Tribeca: 'Aardvark' Team on Creating a Grounded Sibling Story With Fantastical Elements

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
'Aardvark'

Zachary Quinto, Jenny Slate and Jon Hamm star in the movie from writer-director Brian Shoaf, making his feature debut.

[Warning: The following story contains spoilers about Aardvark.]

Zachary Quinto's latest film Aardvark, which premiered Friday night at the Tribeca Film Festival, features a number of fantastical elements that require a suspension of disbelief. But at its heart, the movie is about the relationship between two brothers, Josh and Craig, played by Quinto and Jon Hamm, respectively. And it's a film that doesn't give viewers the answers to all of the questions it raises, including how much of what Josh is seeing is real.

Both the human drama and lingering ambiguity were what Quinto found compelling enough to want to star in and produce the title via his Before the Door Pictures banner.

"When I read this script I felt like it was beautifully written, and it was an exploration of these characters, who are in many ways lost to themselves and are only able to find their way through the relationships they have with each other," Quinto tells The Hollywood Reporter of what drew him to the project.

It didn't hurt that the script was written by longtime friend Brian Shoaf, who has known Quinto and his producing partner Neal Dodson since their days at Carnegie Mellon University. But speaking with THR, Shoaf stresses that the directing gig wasn't a handout but the result of him writing a script that he felt he "could see all the way through," which was what Quinto responded to.

"I said, 'I'm going to write this thing, and I'm going to see it through.' So it was probably a year and half or two years into that process that I actually sent a script to Zach," Shoaf says. "I wanted to feel like I had done everything I absolutely could … like I wasn't just looking for a pat on the back. Like, 'I'm making this movie, do you want to be a part of it?'"

That script started out, Shoaf explains, as the story of two brothers, "one of whom was such an amazing, brilliant actor that he literally could be anyone — it was beyond transformation. It was like Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis and then also like a sorcerer of some kind, and it would be this ongoing prank that the Josh character would never know if he was talking to a real stranger or talking to his brother."

But then Shoaf decided to ground that abstract concept with a backstory about how the brothers had been driven apart by a psychological condition, like "if Josh was prone to seeing things anyway and had experienced hallucinations and had experienced a psychotic break and these things that come up in the story."

"And that in fact Craig wasn't Daniel Day-Lewis meets Meryl Streep, he was like a guy on a [broadcast network] drama. So he was an actor, but he wasn't a great one necessarily, just more of like a lucky one," Shoaf says. "So that I think adds a layer in the sense that — the little brother looking up to the big brother and what pressure the big brother feels and then adding that the big brother is also a bit of a narcissist himself, so he actually wants nothing to do with him at all and then kind of pulls away and pulls away, so eventually they're completely estranged."

He then decided to add the third main character, Josh's therapist, Emily (Jenny Slate), but he wanted to make sure that she had her own story.

"She wasn't just there to be a cipher for him or a foil or someone for him to bounce his problems off of, but she has a complete life of her own," he explains.

The therapist storyline brings in the concept of mental illness, but although Quinto did "a lot of reading about various mental health issues," he argues the main issue presented to the audience is what's real and what's not.

"Is this somebody who is struggling with manic depression and bipolar disorder? Is this somebody that crosses the line into some degree of schizophrenia? Are these hallucinations or are these actual people and actual relationships that he's cultivating in his life in certain ways? The thing about Josh to me is he's someone who's hanging on, he's highly functioning no matter what he's up against," the actor says. "He's somebody whose commitment is to not be brought down by his struggles and to overcome them and remain a viable and contributing member of society in whatever way he can. He's seeking help, he's seeking some resolution within himself, and I find that quite unique and quite interesting in exploring a character and exploring a story. There were certain aspects of mental health disorders that I engaged in my portrayal of the character, but what I think's important with this story is we don't have the answers."

Still, making a movie in which a character (Josh) not only believes his brother appears to him as various characters and completely transforms himself into these other people but features scenes in which Josh is interacting with these other people, as his brother in disguise, was somewhat of a challenge from a producing standpoint, Dodson concedes.

There were questions of, "Will that play for an audience? Does that make sense? Are they so confused as to who's what and what's who?," Dodson says. "It was certainly delicate."

Shoaf and the actress who plays the homeless woman, who Josh sees as Craig, came to an understanding, Dodson says, that "she's supposed to play this bifurcated reality: She's playing the reality of the woman he's seeing in front of him, but she also would have some of the love that a brother would have or that he hopes that his brother has through this character."

And for Shoaf, who makes his feature directorial debut with Aardvark, in order to keep the ambiguity in terms of what was behind what Josh was seeing and who he was interacting with, he "had to approach it as if there was no ambiguity and to say, 'these hallucinations are hallucinations; when Craig enters the story, Craig is Craig,' and work backwards from there."

And Quinto argues that what really happened between Josh and Craig is responsible for what Josh experiences. 

"Ultimately Josh is somebody who was abandoned and had to fend for himself in ways that nobody who's dealing with any kind of mental health issues should ever have to. The sequences that are more fantastical, I think, are rooted in what happens when that vacuum is created — that vacuum that abandonment and isolation create," Quinto says. "Is that potentially a space that was filled in Josh's mind by some of these fantastical stories? Or is that a space that was filled by him going outside himself and putting himself into the world and having these kinds of interactions and relationships with the homeless woman and the police officer, that he sees as manifestations of Craig? Are they? Are they imagined projections of his brother? Or are these real people that he's connecting with and then projecting onto them his belief and his need for a deeper connection with his brother?"

One of the characters whose true nature, and how she fits into Josh and Craig's dynamic, is particularly ambiguous is Hannah (Sheila Vand), whom Josh starts dating. While neither Shoaf nor Quinto would reveal whether she is real, Shoaf says "she's a part of Josh's world" and agrees that Josh believes her to be real.

Quinto, who had long been friends with Hamm and Slate, brought them both to the project.

"That's one of my favorite aspects of producing, actually, and creating work, whether I'm a part of it as an actor or not. Bringing my relationships to bear in involving other actors and involving people who I've admired and whose friendship I've valued for years is a really great aspect of having a production company and being able to pull projects together," Quinto says. "Jenny is the first person that we reached out to for that role. Jon is someone who I think brings a certain ease and magnetism to his work and, in terms of the brother aspect, is someone that I felt fits that very well."

Fellow producer Susan Leber, who worked with Slate on Obvious Child and the upcoming Landline, said that while the actress isn't playing a comedic role like those she's known for, Slate is well suited for this more nuanced performance.

"I think Jenny has an enormous amount of sensitivity and human empathy," Leber says. "Her part is such an interesting one in that she's struggling with herself so much, and I think Jenny's really great at showing that interior life."

Leber, who worked with Dodson and Quinto on Margin Call, was asked to be a part of this latest endeavor.

Since that first film, Before the Door has produced such acclaimed titles as All Is Lost and A Most Violent Year.

Margin Call, though, was particularly noteworthy for for its day-and-date theatrical and VOD success when it was released in 2011.

And with Aardvark, which is seeking distribution, Dodson is open to a similar streaming or VOD component, saying that the character-driven, low-budget film "wasn't built to be on 3,000 screens."

"Seeing a movie in the theater is always my preferred experience for anybody if there's a chance to do it. But I don't think this is a movie where as you're watching it at home, you think, 'Aw, man, I wish I'd gotten to see this on an Imax screen.' It's just not that scope and type. In some ways, there's an intimacy that a platform like Netflix or a platform like VOD or a platform like Amazon or Hulu can create because you're having it more on personal basis. In some cases, you're watching it on your laptop and the sound is in your ears. I don't find that to be offensive," Dodson says. "I think every movie has its right spot. I think we're very, very open to whatever the right way for this movie to find the world is. … If A24 wants to pick this movie up and put its marketing muscle behind it, or Focus or Fox Searchlight or one of these companies that still prioritizes a theatrical release, certainly we'd be excited to figure that out. But it's most important to us that we find the right home for it."

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