Matthew Ryan Hoge
Matthew Ryan Hoge directs The United States of Leland

Finding success as a first-time writer-director is hard—unless you have Kevin Spacey in your camp. With only two indie features under his belt (and both of them incomplete), writer-director Matthew Ryan Hoge was able to persuade Spacey and his Trigger Street production company of his talent and desire to step behind the camera on the very personal The United States of Leland.

Controversial in nature, Leland tells the tale of a young man named Leland (Ryan Gosling) whose lack of emotional guidance heightens his sensitivity to those around him—and impulsiveness in acting on those feelings. Though it is the act of murder that’s at the center of this film, the tale is ultimately one of hope and optimism. While the audience may not come to forgive Leland for his crime, it is Hoge’s hope that they will walk away with at least a better understanding of the tragedy—and the vulnerability of youth. Here, Hoge responds to the criticism that has resulted in boycotts of his film and talks about his own intentions.

Jennifer Wood (MM): This was a very personal story to you. You worked as a teacher in the Los Angeles juvenile court system?

Matthew Hoge (MH): I did. It was a job that I sort of stumbled into because I was tired of working temp jobs. The qualifications, because there was a real shortage of teachers, were very minimal. You just needed a college degree and be able to prove that you didn’t have tuberculosis. If you could do that, they would hire you.

MM: Was it after you took this job that you started writing the script, or had you had the idea ahead of time?

MH: I didn’t go into the job thinking I would write about it. I took the job because I felt like it was a chance for me to be around people I wouldn’t otherwise be around….

It was after maybe three or four months of teaching that I started to think about writing about it. It was just the impact that the job—which is very difficult, very demanding and very extreme—had on me. The first day I walked into a class of 17 kids charged with murder; I had this presumption of what I would be dealing with—and I was very misinformed and wrong. These kids challenged my conception of who they were. As that was going on, I just got this idea percolating about right and wrong and how you define it; about morality and how we treat people who cross the line. And whether the way we treat them is fair and good for them—and good for us as well.

MM: Had you always planned to direct the film?

MH: It’s hard to say it was a “plan,” because I didn’t have any friends in Hollywood. But the few contacts I had, when I told them what I was writing, the response was pretty typically “Great. Tell us when you’re writing the next one—one we might actually want to make.” (laughing)

I think the subject matter scared people off, and I think maybe that emboldened me. I felt like I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn’t think that anybody else could do it justice… The entirety of it was very close to me and I felt like, ‘Look, I don’t know if anybody is ever going to make this. But if they do, I want to be the person who directs it.’

MM: What was your training as a moviemaker?  

MH: I went to USC in the writing school and then immediately after graduating I tried to make a feature. (laughing) I made about 20 minutes of it, mostly on credit cards, ran out of money and never finished it, but learned quite a bit. I learned a lot from just getting out there and making the mistakes—that was really important.

Then, a couple years after that, I kind of stumbled into the chance to make another really low-budget feature that I had written for my friends. It was a production company that was pretty much going out of business, but they had a little bit of money—very little. We were able to shoot a film on a $9,000 budget in nine days and then it was a grueling post process, because we had no money. Sneaking into cutting rooms and cutting it over the course of half a year, we managed to get a score and almost managed to finish that one, but not quite.

MM: We can’t really talk about the movie without talking about Kevin Spacey. At what point did he and Trigger Street become involved with the project? Were they the first producers on?

MH: Yeah, they were the first people on, and there’s no chance that it would have been made had they not. I remember the script came first to Bernie Morris, who worked with Kevin at the time and really responded to it. So we set a meeting for a week later with Kevin to sit down and really talk about it.

Kevin had a lot of questions about what I wanted to do and what my approach was. At that point, I had been thinking about it so much that I had very clear ideas about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it and who I wanted for the cast and what I was thinking about for the crew. So at the end of this two or three hour meeting he said “Okay. Trigger Street is making this film. And if anyone questions you as director, fuck off, they can go to hell. We’re going to make it with you as director.” It was that moment when he articulated his faith in me—and that faith was just unwavering over the next year we worked on it.

MM: Was it always the plan that Spacey would both produce and act in the film?

MH: No, originally Kevin simply wanted to produce the film. I think his idea was to sort of turn Trigger Street into something like Icon, Mel Gibson’s company, where he could produce films without having to star in them. It wasn’t until the financing came together that Kevin said “Okay, I’ll take this role,” which is always what I wanted. So it worked out very well for me and I think it worked out well for him, too, because I think he was able to prove that his company was able to piece something together without just saying “Kevin’s acting in it” and raising the money like that. It took a lot longer, but I think it was really important for both of us to go that route.

MM: Considering that you were working on a relatively short schedule of 28 days, and the ensemble nature of the piece, how did you work with your actors (on an individual and group basis), to help them each get to the emotional places they needed to be—and remain on schedule?

MH: I think our advantage was that we started to piece the cast together long before the money was there, so it wasn’t like people were joining the cast two days before we started shooting. So particularly with the younger cast—Ryan, Chris, Jena and Michelle—there was a lot of time to talk beforehand and to rehearse.

Another thing I did early on was that I sent everyone, once they signed up, a package of books and CDs and things that I felt were important and relevant to their character. I think that helped quite a bit. Specifically with Ryan, I gave him Catcher in the Rye and The Stranger by Albert Camus. The Stranger was a really important book for me as far as getting into Leland and having a character like Meursault, who has a sort of diminished emotional life. And because that is sort of squelched, his physical senses are heightened and Meursault is always commenting on sunlight and the taste of salt in the water. And that’s definitely something I wanted to be present in Leland—this idea that because he was bare in the emotional part of his life, his other senses were sharper.

So it was great to have that as a reference point. I could just say “It’s like this part of The Stranger,” and I think that was helpful. But I think it was just having a lot of lead time to do things like that and be able to share.

MM: I’ve seen recently that parents of autistic children have signed a petition to boycott the film, citing the reason that it “glorifies the murder of an autistic child of out ‘pity.’” How do you respond to these arguments, and have you been able to reach out to any of these people directly to explain your intentions with the film?

MH: It’s a source of more sadness than frustration with me. This Website and this petition came out really early—just when we sort of finished the film—and my initial response was just to write a letter back to them and say ‘Look, I understand.’ And I do. If I were the parent of an autistic child and heard that there was a movie glorifying the murder of a child like my own, I would be horrified. So I wanted to sort of assuage their fears and let them know that isn’t what the film is about—it’s not about what you think it is. And the response to that was really negative.

It was really people saying they had no interest in seeing the film and didn’t believe me and it was really sort of vicious. I think that’s the sadness. That these are people who are never going to see the film and are judging it based on what someone said or wrote about it—and that’s the difficult part.

I don’t want to use controversy to sell the film. I feel like it’s kind of odious to do that—to try and drum up this controversy. Because the film is in no way about glorifying the murder or an autistic child or turning the kid who commits that crime into a hero; it has nothing to do with that… It’s like the first thing that people are hearing about this film is about that Website, and I think it’s just really unfortunate.

It’s a mix of feeling like I understand where they’re coming from—my mother has taught special education classes for 15 years and I’ve worked in special education classes. My experience is not being the parent of an autistic child, but I know enough to know how difficult it is and how much of a struggle and fight it is, so I have tremendous sympathy for people who have to do that. I know what the fight it like and I get where they’re coming from, but I feel like it’s misplaced.

MM: You know, I was just having this conversation with someone recently—mainly about religious-themed movies like The Passion or The Last Temptation of Christ. But we were talking about how various religious groups boycotted Kevin Smith’s Dogma, and it kind of makes you wonder—did people actually see the film before they decided to attack it?

MH: I think it’s odd too that people seem to be most political when it comes to issues of the arts. Funding is being slashed for special education classes; that’s what should be an issue and that’s what people should be talking about—not about our film. It seems like it is just sort of misguided… It just seems that time and energy might be better spent in areas where you could actually affect to do something.

MM: What is the message that you intended to make with the film, and hope your audience walks away with?

MH: It’s the hope that the next time there’s a shocking crime committed by a young person—and it just seems like something you can’t get your head around how anyone could commit this crime, that we don’t look for the easy answers. As a society, we say ‘Let’s get a quick and easy answer to why this happened: it was an absent father, it was because he listened to Marilyn Manson, it was because he played violent video games, it was his satanic interest.’ And we’ll get the easy answer and we’ll lock this kid up for 100 years and we’ll get them out of our sight and forget about the case so, four days after this happened, we feel like we’ve gotten the answer and isolated the bad thing and we’ve put it away so now we can go back to our comfortable lives.

I don’t know if it’s naïve to feel this way, but it would be great if, over the course of watching the film, people’s feelings about Leland evolve. There isn’t really a hard and fast line between the good and the bad and the truth is that everyone is sort of hopping from one side of the line to the other, particularly when you’re young and really vulnerable and feel things much more deeply… It’s a more difficult and dangerous world to live in where we accept the fact that people who do bad things can have good in them. You can’t define a life by one action. We all have some of that bad in our goodness; the line is always sort of blurry.