When all was said and done, there was at least one birth that resulted from the broken condom used by J.C. Khoury, a writer/director who has no shame in describing the potentially embarrassing malfunction since he's already done it so eloquently in his tough-minded, uncomfortably hilarious first feature “The Pill.” Based on the personal experience of having to wait out the two-step morning after process of a girlfriend, Khoury transfers the anxiety over to Fred (Noah Bean), a frustrated writer who already is slightly on edge about the prospect of a one-night stand with Mindy (Rachel Boston), a mercurial force of nature he met hours earlier. When the evening ends at her apartment with the drinking game "I never…", he fails to ask the one question that would be pertinent – whether she takes birth control – before she gives him the greenlight to stay the night.
Such a premise might sound contrived and sexist in the wrong hands, but “The Pill” gives Fred and Mindy equal weight as they run around New York together the following day, their entire lives opening up to each other as he's forced to stay with her to ensure he won't unexpectedly become an expectant father. But that’s the only surprise Fred has any control over during the next 12 hours, with every apartment door opening up another revelation for these two virtual strangers who don’t exactly meet cute since they’re able to see one another warts and all before deciding whether they would actually want to spend more time together or not.
Yet it’s likely anyone watching “The Pill” will want to spend more time with Fred and Mindy rather than less, thanks to the surehanded give-and-take between Bean and Boston and the clever plotting of Khoury, who was gracious enough to sit down on the eve of the film’s theatrical run in New York to discuss, what else, how his debut is a conversation starter and how he became a filmmaker.
How did you get interested in filmmaking?
I first really got interested when I was about 16 years old. A bunch of my buddies and I picked up a Super 8 camera and decided to make this mock trailer. We were in 11th grade and I remember just doing it. I was acting as one of the characters in the thing and I just remember being so excited about figuring out the shots and concocting this little story. That’s when I got bitten by the bug, so to speak. From there, I just started making more short films and then I ended up at the graduate film program at NYU and that’s when I really started to take things more seriously.
Had you wanted to make a feature for a while?
I had, yeah. Everyone who picks up a camera and starts making motion pictures, even in the short form or commercials or whatnot, I think the big goal is to try and tell a feature-length story. That was always the challenge was how to make something that was going to be good, how to figure out that there’d be a script worthy to invest all that time and energy in. I didn’t want to do it until I knew I had something that I knew I could do well, so I’ve been spending the last five years directing commercials, honing my craft and working with actors and with crews. When this idea finally popped in my head, I knew I had something that I could do well and I had the confidence to write the script.
What was it about this idea?
It was definitely based on some personal experience. I was with a girlfriend at the time and the condom broke and the whole going to the pharmacy the morning after, it was one of those things where I was like “Oh my God, she must be pregnant.” Of course, she was like “don’t worry, relax,” but being a professional hypochondriac, I assumed the worst right away. It’s funny because when you get to the pharmacy, you’d get two pills, take them 12 hours apart and you don’t think that. So when I learned that, I said oh my God, what a great ticking clock — what if I didn’t trust the girl?
I heard you wrote this immediately after this event. I love the idea that as a filmmaker, your first thought was to run to a computer.
It kind of was like that. Once it happened, I had the spark for the idea and once I had the idea, I got really serious and just got in my writing cave and wrote it.
It’s such a great premise, but when you give yourself a ticking clock, it must be a challenge to come up with what goes on in the middle.
Exactly. I didn’t want to make a film about two people just spending the day together and then lag and drag in the middle. I also wanted to make sure the two characters were opposites so they’d always be in conflict to each other. Mindy is the engine that drives the film. Her character’s spine is to rock the boat and [Noah Bean’s Fred] character is all about maintaining the status quo and keeping things calm, so as long as you have these two opposing forces with this subtext of “Oh my God, is she pregnant? I’ve got to make sure she takes the second pill,” I think organically I was able to create situations that escalated.
You’ve discussed in the past how most romantic comedies get it wrong, though I wouldn’t include “The Pill” in that genre…
I agree with you. When I made the movie, I never thought of it as a romantic comedy.
But you wind up getting to a place where a lot of romantic comedies would like to be without having the same signposts. When you were writing this, did you feel that this was a reaction to other films you had seen or did it just come organically from your own experience?
Honestly, it was a little bit of both. It definitely was organic because I felt like I knew these characters, I absorbed them, I lived through certain aspects of the story, so there was keeping it honest and true was definitely at the forefront of everything I was trying to do. On the other hand, I also felt that there was something missing from a lot of these broad Hollywood comedies and that this film could kind of fill a hole…do something that was a little different and maybe a little more honest and truthful, but still keeping it engaging and entertaining at the same time without becoming so broad and unrealistic.
Did the fact you shot in New York during a heat wave make things particularly realistic?
[slight laugh] Right. It was pretty hot. It got pretty hot in some of those rooms and you really can’t have the air conditioning going while you’re shooting the movie. There’s just too much noise, so you just have to suffer through it and make it happen.
One of the best things about this film is how it inspires discussion after the film. Have you enjoyed the response after some of the screenings you’ve attended at film festivals or elsewhere?
Different people look at it in different ways and it’s fascinating to see how some might side a little more with Mindy, some might side a little more with Fred. A lot of people vacillate between the two. I think that’s fascinating to create something where there are no heroes or villains. They’re just regular people trying to figure things out and navigate their way through these sticky, awkward social situations.
You’re doing a theatrical release in New York, followed by a VOD run in the spring. How did you decide on that as a release strategy?
It’s one of those things where I wanted the movie to go theatrical in some limited capacity. It’s nice to be able to let people have the option to see it on the big screen, but I know ultimately most people are going to watch it VOD and iTunes and Hulu and Netflix. The landscape’s changing so fast. Just five years, none of that even existed. I’m always going to fight to try and get some kind of theatrical, but who knows? Maybe in the future movie theaters may not exist.
It’s an interesting film in that respect because the intimacy of the story lends itself to the small screen, but you could tell the compositions and the colors were strong enough to look great blown up to the big screen.
It does. It was great watching it on the screen for the first time at Dances With Films, then at the Gen Art Film Festival because I had been editing on smaller screens, and I was impressed because we shot on the 5D, the Canon digital SLR cameras, and it really holds up. It looks great blown up. People were shocked that we had shot on the 5D.
That has to be a strange experience, not seeing the film on anything much larger than a television until you’re sitting at the premiere.
That’s right. You don’t really know the full scale of what the movie could be until it’s totally finished and locked and it’s already playing in a festival. It’s like you’re seeing it all of a sudden with all these people on this huge screen and you’re like, wait, is this movie going to work?
When you’re watching it for the first time with an audience like that, is the automatic instinct “oh, I wish I could change this” or “this is playing better than I thought it would”?
Thankfully, it was mostly the latter because once I started seeing it with large audiences, they were laughing and I could feel they were feeling awkward in certain places. There was a lot of nervous laughter and a lot of big laughter and I could tell they were in the movie, which really is the most gratifying thing I think a filmmaker can have is to watch it with an audience and see that they’re into it. That’s the best reward.
“The Pill” opens in New York at the Quad Cinema on December 16th and will be released on VOD through FilmBuff on February 28th.