You’d think that making a film in just one location would make things easy, but despite the seeming sun-kissed simplicity of “The Park Bench,” it became the little things that would cause the biggest headaches.
“The second day of shooting, these sprinklers were on timers and so we had to run around and grab everybody and the camera,” recalls writer/director Ann LeSchander. “I’m a real stickler for sound, so I learned my lesson that you’ve just got to hold. And then the planes [flying overhead], that’s a real challenge.”
Overcoming these small stumbling blocks with outsized impact nicely parallels the story that LeSchander was telling about the relationship that develops between a grad student named Emily (Nicole Hayden), training to become a librarian, and an undergrad named Mateo (Walter Perez), who needs tutoring to make it past his American Literature class. As the two discuss Ezra Pound, Walt Whitman and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mateo begins to open up about his own experience as a son of Mexican immigrants in order to find meaning in the great American poets and novelists, allowing both to educate each other. A subtle culture clash unfolds, illuminated in animated respites reflecting the personal experiences they share with one another, but ultimately, Emily and Mateo find common ground that reaches the transcendent heights of the literature they’re studying.
“The Park Bench” isn’t only bright because Emily and Mateo’s tutoring sessions take place during the day, but because the actors playing them bring a considerable amount of effervescence to the proceedings, which occur during the course of a semester. It took far longer, however, for LeSchander to be in a position to pull the trigger on her feature debut after years of making shorts and on the eve of the film’s release in Los Angeles after a successful festival run, she and Hayden shared stories of how her first feature came to be.
How did this come about?
Ann LeSchander: The seed was I really wanted to make a feature film and I wanted a concept that was makeable. Initially, I just thought what can I just go out and do, so I thought about these times in my life when I’ve had these forced relationships. I actually thought a little bit about acting class where you’re given your scene partner and you have to meet three or four times a week and suddenly you know everything about that person. So I started to think about that tutor/student relationship and I hoped I could create this relationship that was engaging enough it could be the movie. I’d have this opportunity for them to reveal themselves through the books they read, so that was the genesis of the story.
Was there actually a reading list for this?
Nicole Hayden: Oh, yes. I’m not as smart as Emily in real life. [laughs] I ordered all the books on Amazon and my husband still laughs about me being so upset and trying to get myself to read “Ethan Frome” because I can’t watch a Hallmark commercial without crying, so I knew how difficult that would be ahead of time. There’s even things I had such a hard time saying — [for] dialectical realism, I kept saying diabolical, so I remember saying it like 15 times a day to make sure I said it right because for Emily, this is a part of her life, so I really had to make that stuff a part of my vocabulary. There was a lot of preparation but I learned so much about everything.
You nail “verisimilitude,” which Mateo teases Emily for pronouncing properly.
Nicole Hayden: You should of seen it written out on my script in like a hundred different ways. Verisimilitude. [laughs] It does make me laugh for real. We were all laughing.
Ann LeSchander: See, it’s funny. [laughs] I really did comb through a lot of American Lit syllabus and I thought, “well, what books would take them somewhere and be revealing [about who they are]?” That’s how I ended up what I decided was going to be in the film.
Is it true Ann’s mother was a librarian?
Ann LeSchander: That’s right. And I always wanted to make a movie about a librarian because it’s rare and I thought this would make total sense — she’s studying English and she knows American lit well enough to be a tutor, so let me make her get her degree to be a librarian. And it’s not just that my mother was a librarian, but she loved being a librarian The idea of sharing books with people or knowing them well enough to say “I think you’d like this” was a big part of her personality. So it’s not this know-it all-ness [in Emily] like “I know what’s best for you.” It’s “I know this is good for you.”
Nicole Hayden: There was really a soulful connection. Obviously, I never got to meet [Ann’s] mom, but just thinking about being able to meet somebody and look at them and have a feeling about what they would enjoy and spark their intellect is not an easy thing to do. You really have to be a soulful person not just have that job, but be someone who’s really good at it and who loves it like the way Emily does. That’s a really rare thing in somebody.
Ann LeSchander: But that’s another thing…Librarians are usually the butt of a joke and people do study it and it is their goal in life, so I just thought I didn’t want this character to be some angst ridden millennial character. I wanted her to know what she wanted and to be working towards that goal, but at the same time, plain in that way.
Was the culture clash, booksmart versus streetsmart dynamic of Emily and Mateo’s relationship there from the start or did that come with casting?
Ann LeSchander: The whole idea of why [Mateo] needs tutoring is [because of the] way I imagined the character having English as his second language, but he’s been in the U.S. since he was about 11. I actually had met a lot of people who have moved to the U.S. around that age and they can make it through high school, but when you get to college, college lit classes are really on another level, so you really have to be on top of your game, so it made sense to me that type of person would need a tutor. What I didn’t want is to have these tremendous ends of spectrum. I didn’t want some urban gangbanger and some waspy [suburbanite]. I just wanted them to be people with their stories to tell.
But I created this character [of Mateo] because my daughter was attending a Spanish immersion school and 50 percent of the students there need to be native Spanish speakers. Most of those kids were first generation. So I would meet their families and learn about their culture and I thought this [film] is a story about stories, so wouldn’t it be interesting if some of those stories were cultural? One of the things I was learning about was a connection with food, and Latino culture and folklore, so it added a whole new element.
Did Nicole and Walter get to rehearse beforehand or is what you see on camera really how it developed?
Nicole Hayden: It really did all happen in front of the camera. I did a ton of work on my own beforehand, but Walter and I really only met once before we started shooting. But I really did feel like I’d known him forever the second I met him and I knew this character. It’s funny. People always ask me how similar me and Emily are and he more and more we talk about it, I feel like I just got to be a vessel for her life. It just came out based on what she was thinking and what she was feeling, and where she had been and what she had thought about what she had read, and how it influenced her life. It was so effortless and it’s really a testament to Ann and her writing.
Because it’s largely a single setting, did that enable you to shoot the story in sequence?
Nicole Hayden: No! [laughs]
Ann LeSchander: There are so many elements that had to happen with our “special guest stars,” as I call them. People would come in for the day and we had schedules to juggle. But the main thing was the way we had to cheat the idea of the the semester going through [the different seasons]. The idea was to start at what seemed like the end of January through the beginning of June, so those scenes in the beginning of the film had to be shot in the morning and we had to spread them out. Then the scenes that had the longer monologues, I tried to do only one of those a day. It’s really a testament to [the actors] that they knew where they were in their relationship when we started this scene.
Nicole Hayden: And a testament to you and Gareth [Taylor, the cinematographer] for figuring that out because that’s mind blowing, trying to figure out what lighting would work best, and keeping them all in sequence.
Ann LeSchander: There was a lot of pre-production and planning so that we could come up with this something that really made sense as this semester is going by.
Was there anything special about the location you chose?
Ann LeSchander: We just lucked out by finding a little tucked away place in Griffith Park where they let us shoot. Logistically, financially and budget-wise, finding a park to shoot in in Los Angeles was really hard. Griffith Park was the only park that let me shoot without a park ranger, which is a tremendous [expense]. It would have been a budget killer. So we ended up in this place where we were pretty much left alone. And Gareth had the vision from the beginning to shoot around all these big metal tables that are stuck to the ground, so it was all beautifully managed so we could just make it feel like this magical place. Of course, the park bench we brought in and moved it as needed.
Was directing a feature any different for you?
Ann LeSchander: Yes. It was so much harder [laughs] When you make a short, you hope it’s good, but when you make a feature, you hope it has legs. I felt a real responsibility to Nicole and Walter especially, but to everybody who put their time in that this would be something.
Nicole Hayden: Well, just so you know you did it with such grace.
Ann LeSchander: Aw, thank you.
Nicole Hayden: You don’t meet a lot of directors, especially someone who wrote it and who has so much at stake, who’s so graceful. To be under the kind circumstances she was under with the time and then losing the light… I’ve seen directors freak [out]. And Ann was just so warm and so concerned with everyone. She just made everything so special. I think it’s the best shoot I’ve ever had. Every day was so fun, I couldn’t wait to get there.