Just about every filmmaker alive has at one point or another wanted to make a movie in New York City, but when Iceland’s Dagur Kári came to the city to shoot his new movie The Good Heart with Brian Cox and Paul Dano, he decided to play down some of the things that sets New York apart.
In fact, much of his movie takes place inside a bar set built in Iceland as Cox and Dano, reteaming for the first time since their indie breakout L.I.E., play two eccentric characters brought together by chance who must find a middle ground in their personalities to keep the bar running smoothly. Cox is Jacques, the cranky old bar owner whose adherence to a strict set of rules is shaken up when he meets Dano’s Lucas, a naïve but generous homeless young man who Jacques hopes will inherit the bar when passes away. This already tenuous relationship is really put to the test when a pretty young woman named April (Isild Le Besco) shows up on one rainy night and Lucas starts rebelling against Jacques’ oppressive demeanor.
It’s a fairly simple premise but Kári’s very distinctive sense of humor and the performances by these two well-paired actors gives the movie an incredibly distinct tone, look and feel unlike similar movies made by New York filmmakers. The title can be interpreted in a number of ways, but unfortunately, one of them is a major spoiler.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with the filmmaker and Paul Dano to briefly talk about their indie film. (Unfortunately, Brian Cox wasn’t able to make it to New York due to the volcanic ash shutting down trans-Atlantic flights.)
ComingSoon.net: This is a pretty interesting movie, so what was the original idea that got the ball rolling?
Dagur Kári: Well, I remember I started writing the script way back in 2001, so that’s been quite a while and it was a long process, so it’s kind of difficult to keep track of in what order things happened. I think one of the very first ideas was just the title of the movie, “The Good Heart.” That set me onto a certain path that maybe I don’t want to talk too much about because I that would reveal too much about the contents of the movie. Also, writing is a lonely process when you try to create a universe that you like hanging out in yourself. I really love bars, so for me, it was pretending to be inside a bar mentally for six years, and physically, too. (laughs)
CS: Would it have taken less time to write this if you weren’t in a bar?
Kári: Yeah. (chuckles) Also, I remember it being a sort of a kick-off for the movie when I read Luis Buñuel’s memoirs “My Last Breath,” totally entertaining memoirs. It talks a lot about the bars and drinking and how to mix drinks. At some point, he came up with his own definition of a bar, and he said, “A bar is a dark and cruel place where man can come to drink alone.” And that for me set off my imagination, because usually people go to bars to socialize and to meet people from the opposite sex, but in this case, the bar is like a sanctuary for masculinity and solitude.
CS: Paul, how did you get involved with this? Was Brian already signed to do it or how did it come about?
Paul Dano: No, I just got the script and I read it and I really liked it, and I liked that he didn’t give an explanation why thse characters aren’t who they are. I thought the bar was a fascinating little out of time place. There was some great dialogue and it was well-constructed, but I didn’t know Dagur’s work, so I watched his other two films and I really liked them a lot. I really liked “Noi the Albino,” the Icelandic film, and I liked “Dark Horse,” which is the American translation, the other film, and I felt he had his own little perspective.
CS: How did you end doing another movie with Brian Cox after first appearing together in “L.I.E.”?
Dano: I had met with Dagur; he wanted me to do the movie and I wanted to do the movie. Brian was clearly a f*cking great choice for Jacques, and I had a great experience with him. I think we briefly touched base about it, possibly, maybe not even. But he’s so good at Jacques.
CS: Of course, but had you been a fan of “L.I.E.” and were you interested in having its two stars do something different together?
Kári: No, I was just looking for the best possible actors and I had not seen “L.I.E.” before they were cast. For me, it was a good thing that they had worked together because when you do films, there’s often so little time to hang out and get to know each other, so for me, it was nice to know that they would have a shortcut in terms of establishing a personal relationship. The chemistry between the two is so important so to know that they had worked together successfully was comforting to me.
CS: Was there a shortcut because “L.I.E” was a long time ago and it was your first movie?
Dano: There was a shortcut in terms of skipping some of the steps of “Can you work with this person well?” and “Do we get along? Do we like each other? How does this person work?” A lot of stuff that you get worried about alone in your apartment a month before shooting. It was kind of like we’d been through something together, so it gave us an immediate trust, and to bring a friendship into it or some sort of camaraderie. It’s sort of like if you and I had a mutual best friend but we’d never met. We immediately have that connection to make you comfortable, something like that.
CS: Was there something in Lucas that you gravitated towards or something you felt you could bring to the character?
Dano: I liked how kind he was and innocent. I feel like I just like that character in a day and age where I feel there’s so much cynicism so it was just kind of refreshing to get to play somebody that is so unguarded, sort of more childish or animal-like than an adult. Yeah, and you know I liked the world, but I think that was sort of the main thing that I latched onto. It was this sort of innocence and empathy he has for other people, and how that’s probably not as common or it feels less common than you’d hope.
CS: We don’t really know a lot about Lucas beforehand, so was his backstory still worked out even though it’s never really revealed?
Kári: No, for me it was really important not to reveal it. I think it’s always so much more interesting when characters have secrets and you can sense them. They have a past that you have to use your imagination, and I think the tendency in movies is to over-explain and oversimplify, typically with the means of a flashback to show an isolated moment from that character’s youth. Something terrible happened and that is supposed to explain how he ended up how he is. It demystifies the experience.
CS: Jacques is a fairly eccentric character so to what level did you want Brian to take the craziness of the character? He obviously has a full range of crazy he could bring.
Kári: It was a balance act, definitely. We did a little bit of rehearsal and that was actually very helpful, because you actually sense that you could not use the full power in every scene because then it would become like harmless. You had to keep it dangerous, so you had to keep the lid on in most scenes and then make three or four scenes where he gets to take off, but I think when we first started working on the scenes, it was tempting to just let him go off all the time, but then quickly thought that we have to restrain it a lot.
CS: Was there a lot of discussion about that beforehand?
Dano: Yeah, you know for me, Lucas was experiencing everything for the first time in this movie, so the less I knew the better, but that was for Brian to figure out and for Dakur to give the limits to that character, the boundaries. The once nice thing about making the movie is we had a very small crew and we shot the interiors of the bar in Iceland. It’s a really intimate experience making a movie there. It was very easy for Dagur to clear the set, it wasn’t a big deal. I’ve been on movies where there’s such a big crew and if you want to be alone on set, like 40 people have to walk away and it takes five minutes for that to happen. This was very much like, “Let’s clear out the bar” and we could look at the scene and where it should be. Dagur’s very specific, but we also would feel things out. “Does this work over in this corner here?” That was a really nice way to be able to work. You can’t always work that way unfortunately.
CS: People I’ve talked to who like the movie generally like the unique tone of the humor, and I wasn’t sure if that was just the Icelandic influence. Was a lot of that in the script or did that develop as you were shooting?
Dano: Yeah, I think especially after watching Dagur’s other films, I feel like it was in the script. You know, comedy, tragedy, that balance, that’s something I love personally as an audience member. I love films that make you laugh and then just hit you in the gut, and I think for me this was on Dagur’s first films, some kind of particular sensibility, and that’s what you hope a filmmaker brings, whether it’s their personality… whatever’s unique about me or whatever’s unique about you, I think it’s best when people are able to bring that to their work. That’s what makes it different, and I felt like that was just kind of Dagur’s thing.
Kári: I always start from me, and for me, I get a big satisfaction from making people laugh but unfortunately, I’m not a joker. I can’t entertain at parties with jokes, so my way to do this is through the films, so somehow I always start from humor, but pure comedies, they’re often shallow, and leave you with an empty feeling. I think it’s interesting to marry the comedy with tragedy, and that’s what I’ve been exploring in all my films. I guess I’m just a sucker for arty-farty stuff and also for Jim Carrey movies, but artistic movies tend to take themselves too seriously, and comedies tend to be too shallow. My goal has been to make a cocktail of the two.
CS: Was the movie always going to be set in New York?
Kári: Well, sort of gradually it moved in that direction. I wrote the script in English from the very beginning. In terms of literature and film, I’ve always liked America more than England, and because the film has some almost fable-like elements, it seemed right to set it in like the American city, which has to be New York, a very iconic metropolitan city. Also, it was important for me to shoot it in a city that I have a personal relationship to. It probably would have been much simpler and cheaper to shoot in Baltimore or Philadelphia, but I had no relationship to these cities, but New York was already one of my favorite cities, so it was important for me to shoot it here.
CS: It’s never actually mentioned anywhere in the movie that it’s New York. Was that every deliberate and do you feel this story could happen anywhere?
Kári: Well, New York was very important, but also it’s important that the film takes place in its own universe, in its own time. All my three movies I tried to create a cinematic bubble in which the film takes place, so yeah, I was just trying to keep that microcosm feeling and the timelessness. If it was a realistic New York today, they probably would have met on Facebook.
CS: Maybe but Lucas is homeless, so I’m not sure he would have a computer.
Kári: Homeless people in New York, they have iPhones, everybody has iPhones.
The Good Heart is now playing in New York at the Angelika Film Center as well as in L.A., then it expands to San Francisco on May 7, and other cities on May 14. You can see the full release schedule on the official site.