SXSW: The Automatic Hate’s Justin Lerner

There’s a true mystery at the heart of The Automatic Hate, the second feature film from director Justin Lerner, who co-wrote the project with Katharine O’Brien. Joseph Cross stars in the film as Davis Green, a young man whose life is turned upside down after a visit from Alexis (Adelaide Clemens), a cousin he didn’t know he had who brings him in contact with a whole group of relatives that have been completely cut out of his life. As Davis and Alexis’ bond grows, however, dark secrets begin to emerge.

Backed by a supporting cast that includes Deborah Ann Woll, Richard Schiff, Ricky Jay and more, The Automatic Hate marks another SXSW standout that got to explore a bit more in depth, sitting down with Lerner, O’Brien and Cross. In the interview below, the trio share a lot of fascinating behind-the-scenes details, but we’re keeping the film’s big mystery reveal a surprise.

CS: Where did The Automatic Hate begin?

Justin Lerner: The short version is, Katharine and I were interning at The Weinstein Company and decided to write something together. I was finishing up at UCLA Film School and she’s getting ready to go to Columbia. We start writing this script and it continued even into her leaving for New York.

Katharine O’Brien: We did it over Skype.

Lerner: Then we kind of put it away and I went and made my first feature shortly after that, called “Girlfriend.” It came out in 2010 at the Toronto Film Festival and then the following year in theaters. The film won a Gotham Award after Toronto and I had this nice little window in which people were interested in reading my next thing. I took this script out of the desk.

O’Brien: At first we thought it just wasn’t commercial enough to go.

Lerner: Yeah, it was this story that explores kind of a taboo love between two cousins. These are dark, primal themes. I decided, “Well, let me put this away so I can go make a film about a kid with Down syndrome, who has a sexual relationship with a young woman. Because that’ll definitely be easier!” To tell you the truth, though, it really was an easier film to get made because of the cast and the locations and the star, who was a friend of mine. It was made very inexpensively. We’re talking like $200,000. So that got made and, as I was enjoying this little window of heat, the script went around to Alix Madigan of Anonymous Content. She had seen “Girlfriend” and said, “What do you want to do next?” I showed her this script and she loved it. She came right back and said, “I want to produce this!” I was shocked because I thought she was just going to look at it from a writing standpoint. Then, about a year-and-a-half later, we’re doing rewrites, trying to cast it and trying to find the money. We finally found enough money to make it and we get the cast together. We shot at the end of that year and then edited through the following fall.

CS: Joseph, what was your initial impression after reading the script the first time?

Joseph Cross: I loved it. I was really excited by it. I had been becoming friends with the casting director. He sort of championed me, but hadn’t yet put me in anything. I think he felt bad about that, so he took me out for drinks. He said, “I just cast this incredible film that you are, unfortunately, too young for called ‘The Automatic Hate,’ but this young woman named Adelaide Clemens just gave me one of the best audition tapes I’ve ever seen. Would you like to watch it?” I said, “Yeah, I’d love to,” and I watched it. It was incredible! I thought, “Wow, what a shame that I’m not right for this.” Then, three weeks later, he calls me again and says, “Hey, are you still growing that beard out?” I said, “Yeah.” “Do you want to come in and read for this? I think you might be able to make this work.” So I went in and met with Justin and got asked to do the movie. It’s really exciting for an actor to see a script like this and a part like this because you really have a lot to work with. A lot of the movies that get made and the TV shows that get made are not of this level of complexity as far as characters and story. I felt very fortunate to get involved.

CS: There’s such a great supporting cast, too, including one of my favorite talents, Ricky Jay. How did you go about getting him involved?

Lerner: This is actually a funny story!

Cross: Carrier pigeon!

O’Brien: Bottles of wine!

Lerner: You throw a card and, if it doesn’t come back, it means he’s caught it. No, Ricky has a manager named Winston Simone, who is more of a manager of these [amazing talents]. You know the guy who walked the high wire over the World Trade Center? He reps that guy! A lot of musicians and a lot of performers. Ricky has been his client for, I think, the better part of three decades. Maybe more! We tracked him down and I wrote Ricky a handwritten letter that said, “Dear Ricky, You’re a Jewish guy from Brooklyn who went to Cornell. My dad’s a Jewish guy from Brooklyn and I went to Cornell. I wrote this part with you in mind.” I don’t want to speak for Katharine, but he had always been dancing around in my head for it. “I don’t have a second choice. If you say no to the role, I’m f–ed. Justin.”

O’Brien: And he responded to that!

Lerner: He responded to that! We met at a hotel. He liked the script, I found out. He sits down and he’s really quiet. As you can imagine, he’s a very intimidating presence. “So,” he says, “You write a role of a Harvard educated, pot-smoking, pot-growing pig farmer and you think, ‘Ricky Jay!’?” He says, “I’m half meeting you here just to ask you what you’re thinking.” I said, “I just thought of you.” He goes, “To tell you the truth, the other half of why I’m asking to meet is because I only get offered gangsters and magicians. I’ve never been offered something like this. I had to meet the guy who had this insane idea.” He said he really enjoyed and then went through everything he was concerned about in the script. It was a long list! Then he still did it! I think I gave him a hard sell.

O’Brien: So much of the character is just how Ricky wears it so well on his face. You can feel the secrets. He keeps a lot close to the chest.

Lerner: Something we talked about even when we were writing the character of Josh is that he’s an intellectual mountain man. To cast Uncle Josh as more of a “Deliverance” type hick isn’t what the story is about. It’s about a guy who’s a New York intellectual who, by choice and because of what society deems to be wrong, has decided of his own volition, to live in a place where there aren’t as many rules.

O’Brien: He’s someone who can see above the conventions of society in a larger picture sort of way and chooses to live somewhere we can live his own way.

Lerner: There’s also a great visual contrast. A New York intellectual who is kind of a nebbishy Jewish guy living in the sticks. There’s a great visual contrast and, immediately, you know there’s a story there. Then there’s a hat on a hat, with him being a yokel mountain man. He should be living on the upper West side.

O’Brien: It’s actually very true to the area. There’s a lot of musicians and other artists who just want to get away from the city. Creative people who have built their own worlds hiding out up there.

CS: There’s a real mystery aspect to the film that I certainly don’t want to spoil, but I’m curious if having that mystery was always a driving point for the narrative.

Lerner: The whole time. We wrote the script in scene order, sometimes not knowing what was coming next. Katharine was much better at looking at the big picture. When to reveal information, though, was always a part of our dialogue. Later, though, promoting the film, one of our cast members, Yvonne Zima, said, “If I had to market this movie, I’d call it a family thriller!” It’s a mystery film first. It becomes about many more primal relationships, but it is a family mystery. That’s not to be mistaken for a mystery thriller that’s for the whole family because it certainly isn’t there. That’s something that we wanted it to be because, when you know a genre very well, you get stuck and you start to expect certain things out of that genre, be it a noir detective or a mystery thriller. I like the idea of taking multiple genres and layering them. That way, new things come out. Katharine and I were thinking about making a film about a very intimate relationship between two cousins that gets kind of taboo. Layering it with a cool mystery was a new way to explore something so dark.

O’Brien: Also to that same point, we thought about two people meeting for the first time and seeing likeness in one another. Not just in facial features, but also in mannerisms. Things that create a bond and make you feel like you’ve known them your entire life. From there, we wanted to explore how those feelings could be confused for love, as apparently happens occasionally. It was never meant to be an incest story, but a look into family themes. You walk through it and you sympathize with the characters.

Lerner: Katharine kind of plays the global ambassador to the film, always keeping us thinking about the bigger things. You said very early on that it’s a microcosm of what happens to countries. Grudges get so ingrained in one generation that the children inherit that grudge. What’s interesting about the family that we set up is, unconsciously, without the grudge being revealed, it almost becomes manifested on a little stage, reenacted between them slowly.

O’Brien: We didn’t know what the final twist was going to be when we started writing. We just knew it had to be something good.

Lerner: Yeah, it had to be awesome to pay off.

O’Brien: At first we were like, “Can we do that? Can we go there?” But it made perfect sense.

Lerner: Directing the actors after this was all built, I turned to them and said, “If we all do our jobs right, we’re going to argue both sides equally and go between, in the movie, how you feel about Alexis and how you feel about Davis and Uncle Josh versus Ronald. The point in contracting a movie that lives on and is remembered, from my perspective, is to argue both sides. Arguing both sides means creating life on both sides. Don’t attempt to make either a protagonist or an antagonist. Those don’t really exist. That’s all just about time spent with them. You want to argue both sides equally so that neither one is wrong. They’re both right, they just disagree. The best responses we’ve had so far has been people saying that, in any given scene, they’re seeing either one of these. They’re not condemning either side. It’s all about the fierce arguing for both sides and constructing some situation where both have a really strong argument. There should be a case, if you were to take it to court. Resisting the cliches that you might fall into for a more intimate movie like this. It helps you get into deep psychological territory.

CS: Probably my single most important question: Where did you find that chocolate chip cookie shirt?

O’Brien: June [Suepunpuck] needs a shout-out for sure!

Lerner: June tears the character out of the pages and throws them into clothing.

Cross: I think we all took one look at that chocolate chip cookie shirt and said, “That’s it.”

O’Brien: I’ve heard a number of actors say that, getting into June’s costumes just immediately got them into their headspace.

Cross: June had a seamstress quit after she read the script! We were in New York and had this wonderful woman who was tailoring clothes. She was so sweet and we were talking about church and how involved she is in her community. I said, “What did you think of the script?” She said, “I’m reading it this weekend!” Monday, June calls and says, “I don’t have a seamstress anymore!”

Lerner: Flash forward to post production and I call June asking, “Will you reach out and see if that lady would like a credit for the work that she did do?” I get a call from June going, “No. Her name is not to be in this movie.” I mean, I get it.

Cross: So that was our first fan!

Lerner: That was one of the first hints, I think, where I really thought the movie might be good. One of the things about Adelaide that I should mention is that she took pieces of her life and people she knew and created this character from the start. She said specifically, “I want to have tennis shoes and a skirt.” There’s something about her that’s different than the femme fatales you see in movies. She’s a charming, dangerous tomboy. She did it first so, even though June found that shirt and the yellow skirt, a lot of the personality comes from Adelaide.

O’Brien: She has this gait in her walk. Innocent, but also determined.

Cross: She always kind of reminded me of Anne Baxter’s part in “All About Eve.” You see her and you think, “What a sweet little girl! There can’t be any evil in there!” Then, when the evil comes out, it’s so, so evil and so terrifying.

Lerner: I called her “a magnetic sexy tornado.” It destroys everything in its path and you never know which direction it’s going to go in. It doesn’t move from A to B and you can’t take your eyes off it. It’s about that dual connection of desire and fear. We sometimes desire the things we fear the most, especially the things that society says are taboo. She embodies that so, so well. I used to say, in meeting with actors, “Think of all those things you desire that you know you can’t do. The people you want to hurt or beat up or tell off or sleep with that you cannot. Imagine that being manifested in a human being and have her come to your doorstep. That’s what Adelaide is. She got that immediately. The fear that she might come mess with your life, but if she doesn’t, the sense of disappointment because that’s no fun. To her credit, after her audition, I told her I thought she had it. I told her to just bring the character to set, and if she had any notes, we’d deal with them on set. I gave her that freedom and I think that made her really happy. I basically let her do whatever she wanted after that audition tape because it was just so good.

O’Brien: Yeah, there was so much already there in that tape. Anything else might be too much.

Lerner: It was unlike any audition tape I’ve ever seen. If it was better quality, we could have just cut it into the movie. It was that good.

CS: Was it a scene from the film?

Lerner: Yeah, three scenes from the film.

Cross: Yeah, it was her first showing up at my doorstep, which was a totally different scene in the audition than in the final film.

Lerner: Then it was the scene where she’s trying to convince him not to leave and she hugs up and says, “Promise me that, if you do leave, it’s not because of what’s going on with us.”

Cross: Which ended up exactly the same as the audition.

Lerner: And then one near the end where she’s gone a bit dark. Alix Madigan, who’s the producer who also did “Winter’s Bone,” told me, when we were having trouble finding an Alexis, “Justin, don’t worry. We were having trouble finding the lead on ‘Winter’s Bone’ and we found Jennifer Lawrence on tape.” I was like, “Okay.” So she said, “Let’s start putting people on tape. There’s this girl that I know you’re going to love. I worked with her on another project. Just indulge me on this one.” I admit, I didn’t see it at first. I was like, “Alex, I love you, but I don’t see it. But let’s put her on tape.”

O’Brien: Her roles up until that point had been sort of sweet little tootsie rolls, like on “Rectified.”

Cross: You can tell, when you watch her scene in “The Great Gatsby” how broad her range her. That scene is so far from anything she’s done before and so far from who she really is.

Lerner: But a couple of seconds into that tape, we were both like, “We’re done.”

O’Brien: I actually cried!