Riley is really different than Jack—she’s not like that at all in real life. She’s sweet, super nice, and she apologizes for everything all the time. I think it was her eyes, but she was also committed, too. I was like, “You have to cut your hair—it’s a really big thing.” And she was ready for it.
It’s funny, she was late for her meeting when we first met. So, I just made fun of her when she showed up, and she was like, “I’ll buy you a coffee!” And then she couldn’t pay for the coffee, because the place didn’t take credit cards. So then I was like, jokingly, “Oh, man, you’re just doing really bad.” It was a coffee shop that’s also a surf shop, in New York, and they had this surf wax that you put on a surf board. She bought a thing of surf board wax in order to pay for my coffee, which was sort of this… I just thought that she was really quick-witted and resourceful.
She was just the one. There are people who make you think, That’s the person. It was like when we used to find non-actors for roles, and finding Juno was like finding somebody who’s very talented and very serious about what they’re doing. Riley was much more like the experience of finding a non-actor, which made it really exciting. In the end, it was like the whole thing was worth waiting for, all of those years of false starts, just so we could find her.
Let’s go back to the creature itself now. The look of the monster is really bizarre—it sort of resembles a werewolf, but not really. It’s much more hideous, and deformed. The word “werewolf” has definitely been used a lot in the film’s press, which is quite misleading.
Alright, good. [Laughs.] Because it’s not supposed to be a werewolf.
How’d you go about designing its look? My initial reaction to seeing it for the first time was, “What the hell is that?”
[Laughs.] OK, good. That’s what I’m hoping for. It’s one of those things where you have no idea how it will come across on screen, because I know exactly what it’s supposed to look like, and you can edit it a million times and look it over and over again and it becomes impossible to let go of.
The creature was something that I worked on with this guy Gabe Bartalos, from L.A.; he does a lot of creature stuff and effects for [artist] Matthew Barney. I first saw his designs in Matthew Barney’s book, and I thought they were really original. Once we met, we just clicked immediately. Our approach was… “Werewolf” was just a word to give people a certain idea of what it looks like, because if you say “monster” and you’re trying to pitch this to get money, people could think of an octopus. [Laughs.] But by saying “werewolf,” they’re able to reply with, “OK, so it’s on two legs.”
What Gabe and I were thinking about was, if you change into a creature like this in ten or 30 seconds, it wouldn’t be this perfect transformation. As we grow now, you get zits and warts and little defects on your body all the time, so if you’re body was transforming really quickly, there would be bloating—it wouldn’t go clean. We looked at diseases like the one the Elephant Man had, syphilis, and different diseases like that. That was the idea.
The other idea was, Diane’s face—I don’t know if you can actually see it or not—is still on the side of the creature. So it’s got three eyes. He did the cast on Juno’s head, and with her teeth, even. The skull is a polar bear’s skull, so he took the mold of a human skull that he had lying around and a mold of a polar bear’s skull and fused them together. Then he put clay on it and we worked on the rest of it together. That’s how the whole thing evolved.
It sounds like it must have taken a really long time to finally settle on the finished look.
Yeah, we talked about it for years. We’d get on the phone all the time, and Gabe’s just really fun to talk to. He’d call me and be like, “Man, I just saw this Chinese war footage about a foot being ripped off,” and he’d start describing it, to which I’d say, “OK, great—go ahead and make it!” [Laughs.] It was just really fun talking with him about it.
It was fun to take a scientific approach with it, too. We looked at a lot of medical books and a lot of different archives. He works in that effects and makeup field, but he was also doing this under his normal price for us, because he believed in the project so much. I mean, he was on it for, like, four years, so he put a lot of his time into the thing. The whole head’s robotic—the eyes blink and the jaw moves, and the parts are all expensive. He was able to get all of the parts at really low costs because he’d pitch the exact idea to them and show them our ideas and he’d get some really good responses. That was great.
The creature, before most critics have even seen the movie, is already drawing in the horror movie crowd, but Jack and Diane isn’t much of a horror movie. Do you think it’s a good or bad thing that many people are going into the film with those kinds of genre expectations?
Yeah, that’s interesting. It has definitely been covered on all of those horror websites, too. It’s funny, the very first thing that somebody wanted to do… Well, you’re one of the very first interviews I’m doing, actually, but somebody had emailed questions from this site Bloody Disgusting, just asking about the creature. But his instincts were in the right place. He was just asking questions over the Internet, but he was like, “I think it’s going to be a love story with a little bit of creature, or is it going be something that has as much horror as Let the Right One In?” And it’s a love, love, love story, but when there is a creature, it’s done effectively, I hope.
Then, he was like, “Will horror fans like the movie?” And I said, “If you’re going to see a horror movie, then you’re not going to like the movie.” But there are advantages within that genre; like, it’s not a horror movie, but our creature looks really interesting because we had the freedom to do whatever we wanted—we didn’t have to follow any genre specifications. And also because it doesn’t follow a genre, the pattern can be more open.
Have you always been aware of the horror community’s interest in the project?
Yeah. I would hear something, and also because Gabe’s a big part of that community. His name is known, so if he starts working on a film, his name starts showing up on those websites. The film is definitely gory. [Laughs.] I’m hoping that it’s something that people who are really into horror can dig. I hope that it holds as much gore value as people are hoping for—our brief little bits of gore I’m hoping are gory enough to satisfy them.
What’s interesting about the film is that the first scene, which you discussed earlier, definitely sets up something that could go full-on horror, but the story quickly redirects itself into a more romantic, tender direction.
Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. If you went in hoping for full-on horror, that first scene might make you say, “Oh, great,” but then as the movie goes along, you’ll be like, “This sucks!” [Laughs.] It doesn’t stay there. For me, the idea was to introduce the darker world so that you’re not thrown off by it later, but you also forget about it as the story continues.
It’s like you go to your friend’s house, and he lives in the woods; your car lights go out, and you have to walk a half-a-mile in the woods at night, which is terrifying. But then you walk into the house and they have dinner ready, and you go, “This is great!” You forget that you were scared, but later you have to take a pee outside, because the bathroom is broken, and as soon as you step outside, you go, “Oh, shit, I forgot—it’s terrifying out here.” [Laughs.] The movie is something like that.
When people would read the script, they’d be like, “There’s hardly any creature—can you put in more creature?” But the idea is, when you see the creature, it’s so strong that it needs to be balanced by being used in such short doses. Hopefully it works.
Earlier you mentioned how you first started working on Jack and Dianeback in 2003; it’s been such a long haul to get to the film’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere. Ultimately, what is it about this story, this project, that hasn’t ever allowed you to just forget about it and move one whenever setbacks arose?
I think it’s a thing where you start working on something and you’re just so determined to finish it, and when you’re finishing it as a script, you start falling in love with the characters. It’s hard to describe; it’s not like they’re “your children” or something, but they’re a part of you. You sort of have to believe that they exist at a certain point, to even just finish the idea. And at that point, once there’s this germ of this character and you find the actor who’s going to be playing them, then it’s like, you have to make the film and bring them to life. If you don’t, it’s like you’ve killed them.
This film took so long to do because the creature cost a lot of money to build, so you couldn’t make the film for super cheap because then you wouldn’t have that part of it. We discussed that option, but I knew that it wouldn’t have the same feeling without those little, tiny moments. But the thing that really kept me going was mainly Diane and Jack; I really just love those two girls, and I just had a commitment to them, I guess. That sounds kind of goofy, because they don’t even exist. [Laughs.] But it’s the truth.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
To find out more: Jack and Diane