Imagine the kind of pressure one must face when their first film gets nominated for an Oscar. Writer-director Jeffrey Blitz, whose 2002 documentary Spellbound was nominated for a best documentary Oscar, decided to follow up his critically-acclaimed look at several kids vying to become the next national spelling bee champion with a straight fictional narrative about a stutterer who's love for a girl leads him to seek out the highly-competitive world of high school debating.
We already reviewed Rocket Science when it premiered at last year's Sundance Film Festival, and I'll be filing another review within the next couple days. In the meantime, while you count the seconds until Rocket Science opens in theaters this weekend, be sure to check out the following interview with Blitz in which he talks about the aforementioned sophomore pressure, why he likes stories featuring high school kids squaring off against one another in academic competitions, how close Rocket Science is to his own life and -- get this -- you might actually learn a bit about high school debating at the same time. More bang for your buck -- that's my motto. Anyway, enjoy.
Cinematical: Your first film, Spellbound, gets nominated for an Oscar. Is there pressure to follow it up with another doc?
Jeffrey Blitz: No pressure from the outside world, but I loved making Spellbound. The process of it was very exciting, and not just because it ended up doing so well -- but actually being on the road where it's sort of you against the world, in a way. It's a really exciting way to do it. There aren't layers of people to go through, you don't need to articulate your vision for the film every day to different people -- I did almost all the shooting on Spellbound and Sean Welch, who was my producing partner, did sound recording. And for the most part, it was just the two of us on the movie. That's like a really exciting, fun way to make movies. So, I want to kind of hop-scotch back and forth between fiction feature films and documentaries, if I can -- if I'm so lucky as to go on and make more movies.
Cinematical: Did anyone want to immediately turn Spellbound into a fictional narrative? Because I know that's a big thing these days.
JB: Yeah, sure, it did happen. We had people bidding; trying to get the rights to adapt it. And then for a long time we were in talks with Disney about turning it into a musical, and then when Putnam County Spelling Bee came out, we said forget it, we can't do it anymore. Which is okay. Frankly, although I love the kids from Spellbound, I'm done with spelling bees myself. I don't need to make another movie or work on another project that has anything to do with a spelling bee.
Cinematical: [laughs] Ya know, both Spellbound and Rocket Science share similar themes in that they're both about young kids competing against one another in a healthy environment. Is that something you're drawn to?
JB: Yeah, I mean it must be. There's something about the age of a high school student -- you live in a raw, ragged kind of way. You haven't figured out how to defend yourself against your own emotions, in a way. Like, when you get upset, you get really fucking upset. When you're in love, you're like desperately, completely in love. So I think I'm drawn to making movies about that age for that reason -- they seem to be very ripe for drama and comedy. And then the competitive aspect to it; I think it's less the competition that interests me and it's more that when you're talking about academic competitions, you're talking about kids who are outsiders. They're not the cool jock kids; they're kids who don't fit in and gravitate towards those sort of activities. Those are the kids I'm more interested in.
Cinematical: Yeah, because not only is there pressure just being a teen, but there's also pressure to win and compete at a top level.
JB: Right. For me with Spellbound, the kids who don't win -- I mean, you obviously have certain favorites and you root for them. But even when those kids don't win, you don't feel like the whole experience has been a waste for them. You feel like it's great that they were able to compete at the level they competed at. And I like the idea of trying to figure out whether winning at these competitions has any value at all. Or whether it's just the activity that has value. In Rocket Science, people can debate whether he should win or not, but to me I think it's so much more interesting that whatever happens to him in the debate, he has other personal victories that are much more important, I think.
Cinematical: I know that first-time narrative features are usually based on the filmmakers own experiences. So how much of Rocket Science was based on your own life?
JB: Well there were certainly a whole bunch of things that are just lifted out of my own autobiography. I mean, I tried to take some healthy giant steps away from it, but when I was that age I stuttered in the same way Hal in the movie stutters. I joined up with my debate team; I wasn't lured onto the team by an attractive girl, unfortunately -- I just fitted myself into it on my own without needing any malicious encouragement from anyone else. I also grew up in New Jersey, although a different part of New Jersey. I set it in Plainsboro, which is in Central New Jersey, and kind of close to Trenton. I grew up in Ridgewood, New Jersey, which is north of New York. But I moved it to Plainsboro because I felt it was more interesting for them to kind of orbit around a dead city in Trenton. And I like the idea of them sort of thinking that Trenton is the "big city" in a way. It just always made me laugh. So there are certain autobiographical things to it that created a platform, but then the rest of the movie is really fanciful.
Cinematical: Is this an idea that you've wanted to do for a long time?
JB: What's funny is that I didn't want to do this story at all, actually. I felt that normally when people make movies that have some hint of autobiography in them, they usually just stink. Most people's lives are just not that interesting, and I think that mine is not also. When I was making Spellbound, there were certain kids who we met that were of a certain way. And so I kept thinking, what if we met a kid that was just an amazing lover of words? What if we met a kid that was lured into the spelling bee because he was in love with a girl? I would have these thoughts that would occur to me, and then life wouldn't present those stories to me; we'd get other stories. So this sort of came about as I kept trying to build upon those characters and those stories that had occurred to me while shooting Spellbound. And even then I didn't want to do the stuttering part of it, but when I told this terrific producer over at HBO the story of how I used to stutter, and how I joined up with the debate team, they said 'That's the story you gotta do!'
Cinematical: Now, with the stuttering, you said you didn't want to do it at first. Did you think it was risky in that it could potentially turn off the audience? That it would frustrate them? Or did you want it to kind of frustrate them so they would know what it felt like for Hal?
JB: You know, it never occurred to me. It should have, because when the movie screened for the first time at Sundance, people would come up to me and say things like, 'Oh my God, it's so painful to watch.' And it's not a painful experience for me at all; I can listen to someone stutter all day, and it doesn't frustrate me at all. [laughs] So I never really thought about -- I should have. But I think, luckily, my editor Yana Gorskaya, who was also my editor for Spellbound -- she was very sensitive to, like, this is how long he can stutter in this scene, and he can't go one second more because people will not be able to handle it. So she really became the force in terms of modulating how much stuttering was actually in the movie.
Cinematical: In order for this film to really succeed, you needed some great performances here. Especially from your lead actor, and from the debaters. How did you prepare those actors?
JB: Yeah, well the stuttering part with Reece [Thompson] was really complicated. Because to speak with a stutter, it's like speaking with a very complex accent. And even well-trained actors, when they have to speak with an accent, they end up devoting so much time to the accent -- to get the mechanical part right -- that oftentimes the performance suffers. And I couldn't let that happen here. So we started by calling in a speech language pathologist to sort of work with Reece for a day to teach him how to stutter. He had some of the basics of it down, and then Reece and I had long conversations about what it was like for me. I would then give him these tasks where he'd have to go out to dinner and the one thing he wanted to order on the menu would be the one thing he couldn't say. And it wasn't allowed to point. So he would be stuck having to convey what he wanted. So I think with those sorts of experiences, he began to realize how to internalize it more.
Cinematical: That's great, and what about the debating part? These kids were talking real fast; did you look for teens that are part of real debate teams or were they all straight-up actors?
JB: Yeah, none of them had debated before. But in their auditions, they could all speak fast. I didn't know how fact; until I cast them, I wasn't sure whether they would really be able to pull it off or not. There was this debate camp that was going on in Baltimore where we were prepping, and I sent them to two days of debate camp for them to learn the terminology and understand how people stand, how they breathe -- there's a certain way where you cram as many words into your time as you can, and as you're going you're speaking super fast until, finally, you gasp for air. It's really crazy, and they had to spend a couple days learning how to do that.
Cinematical: Yeah, following the film, a couple of friends of mine were wondering whether high school debaters really talked that fast. I had never physically watched a high school debate, and was wondering the same thing. Why do they talk that fast?
JB: It's funny, among high school debaters, there are two different styles. One is that incredibly fast debate, which gets used in policy debate -- the type that's featured in the film. And then the other is what's called Lincoln/Douglas debate, where it's much more ... Winston Churchill-like in terms of how you approach it. And the policy debates, which I was one, think of the Churchill-style debate as if it's for pansies. And we used to make fun of these kids who actually tried to make coherent, articulate arguments there. We thought it was the funniest thing. It's like the difference between football and tennis, and so we thought of ourselves as these really kick-ass debate jocks because we could talk that fast. But you're trying to lay out as many arguments as you can, hoping the other team drops some arguments -- that there not as fast as you are, so they can't get to argue other points. And then you hone in on those points as if they're the most important things that you've said. Whatever the other team doesn't get to becomes the most important thing out there.
Cinematical: Why did you shoot in Maryland instead of New Jersey?
JB: Simply because we had so many kids in the movie, and so we needed to go to a place that didn't have very restrictive child labor laws. In New Jersey, the child labor laws are very restrictive -- so we'd only be able to shoot 6 or 8 hours a day with our lead kid, who's in every single scene in the movie. In Maryland, the child labor laws are ... like, China. And so we could just go and shoot for however long we wanted.
Cinematical: Soundtrack played a big part in the film -- Violent Femmes were there; I heard a little Clem Snide. Talk about choosing the soundtrack.
JB: Well, the Femmes we chose before we decided to shoot. When I originally wrote the script, I wasn't thinking about the music. So much of the movie revolves around these people trying to figure out love, sex and relationships -- and how these things sort of bloom and vanish in ways that are just beyond anyone's control. And the Violent Femmes to me are the bad that expresses the rage of love gone wrong better than any band out there. Every song is about how impossible relationships are. So I thought it would be great to do piano/cello versions of Violent Femmes songs. And luckily the Femmes loved the script, and so they gave us the songs for not a whole lot of money.
Cinematical: Is the soundtrack going to be available?
JB: Yeah, I think it comes out sometime in the next few weeks. Right after the film comes out.
Cinematical: Cool stuff. And what's up next for you?
JB: Working on a documentary about lottery winners. And so we're kind of traveling around the country covering different lottery winners. It'll come out sometime next year.
Cinematical: One more question I like to ask: Who or what inspires you?
JB: Yeah, that's a good question. For this movie, the filmmakers I would point to are Billy Wilder and Hal Ashby. These are guys whose movies I watched when I was writing the script, and while I was prepping the film, to try to figure out how they were able to kind of preserve a fundamentally humane approach with their characters. Even when the humor was completely absurd. And Hall, in particular, is a master at that. His characters are doing things that are absolutely crazy -- that you cannot connect with or associate with -- but the characters you absolutely associate with, and feel real compassion for. And that's really what I was going for; to have one leg firmly planted in that real humane world, and one leg planted in the absurd comedy of it.