About Alex marks writer-director Jesse Zwick's feature film debut. Starring an ensemble cast made up of Jason Ritter, Max Greenfield, Aubrey Plaza, Jane Levy, Maggie Grace, and Nate Parker, the movie tells the story of best friends who reunite for a weekend after one of their own attempts suicide. No, The Big Chill comparisons aren't lost on Zwick, but trust, this film stands on its own. It's a poignant meditation on the depth and meaning of friendships in an age when keeping in touch is easier than ever.
Prior to camping out in the Catskills to film his ensemble dramedy, Zwick was a writer on Parenthood,, but he'd never gone behind the camera. It's an understatement to say that getting in the director's chair for About Alex was a risky move. However, Zwick pulled it off with the support of a talented crew, a present and patient cast, and tips from his famed filmmaker father, Ed Zwick, (Glory, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond).
Complex spoke to Zwick, whose film premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival tonight, about how he landed his stellar cast, what life was like on set, and the advice he got from his director dad.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
How did you get the cast together?
It was a long, tricky process because it's a real ensemble in which all seven of the parts are fairly meaty, but roughly equal sides. It required getting actors together who were excited to play off one another. And because it was going to be filmed in a remote location in upstate New York, I wanted everyone to be on-board with the idea of being in this space and not having cell service. They turned out to be a great, unselfish bunch who were into it, which was key because one of the most important things in the movie was to create a real rapport among these people. We had to sell the fact that they had a shared history.
Considering how remote you all were together, did any crazy cast and crew stories come out of filming?
I didn’t realize the extent to which the whole crew was hanging out and bonding until a few weeks in, when I finally allowed myself to go out with the crew when I thought that I had a minute. I suddenly realized that the reason why everyone was so dead tired on set every day was because they were partying every night for the last three weeks. It actually made me less sympathetic to their cries that we were working long hours because I realized that they were actually just staying up late enjoying each other.
The actors mainly got out of town on the weekends, but occasionally they would stick around, especially Jason Ritter. Jason and Aubrey went to some divey karaoke bar where they met a bunch of kids who Jason went cliff-jumping with the next day in the river.
Was it intimidating, with this being your first feature film, to have all these established actors in your cast?
Totally. I believed in the script so I thought it was going to come out okay, but I'm still a little confused on how I managed to hoodwink these actors into believing that I knew what I was doing. [Laughs.] As a result, I tried to approach it in a really collaborative way and seek out the actors' opinions on individual scenes. Occasionally I thought that maybe I was being too much of a pushover and I needed to be more of a hard-ass on them and then maybe I would be a better director, but I think we all got along really well.
Max Greenfield, Aubrey Plaza, and Jane Levy all star on hilarious sitcoms. Was the set as funny as it seems like it would be?
Actually, one of the great things about the movie was seeing them take on these roles because a number of them are funny, but they also have some dramatic elements that I haven't seen them do. I think that's going to be fun for their fans to watch.
But Jason Ritter and Max Greenfield really took to each other. They'd take on these weird dude personas and translate the more emotional exchanges in the script in that bro vernacular. They'd riff back and forth for hours between takes, which was something that kept the spirits up of the cast and crew on those long nights. And they'd play music on the record player between takes and improv in weird ways. They kept us all sane.
There's undoubtedly a Big Chill vibe to the film. Was it your intention to create a kind of remake or homage?
I like making movies about things that fascinate me and, in the this case, I was interested in how we benefit from technology and how you never really lose touch with people. We can stay in touch with more people than ever before while putting in less of an effort and, as a result, we have more friends than we ever did. But it’s an open question to how well we know some of these people and what our obligations are to them. So I wrote about a reunion of a group of old friends in order to explore that question.
The Big Chill is a movie that I love and it definitely shares a premise in the sense that it's about a reunion of old friends brought together by a tragic event, but it goes in a different direction. I've always loved the sort of droll and humorous treatment of death and suicide. I've always also been a big fan of movies like Harold and Maude and Kicking and Screaming.
Working on this project was my film school.
Did your dad give you any tips on tackling this first project?
I did a lot of writing beforehand and a few scripts that didn’t go anywhere. My dad was always my first reader, my biggest critic, and my biggest fan, so he encouraged me to explore this side of my writing. For a long time, I was a little bit skeptical that he was looking at my work through rose-colored glasses because he was my father. But he helped in a million ways in putting this project together.
We did this cram session where he tried to give me 40 years of directing experience in three hours. He emphasized that if something feels good in the moment, you should probably try to do it again just a little faster because movie time is not the same as real time. In the end, he was like, “Well, you're only going to learn how to do this by doing it.” He gave me a list of 10 things to do as a director, which I tried to refer to on set, but it's such a chaotic place that I wasn’t exactly able to look over it. When it came down to making the movie, it was just me, for better or worse.
Had you filmed anything before this?
I've played with cameras before and I have a background in still photography, so it was familiar to me on that level. But I didn’t have a lot of experience with directing and making smaller projects. It was definitely scary to jump into a feature film without the experience that's typical for someone at this stage. I just had to trust my vision for this project and the really talented people around me, especially my DP Andre Lascaris. He was an incredible collaborator and someone who helped me think about this project visually.
In a way, working on this project was like my film school. I'm excited and eager to do it again and do even better, but I'm definitely a little nervous for the world to see my film school project.
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