It may surprise some that the progeny of Ridley Scott (and nephew of Tony Scott) might direct something with no aliens, gladiators, jets or explosions, but rather a low-key, character-driven piece like Welcome to the Rileys, but Jake Scott’s second feature benefits first and foremost from the terrific trio of actors he assembled to bring life to the film.
James Gandolfini and Frozen River star Melissa Leo play Doug and Lois Riley, a couple whose marriage is falling apart after the death of their teen daughter years earlier. When Doug travels to New Orleans on business, he encounters Mallory (Kristen Stewart), a rebellious stripper with whom he immediately feels a connection, feeling the need to help and protect the teen girl, even though she fights against his concern and caring every step of the way.
Like his filmmaking relatives, Jake Scott comes from a background of music videos and commercials, though it’s not likely you would guess that from the subdued filmmaking that allows him to get three amazing performances from his actors, particularly Stewart, who gives one of her best screen performances to date.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Scott while he was in New York for the film’s junket and while we don’t want to continue comparisons with his filmmaking relatives, we will say that having spoken to Jake’s father a number of times, we found him to be just as eloquent on his craft and the film he made. (We also love his derby!)
ComingSoon.net: I went into this, not knowing a lot about it, except that it was at Sundance, and it was a smaller indie drama and who was in it, so what got you interested in doing this?
Jake Scott: Michael (Costigan) brought the script to me and I’ve been looking for character-driven stories and I’d been developing character-driven stories, and Michael, I think really because I’d been on this play called “Kimberly Akimbo” that David Lindsay-Abaire wrote, who wrote “Rabbit Hole” and “Shrek,” he’s a Broadway writer actually. He’d been working on this thing called “Kimberly Akimbo” with DreamWorks and it was very character-driven and it was a family thing. It was less of a drama more of a comedy, and I never made. I was frustrated and Michael came to me and said, “I’ve had this amazing script you should check out called ‘Welcome to the Rileys'” and he sort of explained it to me a bit, and I was like, “It sounds perfect.” I was really just motivated to do a character piece ’cause it’s the kind of movies I like, and I read it and fell in love with it. So I worked on the script a couple years with the writer and he was very generous. It can be difficult when a director comes on and says, “Well, I don’t like this, I want to change that.” It’s (the writer’s) baby and he was very generous and very open to changing things and exploring new ways of looking at it.
CS: So you did have time to develop this, it wasn’t just “Here’s the script” and off you went?
Scott: We had the most amazing journey with this whole film. It’s like I got the cast I wanted and we had one single financier, one company, so we didn’t have lots of opinions, and it was just one of those.
CS: How did you go about the casting? Did you look for specific roles first and then build around it or did you just send the script out and got responses?
Scott: Again, it’s a similar thing. Inevitably, small dramas have a tough time now and the financiers and potential financiers are always wanting you to cast Richard Gere or George Clooney, know what I mean? You always have the battles over casting stars, and that I found really frustrating, and luckily, the financiers we ended up with didn’t see it that way. They really trusted my judgment in casting, ’cause to me, those characters had to feel real and authentic and if you started casting… I don’t want to mention other names, but there are some fantastic, very fine actors out there who aren’t necessarily “People Magazine” famous, and Jim (Gandolfini) to me… what blew me away was that Jim wasn’t considered to be a major catch.
CS: And he is actually.
Scott: And he’s an incredible actor, and Melissa had just done “Frozen River” so that really helped, and Kristen wasn’t known for “Twilight” then. That hadn’t happened yet. She had just finished shooting before she came onto our film, so we didn’t know that “Twilight” was going to be this major success, so Kristen was, at that time, not a big star, so it was an interesting but very frustrating process to get the film financed but we ended up with the right people who believed totally in what we were doing, and we were all making the same film.
CS: Did one of the three actors get attached earlier than the others?
Scott: Jim and Kristen got attached pretty early, and Jim was 18 months before we started production.
CS: Was it important to cast Doug before anyone else?
Scott: That’s just the way it fell. I had met with a couple other people. We had cast Marcia Gay Harden in Melissa’s part and Marcia pulled out, because she was going to do “God of Carnage” with Jim, and it was a decision, “Do I do this or do I do that?” and I think “God of Carnage” is amazing, but it then allowed me to get Melissa, so I think Marsha for that, because Melissa was brilliant and then Marsha got to do her amazing thing on stage. It was just sort of magical the way it all went down.
CS: I think we’ve seen Marsha do this kind of role before, and I think it’s nice seeing Melissa doing something different.
Scott: Yeah, Melissa was definitely going against stuff she’d done before, yeah, which I think is ultimately why it works so well, because she was really exploring this woman in her way. I could really see her enjoying it.
CS: As someone who has directed a lot of music videos, when you first were reading the script, did you have a lot of visual ideas of how things could be shot? Obviously, New Orleans is fairly evocative, and I’m not sure if it was set there originally when you read the script.
Scott: It was set there. It got changed because of Katrina, and then it went back to New Orleans. Yeah, visually I knew it had to be very restrained, and I was really drawn to the idea of these two worlds: Indianapolis being very still, very quiet, very safe and hermetic, which meant not really moving the camera. I took a very photographic approach as opposed to a cinematographic approach, so I was looking at a lot of photographs and portraiture, I looked at a lot of paintings. New Orleans speaks its own language. It’s very easy to fall into the cliches, but it fascinated me to be there, and we just allowed New Orleans to dictate and guide us, because it’s sort of dirty and feted and battered and damaged, but it’s very pretty as well, but it’s noisy, so the soundtrack is… both visually and audibly, it’s a complete world. As a filmmaker, you just sort of get guided by those things. Music videos are something else. TV commercials are something else. This is a movie and I had to tell the story through Doug’s experience.
CS: Had you been either to Indiana or New Orleans at the time you read it?
Scott: Never Indiana and I had been to New Orleans for one weekend I didn’t remember much about.
CS: How did you plan the movie out then and find the places to film? I know New Orleans can be quiet at times but it also can be a fairly boisterous place, so how did you get around that and find place to film where you didn’t have to deal with that?
Scott: Well, in the French Quarter, which is only briefly in the film, you just accept all of that, but the by-water where we ended up shooting most of the story, where the character Mallory lives is a very interesting, really kind of dangerous neighborhood. It’s really that fringe of the art scene and gangs, it’s like one of those. It’s alive. At night, there’s screaming, there’s gunfire, there’s the freight trains, there’s the ship horns, and all of that is on the soundtrack of the film. You couldn’t stop it, it’s uncontrollable, and I kept saying to the soundguy, “Look, man, one of the major themes of the film is dealing with uncontrollable forces, and that’s what the film’s about, so stop trying to control it all!” The actors were great because they just lived with it, they just accepted it and that’s just part of the film.
CS: I want to ask about working with the three actors, because one of the things I really liked about the movie is that it is just three characters with a few people floating in and out, but it’s really focused on those three. Did all three actors want to develop the characters on their own, did you have to work with each one individually, did you do a lot of rehearsal?
Scott: They all three have a different process, and Jim’s preparation is really script-oriented. He’s very focused on script and he’s really good at it, and he had very strong ideas about the emotional logic of his character’s journey. He also comes from a tradition of method acting, and he’s rigorous about it, and I’d not really worked with that before, and so, I kind of just had to allow him to do it. His method is his method, so when he comes on set, and he and Melissa have an eminent respect for one another. Melissa is a very thorough actor who prepares in a different way, and she’s really into detail of her character, of her physicalities and her behavior. So you have these two amazing actors – let them do their thing! So they’d come on set and we’d rehearse on set. Rather than rehearse before the shoot, we actually just sat down and talked a lot and discussed a lot. They were a bit resistant to rehearsing scenes because I think that a lot of actors find on movies that they can over-rehearse. And Kristen is just complete instinct, everything is instinct. I kept her away from the others, because that was the nature of the relationship, and she kind of met strippers and hung out with some strippers that I introduced her to and kind of got a sense of their world, and it was her first time being independent from her parents on a movie, so she was alone. I think that was quite a big thing for her. She’s a young lady, just turned 18 at the time, so she was pretty vulnerable.
So you’re dealing with three very distinct types of actor. I’m not that experienced with actors and I just learned to trust them and learned from them and found it not easy but it was the best part of making the film was actually working with them. I looked forward to it. Actors, they have a reputation sometimes of being quite difficult.
CS: But you’ve worked with musicians for so many years, actors have to be easier than working with musicians.
Scott: Yeah, yeah, they’re not difficult. Rock ‘n’ rollers are difficult. Actors, if they’re good and they’re committed, there’s a lot there. The fact that they’re on the screen emotionally exposing themselves, I have a lot of time and a lot of respect for them.
CS: How did you deal with Kristen on shooting some of the racier scenes and how to prepare for those?
Scott: Very sensitively. You know, you’ve got this person who is young, who is having to expose herself, more emotionally than physically, but pretty physically as well, and she had to relate to Jim in this, to Doug Riley, and I think we had to be protective. Jim was really good at that, and that was partly their relationship, the characters Doug and Mallory, that’s kind of what their relationship was. He was protective, he’s not exploiting her, so it made my life easier in terms of watching out for Kristen, but you did feel like you had to… The irony is that Kristen was fine with dealing with it, she’s very courageous. Really put herself and threw herself (into it). There were times where she’d do a take and you’d go, “My God.” She’d just blow me away at how far she was willing to push it, and she’s always trying something new, it was interesting, really interesting.
CS: Were you able to use any of the muscles you’ve established doing music videos or commercials on this? Do you generally storyboard?
Scott: I avoided all those things. I storyboarded, the scene in the strip club where they first meet, because I felt like there’s a construction to that that had to be worked out, and that was about it. And then basically, I would rehearse on set and I worked with a cameraman who I did a lot of music videos with, but we had these rules we imposed on ourselves about lensing, about camera movement. It was almost like the camera movement was a moral decision in terms of the story. That was a big aspect of our approach. Listen, I shot a lot of videos and TV commercials and that’s a valuable experience in terms of confidence around and with camera and things like that. I think all of that experience just allows you to be maybe bolder with your restraint, so restraint was always about.
CS: Do you have any idea what you want to next? Would you do another movie like this?
Scott: I’m looking at this project I’m developing which is based on a news article about a Tibetan nun that was murdered in the high Himalayas by some Chinese soldiers in front of some mountaineers, that’s pretty commercial. (Note: That was sarcasm.) But I really love this story. I’m a climber myself, and I’ve been to the Himalayas and love it there so I just thought why not? That’s a really interesting thing but less commercial, and there’s this thing I’m really interested in trying to get going at the moment. You know Peter Tosh? (He’s the reggae guitarist who was a member of Bob Marley’s The Wailers.) I’ve got the rights to that story ’cause I’m a reggae fanatic, so I’d love to do a music film actually.
CS: So you’re basically developing your own projects rather than looking for scripts?
Scott: There’s things around that I really like. There’s a killer script around about Hitchcock making “Psycho,” that’s a great script, and I hope to have at least a chance on that one, but no, the things I’m developing are very much character-driven, even the Tosh thing is very character-driven, but I’d love to do a science fiction film. It’s just tricky for me to do science fiction films coming from my family.
CS: Do you find that it’s a problem avoiding the filmmaking legacy of your father and uncle?
Scott: I’ve been in it for 45 years, know what I mean? It’s not my problem, it’s someone else’s problem, but it has advantages and there are disadvantages. You sometimes get judged a little unfairly, but that’s human nature, and I’m sure Sofia (Coppola) probably gets that a bit, too, but I also have a lot of doors open and a lot of things have happened in my career as a result of that. I’m grateful for that and I’ve learned lots from my Dad and my uncle, and so I consider it to be a fortune really, and we should just get on with it. He didn’t direct my film, I directed my film, know what I mean? At the end of the day, you’re the one saying what you need to say to the actors. He’s not standing on set.
CS: Well, I think it’s a great debut… well, at least for those who don’t realize you already directed another movie.
Scott: Thanks for saying that.
Welcome to the Rileys opens in New York, L.A. and Boston on Friday, October 29.