Three orphans find themselves at the mercy of abusive zealots in “The Reaper’s Children,” a young adult novel from author William Peters, the character played by theatre and screen legend Austin Pendleton in Stephen Cone’s deeply intriguing drama, “Black Box.” It’s the director’s fourth feature effort, following his widely acclaimed 2011 masterwork, “The Wise Kids.”
The film stars Josephine Decker as Holly, a grad student passionately adapting Peters’s book for the stage. Her cast includes Madeline (Jaclyn Hennell), a home-schooled Catholic with a fear of nude scenes, Eddie (Dennis Grimes), a devoted husband racked with grief after his wife’s miscarriages, and Adam (Alex Weisman), a repressed man who can’t believe he’s caught the eye of his hunky co-star, Brandon (Nick Vidal). There’s also Amy (Maggie Suma), a deadpan stage manager whose quizzical glances serve as the film’s comic relief.
On the heels of the movie’s sold-out Chicago premiere at the Reeling Film Festival (rush tickets will be available), Indie Outlook chatted with Cone, Grimes, Hennell, Suma and Wiseman about their experiences making this immensely provocative picture.
Q: What were your first impressions of the script?
Dennis Grimes (DG): The script hooked me immediately. It was difficult to pin down, both earnest and mysterious. Tonally, “Black Box” is peculiar. It is gothic in the American Gothic sense with a John Hughes structure. The people of the film are awkward but honestly so, trying to figure out where they are and if they are ready to grow up and assume the adult mantle.
Maggie Suma (MS): My first impression was that this is something special. It was so original and had so many layers of real human emotion. It’s about being a young adult and trying to find who you are with your sexuality and just your life in general. It was very real and truthful and had so many moments or characters to connect with. It was also funny, and it definitely excited me.
Jaclyn Hennell (JH): I knew that I was going for the role of Madeline. The journey that she goes on in the film is one that I went on when I was a freshman in college. So when I read the script, I went, “Who is this Stephen Cone guy? How does he know this?” [laughs] I felt so honored to audition and I really wanted to tell that story because I felt like I knew this young woman.
Seven years ago, I would’ve never imagined being naked in a film. But when I read the script and talked to Stephen, I said, “Absolutely. The nudity is justified.” The film is a reaction against the notion that your sexuality is not to be explored or that it’s something to be ashamed of and that you need to hide. Stephen’s characters inhabit a world that isn’t black and white. They are complicated people.
Alex Weisman (AW): I used to be 40 pounds heavier, and I still sort of saw myself as a chubby character actor. Stephen cast me in this role in which I not only had to be vulnerable, but the object of desire for a traditionally attractive man, which I thought was absurd. Stephen said, “That has everything to do with you, and nothing to do with my movie.” That opened me up to liking myself and my body for the first time in my life. My experience doing the movie runs so parallel to Adam’s experience doing that play.
DG: Eddie was a very real person in my mind from the first read. I went to a Midwest liberal arts college like the one in the film and knew a guy a lot like Eddie. He’s an outsider entering adulthood, but still kind of an adolescent. He is someone who tries so hard to do right but is self-destructive because he lacks the ability to accept the natural chaos of life.
I don’t think Eddie is an alcoholic, I think he is not dealing well with having several miscarriages. I spent some time online looking up support groups for men in this situation. The depression that follows but the need to stay strong for your partner, smiling through the pain, leads to bingeing and Eddie’s moment of seeing the mistake within himself.
MS: I saw Amy as this odd, quirky, smart girl who just wants to get through the show, finish college, go to NYC or LA and get into the real entertainment biz. So anything she does prior to that is wasting her time. She’s either rolling her eyes looking bored, or annoyed. But she is also human and has a need to fit in along the way. She has few words in the script, which some actors might not appreciate. But I adored that and I think it’s a lot harder expressing emotion onscreen without words. Also, being a silent film fan, I loved the opportunity to act with my eyes, facial expressions, and my body.
JH: People talk too much. What I love about Stephen’s dialogue is that so much of it is nonverbal. That’s a lost art.
Q: Where did this interest in repressed sexuality come from?
Stephen Cone (SC): It probably came from growing up in a conservative Christian family and in a faith that believes the human body is to be covered and saved for some one very special, certainly not to be shared with multiple people out of wedlock. All of that is dangerous and wrong and very sinful. Psychologically, it makes sense that I would be climbing my way out for the rest of my life. I’m not profoundly repressed and I hope all my characters are more repressed than I am. I know they are. Otherwise, every time I was in a dressing room, I’d have go into the bathroom every time I needed to change my shirt.
JH: Sexuality can be embarrassing and messy in a beautiful and imperfect way. The way it’s often depicted on film in America is disgraceful. Those aren’t real people and that’s not what sex looks like. Stephen captures the clunkiness of it, particularly when you’re first exploring your sexuality. I think my first kiss was onstage, and it was awkward. All the mistakes you make are just a part of your learning process. This is the first time Madeline has had to think for herself. She’s been surrounded by like-minded people. These beliefs have been instilled in her. They never really were her thoughts, and that’s what she’s coming to realize.
SC: I don’t have a complicated relationship with faith. Madeline says that she had a pretty happy upbringing. She liked being Catholic. Just because repression may happen in a household doesn’t mean it’s an unhappy household. Not all repression is torture. In creating “The Reaper’s Children,” what was at the forefront of my mind much more than religion was trauma—the abuse experienced by young people and how it affects their consciousness later in life.
It fits a sort of Gothic cliché to have the abusers be domineering religious [zealots], but the main idea is that people are being abused and tortured, and that extends to William Peters, who was a child of abuse, and it’s implied that Holly was too. We don’t know that William or Holly’s parents were religious. We only know that they were victims of abuse. Religion is sort of beside the point.
Were you inspired by any particular young adult fiction while creating the story within the story?
SC: V.C. Andrews’s “Flowers in the Attic” was the primary reference point for “The Reaper’s Children.” Andrews’s book doesn’t have anything that could be deemed supernatural, so I added that element. I stole the loose plot structure and just added the ghosts. Theater is so ritualistic and there are spirits summoned when we do a play. I liked the idea of actual ghosts being summoned.
I wanted the film to have my first orchestral score. “The Wise Kids” was ambient, “In Memoriam” was jazz, and I wanted this to be composed by someone with classical experience and deep training. I met Heather McIntosh in LA, and she agreed to do it before she even saw the film. She connected with the theme of wanting to commit yourself to art that people might not appreciate.
I include very specific temp scores in my rough cuts. For “Black Box,” I used a lot of James Newton Howard’s score for “The Village.” I was going for lyrical, gothic, aching tones. Heather did her own thing, but she also had the temp which helped her get a sense of what I was after. What I’m impressed by is how she created this vast canvas with such limited means. It sounds very expansive, but in the end credits, you see that she’s working with no more than a handful of musicians.
I also wanted the film to feel timeless, so my primary visual references were 35 mm coming-of-age dramas from the ’80s like “Dead Poets Society” and “The Chocolate War.” I wanted it to have a muted quality that made the movie feel like it had been shot 30 years ago. I talked as much with my collaborators about “The Breakfast Club” as I did anything supernatural.
What was it like working with this ensemble?
JH: I did “Hair” in college, and loved the ensemble aspect. That was the first time that I worked with an ensemble. It wasn’t about us as individuals, it was about being part of a group, and that’s what I loved about this film.
MS: We are all still close! I’m not sure if they put something in the water or if the stars and planets were aligned just right, but working with this ensemble every day, every moment was colorful and magical. It all started with Stephen. From day one, he gave us a canvas to create and connect with. He creates a trusting environment you feel comfortable in. Everyone has a voice and everyone is heard. You feel creatively free as one of his actors. He knows what he wants but he still gives you that space to see what your imagination can pull off.
JH: He’s definitely an actor’s director, being an actor himself. He’s very generous with his space and with his script. It’s his baby and he gives it to us to play with.
AW: Our relationship as an ensemble developed quickly and intensely. What I love about the film is that, in that ensemble way, it’s everyone’s story but at the same time, you get no one’s story. There’s a lot of ambiguity to the movie and to these characters and I love that. It’s very reflective of life.
SC: I was always excited by the fact that you see the parents at the end of the film because it leaves us to wonder what their life at home is like.
AW: In fact, we originally had a lot more information about the characters’ biographical histories in the film. We each had a very long monologue that we shot in that first day, and most of it got cut out.
SC: The voice-overs in the opening credits are taken from that scene where we went around the circle and everyone introduced themselves. It took up the first ten to twelve minutes of the film, so it obviously had to be cut down, and that’s when the voice-overs were moved into the credits. I think it works quite nicely.
A lot of people in this cast have never made a movie before. It was almost like camp for them immediately. I was delighted, but since I was raising money as we shot, the closer they got and the more fun they were having, the more pressure I felt to not make their checks bounce. I felt very happy, but also felt a great responsibility that the experience didn’t just start well for them but that it continued well and finished well.
DG: The biggest challenge was learning a new medium. I work primarily on stage and learning the camera took a lot of trust and opening up emotionally in a different way.
JH: It is very subtle. If you’re thinking it, you’re going to see it. That’s not the case onstage at all, so it does take a little bit of adjusting, but I try not to get too wrapped up in the technicalities. If it was too much or not enough, Stephen would tell me. When the camera goes up, everyone changes—in your nerves, in your mind, no matter how much you prepare for it. I really tried to stay as present as possible, so that when the camera jumped up, I wasn’t thrown.
MS: Luckily, there weren’t that many challenging things for me to deal with. I think the [hardest part] was my lack of sleep, particularly when it took hold and made me giddy. It resulted in some funny moments like me Febrezing my arm pits at one point, but we don’t need to get into that.
Q: How did Josephine Decker become attached?
SC: I met her at the Cucalorus Film Festival when I was there with “The Wise Kids.” When she auditioned for “Black Box,” she was so natural, she almost didn’t seem like an actress. I liked the idea of people wondering if I had actually cast a director. She just seemed like a grad student to me.
JH: She’s so lovely and being onset with her was such a joy. In many ways, I felt very connected to Josephine off-camera. We were kindred spirits, which felt so appropriate considering our characters’ closeness. She’s a warm, nurturing, loving person, and she brought that to the set.
Q: What was it like working with Austin Pendleton?
AW: I’m such a theatre nerd that I was in awe of him the minute that he walked onset. Doing a scene with him was a dream come true. When I was a little kid who didn’t know where I belonged, I would listen to the “Fiddler on the Roof” original cast recording, and hear Austin sing “Wonder of Wonders.” When we did our long take where we walk together, Austin would tell me stories about directing Meryl Streep in Central Park. I was melting. [laughs]
Adam just wants to do a really good job. He cares about pleasing those in authority. When William shows up, Adam wants to do a good job for him. Then they have this conversation and Adam becomes fascinated by him. That moment in which Adam tells him that he doesn’t have a girlfriend is possibly the first moment in his life that he has told anybody that he’s gay.
When Stephen told me that we were going to film the scene in one long take, I went, “This is my big scene! Why don’t we get close-ups?” I was so confused, but I later realized that Stephen’s choice was brilliant. It’s just a moment in Adam’s day, and his coming out happens sort of accidentally. In life, we rarely acknowledge when we are having life-changing moments.
The movie never overtly implies whether William Peters is gay, but that’s how I understood it. To me, Adam looked up to William as a gay role model but later saw him as a warning sign of what he could become. If I continue to struggle with my own identity, I could end up like that.
SC: There’s something poignant about William watching a bunch of kids have a freedom that he never had. The main thing Austin brought to the table was a lack of sentiment. It’s an incredibly unsentimental performance. He didn’t want any self-pity. It was a tougher performance than I expected. He’s not even overtly warm when characters reveal tragic events from their past. It’s another indication of the abuse in his life when he tells Eddie that he has to stop drinking.
If there’s anything that sets this apart from a John Hughes movie, it’s that the story is kind of told from the perspective of a 70-year-old man. “Black Box” has had trouble clicking with people on the festival circuit, and my casting director, Matt Miller, told me that part of the problem may be that it’s a coming-of-age film for 50-year-olds. It’s a college movie for an older sensibility.
JH: What I love about the film is that it doesn’t wrap anything up. We get a glimpse of these peoples’ lives over a two-month span and nothing really gets tied up. You see Madeline at the end and she’s taken this enormous step, but it’s just the beginning of her journey. I love the realness and open-endedness of what Stephen does.
SC: Sometimes the more crowd-pleasing a movie is, the less I enjoy it just because everything is given to me. It’s weird, but there are some movies that I literally find too satisfying. I felt that one hundred percent about the “Breaking Bad” finale. It was a huge disappointment to me because it was designed to please everyone. There’s nothing left for me to work through or fill in. Great art reveals its information and its mysteries over time.