Josh Hartnett has played a lot of different types of characters in recent years, as he branches out and tries to get away from his normal nice guy roles. Even so, he probably hasn’t ventured further from his safety zone than he does in the drama August.
In the new film directed by Austin Chick (the 2002 indie XX/XY) from a screenplay by Howard Rodman (Joe Gould’s Secret), Hartnett plays Tom Sterling, the boisterous CEO and frontman for Landshark, an internet start-up company he formed with his brother Joshua (Adam Scott). Sterling isn’t the usual suit-and-tie businessman, but a guy who shows up for board meetings in T-shirts and jeans and whose ability with big words and ideas creates excitement wherever he goes. It’s August 2001 and Tom is living the dream. Everything seems to be looking up for Landshark except for the fact that the company is running out of money, and Tom’s personal life and his relationship with his brother and family is about to come crashing down along with the business and everything else.
It’s a New York-based drama unlike others we’ve seen with a tone not unlike Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, and while Hartnett’s surprising performance drives the film, he has a fantastic supporting cast including Rip Torn, Naomie Harris and the one and only David Bowie as the people who have the most impact on Tom realizing he needs to make changes in his life if he wants to survive the impending fall.
ComingSoon.net spoke (separately) with Austin Chick and Howard Rodman, a current and former New Yorker, about their intriguing drama and how they were able to capture the spirit of the city in the days leading up to 9/11 as one individual tries to survive what would be the first big internet bubble burst.
ComingSoon.net: Your first movie was something you wrote, but this one you directed from someone else’s script, so how did they find you to do the movie?
Austin Chick: I got that script from the first producer involved, David Guy Levy. I’m not sure how he came across it, but he had optioned it and sent it to me, probably almost four years ago now. He had seen “XX/XY” and liked it, so he sent me the script to see if I was interested in directing it, I think in July. He was in New York and we had lunch to discuss it, I think it was four years ago I got involved. There was about a year where I worked with Howard, and he did a bunch of work on the script and I took it from there.
CS: So you did spend time with Howard and work with him on the script?
Chick: During that first year, all of our contact was just via phone and Email. It wasn’t until about a year into it that I was finally in L.A. for something and David and Howard and I all had lunch. That was the first time I met him in person.
CS: He’s not a New Yorker then?
Chick: Oh, yeah. That was one of the most surprising things about it. When I read that script, I assumed that it was written by somebody in their 20s who lived in New York and who lived through that time period. I don’t know how old Howard is, but he’s not in his 20s; he’s much older than that, and he lives in L.A., which was a complete surprise to me.
CS: What appealed to you about the script that made you want to direct it? There’s obviously lots of things in there about New York pre-9/11 and the internet boom.
Chick: I felt like the script really captured that time period in a way that I hadn’t seen in any other movie, and having been in New York during that time, I always felt like it was kind of a seminal moment in our recent history. In some ways, especially with what was going on in terms of the collapse of that first internet bubble, it seemed to reflect some of what we were moving into now with our economy. I guess it seemed kind of timely and it felt like something that hadn’t been done that I thought was sort of an important story that needed to be told.
CS: Did you know any of those young guys who got involved in the early days of the internet craze right out of college and found themselves thrust into the world of business?
Chick: Yeah, I knew a lot of those guys. Actually, pseudo.com which is mentioned at one point in the movie is a place where a bunch of friends of mine worked and when that company did finally go bankrupt, a lot of those people just went in there and looted the place, and in 24 hours, al the equipment disappeared.
CS: I thought Josh Hartnett was really good in this movie, just as he was in “Resurrecting the Champ” last year. He’s really showing a lot of different sides than we’ve seen from him before, and this is a great role for him. Was he brought into this by the producer?
Chick: We got a call from Tracy Brennan, who’s Josh’s agent at CAA. The financiers and producers are all repped at CAA, so they had been helping to put the movie together and we got the call from Tracy. It’s obviously very different from the kind of stuff Josh usually does, so in that sense, it was challenging, but that was part of what was interesting for Josh about it, and also what interested me, that he’s got a kind of boyish quality that I think goes a long way towards helping make Tom into a more likeable appealing character.
CS: Did a lot change once he came on board as the star and producer after you and Howard had already been working on the script for some time?
Chick: Howard had worked on the script sort of off and on over a year, and then he became unavailable to write. I did a little bit of work on the script, then I got David to bring on my casting director, Ellen Parks, and I took it to Charlie Corwin at Original Media, who is a New York based producer. He helped on the financing, but also I’ve known Charlie for a while and liked him and felt we needed a New York based producer on the project. We started to put together the film, probably there was a version of it we were going to do about a year earlier and then for a number of reasons, it ended up falling apart. We sort of had to put the pieces back together, and it was at that point that Josh came on, sort of during its second life. His role as a producer, he was able to help us with a number of things. I think having Josh involved helped with casting and it certainly made the financiers feel more comfortable.
CS: This really is an amazing cast from top to bottom. Can you talk about casting Adam Scott as Josh’s brother?
Chick: Yeah, Adam Scott I think is absolutely phenomenal. He’s an incredibly talented actor and he’s also a great guy to work with. I had met Adam a couple years ago. I think he had just done “The Aviator” and I was gearing up to do a movie that didn’t end up happening, but I sat down with Adam and really liked him a lot. He was somebody that we brought in to read when we started casting the role of Joshua, and he gave a great audition. There’s always all this pressure to try to cast every role in a movie with the biggest names you can get, but I felt like Adam Scott was just a really fantastic actor and I thought he would work well with Josh. Josh happened to be in L.A. at the time and we were holding auditions out there, so I managed to get Adam Scott to come over to the hotel where Josh was staying and we did a little work session. We played around with a couple of scenes and they got along great, and after that, it was just a foregone conclusion that Adam Scott was our guy.
CS: This was the second movie you’ve shot in New York. Do you have a trick to shooting movies on a budget here? You have a lot of great locations in the movie, but it must be hard to do that without killing your budget.
Chick: It’s not easy. My first movie was made for about one-fifth of the budget that we had on “August.” Because it was non-union, we were actually able to shoot about twice as long. Being union in New York is just really really difficult, and for me, it was a big surprise, how little time we were going to have shooting “August.” It was about half as much time as I had to shoot “XX/XY.” We had five times as much budget but half the time, which was frustrating to say the least. We had a great crew and a fantastic locations department. A big part of what makes the movie feel big I think is that we had such great locations, which wasn’t easy. Shooting in Bungalow 8 was actually something that Josh was able to help out with, and having great locations goes a long way to giving the film a bigger feel, but it was really hard.
CS: The movie takes place in 2001, so it’s kind of a period piece in some ways. Did you feel that New York had changed a lot in eight years?
Chick: We didn’t have that many exteriors. There certainly are some exteriors, but those are the hardest thing to control. We had a lot of computers and cell phones, but we were able to get all that stuff from the time period, so that wasn’t so difficult. We had to watch out there weren’t any Minis or PT Cruisers when we were shooting outside, but for the most part, it was relatively easy. Something that ended up being very important for me was the music, because unfortunately, 2001 wasn’t a great year for music, so there were a few songs in particular that was really important that we get. That Radiohead stuff was really important to me and I’m really happy with the music. Howard Paar was our music supervisor and Nathan Larson did the score and I think they both did a great job.
CS: The score reminds me of a modern Tangerine Dream almost and was really done well to enhance the dialogue.
Chick: The score I think is key to a lot of those scenes, and the source stuff I think goes a long way to placing it in that time period.
CS: We never really do find out what Landshark does in the movie. Was that besides the point or was that important to the irony of the movie?
Chick: That was a choice, and it was a choice that Howard made but it was a choice that I definitely supported. I think because so few of those companies at the end of the day could even describe themselves what they really did, which is why a lot of them didn’t last.
CS: I also want to ask about David Bowie’s appearance. I thought it was kind of ironic and for some reason his song “The Man Who Sold The World” went through my head during that moment. How did you get him involved in that scene?
Chick: We had a call when we were casting the movie from Chris Andrews, who was David Bowie’s agent, and he asked if we were interested in considering David Bowie for the part, and of course, we were. It was kind of a long process. It took him a little while before he committed, but it started with him reading the script and he liked it. Then he watched my first film and we had a conversation on the phone and he agreed to come on.
CS: Do you have any idea what you might want to do next? You didn’t write this movie but you’ve been a writer for a long time so do you have other scripts you want to go back and shoot now?
Chick: Yeah, there’s a movie that I was supposed to be shooting now actually, but the writers strike caused a bit of a hiccup in our casting, but there’s a thriller that I wrote set in the Hamptons that I think is going to be my next film.
And here’s our interview with August‘s screenwriter Howard Rodman:
ComingSoon.net: You used to be a New Yorker, right?
Howard Rodman: I live in Los Angeles now, but I was born in Bedford-Stuyvesant, grew up in Queens, went to college in Upstate New York and then spent a gloriously extended adolescence after college living in upper and lower Manhattan. I now am a resident of Los Angeles, but my dreams still take place in New York, it’s in the blood.
CS: Were you here around at the time when this movie takes places when the internet explosion was going on?
Rodman: No, my main time in New York was ’70s and ’80s. I was fortunate enough to be a part of another sort of bubble with the glorious days of living in lower Manhattan when there was all this amazing music going on and everybody was in a band, and it was one endless party. There’s a book that just came out called “New York Noise” that documents the art and music and all of that stuff pretty nicely. I saw that in terms of the silicon alley bubble, I was not living in New York at the time but certainly knew enough people who were doing that and every time I would come to visit, there would be another company that was losing money hand over foot and the more they lost, the more the stock price went up. That was fun to watch.
CS: It’s funny you mention this music thing because Tom Sterling does have this rock star aspect to him despite being in the business world, which I’m not sure people would expect to see.
Rodman: You know, some of those guys were like corporate NBA’s looking for the next business model, but some of them were I think in another time, in another place, or in another time in the same place, they would have been rock stars of one kind or another or artists of one kind or another. I think Tom in the year 2000 and 2001 isn’t that different frankly from Julian Schnabel in 1979, but I think there’s that same swagger in that sense that nothing comes into existence unless you will it into being. You have to act as if it’s already there in order to get to the place where it is already there.
CS: I know Austin got involved about four years ago but was this something that you had been working on for some time before then?
Rodman: Yeah, the screenplay was roughly from the year 2000 in its first iteration, and then it got optioned by David Guy Levy and we tweaked it some, and I think we made the decision that rather than present it as “Ripped from the Headlines!” (but not quite) that it worked better as a period piece. Instead of being up to the minute but slightly behind the curve, we thought both emotionally and practically, it worked better as a “looking back on a world that used to exist, but that world is gone.” I think we moved it up from 2000 to 2001 just so that you could get the full resonance of a landscape and a culture that no longer existed.
CS: But you put it in August of 2001, which is right on the edge…
Rodman: And then after that, everything changed. That’s the kind of emotion that we were trying to get to.
CS: I’m sure you get asked this a lot, but was Tom or Landshark based on any particular person or incident?
Rodman: He was not based on any particular person at all. There were lots and lots and lots of hard-charging, fast-talking entrepreneurs around there that were trying to make their mark and did. There were lots and lots of companies very much like Landshark that were made up out of nothing, IPO’ed, made their founders multi-millionaires on paper, but there was nothing there. I mean, that was a story that happened again and again and again. In a funny way, the less that was there, the more the investors flocked to it, because then it wasn’t some outmoded version of something they knew. It was something they didn’t understand and that was attractive to them. If they had no idea what the product was and no idea what the business model was, they liked it all the more. It wasn’t based on any particular person. Weirdly, to the extent that the character of Tom was based on anyone, he was based on a bunch of characters that John Garfield played in 1940’s movies, which is sort of fast talking, could charm you into anything, has left his morality very conveniently behind, but there’s still something decent inside of him trying to crawl out, if he can get there.
CS: What did Austin want to bring to the movie or change when he came on board either to the story or the characters?
Rodman: In terms of his involvement in story development stuff, there was the character Sarah, who’s played beautifully by Naomie Harris, was a slightly different character in the screenplay up to that point. She was younger. She was a little more naïve and a little more cynical about Tom, and it was Austin’s idea to give them a backstory as two people who had been together.
CS: Did you do a lot of research into this?
Rodman: I wrote a novel which is set in Berlin in March of 1933 and a movie called “Joe Gould’s Secret” which was a period piece based on utterly true people, so I’m drawn to projects that send me to the library. If I have to do a lot of research, I’m actually quite happy, so I did talk to a lot of people, and I hung out with a lot of people. When the internet caravan came through Los Angeles, I went to those half-networking parties, half virtual orgies. It was kind of fun. What I did was I also soaked up a lot of vocabulary because I love pieces that have a lot of technical vocabulary and my feeling as a screenwriter is if people say it fast enough and with enough conviction, you don’t care that you don’t what they’re saying because you know what they’re saying. I did a lot of research and then as with everything else, you research and research and research, and then what you haven’t gotten from your first-hand sources, you then just make sh*t up. I did both of those with this screenplay.
CS: I’m sure people ask about the influences of “Wall Street” and “Boiler Room.” Did you want to look at a different side of those themes or was it not so much about that aspect of business?
Rodman: You know, I really love both those movies. They’re very different movies, but they’re both movies I have great admiration for, but that wasn’t really the focus of this. If that were, then it would be a movie about David Bowie’s character and Josh Hartnett would be at the periphery of that movie. I was less interested in the stock evaluation part of it and the business model part of it, then I wanted to tell a story about two brothers who were flying higher than anybody in that family could ever have imagined during the week that the world falls down and shatters around their ankles. Every hairline crack in the relationships in that family becomes a huge abyss. That was the story I was interested in telling, and I also was interested in doing that Chuck Jones cartoon kind of thing where Wile E. Coyote is way off the edge of the cliff and is pumping his feet furiously in the air and he’s utterly fine until he looks down and then (makes whistling noise like him falling from a great height). That was something I wanted to get into, too, but the part of it that was about the perspective of the dot.com bubble and the bursting of the bubble from the point of view of Wall Street, wasn’t of concern to me.
CS: Josh is great throughout the movie but you also have these great moments where Rip Torn shows up as his father and David Bowie as the head of the company buying him out, which are really strong scenes. Did those characters change a lot once those actors came on board or did they work from what you had written?
Rodman: No, weirdly, that family scene that Rip Torn is in was one of the scenes that changed the least from the very very first draft to the shooting draft. It just always was what it was and the character Ogilvie that David Bowie plays was actually very well marked from the beginning. What changes, and this is as a screenwriter what always makes you happy, is all of the history and all of the flavor notes that they bring to that character. You could in theory have anybody playing “Ogilvie, venture capitalist” but when you’ve got the Thin White Duke right there in front of your eyes, it just brings whole other layers of history and flavor. When you’ve got a guy who had been a radical in his youth and a bit of a wild man and is now safely ensconced with family and academic tenure, having Rip Torn in that role brings all kinds of nuances and flavors and references, in the same way that having Robert Downey Jr. play Tony Stark accomplishes many of the same things.
CS: Did a lot of the story get cut out of the script to get the movie down to a reasonable length? Obviously, there’s so much more we can find out about Tom and what’s going on but it’s very focused on this very specific period of time.
Rodman: You know, there was. As we wrapped up the production in this movie, as in every movie in varying degrees, you do have to pare things back to make a realistic shooting schedule, so there were some subplots that got jettisoned as they always are, but the basic core of the story, both the larger story of the rise and fall of Land Shark, and the more intimate story of these two brothers, was very consistent throughout.