SXSW 2010 Interview: Writer/Director Jeffrey Fine and Actors Kyle Gallner and Brittany Robertson (CHERRY)
The independent movie CHERRY had its premier at this year’s SXSW and I had the opportunity to speak with the writer/director Jeffrey Fine, as well as the two young leads, Kyle Gallner and Brittany Robertson, about making the film, which was inspired by some real-life events in Jeff’s life.
The movie centers around Aaron, a 17-year-old who just started college at an Ivy League school. His life begins an interesting journey when he meets Linda, a 34-year-old who he develops a crush on, and her 14-year-old daughter, Beth, who gets a crush on him. Now that you know what the movie is about, some of my questions and the answers will make a lot more sense! It doesn’t seem to have a release date yet, but look for it at film festivals and hopefully soon, at a theater near you. It’s definitely worth checking out.
Interview after the break.
I guess the big question is that this movie is semi-autobiographical, correct?
Jeffrey Fine: Yes.
So how did you approach making your story into this movie?
JF: Yeah, well you know, I had... there are certain kinds of stories from your past that tend to kinda haunt you a little bit, and this was just one story that kept resurfacing. I kinda tried to ignore it and it just kept coming back and it was like, “alright, I gotta pay attention to you.” A lot of it actually was just that I was hearing some of the dialog from these characters. I’d been doing a lot of documentary work and so I’d be on a plane on the way to a shoot, you know, all over the country... so I just started thinking about these character, and sort of just writing a little dialog, little scenes, and eventually I just realize I gotta write the script. So the Linda character and the Beth character -- I was friendly my freshmen year with a women who was in a resumed education program at Brown University. That’s where I went. She was somebody who was just trying to start her life all over again. She was really, really bright but she had never gone to college. She had kind of a really high IQ and someone said, “they have this program at Brown, you oughta apply,” and she got in. I think she, on some level, maybe felt a little in over her head, there was a little of a cultural divide. She wasn’t someone who was on the path to college and she was in her mid-30s, never gone to college. So I met her and she was really just this kind of free spirit, really lively and fun and could just sort of talk about anything very directly. I’m from the south and we’re all very careful with how we speak and what we say and so it was just so refreshing to meet somebody who just kinda had this incredible free-spirit. So we became friends and then I became friends with her daughter and, as in the movie, there’s sort of things that happen. There’s always the surface appeal, but as you get to know people, their baggage shows up and at some point along the way, I got caught up in some of their adventures. At the same time, my freshmen roommate was this really, really, super talented artist who was slated to be in the engineering program and he was really torn. He had this great sort of engineering view of things and it was in all of his work and he just needed to find a way to do both. So ultimately he became a children’s book illustrator and he’s really successful. He lives in England and he’s a really amazing talent. I sort of fused those elements into this movie.
Do you keep in contact with anyone from back then?
JF: I do. My freshman roommate, I’m incredibly close with him. I actually talked to him about doing the drawings for the movie, but because he’s in England and we really needed somebody on the set to help us with the drawings, we started looking for somebody locally. We were fortunate enough to find this guy who, unbeknownst to [him], is a true kindred spirit to my former roommate. Their styles are very similar.
And the women... do they know about the movie?
JF: They do, they know about the movie. They haven’t seen it yet. I’m nervously awaiting [laughter] their viewing of the movie, but they both read the script and were, I think, flattered and slightly horrified. The Linda character, she makes some bad decisions as a mom and kind of starts going down the dark path a little bit. I know it was tough for my friend to revisit that, because she did tell me that when she read the script, she knew that she had gone through a tough time in college and it was important for her to recognize what happened to keep on the straight path. You just have to be aware of your impact on yourself and others and I think it was a little bit of a tough reminder but what I told them both was that I wrote the script with a lot of affection for them.
Was it challenging approaching such a taboo subject, with a young girl who is attracted to an older man?
JF: Well it’s funny about the taboo nature. The mom is 34, our boy, Aaron, is 17, and Beth is 14, and we’ve had really different reactions to the story. Some people tend to feel like the cougar element is what’s wrong, and that it’s fine for a 17 and 14-year-old to be together. Other are like, it’s fine for him to be with the older woman, but don’t let him go with Lolita. In fact, in that one sequence where he’s with the daughter, a lot of people are relieved when they find out that it’s not exactly real. Honestly, I wasn’t really that worried about the taboo element. I felt like the characters, for me, were compelling and the situation was compelling. Yes, he’s making decisions, I mean, he doesn’t want to end up in bed with the daughter because he recognizes that that would be a mistake. I feel like the characters and the situations were compelling and if it was taboo, so be it. Hopefully, I felt, that if audiences cared about the characters enough, they’d just go with it.
So it was never an issue with your producers or anything like that?
JF: Just in terms of...
Marketing it, selling it...
JF: We definitely discussed those issues, but that was the story. I’ll tell you this: there was some pressure. I had a couple of producers who said, “can’t you make her 16 or 17?” Then I said, if she’s 16 or 17, then there’s no issue. Why doesn’t she hook up with Aaron? At that point there’s no barrier and I felt like it was important to have that barrier. Then, in some way, neither relationship was appropriate.
Were there any production challenges you had to overcome?
JF: There’s the normal production challenge of just budget. A lot of people said, “if you’re gonna do this on a low-budget level, then you don’t want tons of college exterior scenes and lots of rooms with extras, you really need to try to confine it to a house or some very limited scope.” That was a big challenge for us, trying to figure out how’re gonna pull off all those elements. The water-walkers, we didn’t know how we’d make those... we just didn’t know how we were gonna accomplish all of that. We knew how to do it if we had the budget. We talked to a bunch of people, for example, just on the water-walking scenes. There was a lot of discussion of wire-work and a lot of fancy, expensive, stunt technology.
How did the premier feel?
JF: The premier, it was really rewarding. We’d been working on this project for a long time and to finally have it in front of an audience... it was really sort of everything we’d hoped it could be. We’d heard about all the great Austin audiences, how energetic they are and how much they love film, and just to hear people laughing in the right places and really feeling like they were with the story, it was super-gratifying. Afterwards, the comments that people gave us really made us... you know, it’s been long journey and it was extremely rewarding.
It’s always nice to see the finish line.
JF: Yeah. I think I got a little off-track there with the production. I’ll just tell you, we made the film in Michigan, with a lot of help from Kalamazoo College and Western Michigan University. We actually ended up living in the dorms, the whole crew lived in the dorm at Western Michigan University, so it was kinda back to school. 40, 50 people living the dorm together right next to all the students, and we were eating in the cafeteria and doing all that stuff.
Cereal bar. It’s all about the cereal bar.
JF: [laughter] Exactly.
Well thank-you so much for talking with us.
[I then got sit down with Kyle Gallner and Brittany Robertson, the two young leads of the film]
So how are you enjoying SXSW? Have you had a chance to do anything so far?
Kyle Gallner: I got here Thursday, went out Thursday night, saw the Austin-scene a little bit, saw the movie yesterday... so yeah, I’ve gotten to a little bit. Austin a really amazing city, I’ve never been here.
Where are you from originally?
KG: From right outside Philadelphia, a town called Westchester.
Austin is one of my favorite towns.
KG: No, it’s great. I’m loving it here. I’ve never been here, but I definitely wanna come back.
I always think of it like a mix of New York City and San Francisco, if that makes any sense.
KG: It does, actually, it makes perfect sense.
So tell us a little bit about your character.
KG: Aaron is cool kid, he’s a kid who didn’t have a chance to really be cool cuz his mom kinda kept him down and his family was a little strict. His mom definitely had a path for him, but he gets different ideas when he gets to college. He starts seeing the real world, I guess, and meeting different people and he falls for a girl and he’s forced to group. At the end of the movie there are situations that happen and he’s forced to group and you watch him kinda come into his own and kinda be the kid to he was supposed to be but never an the opportunity to be. He’s an interesting guy.
How did you become involved.
KG: Just good old-fashioned audition process. I got the call, I read the script. I really wanted the movie. I did a lot of work on this movie, actually. Kinda like 50 pages of notes, even before the audition I was like, “I’m gonna get this one.” Then I went in and I got a call back and met up with Jeff, I think Sam was in the room, and it’s all history from there.
Now, going into the movie I’m sure you knew that this was semi-autobiographical for Jeffrey, so did he give you any coaching, any advice about how you should approach the character?
KG: No, not really. Jeff was really cool about it. He kinda let me run with it and make Aaron my own. He let me create this kinda neurotic guy who’s just figuring his life out. I mean, if things ever got out of line where he didn’t want it to go, but he didn’t really hit me too hard. He left me with a lot of freedom to really play with Aaron.
So you didn’t feel pressure to be any certain kind of person since it was based on someone.
KG: I did in the beginning. It’s important when it’s based on somebody or based on somebody’s life, you know, you wanna really do it, you wanna make it as real as possible, as true as possible. As soon as we started filming and, you know, just the talks I had with Jeff before we started filming, it was pretty clear that he just wanted to make the best movie possible. You know, we trusted each other and he let me run with it, it was cool.
That’s good because it turned out great.
KG: Yeah, it’s a fun movie.
How long are you gonna be in town?
KG: I’m gonna be here till Tuesday.
And then what? What’s next for you?
KG: There’s always things in the works, but nothing is real until you’re on the set. I have a couple other indies that are kinda in the can right now that are in the editing process and getting finished so hopefully some other film festivals. NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET comes out in like seven weeks.
Oh yeah, that’s exciting!
KG: Yeah, it should be interesting. We’ll see how it goes, it’s pretty cool, it should be out in like seven weeks. I have a couple other projects, but like I said, until they’re real, they’re not real.
Do you have any preference between film and television?
KG: I like film. I prefer the bond we make with people, but I’m also talking from a guy who’s not... my extent of television is basically a bunch of guest stars and a hand-full of reoccurring roles. My only serious TV-time was “Veronica Mars,” and, you know, you form a family there as well, but I like film. It’s like a one-shot deal, you get an arch beginning to end. I just prefer film. I got into acting to play a lot of different characters and play all sorts of people. Nothing against television, but I don’t really wanna play the same person for seven years or five years. That’s personal preference, nothing against it, TV is an amazing thing. Specially now, they’re making TV like films now.
Yeah, I know.
KG: I mean, there’s a lot of great shows that’s like filming a movie. It kinda makes you think, but also, you know...
It’s a long-term commitment.
KG: It’s a very long-term commitment, but there’s amazing TV like, I haven’t seen it yet, I don’t even know if it’s on TV yet, Boardwalk Empire, Scorsese show, I’m sure it’s incredible.
I haven’t seen that.
KG: No? It’s probably gonna be great.
I’m a Lost man.
KG: See, I never picked up on Lost. But, I mean, if the right show came along, you can never say never. It’s gotta be something that makes you go, “OK, let’s sign up!”
What was the biggest challenge of making this movie for you?
KG: I would say one of the main challenges for all of us was time. It’s an indie, not a lot of money, working 6-day weeks for a month straight, first in, last to leave, not a lot of sleep. It’s just kinda the marathon, but I like working like that, I like going home and feeling like you really did something.
Like you really earned it.
KG: Yeah, I prefer that. I like working all day every day. The being on the set but not working for like three days drives me crazy.
Is that what television is like?
KG: TV is different. Like with “Veronica Mars” I was home. They shot in San Diego, but I would drive when I had to film, then I would go home and hang out, so that was fine because it’s not like I was sitting in different state where I don’t know anybody, just sitting around and going crazy.
So you’re living in California now?
How different is that from Pennsylvania?
KG: Umm, east coast/west coast, it’s a very different vibe, it’s a very different feeling. It’s cool, I mean, I’ve been there almost six years now, so I’ve found my friends, I’ve found what I like to do, places I like to go. The adjustment is interesting, but I have a really, you know, he’s my best friend, his name is Jake. We kinda met within like a month of me being there. He’s from Ohio so we both kinda grew into the city together, I guess.
What about your family, I guess they’re still back in Pennsylvania?
KG: No, they’re in LA. My mom was like, there’s no way in hell you’re moving to California by yourself at like 17, 18, so I was like, ok, then we need to talk about this [laughter].
So I guess your family was supportive of your career choice?
KG: Extremely. My family is insanely supportive. My agent talked to my parents about me moving out to California and they asked if I wanted to go and I sat down and had a conversation with my family. 'Cause I have a little brother, little sister, I’m from, not a huge family, but there’s enough people there that you gotta definitely have a conversation about it. You know, everyone made the move, everyone is super supportive. It’s crazy... they’re crazy [laughter].
They’re not crazy, it worked out!
KG: No, I know, but it’s like, jeez, man, that’s a lot.
Well, that’s all I got.
KG: It was good to meet you.
Going into the movie, I’m sure you knew that it was semi-autobiographical, did you get a chance to speak with the young lady who you character was inspired by?
Brittany Robertson: No, I wasn’t able to. I actually didn’t even realize it was. Jeff likes to keep that personal and I actually didn’t realize it was about him until maybe two weeks into the film. And so, it was interesting after that, and I still really had to work to kinda get some information out of him but after that I was obviously very curious as to who she was and about their story together. He still didn’t even give me that much to work with. I heard that she actually read the script, she hasn’t seen the movie yet, so I’m very, very excited to see what she thinks.
Did he tell why he didn’t give you that information? Did he want you to make the character?
BR: Well, I think, you know, he has a really good idea who these characters are. He lived through it and has a very good idea about these women and Kyle’s character, obviously, and so I think he had a really good gauge as to who these people are and how to direct us as them. And so he didn’t really feel the need to give out all this personal information out of respect for them and also out of respect for his own personal life. You know, very honest man.
Yeah, he’s a great guy, from the ten minutes I got to talk to him.
BR: [laughter] Right.
How did you become involved with the movie?
BR: I originally got the script November, 2008, so maybe before that. A little before that.
That was a long time ago.
BR: Yeah, we filmed it about a year and a half ago. So I originally got the script and my manager was super in love with the character and said, “you have to read it,” and so I did and I really wanted to meet with Jeff, the director. I had a meeting set up, but I wasn’t able to attend and then they asked if I wanted to come in and do a read-through with Kyle, and I was like, alright, cool. So I went in and I read with Kyle for a few hours, we did a couple of scenes from the film and just worked with it a little bit. And then, they were like, “ok, well, we need to see her look the part. We need to see her look rough, tough. like a rough chick.” So then I had to come back in and I put a black wig on, and like colors in my hair and piercings and the whole nine, and they were like, “ok, she can pull it off.” And then, yeah, we started rehearing shortly after.
Now, was that tough transforming into that character? Because you seem like such a nice person.
BR: Yeah, you know... I don’t know. The character jumps off the page so easily and I thinking it was very easy for me to just get wrapped up in who she was. She was very easily understood in my eyes. When I first got the script, I just immediately felt super-connected with her and it didn’t seem too forced at all.
I probably should’ve asked you this first, if you could explain to our readers about your character.
BR: Yes, my character’s name is Beth and she’s 14. She’s comes into the film, she’s the daughter Linda’s, who’s a student at the school where Aaron attends and he sort of gets a crush on [Linda], comes over to the houses and realizes that she has a daughter, who is me, and I get quite the crush on Aaron.
He’s a good-looking guy.
BR: Yes, very. So charming. And I get a crush on Aaron, where as Aaron gets a crush on my mother, so there’s sort of this, you know, triangular love dynamic going on. She’s sort of this guarded 14-year-old. She had a lot of crazy past experiences with her mom, she’s had to take care of her mom throughout most of her life and because of that she’s sort of carried this tough exterior with her.
I knew from Life Unexpected and then I saw you in this film and it was like night and day.
BR: Yeah, it’s different.
Have you gotten any reactions from your family, friends or your fans?
BR: No, I actually hadn’t seen the movie up until last night at the premier [laughter]. I’m a very nervous actor. I get very, very nervous watching stuff that I’m in, so for people like my family or friends to see anything is like, you have to hunt it down yourself. It has nothing to do with the project, it’s always just me, you know, nitpicking performance. I know people who have seen the show and have seen the film and it’s not like I’m stuck in this one roll-type character, which is nice, I don’t feel too stereotyped.