During the course of the Tribeca Film Festival, I've tried to sit down with as many filmmakers, actors and writers as I could. In order to bring Charlie Bartlett to life, it took help from a rookie director (who also happened to be a 20-year Hollywood veteran) and a very talented up-and-coming actor. What I was most interested in was finding out was how you go about making a film like Charlie Bartlett; one that deals with some serious topics like teenage drug use, deperession and even attempted suicide -- yet, at the same time, create this charming little comedy. Earlier this week, I sat down with the film's director, Jon Poll, and it's star, Anton Yelchin (Alpha Dog), to discuss some of these things. Check it out:
Cinematical: Who's the target audience for this film? Is it for kids, is it for adults, or is it for both?
Jon Poll: Well, I'll say two things: It's for teenagers, anyone who's ever been a teenager or had a teenager -- anyone who's a human being, really. I mean, I hope it's a movie for humans. I do have to say that it is an R-rated film, and there are kids giving other kids drugs, but ultimately the film is a very hopeful, positive one, but we need to be careful saying that kids should come with their parents if they're too young. But I do think it's for mature kids who come with their parents; I think they'll really like it.
Cinematical: That's one of the interesting things. I didn't know it was R-rated when I first saw it, but I think it's a film that teenagers -- especially young teenagers -- should see. So, was it risky going for the 'R'; were there people trying to pull for a PG-13?
JP: Well it was risky; we initially tried to get studio financing along with SKE. They jumped on pretty early, and I had relationships with a couple of different studios ... but everyone shied away; they were too terrified. But SKE still really wanted to make the movie. And they believed in the movie enough to say yes. There were questions about the 'R' rating, but all along I said you're not going to get away from it. The truth of the matter is the minute you have a kid giving another kid drugs, you're in an 'R' rating. So, we let people swear -- ya know, honestly, in our previews, people were shocked it was an R-rated movie. You'd ask a focus group, and 18 out of 20 people would say it was PG-13. Because, ultimately, it's a very positive film with an incredibly hopeful message and a character who is a hopeful optimist.
Cinematical: Exactly, I feel it's something a lot of kids could relate to. How about you Anton, did any of this hit close to home for you?
Anton Yelchin: It wasn't so much that I could relate -- I mean, obviously I could relate because these things happen every day and people feel this way. Kids feel this way. It's just one of those things you feel as a teenager. But what I liked the most -- what sort of drew me to it the most -- was how optimistic Charlie is. That's something you don't see every day. That's something I think people need, which you see in the film. You have this amazing, charismatic, optimism that sort of gives people enough hope and enough desire to deal with their problems, to see through them. Even though it might be a simple problem, like going through hormones, you need a person to be there to say 'this is this' and 'that's that' -- a person to sort of guide you. And that's the wonderful thing about this kid; that he can see that.
Cinematical: What's great about Charlie is that even when kids pick on him, he's cool with himself. And I think that's an important message for kids -- that it's not what they think you are, it's who you think you are.
Jon Poll: That's great, you obviously got the movie. I want to say something about Anton. I was attached to the movie, and obviously I had no idea who was going to be in the film. A friend of mine who's a director suggested Anton to me; he had just seen House of D. And so I saw House of D and Hearts of Atlantis, and I was truly honestly so excited -- I stayed up late to watch them. I ran over to Jay Roach's office; Jay produced the movie and originally turned me on to the script. And I had to show him this scene in House of D where Anton has this very serious moment while having these really funny asides to extras walking by on the street. And it really made me feel like, okay, this is someone who can play this character. And then when I first met Anton, literally the first two words out of his mouth were: 'What I really like about this character is how honest and optimistic he is.' And I think Gustin Nash, who wrote the script, myself and Anton all shared that. And that was a really important part of .... I don't know, I guess that's a long-winded way of saying that there is no Charlie Bartlett without Anton.
AY: Ya know, it's not just kids that have to be comfortable with themselves; you see adults in the film that really need to be comfortable with themselves. So Charlie transcends just helping out his peers and whatever. That's what ties him so heavily to Gardner (Downey Jr.). Gardner needs the same thing that these kids need, but also in the end you see that Charlie kind of needs it too. Because behind all that optimism, behind all that honesty, you see this kid that's had to deal with things in his life that have been difficult for him. Unlike others, he's tried to accept them and do the best that he can with him.
Cinematical: Now, Anton, how do you research a role like this versus something like Alpha Dog. In that movie, you're just some kid going along for the ride, very innocent and stuff. But here, you have to be more of a leader; you have to take charge and have kids follow you. How did you prepare for that?
AY: Well, everything was in the script. I know there's been a lot of work done on the script from the first version I read to the shooting day. The first version had a sort of Michael Corleone who beat up Gardner. It was very different. But that underlying theme of optimism was always there. I just sort of approached it trying to figure out where he'd find the drive to sort of do this -- and Jon said this when we first got together and started doing this -- he said that Charlie's a really good parent to himself. So I sort of stuck to that idea. Because if you're a parent to yourself, then that sort of entails a number of things. You shouldn't have to be a parent to yourself; you have parents for that. And you sort of see that in Charlie -- his mom is a very funny character, but she's a little off. And there's a certain sadness that comes from that -- you know, he's always had to take care of himself. I always tried to focus on that because I thought it balanced out all the optimism in the film.
JP: Anton was very instinctual. There were so many times when we'd shoot a scene and I'd just look at him and say, 'You know what to do here.' Honestly, if you hire actors who are very talented and well cast, as a director, it helps make you look good and helps the movie work. My favorite scene in the movie is the bathroom confessional between Charlie and Susan. You hear her talking about -- she doesn't even realize why she's in there. So you hear her talking about her father, and he [Charlie] is able to pull that out of her. And here they are; they're not just two teenagers looking at each others bodies, hoping to have sex. They're talking to each other. And what she says illuminates his life, and he hears it. Then, they kiss. That was actually a really proud moment for me. They shared an intimacy on screen before they share any sexual intimacy. Honestly, I don't want the movie to be preachy in any way, shape or form -- it's tricky talking about this stuff. But in a subtle way, I think that's something nice for kids.
Cinematical: Jon, you've edited a number of broad comedies before. How does being an editor help you prepare for your directorial debut?
JP: Ironically, I'm a little older than your average first-time director, which I think in general helps. I have a lot of experience in many things. It's funny, I always thought of myself as a filmmaker. I ended up editing because it was closer to directing than anything else. I did a little producing, so I've shot a lot of stuff. I was kind of comfortable with everything but, ironically, I've spent 20 years sitting in a room talking to the actors through a TV. So, being on set and seeing the first couple of takes -- even though all of these actors were very talented -- those adjustments, and being available to ask for what I needed ... I don't know, it seemed sort of natural. I had a lot of fun doing that. Also, as an editor, I had a good idea about what you need to make a scene work. I often annoyed producers by not stopping, and continuing doing a lot of takes because I knew I need the options that it gave me.
Cinematical: High School comedies are always dangerous territory because you don't want a kid to show up and go, "Well, that never happens in my high school." So how do you approach a high school comedy in this day and age? Do you research high schools? Do you talk to kids? Do you find out what's going on? Or do you just kind of take it off the page and run with it?
JP: Interesting. I did a little research -- I went to thirty high schools in Canada scouting locations. And once we found one, I spent a bunch of time there. I also went to Santa Monica High. And I spoke to a couple of school therapists, but there wasn't a whole lot of research. It was more about going and seeing what went on. There were certain things; there's a moment when Charlie first shows up at school and two kids are smoking pot. That literally happened to me while scouting locations in Canada. The difference being that these kids literally blew the pot smoke right in my face; they couldn't care less. So there's little things like that that I think helped make it real. We wanted it to feel real; we didn't want it to look like a TV show with a bunch of 28 year-old actors. What was really important to me was that teenagers could see the movie and feel like it was real.
Cinematical: Anton, did you talk to kids that were into this sort of stuff? Do you have friends who abuse medications?
AY: Actually, it's all over the place. I know a bunch of people -- I mean, I have friends who get prescribed Ritalin and they don't need it really. And I actually have friends who do this -- they take it to get high. I was talking to a friend of mine, and he was all like 'Yeah man, I got this Ritalin. I go to class, but I don't really need it. And it's crazy; it's crazier than smoking pot any day.' It's kind of frightening, ya know. I know kids who take their parents' medications because it does whatever. It's a serious thing. But what I think it so great about this movie -- ya know, this movie isn't about taking drugs and getting high. It's about helping people. What goes on a lot is people hurting themselves. And Charlie realizes that it's his intentions to help people, not hurt them. But it does go on a lot; it's a scary thing.
JP: I think it's also important to say out loud that we're not a pro-drug film, but we're also not an anti-drug film. We're like an anti-drug abuse film. Anti adults incorrectly -- and too easily -- prescribing drugs to kids film. Because we're well aware that there are a lot of people who are helped by anti-depressants. We're not trying to say that's bad. I know we play fast and loose through the first half of the movie; we have fun with the humor. But I think that's an important distinction. We never wanted to make a message film. We were trying to make a movie we cared about, and knew what it was about. I showed the film to my high school in Putney, Vermont about a month ago. And I was amazed -- so many kids came up to me afterwards and said, 'Ya know, most high school movies, you look at and go 'This is so Hollywood. These kids don't exist.' But so many people came up and said, 'It's so rare, I felt like I knew these kids. I have a friend just like that. And you weren't talking down to us.' I think if we've succeeded at that, then that's the best thing we could do.
Cinematical: How did Robert Downey Jr. get involved in the film?
JP: Robert read the script and really loved it. I vividly remember -- there was a moment when everyone said, 'Okay, now you get to call Robert and talk him into doing the movie.' So here I am a first-time director; I pick up the phone, and it's Robert Downey Jr. He loved the script, he thought it was really funny. I actually said to him that if we were making this film twenty years ago, he could've played the part of Charlie Bartlett. He was also well aware of the more-than-coincidences of his own personal life relating to what the character was going through in the movie. And he was not afraid of that. He had that understanding -- ya know, it's a movie about people making mistakes. Everyone in this movie makes a mistake. But they all learn from them, and they all come out better afterwards. And I think that's something he responded to.
Cinematical: Jon, now that you've directed a film, will you stay this course or continue to dabble in editing. I know there's another Meet the Parents film coming out?
JP: Well, we'll see if they make another Meet the Parents film. I'll probably do a little editing here and there as favors, but I think I'll stick with directing from now on.
Cinematical: And why should people go see this film?
JP: People should go see this movie because they will laugh and be moved. Ah, see that sounds so pretentious. All this sounds so pretentious --
AY: I think they should go see the movie because I get to run around in tighty-whities. That's definitely worth the price of an admission ticket. And that's about as pretentious as it gets! [laughs]