Seven years seems far too long away from the director’s chair for Scott Frank, who made the seamless transition from being one of the big screen’s best screenwriters to helming the nifty noir “The Lookout,” currently available on Netflix. To celebrate the occasion of his second directorial outing “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” we’re republishing this interview with Frank and one of his debut film’s stars, Matthew Goode that originally ran on Premiere.com in March 2007.
There’s a roll of cymbals during the opening credits that ushers audiences into The Lookout, the kind of nimble auditory cue that leads to the anticipation of making a discovery. Thankfully, the following 98 minutes don’t disappoint when writer/director Scott Frank and “Match Point” star Matthew Goode strike a perfect percussion all their own in the noirish small town thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“Brick”) as Chris, an amnesiac who Goode’s character Gary takes under his wing to rob the bank that Chris works at.
For Frank, “The Lookout” represents a transition from being one of Hollywood’s most celebrated screenwriters into a first time director who successfully has taken his razor sharp gift for onscreen gab in films such as “Out of Sight” and “Minority Report” and translated it into a taut, tightly paced thriller. And he couldn’t have found a better heavy than Goode, a British actor known for starring in lightweight romantic comedies such as “Imagine Me and You” and “Chasing Liberty.” But Goode turns in a performance where he subverts the charm that has led many to call him the next Hugh Grant and turns it towards making his character Gary into a Midwestern drifter whose lurid magnetism is stronger than his fists.
At the SXSW Film Festival, the two dished separately about their latest collaboration, a film that will, in many ways, compel audiences to do a double take. In that spirit, the interviews have been divided up with Scott Frank speaking first.
After years of writing for directors like Steven Soderbergh and Steven Spielberg, what made “The Lookout” the script you wanted to direct yourself?
Scott Frank: I didn’t write it to direct it. Sam Mendes was going to direct it. Right before American Beauty came out, we spoke of it and then I think he got such a plethora of opportunities, this became less interesting. Then David Fincher was going to direct it for a while and by the time David and I finished, I was at a point, a couple of years ago, where I really was hungry for a different creative experience. I was so high off the process of working with David and so into the movie at that point, I didn’t want to go through it again with another director. I really thought I’d go write something specifically for me to direct, but then I thought this is the perfect one because I know it so well and see it so clearly, this is the one I should do. And I still love it.
You’ve worked with so many great directors over the years. What did you learn from your experiences with directors such as Soderbergh or Spielberg?
SF: Two things happened as a result of working with those kinds of directors. One, it lessened my desire to direct for myself. That really made me feel comfortable just writing because I was being so well served. So it really had to be the right thing for me to want to get out of that groove. The second thing was they all had such a unique process in terms of how they worked that I gleaned something from being on the set with each of them. For example, with [“Get Shorty” director] Barry Sonnenfeld, it was all about pace. The art of his direction is in how he paces things and rhythm and he’s a master of that.
[With] Steven Soderbergh, one of the many things that I learned is before he starts shooting, he has these great informal rehearsals where everybody just sort of connects and talks and eventually, you get around to doing lines and it’s still very casual. There’s not a lot of pressure on anybody and through that, you end up discovering all these great things. And I did a lot of rewriting during Steven’s rehearsals because all these great ideas kept coming up. A great lesson from Steven Spielberg, just from a filmmaking standpoint, was that he is the master of geography. In every scene, you always know where you are. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a huge action set piece that’s with all kind of chaos going on. You always know where you are. You can always locate where everybody is in the scene. Unlike many newer action directors that just shoot a lot of footage, you have no idea what you’re watching, [but with] Steven Spielberg, you know exactly what you’re watching.
A lot of your films, including this one and “Dead Again,” have dealt with memory. What keeps compelling you?
SF: It’s less memory than it is identity. I’m fascinated with identity and I think from “Little Man Tate,” that’s about a man inside a boy’s body and “Dead Again” is about one character’s an orphan, the other one has total amnesia and they don’t know who they really are. The punchline to the joke is who they really are. “Get Shorty” is about a lone shark who really wants to be a movie producer. “Out of Sight” is about a bank robber who really wishes he hadn’t led that life because if he were someone else, he could have a relationship with this female federal marshall that he’s so in love with. In “Minority Report,” he, by day, acts out the role of being this fascist police officer and by night, he’s running into the inner city to buy drugs so that he can better communicate with his dead son, whose loss has so devastated him and so ruined him that he has no idea who he is anymore. So identity for me is a big, big thing, but it’s always accidental. I just seem to end up there.
How did you cast the film? Many of your actors, specifically Matthew Goode, play against type.
My casting director knew [Matthew Goode] and said he’s more like the guy in your movie than he is the guy in “Match Point.” And I went, “really?” And she said, “really.” I met him and he had a spectacular energy to him. He was all over the room. He had a real danger to him, yet he was also funny and charming, which were two really important things to me.
“Wedding Crashers” worked against Isla [Fisher] — I thought she’s not going to be right for this movie, but [“The Lookout” producer] Walter Parkes knew her personally and said you should meet her. Within 20 seconds, I could see that she was not at all what I thought she was and then when we began working on the part, she really made Luvlee more of a little kid, which I loved and I kept pushing her more and more in that direction. And Jeff Daniels, I watched “The Squid and The Whale” and he was playing a reprehensible human being and I could not take my eyes off of him. And I like that Jeff could be very dry and very funny and not be really broad. He could sit there and not move and command your attention.
I had been casting that [lead] part for almost a year and I’d met every young actor in that category and my casting director said you should see “Mysterious Skin.” I watched it and I could not believe how [Joseph Godron-Levitt] was able to convey this incredibly dark soul side by side with a much more charming, interesting, lighter soul and this movie needs that. In “The Lookout,” he needs to play anger and play loneliness, but also play the old Chris before the accident happened. And David Fincher used to say over and over, “It’s not a retard movie. It’s not a retard movie.” You don’t want to see the pathology of his injury. It comes out now and then, and that’s exactly what the hardest thing is to play.
This film definitely has a film noir feel. Were there any that were a particular influence to you?
SF: All of them. I love the crime genre, but I particularly like the crime genre when it’s infused with emotion and character. Then it’s more interesting to me. I don’t like it when it’s just an exercise in some criminal activity. And I wanted to try and do that with this movie.
As you mentioned before, you developed the script for other directors, but once you realized you were writing for yourself, did the script process become easier?
SF: No, I think most of the writing was done thankfully. I had to write for production and for production issues, we had to make some changes. I don’t think it was easier. I think it became very specific. I think I realized I couldn’t just shoot a scene where it said “there’s a party in process.” I needed to really be specific about what I was shooting in order to shoot it. When I realized Ok, it could easily get out of control if I don’t know exactly what I’m going to shoot and I should put exactly what I’m going to shoot in the script. I think in that way it changed.
The film’s opening sequence where Chris is driving through a night sky lit up with fireflies is gorgeous. Was there an inspiration?
SF: Walter Parkes had told me a story about seeing a swarm of fireflies and I was really looking for something that [showed] Chris trying to do something beautiful, but got into trouble. And the fireflies, the minute [Walter] suggested that, I realized that’s the way to go.
Here’s take two with Matthew Goode:
In “The Lookout,” you appear scruffy and nearly bald, which is completely different than your clean cut look in your previous films. Did you family and friends recognize you?
Matthew Goode: It’s funny. I can’t really grow a beard, but I’ve always been someone who’s had sort of a shaved head. Most people would recognize me from my family anyway. But I mean that was the thing. I was sitting in L.A. and it was just post the Woody Allen premiere out there [for Match Point]. There were a few scripts and I was mostly reading them just going, ‘oh God, that’s awful. Oh my God, another dinosaur movie.’ And then suddenly, this one…The Lookout by Scott Frank. And then I found out it was originally being made with Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. So I’m sure A, it’ll go to a huge star and B, everything that I have done has been pretty middle class or upper class English so it’s like it’d be a big step for them. But as I said, I was there, I had hair like this [he points to his perfectly coiffed head of hair] and I was like, you know what? I think it’s that time again when I’m just going to shave all my hair off and at least that way, I can give them a picture of what I’d look like, go in looking close to the character rather than myself.
Was it hard to nail down an American accent?
MG: No, not really. There wasn’t a dialect coach. We couldn’t budget for it and I was living in New York with my girlfriend for a month. I wanted to try and bulk myself up and then I thought, ‘actually, what the fuck am I doing?’ This character should not be the guy who’s really big. He should be quite wiry and [a] slippery customer – like the dialogue suggests, a bit of a chancer. Obviously, I didn’t base it on people in New York, but it was just nice having not visited America a lot and not used to the culture that much, it was nice to sort of be surrounded by it and living there.
It’s interesting you mentioned the physicality of the role because you play a bad guy, but not a real well-built guy.
MG: Yeah, exactly. Everyone’s quite obsessed with gym culture and being bigger, so your initial [thought] is if I’m playing someone who’s a bit of a badass, then you’re like I should be bigger than I am. But the camera adds 10 pounds, so I ended up slimming down. I mean he can handle himself, but at the same time, it should be about this subverted charisma, like what Scott said, he’s the kind of guy who would fuck your girlfriend with a smile on his face.
Careerwise, were you or your agents afraid of taking on a bad guy role that goes against the image you’ve created in your earlier films?
MG: There is an element of these days of typecasting. It started to get to the point where everyone was like ‘oh, the next Rupert Everett’ or whatever. But I hoped something like this was going to come along, so I grabbed the opportunity. Since I finished “The Lookout,” I haven’t worked purposefully because a lot of the other stuff that’s been coming along just…once you’ve dipped your foot into something so different, then you don’t want to go back to a silly romantic comedy. There’s a lot of good romantic comedies that are made, but why repeat stuff that’s not challenging or doesn’t frighten you?
“The Lookout” is currently available on DVD and Netflix Instant.