With a title like “Run & Jump,” there are naturally a few leaps involved. For director Steph Green, the lighthearted drama marks her feature debut after being nominated for an Oscar for best live-action short for the 2009 Roddy Doyle adaptation “New Boy,” while Will Forte takes on his first dramatic role in the film as Ted Fielding, a Berkeley-based neuropsychologist who travels to Ireland to observe the behavior of a stroke victim named Conor, a carpenter who has no recollections of his past and can barely communicate with his family. Though the practical responsibilities as the man of the house are carried out with great aplomb by his wife (Maxine Peake), the emotional ones of tending to the rest of the clan unexpectedly fall to Fielding, a bookworm who has clearly thrown himself into work to avoid getting entwined in relationships such as this.
Yet just as the Fielding grows close with his subject’s family, perhaps too much so, Green and Forte, not to mention the fine British actress Peake, bridge the gap beautifully with a lovely film that revels in defying expectations, whether it’s of the characters who have tired of the roles they’ve grown into or the filmmakers who are working on something new. Shortly after the film’s premiere earlier this week at the Tribeca Film Festival, Green spoke about her own journey to Ireland, taking a chance on the now-in-demand Forte and making the traditionally downcast countryside burst with color.
How did this come about?
After [“New Boy”], I was interested in doing another project in Ireland with the Irish Film Board, so my producer and I were looking for a script. This script, written by a woman named Ailbhe Keogan, had been around a bit and my producer read it, she thought this could be great for me. The original script actually had this crazy title – it was called “Mrs. Casey and the Ethnographer” and the ethnographer was British and wasn’t a neuropsychologist as our character is, so Ailbhe and I began working together, just to refine what was, as she would say herself, the first draft of her screenplay. I learned from her that part of the reason this script rang so true and felt so real was that her dad had experienced a brain injury, so in her household, there was an old and a new version of her dad. Then you know, I was American, she’s Irish, and we made the neuropsychologist an American visitor because we felt like that would be our two minds coming together as we worked on the script.
Before even making this film, as an American, what attracted you to Ireland?
I went to University College Dublin for what I thought would be a year when I was 21 and I very quickly fell in love with the country and the people. It was also a smaller and tighter filmmaking community, so I just met some people that seemed interested in stories I wanted to tell and I was interested in stories they wanted to tell. There was also perhaps something about the outsider perspective — I was very inspired by being there. It was different and it was new. It was new kinds of characters, new colors. It was all something that I could try to translate into filmmaking work. So I just stayed. I go back and forth, but I’ve been so lucky to work there.
You mention the colors, which is something I was really struck by in the film – from the production design to what you film outdoors, the film is full of bright colors you don’t typically see in an Irish setting on film. Do you think having an outsider perspective has something to do with that?
I’d say there were three or four things going on. One of them is that Ireland is a pretty grey country, therefore Ireland itself chooses to paint very bright colors on houses and buildings and this creates this signature look of these Irish villages where there’s all these colorful cottages and building facades against this green, green grass. That’s just the natural look of Ireland, which is distinctive and different.
Then I’d say secondly that the family’s in crisis and it’s a trying, challenging situation and I wanted to be careful that I wasn’t literal in the visual interpretation by making it a dark, cold, challenging visual. I actually wanted to [present these characters] with a spoonful of sugar to bring you into the world so you could experience the emotions with the characters. I wanted the world itself to be appealing and in terms of production design, the Casey family home was the only way to show how the family used to be before Connor’s stroke. There wasn’t going to be a big flashback series of [scenes showing the] “It used to be amazing” family life here. Instead, I wanted to try to imply by the way the house felt and the workshop felt that this was a thriving, colorful, energized, funny, loving family. And the house was yellow. I couldn’t repaint it. [laughs] The car was yellow.
I wasn’t saying I don’t want to look like other Irish films, but I was aware that we were going a different direction. Also, it’s an American [cinematographer], so the two of us and then an Irish crew, it would be sort of a hybrid of sensibilities coming together.
Speaking of which, how did Will Forte’s name come up?
If I wasn’t in directing, I think I’d be in casting. I love casting. I look for something different, and [with] Maxine Peake, people either know her and love her and have no idea of who Will Forte is or people know Will and love Will and have no idea who Maxine Peake is. So there was something really fun about bringing two people together who are going to be some form of discovery for the audience. We all love watching certain stars, but I think we also love meeting a new person and I like people meeting that actor as my character.
I saw a couple interviews with Will [where] I watched him and I thought he is really charmingly shy in a certain way, kind of self-deprecating and I just went, he could totally be Ted Fielding. I buy it. And for a little while, I avoided watching “MacGruber” and his other work, but when I did come upon some stuff on “30 Rock,” I realized he’s just a really good actor and it’s not said enough. Stuff’s rolling in for him where people are going to [be surprised]…but I was the first. And his manager said to me, “Everyone says they want to be the first, but they actually want to be the second. And you were the first.” People thought I was crazy. As soon as he got the role in the new Alexander Payne film [“Nebraska”], I was like heh heh heh. See! See I’m not crazy! He did a brilliant job, perfect job.
Not just in his performance, but as a cameraman apparently. You see him observing the stroke victim Conor with a camera in parts of the film, the results of which you actually see, and he’s credited with “extra footage” at the end. How much did he come up with that you wanted to actually use?
It was a funny process, definitely. He’s really cute about it. He’s like, “Don’t blame the camera department. I shot that footage.” Basically, what we’d do is my [cinematographer Kevin Richey] would stand next to him and they’d walk through the shot with Kevin looking at the screen. What was great was that Will’s goal was to feel like he was taping Conor, so it wasn’t like just generally observe. Then we blocked the actors around that focus, so for example, when you first see Conor coming in, he comes towards the camera and says, “Where’s my blue extension [cord]?” the family is blocked in behind him. Obviously, that was for Ted’s camera perspective, but it was the blocking that we were making work with Ted’s goal of being on Conor. Everything you see on video is Will shooting and he did a great job, so we made sure to credit him, so if he fails as an actor, he can get other gigs. [laughs]
The blocking must’ve been really crucial in general. You’re shooting in a house not necessarily built for filming in and there are many scenes where there are tons of family members in the house, such as when they have what they call a “Mexico night” with tacos and the young girl running around with a Sharpie. Were those some insane days of filming?
It was pretty insane. It was a very claustrophobic shoot. The kitchen [was small], and we smashed up against the walls. We had two cameras going [at all times] and we just shot and shot and shot. We just kept doing the scene over and over and each time there was coverage of a new person, and I really have to credit my editor for sifting through what was inevitably hours and hours and hours of footage at those table scenes, we did them all in a row. Over the course of three or four days, we wanted to just burn that kitchen down after those four days. We were so tired of being in there.
It’s the easy description to say a sort of love triangle forms in the film, but it’s not quite accurate. How did you go about getting those dynamics without all the clichés that go with it?
Even from reading the script, I remember thinking this is kind of a love triangle, but why do I still like it? Because we’re all bored of love triangles in a way, but there was just something so realistic to me about a visitor coming in and a family falling in love with this new person because there are so many roles changing in the family. The son needs to become more of the man of the house. The father’s become more like a child. This visitor is filling this gap, so I think that’s what kept it interesting was it wasn’t just a sort of standard love triangle. It wasn’t just romantic love. It was friendship and what I said to the actors was to steer it to like the way you fall in love with somebody you want to be friends with. There is that feeling of oh I want to spend time with that person and that’s what it feels like to them in the beginning. It doesn’t feel like this is hot, mad passionate love that I can’t live without.
In general, how did you get interested in filmmaking in the first place?
The truth is I was interested in theater. I loved the theater group in my high school and I did stage managing and it just felt magical to put on a play and then to break it down. I was pretty clear early on that I was more suited to directing — I just felt more comfortable. I think acting is so incredibly brave, but maybe I wanted more control. [slight laugh] Then I enrolled in Northwestern University for college and I enrolled in the theater program and I remember during the orientation sessions, everyone was in these groups out on a big field, depending on what you were majoring in and theater group was playing with an imaginary ball. The filmmaking kids walked by with all this gear, like cameras and lighting and I just remember clocking that and going, wait, they’re going to make movies. It was a completely new concept to me. I don’t know why I didn’t read the choices well enough, so I put down the imaginary ball and two months later, I transferred into the radio-TV-film. I don’t know why I was such an idiot not reading that I could’ve done that, but it was a revelation. I never looked back.
“Run & Jump” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play the Tribeca Film Festival twice more on April 23rd at the Clearview Chelsea 4 and April 26th at the AMC Loews Village 7.