“I’m a little scared of acupuncture,” confesses Paul Lieberstein, who tried just about everything in attempting to soothe his aching back, a chronic condition that lingered for years. More comfortable needling others with a wicked sense of humor as a writer/producer of such shows as “The Office” and “The Newsroom” rather than having his own skin pierced, no remedy seemed to work until he came across a book by Dr. John E. Sarno, “Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection,” that suggested rather radically that the source of his near-crippling sciatica might not entirely be concentrated in his spine, but rather his head. Largely freed of pain by this epiphany, he also was also creatively liberated by the experience, deciding to go independent after years of running television sets to make a singular comedy, “Song of Back and Neck,” premiering this evening at the Tribeca Film Festival.
While Lieberstein evaded being pricked in real life, he finds himself at a Chinese wellness Clinic in his feature directorial debut as Fred Trolleycar, a lowly paralegal at his law firm where his father’s a partner whose daily routine may actually be more excruciating than his medical issue, lorded over by a much younger superior (Clark Duke) and brought into meetings only to make the firm look bigger to prospective clients. In one such meeting, he ends surprising even himself when he charms Regan (Rosemarie DeWitt), a would-be divorcee looking to serve her husband with papers and when she makes his heart sing, his back responds with a song of its own, upon discovering the unusual ability to create beautiful harmonies from vibrations of the 200 metal pins that have been relieving his pain.
Although Lieberstein isn’t afraid to push “Song of Back and Neck” into the absurd to get a good laugh, the film is refreshingly adult when it comes to the courtship between Fred and Regan, who seduce each other simply by listening to each other’s problems. Lieberstein’s sharp ear for what the world-weary pair has to say is equally enchanting and as a romance unfolds, you’ll find yourself falling in love with the world the writer/director has created, full of unexpected wonders while it still feels close to home. On the eve of the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Lieberstein spoke about making the transition from television to a down and dirty indie film shoot, wearing many hats on the set, and surviving being strapped to the flatbed of a truck to cruise down the highway.
How did this come about?
I definitely wanted to make a movie after “The Office.” Everybody who works in TV to some extent has got this desire to really just have an unfiltered voice because TV is just so collaborative. I befriended the Duplass Brothers a bit when I worked with them on “The Mindy Project” and they told me how they started out on their model for making stuff and figuring it out. So I did a “Duplass rewrite” on my screenplay. [laughs] And then I just went for it and got a production company to help.
The movie itself just came out of something that’s been on my mind. I had gone through this giant philosophical transformation in my thinking based on my own back being cured by this book, realizing that my own pain was psychological, at least in origin, and then accepting that the brain and the body are connected and that my outlook and view in life is part of myself. That was so bizarre to me [when it seems so obvious now] that it just felt compelling and I felt if it was compelling [to me], it’ll be to other people.
You do some crazy things in the film like strapping yourself into the flatbed of a truck to cruise down the highway as a sign of your newfound freedom, among other things. Did you actually know you were writing this part for yourself?
I knew I could open a big movie. [laughs] No, it wasn’t originally for me. It wasn’t until I met those Duplass brothers that I realized you could make something [yourself] because my background was not really independent. I had been working for the networks, so I knew what a movie was, but I didn’t imagine myself in the role until I learned about this other world and that it was viable.
And I was kind of scared shooting the wheelchair in the back of a pickup truck, but when we were kids, I would stand up in the Jeep or we would ride without seat belts, and [now] I have kids and making sure their car seats don’t expire and reading all the different literature about which ones survive the best at this angle and that angle, so I got so worked up and scared, but once I did it I realized, “Oh, this is nothing at all.”
Since so many writer/producers on “The Office” had featured roles, I always wondered whether that was something encouraged on that set?
Yeah, Greg Daniels, the executive producer of that show thought it would be good for writers to experience what the set was and probably make us better writers to know what it’s like to act. And part of that was a comedy writer can get very swept up in the joke. We were doing a very real show at a time when people weren’t really doing that yet and it was part of his idea to ground our writing through living this experience of acting. I was only supposed to do one episode and then the then-president of the network Kevin Reilly was watching dailies, and he said, “Oh, he’s funny. More of him.” And that was it.
Did that prepare you for carrying a film like this as an actor?
“The Office” taught me a tremendous amount about acting, but this movie became its own thing and it was more dramatic than I set it out to be. When I think about it right now, [I wonder] to a certain extent, did I let it get away from me or did I let the movie become what it was supposed to be? Once you actually put the actors in and put it all together, it will become its own thing and I didn’t fight that.
Is it true you actually worked in your father’s law firm at one time, like your character Fred?
Yeah. Actually, the experiences that I had before I started writing I draw on more than anything because once I started writing it feels like, “Okay, I’m living the exact same life as almost every other writer out there,” and what happened before was much more unique and informative. So there were a lot of characters at that law firm, and I love office politics. I love power dynamics and I love nepotism. Those are all themes I love to explore, so I was able to put a lot of them together in the film.
How did the initial idea of music come into this?
What I started with was very internal and I just looked for ways to externalize it or bring the audience into my head and this was the way to bring the pain out of my body.
I wouldn’t want to spoil how exactly you bring their music into the film, but Frightened Rabbit becomes a crucial part of this. How did they get involved?
I got turned on to Frightened Rabbit by Rainn Wilson, who is friends with Scott Hutchison [the lead singer of Frightened Rabbit], who lived in LA at the time and I loved the band. I’ve probably listened to their album, “The Winter of Mixed Drinks, a couple hundred times — and those first two songs actually, the one in “Things” and “Swim [Until You Can’t See Land],” I think I had envisioned in writing the movie and it was part of the mood. Then Rainn introduced me to them, and I sent [Scott] the script and he liked it. He is now a friend of mine, too, and it all worked out.
Did you have any strong ideas about the visuals? It was striking how Fred father’s retirement party was shot with a free-floating camera, but also at times you would have these relatively extreme closeups.
To visualize something while you’re writing it and then to put the team together to help bring that out is fantastic. It’s what I’ve come to love about being a writer/director, so I spent five days with my [cinematographer Bartosz Nalazek] talking about the type of style that would fit it, what is this magical realism [we were going for] and how important is that visually to the story, and picking a style that supported it.
How did you find Rosemarie DeWitt as your dance partner for this?
She’s someone who’s very in love with the indie world, so that caught my attention and then I just went through the script and started to imagine her in it, making adjustments, and I liked her in it. Then I met her. We talked and she really liked the script and we hit it off right away.
There’s a great scene in the film where Fred has obviously disappointed her as she drives him home and the shot exists in an unbroken closeup that catch her changing expression. What was it like figuring out how to capture that moment?
Everyone kept saying, “You want us to put the camera on the other side? Don’t you want to do rack focus to [get Fred’s side of the scene] …” I was like, “No. No. This scene is about her.” Although I have maybe the majority of the lines, the scene is about her and my character starts and stops at the same place. I wanted to make sure that the audience was in her head, so I put her prominently in front and in focus.
When it’s your first feature was it what you thought the experience would be?
What I loved, and what I couldn’t believe, was that it was just me there making decisions. Even when I was showrunner of “The Office” there was a lot of people to navigate and I had never had the experience of [working] without a committee. Even when I was directing my own episodes, it never felt as much that I was the auteur. It’s an incredible feeling and it’s scarier than I thought, but freeing. I’m a little bit addicted to it and I can’t wait to make my next.
“Song of Back and Neck” will open on November 30th in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center and in New York. It will debut on VOD on December 4th.