Alex Lehmann has become an expert at being in the right place at the right time. Of course, this comes with years of being a camera operator and cinematographer, so there was no doubt that when scoping out Crestline, the small town tucked into the San Bernadino Mountains that wound up serving as the setting of his narrative feature debut “Blue Jay,” and Lehmann spied a tree with a heart carved into it, bearing the names “Mel + Jay,” which just happened to correspond with the two of the film’s producers Mel Eslyn and Jay Duplass, he knew had found his spot.
“That was coincidence, but we took note of it, shot it and knew it was going in the movie for sure,” laughs Lehmann now.
Without his ability to get in the perfect position, Lehmann wouldn’t be directing “Blue Jay,” having met the film’s writer/producer/star Mark Duplass while working as a cameraperson on “The League,” and without Lehmann, “Blue Jay” likely wouldn’t work as well as it does, benefiting greatly from his delicate touch behind the camera and sensitivity to every nuance of the beautiful performances from Duplass and Sarah Paulson, playing high school sweethearts Jim and Amanda, who reunite by happenstance and find joy in each other’s company before reliving the pain of rediscovering why their relationship wasn’t meant to last. Despite being fixed in time by their mid ‘90s musical tastes ranging from Annie Lennox to Blues Traveler, the couple becomes detached as only film can offer such separation by how they’re elegantly presented in regal black-and-white and their comfort in each other’s company, with an audience just as likely as the characters to lose all track of whether the ice cream Amanda picks up at the grocery store where they run into each other has melted.
Shot across just seven days in chronological order, it isn’t surprising to find that “Blue Jay”’s spell only grows stronger as it goes on, even with reality constantly threatening to pierce the dreamy bubble Jim and Amanda have constructed around themselves for the day, and for Lehmann, it is further momentum for the filmmaker after debuting his first documentary as a director, “Asperger’s Are Us,” earlier this year at SXSW, mustering an endearing profile about a comedy troupe in Massachusetts comprised completely of young men with autism as they prepare for what’s billed as their final performance. After conquering the festival circuit over two separate cycles with “Blue Jay” recently making its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Lehmann took a moment to reflect on the whirlwind year he’s had and how his two films, both bound to be discovered in theaters and on Netflix where they’ll be premiering later this fall, informed each other, as well as collaborating with Mark Duplass, getting the tone right for “Blue Jay,” and creating a freeing environment for the actors.
Were you and Mark just conspiring on all of this from the set of “The League”?
I brought Mark the “Asperger’s Are Us” doc right as “The League” was finishing up and I was afraid to do it because I didn’t want to ruin our casual friendship. I don’t like to bother professionals with other stuff, but I put a lot of time and effort into it, so I showed it to him. He may have reluctantly watched it because you can imagine how many asks he gets from up-and-coming filmmakers [laughs], but he liked the doc and decided we should work together on finishing it up and getting it out there. At that point, I guess he liked working with me enough to invite me to be a part of “Blue Jay,” which is a dream come true.
How fleshed out was “Blue Jay” when you came aboard?
[Mark] really had the feeling of “Blue Jay” down and he communicated that really well to all of us through what was first a very efficiently written two-page treatment that informed us of the basics of the characters and the story. That definitely all put us all in a place to exact his vision, and by exact his vision, I mean we all improvised it and found wonderful things that were in line with the feeling definitely emanated from him [initially].
I understand that led to some pretty intense production meeting beforehand.
[laughs] The breakfast club! Yeah, it was Mark, Sarah, myself and our three creative producers – Mel Eslyn, Xan Aranda and Syd Fleischmann and we would sit and talk about our own high school experiences or some of our feelings of regret or just nostalgia that we have now. We learned a lot about each other and we felt very vulnerable around one another, which ended up making bonds for life. It really allowed us to trust each other and we took those emotional moments and Mark wrote a lot of them into the treatment that expanded into a 15-page thing and that energy just transferred to set in a really cool way.
It isn’t just the black-and-white, but when you bring Clu Gulager into the mix, am I wrong to think “The Last Picture Show” might’ve been a slight influence on this?
There was not a direct influence, but Clu Gulager and his huge heart and his romantic self was [an influence]. He’s a personal friend of mine and I knew he was perfect for what we were doing. He definitely sparked the entire crew and the cast. You could tell his romantic charm was something that really generated a fire for Jim and Amanda throughout the rest of the film.
You’ve said you were able to shoot this in sequence – was that easy to do?
It was an easy decision to make [since] probably anybody who can afford to, would love to, but it’s a luxury. The film was definitely written in a way we could do that and we were finding locations that were close enough to each other where we were not wasting a ton of time driving to locations. It really allowed us to track emotionally where characters are and because there’s so much improv, if something happened – not necessary plot stuff, but emotional stuff – that was unforeseen and you really liked, you’re able to chase that, and modify what the tone is going to be in the following scene, so you’re not on this emotional flatline or [have] crazy peaks and valleys. For example, if it was more awkward in the [opening scene in the] grocery store than we thought it was going to be, when we’re in the coffee shop [next], we’d need to be able to have them relate a little bit more so we’re not just slamming the awkward scenes onto the audience [where] it just feels incredibly uncomfortable. We ended up giving ourselves options editorially in case something didn’t work, but we got what we were going for.
Did having the experience of filming “Asperger’s Are Us” right before this help with having that sensitivity?
Yeah, I had far more experience as a documentarian and as a cinematographer than I do as an actor’s director, so the ability to be reactive to what the amazing actors were doing in improv was way more comfortable for me in my first feature than doing something a little more classical. It’s not all I want to do, and I think every project should challenge you in a new way and there’s plenty of room to grow, but it was a perfect entry into directing [narratives]. I think that’s why Mark hired me – he knew I had that background.
Sarah has said she wasn’t that used to improv – and of course, she’s wonderful in this, but was that an interesting dynamic playing off Mark?
She’ll admit that she was scared about doing the improv, but we didn’t have any doubts that she was going to be great. She took to it instantly, but she’s got a very high standard for herself that shows in her work. There’s a comfort in the way she works where she wants to have her script and make her notes and make references to things, and I’m gushing here, but it’s funny to think Sarah Paulson would be scared of anything – she’s one of the best living actors we have – so when she says, “I don’t know if I can do this,” you have to politely say to yourself, “Yeah I know you can do it” and then just tell her, “Well, let’s just see what happens.” Of course, she nails it and that just speaks to her professionalism.
One of my favorite moments in the film is where Amanda says to Jim, “What are you doing with your face? Your face is leaking,” as he’s giving an odd expression. Is that an occupational hazard with Mark – not knowing what his face might do?
Well, you know, Mark likes to talk about his emotions even when you’re not making a movie. He likes to cry and he likes to feel, so I just think that’s pulling from his natural charisma. They even joke about his leaky face at another time. [laughs] But in all seriousness, they’re both very much aware of each other in the film, so if either of them is doing the most subtle thing – maybe even the audience isn’t even seeing it – these two are so tuned into each other, so in the moment and reactive to each other, that when Mark’s doing something really natural in the scene, Sarah just picks up on it.
In terms of capturing this, is there a lot of blocking or is it largely intuitive and you give the actors a lot of room to move freely?
It was not overly blocked. I was never lighting the actors’ faces. I was always lighting the room, which allows you to be looser and also try different things in different takes, so it was much more about being reactive to what the actors’ intuitions were.
When Jim and Amanda start showing off their dance moves midway through, was any of it planned or just a free for all, goofing off?
100% goofing off. We all called a couple [moves] out that were probably our go-tos at high school dances, but that was a quick and easy one to shoot because we all wanted to do that. There was more material than we could ever use in the film.
In general, what has this year been like for you?
Pretty unreal. I’ve got to pinch myself a little, but I feel extremely thankful and appreciative of the opportunity. I know you can make a good movie and not necessarily have the fire power of having Mark being the [executive producer] on your documentary or Mark and Sarah being the actors in your film. You might not have it recognized, so I feel really fortunate that I’ve gotten to work with some people that have helped get the film out there and maybe propel my career more than equally deserving filmmakers, so I don’t take it for granted. Every day, I just work hard to try and honor the opportunities that I’ve been given.
“Blue Jay” is now open at the Village East Cinema in New York and will open in Los Angeles on October 14th. It is now available on iTunes and VOD.