One may never have expected 'that kid' from The Blair Witch Project, the 1999 faux documentary that left audiences screaming and catapulted Joshua Leonard to fame and fortune, to stick around. Show business is, after all, fickle. His co-stars have long since left Hollywood, but Joshua Leonard is still kicking, and his feature film directorial debut, The Lie, opens in theaters this Friday.
Adapted from a short story of the same name by T. Coraghessan Boyle that originally appeared in The New Yorker, The Lie is inspired by Leonard's admiration of his friends Jay and Mark Duplass' The Puffy Chair (2005), and his own experience acting in the critically acclaimed Humpday (2009), which, "from inception to completion, was 6 months, from the time we came up with the idea until we were premiering at Sundance... an expedited time frame," Leonard muses. Historically, in filmmaking, where writing to pre-production, production, post-production, and premiere can take an average of 7 years (and certainly longer than 6 months), Leonard has been fortunate to ascend the newly formed fast food restaurant chain of improvisational based independent film.
In The Lie, Lonnie, played by Leonard, tells a lie to get out of work, and is forced to deal with the consequences. "I felt like it had enough of a high concept thrust to keep the stakes up in a movie and keep it entertaining, but at the same time, subtextually, completely resonated with me in terms of reaching that point in your life where you're really having to straddle currently responsibility with previous ideals, and how you rectify those two things. There was nothing too heavy duty production-wise. All the characters in the story were people that I could think of great folks to play them just amongst my actor friends. It took place in a world I was very familiar with. We were shooting about 3.5 months later," Leonard explains.
Shot in 15 days on two red cameras in HD whose red bodies were then made to accept 1960s Bausch and Lomb lenses to give the movie more of a filmic look, Leonard and his co-stars Jess Weixler and Mark Webber took the three act treatment by Jeff Feuerzeig adapted from the original short story, and the information provided by Leonard's "50 page surgery, where all the scenes were arced out, the characters were arced out, the stakes were arced out, and there was no scripted dialogue, and worked off of that story treatment."
"I had a group of people who were very versed in improv technique. I could have never made this film without a crew and cast who knew what we were doing in terms of the methodology of the project. Often times in these kinds of films you'll start in the close up, follow the actors around, let them go wherever they're going to go, and then once you've kind of got a rhythm to the scene, you'll pull back out and do a master shot. We always had two cameras going, so both sides of the conversation were always being covered. You wind up shooting 40 minute takes for scenes that you know need to be 5 minutes long...you know when you've finished the take that you've got to lose 90 percent of what you've just shot."
The economy of the scenes is as much a credit to the directing and editing as it is to the improvising actor/writers. One particularly risky and effective scene involves a full 3 minute close-up of Jess Weixler's face as she listens to her husband, played by Leonard, play her a song he's just recorded, "Soul Crusher." The audience fully lives each moment of the progression of her reaction in listening to the appropriately named song. In his mid 30s, Leonard's character still wants his band "to make it." Leonard sings "Soul Crusher," as well as another track for the opening title sequence.
Leonard extrapolates on lessons learned from the other side of the camera,
"I had an ex girlfriend who was a director and she had a really interesting theory that you make your first film as a writer, your second film as a director, and your third film as an editor, and you really begin to know the language of what you're going to use and what you're not. Even though this shoot was set up to be loose and allow for serendipitous moments, there was a lot of stuff that I was just attached to because I liked the notion of it that didn't necessarily service the story. As soon as you get into the editing room, that's the first thing to hit the floor. Doesn't matter how cool the shot is or how poetic the moment is, if it doesn't help you tell your story or evoke what you need in your character at that moment, there's just no place for it. I learned what to be precious about in the future and what to let go of ahead of time."
"A lot of the more formalist screenwriting gets done in the editing room on these kinds of projects. You have these extremely long takes where story-wise, hopefully your treatment and your footage arc out to the same thing, but in terms of tone and how you get there, and what gets told and what gets left on the editing room floor, [it] becomes a bit of a choose your own adventure. Every choice you make then affects the tenor of the next choices that you have to make, so there's a lot of trial and error in making a movie that is tonally cohesive from beginning to end."
Currently working on writing his next unnamed, scripted feature film which he will not act in, pitching a half hour cable network dramedy ("We've got to come up with a better word for that") to television producers, and set to open his movie The Motel Life with Emile Hirsch and Kris Kristofferson in 2012, Leonard reflects on what kinds of stories attract him in filmmaking.
"I think what my wayward youth made me most familiar with is the deep flaws and fears and fallibility inside myself," Leonard says, hinting to teenage years spent dropping out of high school, hitchhiking, and drug use, "and that constant struggle to not let those be the qualities that you lead with, but the inherent knowledge that they're always there. That's what always attracted me, both as an actor and a filmmaker, to characters. I think in more traditional Hollywood fare you get protagonists with flaws that I don't relate to because so many times their flaws and downfalls are products of their altruism where they just work too hard or they care too much - they're the kind of flaws you would bring into a job interview with you. In my experience, and the experience of the people that I love the most deeply, when we screw up it is actually ugly. It's chaotic, we hurt each other, and we have to try to redeem ourselves. When I look at the world I find that to be the better part of what we spend our lives doing -- just trying to get a little bit better and not hurt the people we love, and yet constantly dealing with our own fears and lower impulses. I like to take the heartland morality out of the stories and love characters I think often don't get loved in more traditional films. I think my own experiences have heavily influenced that level of pathos that I have for people who screw up."