Director Marc Webb’s latest The Only Living Boy in New York continues his recent pivot back into smaller dramas (after directing two installments of the Spider-Man franchise for Sony) and sees the further maturation of themes that he began exploring in his 2009 debut (500) Days of Summer.
Webb’s best work has always maintained a fine line between granting the viewer some semblance of romantic satisfaction within the narrative while always remaining rooted in the often disappointing realities of where these life choices often lead—we viewers gain joy in seeing his characters take bold chances on love, only to feel the sting when it inevitably falls apart later. The Only Living Boy in New York is steeped in a literary New York and follows listless Thomas (standout Callum Turner), whose rudderless life is thrown for a loop when he discovers his stern literary publisher father (Pierce Brosnan) is cheating on his delicate mother (Cynthia Nixon) with Johanna (the always seductive Kate Beckinsale).
Thomas begins following Johanna, and that’s when the plot morphs into something more closely resembling a François Ozon film than anything Webb has previously shown us. There is also the mysterious figure W.F. (the very welcome Jeff Bridges), an older alcoholic with a bottomless well of sage wisdom and life experience to go with his particular interest in Thomas’s troubles.
I spoke with Webb about jazz’s influence on the story, the perks of going smaller and his unique experience tracking down the script and working with screenwriter Allan Loeb to adapt it.
Caleb Hammond, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): As someone who got their start making music videos, do you want to talk about the influence of music in your work?
Marc Webb (MW): For (500) Days of Summer, I built a lot of sequences around specific music, and in the Spider-Man movies and even in Gifted, I avoided that. I was like, “I’m going to flip it around and see how it works the other way.” On this one [The Only Living Boy in New York] I kinda did a little bit of both. I built a playlist, which I like to do before any movie. It was inspired by New York. There was a lot of jazz, like [Charles] Mingus and Dave Brubeck, that created a kind of bed for the movie. I put in [Bob] Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Some of it was specifically New York and some of it was more inspired by New York and the vibe of the movie.
The one section of the movie that is really deeply connected to music, that was more like a music video, was the toast in the middle. That’s something that we scored. I was very pleased with what [composer] Rob Simonsen did in that section. It was tricky, because normally with that level of precision I would want to have a piece of music selected beforehand. And I couldn’t find anything that I felt worked really well, because if you have lyrics from a song, it would compete with the words of the speech. I used Yumeji’s theme from In the Mood For Love as a reference. It was a waltz in three-four time which created a kind of whimsical feeling to it. We didn’t end up using a waltz rhythm; we used a tango rhythm, which gave it another layer of placement and section as well, which I thought was very important. That’s something that we did after the fact, because I couldn’t quite find the right music beforehand. That was my favorite musical moment in the movie, frankly. The sequence of the movie becomes a little bit more intuitive and less realistic. It’s a montage, but it’s a montage told out of order, not just jumping between sequential scenes. It’s more to describe the mood or feeling, or a temporal emotional shift, rather than storytelling in its strictest sense, and I like that. I like that moment in the movie. It feels more lyrical.
The other part of it, I think lyrics in music say explicitly what you can only say implicitly in the scene. The best example of that is [Bob Dylan’s] “Visions of Johanna,” when [Callum Turner’s] going back to find W.F. at the end of the movie. Just the title of the song speaks to you the character of Johanna in an interesting way, being a catalyst for truth ironically. This whole movie in a certain way is a “Vision of Johanna.” Not to say: this is Johanna’s vision. Rather than someone fantasizing about Johanna, it’s really Johanna that has seen the truth. I like that implication. I don’t know if an audience will really latch onto that, but it’s something I’ve thought about and talked about with the actors.
MM: Did you share that New York playlist with the actors?
MW: Yeah, or I would play it for them directly. I think it helps create a tone of the performance and is a great way to communicate with people. Jeff, actually the day we were rehearsing with a scene with Callum, we went to the location when he first meets Callum on the steps, and he has a conversation with him. He says, “I want to play this type of music. I want to set the mood.” He pulled out his phone and played Bill Evans “Peace Piece,” and that became a part of the movie. That lilting jazz presence really helped inform that character and atmosphere. That’s another thing that I thought was interesting—Bill Evans was an addict and had a tumultuous life, but was also profoundly gifted, and I think that was a great reflection of W.F.’s character. I think that Jeff latched onto that detail. It’s never stated explicitly, but there is an implication if you know that kind of work and that era of jazz, what was happening, and it gives Jeff’s character more of a Beat sensibility which I really liked.
MM: What conversations were you having with your DP Stuart Dryburgh?
MW: We decided to shoot on film; anamorphic, which we also shot on with Gifted. Gifted is a very different tone of movie. The end was very sweet but I wanted it to feel… I wanted to cut it with a kind of naturalism, a little bit of raw or grit. I worried about that movie becoming too sentimental, so we did it all handheld, there’s no stage work. It was a very location based movie. I didn’t want to do any tricks; I wanted it to be raw, and Stuart really got that and again we did a lot of handheld—a lot of texture. This movie was different; it’s a fantasy; it’s a fable. It’s the New York you imagine before you ever go to New York. I’m from Wisconsin; I had a fantasy of what New York was before I ever went there. I kind of wanted to relate that feeling. That meant finding beautiful buildings, rustic buildings, how we cast the characters, and creating a New York that felt a little more romantic and a little more historical and more aged and worn in. It’s literary New York. It’s not Wall Street.
We did much less handheld work. We did a lot of crisp long takes that sort of held on things. On Gifted, I kept the camera at eye level. I kind wanted it to be like a documentary. Whereas with The Only Living Boy, when he’s following Johanna for example, we shot a lot of stuff in slow motion, we shot at huge high angles that were really graphically composed. That creates a storytelling that is a little more fantastical. That was the objective with Stuart, and we had a lot of discussions about that. We kept the color palette very restricted with muted colors. [Costume designer] Ann Roth and Stuart, and David Gropman, the production designer, and I all had a lot of conversations about the tonality of the piece to keep it based in neutrals and really restrict primary colors. Which is something I did sort of with (500) Days—we used the color blue a lot. But it was with a muted sensibility which creates a weirdly romantic aesthetic and cohesion, which was important in the design of the film, in giving it a sense of sophistication hopefully.
MM: Did you run into any issues shooting on film?
MW: Finding labs is tricky, although they seem to be opening more, and then finding ACs or camera guys that can pull focus, or finding loaders. It’s hard now, especially on a smaller movie where you don’t have the budget to fly people in. The number of people that have experience and are proficient in those skills is dwindling. So much of the tv work and film world has evolved into digital. That’s a kind of challenge.
Studios are always skeptical when you say you want to shoot on film. They presume it’s going to be so much more expensive. It’s not that much more. I think it depends on how much film you shoot and few other variables. I think there is an electricity that happens when you roll the camera, and the actors feel it. Every time I tell an actor we’re shooting on film, they all get excited, and they get a little nervous, because you can’t just keep rolling like you can on digital. That means you have to be a little bit more on your game.
MM: You did two Spider-Man blockbusters for Sony, and now you’ve transitioned back into smaller films. Do you want to talk about that process?
MW: I try not to think about big or small, because the conversations you have with the writers and the actors are virtually identical. You’re trying to find some truth in the characters, in the story you’re selling and the themes you’re exploring. It is a real relief to be in a room with the actors and just be able to create what feels right in the moment, rather than having to submit pages and get legal approval to change something. The process is much more liberating. There are benefits to shooting a bigger movie: you have more resources; you can find locations, work with actors you want. There are a lot of great benefits. And it’s pretty fucking fun. But the intimacy that develops on these smaller movies—the real sense of connection to the material and then control over it, is exhilarating and really fun. They feel more intimate. I’m not having to deploy part of my brain to considering what certain fanboys are going to say about certain decisions I make. Even though you try to always block that out, it can be there and that is debilitating in a lot of ways. These movies [Gifted and The Only Living Boy in New York] were really fun to make. They were rich and healing. However small they are, they were kind of a blast.
MM: Do you think you’ll fluctuate between the two modes of filmmaking, or are you set in this smaller more intimate model for now?
MW: I loved working on a bigger canvas. I’m planning on doing more. It just depends on the material. After (500) Days of Summer, I was a horse that wanted to run. I wanted to know what that felt like. Now I’m less compelled by the thrill of trying something totally new on a master scale. I think I’m more compelled by the story itself and what I can find and how I specifically can deliver something that’s meaningful—hopefully not just for me but for the audience as well.
MM: As a director who works off of other’s scripts primarily, what do you look for in the material? How do you make it your own?
MW: In TV, I work for the writer. I’ll do a pilot or whatever, and I’m there to serve at the pleasure of the script and the writer. I really look to protect that person and that voice. With movies I tend to drive the ship a little bit more. I feel like every movie I’ve done I’ve worked very hard on the script with the writer, so it goes to a place that is much more personal to me. I configure things in a way that feel right to me. I’m not channeling the writer; I’m channeling myself. It is of course a collaboration, and I’ve had great and wonderful experiences with all of the writers I’ve worked with: whether it’s Tom Flynn [Gifted], or Scott [Neustadter] and Michael [H. Weber] from (500) Days of Summer, or Allan [Loeb] on this movie. But I do feel when it comes to movies I feel more in possession of them, I guess you could say.
MM: I heard this movie was in development for quite a while….
MW: [laughs] I don’t know if development is the right word. It’s a beloved script; I think it was on the blacklist the first year the blacklist came out. It’s a gem. The story of the script is an interesting story. Allan had spent a decade in Hollywood in his 20s, not having any success. He sold his car, I think, and left Los Angeles and moved to New York. He said, “I’m going to try one last ditch effort. I’m going to write one last script, and then I’m going to give up.” And he spent the summer in a studio apartment in New York and wrote The Only Living Boy. And he came back and suddenly people loved it, and he had a career. And then he did Things We Lost in the Fire. For some reason, The Only Living Boy never got made. I remember I bid on it, years and years ago—I thought it was so compelling. I loved the relationship between W.F. and Thomas. I think that mentor relationship was something that’s not explored in a modern context. I thought Johanna was an incredibly interesting character, and I thought the twists and turns of the story were really great. But they didn’t want to hire me. Five or six years go by, and I’m doing Spider-Man, and I was going through some old emails and I found an email about the script. I called my agent, and sure enough, the script was no longer at Sony. There was no director attached I believe at the time. I was like, “Let’s do this. I want to do this. Maybe I can do it between movies, or I’ll do it after Spider-Man.” He sent me his latest draft of the script, and it was called: Only Living Boy (the “New York” had been taken out of it). And it was about an advertising executive in Chicago. I was like, “What the fuck happened to this script? Development? Something terrible has happened.” I couldn’t even finish reading it. I went back to my email, and I found the original draft of the script. I talked to the producers and was like “Listen. Let’s start from the beginning.” I sat with Allan, and then we started working on it. That was several years ago. Jeff Bridges read it and loved it, and once you have Jeff Bridges you kind of have a movie.
MM: I can only imagine the moment you’re reading the new draft, you’re wondering if you somehow got sent the wrong script because it was so different.
MW: I was so confused. I did a page-by-page analysis. It was sort of a tragedy. I think that’s what happens in Los Angeles. People “develop” material, and they think just because it’s changed, it necessarily means it’s better. Every single scene in every movie can be improved. There’s an asymptotic relationship with perfection. There’s always a little bit more you can do, but you can’t. Very often people think that because a scene’s evolved it’s better. People’s tastes are different, but I think that is a very dangerous thing that people try to make an impression on something and try to improve on it, and they end up just making it worse. Weirdly, that’s a theme of the movie. People in this film are trying to improve everybody’s lives. It’s a house of lies built on a foundation of love. That’s kind of a wonderful difficult irony about life. People are often trying to do good things and bad things happen, because you refuse to acknowledge your ego is at work.
MM: There’s a line Cynthia Nixon’s character, Judith, delivers to her son, Thomas, something like, “The biggest space is between how you think something will happen and how it ends up happening.” This mirrors the famous split screen in (500) Days of Summer where it literally illustrates this gulf between the two realities. Do you want to talk about returning to this theme?
MW: I think life emerges in ways that are constantly surprising. I suppose that is a theme in my life personally; if you told the 17 year old version of myself that I would have been making Spider-Man movies, living in Hollywood, I would’ve thought that was absurd—I was going to be an engineer or a teacher in Wisconsin. My life emerged and evolved in a different way. It’s hard to analyze why one wants to make a movie.
When I think about the scenes that work in the film, the set piece in the middle of the movie with Uncle Buster’s speech, Allan and I were working on the script, and we were trying to find a wedding toast, and we worked on it for a while, and we couldn’t quite crack it. I said to Allan, “There’s this guy Alvin Sargent who did some work on Spider-Man; he adapted Ordinary People; he adapted Paper Moon; he’s a wonderful Hollywood writer—one of the greats.” He’s also in his 90s now, but he was married to Laura Ziskin, who produced Spider-Man, and he did some work for us on those movies. I was like, “Let me ask Alvin if he can write this wedding toast.” I called up Alvin, and he was like, “I can’t do that,” and he kind of hemmed and hawed. I was like, “O.K. Don’t worry about it.” The next morning, about five o’clock in the morning, he sends me that speech: that toast. I think the toast is a wonderful expression of a man who has been around and understands how life evolves, changes, and it’s not for better or for worse, it’s just different. He relishes in that. It’s incredibly complicated. But I love that scene; I love that part of the movie. I think that Alvin touched on something that Allan and I couldn’t quite grasp. The way he contextualizes romance without it being too sentimental but still finds poetry in it. I think those elements are exhilarating to me; I find them deeply resonant personally. I think if you can find meaning in the pain you experience in life, then the suffering will be lessened. MM
The Only Living Boy in New York opens in theaters on August 11, 2017, courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions. All images courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions.