Interview with When the Bough Breaks director Jon Cassar
Jon Cassar could be a text book on how to make it as a director in Hollywood. Working his way up from a camera operator and solid crew hand to eventually be given the reins of complex television episodes on a regular basis. After spending the ’90s developing a solid reel as a director of television action and adventure, he took on the job which will likely be etched on his tombstone (and he’s okay with that) – co-creator and executive producer of “24.”
Bringing a real-time feel to weekly TV, along with an adrenaline-fueled pace and a certain amount of nihilism on the part of the ‘heroes,’ Cassar – tall with close-cropped white hair and a misleadingly calm manner – and his partners created a new aesthetic for action adventure, using his “24” bona fides to attempt to launch a feature director career (“I think at one point every TV person wants to move up to feature films,” he says), culminating in his first studio picture, the Fatal Attraction-ish When the Bough Breaks, which is finishing its production period on a Louisiana bayou.
A busy director on a busy set – the one thing everyone says about Cassar is that he shoots fast – the only time to get him for more than a second is lunch. Which in this case is late dinner as they are shooting nights (it’s 10pm and they’re likely to be going until 5am) to cover the climatic confrontation which ends the film. We’ve gathered in the boat dock of a well-appointed lake house which has been turned into an impromptu dining room and staging area for the crew, which is shooting on an empty road a short walk away. Even just sitting and eating, Cassar is full of nervous energy.
CS: We heard, since you’re used to TV, that you work fast.
Jon Cassar: I do, and I worked… well, you know what show I did… you had to work very fast on that show, because we did the kind of quality that we’re doing now on films. So you had to get it.
Q: Besides the quality of production is there anything else comparable to 24 in this?
Cassar: Absolutely. That’s what interested me in the ship, there’s a tension, no one is black and white, they all have a grey to them, which was “24.” Was Jack Bauer a bad guy? I don’t know, so that’s part of it. And then I think the other thing that really attracted me to this was putting characters in a situation that has a moral choice. A choice to be made and for the audience to play along and go “what would I do?” That was a “24” thing. Put Jack Bauer in a case of kill one to save 20 or do you kill one at all? It’s the same kind of thing. Not with death but with decisions that have to be made. I always say that if there’s a husband and wife watching the show and one thinks it’s one way and one thinks it’s the other and they argue on the way home, I did my job. This is definitely going to be that. It definitely will raise those conversations.
Q: Are you drawn to this sort of material?
Cassar: It’s funny, I think any director will tell you that – well there are some who just do one genre. I think most will tell you they’re just drawn to a good story and good characters. And this had both. And though this had one that at first seemed like, let’s say TV movie, when I started reading it and see how in depth it got and there was a dark side to it I really liked that’s when I got involved. And I knew I could do something a bit sensual and thought provoking and that’s when I knew I could do something with it. In a way that’s like “24,” but any script I look at I want that first. I need that before anything else, before genre, before what I can do with it visually, before anything else.
Q: The producers said with the tax credits in New Orleans that makes it an attractive place to shoot, but how does Louisiana play as a character?
Cassar: It’s an interesting question because the film was written for LA. Sometimes it’s an easy transition to go from one or another. Sometimes you go and pretend you’re in another city. In this case we could have done that but I think all of us agreed right away we loved the idea of New Orleans and instead of fighting that we wanted to embrace it. We got a local jazz guy we just loved and put him in the movie. And what happens in the film is that the house is a big character. And the LA house was a big character. And houses here are very different than they are in LA, especially at that caliber at very high end, so there was a guest house, a pool… no guest houses in New Orleans. In fact we never found one; we found one with a pool house we made into a guest house. They don’t have the big pools LA has. My big concern was finding a place that conveyed that because a lot of the movie is the relationship of Ana staying in the guest house and the Taylor’s staying in the main house. And them looking at each other, her looking up through the window when they’re making love. That was a big part of it and I couldn’t lose that. Couldn’t go to a garden home and say she was living upstairs, it wouldn’t work. So we went through a lot of houses and the one we finally found, the Taylor house, it’s just spectacular. What’s great for me, I love the Garden district and the history, but I needed something modern where the rooms open up into each other which is very LA. The big houses here are very beautiful but they are closed and there are all doorways in between, they’re not open concept. The owner of this home got one of those old homes and kept some of the history but blew the back of it out and the back is all one giant floor to ceiling glass looking out onto the guest house and pool. So perfect. It was the perfect house for us. It’s right on St. Charles, from the outside it looks so classical, but you go inside and it’s so modern. And then we were able to put her place in a shotgun house, so you have the difference between her older style house and a garden home. So we made it work for the story.
Q: How was it working with Morris and Regina?
Cassar: Fantastic. I’d never worked with either, I’d heard good things, you do your homework as a director, you find out who’s good and who’s bad. They were very good. In fact I was blessed with the most amazing cast all the way around. And Jaz is new, you don’t know her, but you’re about to.
Q: What was it about her?
Cassar: It’s actually in the meeting I had with her. It’s really interesting but good girls, smiley girls say they can be evil. And then they act and they’re trying to be evil. Jaz has this ability to turn a switch and she’s unrecognizable. Some stages – early one we had her playing more innocent – and now some of the crew are going “is that the same girl?” She’s so, so different. So she had that ability to change, even in that one dinner I had with her, she was playing around and I could see this sweet young girl could become this monster. I have no idea what’s in her background that gets her there, but she can get there (laughs). And that’s the danger sometimes. Sometimes the bad girl can play good, but the good girl playing bad, you don’t buy it. And I have Theo Rossi who’s incredible and Glenn Morshower from “24.” It’s a small cast but a wonderful cast. Regina and Morris are incredible together, it’s their relationship which becomes the center of the story and what they do and how they handle it is what becomes the controversial part of the movie.
Q: How did you cast them in the film? Regina said the script itself didn’t specify anything about the characters.
Cassar: No, it didn’t specify white or African American, it’s just a story. I have to give that to Clint Culpepper and Screen Gems. They’re making an effort to do that, not to make stereotypical African American films. This is a film, a thriller, it could have been anyone. As long as the story was solid it didn’t matter what the race was. In my case, they were already attached before me. I know Clint really liked them, had worked with them before many times and Morris had a deal with Screen Gems, but I couldn’t be happier. When you’re handed those kind of actors it’s not like you’re going to complain. I was very lucky.
Q: So now that you’re a director now does that mean you’re done with TV?
Cassar: Except TV is good place to be right now. We’re potentially going to bring back the Kennedys for another round with Katie Holmes, so we’re excited about that. It’s a good story, good people, there are some great projects out there right now. It’s staggering how much great TV there is. I used to be able to easily say I watch everything but not now.
Q: Is there anything you binge watch now?
Cassar: Yeah I binge the Netflix stuff, and they’re really smart, the next one starts right away. I know that’s how people watch “24” which is really smart. I’m behind right now because when you start on a movie your TV time gets reduced, unfortunately. It will go back up again when I’m finished. It’s like when we were pushing to January and went straight through because you had to give it to them every week. You couldn’t wait two weeks. So that went right to binge watching. Some people couldn’t wait; they’d tape them all or buy the DVDs and then watch them all. The only thing about that is that the water cooler gets taken away. It hurts them a bit. I can’t tell you how many times we’re at the table and “House of Cards,” oh I’m only on three, I’m on seven, don’t tell me anything.’ That’s as far as it goes now. About eight months later you can talk about them but by then it’s too late. You don’t get that talk and that’s what drives publicity.
Q: What separates this thriller from all the others?
Cassar: Because it’s a really good movie. And I made it! I think the characters are really great, they’re fun to watch, and it’s beautiful and that’s a big part of movies nowadays. They have to really be beautiful, not that TV doesn’t do that, but movies are the place to get that big screen experience still. And it’s a really good thriller, these are the kind of films you want to go out with a bunch of your friends and go see and that’s the kind of movie it is. Support me. Maybe they’ll give me another one.
Q: Was it a jump coming to this from TV?
Cassar: I think, from the quality of TV I was doing, it wasn’t that different. I think if I was just in the world of procedures it would be different but I’ve been doing character based shows so it really wasn’t that different. And if you look at my resume I really don’t have that much procedurals, I did “Criminal Minds” because I liked Ed Benero and I wanted to do a pilot for him, but most of the stuff I’ve done hasn’t been liked that. It wasn’t that different for me. I treated the TV shows I did pretty much like this – I do the same kind of blocking, the same kind of rehearsals, the same kind of coverage. It really wasn’t that odd of a transition, didn’t feel like a transition at all.
Q: Would someone hire Jon Cassar because he works well with characters or has a good style?
Cassar: I think firstly you’ll say he can tell a good story. That’s the main thing and that’s all of those things combined. And actors, I have a pretty good reputation with actors and that’s an important thing. I’ve worked with some pretty tough people over the years and worked with them well and then you’ve got to get these characters to come alive. If you as a director can’t make that person come alive as a character it doesn’t matter who the actor is, it’s not going to work. Look, I’m the full package, are you kidding me (laughs). I’m the perfect choice!
Q: Will there ever be a 24 movie?
Cassar: We tried. I think what it was was everyone caught up to us. We were right on the bleeding edge, James Bond was getting tortured and having his girlfriend killed till we did it. But then you have that, you have Jason Bourne… anyone of those could have been the “24” movie, everyone’s done it. We were late at our own game. It could happen, it’s still being kicked around, but it’s hard to find the right story. We did 204 episodes of “24” and now we have to come up with another 90 minutes and that’s hard to do.
Q: Lot of action in this?
Cassar: That’s what we’re doing tonight. In fact I’ve got to get over there. Thanks!