Commentary: 'Brief' words about John Krasinski at Sundance


"Brief" beginnings: More often than not, passion is the common denominator when it comes to independent films.

That's certainly the case with John Krasinski's drama "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men," whose world premiere is set for Monday at Sundance. Krasinski, who's best known for starring in "The Office," makes his directorial debut with "Brief." He also adapted it to the screen and plays a role in the film. It's a project that's been close to his heart going back about eight years to when he was studying playwriting at Brown University and took part in a staged reading of the David Foster Wallace book. It was then, he says, that he first realized he wanted to be an actor.

"Brief," produced by Kevin Patrick Connors, Eva Kolodner, Yael Melamede and James Suskin, is one of 16 pictures selected for the Sundance Dramatic Competition. CAA's Micah Green is handling the film's sales. Its festival screenings include: Jan. 19 at 3:15 p.m. at Eccles Center (Park City); Jan. 20 at 8:30 a.m. at Racquet Club (Park City); Jan. 22 at 5:15 p.m. at Racquet Club; Jan. 23 at 8:30 p.m. at Library Center Theater (Park City); and Jan. 24 at 3:30 p.m. at Rose Wagner (Salt Lake City). Its press and industry screening is Jan. 20 at 4:15 p.m. at Yarrow Hotel Theater (Park City).

Wallace, who committed suicide last September after struggling with severe depression for over 20 years, examines in his book what he calls men's "hideous" nature through interviews with various examples of the species. In the movie these interviews are conducted by graduate student Sara Quinn, played by Julianne Nicholson ("Kinsey"), who after ending a relationship decides to conduct an experiment about the male psyche. Men's deepest thoughts, fears, desires and regrets are among the points she focuses on with her interview subjects. The film's cast in includes such actors as Timothy Hutton ("Kinsey"), Chris Meloni ("Nights in Rodanthe"), Bobby Cannavale ("The Station Agent"), Max Minghella ("Syriana") and Krasinski himself.

I was happy to be able to catch up with Krasinski just before he departed for Sundance and to explore with him "Brief's" origins as well as the challenges he faced making it. "It was, to be honest, absolutely thrilling," he told me. "I think I had it easy, though. I had some amazing people watching over me the whole time -- people like John Bailey (whose nearly 70 cinematography credits include films like 'In the Line of Fire,' 'As Good As It Gets' and 'How to Lose a Guy In 10 Days')."

The film being selected for Sundance, he said, "would have been in my wildest dreams the ending to this story. And the fact that it's a reality is completely overwhelming. I'm so astonished and thrilled. I've been there before with a little (2005 comedy drama) called 'Duane Hopwood' (but) because David Schwimmer was in that and doing all the press work I was just there on a glorified field trip and having a good time. Sundance has always for me been the place where it's filmmaking for film lovers. It's such a highly respected place and I'm just honored to be there."

Asked how "Brief" came about, Krasinski explained, "I had done acting at Brown really just for fun and because I had made some incredible friends. So it was always more of a fun activity. And then a friend of mine was putting together a staged reading of this book and when I saw who was getting involved it was all my friends that I really admired. So it was kind of that age old thing of really wanting to be a part of the cool kids' table. I really hoped they'd ask me and they did. I ended up doing one of the interviews, which Chris Meloni does in the movie -- and, trust me, he does a much better job than I did."

It was when they were rehearsing the interviews that Krasinski realized the material's theatrical potential: "We had rehearsed all the different interviews alone. I thought immediately that it was such great acting material, which was interesting because I don't think David ever intended to write it to be performed. But it was so well done (and) there was really a little three part (character) arc in every one of the interviews. I remember thinking that was fantastic. It wasn't until I saw all my friends do the other interviews the night we performed it that I was completely and totally moved."

It was a defining moment for Krasinski when, he said, "I realized I could try to act for my life. I really wanted to do it. It was just so incredibly moving. The impact it had on the audience was pretty amazing and I'd never seen anything like it. I'd never seen an audience so conflicted. Some people were so moved and appreciated it so much and other people found it very provocative to a point where they weren't sure how they felt. I found it so interesting that a piece could do that."

When Krasinski moved to New York to pursue an acting career, he recalled, "I wanted to work on the piece again with the same friends and try to do it (there). I was always so moved by it that I just constantly tried to get it (done). I remember finding out (about) this whole world of getting the rights. I had never known that whole world. I called and tried to get the rights and found out that it was already taken for the theater. I remember the only thing I wanted for this book was (for it) to reach more people. I wanted more people to feel the way I felt that night at Brown. And that was why I wanted to do it as a film -- because I thought it would reach more people and more people would see how much of an amazing writer he was."

Getting the novel's film rights wasn't easy. "I did get the rights after going back and forth for a while," he said, recalling how he'd met in L.A. in 2002 with Wallace's agent Bonnie Nadel. "There was about a month and a half where it was looking like we were going to get them and then I remember my manager called and said, 'It looks like they're going to say no so I'm going to fly out there and talk to them.' And I said, 'Not without me.' So we went out and I basically found myself in my first pitch session."

His pitch was exactly what it took to close the deal: "I said, 'I promise there will be no car chases, no explosions. Honestly, it's such a moving piece. You have such a talented writer. The one thing I promise is to take care of his work as best I can. I won't let it be manipulated in any way that (isn't) adhering to the book.' At that time I was 23 and, believe it or not, I got the rights within the same week or a week after shooting the pilot of ('The Office'). The show hadn't even come about yet. She (Nadel) took a real leap of faith with me and I can't thank her enough for it."

The graduate student, Sara, isn't actually a character in Wallace's book. "The interviewer in the book is only represented by the letter 'Q,' which is to say there was a question asked but you don't know who asked it or for what purpose," he pointed out. "So we had to create this whole character and back story. It's the essence of the movie (and the person through) whose eyes we're basically viewing this movie. That was really fun to come up with."

It's an element of the screenplay that Wallace was very pleased with: "Believe it or not, the one conversation I did have with David Foster Wallace was (when) he called to give me his blessing. I had written the script and we were going into pre-production so we were very far down the line. I think he thought he was just calling to give me his blessing on a script. He said, 'Just to give you a little back story on the book, it was a failed experiment.' I said, 'What do you mean by that?' And he said, 'I was trying to write a book about a character that you never hear from or see, but all the information about that person is through the other characters. I just imagine it's some girl doing her dissertation at a college (and she's) interviewing these men to get to the bottom of the male psyche. She's probably studying something like feminism.'

"My heart almost stopped because I didn't know what to say. He said, 'What's the movie about?' I said, 'To be really honest, that's exactly what my movie is.' And he couldn't believe it. It was really the highest compliment. That was when I really thought we had something special. To be true to the book was my first and main concern so that was really nice to hear."

Krasinski shot "Brief" in New York on a quick 21 day schedule: "It was very fast and furious. It's definitely the epitome of an independent film. I had -- and I think the crew and cast did, too -- a great time. You know, the key was casting. For me, I knew that I always wanted to cast all my favorite actors in New York."

Did the fact that he's an actor, himself, affect how he worked with his actors? "I think absolutely," Krasinski answered. "I've been lucky enough to work with absolutely phenomenal directors. What I found was you know what you respond to and I always responded to someone who had a clear idea of what they wanted but more importantly were also very much open to an actor bringing their own sense of the character. And every one of these people did. I think I was just guiding them. I would basically point them in the right direction and be a glorified cheerleader. I was there to provide the enthusiasm for it."

Asked how he worked as a director with himself as an actor, Krasinski laughed, "It was a tough battle. He's such a diva -- I'll tell you that! I wasn't actually going to do a part in the movie. Unfortunately, we had some trouble with casting and someone fell out right at the end and I had to do it because of budgetary and time constraints. Everybody thought it just might be better if I jumped in there. I'll tell you, it's probably the most terrifying part I've ever played because I'd just spent going on three weeks directing some of the best performances I'd seen and working with some of the best actors who had set the standards so high that I basically had left myself nowhere to go. So I had to hit that note, which was incredibly terrifying."

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