|Jill Sprecher (left), Karen Sprecher
Photo credit: Alison Rosa
Five years after their triumph at Sundance with Clockwatchers, a film about four temps searching for full-time work and acceptance
in a company more concerned about office supplies than the contentedness
of their employees, the sister moviemaking team of Jill and Karen
Sprecher has re-emerged. In their latest film, 13 Conversations
About One Thing, they explore the nagging, haunting question
of happiness, and how best to achieve it. The film weaves together
five contemporary stories into a single tale that examines the dramatic
impact strangers can have on one another.
Like Clockwatchers, the film was written by both
and directed by Jill. In this conversation with MM, the Sprechers
discuss their writing process, the division of duties and the rewards
of working with a relative.
Punam Pam Sawhney (MM): Your family isn’t
in the film business. How is it that you both find yourselves working
in the industry?
Jill Sprecher (JS): I moved from Madison, Wisconsin to New York in the 1980s. I didn’t
know anyone, I just knew it was where I wanted to live. I
started going to different repertory cinemas and watching classic
movies and foreign films–things I hadn’t been exposed to before. It was like a new world opened up for me. Growing up
I had done a lot of reading by myself, and I really liked the experience
of sitting in a movie theater with other people, all focusing on
the same thing. took a few classes at NYU at night, in the cinema
studies department, just for enjoyment. Before I knew it, I ended
up with a master’s degree. I saw an ad on a bulletin board
seeking free production assistants on a film and thought it would
be fun. From there I went on to work as a coordinator and production
manager. Karen moved to New York later and went to grad school
in social work. A few years later, on a break from one of
her counseling jobs, I hired her as an office assistant on an independent
film, and she, too, was hooked.
MM: What is your writing
ritual like? Do you have distinct roles?
JS: For the most part, we
like to put off the actual writing until the very last moment. We spend a lot of time talking, jotting ideas down on note cards,
re-arranging the cards, and the like. When we’re stuck on
something, we go outside and walk around. Something about
being out of a ‘work’ environment helps to free up the subconscious,
and ideas usually come to us. Once we have our note cards
filled up and we have a very complete outline, especially the end
scene, we feel we’re able to start writing. I am the faster
typist, so I handle that part, while Karen pipes in throughout the
process. She is great at coming up with dialogue and strange
Karen Sprecher (KS): It’s
difficult to say how many hours a day we write. We don’t
really have a schedule that we stick to. The deeper we get
into a story, the more time we devote to it. But coming up
with ideas is such a random process. Usually they hit when
you’re doing something else.
MM: Both of your films
have really unique names. At what point did the titles come about?
KS: For both movies, the titles
came early on. We thought they could help describe what the
stories were about, let people know from the outset what they were
in for, but hopefully still have some intrigue about them. 13
Conversations About One Thing seemed to fit, because it connotes
the idea of many parts of a single whole, and this is a multiple
character, multiple storyline piece. Also, the number 13
is interesting: in some cultures, it’s considered an unlucky number;
in others, it is lucky. This kind of fit with the theme we
explored, that one’s outlook can determine whether something is
positive or negative.
MM:13 Conversations is a wonderful study in human nature. Where
did the idea for the film come from?
JS: I had suffered a head
injury as a result of a mugging in New York in the early ’90s. Then,
a year later, someone on the subway quite intentionally slapped
me in the head. I suddenly started crying well, tears just
started pouring and I was really upset and then a passenger
across the aisle just looked at me and smiled. And that was
KS: The idea for 13 Conversations came to us a ‘ ago, even before we’d finished Clockwatchers. The happy man character is someone we wanted to explore; he’s
based on a neighbor from our hometown. We came up with what
ultimately became the Alan Arkin story first, but felt it would
play better as a short story as opposed to an entire script, so
we decided to explore the theme of happiness through different characters
Much of the script is a reaction
to things that were going on in our own lives in New York the feeling
of isolation you can get in the middle of a crowded city, the sort
of territoriality that evolves naturally there. Working on
the screenplay led to a great deal of self-examination for each
MM: How long did it take
to write the script?
JS: The first draft took us
about eight weeks to write, but over the four years that it ultimately
took to get the financing, we went back and tinkered with the script
numerous times, trying to clarify ideas and themes. In the
end, the finished film is very similar to our original script; things
that we had elaborated on in further drafts were eventually eliminated
in the editing process. But we’re glad we had the opportunity
to keep re-examining the script. Certainly as a director
it helped me to understand what was most important to the story.
MM: Which characters in
your films most closely resemble the two of you? Is
the dialogue derived from people and situations from your own life?
JS: Both movies are filled
with autobiographical characters. In Clockwatchers,
Karen most resembles Alanna Ubach’s character–that striving for
perfection. And in 13 Conversations, she’s most like
John Turturro’s character, also a perfectionist; always thinking
happiness lies somewhere up ahead instead of right in front of you. I hate to say it, but I’m the innocent-turned-jaded type; the
metamorphosis of Toni Collette to Parker Posey in Clockwatchers;
and Clea DuVall to Alan Arkin in 13 Conversations. I
wish I could turn back the clock and return to the sweet person
I was when I first moved to New York from the Midwest, but I’ve
been through a lot there several muggings and other deflating experiences.
MM: Making a film is an
extremely difficult, yet at the same time exhilarating, process.
What’s your favorite part of the process?
JS: It’s difficult to pick
which part of the filmmaking process I enjoy most. Karen
and I have a fun time writing it’s just the two of us, and there
is great freedom in that. Of course, it can be a little isolating;
we both love to be on a film set around others; there’s something
exhilarating about it. During shooting, we tinker with the
script in response to the suggestions of the actors and crew. Post-production is also a very creative time. It’s the ultimate
rewrite; when you go back to your original intentions with the script
and try to make good on them.
MM: What part of the writing
process do you enjoy the most? How do your roles differ as writers?
KS: In terms of the writing
process, we probably most enjoy the initial phase when we’re coming
up with ideas and working out a structure on note cards. There
is a great satisfaction in figuring things out the kind you get
from working on a crossword puzzle, for example.
JS: Karen is great at dialogue
and behavior, probably due to her training in social work. I
tend to focus more on larger ideas and meanings (I studied philosophy
and literature). So Karen tends to focus on details, like
what a character might have on their desk, whereas I’m thinking,
what does the desk mean? But when we look at a finished script,
we have difficulty remembering who came up with what. We’re
MM: Jill, while the two
of you are writing, are you thinking about how you would like to
JS: We try to visualize as
we write, and try to put as much detail as possible into the script
at least enough to get the actors and crew interested, so that they
in turn are inspired to contribute their ideas. It’s important
to leave room for interpretation. We have been fortunate
to work with amazing talents, and really depend on them to improve
on what we’ve tried to do.
MM: What’s next
for the two of you?
JS: Karen and I would like
to do an adaptation from a novel or short story. It’s tricky,
though; some things are best left to their original form. Right
now we’re writing two scripts based on non-fiction material; the
challenge is to come up with a dramatic form for them.
KS: In terms of screenwriting,
a good story is a good story, no matter where it comes from. We have some original ideas we want to do, and some ideas based
on pre-existing material. Both are a challenge for us. Right now we have a few original scripts we’re working on. And we’re writing a pilot for a possible television series,
which is fun.
MM: Are there any
plans to work on separate projects?
JS: I tried to write some
things on my own before Karen moved to New York, but they weren’t
very successful. Writing is such a solitary and introspective
process; we’re lucky we have each other to keep it stimulating and
MM: Do you tend to write
in a character-driven way, or are you more plot-driven ?
JS: We tend to approach stories
in terms of character. It’s like Aristotle says: Character is plot. If you know your characters, you know how
they will act in different situations. One thing we find
necessary is to know our ending when we write. The meaning of a
movie is ultimately contained in the ending, and it gives us something
to write toward.
MM: You’ve been lucky to
cast such great actors in both of your films. Do you write with
an ideal cast in mind?
JS: We try not to write with
any particular actor in mind not only because we’re afraid of the
disappointment, should that actor be disinterested or unavailable,
but because it might limit us creatively. Once we have a
finished script, we try to visualize who we would like in the roles.
KS: Also, we tend to write
characters more internally, in terms of psychological makeup; we
try not to put a face on any of them. For both movies, though,
we’ve been incredibly lucky getting actors that we desperately wanted. We knew we wanted Parker Posey for Clockwatchers we are
huge fans of hers but we originally envisioned her in a different
MM: What advice would you
give someone struggling to write a screenplay?
JS: Probably the most important
thing I’ve learned about writing is to know your ending and to really
believe in it.
KS: … and to love your characters.