The mundane meets the subtly unsettling in Nancy, Please, first-time writer/director Andrew Semans’ unique blend of highbrow laughs, everyday paranoia, and overqualified slacker anxieties that had its world premiere at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festivallast Saturday (and has two more screenings on the NYC fest’s schedule, one tonight at 10 p.m. EST and the other this Saturday at the same time).
Just how “mundane” are we talking here? Check the simple premise: An overachiever named Paul (Will Rogers) relocates a new house with his girlfriend (Rebecca Lawrence), realizes that a classic novel (Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit) he needs for his Yale graduate dissertation wasn’t packed for the move, and proceeds to demand that his old roommate, the grungy and cold Nancy (Eléonore Hendricks), give it back. For 80 minutes straight.
But what’s most impressive about Nancy, Please is how Semans cleverly stretches Paul’s seemingly rudimentary predicament into a full-length, completely engaging character study. In fact, it’s one of the best movies we’ve seen via this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, an engrossing balance of intelligent humor and probing drama that repeatedly flirts with turning into an all-out psychological horror show. And fortunately, Semans avoids any genre-specific temptations in favor of unconventional tonal shifts and blurred classification.
Complex caught up with Semans, in the midst of his hectic first-ever film festival experience, to discuss the film’s origins, the challenge of making a suspense movie that’s not technically a “suspense movie,” and the joys of making grown women scream in bloody horror.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
To find out more: Nancy, Please
When I first read the synopsis for Nancy, Please, my immediate reaction was to say, “How in the hell are they going to make an interesting 90-minute movie about a guy who wants to retrieve a lost book?” And thankfully, you’ve found a way.
[Laughs.] Yeah, it’s one of those movies. We were struggling with the synopsis, actually, because it’s one where if you just describe it to somebody as, “It’s about a guy who really wants a book back from somebody else,” they’re probably going to think, Wow, that sounds really boring. But I like to think it’s a little more interesting than the one-sentence premise would suggest.
When did that idea first hit you?
The project, as a whole, took a while to finish, but it actually happened pretty quickly once we finished the script. It took us a while to write the script because my co-writer [Will Heinrich] and I would write it in little bits; I was working on other things and he was working on other things, so it was something that we’d get back into for a little while, then abandon for a little while, and then go back to it again. So that took about a year and a half.
Once I had the script, it didn’t take very long. Once I got it to my producers, they got it together pretty quickly. We were editing for a while, post-production took a while, though we shot back in November 2010. But, all told, the whole thing, from conception to completion, took about three years, which, for a movie, is actually pretty short.
Did you base the character of Paul and everything that happens to him on real-life experiences?
The way it worked was, when we came up with the basic idea for the story, it had nothing to do with any personal issues that we were dealing with, or anything that was autobiographical. My co-writer and I sat down and I knew that I wanted to write a script that’d be my first feature; I knew that it’d be very low budget, because I wanted to work on a low budget—I wanted to break in that way. So we tried to come up an idea that we could execute with modest means.
What I always like to do when I’m coming up with ideas, or if I’m stumped for an idea, is to come up with the simplest thing you can think of, just the most basic shred of a plot or the most basic conflict, and build from there. I feel like if you’ve got something really simple, as long as you interrogate hard enough or focus on it long enough then a lot of other themes, ideas, and/or personal themes will come up, so that’s what we tried to do. And we came up with this: A person has something that another person wants, this person won’t give it back. That felt like a nice, basic concept, and we went from there.
We started thinking, OK, so what is the “thing,” and who are the people? But gradually, from this skeletal idea, themes and experiences my personal life and my co-writer’s personal life started to pour in, so eventually it did become a very personal movie, although it’s not based on any personal experience I’ve had. I always say that the story is not autobiographical, but it’s thematically autobiographical. I can relate, I’m sad to say, very well to the main character.
The film is set in a very nicely realized academic world, with Paul’s experiences at Yale and his longing for a Charles Dickens novel needed for a dissertation about governmental themes in the author’s work. Is that a world you come from personally?
No, no, not at all. [Laughs.] I went to film school; I’m not an academic or an intellectual. There are a lot of people in my life who have had that experience, so I had some familiarity with it. But I’d never even been to New Haven, Connecticut, or Yale, where the movie is set, until we were finished with the script. That stuff all came from other places.
A little bit. That’s a good question. Yeah, I think we wanted to have a character who ostensibly is a winner, an achiever. He’s gone very far in his academic career, he’s at a very good school, and he looks like he’s going to get his doctorate, and, as a result, he probably feels like he’s going to have a nice career in academia. And we liked the idea of taking someone who isan achiever but has reached the extent of his abilities to achieve—he’s reached his limit. We liked the idea of revealing that he’s a bit of a faker, or someone who may not have the intellectual chops or the ambition that appears to have. Someone who’s kind of way to sail through, but has now hit a wall.
I feel like that, at times in my life, I’ve been able to… I feel like a lot of people feel this way, that sometimes you get to a certain place but you’ve just faked your way there. Then you feel like you’re suddenly going to be revealed as a phony or a fake. [Laughs.] I think that’s where this character is at the beginning of the movie: He feels like he’s going to be outed as somebody who’s notas intelligent or not as capable as he would like to think of himself.
Will Rogers, the actor who plays Paul, does a great conveying all of that, too. How’d you find him?
I love Will, he’s also the greatest guy—he’s such a nice guy. He just auditioned when we were auditioning guys for the part; we had seen a lot of guys, and a lot of terrific actors, but there was something I was looking for with the character that I wasn’t seeing in a lot of the other actors that Will brought and had immediately when he came in. The character is really, in a lot of ways, despicable and annoying—he can be a very unsympathetic character. He does a lot of stupid things and makes a lot of big mistakes. I was thinking, Well, our biggest challenge is to figure out how we were going to make this guy compelling enough that people would spend the whole movie with him despite the fact that he’s making all of these stupid decisions, and acting in a really destructive way.
I was looking for someone who seemed very human and had a great deal of vulnerability, and seemed even hapless or childlike, to offset some of his more troubling characteristics; maybe he’s not fully aware of what he’s doing. And Will has all of that in spades. He’s so inherently… I guess “human” is the word. I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m damning him with faint praise. [Laughs.] But he can have this sort of childlike, puppy dog quality, this kind of, “What? Who? Me?” sensibility. He had that when he came in, he saw that in the character, and I really liked it. He’s also just got great chops—he’s a very good, well-trained actor.
One of the things that makes Paul an unsympathetic character is the ways in which he views Nancy. In the beginning of the film, we don’t see her all that much, so all we have to base her on is Paul’s opinion, and it often feels like he’s condemning her simply because she looks and act differently than he does.
Totally, that was definitely a key thing for us. We really like this idea of making our main character someone who is sympathetic and feels like the protagonist at the beginning of the movie, but gradually that becomes problematic. Gradually, you realize that maybe he isn’t such a great guy, and maybe his account of things isn’t so reliable, and by the end of the movie he’s really become the bad guy. He’s his own worst enemy, and he’s the antagonist. We really like the idea of slowly shifting from Paul to… Well, away from Paul or to Nancy. It’s this idea that the things he’s saying about Nancy and his attitude toward her may not be entirely reality-based. He may be a lot more complicit in his own demise than he would let on.
Did you base Nancy on anyone from your own life?
Nancy isn’t even really a character—she’s just sort of a concept, or an idea, that Paul has in his head, because you really don’t know her. You really don’t get to hear from her until the very end of the movie, and then she becomes a little bit of a character because you finally hear her talking in her own voice, and get the sense that, OK, this is some real human being and not just a monster.
In terms of what you do know about Nancy, she was actually largely inspired by a person I knew who… Well, I can’t get into it here. [Laughs.] But there was someone in my life who was a bit like Nancy, who acted as the kind of template for her attitude and look. And, there you go; I can’t really say much more than that.
Fair enough. What the character of Nancy does really well, especially when she’s not even on the screen, is add a distinct element of suspense/thriller to the film. Was the plan from the beginning to have Nancy, Please walk that line between genre movie and non-genre movie?
I always knew I wanted to go there. When we started writing this, I just said, “I just love genre movies—I love thrillers, I love crime movies, I love horror movies.” So I definitely wanted to play around with that stuff, but I knew that I didn’t want to make a full-on genre movie; we didn’t feel like we were going to have the money necessary, and I didn’t have the experience, but I wanted to try to incorporate those elements. It was very purposeful that we tried to do something that really isn’t a full-on psychological thriller or a full-on horror movie, but it kind of suggests those things without actually going all the way into genre. I really like that idea of having genre just hover around the edges.
During the screening I attended, there was one specific moment which convinced me that Nancy, Please is indeed a genre movie: It’s the scene where Paul finally gets into Nancy’s home and sneakily looks for the book, and then she makes her presence known in a rather shocking way. There were these two women sitting behind me who let out these blood-curdling screams, and I haven’t seen that happen in a long time—that’s coming from a guy who sees every horror movie imaginable.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I love that! I love that people have that reaction. When we shot that scene, I said to myself, “Is this going to work? Is it going to be too hokey?” But when Nancy appears in that scene, it gets a great reaction. That’s my favorite part of watching the movie with an audience, definitely. That happens every time, there’s always a big gasp; when you’re sitting there watching your own movie, it’s just nice when people are audibly reacting to scenes. When they laugh at the funny parts, that’s also great, but that specific moment is one that I’m especially happy about.
And, yeah, that scene does have violence and it’s definitely a genre moment. It’s a thriller moment. Our sort of guiding principle while writing was that our main character, Paul, as the story goes and he feels more and more persecuted, he keeps thinking that he’s in a thriller, or he keeps thinking that he’s in a horror movie, but the reality around him never quite conforms to it. Everything stays mundane even as his psychology spirals out of control. We like that notion of all the story’s insanity being localized in this one man’s head.
I also think that what makes the scene so effective is that, prior to it, we’ve never really had a chance to be around Nancy for more than a few seconds at a time, and all we’ve seen, thanks to the unnerving pre-credit sequence, and heard have been swayed to reflect Paul’s untrustworthy point-of-view.
Yeah, through the whole first two-thirds of the movie, I liked to give the sense that… We wanted to give enough information to make it to where you don’t quite know what Nancy was capable of. Was she dangerous? Was she not? Is she this dumb trailer park girl, or is she actually somebody who is sinister and malevolent? And we wanted to give enough information to suggest these things without showing our hand too much, so that when she does act out in this big way, yeah, it does come as a surprise.
Up until that point in the movie, there’s no violence or anything like that, so maybe that’s why it comes as a surprise. It takes a quick left turn into something that’s a lot more intense, but we like that a lot: revealing just enough information about Nancy to keep it provocative but also play it pretty close to our chest.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
To find out more: Nancy, Please