There’s something a bit off about James (Joey Bicicchi) as soon as he appears in the couple’s driveway. He identifies himself as a tennis player in town for a tournament, and mistakenly believes that Jakob (Kevin Sean Ryan) and Helene (Danielle Prall) are his host family. Jakob is clearly uncomfortable with the way Helene, his conspicuously younger wife, looks at this guy, even as he sports the less-than-attractive characteristics of a predator. It’s hard to tell which man is more unsettling, as the simmering tension between the husband and wife—fueled by a past tragedy—threatens to come to a full boil.
This is the intriguing set-up for “Teddy Boy,” the debut feature of writer/director Sean J.S. Jourdan, a filmmaker of immense promise. He spoke with Indie Outlook about his use of silence, the challenges facing modern independent filmmakers, and his movie’s chilling score.
Right from the beginning of “Teddy Boy,” I could tell that I was watching a Sean J.S. Jourdan movie. The use of emotionally charged silences reminded me of your 2009 short film, “The Beekeeper.” What attracts you to exploring the silences between words?
[Laughs] For better or worse, you’re watching a Sean J.S. Jourdan movie! It’s true—I do love silence. When I was studying drama, the work of Harold Pinter made a huge impact on me. I was also fortunate enough to catch a great production of “Betrayal” at the Steppenwolf with Tracy Letts. I know this runs counter current to the way a great number of programming—both TV and film—are edited, but I love those pauses, those spaces between words. It often means someone is thinking or reacting to a set of given circumstances, and it helps to build tension. And I like to watch people think. Plus, as an audience member, it gives me time to think, to absorb. Recently, I caught a reality TV show that a friend worked on and the high speed editing nearly gave me an epileptic fit. When I told him that, he said, “Welcome to 2016,” and in many ways, he’s right. It’s become the world we expect to be portrayed but not necessarily a reflection of the world as it is—for better or worse. When taken to extremes, like I probably do, I’m sure it can also be maddening to an audience. “Get on with it, not everything needs a pregnant pause.” I could do a better job.
You’ve cited Polanski and Haneke as influences. How has their work served as an inspiration for you?
I’ve always loved Polanski’s work as a filmmaker, not so much as a human being. “Knife in the Water,” his first feature, was a great influence on this film. If you’re working on a tiny budget, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example. His exploration of the relationship of a broken couple, additionally stressed by the intrusion of an outside force—also seen in “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Bitter Moon”—appeals to me. And his camera work. How he composes his shots to tell subtext in these relationships is masterful. I learn something new upon repeated viewings, and the same is true of Haneke’s work. “Funny Games” was probably the most direct influence on this film, and I appreciate his poetic boldness tremendously. He’s not afraid to be opaque and to challenge an audience to think—to make their own conclusions. I can only dream to be a practitioner of his caliber. In fact, he may be my favorite current practicing filmmaker. “White Ribbon”…wow. Now he knows how to use silence.
James appears animalistic from the get-go. Some of the looks he gives Helene cause him to resemble the mountain lion we meet later. How did you go about conceiving his character and developing it with the actor?
Joey and I go way back to “The Beekeeper,” where he impressed me tremendously. His work ethic makes him very easy to work with. Early on, I supplied Joey with a list of films. Some of them have already been mentioned, and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” would be another. He was able to use these characters as inspiration for his own. We then had a couple weeks of rehearsal which allowed us to do a lot of talking—character background stuff mostly—that he could then use to flesh things out a bit before getting the scripted material on its feet. Fortunately, he’s a fan of working that way. For any casting folks out there, I can say that Joey’s professionalism raises the bar on set and everyone’s work becomes better as a result. He’s that kind of person. A quick aside: Joey is going to be seen next in the second feature film of fellow Columbia College alum Gary Schultz, “Vincent N Roxxy.” It premieres this year at Tribeca and stars Emile Hirsch and Zoe Kravitz. Questlove did the soundtrack. I can’t wait to see it.
Each of the three main characters have moments in which they run the risk of being discovered in a moment of vulnerability. The scene where James hides under the bed is especially tense. How do you approach building suspense as a director?
That stuff is so much fun! Just like a good joke, it’s mostly about the set-up. Hitchcock said it best—you need to show the bomb under the table before you see people having dinner around it. In that particular scene we have two different elements—James, who is being naughty, and the cat, who came up the steps earlier.
Helene accuses Jakob of treating her like a child, and yet all three characters seem to straddle the line between adulthood and a more childlike state of being (such as when she and Jakob play cowboys and indians in the sand). Was this a deliberate choice?
Of course! It’s obscurely referenced in the title. On the surface, Teddy Boys were an English (mostly) fashion movement for teenagers. It’s been co-opted for this film, inspired by the Paul McCartney composition, the play on words—Teddy Bear/Boy—and the fact that they all, at one point or another, act like children, some more than others (boys will be boys). For me, it’s a reflection of roles that we revert to or are even pushed towards. In Helene’s case, she’s been assigned a role by her husband and, fine, she’s going to embody it. At least for a little bit until reality comes crashing down on her. The boys… they cannot help themselves from being just that. It’s something that caught my eye in “Knife in the Water,” but also something that I’ve seen and experienced first hand that’s based in insecurity and competitiveness…regressive to the point of being Neanderthal-like. Possessive even. When introduced into a familial structure, it can be a destructive force.
This is the first credited film score for composers Janet Feder and Paul Fowler, which has some eerie atonal qualities. What was the process like in terms of finding the right tone for the film, musically speaking?
I was listening to a lot of old psych folk (the Folk is Not a Four Letter Word compilations are a great place to start if anyone is interested… all two of you…) and imagining something similar for the film. My wife heard Janet on either NPR or CPR. She was playing an acoustic guitar, treated with various elements, to conjure up some amazing ethereal sounds. I fell in love with her album, Songs with Words, and reached out to her. Fortunately, after watching a cut of the film, she was game and suggested we bring on a multi-instrumentalist, Paul Fowler. We watched the film together and I made note of where I imagined music and made suggestions as to the tone and feel.
Paul and Janet simply took the ball and ran with it. I’d give them notes on what I felt was working and what wasn’t and they made adjustments. I’m not a musician and don’t speak their language technically, so communication is always a little bit difficult for me. As with the cast and crew, at the very least, I try to show what I’m looking for by using examples. But it’s tricky. You have to be open to something new and better than the scratch track because often it is. There was some tweaking once we put the tracks in the timeline but ultimately, I’ve been very happy with their work and I’m happy that they enjoyed the film.
This is the sort of character-driven film that seems practically impossible to make within the Hollywood system these days. I have no doubt “10 Cloverfield Lane” wouldn’t have been made at all if it wasn’t attached to an effects-laden franchise (otherwise, it’s just a terrific slow-burn three-character film—which to me, is so much more interesting). What are some of the obstacles facing modern independent filmmakers that you have overcome by making this film?
I just watched “10 Cloverfield Lane”! What a masterful work. I loved the director’s take-no-prisoners, pedal-to-the-metal approach from the film’s outset. And casting John Goodman against type—brilliant. The ending…eh…but it works. Making a film with no reputation and modest resources is very hard work. I may have given birth to “Teddy Boy.” There are stretch marks. It’s hard work even if you have a stellar box office/critical reputation and gobs of resources…but, in many ways, it’s harder without. I was—and still very much am—a struggling filmmaker. I remember going to panel after panel with themes similar to “how to get your feature film off the ground” and the underlying message tended to be, “this is my serendipitous story, yours will be different.”
Ultimately, you have to get up off your tail and do the best you can with all the resources you can gather, no matter how meager. Money may be the greatest obstacle—but that’s true for literally everyone. So you have to learn how to solve problems without throwing money at them. It’s tremendously difficult but simply part of the gig. You have to be very passionate about your film because it’s that passion that forces you to make phone calls and knock on doors asking for help. And you have very little to give in return. But there are a number of fine examples—Joe Swanberg is one—who did not give in. He kept at it, no matter what, and now, finally, he’s getting the recognition he deserves for talent that measures up. We live in a world where technology is not as big of a barrier as it once was. That’s not an excuse anymore. And people are becoming accustomed to non-traditional shooting schedules (weekends, for instance).
Since some of these barriers are lessened, the one obstacle that has, perhaps, increased is film recognition. How do I get this movie seen? There is, without a doubt, an over abundance of supply right now, and it’s not going to lessen. Your role, as a critic, has become even more important. We’re not there yet but low-budget independent filmmaking, with unknown talent, is going the way of the novel. A lot of people are writing and (self) publishing them, but are they being read? Prestigious film festivals and awards help. Distribution helps. In that respect, nothing there is new. Truth be told, it’s something I struggle with.
How has your experience at Columbia College Chicago, and your networking with fellow alumni, such as Miguel Silveira, enhanced your approach to filmmaking?
Columbia College was great and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. It was challenging in every aspect imaginable but I love the scrappiness and resilience, in addition to the technical, historical, and storytelling lessons they teach. And many alumni are going on to great things—that network is strengthening and I owe a great deal to that. Miguel Silveira is a dear friend. We work together at the Telluride Film Festival in their City Lights educational program. Without Miguel’s recommendation, I would have never gotten the job. I’ve worked there with the super-talented Bradley Bischoff who is about to embark on his first feature (I’ve read the screenplay—I think it’s going to be pretty fantastic) but more pertinent, I’ve had the opportunity to work with my talented friends. Kuba Zelazek, Laura Klein, Caity Birmingham, and Jeremy Long are all friends and fellow filmmakers who helped make “Teddy Boy” with me. They’re alums whose credits get bigger and bigger and I consider myself very fortunate that they’ve shared their talent with me. I miss all of them tremendously and can’t wait to make another movie with them. They’re good people.
How did you become involved in the casting for the upcoming Liana Liberato/Isabelle Fuhrman film, “Dear Eleanor”?
I’m not sure I could recommend making a low budget indie to people—as I mentioned before, it’s terribly difficult. But some amazing things have happened because we made that movie. One of which is the local SAG casting of “Dear Eleanor.” Mary Vernieu handled the principals casting out of LA. My producer on “Teddy Boy,” Meryem Ersoz, was brought in as a line producer on “Dear Eleanor.” She had watched me cast “Teddy Boy” and liked how I let the actors act. Anyway, when they needed someone, she recommended me. So I met with the director, Kevin Connolly, and he agreed to bring me on board. It was a great experience.
What’s up next for you? I’m quite intrigued about the social justice-themed documentary you’re making with Oscar-winner Daniel Junge.
Fortunately, Daniel had seen “Teddy Boy”—again, good things can happen when you put yourself out there—and asked if I would be willing to develop a narrative screenplay with him. As part of that meeting, he asked if there was anything I was working on. When I told him I was working on a doc, his groan was nearly audible but, thankfully, he asked me what it was about. In essence, an alleged Ethiopian war criminal was found in the U.S. after being identified by one of his victims after stealing an identity to get into the country. In fact, it’s the first case where federal immigration court has been a de facto war crimes court. What appeals to us is the ambiguity in the case and shifting allegiances and identities, somewhat reminiscent of “The Imposter.” Daniel asked if he could co-direct it and, of course, I said yes. In fact, last year we received a prestigious Catapult Fund film grant to begin work on the project. At the moment, we’re on pause as we work through a large access issue but, fingers crossed, that will be resolved soon and we can start filming.