Interview: Jeff Lipsky on Reaching for the Stars with “Molly’s Theory of Relativity”

To describe Jeff Lipsky’s 2013 as busy would be an understatement, considering that in the midst of shepherding over a wildly successful launch for his third distribution company Adopt Films, he was spending every free second away on the post-production of his fifth feature “Molly’s Theory of Relativity.” That’s why Lipsky has come up with a better word for the year he had.

“It was magical,” says Lipsky. “Each of us can complain about all kinds of things in their life, but I consider myself the luckiest man in the world.”

Luck may have factored in slightly as to how Lipsky was able to manage it all, particularly when considering how Adopt Films pulled in three Best Foreign Language Oscar contenders in “Barbara,” “Sister” and “Caesar Must Die” as a startup, but one needs only to look at the films he’s made as a writer/director to see his skill at bringing together the seemingly incongruous into one harmonious whole.

Naturally, “Molly’s Theory of Relativity” may be the writer/director’s most sprawling film to date, despite the fact that the majority of it takes place inside a single apartment. Set during the hours leading up to Halloween in New York, it features a young couple (Lawrence Levine and Sophia Takal, real-life partners in film and otherwise) on the verge of making some major life decisions after Molly (Takal) is fired from her job as an astrophysicist and her husband Zack (Levine) deals with the unwelcome arrival of his father (Reed Birney), who all but abandoned Zack in his youth and whose visit precipitates a host of others from family members both living and dead to help the couple navigate through what suddenly appears to be a stormy future after the two rethink their ideas about starting anew in Norway.

While the premise is fantastical, Lipsky continues to be committed to the startlingly frank tone he set with his second and fourth features, the relationship dramas “Flannel Pajamas” and “Twelve Thirty,” blunt in his humor, his depiction of sexuality and the uncomfortable truths that we must tell one another before progress can be made. Not surprisingly, Lipsky is equally no-nonsense in conversation, speaking fast and always willing to dip into an entertaining digression, and recently, he took the time to talk about the origins of his latest film, how he decided to cast the up-and-coming filmmaking duo of “Green” and “Gabi on the Roof in July” helmers Takal and Levine, and what’s led to his recent prolificness.

How did this film come about?

All of the scripts I write happen organically, maybe with the one exception of “Flannel Pajamas,” which had a definite direction right from page one, and spring from a variety of different impetuses and thoughts and epiphanies. I knew that I wanted to write a film about a married couple and the very passion and the things that brought them together was now threatening to break them apart — in this case a shared passion for travel. In the case of the woman, she becomes an astronomer and her destiny is to unravel the mysteries of travel that go far beyond what most of us can even comprehend and his remain much more earthbound.

Then I began writing this around the time I officially became an orphan in real life and it just made me think of my parents some more. My mom passed away some time ago – very young – and my sister is a very tradition-bound kind of Long Island Jewish woman who was encouraging me a year after my mom’s death to go visit the gravesite. So I went to the cemetery and I sat by her gravestone in this very cold, forbidding area and this unanswering piece of rock. It did nothing for me. And I realized I talk to my mother all the time. She’s with me all the time in a cerebral way that’s very palpable, vivid and three-dimensional and I realized that when you really need the people in your life who’ve passed away, death is never really that great a barrier.

I [thought], well, why not take that to the next step and in a visual and literal way. so you have a character Molly, who’s lost her entire family at a very young age, but that doesn’t prevent her this woman who explores universes many, many light years away from having them come visit and provide counsel. Then I came up with the title, “Molly’s Theory of Relativity,” which summons pictures of Albert Einstein and I said, well, it’s got to be set on Halloween. It’s the scariest day of the year anyway and Molly’s husband is full of fear at the beginning of our story. We might as well have a trick or treater come and that should be Albert Einstein and I’m going to make it a nine-year-old girl who’s the nine-year-old version of Molly. All of my films are about family, so when I decided Einstein and theory of relativity — well, the word relative is in it, so it just was doubly appropriate.

As much as there’s magical realism in here and dead people and living people and they’re all sharing the same stage, it’s actually a very simple story. I think that the worst thing for somebody to do would be to over think the story. The bottom line is that all my films are about family and love and sexuality and so is this.

This might be a superficial reading of it, but like “Twelve Thirty,” you get to spend a lot of time with the younger generation before the older generation comes into the picture. Is that structure is coincidental or is the gradual progress of innocence colliding with experience is something that’s interesting to you?

The structure that appears on screen shifted a little bit during the editing process. The 18 hours of our story was told in a completely linear fashion [originally]. It begins with the couple waking up on what we discover is the last day they’re going to spend in the only bed they’ve slept in since they’ve been married, then [the film] mostly remains in the bedroom for the next 15 minutes until [Zack’s] dad shows up, then everything is linear after that. Once we got into the editing room, we realized that it created 15 minutes of an opening of the film did not reveal enough about who these people were, even though I loved the sense of naturalism that occurs in their bedroom and with each other during that first 15 minutes. It was very passive.

The other unusual aspect of this film I realized in the editing room was this horrific fight/battle between father and son, the likes of which most people never have to experience in their own lives. It went on originally for 12 or 13 uninterrupted minutes and it’s really when we learn for the first time vividly that Molly lost her job. Suddenly, I had this brainstorm of let’s split this scene in half. Let’s open the film with the first half of this fight, which introduces a father and a son and the woman this son lives with. It’s kind of in your face and a lot of information is imparted to the audience during this scene, some of which I can’t expect that they will totally parse properly until they see what follows it. Then we can go to the bedroom and catch up with the second half of the battle in sequence and that’s what seemed to work so much better in the editing room.

So the answer to your question is no, that wasn’t by design and in fact, we kind of interrupted the age chronology in the editing room, but I love the fact that the nine characters in this film range from ages 8 to 85 literally because that’s also part of Molly’s theory of relativity. It’s also part of life and death. We see it from start to finish.

It may not sound like a compliment, but it really is – I must cop to our readers that I watched this at home where I was able to go back and see the beginning after the film was over in order to unpack all the information that was there in that opening scene.

In terms of the films that I make, that’s actually very consistent. And maybe subliminally, that kind of got into my head in the editing room because if you go back to “Flannel Pajamas” and you go back to “Twelve Thirty,” both films open up with a scene between two people that goes on for a long time. It’s the couple in “Flannel Pajamas” who meet at a diner for the very first time on a blind date and even though there are peripheral characters at the beginning of the scene, finally, the evening goes late enough so it leaves just the two of them. In “Twelve Thirty,” we have a scene between two young people – it’s a sequence that goes on for quite some time before we introduce other people. So maybe that is a leitmotif of how I write and certainly how I edit my films. I didn’t really think about that until you just mentioned it.

How did you come across Sophia and Lawrence to play your lead couple?

Between making films and risking my life savings every time out, I have to continue the other thing I love to do, which is distributing film. So until Adopt Films was founded a year ago, I had a shingle hung out outside of my apartment that I was a distributor for hire. A couple of years ago, I got a call from a producers’ rep saying, “There’s this new independent American film this young man Lawrence Levine wrote and directed and he’s in the movie. I’d love you to see it because they’re thinking about a possible service deal.” They sent me the film and I had mixed feelings about it, but I thought it was really interesting. I thought the guy had talent and I was very impressed with his performance and the performance of one of his co-stars Sophia Takal. At the time I watched it, I had no idea they were in fact a couple in real life.

I met with them and we discussed the possibility of working on it together and we had a great meeting, but it didn’t work out. Then a year later, I got invited to all the press screenings of a festival that was being held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York and one of these new American independent films at this festival was this film called “Green,” which was written and directed by Sophia Takal. Again, I had mixed feelings about the film, but I was very impressed with the performances of both Sophia and by Larry and at that point, was just about to start preproduction on “Molly.” I was walking to the subway and all of the sudden, it struck me, wow, wouldn’t it be interesting for the film and a challenge for me personally as a director to cast an actual couple as the protagonists of my movie.

So I went home and called them up, I said “Listen, come on over, I’ve got a script to show you” and they came by, they loved the script and we decided that was it. They were going to work together. It paid off in spades. At early editing room screenings, the sense of intimacy and the sense of naturalism and the sense of love that emerges just in the body language of these two people… maybe great [trained] actors can pull that off also, but you know there was a little bit of shortcut, a little bit of real life that insinuated itself and that paid off for the movie.

One of the big hurdles I imagine you must face every time out is depicting sexuality in such a frank way and since it feels as though audiences have been trained to equate such graphic nudity either with great importance or as something to be mocked, is having natural chemistry key to the playfulness in your films?

It all boils down to establishing a triangulation of trust between me as a director and the two actors who are involved in intimate scenes, whether it’s a couple that’s actually a couple in real life or it’s Justin Kirk and Julianne Nicholson, who had not met until a week before we started shooting “Flannel Pajamas” or the actors in “Twelve Thirty.” That’s what I strive to do from the day I meet these people. If they express to me a passion for and a strong sense of their characters in the script and they’re ready to sign on, then I need to make them trust me immediately. Everything that you see in my films is always in the script and the reason it’s there is because in any healthy relationship, our sexual lives are important, yet sex should be fun. It shouldn’t be something that’s a punishment. It shouldn’t be something that’s an obligation. At least it is in a healthy relationship and as it’s generally depicted in my films, it is a healthy relationship.

The audiences for my films are generally my generation. I’m 59 years old and we grew up watching independent American films and foreign language films in the last ’60s and ’70s. People like Robert Altman were making movies like “Long Goodbye” where Phillip Marlowe lives next door to three topless girls the whole movie or Fellini is making “Juliet of the Spirits” where there’s all kinds of wanton and fun nudity and sexuality. I find that the older audiences are way more accepting of the intimacy in my films than young people are. Young people are repressed in our country today and it’s really too bad. They come from some kind of bizarre, politically correct rigidity and nobody has fun anymore. And it’s a conscious thing that I do to include scenes that to me are organic to the stories that include nudity or sexuality, and most of those scenes, by the way, are dialogue scenes. But at the end of the day, it constitutes less than 10 percent of each movie, just as our sex lives constitute less than 10 percent of our real lives.

Incidentally, that’s about the amount of time you spend outside of Zak and Molly’s apartment in this film. Was it a challenge to keep things interesting in a single setting?

First of all, my [cinematographer] Jendra Jarnagin deserves huge credit because what I told her upfront was 85 to 90 percent of this film is going to be in this one-bedroom apartment and the challenge is to make every single scene look somewhat different, either through lighting, which is still mostly naturalistic or to reveal angles or sections of this small apartment that we’ve never seen in other scenes. She did a superb job in achieving that. The other challenge is that when we were shooting the scenes in the bedroom, mostly the first 15 minutes of the movie, it wasn’t that challenging, but we did have a crew of 25 and when all nine actors were in the scene, such as the dinner scene, it resembled a Marx Brothers comedy on the set. We had tracks and dollies, it was daunting. But I’m telling you, when you’ve got this kind of dedicated crew and masterful actors — even Daisy Tahan, who was nine years old when we shot the film and this was her tenth feature film — we were never claustrophobic or suffocated by the environment and I think that’s what translates to the screen.

You can feel the energy, even in the production design – those blue walls were pretty evocative.

It’s also a textured blue. Our scenic design woman who painted both the entire apartment as well as Molly’s wall did a superb job and my production designer, it was my second time working with her. It doesn’t matter that it’s a one-bedroom apartment. She comes up with a thousand different ideas. Then there are little things. I was so proud that somebody actually at a word-of -mouth screening made mention of this – I wouldn’t necessarily expect anyone to notice that there is a prop on the window sill of the apartment that is a book in Cyrillic, but a young woman who really liked the movie said, “Did you know that [book is] by Boris Pasternak [the Russian poet whose name is coopted in the film by Molly’s Midwestern-born grandfather played by Tom Morrissey]?” And I knew because my production designer’s art director was born in Russia and said, “Well I have this book by Boris Pasternak in Cyrillic, how about we use it as a prop?” So they all did a remarkable job to fill basically an empty apartment and yet still make it feel empty like somebody was packing to move.

Speaking of moving, you took a break between your first and second films, but you’ve been on a tear in recent years. Is it because now it’s possible or was there something else that inspired this recent creative streak?

I feel blessed. I’ve shot three feature films in the last four-and-a-half years and to emerge with films that I’m so incredibly proud of and that have largely been received quite well critically and by the small audiences that have been discovering them, a lot of things have to fall into place. Luck has something to do with it. It doesn’t matter if you’re involved in the financing – and I have been involved in the financing personally for three of the five films. The long gap between my first and second film would not have been as long if people were hammering at my door to finance another one of my films – I had been writing screenplays, but my first film bankrupted me personally. I had to go back to work in distribution and I began my second company, Lot 47 Films and things just fell into place when I left there.

I had written “Flannel Pajamas” and I thought I had enough money to finance it personally. I didn’t. But it did constitute 60 percent of it and after that, I miraculously was offered a directing job for hire and I got paid very well to do it and it was a great experience. It was my second consecutive film at Sundance and at the Sundance Film Festival, I had just about finished the script for “Twelve Thirty” and ran into a lawyer friend of mine from Minnesota who was involved in working within the relatively then new Iowa tax rebate for film production. The tax credit program that only  lasted a year, but he said, “I’m putting together all these films. What are you doing?” And I told him it was set in New York, he said, “Well, can you set it in Iowa?” Miraculously, four months later, we had the financing and we were in preproduction.

I love writing and directing films and I love actors and my crews and I find that if I don’t make another movie pretty soon after the previous one, I won’t stop watching the previous one. And my new script is almost finished and I hope that gets underway in the short term, as long as it doesn’t interfere with my distribution work at Adopt Films, which is a company I’m hugely proud of.

“Molly’s Theory of Relativity” opens at the Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles on March 29th.

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