'Ten Thousand Saints' Writer-Directors on Assembling Star-Studded Cast, Re-Creating Late-'80s New York

Austin Hargrave
Emile Hirsch, Robert Pulcini, Shari Springer Berman, Hailee Steinfeld, Ethan Hawke and Avan Jogia at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival

Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini reveal how Oprah Winfrey almost prevented them from making their movie and the stories behind some of the film's key scenes, including that dramatization of the Tompkins Square Park riot.

[Warning: Spoilers ahead for Ten Thousand Saints.]

With a star-studded ensemble cast, Ten Thousand Saints tells the story of a group of friends and family members who come together in late-'80s New York to help raise the unborn child of teenager Eliza, who finds herself pregnant after a New Year's Eve tryst with her mom's boyfriend's son's best friend (Avan Jogia), who, himself, winds up dead the next day.

For a movie about the creation of a make-shift community in the pre-gentrified East Village, its cast came together appropriately organically, with Ethan Hawke leading the way.

"Ethan was the first person to come to the movie and he was actually the first person we went to because when we compiled our list, he was at the top," co-writer-director Robert Pulcini tells The Hollywood Reporter. "We thought he's kind of bonded to New York in such a way that it works, and he's obviously such a skilled actor."

Although Hawke's cool dad character bears similarities to his Boyhood role, Pulcini points out that they wanted him for the part of Les before they saw him in Richard Linklater's Oscar-winning movie. Hawke's wife, Pulcini explains, was instrumental to him taking the role after she spotted the script and knew about the character he was being asked to play because she'd read the book and urged him to do it.

Pulcini and fellow writer-director Shari Springer Berman went after Hailee Steinfeld for the part of Eliza next.

"We just think she's one of the finest young actors working right now," Pulcini said of Steinfeld. "It was very important for us to cast a real teen."

Berman adds that Steinfeld "really responded to it" and says she may have helped bring Asa Butterfield on board.

"The story goes that at some point Asa saw, maybe when they were doing Ender's Game together, either he saw the script or she mentioned it," Berman explains. "But then we loved Asa, and word got out that Asa knew about the project and was interested. So that was terrific. We did Skype and just fell in love with him…His character, there's so much that he's reacting to and experiencing, that Asa's face would show so much of the story."

The ensemble of well-known talented actors also includes Emile Hirsch, Emily Mortimer and Julianne Nicholson. And the members of the film's on-screen community were already familiar with one another.

"It was a weird thing where everybody knew everybody," Berman said. "Like Emily Mortimer and Ethan are really good friends, and Julianne's husband was in Emily's show. It was a very connected group of people."

In the film, Hawke's character brings Jude into his life in New York, showing up after Jude's friend dies, saying he's "kidnap[ping]" him.

"In the film you realize that it was really at the request of Jude's mother. He'd sort of hit a wall with them," Pulcini said of Jude's move. "He's not going to school anymore. He's not coming out of his room. And he's had so much loss at this point that she invites Les to get involved."

Berman adds: "It just seems like after what happened, being in Vermont and in that space just wasn't going to work for him and he was going to wind up dead like [his best friend] Teddy if he stays there. This is a chance for Les, obviously, because [Eliza] shows up, Les is dabbling back in their lives a little bit and perhaps this is a chance for him to do something for his son."

While the idea of making a movie set in New York in the '80s drew Berman and Pulcini to the project, they were almost prevented from creating their film by another big name: Oprah Winfrey.

Berman explains that she read Eleanor Henderson's novel on which the film is based and loved it.

"It was a beautiful book with these really flawed yet lovable characters," she said, adding that Pulcini read it and felt the same way. But when they asked about its availability to adapt it into a movie, they learned that Winfrey had optioned it.

"So we let it go, and worked on other stuff," Berman said. "And about a year later [we got] a phone call that it had gone into turnaround, and that's when we pounced on it."

Once they started working on the film, Berman and Pulcini faced the challenge of trying to re-create late-'80s New York in a city that looks dramatically different from the way it looked then.

"So much has changed in the East Village," Pulcini says. "I didn't realize really how much had changed until I went back and started doing research and saw how many wide empty lots there were that were overgrown and crumbling buildings and things like that as you head east. The good thing is we had knowledge of those little pockets of the East Village that had those elements that could sell the era."

But Berman found an inexpensive way to make things look grimier.

"Everybody said, 'You're crazy. You can't do this with the budget you have.' Because we actually had a pretty small independent film budget. And my mantra was 'Garbage is cheap,' " Berman said, explaining that they brought in "tons of garbage. The first floors of all the buildings really look different, but then when you look up a lot of them kind of are the same."

"We would always travel with a kit of things to cover up the ground floor of a building that has been completely transformed that would ruin the shot, whether it's boards to board up windows or graffiti appliques and things like that," Pulcini said. "We became very skilled at asking people who had vintage, graffiti-covered vehicles to park in front of Citi Bikes, because they're very blue, they really pop. It was things like that."

Berman and Pulcini also did extensive research and drew on their own experiences in New York at the time to dramatize the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riot that takes place toward the end of the film.

"I really wanted it to feel authentic and not like some fake, overblown version of it," Berman says, explaining that she was an unwitting participant in the riot because she happened to be walking through the area at the time.

They looked through out-of-print books, drew on personal memories and watched footage filmed by Clayton Patterson, who captured some of the riot's alleged police brutality.

In the film, the scene marks a turning point for Eliza, who wanders into the riot and has a breakdown after she learns that Hirsch's character is no longer committed to their makeshift family plan.

By the end of the movie, it seems Eliza has decided to put the baby up for adoption.

"I think she wanted to have the baby to be part of the kind of ad-hoc family she had formed with those two young people and in the process of finding out what was going on with Johnny and how young [Jude] really was, she just realized that it wasn't going to work the way that they had planned," Pulcini says of the reasons behind Eliza's decision. "I think she comes to the realization that she herself is probably too young."

Ten Thousand Saints is currently playing in select theaters and available on VOD and iTunes.

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