He was the American journalist who vanishes after the Chilean coup d’état in Costa-Gavras’ 1982 classic, “Missing.” She was Marty McFly’s mother in Robert Zemeckis’ ageless 1985 crowd-pleaser, “Back to the Future.” Now both actors—John Shea and Lea Thomspon, respectively—are onscreen together and given a stellar showcase in “The Trouble with the Truth,” a fine character study written and directed by Jim Hemphill.
Shea plays Robert, a struggling musician who cloaks his aching heart in a veil of cynical detachment. After awkwardly ignoring his daughter’s engagement ring, he agrees to have a dinner date with his ex-wife, Emily (Thompson), a successful author. The provocative conversation that follows warrants comparison to Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunset,” as the former lovers find that their feelings for one another are still very much alive. Many filmmakers would guide this premise toward a surefire happy ending, but Hemphill is wise enough to know that this encounter, in all of its messy emotions and contradictions, raises questions for which there are no easy answers. The film’s final, sublimely pitched moments are guaranteed to spark impassioned discussion amongst viewers.
After earning praise on the festival circuit, the film is now available on various online platforms, including iTunes, Vudu and Amazon Instant. Hemphill, who also happens to be an accomplished film critic, says that he hopes the movie will a provide a gateway to directing television. He spoke with Indie Outlook about his intuitive approach to filmmaking, his friendships with Jonathan Rosenbaum and Walter Hill and his reaction to getting to an enthusiastic review from Roger Ebert.
Were filmmaking and film criticism both among your passions from an early age?
They’re both points on the same continuum for me. It all grows out of the fact that I just love movies and always have. Basically from the age of three on, I’ve been obsessed with movies. The first movie my parents ever took me to was Ken Russell’s “Tommy,” the Who movie. I have no idea why my parents took me to see it. It fascinated me, entertained me and completely freaked me out. My second movie was Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” I knew I wanted to be a director from a pretty young age. I don’t remember ever making a conscious choice to also write about film. I think that came out of being in film school. When I was an undergrad, I went to Columbia College in Chicago, and I had a couple of teachers, Scott Marks and Josef Steiff, who were very big influences on me. I would write papers on films for their classes, and they both encouraged my critical, analytical side.
I started a documentary that I never finished for a video class at Columbia, where I interviewed some local film critics including Jonathan Rosenbaum, who was writing for the Chicago Reader at the time. Meeting him made me even more interested in writing about film and getting my work out there. Part of it came from the fact that I have this real evangelical fervor when it comes to movies. If I love a movie, I want everybody else to know about it. It drives me crazy when something that I think is great isn’t getting the attention it deserves. So I struck up a friendship with Rosenbaum and started sending him my reviews of new movies. The first one that he really took to was a review of Walter Hill’s “Trespass.” He passed it along to his editor, and it was published in the Chicago Reader. That was the first piece of writing on film that I ever had published, and it got published when I was still at Columbia. Then I started thinking, “I really like writing about movies, maybe I want to be a critic more than a filmmaker.”
For grad school, I went to USC’s critical studies program in Los Angeles, and I started to meet all these great directors. You’d sit in a room with a couple dozen other people, and talk to Sydney Pollack or Wes Craven or Kathryn Bigelow or Clint Eastwood. I actually wrote a fan letter to Walter Hill and sent him a copy of my Chicago Reader “Trespass” review. His assistant called me and said, “Walter read your review and he was really impressed. He wants to take you to lunch.” Walter Hill was a god to me. He made the kind of movies that made me want to make movies, films like “48 Hrs.” and “Streets of Fire” and “The Warriors.” I struck up a friendship with him and started visiting his sets. Even though I was at film school studying to become a critic, my visits to Hill’s sets made me think, “Man, making films really looks like a lot of fun.” So that’s what led me to become a director, and I’ve always had that push-pull ever since.
I like writing about movies but I also like making them, and it’s kind of hard to do both. One of them always gets the short-shrift because they are all-consuming jobs. As you know, if you are going to write a review or interview somebody, you’re not just taking two hours to watch their movie. You’re researching the other things they’ve done. To me, the only downside of filmmaking is that it gets in the way of my film viewing. When you’re making a movie, you don’t have that much time to watch anything else. Paul Schrader has this great quote where he says that filmmaking is an act of birth and film criticism is an act of autopsy, and I think that’s very true. If you’re a critic, it can paralyze you as a filmmaker because you start thinking about how people will react to your work.
John Shea and Lea Thompson had no rehearsals prior to shooting “The Trouble with the Truth,” and that may have helped you work more intuitively with them. There was no time for paralysis.
Yeah, that’s a great observation. It’s so true. The biggest lesson I learned on this movie was how well you can be served by not overthinking things. We didn’t have the time to overanalyze or do anything other than what our first instinct was. My actors and I had to go with our gut, and I actually think that made it a much better movie than it would’ve been otherwise.
You’ve mentioned that “Gone Girl” was your favorite film last year, in how it fused “the low pleasures of the erotic thriller with a serious Bergmanesque dissection of marriage.” “Trouble with the Truth” is similar in that it’s both cerebral and sexy, thoughtful and entertaining.
Those are my favorites kinds of movies, but to be honest, I love all kinds of movies. To give you an example, this past Friday, I watched Ingmar Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers,” and then I watched “Ninja III: The Domination.” That kind of gives you an idea about where my tastes lie. They’re all over the place. [laughs] I’ve only made a couple of movies and am hopefully getting ready to make another one later this year. They’re all the kind of movies that I’d like to see. I come at filmmaking as a fan. On “Trouble with the Truth,” most of my job on the set isn’t as much creative as it is responsive. It’s more about watching whatever John and Lea are doing and if I’m entertained by it, it’s likely other people will be too.
In his Filmmaker Magazine interview, Paul Thomas Anderson told you about his love of actors and how “a nice two-shot with two actors performing great dialogue” is a “staple of the movies I love the most.” Do you consider “Trouble with the Truth” a throwback?
Yeah, I would like it to be. I would never compare myself to these people, but I was certainly thinking a lot about directors like Howard Hawks and Michael Curtiz and Victor Fleming and a lot of those guys from the 30s and 40s who had a very unadorned, straightforward style. Bergman was certainly someone who was obsessed with faces, and I agree with the idea that the human face can be as amazing a special effect as anything. I’ve never bought this argument that a movie is uncinematic if it’s talky or it focuses on actors. To me, if it helps get across the emotion that you want, it’s cinematic.
What were your particular methods for making this script—which could also work onstage—cinematic?
My cinematographer, Roberto [Correa], and I had a lot of conversations before we started shooting about what would be the best way to do it. We decided that the movie was going to live or die on the strength of the actors. If the actors delivered, then we didn’t want to get in their way with overly self-conscious camerawork, and if they didn’t deliver, no amount of camera pyrotechnics was going to save the movie. So we decided to make it kind of straightforward. The biggest challenge was basically figuring out who the camera should be on at any given point. It sounds like a simple thing but it changes the meaning of the scene, particularly in a movie like this that’s very dialogue-driven.
For the first half of the movie, the camerawork is, in general, a little bit steadier and restrained because the characters both have their guards up a little bit more. As the night goes on, and they let their guards down, the camerawork gets a little bit freer, the lighting gets a little bit rougher—we don’t light them as attractively in the final hotel sequence as we do in the rest of the movie. Little things like that subtly underline how the characters are feeling and opening up and becoming more vulnerable, but hopefully not in a way that the audience is really going to notice. The idea is to do it somewhat subliminally.
It’s refreshing to see middle-aged characters who are this complicated and vibrant onscreen. What made you interested in exploring characters who are at this stage of their lives?
It honestly was kind of pragmatic in a way. One of my fears about writing characters who are older than I am would be that people their age don’t have the types of obsessions and concerns that I do, and the movie’s going to come out and people are going to think it’s ridiculous. But luckily, the opposite happened at film festivals. I was very pleasantly surprised that audiences who were the ages of the characters could relate to it. While writing the script, I figured it would be easier to get really good actors if the characters were a little bit older. I wanted actors who were experienced. John and Lea work all the time but aren’t given opportunities to really show what they can do all that often because most movies don’t deal with the problems of characters over 30 or 35 anymore. Both of the characters have a lot of me in them, and I was banking on the hope that if I put a lot of my own thoughts and ideas into characters who were a little bit older, I’d be able to attract actors of John and Lea’s caliber to do a movie for not much money.
Was there much alteration to the characters once John and Lea were cast?
Not really. However, the characters deepened once John and Lea began playing them. Even though there wasn’t a lot of improv, there was what Lea called “emotional improv.” She and John would say the same lines every take, but on some takes, they might start crying, and on other takes, they’d be laughing. The exact same words could mean something very different depending on how they were playing it. We didn’t really have a lot of conversations about this, but I got the impression that both of them were dredging up a lot of their own memories about relationships that they had been in and bringing that to those characters. They both brought a lot of depth to their characters that wasn’t necessarily there on the page. I feel like I wrote the rough draft and they did the final draft.
Considering that John and Lea had previously worked together on 1998’s TV movie, “A Will of Their Own,” their shared history somewhat mirrored that of their characters.
You’re right, they were basically doing onscreen the same thing that they were doing in life to a certain degree. They had already met each other but hadn’t necessarily seen each other for a while. We shot the whole movie in order, so when you watch them getting comfortable with each other again onscreen, they were starting to get comfortable with each other in real life. The fact that they had previously worked together made my life a lot easier. They kind of knew what each other needed, and they’re both very generous actors. Every morning, while the camera and lights were being set up, they would have their own unofficial rehearsal period while they were getting their hair and makeup done. They would sit and run lines and everything, and then they would get down to the set and be able to bang out ten minutes of dialogue straight through.
I cast Lea first, and I really wanted to make sure we had somebody as the guy who she was comfortable with, since the whole thing relies on their chemistry. I asked her for suggestions on people who she had worked with or wanted to work with. She gave me a list of four or five names and her first choice was John. As soon as she brought him up, I thought he would be perfect. I had always been a fan of his, and he was in a movie that influenced this one, a film that Alan Alda directed called, “A New Life.” John lives on the East Coast and didn’t get out to L.A. until the night before we started shooting. The fact that he and Lea already had a shorthand cut out a whole part of what you sometimes have to worry about as a director. Sometimes you cast actors who have very different approaches. You’ll have an actor whose best take is his first, and then put him in a bunch of scenes with someone who’s best on the tenth take, and you’ve got to figure out how to make all that work. John and Lea had a rhythm where generally, they were always the best on the same take.
It helps that John has such a charming presence, since his character could potentially become repellant in his early scenes. I found his moments of vulnerability especially touching. It seems like the sort of work that could only result from a strong collaboration between actor and director.
It’s a cliché that everybody says, but it’s true: you have to trust each other. The first day of shooting with John and Lea was luckily planned very light. The only thing we shot was the phone conversation between them, so we were able to bang that out in the morning. For the whole afternoon, we sent everybody else home and John and Lea and I stayed onset. We went through the script and talked about it. I discussed where the ideas for the script came from and what it meant to me. We all talked about our relationships, and it created this environment where everybody felt free to try things, and that was also fostered by the fact that we very rarely put the camera right in the actors’ faces. We shot everything with two cameras running at the same time, and we were always getting coverage on both John and Lea, so continuity wasn’t an issue for them. They didn’t have to worry about where their fork was or if they picked up their glass on this line or that line.
With very few exceptions, we shot on long lenses via Canon 5Ds, which are very tiny cameras, that were fairly removed from the actors. There were very few shots where the actors had a camera with a bunch of people behind it right in their faces. The idea was to make the actors forget that the rest of us were there. Because we were shooting with two cameras that took really long takes, we would basically shoot a scene until one of the actors dropped a line. They both have a lot of theatre training, so they could go for twelve or fifteen minutes at a time without forgetting a line. That got them into this rhythm where they forgot that the cameras were even there, and that led to moments that I can’t take credit for. When John’s character opens up about his regrets, that moment is simply a testament to what a great actor John Shea is. I really had nothing to do with it. I sat back and watched it and when he was done and we cut, the crew applauded like they were at a play or something. [laughs] We kind of knew at that moment that he had nailed it.
How are the film’s views on love and relationships reflective of your own?
The movie, in some places, almost takes the form of a debate. Lea’s character is a bit more of a romantic and John’s character is a bit more of a cynic, and they’re both expressive of my own thoughts, which are extremely ambivalent. It’s sort of like the “Annie Hall” quote about how love can be both ridiculous and completely meaningful at the same time. “We need the eggs.” The funny thing though is that my feelings have completely evolved and changed since I made the movie. I shot the movie a few years ago and just in the nature of the way independent films sometimes go, if you’re not snapped up at Sundance by Fox Searchlight and thrown into a ton of theaters, independent film is a long haul. It’s a few years of going around film festivals before you get out on DVD and VOD.
I would say that the movie, when I made it, reflected my feelings more than it does now. In the time since, I fell in love with an incredible woman who I live with now, and I’m very happy. I’m sort of back to being a complete romantic who believes everlasting love can work and monogamy can work and all those kinds of things. When I made the movie, I was a little closer to feeling like John Shea’s character, although at the end of the day, he says a lot of stuff that he may not really believe. He’s as romantic as she is, ultimately.
The film also takes an objective standpoint regarding both characters’ infidelities.
I think a lot of movies oversimplify how complex people are and how complex relationships are, and I’m not necessarily condoning the characters’ behavior. I’m merely presenting it and allowing the audience to make up their minds about whether it’s morally appropriate or not. For me, as a viewer, I don’t care about that kind of thing. You hear about the “need for characters to be likable” a lot in Hollywood, not so much from studio executives but script readers and agents, and I don’t agree with that at all. I think characters have to be interesting. I didn’t find the characters in “Maps to the Stars” to be insanely likable, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t very interesting. I’ve always liked directors who don’t pass judgement on their characters because I don’t think that’s the director’s job. What’s most interesting to me, in terms of showing the movie at festivals, are the different reactions that audiences have. People side with him or side with her, they think the characters are good people or bad people and they either want to see them get back together or they don’t. The reactions are all over the place and I like that as a filmmaker. I’m perfectly fine with people coming to their own conclusions about the characters.
Roger Ebert published his three-and-a-half-star review of your film less than three months before his death. What was your reaction to his piece?
It was incredible and very flattering and an honor. I grew up in Chicago from the time I was in third grade and then up through college. I was a “Siskel & Ebert” disciple from the age of around seven years old. I remember the first episode I ever saw of “Sneak Previews” when it was on public television. They reviewed “Animal House,” and I remember thinking, “Man, I really want to see that movie.” My family moved to Naperville when I was in third grade, and I started obsessively reading Ebert’s reviews in the paper and his Movie Home Companions. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Roger Ebert shaped how I see movies and what I want from them more than any other single person. So when I looked on his site and saw a great review of my movie in which he really seemed to get it, it was the ultimate gratification, no matter what happened with the movie after that.