Exclusive: The Creators of Smart People

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If you read our feature interview with the cast of Smart People last week–it’s here if you missed it–you might want to note the remark about how the three main actors seemed like such an odd match to do interviews together. On the other hand, the creators of the movie, director Noam Murro and writer Mark Poirier, couldn’t be more suited to interview together, since they’ve worked so closely on the movie for so long that they literally can talk as one entity, finishing each other’s sentences.

Maybe that’s why Smart People is such a refreshing film amidst the spring movie doldrums, because it harks back to some of the best character “dramedies” of recent memory–Little Miss Sunshine, Sideways, Lars and the Real Girl–but it’s also truly original in the way it brings its four eccentric characters together. Dennis Quaid is Lawrence Wetherhold, an English professor at Carnegie-Mellon who is generally hated by the faculty and students, including his own son, but things change when an accident puts him in the periphery of Sarah Jessica Parker’s Dr. Janet Hartigan, a former student who sees a challenge in the grouchy widower. At the same time, Lawrence’s adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) has moved in with him and his over-achieving daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), and the unlikely duo form a bond in trying to complicate Lawrence’s relationship with the doctor.

ComingSoon.net sat down with award-winning commercial director Noam Murro and novelist Mark Poirier to talk about their first collaboration and some of the happy accidents that came up along the way, including the fact that Page’s breakout movie Juno was scoring big just as their movie was premiering at the Sundance Film Festival back in January.

ComingSoon.net: Noam, this is your first feature film, and Mark, this is your first produced screenplay. Were you guys already working together or know each other when this project came together?
Mark Poirier: We have the same agent and he thought that we kind of had the same viewpoints, and he was right, so we worked together on this adaptation of a book called “Our Families are Psychotic” first. I always wanted Noam to do “Smart People” ever since I saw his commercial reel, and Noam always wanted to do “Smart People” and when Gary Winick dropped off the project… yay!

CS: So you’d already been looking to make your first movie when you met Mark?
Noam Murro: Yeah, you know, it’s interesting. I guess the next stage of a commercial director is to go to the next level and do a feature project, and I think basically you always look for something that’s interesting. The way the system works is they offer these very big pictures that a lot of times are visually based, not really dramatically based. I guess they call them concept movies, and they usually have big budgets, and I was looking for something that was more personal to me, and decided to take I guess the tougher route and do something that has more meaning, that’s smaller, that’s harder to achieve, and that’s really all it is.

CS: Is this a script you’ve had written for a long time or something you were going to write as a novel at some point?
Poirier: Well, it was living in my head as a novel for a few years, ’cause I started out by writing fiction, and so I lived with these characters for a while, and then I got the Chesterfields screenwriting fellowship through Paramount, and then I got there and I didn’t know what I was going to write. To apply to the fellowship, you can send in any form of writing so I sent in my first novel, I got my fellowship. I got there, they paired me with Don Roos (“The Opposite of Sex,” “Happy Endings’) as my mentor. He was great. He was a really screenwriting mentor, so it was actually easy for me to write the first draft, because as I said, I’d been living with these characters for a few years.

CS: How long did it take the two of you to get this movie together?
Murro: We’ve been dealing with this I guess off and on for the last four years, something like that. It’s like any other thing. When I think about it now, it seems to me like it just happened, but when you look back and count the period of time, it’s been a while. It’s kind of like any of these projects. They don’t materialize or happen overnight. There’s a process for him, and then a process for me, there’s a process for all of us, then there’s a process for making it, all that kind of stuff. You’re really humbled by how difficult it is to get these things going.

CS: I don’t think most people realize how long it takes to make the movies they see, as most probably think it just takes a few months to make once you get started.
Murro: Especially the ones that are not studio-based if you will, that are essentially a creation of somebody’s passion. They’re hard to put together and convince everybody…

CS: At what point did Michael London get involved?
Murro: I think it was after we had our initial cast, I went to a meeting with Michael, and he asked what I was working on and I said, “I’m working on this, why don’t you read it?” He read it and I think literally a couple weeks later, he called up and said they were still interested. I think he was in the early stages of his company or the infancy stages. I think under the Groundswell banner, they made one film before “Smart People” and then they made this one.

CS: I’m amazed you already had two of the cast before Michael came on board.
Poirier: We had the two principles.
Murro: The thing was that we held off for Vanessa, because that was a very important role, and it’s very funny because that didn’t seem you didn’t need a name for and look who we got. We shot this before “Juno” so her character was written before “Juno” and certainly her acting was before “Juno.” She wasn’t Ellen Page at the time.
Poirier: And Noam really held out for the right Vanessa. There were certainly people who wanted other actresses and pretty famous young actresses auditioned too, and he just kept waiting, and it was like two weeks before we started shooting where we finally found the one he thought was right, so it worked out perfectly.

CS: When the different actors came on board, did the script evolve a lot?
Murro: You know, I think it goes through an evolution of any script. They change, and I think a lot of scripts go through the same sort of process, which is they go through an expansion and a contraction again. They end up kind of where they started, and I think we went through the same sort of thing. We had the script, we had the cast and at that point, you go, “Okay, maybe this is for real and we should look how to expand it.” We expanded it and then we came back and said, “You know what? It’s probably too much” and then contracted it back to close to where it was to begin with.

CS: But specifically in terms of the characters of Vanessa and Chuck. A film like this you’d expect to be mainly about the relationship between Lawrence and Janet, but the Vanessa and Chuck characters kind of take over with their own story. When you’re writing the script, where they always meant to play such a big role?
Poirier: Yeah, it was always meant to be parallel lives between Vanessa and her father. Someone, in this case Chuck, kind of affected both of them, but while Vanessa is changing, so is Lawrence.
Murro: I think also we knew going into it that to a certain extent, you’re going to fall in love more with those two because they are somehow more malleable characters, and I think they’re less entrenched in their ways, because she’s a young girl and he’s probably the healthiest emotionally of all of them.

CS: Who? Chuck? That’s scary.
Murro: But you know what I mean? At least he’s got a certain amount of freedom if you will, because I think somehow, he’s not as damaged as the others. Yes, there was always that thing, which is like all of us, they change very little as secondary characters.

CS: Continuing with those characters, both Tom and Ellen have a great way of delivering their lines, so did you gear their roles more towards their personalities when they came on board?
Poirier: Actually, Thomas was really good in that there were certain parts of Chuck’s character, certain things that happened and certain things that Vanessa said that he wasn’t comfortable with, and I think in the long run, he was smart and Thomas was in general good and his improvisations were very good, and so definitely, he helped shape the character of Chuck. Especially because once I knew he was Chuck, he’s in my head as Chuck, so the later drafts, Thomas is in my head of Chuck.

CS: How about the idea of having Vanessa be a Young Republican in the movie? It’s something very specific and deliberate.
Poirier: You know, I based Vanessa a lot on myself. I was a Young Republican. I know, it’s horrible. (chuckles)

CS: Only in New York. You go anywhere else, and you’ll be fine.
Poirier: Just the idea that once she goes away to college, all her problems are gone. She’s going to have friends, she’s going to be happy. She’s not going to have to run this household anymore, but no, her problems are going to follow her to college.
Murro: I think that also her character, part of her rebellious act if you will, from what I could gather from the script, is really about her being a Republican. Not everybody young is a Communist walking around waving red flags, but the flip side is it that “I’m going to be really staunchy and hard-assed and I believe in the country.” There’s something really refreshing about that, because I think that….

CS: Well, she’s very different from Chuck, first of all.
Murro: Yeah, very, so I think the allure of her for me was that it’s not a cliché rebellious action, but more of a sophisticated entrenched character the way she rebels.

CS: Let’s talk about the looks of the characters because Dennis gained some weight grew a beard… Tom, I’m not sure what he did to get Chuck to look that way. I don’t think I could get my eyebrows like that.
Murro: That was a painful process.
Poirier: Mandy Lyons did his hair. She created his look.
Murro: Their looks: I think that there is something…they’re stuck. I think that really was what we talked about in terms of how you visually present them as characters is that everybody has a fashion even if they’re stuck in their own sort of look and you adapt a certain person based on the way you look. I think there’s a language like that in academia and a language like that for somebody like Vanessa and a language like that for doctors. They have their own… they should be this and they shouldn’t be that, so there was a specific thing about all of that as well.

CS: It sounds to me like you really could have written a book based on each character from the amount of details you determined on each of them. How much more was written about these characters beforehand to give them so much depth?
Poirier: As a novel, I wrote like a first chapter and it was much more about Lawrence and his son. I haven’t looked at that years, but that’s all that there is.
Murro: I think you understand something very basic is that essentially they’re in mourning. It’s a family in mourning that didn’t wake up yet, and this is a point in their trajectory or journey where they’re about to wake up or face the world again. I think that it’s really as simple as that. They’re waking up.

CS: Let’s talk about the title “Smart People,” because it’s almost like Lawrence’s book “You Can’t Read” where knowing the title, you spend much of the movie thinking “Okay, who are the smart people? Is it Lawrence? Or Vanessa?” Can you talk about the title and was it always called that?
Poirier: No, I’m really bad at titles and I had some friends help me when I was writing the first draft, like what would be a good title? And one of my friends suggested that, and I thought “Alright, cool.”
Murro: We were casting the movie and it’s like when you go to the airport and there’s a guy waiting for you with the car service so the people who were scouting didn’t write my name, they just wrote “Smart People” and everyone coming down the escalator who saw that, said “Hi, that’s me!”

CS: That’s a great story, and what about choosing Carnegie-Mellon as the setting? Was that just a matter of finding a campus that would let you shoot?
Murro: Essentially, it was written for D.C.
Poirier: Yeah, it was going to take place at Georgetown.
Murro: I think we ended up in Pittsburgh for various different reasons. I’m happy we did, because I think there is something that is claustrophobic and at the same time familiar that a place like that can bring. There’s some sort of hibernation, in a good way–I’m not trying to criticize Pittsburgh obviously–but there’s something about that place that feels hibernated. You can actually fall asleep there emotionally and kind of survive where I think it becomes a lot sadder and a lot different in a bigger place where the world passes you by. I think there’s depth, but at the same time, there’s some claustrophobia there, and I think that’s really what we went for. Besides that, I think that we got some great help from them. Groundswell was making a movie there already, so all the vectors converged there.
Poirier: Carnegie-Mellon was really nice. There were no jerky students in the background being like (acts like someone who jumps around waving arms when on camera). Everybody was really into it. Those students are serious and what I liked about Noam choosing Carnegie-Mellon as opposed to Penn or some other Pennsylvania schools is that I think one of the reasons you chose it is it’s not like the quintessential university campus. It has a look all of its own.
Murro: Yeah, I think it does. It’s not the… I don’t know what you call it.
Poirier: It’s not ivy-colored…
Murro: Yeah, it’s not new gothic. It doesn’t feel like a cliché. It’s not “The Paper Chase.” It’s not like Richard Dreyfuss with the beard and the dark hall or something like that. It’s like if you want to portray the government. What I always equated Academia was like government, sort of functional, it has its own world, but it’s not romantic necessarily.

CS: It’s great the two of you have become a team of sorts and that you have other movies you’re working on. Can you talk about some of that other stuff and how it’s going in terms of making another movie together?
Murro: You know, I don’t know if that’s a good thing to do or bad thing to do. The one thing that we are working on at the moment is an adaptation that Mark wrote of a short story by Alice Munro called “Hateship Frienship Courthip” and we’re in the midst of it.

CS: So that’s something you’re still writing?
Murro: No, he finished writing it, but we’re in the process of…
Poirier: Trying to put it together and financing and casting.

CS: Would you ever go back to that other adaptation you started working on?
Murro: Yeah, this is in the works as well, and we just have to… we’re trying to make something happen, so whatever happens, we’ll take it.
Poirier: Those are the two things.

CS: You’ve had such good luck with the casting of this movie, getting such good people and the music, so how do you start with a second movie, when you’ll want to try to recreate that magic that happened or try something completely different.?
Murro: I’d like to think that we can do something different. For one, it’s budget… no, I’m just kidding. I think that “All Families are Psychotic” is a bigger movie because it takes place in Florida, and it does involve some specific places like NASA so by definition, it’s a bigger movie, but we’re working.

CS: It’s funny you mention the budget thing because I remember talking to Edgar Wright and he said that after the success of “Shawn of the Dead,” they got a bigger budget for their second movie and they realized that wasn’t enough, so I guess the ideas just get bigger and bigger the more movies you make?
Murro: You know, there’s a critical mass because there’s a certain threshold as you go into this, which becomes very difficult. I think we walked the line of what’s difficult but it was doable, but it also kept us honest in the sense that there was no place for second doubts. We had to go with a point of view and then execute it.
Poirier: There’s also something about the constraints of a small budget. It’s like writing poetry in a form. You’re going to use the words differently….
Murro: That’s a writer talking.
Poirier: You’re going to use the words differently if you’re writing a novelle as opposed to a free verse and it’s the same with making a film. (looks at Noam) I’m sorry, but you’re rolling your eyes.
Murro: I think you’re right. I think there is…
Poirier: Sometimes beauty comes out of restrictions.
Murro: Yeah, for sure, and a lot of the great movies that we think were probably were smaller budgets rather than huge big ones, and for a reason. I think it probably keeps you more direct with the human experience of it all versus the mannered expression of filmmaking. Also, part of it is also that there is an issue… I tried very hard to make it seem effortless or not too thoughtful, because a lot of times, you can become a slave to the frame or a slave to a look, and I think what we tried to do was keep it as direct to the character and not encumber it with other personal things.

CS: That’s something I noticed when I first saw it, that you’re a first time director from the world of commercials, so everyone will assume it’ll be a flashy visual movie. It’s the same with the directors of “Little Miss Sunshine” who come from a music video background, but there’s something nice about it not being like that.
Murro:That’s exactly the thing, which I think is part of what you have to reeducate yourself, is to not be a slave to it and not look at the frame unless you have the time or the budget, but even if you did, part of it was to try to intentionally make it from an expression point of view not to be that way, but to be honest to what the words on the page mean and how they express themselves in these actors.

Here’s a couple more questions we got in with the duo at a roundtable interview shortly afterwards:

CS: Can you talk about finding the right balance of drama, comedy, romance and everything else in the movie and how far to take each one?
Murro: It’s a juggling act and it’s not an easy one. I think without sounding too profound or pompous about it, that is a pure American invention. You don’t really see that sort of filmmaking done anywhere else. I don’t recall a French film that does that kind of thing. “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Juno” and I guess us, part of it is that there is that sort of, I don’t want to say “genre”, but form in which we all work on. I think it’s just a balancing act and it’s a tough one, but I think that’s what makes it rewarding in a way, or at least that’s the intent, is that you’re making it seem like youre dealing with some subjects that are really serious but in a really light way. That was the monster to try and conquer.
Poirier: I think if you work really hard on the characters, that it just sort of happens that way. If a character is complex, part of that character is going to seem humorous, part of the character is going to seem earnest. I think these characters sort of forced that out of the story maybe. Thomas Haden Church calls it a “comrama”, not a “dramedy.”

CS: Can you talk about getting Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme to do the score on the movie and how he discovered the movie or vice versa?
Murro: It’s just a normal process in that he’s one of the producer’s friends, and she brought him up, and we talked and that’s how it came about. I think the way it worked is he saw the movie with some scratch track on it, and it was more like a friendship thing where she showed him the movie, he really liked it, so he started doing sketches and then we talked and she said she heard a couple things he wrote, and I heard it, loved it, and did it.

CS: Can you talk about using songs and music like that for a movie like this? Obviously “The Graduate” is a key inspiration for doing this, like how it used Simon and Garfunkel songs rather than an actual score.
Murro: Again, I think part of the thing was to try and walk this fine line between being too sentimental on one end of it, and the second part of it was so it feels true to the movie. When you try to do a score, and in the process, there were moments where we tried to do that, and it just seemed like “Lassie” or “The English Patient.” It just seemed completely wrong for it. I think that the music needs to echo some of the parts of the movie, and I think it’s just as simple as that.
Poirier: I remember you saying a long time ago. We had this score with an orchestra and you’re like, “Well the movie’s small, the music should be small, too. The movie’s intimate, the music should be intimate too.”

Smart People opens nationwide on Friday, April 11.