The new indie romantic drama The First Time is the sophomore feature film from writer/director Jon Kasdan (In the Land of Women), pairing Britt Robertson (“The Secret Circle”) and Dylan O’Brien (“Teen Wolf”) as Aubrey and Dave, two high school seniors who, after meeting each another one night outside a party, slowly begin to form their first serious relationship.
ComingSoon.net spoke with Kasdan, Robertson and O’Brien about their film’s honest, open take on young love, a subject that Kasdan, the son of director Lawrence Kasdan, previously tackled as a writer on the short-lived but much-lauded “Freak and Geeks.”
Also starring Victoria Justice, James Frecheville, Craig Roberts, Joshua Malina, Halston Sage, Maggie Jones and Adam Sevani, The First Time opens in a limited release this Friday, October 19.
ComingSoon.net: It’s so strange going to your IMDb page and seeing “Silverado” come up.
Jon Kasdan: I know! There’s some weird ones that pop up at the top. Like “The Accidental Tourist.” I have no lines. I’m just a kid petting a dog in the parking lot. Yet it’s on the IMDB. You can’t control that stuff. If you could, I would definitely revise a few things.
CS: Where did “The First Time” begin for you?
Kasdan: This one came out of a sort of frustration of trying to get bigger movies going and finding them hard. I was worried I would never get to make another movie and decided to write something that was contained enough that, if the time came when I finished the script, I could make it with a video camera if I had to. Any which way that I had to. I wanted to write something that was dialogue-heavy. Something that was kind of character driven. Something that would let me really work with actors and get a little better at that part of it. Have it be a manageably scaled production. I showed it to a couple of people and Castle Rock was very enthusiastic. They worked with me on “In the Land of Women.” Things happened very organically for me in that way. We set to casting it and making it at a reasonable size.
CS: There’s an incredibly earnest tone to the entire story.
Kasdan: Yeah. Honestly, whenever I set out to write something like this, what drives the writing is sort of that I relate to it very strongly. For better or worse, the movie really does reflect the emotional reality of how I experienced high school. Being a sort of hyper-articulate but not particularly smart kid who was struggling through the pitfalls of love and knowing what that meant. Trying to figure out what things mean and that they seem bigger than they are. The sort of back-and-forth of high school. Out of that, I certainly relate to all these characters really deeply. They take their lives very seriously and I did in high school. I hope there’s moments in the movie where you glimpse that that perspective is out of place and reflects something that you really feel as a teenager.
CS: In that sense, it really reminded me of “Moonrise Kingdom” earlier this year, which also really uses innocence as a driving force for a love story.
Kasdan: I love that you think of those two movies in any way together. I really liked “Moonrise Kingdom.” There’s elements of it where you think, “This is just a solid Wes Anderson movie” and there’s elements that are better even than that. That, to me, is the stuff between the kids. The stuff on the beach. It’s as good as anything he’s ever done and it’s elevated above the patter of Wes Anderson because it does have some really sweet emotional content to it. There’s a sweetness to it that you don’t expect. It’s in “Rushmore” and it’s in “Tenenbaums” but it’s less so in the more recent ones. It was great to see that happen again with him a little.
CS: This is another case where you sort of have to turn in any cynicism at the door.
Kasdan: Yeah. That’s a really tough thing to do in this day and age. It’s certainly not the kind of movie that’s embraced in the culture right now. One of the things he has that I don’t is that he’s just so hip. His sound and his world is so cool that the sort of sweeter elements maybe are more palatable to harsher critics. With this movie, when anyone responds to it or sees it as sweet or can get to it through any cynicism they have, I’m thrilled. Because I do think that, in this day and age, this kind of movie is a tough sell. It really is a different kind of philosophical outlook than most of the movies you see. And certainly with high school movies. I’m the first person to go see “Project X” myself, but it’s such a different world view.
CS: How did your two leads come together?
Kasdan: They’re the best. This was really a situation where, because we were making the movie so small, we said, “We’re just going to find the best people. We’re not going to find Selena Gomez and we’re not going to cast it in a way that it’s driven by stars. We’re just going to find the best actors.” Truth be told, there were four or five people with both these parts that would have been really interesting versions of this movie. When we sort of arrived at those four or five boys and four or five girls, what we did is we started reading them together. The pairings were all kind of interesting and different and the pairing of Britt and Dylan was just electric. Something about it was kind of funny and fun and you could tell that, between them, something great was happening. It sort of seemed right to all the people making that decision. Then we went and did it and the way this movie worked was were “Before Sunrise” was a huge inspiration. I wanted it to be that same working environment. The three of us really did work together for a couple of weeks and rehearsed and incorporated some of the sound of their own voices into the script. To make it right for them. It became, really, the most satisfying working experience I’ve ever had because they were a delight. The performances that they ended up crafting are exactly what I hoped they would be.
CS: You begin the film almost like a play with a very long scene, moving in real time.
Kasdan: Totally. And that speaks to what I was saying before where I wanted to write something where, if I had no help and I had to do the movie literally myself with a video camera and two kids, I could still do it and show somebody I was doing it. That was how the writing of it started and it sort of evolved into this idea where I asked, “What if you could track a relationship from the moment two people meet to the moment they decide that they’re going to start dating? And you saw literally every moment of their interaction?” So even beyond that first scene, the movie does sort of move a little faster but, when you look back on it, you realize that you’ve seen every moment they spent talking sort of over the course of the movie. There’s this Neill Strauss book, “The Game.” It’s about pickup artists. It’s hilarious. There’s this one part where he talks about breaking down how much time people actually spend together before they sleep together. I was sort of thinking about it while I was writing and thinking, “That’s interesting. I’ve never really thought about my relationships in terms of how much actual time was spent with people between when I met them and when I was intimate with them.” I wondered if I could actually fit that into the length of a movie.
CS: You hit a point in the film where sex enters into the story and there’s so many different ways to film or imply realistic sex. How much thought went into what you were going to show and/or not show?
Kasdan: I wanted it to be really sexy. I’m not someone who finds nudity as sexy as I do the suggestion of nudity. The side of her breast or the way that her shirt is barely hanging on her body. To me, that’s way hotter than actually seeing breasts. What was important to me was, as an arc, that is get to the point that it’s excruciatingly sexy and then immediately go really bad and just fall apart. Anything I could do in terms of the way they were touching, I just wanted it to build, build, build to the point that it slips and just goes off the rails. I wanted to do a thing where you could really see that timing is so important and how sex can kind of screw up the fantasy romantic element. He just can’t quite reconcile how those two things work together at the moment. One of the things that comes out of conversations that we were having during the writing of “Freaks and Geeks” was that I always wanted to do a thing with teenagers where — because you see in high school movies all the time that sex is you find the right person and sex is magically great. It’s prom night in “American Pie” and people wind up with who they’re supposed to. I wanted to make a movie where two people were sort of right for each other but the first time they have sex, it’s as awkward and awful as it can be in real life. I thought that was an interesting dynamic.
CS: You’ve also got a movie-within-a-movie when the characters go to see a huge blockbuster action film. We only hear the soundtrack, but how fun is it to record that?
Kasdan: Really fun! If you listen really closely, it’s actually me and my editor screaming action movie dialogue. “Get out of the way!” With a little movie like this, suddenly we’re doing all the Foley. That was something I really wanted to do, too.
CS: How did “The First Time” come your way?
Britt Robertson: It started with an audition. Then I got a callback and went to that callback and I had coffee with Jon Kasdan. Then I read with Dylan and one other guy. Then he decided that he liked Dylan and I and then we filmed it and now we’re promoting it.
CS: This seems like a tricky role in that, no matter how good an actor you are solo, the reaction is what really makes each scene.
Robertson: Obviously, with this kind of film, the only thing that matters is that there was something there. That we need to have some sort of chemistry and some back and forth. There was some rapport between Dylan and I and also Jon. It was the three of us for two weeks of just rehearsing the script non-stop. It’s a small indie so we had to make the most of our rehearsal time. It sort of felt like all these experiences were coming to life as we were making them and Jon wanted to make it very real in that way. We would rehearse in the spaces and we got to be free with a lot of the physical movement of the scene, especially the alleyway scene at the beginning. The freedom that Jon gave us and how specific it all was was interesting. On the one side we had so much freedom to be these two characters in every way but he was also so specific about what he wanted. That combination made for a really, really great experience and I was so happy with the way that the film has come out.
CS: One of the great things about Aubrey in the film is that, as sweet and wonderful as she is, she has a slightly neurotic sense to her that, deep down, everyone really has.
Robertson: Her neuroses is a big part of Jon. When writing Aubrey, he put a big part of who he is. He did that for both characters, but very much so in Aubrey. Just seeing how he understood her, it was easy for me to understand her through his eyes. I’m not super neurotic myself. At that age, though, you’re dealing with such heavy topics as finding someone who means something to you and going on these journeys of life and finding that you care about someone in a different way for the first time. Those are huge things. To be neurotic, as you say, it kind of makes sense because there’s a sense of being lost and there are a lot of unknowns. How do you deal with those?
CS: There’s also a tone throughout the film where it’s devoid of any cynicism. It’s a very genuine story.
Robertson: Exactly. Jon is such a wonderful writer in that he can capture these two young people in such a true way. That’s why, when I first read the script, I was so impressed with his vision for these two characters. It was so unlike anything that I had really read before. Both people were so specific, but not in a generic kind of way. It wasn’t, “Oh look, it’s the popular girl from the cheerleading team.” He was interested in capturing true people in high school who aren’t necessarily part of any clique. They’re those middle ground people who kind of float and figure things out in their own. It’s not, “I’m a part of the football team and I’m going to make my decisions based on what Joe Blow is doing.” It’s a true film because they’re normal kids dealing with normal issues in a really interesting fashion.
CS: The beginning of the film plays out in real time and you’re essentially doing what could be a stage play. Is that a really challenge as an actor?
Robertson: Yes, it is. Because of Jon and because he’s a writer/director, you want to stick to the words he has given. There wasn’t a lot of improv or, if you go off a line, you fill something in. It was very specific to what we were trying to do. Because of that, there was a lot of preparation. The first 30 pages is real time and it’s just us talking. Preparing for that was difficult because you want to be on your game and know everything, but not to the point that it’s stale. You want to actually listen to one another. It’s tricky to find that line where you’re not over-prepared and still feel alive.
CS: There’s also a double side to Aubrey where the character herself is sort of playing a character. You can tell from the beginning that what she’s saying is slightly guarded.
Robertson: Yeah, that’s very much who she is. And I don’t think she’s even aware that she’s putting on a character. She wants to be someone and she’s with this guy who is clearly who he is. She’s trying to figure out who she is around all these other people. She says all these things and has all these grandiose ideas of what love should be and how you should find someone. Whatever it may be. What you later discover is that it’s really very basic. That’s how it is with everyone. You go through all these thoughts in your head of what love actually is or how you should find someone or what a relationship actually is. But it’s fairly simple. It’s about a conversation and about how you fell around someone. If you enjoy them or not. It’s pretty basic, especially at that age.
CS: What kind of exercises were involved in the two weeks of rehearsals?
Robertson: There weren’t so much exercises, but we would go through the scenes. Jon is a guy who writes something and then needs to hear it to find out if it works or not, especially after you have two actors locked down. If there’s something that’s not really working, he’d change it. He’ll be like, “You think of something.” Especially with jokes. There was a line about Anderson Cooper humping a panda and we did a million different jokes about what Anderson Cooper humping a panda could be. There were certain things we would mess around with and see what fit for the two of us. What sounded right. For the most part, though, he’s a really talented guy and the script is exactly why I wanted to be a part of the film. So there wasn’t too much that I felt needed to be explored outside of what he had given us.
CS: We only get little glimpses of it, but Aubrey’s relationship with her parents feels very genuine.
Robertson: It’s sweet, yeah, but in a real way. It’s not cheesy. I think that relationship is why she is who she is. Again, there’s a very small window with her family, but I really love those scenes. You get to see why she is who she is through reactions that her parents have with her and with one another. It kind of gives her a glimpse of maybe what she wants in the future. It gives her a glimpse of what a real relationship is. That’s the only knowledge of what she has as far as a solid relationship foundation prior to meeting Dave.
CS: What’s coming up next for you after this?
Robertson: I’m working on a film right now in New York. It used to be called “Starbuck,” but it’s getting changed to “The Delivery Man.” It’s based on a French Canadian film that was made a couple of years ago. It’s a remake with Vince Vaughn, Chris Pratt and Cobie Smulders. I play one of Vince Vaughn’s 533 kids that he’s fathering via sperm donation. He goes on a journey to meet all these kids. It’s about him deciding to be a father to all these randoms.
CS: What’s a dream project for you?
Robertson: I don’t know. There’s not a specific genre I want to tackle or anything. But “Perks of Being a Wallflower 2” (laughs). I enjoy storytelling. It’s why I’m an actor. Finding stories that mean something and that I feel I can bring something to, that interests me. Characters that I can connect with on some level. I’m also interesting in having great experiences. Whatever that means.
CS: Was it helpful to have a director that grew up as an actor?
Robertson: Jon and I became really close during the film and even after. I’ve had many conversations with Jon regarding his upbringing and his family. We’ve talked about everything.
CS: What was your first encounter with this project?
Dylan O’Brien: As any auditioning actor, I received an e-mail from my manager. The first thing you do is read the script and I loved the script. I loved the character and I loved the writing. I was shooting “Teen Wolf” at the time and I flew back specifically to audition for it.
CS: It’s a film that offers a very earnest take on young relationships and it seems like that must ask for you to really give into the role as an actor. There’s some risk involved.
O’Brien: I didn’t think about it too much, which helped. I think that helped make it honest. The way I looked at the script and the way I processed the story and the characters was in a very honest way. I really connected to it. I believed it all. I saw it all in my own life. I just knew the story inside out and i knew this guy, too. But to be honest as an actor is normally difficult. In this setting, though, it was so easy. Jon just brings him out. That’s how he interacts. Whenever I see him I just become more of an honest person. Now that I think about it, that’s a really true thing. Because he’s so honest. You feel like there’s no other way to be. I feel so comfortable talking to him. He’s one of my favorite people to just talk to and tell everything to. Even when I was just doing the chemistry reads I was just like, “Man, I really hope I get this movie. I love this guy.” So much of acting for me and picking projects — well maybe not “picking”, but if I ever did get to a point where I was really picking and choosing — what’s important to me is not just working with a good director but someone I feel comfortable with and can connect with. So that we understand each other. That’s a big part of collaborating in filmmaking. I think that may be why I think that way.
CS: The Dave character is a guy who finds what he wants and goes for it and isn’t great a hiding who he is. Then we he meets Aubrey, who is a little more guarded, his earnestness almost transfers over to her.
O’Brien: That’s such a good point, man. Yeah, I actually think I connect more in real life with Aubrey’s character. People tend to connect with someone who has a bit more difficulty showing who they are in different circumstances. I know I’m definitely that way. That’s now making it very interesting to me that I played the other part.
CS: Both characters have qualities that I think people see in themselves at one time or another.
O’Brien: That’s so true. You do have these moments of where, say, I’m a person in real life who’s kept in and internal. Even I go through moments where you just cannot help it and you come out. I think that’s what makes you human. I think it’s a human quality and it’s part of what makes you human. It’s a human movie with very real themes and very real subject matter.
CS: Can you talk a little about acting in the opening of this, which plays out in real time like a stage play.
O’Brien: That a really easy thing for me. I don’t know how other actors feel, but I think most would agree that doing material in that kind of setting gives you freedom. The more technical it gets, the less authentic it gets. The more it’s about hitting your mark, standing here, saying that, doing the push-in, that’s where it starts getting to feel way less organic. When you get a scene that’s 20 pages long and it’s like a little play, you can set up a wide shot and just loose yourself, running the whole thing. I loved shooting that scene. It was probably the easiest for me, just in terms of being unaware of the crew. I’m very technically aware like that. I know what it’s looking like on-camera. I know what size it is and I know what the movie is going to be and where it’s ending up at all time. That can sometimes F you up as an actor. It’s really nice to have those little scenes.
CS: Jon comes from an acting background. Did you find that that helped the two of you relate?
O’Brien: I don’t know if it’s that acting experience that makes him so good about talking to actors or if it’s simply just him as a person because him as a person is someone who is really good with talking to people. I think that might be it, despite his roles in his father’s films and whatnot. He’s always talking with you and never at you. He’s a very unselfish talker. He’s always asking you everything. When you’re discussing a scene, you’re never wrong. There’s never even a hint of that. You’re talking about ways to make it better or if it’s even possible to make it better or different or whatever. At the end of the day, he’ll walk away from a scene and go, “Or whatever! Who knows if any of that is even f–ing correct!” (laughs) Ultimately, it’s kind of true. You’re trying to get to any amount of different places where it feels right in a short amount of time. He’s so good at doing that. He’s so good a talking. He makes you feel comfortable and confident in a way that you can’t make a mistake. I think that’s really important, depending on what kind of actor you are. I’m definitely someone who has to be made as comfortable as possible. He’s just naturally that way. And maybe it’s been because he has been there.
CS: What’s next for you?
O’Brien: I just did this movie called “The Internship.”
CS: It’s funny that you and Britt both have Vince Vaughn comedies coming up.
O’Brien: I know! It’s hilarious. Back to back, too. It’s not a large part by any means, but it was a really amazing experience.
The First Time opens in limited theaters on Friday, October 18.