When Rocket Science became a popular favorite of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, a lot of people were saying it had potential to become this year’s Little Miss Sunshine. Like “Little Miss,” it has an edgy Alexander Payne-esque tone that exploits its characters’ foibles while maintaining a sympathetic human dimension to them, but it exists in a world wholly its own.
The story centers on young Hal Hefner (the excellent Reece Thompson), who upon falling in love with the school’s top competitive debater Ginny (equally impressive Anna Kendrick) decides to join the debate team himself. Only problem: his crippling stutter. While Ginny is hyper-loquacious, poor Hal can’t even, for example, tell the lunch lady he wants “pizza”, winding up with fish instead.
The film is filled with some cruel and unexpected twists and turns, but it’s also a rewarding and funny film that makes the John Hughes movies of our youth seem like a fairy tale Hallmark card compared to the angst suffered here.
ComingSoon.net talked to Jeffrey Blitz, the writer/director of Rocket Science and an Academy Award nominee for the documentary Spellbound, about his loathing of typical teen movies, his own moments of high school hell, and his aim in crafting a comedy of rare intelligence and depth.
ComingSoon.net: I wanted to talk first off about Reece Thompson’s performance as the stuttering teen lead. It could have been a minefield of clichés, if not completely annoying, yet he has our sympathies from the first frame to the last. How do you modulate a performance so that the character shines through the tics?
Jeffrey Blitz: One of the big reasons why casting that part was so difficult is that kids would come in and would foreground the stuttering, where it was about showing off the mechanical technique that they had. For me the fact that he’s a stutterer is just symptomatic of him not fitting in the world. I don’t see him as a stutterer first and a kid who doesn’t fit in second, it’s the other way for me. He’s an outsider, so he always feels like he’s in the observer’s position because he doesn’t connect with the world in a way that other kids sometimes do. So I felt that as long as that was my focus and that was Reece’s focus, the stuttering part would take care of itself. And then in editing you have to make sure you’re not foregrounding the stuttering more than people can handle.
CS: You make it very clear right at the beginning of the film when we first see him. He’s in class and he’s writing down the answers to all the questions the teacher is asking but he can’t say them out loud, so we know there’s something going on in there but he’s not able to express it to the rest of the world.
Blitz: One of the things I would have Reece do is I would sometimes tell him what word he was trying to say but is not able to say. “So in this scene you’re trying to say ‘supercalifradulous’. It’s not in the script because you can never get to it, but I want to see you try to get to it and all these other words around it are just the words you’re trying to say that have to just get batted out of the way as you try to reach your endpoint there.” So it created a very internalized stuttering process for him. It wasn’t just an external thing where he would get hooked on a word, he was really trying to think through. “Alright, I’m gonna try to use this phrase to try to slip into ‘supercalifradulous’ can’t do it. I’m gonna try to use this phrase can’t do it. Can I jump there off of this word can’t do it.” When it turned into a real internal process for him it became a more heartfelt kind of thing. You could connect with him trying to get those words out instead of just watching at arm’s length.
CS: A lot of it was in his eyes, too. You could see in his eyes all the anguish and turmoil going on. This whole thing feels very different from other high school comedies. It feels genuine, and it never goes in the direction you expect it will. The kid never magically loses his stutter, his folks never reconcile, he doesn’t get the girl. How actively were you trying to avoid certain pitfalls of the teen genre?
Blitz: Teen movies don’t interest me, is the thing. They don’t interest me at all, so the only way I was going to do a teen movie is if I felt like I could try to be more honest about what the actual experience of being a teenager is like. I guess teen movies want to be escapist fantasies for high school students, but to me they’re bullsh*t because they’re all formulaic. As soon as you can predict where the movie is going, which is the first 10 seconds of any teenage movie, you know exactly how it’s going to resolve. It’s completely uninteresting to me. So I really wanted to create a story that felt like it follows its own organic path. This is a path, when you stutter you don’t overcome your stutter instantaneously just because you want to, that’s not stuttering! If it was, it wouldn’t be a problem. In the real world when you fall in love with the wrong person you don’t end up with that person generally, or if you do it’s a misery that you have, you know? When your parents split up they generally don’t get back together. I wanted to feel like I could create a story that felt like it follows the contours the world a little more, but at the same time it’s not strictly a piece of realism. There’s absurdist comedy that I wanted to bring into it also and try to find that balance. That’s why for me people like Billy Wilder and Hal Ashby are the guys that I look towards to figure out how to bring realism, naturalism into a movie that still has outlandish characters and people who do things that are really funny!
CS: And in movies like “The Apartment” and “Harold and Maude,” those guys made movies that grew organically out of the characters, like a tree, as opposed to planting a tree into the characters.
Blitz: Yeah! I love that description, and in fact it makes me think of when I was at Sundance with the movie. Somebody came up to me afterwards and said, “What’s interesting about it is you think at the beginning of the movie it can either end in ‘A’ or ‘B’. Either he wins states or he loses states,” and he said “This ending was ‘C’.” (laughs) It ended up not being about whether he wins or loses or not, it just went on its own different path. Frankly I think the movie would have made a lot more money had I picked ending ‘A’ but it would have been far less interesting to me.
CS: It would have lasted for its opening weekend, whereas this is going to steadily grow an audience.
Blitz: I hope so.
CS: “Rocket Science” also deals with another potential minefield, which is precocious kids, kids who are a little too smart for their age. That could be a disaster. What was your way into that?
Blitz: The problem for me of kids who are beyond their years is that they’re supposed to be really cute. The whole point of it is they’re supposed to be adults in child bodies, and that’s supposed to be really amusing. I just wanted them to be really intelligent, but intelligent children. I didn’t want you to think “Oh, a little businessperson is living inside the body of a child.” I wanted them to be very intelligent but to be children as well. I thought of the adults that way also. They’re childlike in a way. No one in this movie, for however bright they are, has figured out the answers to love and relationships. They’re all lost in the mix of how relationships bloom and how they vanish and no one can wrap their head around it.
CS: That’s the whole point of the last scene, that the father is 40 or 50 years old and he still hasn’t figured it out either.
Blitz: Yeah. The adults in the movie get to a point where they just stop asking questions, that’s the only way they can move into adulthood is to just stop trying to figure this stuff out. But I love that you get the sense at the end that he’s not going to stop asking those questions. Maybe someday he does, but in this moment he’s not going to, he’s going to keep trying to figure that stuff out.
CS: Like the main character, in high school you had a stutter and you did join the debate team and became a champion, but you deliberately chose not to make this an autobiographical piece. Nevertheless, were there some interesting incidents from that time that crept into the script?
Blitz: Sure. The thing that’s most true to my own experience are the moments of stuttering. That stuff I deeply connect to. I know what the experience is like of standing up in front of a classroom wanting to say something and not being able to get a single sound out. In fact the first debate I ever went to I was in 10th grade and my coach partnered me up with this girl Jocelyn who was TERRIBLE and had her own deep issues. The coach just decided rather than have us partnered with other kids who had potential he would put the two losers onto one team and we would self-destruct, and we did! The first tournament I went to was at Pace, and I remember the first round I was trying to say one word to introduce my speech and I got stuck trying to say this word and I couldn’t say it and I spent all eight minutes trying to say that word and I never got anything out. I felt so bad for the other team who had to respond to the sound “uh”. What do you say in response to that? I know deeply what it feels like to stutter in that way. Those are the scenes that are the most true to my own experience. Other things don’t have any connection at all to how I grew up.
CS: I wasn’t on the debate team but I did Forensics when I was in high school and I knew those kids who were already in MENSA and read The Economist every week.
Blitz: Yeah right, sure!
CS: I definitely thought you nailed the whole feel of being among those types of kids.
Blitz: Which events did you compete in?
CS: Original Oratory.
Blitz: Yeah, I was the New Jersey State Champion in Original Oratory and Foreign Extemporaneous Policy Debate. I remember this one speech that I would trot out at every tournament
CS: What was it about?
Blitz: It had something to do with Gandhi, some very pretentious speech about Gandhi and about how Gandhi was a role model to me, a white boy in New Jersey. (laughs)
CS: Yeah, my speech was about originality. It was built around all these quotes I pulled out of Bartlett’s about originality.
CS: Yea, pretty trite. Somehow I wound up at Nationals and totally blew it in the first round.
Blitz: I wound up at Nationals for Foreign Extemporaneous and I just got eaten alive. Where did you go to high school?
Blitz: Northern Virginia?
CS: Yes, near DC. And you shot this in Baltimore, right?
Blitz: I did and I went to college in Baltimore so I had a lot of friends from Virginia.
CS: Why did you shoot in Baltimore over New Jersey where it actually takes place?
Blitz: Because in New Jersey, the child-labor laws are very restrictive. We would only get like six or eight hours a day to shoot with our lead kid who was 16 at the time and was in every scene in the movie. We couldn’t just shoot six or eight-hour days, we never would have finished on time.
CS: You only had a 30-day schedule.
Blitz: That’s right. In Baltimore the child-labor laws are like China, we could just work the f*ck out of him as long as his parents were OK with it and they were really cool. So literally we would work ’til 1 or 2 in the morning with him and we made our days.
CS: (laughs) All respect to the MPAA, why are they so flippin’ ridiculous?
Blitz: It’s absolutely mind boggling to me. You know, the reason we got the “R” rating was for flashed images of the Kama Sutra that you can’t even see and they’re antique Indian paintings. So, for however graphic they are and for the two frames that they’re on, they’re works of art! Also for the one scene where the kids talk about a blow job, kids who have clearly never been the recipient of a blow job talk about it. It’s ludicrous, and we get an “R” rating for that. I see these movies that get “PG-13” ratings. I saw the new Die Hard movie that’s “PG-13”. That has a girl getting groped at the beginning, all sorts of cursing, gigantic body count, just completely f*cking crazy. “PG-13”.
CS: The second “Star Wars’ movie showed a kid watching his father get decapitated and that was “PG”. You show some kid say “blow job” and some ancient artwork they could show on the Discovery Channel and you get an “R.”
Blitz: It’s mindblowing. Also, the truth of the matter is nowadays kids go online and type in something completely mild and get images that are so much worse than that. I think it’s ridiculous.
CS: One last question: What’s next?
Blitz: I’m working on a documentary now about people who won the lottery, about how their lives get turned upside down. I’ll probably finish that up by the end of the year or beginning of next year.
CS: Well thanks, it was great talking with you.
Blitz: Thank you, really nice conversation.
Rocket Science opens in select cities on Friday.