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Dreamgirl director: “To sleep, perchance to dream” sounded good to Shakespeare, but “to sleep, perchance to find your dreamgirl” sounds even better.
The dreamgirl in question is at the heart of Jake Paltrow’s new romantic comedy drama “The Good Night,” which opened via Yari Film Group Releasing Friday in L.A. after having opened in New York Oct. 5. The film, which marks Paltrow’s feature directorial debut, is produced by Donna Gigliotti and Bill Johnson. Read The Hollywood Reporter review of “The Good Night.”
It’s a fascinating fantasy about Gary, a struggling pop musician (Martin Freeman), who’s frustrated by the success of his musician pal Paul (Simon Pegg) and, at the same time, bogged down in an unsatisfying relationship with his girlfriend Dora (Gwyneth Paltrow). Things take a turn for the better, however, when he discovers that while asleep he can enjoy a wonderfully fulfilling relationship with Anna, the girl of his dreams (Penelope Cruz). Getting back to see her again, however, isn’t easy until he gets some expert help from an eccentric dream therapist (Danny DeVito).
“Night’s” a unique story and I was happy to have an opportunity recently to focus with Jake Paltrow on how he developed the picture and managed to get it made. “It came fairly organically from a dream that I woke up from,” he told me. “It wasn’t so much the story of the dream, but the emotion when waking from it and feeling like whatever I was just experiencing was much better in there than what was out here in the real world. When I kind of connected that feeling with a narrative, it seemed to take off. I felt that was an experience a lot of people have had — waking from a very fulfilling dream and kind of wanting to go back in even if it was just for a few more minutes. I thought that could be something that could connect with people.”
Paltrow wrote his film three and a half years ago: “I was able to work out the story over the course of a few weeks. My process is (that) I had an initial draft within a couple months and then my rewriting process is very rigorous. The whole process of finishing the script was maybe four and a half or five months.”
Asked how he works when he’s writing, Paltrow explained, “Now I seem to write around the clock. I start about six in the morning. The film I’m writing now that I’ve just finished (is one that) I’m writing with a writing partner and we work from about six in the morning all the way to dinner time with a very short break for lunch. When I was writing ‘The Good Night,’ I always (wrote) very early in the morning. I (started) probably about six or seven. I think on ‘The Good Night’ I would take a real break at lunch and then only write for an hour or two after that. So by three or four o’clock I was finished.”
Does he write on a computer or in longhand? “Both,” he replied. “I do a lot of longhand in legal pads and a lot of computer (writing). It’s an odd process. A lot of the time I’m not by my computer. I’ve always kind of done it this way — not for any reason. It just always seem to work out that about half of it’s done on pads and half of it’s done directly into the computer. And, obviously, it all ends up in the computer and I do that myself. I’m a Final Draft user.”
While writing the film, from early on he had Freeman in mind to play Gary. “I did specifically (think of) Martin Freeman, the lead character, the English actor,” Paltrow said. “I’d seen him on ‘The Office’ and I just fell in love with him. I felt that he had this unique comedic rhythm and a kind of soulfulness. He kind of reminded me — although physically he’s very different — of a Jimmy Stewart type. I really liked that and found myself writing it for him. I felt like this was exactly the kind of guy I wanted to play (the role).”
As for casting his sister Gwyneth as Gary’s not so glamorous girlfriend Dora, Paltrow pointed out, “That came much later. That was something that was initially brought up by her. I show her all my scripts. She had really loved it and she said, ‘Well, why don’t you just cast me as Dora?’ I was hesitant to do that for a number of reasons. I just didn’t want it to kind of eclipse the movie or seem like it was some sort of vanity project or any of the kind of nepotistic things that come along with that. Artistically I very much wanted to do it, but for maybe insecure reasons I was hesitant. As we cast the movie, I kind of got more and more confident that people were responding to the script and seemed to be responding to me and so by the time I had this extremely strong cast put together my insecurities kind of went away.”
It’s a role in which the beautiful Gwyneth is definitely glammed down. “It’s funny because for me that’s actually a look that I really like,” Paltrow noted. “That’s the kind of girls I’ve gone out with. Some of them kind of look that way so that comes from a personal place. But at the same time I really did want to subvert the kind of blond-haired blue-eyed Gwyneth that I think the world has this kind of strong relationship with. I think they expect a certain kind of presence when she’s that way and I really made an active decision to try to subvert that. And by doing it, I think it really informed the character in her and I think for her it was kind of exciting.
“It was a tremendous commitment. Every day it was the (very long hair) wig that she puts on, which takes a lot of time. And even more than the wig, which is not a big deal and obviously she’s done that in dozens of films, were the brown contact lenses. Every day all day long she was wearing these very heavy and rigid contacts. That really showed quite a dedication to me and the movie.”
Meanwhile, on the glamorous side of casting he had Penelope Cruz to play Anna. “She liked it,” he told me when I asked how he got her to sign on. “I didn’t know her. I had no connection to her. I sent it to her kind of really hoping that she would even read it yet alone do it. She seemed to really connect with it. We talked on the phone and I think she was talking to see if she could trust me or what my point of view would be like. We seemed to have similar taste and kind of appreciate the same things in movies. The next I know, she said she would come to England (to shoot).
“You know, in a movie like this (for) parts like Penelope’s part and Danny’s part, the commitment isn’t very long. It’s not like they have to come and make the film for three months. Penelope came to London, where we shot the film, and she was only there for about two weeks. It was a very quick piece of work. We shot the whole film in 33 days. Our last week was only with Danny DeVito and Martin Freeman on the streets of New York.”
Reflecting on working with DeVito, who’s very funny as the film’s dream therapist, Paltrow observed, “He’s a legend. He was so protective and good to me through the process besides being so great in the movie. And it’s really one of my favorite things that I’ve seen him do. But the process of working with him — he’s such a great filmmaker himself — (made me) very nervous before we started. I said, ‘I don’t know what this is going to be like. Is he going to boss me around or is he going to be nervous about where I’m putting the camera?’ And it was so the opposite of that. I think any sort of thing he brought from his own expertise was only in service to what I was trying to accomplish and, also, it seemed like at every turn he was always protecting me. Whenever he would ask questions about what we were doing technically it was only about, ‘Don’t leave until you get everything you want.’ He was an extremely supportive presence. I was really nervous before we started about working with him and then that dissipated kind of instantly once we started working together because it was such a joy.”
Paltrow got to Simon Pegg through Martin Freeman: “Martin Freeman and Simon are best friends in real life. So they have this kind of natural rhythm in the way they interact with each other. Martin turned me on to Simon. I had seen ‘Shaun of the Dead,’ which I loved (which Pegg co-wrote and starred in). He’s so great that once I saw his (work, casting him) was a no-brainer. You kind of look at him now and he’s this giant movie star.”
Although Paltrow had previously directed a short film and lot of episodic television, this was his first feature. “I think the biggest change from television to this film was that this was really all mine,” he explained. “I had written the screenplay and now I was approaching directing it. For me, for the first time there was almost a slight element of luxury based on the schedule of the movie versus a seven-day television show. I’ve always been kind of an obsessive preparer when I shoot. Just from experience I always find it’s much harder to figure out certain things on the day and the more you can figure out stuff in prep the better off you’re going to be. I just found that having 33 days versus seven, just starting from that, the level at which I could prepare was extremely high.”
Paltrow wasn’t able to spend any time rehearsing with his actors before production got under way. “So we would do our rehearsals in the morning before we would shoot,” he said. “What I like to do is bring the actors onto the set with no one else around and we first just read through the lines and make sure everything kind of sounds right. And then there’d be times, especially with Martin and Simon, when we could make certain jokes better or maybe change a couple little things here and there and then block out the scene and then light it. But there was no formal rehearsal period before we started, which I’ve never had. I think that’s actually a place where (having worked in) episodic television really helped me (in) being able to not have a rehearsal period and also to work quickly, which is not always not necessarily the best thing. But, at least, I had the skills (to do that) at least from a technical standpoint.”
Did he storyboard? “No, I’ve never done any storyboarding,” he answered. “I do shot lists because I can’t draw. So I just make lists, tons and tons of lists of everything I want to see. And certain things are very specific shots and I’ll write out, ‘We start here and travel to there’ and other things are just big reminders (like) ‘It must be this’ or ‘It must look like this’ or ‘Make sure we see that.’ And then what I essentially do is I have two binders with me when I’m shooting. One is the shooting script with notes in it and the other is this kind of giant reminder-shot list binder. It sits open to whatever scene we’re doing. I found when I was first starting out as a director and didn’t do that that things get lost and there’s nothing worse than walking away at the end of the day and then saying to yourself, ‘I forgot to get that.’
Looking back at production, I asked Paltrow how things went in London: “We filmed at Ealing Studios (the historic British studio where such classic 1950s comedies as ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ and ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ were shot), which in itself brought this kind of exoticism to the process (and) which for me was very inspiring. I was in a foreign country, a place I’d never lived in before and had only visited a couple of times. I think as a creative person heading into an environment like that the best thing for me was that there was virtually no distraction outside of the movie because I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know the city. So everything I was doing there was in service to my work. Every street, every restaurant was a potential location. It’s a great way to make a movie because there’s nothing (to take your mind off your work). I was so far away from home. Everybody knows you’re off making (a film) so you’re not bothered by anyone. I guess the simplest way to say it is that there’s just no distraction from the film and I really appreciated that.
“I think the greatest thing there for me and for the way that I like to work is you can do the 10-hour day where you do a walking lunch so you don’t break. You don’t do a 12 hour day with a one hour lunch. For me, from previous experiences, I always find it’s very hard to capture the energy you had at 12 o’clock after everyone’s gone to lunch and sat around for an hour. It takes a little while to kind of ramp back up into that energy. So the idea is that the energy never dissipates on that 10-hour schedule. That’s something I really liked.”
It’s a way of working, he added, that “here they call French hours, but I think you have to get everyone on the crew through the unions to agree to do it. If one department or one person — I really don’t know the rules — doesn’t want to do it, I think you can’t do it. But I don’t know (exactly). For me, it’s such a great way to work.”
As for the biggest challenges in filming, he explained, “For me the process is not fun per se. I think shooting is probably the time I have the most fun, which is the wrong word, but I can’t really articulate it beyond that. Everything is a challenge. It’s not a relaxing process. I lost 10 pounds on the movie. I don’t sleep at night. I guess maybe that means I have some sort of agitated personality. I’m trying to make it so it’s not that way on the next one. I’d like it to not take such a toll on me physically. But at the same time, I think that’s just side effects of caring so much about every single element in your work. So, on the one hand, it was certainly not good for me, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t take it back.”
Paltrow presents his dream sequences in a way that makes it clear to the viewer that what we’re seeing is something Gary’s dreaming. “From when I was lighting it, I had this idea to shoot reality in 16mm,” he explained, “so it’s kind of more a two-dimensional image, it’s grainer, it doesn’t look as good. And I felt like that was very much Gary’s reality — this kind of dull environment. And for the way I wanted to make the film, comparing it to another dream picture, (it’s) much more like (Woody Allen’s) ‘Stardust Memories’ type approach, which is you make things feel off or tilted in the casting and in the location, but there’s a certain level of reality and certainly a cinematic reality inside the dream.
“So what we did was shoot the dreams in 35mm and essentially the shift between the two is this resolution. The idea is when he goes from his kind of dull reality to the dreams there’s this sense of clarity. I felt like the clarity was enough and (in) the kind of formal way that we framed things and shot things we just tried to keep it very subtle. I felt if in traveling to one of these dreams, if it felt like a sigh of relief that was enough.”
We go into the dream sequences with just a few moments of dark screen to tell us that we’re leaving reality behind. “I liked that,” he said. “For me, that’s just kind of a formal and a more classical way of doing it. It’s just what I respond to in movies. I think the biggest thing was that I wanted to stay away from any sort of science fiction element. The idea is that there’s nothing in the movie that couldn’t actually happen in reality. I think often in movies that deal with this subject there are potions you drink or machines that take you there or there’s a science fiction element. That’s fine, but it’s just not what I wanted to do. I wanted to try to make a movie where you could explore some of these kinds of ideas, but it could completely exist in reality.”
Was there a particularly hard scene to film? “The most difficult stuff, which is almost not in the movie now, was shooting at the beach at a place called Camber Sands (in Sussex),” he recalled. “Everyone had warned me and tried to help me to not shoot on a beach in England in November or December because you never get sunshine. A day in England in the winter ends at 3:15. The first time we showed up to shoot that scene there were like 60 mile and hour winds and rain. It was two hours from London and we all had to drive back to London to a cover set. And again I said, ‘I really have to have this’ and we went back again and it was a little bit better and certainly (for) the shot at the end where Penelope’s just standing by the water the sun came through. But for another scene we shot, it was all muddy and the English Channel kind of brown water. It was just one of those things where I didn’t know what I didn’t know and just felt like youthful enthusiasm would just make it go my way and it didn’t.”
What he really needed, he agreed, was a beach somewhere in the Caribbean, adding with a laugh that, “It was originally written to be something like that.”
Filmmaker flashbacks: From Feb. 22, 1990’s column: “When Academy members cast their Oscar ballots they’re voting to honor work they have presumably seen. In the race for best foreign language film, however, there is no ‘presumption’ that voters have actually seen all the films. In order to vote, one must be on record as having seen all five of the nominees.
“As well intentioned as that Academy regulation is, at times it enables a single nominee to control the number of votes cast in the category. ‘When all five entries have distributors there generally is no problem since the films are either in release or their distributors arrange a suitable number of screenings for Academy members,’ explains one executive familiar with the situation.
“Two years ago, for example, there was a difficult situation for a time when one foreign film nominee decided not to schedule the additional screenings that would make it convenient for members to see the film. That would have drastically limited the number of members eligible to vote in that year’s best foreign film competition. However, after focusing here on the issue at the time, a series of screenings was hastily arranged and the crisis was happily averted.
“This year, I’m told, matters are especially complicated. Two of the foreign film nominees have no distributors — ‘Santiago, the Story of His New Life’ (Puerto Rico) and ‘Waltzing Regitze’ (Denmark). Two films are open and playing regular runs, which makes them available to the entire Academy membership — Miramax’s ‘Cinema Paradiso’ (Italy) and Orion Classics’ ‘Camille Claudel’ (France). And one film, ‘Jesus of Montreal’ (Canada), is not playing, but has just been acquired by Orion Classics…
“Aware of the importance of additional screenings, Orion Classics is reportedly considering showing ‘Jesus.’ However, at this writing no extra screenings have been scheduled for either the Danish film or the Puerto Rican film. If there aren’t any, the foreign film voting will be limited to the members of the nominating committee who have already seen the films and to the handful of Academy members who can attend one of the two official Academy screenings.
“For ‘Santiago,’ for instance, that means catching either a 3:15 p.m. showing Friday or a 9:30 p.m. screening Tuesday. Members who miss both of those showings will automatically be ineligible to vote in the best foreign language film category.
“‘I don’t blame the Academy for this,’ says one observer. ‘One would hope that a producer or country lucky enough to have a film nominated would spend some time and effort to broaden rather than narrow the vote…The smaller the vote, the better the chance for an aberration.'”
Update: The best foreign language film Oscar went to Miramax’s “Cinema Paradiso” in 1990. Its victory was, of course, one of many that the Weinsteins enjoyed during their years at Miramax and reflected their skill at awards marketing. In this case, the fact that “Paradiso” was easily accessible to Academy members was probably very helpful in the end.
Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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