He made spelling cool when he directed the hit documentary Spellbound in 2002 and earned an Oscar nomination for his efforts. Now Jeffrey Blitz is back and taking on the English language from a different angle with the coming-of-age comedy Rocket Science. A hit at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, the story of a high school debate team had a limited theatrical release in 2007 and is being released on DVD by HBO Home Video on January 29th. MM spoke with Blitz about the difference between documentary and feature moviemaking, the difficulties in navigating today’s distribution process and why adolescent awkwardness makes for fascinating filmmaking.
Jennifer Wood (MM): Rocket Science marks your first non-documentary feature. What do you see as the biggest difference between making a documentary and making a feature-from both a creative and technical perspective?
Jeffrey Blitz (JB): It’s a funny thing, actually—how close fiction filmmaking is to documentary filmmaking. I think there’s a misconception that in fiction film you exert control over every last part of the process and in documentary you don’t exert any control. In my experience, the reality is gray. There are too many variables in a fiction film to really control everything and there are too many forceful choices made in documentary to pretend that objectivity exists. In both, you kind of keep your fingers crossed for the happy accident.
MM: Do you prefer one format over the other?
JB: I love the smallness of making a documentary. It feels very personal and specific to me. But I love the scope of a fiction film, even a low-budget one, and I love working with actors perhaps above all else.
MM: The film was a hit at Sundance, but only saw a limited theatrical release. Did you find many differences in navigating the distribution process for a narrative feature?
JB: Good question. Here, too, I think the way a fiction film gets marketed is very similar to a doc, at least in my experience with Rocket Science and Spellbound. I think sometimes marketing campaigns hit and the whole thing works and sometimes they don’t at all. Some of this has to do with knowing the audience and really understanding to whom you’re marketing.
MM: Is there anything you’d want to do differently the next time around?
JB: I think in the future I’ll try to be stronger in sharing my sense of the audience and the right tone of the marketing. But it’s hard to say. Each project seems like it comes with its own fresh set of challenges.
MM: From spelling bees to high school debates, you seem to have a fascination with speech and words. Where does this come from?
JB: I grew up with a stutter that made me keenly aware of the power of words. And I think I became fascinated with them, too—where they came from, how they were formed, how powerful it can be to choose the right one at the moment. I think this awe and fear and delight in language probably comes from my stuttering. It may be as simple as that: You romanticize what you can’t easily attain and, for me, that was language.
MM: Adolescent awkwardness is a theme in both Spellbound and Rocket Science—and you have a talent for handling that in a very affectionate and humorous way. How did the experience of making Spellbound—particularly in regard to the students you met—influence your script for Rocket Science?
JB: In making Spellbound there were all sorts of potential kids, potential scenarios, that I expected to encounter but never did. For example, I imagined when I was shooting that I’d meet a kid who spoke almost exclusively in big words. I made a note of what a terrific character that would be and then, when it didn’t materialize in Spellbound, I had the opportunity to write that character into Rocket Science. So Spellbound became a source of ideas for Rocket Science. I didn’t fictionalize what I had already shot, but I did let myself follow up on all those scenes I wished I had found in the documentary.
MM: With the current success of unconventional coming-of-age tales like Juno and Superbad, it seems to be the perfect time for Rocket Science. What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
JB: Well, I happen to be pretty allergice to “message” films, so I hope there’s no easy lesson in Rocket Science. To me, it was always meant to be an offbeat and funny little movie with a lot of heart. I hope people get to discover it on DVD and I hope they find it unusually funny and sweet.
MM: What’s up next for you? I hear you’re turning back to documentaries with a film on lottery winners.
JB: That’s right. I’d like finish my documentary on lottery winners this year. When the dust from that has settled I’ll start looking forward to what’s next.