I had the opportunity to sit down with writer/director Justin Lerner and co- writer Katharine O'Brien at the Seattle International Film Festival to discuss their new film, THE AUTOMATIC HATE (http://www.aintitcool.com/node/71674). The film follows Davis Green (Joseph Cross), a man whose life changes suddenly with the arrival of a cousin (Adelaide Clemens) he never knew he had. The pair begins to unearth some of the deepest, darkest secrets of their family history, while also struggling to understand the attraction growing between the two of them.
Justin and Katharine began by discussing some of the more morally ambiguous aspects of the film and audience responses to being asked to identify with a rather taboo love story.
Justin: We were writing the script and we want you to want them to get together, even though you know, technically, some of the people will have moral objections to it. But anything that I write, I am always looking to find something morally grey that the character you’re rooting for does, so it puts the ownus back on you to decide how you feel about it.
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Katharine: I think that this movie might be something that people’s response to might change over a long period of time. If this is a movie they see while they’re young and believe in young love, they might feel one way about it, but after, you know, a few hard knocks, learning about the realities of life a little more, they might come back to it with a different view.
Justin: Or realizing the security and safety of a stable relationship, like this character has. She’s [Davis’ longtime girlfriend, played by Deborah Ann Woll] maybe not as exciting, but she’s a constant. She’s a sure thing.
Katharine: And then you sound like your parents.
Horrorella: Transitioning there, so how did your parents react to seeing this?
Justin:They’re proud. But there was one point when I showed it to my dad, where he turned to me after one of the big secrets revealed and said “Justin, you guys are fucked up.” But he also really was proud of getting Richard Schiff and Ricky Jay in the movie, who are two of his favorite actors.
Horrorella: You have a great cast - seeing Richard Schiff and particularly Ricky Jay, I was so excited because I’m a big fan too – can you talk a little bit about how they came on board and how they worked with their characters?
Katharine: Yeah, it was a really great experience working with Richard because there’s a lot of characters, and with every pass, you kind of focus on another character to develop and bring out. And the film was getting set up and coming along, but we really just hadn’t gotten to that place with his character where we could really flesh him out.
Richard wanted to come on board on the condition that he could really find his way into the character and we got a chance to sit down with him and we had originally written the character to be somebody who is just shut off from his son [Davis]. You know, it’s kind of like a wall and there’s no communication and after that’s not very playable. At least it’s not very interesting. And it doesn’t involve you in the character very much. So instead of just making him a clichéd cut off dad, we had them only relate to each other intellectually. But not be very honest emotionally or be very forthcoming.
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Justin: That played in well - the lack of love and emotion, but more intellectual connection, which actually speaks to a bigger theme in the film which is the thinking mind, which is only obsessed with rules and following everything that society puts upon you rather than acting out of impulse, and raw, carnal desire. So you have two brothers who see the world completely differently, and the kids kind of stuck in the crosshairs between them.
You have one family that is 100% action and 0% thought. The Greens who live in the woods – they eat what they want, they punch who they want to punch, they fuck who they want to fuck – they do whatever they want. So Alexis Green and her sisters have been raised by a dad who believes you should indulge any desire you have, and not feel guilty for it, and you have the other brother who is the polar opposite, who believes that society breaks down if you don’t keep your desires in check. Because if we all indulge our desires he thinks that chaos would become a pervasive quality of society.
You have these two different ideologies or ways to see the world and you see this struggle in Davis. So that was a great way Katharine and I took Richard Schiff’s character more into the intellectual. It brought out the theme more.
And with Ricky, when we wrote the role...I kind of always pictured him in my mind for it. Because I’m just a fan of his. But if you think about it, we were looking for a guy who kind of physically conveys that he could play a mountain man in the woods, but then has a very high intellect to him when you hear him speak. Which is why you have a farmer doing the crossword puzzles- it’s a nice juxtaposition of images. Because it’s a nice surprise to know that he went to Harvard and he’s there by choice and it made his character more unique. So I think Ricky loved that.
Katharine: It was different for him.
Justin: He never gets these roles.
Horrorella: Yeah. And that was something that was so enjoyable when watching it was seeing him take on this very different character that got really intense – he’s a really intimidating figure in the film.
Justin: Scary, right? When he screams at the dinner - I don’t want to give too much away - but every single time he did that, while cutting it, my editor’s dog would jump. He’d be fast asleep, and he would start whimpering.
Ricky also said when we met after he read the script - and he’s got this high, really fun, really great voice. Very distinctive - And he goes ‘So Justin, I get offered primarily gangsters and magicians. And I read this script, and you’ve got me playing a Harvard-educated, pot smoking, pot growing hippie pig farmer. You write a character like that, and you think Ricky Jay??? I just had to meet you just to figure out what the hell is going on with you.”
And then I explained – Katharine coined this - he’s an intellectual mountain man. So we’re clearly big fans of both of theirs. But I think they work as brothers quite nicely.
Horrorella: Can you talk a little about how the idea was conceived and how everything spread out from there? One of the great things about the film was just that it’s so complex and it takes on a lot of different faces – from being this really complicated family drama to this very complicated relationship piece, and there’s a psychological thriller creeping up in the middle.
Katharine: We really just stuck to the story and the themes we thought were interesting. I believe that comedy and drama shouldn’t really be separate because our experience of life is, even at the heaviest times, filled with moments of humor.
Justin: I think it started with the idea of the relationship between the cousins. And adding the mystery element kept the script moving. It kept the story moving. It kept things really good in the writing process of making sure we were always getting to the next piece and making sure each scene is leading to another scene where we would want to know the answer of what’s going to happen next. The natural human inclination is to want to know what happens next, but you’re only getting a part of the picture. So in that way, you’re almost tricking people into taking in the romance underneath that. Because you’re so focused on the “what the hell happened” and before you know it – smack – they’re falling for each other. And even in that way, it makes it not a love story and not a mystery, but kind of both. The mystery/thriller elements are there, and so are the love story and the accidental attraction story. But it’s also a brother family rivalry – like a Shakespearean, two families who hate each other movie as well. So putting them all in there allows you to enjoy all of them simultaneously.
Katharine: And what a good area to apply the mystery genre to – investigating the past secrets of families. So many things get accumulated over the years, so it was very easy to do. And also, we wanted to make that side of the family that lives upstate alluring and we wanted to make it
tempting. His journey into the edge, the boundless side of his personality – it is more fun. So of course they would be charming people, and funny and sexy.
Horrorella: And the polar opposite to the family that he’s grown up with.
Justin: Yeah – it’s really fun to take an audience on a ride where they can go somewhere they would never go in real life. I think everyone has had a desire that they haven’t acted on. For one reason or another. If it’s someone told you that you can’t, and you’re afraid of getting caught, or your own set of morals, or your own system of guilt. So ultimately, with movies, I think you have an opportunity with a story like this to let them indulge in it for a second vicariously and then realize that if you get stuck in that world of desire and indulgence too long, it can be fun, but you can see how dangerous it can also get. I love trying to challenge an audience a little bit. I love captivating an audience. I think ultimately, if you hate the film or if it makes you severely uncomfortable, it’s more interesting to me than indifference. Indifference for me is, we fail.
Horrorella: I wanted to talk a little bit, Justin, about the relationship between this film and everything your exploring here, and your first film, GIRLFRIEND, which is also kind of taking on atypical, envelope-pushing relationships. What do you see as being the connection between those?
Justin: I’ve always been interested in putting either relationships or situations or images that haven’t been put on film before. Or something at least I’ve never seen. And when I think about who I am and what interests me in my life and the kinds of things I am interested in learning more about in the world, it’s morality. And it’s redefining and investigating and examining and dissecting morality. That fascinates me to no end. And in my films so far, I’m trying to push the audience into a grey area in which we can examine relationships that are “abnormal” or that are frowned upon or troublesome in some way. Whether that’s a young man with Down’s Syndrome and a single mother [as in GIRLFRIEND], or it’s two first cousins who have been estranged, or the third thing I’m writing which is about a young star who gets pregnant and they have to cover it up. So they hire a double for nine months. And it’s about a complicated relationship between these two girls.
Horrorella: And is the third one something that you guys will be collaborating on again?
Justin: She's working on a new film right now that's she's going to direct, so I wrote this next one by myself.
Horrorella: Katharine, what is your new film about?
Katharine: It's a story about a group of friends chasing a friend around LA who has gone off his medication and trying to get him back on his meds. It's based on something I experienced with a friend and I learned a lot about the mental healthcare system and how impossible it is to get somebody help when you really want to. I learned that a lot of the time, there are simple, little things that we can do that address the issue, but there are a lot of fears and hesitations surrounding it.
THE AUTOMATIC HATE was picked up by Film Movement and is expected to hit theaters this winter. Check out my review here (http://www.aintitcool.com/node/71674), and keep an eye out for more info in the coming months. Thanks again to Justin Lerner and Katharine O'Brien!