Opening this Friday from Roadside Attractions is an extraordinary film that begs the question as to what moves us with WORDS AND PICTURES.
The film tells the story of English teacher Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) who is just bored with teaching. New art teacher Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) brings a challenge to his life. When they are not sharpening their verbal swords on each other a bet begins. Is it possible for two groups of students to prove which is more powerful – words or pictures?
I had the opportunity to speak with the director Fred Schepisi about this film but his history is filled with some of my favorites. From the 1984 film ICEMAN, followed by the 1988 CRY IN THE DARK it led to one of the most stellar films made in the 1993 film SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION.
After seeing WORDS AND PICTURES I had so many questions to ask!
Thank you for taking the time to talk with me Fred.
Thank you as well Jeri.
You got me! I was really excited to talk to you today. What drew you to the idea of making this film?
A really good script with an interesting subject to explore on so many levels. There was the humor and the realistic people struggling with real problems. It is also about two people finding one another and maybe being able to go forward together. It’s also about the state of schools and education, all of it really. It was just a good script.
Did you find it difficult trying to bring both those meanings out equally in the film?
No, I liked that. It gives an extra dimension to things as oppose to just one dimension. Even when I have a simpler looking story line, I like to put layers under that. A lot of people get a surprise if they happen to see one of my films twice or even three times where they say ‘I haven’t seen that before!’ That’s one of the attractions.
The interesting thing for me was that it was putting art and literature together, is that something you found interesting as well?
You can blame the writer for that of course. It’s a good discussion and my wife is a painter and you are dealing with words and pictures. Sometimes I find you have a character in a film and viewers think ‘that’s like me’ then you put in a lot of dialogue naming the person and they still don’t know who it is until you show them visually. If you don’t show it, then it doesn’t register with people. Sometimes words are powerless and there are times when words actually do something else with a scene. I did SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION and the writer said ‘the words are the wallpaper and it’s what’s happening under the words is what this film is about’. So the words are there and they are very clever but that’s not what its about at all. It’s about people reacting to one another. So I’m doing that all the time so I thought this was a good thing to explore.
Working with Clive and Juliette, at first I thought it was an odd pairing, how did you get them to be so fluid and amazing? They were both self destructive in their own ways.
Absolutely! Some credit goes to the script and some goes to the actors themselves. Clive and Juliette wanted to work together. There was an attraction in the mischievous senses of humor that they have. They also had great respect for what they’ve achieved. They brought that to the set. It was careful planning because Juliette kept haranguing him or knocking him back and you’d think why would he have any interest in her? Then you see the twinkle in her eye even though she’s seemingly tough and strong. She had an enjoyment at being able to come back at Clive’s character. There’s a lot of that with pieces in the film that really help you follow the characters progression.
They both have a stunning self deprecating sense of humor.
That is very true.
Working with the kids, how was that for you because the kids were amazing.
We went through a lot of people in casting. The film is set in New England but we filmed in Vancouver. We were trying to cast in New York and L.A. but we put on a special thing in Vancouver and the kids has less ‘acting’ to them and they brought a lot of realism to it. I thought they were wonderful.
I felt that they were so relatable; it was easy to feel a lot from them. Were you on a tight schedule to film this?
I was, on a very tight schedule. We were skating to the edge all the time. Fortunately we had a really good crew and willing acting. They were all prepared and ready but still had time to explore and experiment which was great. Everything jelled and sometimes you get lucky and everything goes right. We only had seven weeks of preproduction which is not a lot for what we had to do and seven weeks of shooting.
The intensity of the emotions that the characters bring to the story I have to ask as the director watching them perform, were you at any time just stunned?
Yes, very much so and delighted which is probably a better word.
This scene that got me the most was when Clive messes up her painting and she wakes up and is rightfully so – upset. It’s like she wasn’t crying because he messed up her painting but more so for letting him in when she knew she shouldn’t have. Her painting like her happiness was an illusion.
That is exactly the situation where the picture is more powerful than the words. There is such loss and regret on both their faces and it just sits there. The pictures worked.
I noticed you were not quick to cut away from any scene. I’m assuming that was intentional?
Absolutely it was.
So you are looking for the ‘gotcha’ moment all through the film.
I’m giving you props here.
I like for the emotions to have a natural progression. You need to understand who you need to be watching, whether its one or both, at any given time and not cutting backwards and forwards. Staying on someone, watching what they go through and allowing it to happen is more powerful than any trickery in the world.
With all the junk that’s on the screen right now, I feel like you captured so much intensity and allowed us to feel without being told HOW to feel.
Thank you so much for that. I much prefer to do that. Actually, there was a time in the 60s or the 70s they used a lot less music which I like. Now, most pictures are back to the non-stop music just banging on and banging on and banging on and you don’t know what to feel – which is rot, complete rot.
Thank you for saying what I hold back. It is very difficult to make me tear up and you did that!
I appreciate that so much.
Thank you so much for sharing with us Fred. I can’t wait for audiences to see your film.
This weekend take a moment to see a film that is ripe with emotion between two teachers and a topic that gives everyone something to think about and decide for yourself when it comes to the debate of WORDS AND PICTURES.