“[It] was always the intention was to create these kind of prickly characters and to see if you could stick with them,” says Noah Pritzker of his feature debut “Quitters,” sheepishly admitting shortly after, “I don’t know if I’m doing the best job of promoting the movie by saying that.”
He shouldn’t worry since in spite of making a film about overanalytical teens and their parents with their own overworked neuroses that may have trouble engaging with each other, “Quitters” is far easier for an audience to embrace. Set in the Presidio of San Francisco, you never can be entirely sure whether it’s a fog rolling off the bay or the thick sense of entitlement that clouds the judgment of its lead character Clark (Ben Koenigsberg), cut from the same finely-tailored cloth as restless young screen protagonists like Richard Dreyfuss’ Duddy Kravitz and Bud Cort’s Harold before him, as he wrestles with how to handle the sudden departure of his mother (Mira Sorvino) to a rehab clinic and the rejection of his romantic overtures to a classmate (“Moonrise Kingdom” star Kara Hayward). With a distracted father (Greg Germann), he sees a way out in the form of a new girlfriend (Morgan Turner) whose urbane and largely permissive parents are arguably more attractive to him than she is personally, a situation that is bound to implode.
While Pritzker and co-writer Ben Tarnoff aren’t afraid to show any of their characters acting on their darkest impulses, they also refuse to villainize any of them, making the expectations of age and status the real enemy as the discomfort of suppressing personal pain to keep up appearances in the upper-middle class milieu weighs on everyone on screen, with the teens eager to act like adults and the adults trying their best not to act like teens. Relief can be found in Pritzker and Tarnoff’s rapier wit and their refreshing ability to convey the thoughts that usually aren’t dared to be spoken, all held together by a simple, melancholic score from legendary composer David Shire (“All the President’s Men,” “The Conversation”). Shortly before the film hits theaters and VOD this week after a successful festival run following its premiere at SXSW last year, Pritzker spoke about the personal inspiration for the film as well as literary influences he had, as well as the benefits of inexperience, crashing a car on federal property, and going back home to make the film.
I had been making some shorts in film school and started showing those around when I was developing “Quitters.” It actually started as a short film [too] and as I kept writing it, it felt like there was something there, especially with the main character Clark. The timing was fairly good to build that out [because] as some of my shorts had been going to some festivals, I had this feature [idea] and the work to show and it actually started to come together fairly quickly. One of the first people to come on board was the casting director Doug Aibel, who has cast Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach movies, so that gave us some credibility from a casting standpoint and since the movie is so character-driven that it was really important to find the right people to put in the movie.
Since you went to high school with Ben Tarnoff, was he already a writing partner or did you want to work on this with him for that reason?
It was a combination of those things. I knew Ben from high school, he was a few years older than me and he primarily was writing historical nonfiction at the time, but we had always talked about wanting to write something together. We had tried a few other things, but we could both really relate to this and we had so many shared experiences from growing up [in San Francisco] that it made a lot of sense for us to write it together. It’s hard now to picture having written anything else as our first screenplay together rather than [about] this time in our lives when we first got to know each other.
Was it interesting for you to write this from a perspective of being in between the two generations that you’ve got in the film?
I didn’t think a ton about my own age and relationships to these characters until really I was on set and that’s when it was clear that I was somewhere in between, maybe closer in age to the teenagers than I was to the adults. But all of the adult actors in the movie were so helpful with Ben and Morgan and Kara — as parents themselves, they could access that and help draw something out of the kids that was a level beyond what I could even offer in terms of the direction, so it was really interesting thing to watch happen between the kids and the adults in the movie.
Was it actually intimidating to give these characters over to your cast and see what would happen?
When you do anything for the first time, ignorance is bliss, as they say. You go in maybe cockier than you would a second time and in some ways, I find the idea of making a second feature may be more daunting than I did the first because you know so much more. I don’t know that I was necessarily intimidated, but I was very lucky to have a cast of actors who trusted me. So much of it was there on the page — it was clear what the movie was — that it was really about fine-tuning and finding the right beats and how those actors could take on those characters. Finding Clark was a long search and [in general], it was really important for me to find actors who are the same age or close enough to the characters they were playing. It’s a dialogue-heavy movie, so to find kids who were 14, 15 or 16 who could do that convincingly was a challenge.
This seems to be a side of the San Francisco I feel like you rarely see on screen. Was that something you were conscious of?
I don’t know that we set out to show a necessarily a different side of the city, but I think maybe what you’re saying is when you think about San Francisco, you think about the hippies or and the ‘60s or the ’70s or maybe even the tech scene now and when I went to a private school in San Francisco, there was something conservative about it — it was almost modeled after an East Coast prep school, so to plop that down in San Francisco created an interesting tension between those two ideologies that we did want to explore with “Quitters,” which I think did result in something that is slightly different than what you usually see in San Francisco.
You actually temp scored the movie with a David Shire theme from “The Conversation” — how did you actually convince him to do an original score?
I was struggling to find the right composer, mainly because it was hard to find a score that fit the tone of the movie. When I put that score from “The Conversation” in, there’s something somber about it, something detective-like and I just loved that solo piano that [David Shire] created, so we got him a cut of the movie. After he watched it — he was working on a musical at the time in New York and I was living here — I went to meet him in midtown for lunch. That was probably the most intimidated that I was to meet anyone throughout the making of the movie, but he was so warm and so nice to have taken the time to watch the movie and be open to working on it. He was excited to write a new score, so it didn’t take a whole lot of twisting his arm. One of the coolest things I got to do throughout the whole process was to spend some time with him at his home in Nyack where he was writing the score and to see his process and to see him get in to the world of “Quitters.” He’s such a hero of mine that it was really awesome to get to work with him.
In the scene when you meet Kieran Culkin’s character Mr. Becker, a lit professor, it appears you went crazy with the blackboard in the back with a drawing of a ship and a definition of “nihilism.” What were you doing there?
In that scene he’s teaching a class about nihilism and I think he’s differentiating between active nihilists and passive nihilists, so it’s got “Crime and Punishment” on the one hand and so you’ve got the ship [on the other side] and the whale is Moby Dick and Ahab being a more active nihilist and Raskolnikov being a more passive one.
Was there actually as much of a literary influence on this film as a cinematic one?
I think so, but a better way to answer this might be that when I was the age of the kids in that movie, I was watching movies but I think the bigger ideas I was getting were from books. It was the first time in my life when I was reading a lot and when I was thinking about how you engage with ideas at that age, it was a lot about the books that I was reading then. Two of them are in that scene — Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” and “Moby Dick” and on the other hand, there was a lot of the Jewish influence of books by Phillip Roth. He wrote about families, so there were a lot of those influences in writing “Quitters.”
What actually got you interested in making films?
I was writing a little comedy sketches in college and trying to write something longer. I also had taken photography pretty seriously up until that point. I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to intern at The Onion and “Saturday Night Live,” so that was my first exposure to the comedy world in New York, which I always wanted to be a part of. But for whatever reason, I hadn’t really thought about directing, even though I loved movies and I loved writing and I loved photography.
As a kid watching movies, you don’t really even think about what the director does, but when I was writing my first script and quickly realizing it wasn’t going to get made, I had the idea that maybe I should toy with directing and to see what it was like working with actors because that was what I liked most about writing was writing characters. Quickly, I found in film school how much I loved working with actors and that was really what drew me to it most. It’s such a challenging thing to do, but I fell in love with it.
Was directing your first feature what you thought it would be?
It was a whirlwind and I moved away from San Francisco to New York when I was about 18 to go to college, so I hadn’t spent that much time there before going back. My parents still lived there — in my childhood home — and it was interesting to be in my hometown for four months. I didn’t quite anticipate how intense that experience could be, making this movie about a place I grew up in, so that aspect of it was pretty different than I had anticipated. The part of making a movie about San Francisco was more what I expected. The crew we had there was so great and really supportive.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?
There were a bunch. One of the craziest was probably the car crash [at the beginning of the film, precipitating the rehab of Clark’s mother] was tough to pull off because the Presidio is federal property, so crashing a car on federal property is, as you can imagine, not a simple task, let alone crashing a car in to federal property. Another one would probably be the scene later on in the movie between Kieran Culkin’s character, Ben Konigsberg’s character and Kara’s character. It’s a longer scene between the three of them and all of the kids were under 18 so they have pretty short days. Every day was really a race against time, especially when you are doing big, long dialogue scenes, so you wanted to get as many takes as you can.
What’s it been like traveling with the film?
It’s been a really great experience to get to go share it with so many different audiences. When you make a short film, it’s such a different experience because you’re in a program with four or five other shorts and when you make your first feature, it’s a very different kind of a beast. I think some people can find it to be a difficult or sad movie about parents and kids who are struggling to be nice to each other — it’s a specific kind of a movie that is not for everyone. But it’s been interesting to show this movie about a 15-year-old and his 15-year-old friends and see that the kids have a lot more empathy for the difficult kids than adults do.
“Quitters” opens on July 22 in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall and in New York at the Cinema Village. It is also available on iTunes.