“Rocket Science“ — the first feature of Oscar-nominated Jeffrey Blitz (“Spellbound”) — screened at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival freshly laureled from Sundance, where it won the Best Directing Award. Thus when I met director Jeffrey Blitz and his lead actor Reece Thompson at the Mark Hopkins, they were both in high confident spirits. The film, at that stage, was about midway through its festival circuit but is now just about to open theatrically.
SF360: First of all, congratulations on winning directorial feature at Sundance. That’s not bad, huh?
Jeffrey Blitz: Yeah, that was fun.
SF360: One of the things I’ve heard a lot about this movie — and, by the way, I very much enjoyed ‘Rocket Science’ — some people have said, ‘This is your standard quirky Sundance indie coming-of-age story; it’s formulaic.’ I have no problem with formula, especially if it works, right? And ‘Rocket Science’ is fresh in how it plays with formula. Can you talk about how you made the formula fresh?
Blitz: Sure. For me, I’m not a fan of formula in movies. I think when you try to tackle a genre that’s been done so many times before — the coming of age genre is something that a lot of filmmakers for a first film out have tried to do — I felt [that] in order to get out of formula, I had to be aware that people were going to come in with certain expectations about exactly how it was going to go and do whatever I could to cleverly let the story play out in its own organic way and try to flip people’s expectations about how this coming-of-age story was going to unfold.
Reece Thompson: Also, I’d like to point out that Jeff was actually involved in debate when he was in high school and did much better than [my character Hal Hefner] did so — if he had actually written the script to follow his story — Hal would have gone on to win awards and break records and that would have been very formulaic.
Blitz: Yeah, right. Once you set a story in motion, you need to try to obey where it naturally wants to go. You do an injustice to the premise and to the characters you’ve created if you try to pigeonhole that. I really tried to not be hung up on that part of it.
SF360: I’m glad you didn’t literalize the winning because Hal actually does win — he learns to be a better person; he learns what’s inside of himself and how to cope with things better — so he does win; it’s just not the standard triumph on a stage with a trophy lifted overhead.
Blitz: I take it out of the category of whether he wins or not because in our culture we’re very hung up on the idea of winners and losers and the movie tries to look at that too. From the beginning of the movie, even if he doesn’t know it, he’s looking for a more expansive sense of himself and the world around him. Perhaps he’s taken one step closer to that; but, it’s not like someone’s going to pop out of the shadows and hand him a trophy for that. That’s just life. That’s what, hopefully, just happens when you grow up.
SF360: I’m interested in how the two of you worked together to develop the character of Hal Hefner. Once you decided on Reece, how did you two go about shaping Hal’s character?
Thompson: Jeff just talked to me about the way he wanted the stutter to come across. He actually had a speech pathologist come in and talk to me about how to stutter, which was really strange because he normally teaches kids not to stutter. We did a week of rehearsals with the whole cast and — the one thing that was really helpful — Jeff told us embarrassing, horrible stories from his childhood, which was great to apply to individual scenes. I remember there was one point where [Jeff] was trying to give me directions on something and I said, ‘Was it like that time when the policeman had the flashlight in your eyes’ and Jeff said, ‘Yes! Exactly!’ It was the perfect way to [receive direction].
Blitz: [Chuckles.] I tried to be clear with Reece and with the other actors that it was really important for me to see — not only that they could handle how hard the dialogue is in [the film] — but, I wanted them to try to own these people. If they were holding them at arm’s length so they could laugh at them, it wasn’t the same as really being there. So we would do exercises before I started to shoot. I can’t remember whether we had you write journal entries also or whether that was just Anna?
Thompson: Nick and I did it once.
Blitz: Yeah, right. To try to get them to inhabit the mind of the person they were playing and — sometimes based on some improv stuff that they would do or journal stuff that they would write — I would end up borrowing lines from them and changing lines in the script according to what had naturally come from them.
SF360: The ‘spreading’ speed-speaking of the debate team and the blocking stutter of Hal’s character was a great contrast. As expressions of articulation, the range was magnificent.
SF360: Reece, I’ve read that you want to become a director and a screenwriter. What can you say that you’ve learned from working with Jeffrey that you can apply to your future career as a filmmaker?
Thompson: Pretty much everything. Seriously. This was the best script I’ve ever read.
Blitz: You’ve only read two.
SF360: That doesn’t discount his praise, Jeff. [Laughter.]
Thompson: The best script I’ve read. And his whole style. You always learn something from everyone you’re around.
Blitz: And I actually want to be an actor and I’ve learned so much from Reece.
Blitz: No, no, no. That’s a lie. I don’t even want to direct anymore.
Thomson: And he didn’t learn anything from me ever.
SF360: As far as I’m concerned, any movie that can feature Burt Bacharach’s ‘The Blob’ and ‘Kiss Off’ by the Violent Femmes in its soundtrack scores big points. Can you talk about the soundtrack, including Eef Barzelay’s contribution? His odd mixture of percussive instruments proved interesting.
Blitz: Eef Barzelay is the lead singer of Clem Snide, this small indie band, and they wrote a lot of music about the angst of growing up in New Jersey. I was listening to a lot of Clem Snide while I was writing the script. Their music became a part of the script. When it came time to figure out who should do the score, I said to HBO, ‘Y’know, I bet if we got Clem Snide to do the score, I bet they would feel as if the turf that they were on was good Clem Snide turf.’ We sent the movie to Eef who got it and loved it. The more we talked about it, the more we realized that I was going for a movie that had a lot of heart and a lot of soul to it but that wasn’t afraid of the quirks of the characters and wasn’t afraid to let an audience really laugh. We decided to have music that felt like it had a lot of soul to it but then to have that music played on a palette of instruments that would make you smile
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