, Cross and Lerner took a moment to talk about their collaboration, the luxury of long takes and the magic involved in casting Ricky Jay.

How did this come about?

Justin Lerner: In 2010, I made this film “Girlfriend,” which premiered at Toronto. One of my biggest interests is exploring societally taboo relationships and in a greater, more general sense, characters that display very morally gray consistency. I like films that live in this area where you’re along for the ride with a character and then they do morally questionable things in order to throw a little bit of the onus on the audience to decide for themselves whether they want to go for it or not with the film.

That said, I actually wrote “The Automatic Hate” before “Girlfriend,” with a good friend who’s another filmmaker named Katharine O’Brien. We were interning at the Weinstein Company together and I set out to make a little series of films that all examine a different morally gray area. “Girlfriend” was about a young man with Down Syndrome and a single mother and “The Automatic Hate” [involves] two first cousins who never met before until their adulthood.

But this one is about a lot more than this relationship. It’s about a grudge being discovered and passed down to the two kids and human kind’s ability to stay with one person or constantly be distracted by what else is outside. There’s the idea of civilization versus the wilderness in there as well, and there’s a lot of things going on it in, but at the core, it started with why don’t we come up with a wonderful rich story and family [to build] around, “Romeo and Juliet”-style. I’m now writing a third film soon that explores a similar relationship in a completely different way.

You mention the wilderness, which also served as one of the primary settings for “Girlfriend.” Is there something that attracts you to the forest?

It’s not a coincidence. I like setting my films in the woods, or other pastoral settings. I think it comes from my interest in filming nature and my almost total disinterest in filming cities. the symmetry and straight lines and concrete are never as interesting to me as nature — particularly dirt, water bodies, woods, and old things such as houses, trucks, and barns.

Joseph, what attracted you to this?

Joseph Cross: The script primarily. I thought that Justin and Katharine had written a really wonderful, complex, and amazing script with great characters and then I watched Justin’s short film which I loved. “The Replacement Child.” Travis Quentin Young is the lead. He’s fantastic. I watched “Girlfriend,” Justin’s first movie and I thought that Evan [Sneider, the lead actor] was fantastic, so I just thought I’d like to do this movie.

One of my favorite things about both this film and “Girlfriend” as well is how you’re always able to see the impact that one character has on another visually. It may sound so obvious, but it seems like there’s much more room in Justin’s films to watch a character paying attention to another character. Is that actually a bit of a luxury?

Justin Lerner: The idea of somebody watching another person is really, for me, a trope of mystery films and detective films. In a way, the movie is a mystery. It just happens to be a mystery between family in a family. There’s not a good guy or a bad guy. It’s what the hell happened with our parents with an inadvertent love story sneaking in underneath. The script is built so that [Davis] is an outsider looking in to the world [of Alexis’ side of the family] and then once he’s there, she is observing him.

The second answer is formal. I like building time in shots. We only know who we are if we get to spend time [with people]. Meditation, for example, is unbroken time spent in silence with yourself, so there’s a meditative quality to long takes that get you to know a character. I think when you can put time into a shot and not have it be boring, it’s because something is happening where you’re learning something new. In film, that’s human behavior and I love observing human behavior, whether it’s the audience watching one person like we get to watch Adelaide watch you guys having a talk at the bar [in one scene] or we get to watch Adelaide watching you sleep. We get to watch Joseph watching Adelaide just walk across the street in a very blasé, beautiful way that is almost infectious so by the time they’re in each other’s company, we as audience members have invested time, not in the general prosaic sense but actual in the literal sense.

Letting people watch human behavior for a long amount of time lets you get closer to them whereas fast Baz Luhrmann-type editing tends to almost push you out of getting inside someone’s head. For a director like me that doesn’t particularly love lots of dialogue and explaining what characters are feeling, I think the only other way to get inside a character’s head is to watch them behave in silence. That was something Katharine and I put into the script and then into my execution with the cinematographer.

Joseph Cross: There’s also a voyeuristic throughline in the film – people watching other people with the kind of climax you see at the end of the Super 8 footage. [In one scene where Davis and Alexis bond, they watch a home movie shot by her father decades earlier that provides clues for their family’s unraveling.]

Justin Lerner: Yeah, we’re watching a movie with the cousins and we know as much as them at that point.

Joseph Cross: Right. But as far as long unbroken takes. I love doing long unbroken takes. The last moment with Adelaide [in their last scene together, a single continuous shot] by the truck was just this long shot and when Justin told me we were going to do that, I thought, “That’s fucking impossible.”

The reason I brought it up is because my favorite scene in the film might’ve been when Davis calls Alexis from just around the corner of the thrift store she works at and makes an effort to hide so he can see her reaction to his call.

Joseph Cross: Her performance is so wonderful in that scene, though all across the movie, I think Adelaide gives a beautiful performance. So nuanced.

Justin Lerner: She inhabited the character unlike anything I’ve ever seen or Joe maybe either. She picked out those sneakers [her character wears]. She told us she wanted a skirt and sneakers and she’s going to be a beautiful tomboy.

Joseph Cross: She loved her chocolate chip cookie T-shirt with the holes in it.

Justin Lerner: If you can tell, she’s just inhabiting… I’m not sure where she got it or how she got there, but it’s a real person. There’s somebody there. You can tell even the way she’s picking out clothes on that rack [in her store] or she’s grimacing to herself while staying coy on the phone while she doesn’t know you’re watching her. A lot of the movie is about being watched and finding out things and not knowing who’s looking. In that way, the movie is more than a family drama. It really is a mystery.

To that end, you cast Ricky Jay as her father, but it’s a rather inspired piece of casting because he’s not just playing off his persona as a smooth magician, but rather a man who sought out a simple life in the country. How did he come onboard?

Justin Lerner: We’re sitting in a hotel and I’ve written him a letter saying I’ve written a part with him in mind and I don’t have a backup, so I’m fucked if he doesn’t take it. He goes, “Now, you write a character of a Harvard-educated pig farmer who smokes and grows marijuana and you thought ‘Ricky Jay’?” I don’t know whether to be offended or flattered.” I thought it was against type and he’s like, “People only offer me gangsters and magicians. That’s it. Or myself.”

That’s why I think he was so intrigued. He’s like, “Why is this kid offering me this role? Has he ever seen anything I’ve done?” But I love contrast and conflict. If [this character] was a mountain man hick from the sticks who raised a farm of pigs, the last person you’d think of for it is a nebbishy, funny, fast-talking intellectual Jew from New York. Man out of place, fish out of water. It’s much more interesting to see an intellectual older Jewish guy from New York who does the New York Times crossword puzzle by choice living out in the wilderness and it says to me that this guy’s done something that makes him not want to live in society. He doesn’t believe in the ways of the civilized world. Again, city versus country and when you see the guy, there’s a story behind that and Ricky’s got such a great story in his face. You can tell the guy’s been through some stuff. It was a very deliberate choice to pick a guy who’s was an intellectual from New York living by choice up in the woods.

“The Automatic Hate” will open on March 11th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Monica Film Center.