James “Jim” C. Strouse is a screenwriter, educator, and filmmaker. In 2005, his script, Lonesome Jim, was adapted into an acclaimed independent feature of the same name. He has since gone on to direct three feature-length films, each of which has had its World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. In 2007, he was awarded the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the Audience Award for his directorial debut, Grace is Gone, which went on to receive two Golden Globe nominations.
His new film, People, Places, Things, stars Jemaine Clement as newly-single graphic artist Will Henry, and co-stars Stephanie Allynne, Michael Chernus, and Regina Hall. The film was screened to praise at Sundance in 2015 and continues to tour the international festival circuit. Jim Strouse spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about the art of graphic novel writing, straddling the line between drama and comedy, and his admiration off-Broadway monologists. This interview has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication.
Sean Malin: Your newest film in years, People, Places, Things, premiered at Sundance just as another film based on a script of yours – John Krasinski’s The Hollars – is finishing post-production. It seems like the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Is this a coincidence or something you and Mr. Krasinski planned?
Jim Strouse: I’ve had some frustration with this over the past couple of years, but I’ve also been very, very lucky in that I have not had to wait too long for the scripts I’ve written to get made. The Hollars and People, Places, Things are two parts of a loose trilogy that I wrote; now, I’m set on trying to make the first part.
SM: So the last two parts of the trilogy have been made, but not the first?
JS: Yes – John made the second part and I made the third. But I would emphasize the term “loose” in that each film is really it’s own piece: The Hollars is a standalone film from People, Places, Things. John and that film’s producers own the rights to those particular characters, and I’m interested in casting very differently from project to project. The characters have different names, too.
SM: This may be a sensitive subject, but I read an article in The Observer from around 2013 where someone had interviewed you in Brooklyn…
SM: That’s the one. Now, you first broke out with [your script for] 2005’s Lonesome Jim [dir. Steve Buscemi] and a similar small-town character from that film continued into your second film, The Winning Season . You’ve trafficked in semi-autobiography for a decade of moviemaking at this point. Are most audiences not connecting the dots that these films are about your life?
JS: I don’t know that anyone’s looking that closely, so I’m not too worried. *Laughs* Really, the trilogy aspect is more for me to know…although in a late scene of The Hollars, the characters played by John Krasinski and Anna Kendrick are running down the hallway of a hospital about to have twin
SM: People, Places, Things is definably your work. It’s semi-autobiographical once again, including the main character [Will Henry’s] twin daughters. You wrote and directed it; Will teaches at the School of Visual Arts, where you teach. Does the finished film represent your vision for it going in?
JS: Strangely, I feel like I finally figured out how to make the kind of movie I always wanted to. I love the balance of comedy and drama in it.
SM: At the Q&A following your World Premiere at Sundance, I saw you struggle with the term “drama” when someone used it. I agree that it’s an inappropriate label for your new movie, which is certainly melancholic but not really structurally a drama.
JS: I know exactly what you mean…my movies fall in between [comedy and drama.] I’m not making Dan In Real Life [2007, dir. Peter Hedges] but I’m also not making Half Nelson [2006, dir. Ryan Fleck]. But that’s completely out of my control, you know? A director once told me that if you get even seventy percent of what you were hoping for in your film, then it’s a raging success; if you get more than that, you’re a liar. I definitely feel like I got seventy percent with People, Places, Things – I’m so happy with how it turned out. It represents the script I wanted to make while also being better than the script.
SM: Another thing that happened at the Q&A was that people were constantly raising their hands to say, “I don’t have a question, but I just had to tell you and Jemaine [Clement] how much authenticity and warmth and heart were in this film.” I found that response from people both gratifying and fascinating because Jemaine’s character Will, who in the film is from New Zealand, was originally written as a Midwesterner. Was he always designed to be this kind of outsider to New York society as well as sort of an outsider to his own body and space?
JS: Definitely. Originally I had imagined the character as Midwestern because I’m originally from the Midwest, but now I live in New York. The reason I like to draw from my life is because it gives my writing a measure of authenticity, which in turns helps me to make these movies. Will’s move from the Midwest to New York felt like entering this completely different world. His family’s not around, he’s on his own. Initially, when Jemaine came on board, we talked about his doing an American accent and he was actually taking lessons with a coach. Then I thought about the similarities between the personalities of Midwesterners and Kiwis, and there were a lot of them. I had always thought of the character as a loner, but making him from New Zealand just intensified his solitude.
SM: Will Henry does not have any friends to speak of. There are no sequences where he goes and confides in his quirky buddy or calls someone to tell them he’s having a tough day.
JS: Yeah, exactly.
SM: And yet, despite writing about how lonely he is in his graphic illustrations, one never gets the sense that he’s alone so much as he’s romantically lonesome.
JS: He wants a partner, but he’s caught in this push-pull: when he has someone, he wants to be alone; and when he doesn’t have someone, he feels lonely. It’s a constant conflict for him. The more you look into comic book artists, the more you realize how lonely their worlds are. It’s like writing but even more intense in that they’re creating these complete worlds on the page. That takes so much time and precision. It’s lonely, tedious work, and that’s Will’s focus aside from his kids and teaching.
Another thing I liked about the graphic novel world is that [the artists] don’t have much shame about being autobiographical. So Will just burrows in to his own world and gets so introspective that eventually he’s in this cocoon of thought about mistakes he made and what went wrong between him and Charlie [played by Stephanie Allynne.]
SM: Your film is the first in many years to interrogate the position of graphic novelists and comic book artists in American society. The protagonist, Will, has some hostile dialogue with Diane [played by Regina Hall] about the literary seriousness of comics. Do you see see graphic writing and illustration as still being an outsider art?
JS: It is and it isn’t. Alison Bechdel won the MacArthur Grant last year. There are a lot of people that know and respect Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Still, there are people out there who hear the word “comics” and the first thing they think is, “superheroes.” In New York, I don’t think comic books are fighting to be in certain circles the way they were when I moved to the city ten years ago. Back then, it felt like this [subject] came up often in Daniel Clowes’s work, and I can remember feeling “You don’t have to justify the legitimacy of this art form! I love these things already.” It felt like Clowes and others had these chips on their shoulders: “Hey, we’re real books too!”
Now I think they are more widely accepted and understood as a legitimate art form in literature than ever, but that chip hasn’t totally gone away. Lauren Weinstein, the artist who did the drawings [in the film] for Jessica Williams’s character, Kat, told me that nine out of ten comic book artists are bitter people. What they do is such a massive undertaking and yet there’s still no comic or graphic novel that’s come out and done what The Corrections [2001, Jonathan Franzen] or Freedom [2010, Franzen] has done for the reading public. There are so many artists, like Chris Ware, who’ve done deeper and more interesting work than those books.
SM: The irony in what you’re saying is that Will is not bitter in the same way. What Mr. Clement does with Will is to move past that kind of goofy or awkwardly cynical character that he became known for with Flight of the Conchords and some of his recent movies. Some critics who have seen the movie call it a “stretch” for him because the Will Henry character has a very human, fatherly confidence. He has a sense of self as a teacher, as a romantic lead – he’s not a dolt.
JS: No, it was important to me that Will not be bitter or offputting to other people.
SM: He isn’t bitter. However, as skeptical as Diane is of Will’s position in literature, he does treat people in other arts like dolts. For example, Gary [Charlie’s new fiancée, played by Michael Chernus] is condescendingly referred to as an “Off-Broadway monologist.” And Will makes quite a few jokes about Charlie’s improv acting. In the People, Places, Things universe, are all these art forms made equal?
JS: I actually think that Gary is an incredibly gifted monologist and that if Will went to see Gary’s new monologue, he would be honestly moved. I always imagined Will and Gary as similar types, actually, just different on the [behavior] spectrum: Will is an introvert; Gary’s very extroverted. They both mine their lives for entertainment. Michael Chernus only has a few scenes but it’s implied that the MacArthur Foundation thinks highly of what he does…And I do as well. One of my favorite writers out there is Will Eno.
SM: I’m not familiar with his work, but I imagine Gary as cut from the same cloth as a Spalding Gray or maybe Holbrook. Is Eno a monologist as well?
JS: Eno has written some great monologues; he’s also written one of the most beautiful plays I’ve ever read called Middletown. He’s mentioned a lot with Annie Baker, who’s also an amazing, amazing playwright. In fact she’s got a play that’s coming back to New York in the spring called The Flick. It won the Pulitzer Prize [for Drama] last year and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen. It’s a three-hour play with three characters in it about one of the last film projector theaters outside Boston. There are two janitors: one’s a bit schlubby, still lives with his mother, and thinks Avatar is the best movie to come out in the last ten years. The other is a bonafide film snob who has dropped out of school because of depression. Over the course of those three hours, their relationship builds so incrementally and truthfully. It sounds like a boring kitchen sink drama like that, but it’s really special – I don’t know how she did it. It packs such an emotional wallop.
Michael Chernus is a fixture in the New York off-Broadway world, and he actually starred in one of Annie Baker’s first plays. So I definitely do not mean to undermine the off-Broadway world. Some of the most interesting and forward-thinking stuff ever originates [off-Broadway] but it only lasts a couple weeks to a month, and only really rich people with a lot of time on their hands get to go. It’s a world that really intrigues and excites me, and I still don’t fully understand it.
SM: Mr. Chernus’s is the not the only character whose casting plays like an inside joke when you know his background as an actor. Mr. Clement has mentioned that he actually draws and that some of the art in the film [on posters for Gary’s show and on kites for Will Henry’s children, played by Aundrea and Gia Gadsby] was done by him. Stephanie Allynne has gained a reputation as a talented improviser and comedian. Were these winking self-references written in to the original script, or did things just fall together this way in the casting and rehearsal process?
JS: I wrote them all in, yeah. I cast Michael because I just think the world of him, he’s an amazing actor. With Stephanie, it was pretty similar – the script came first and then I tried to cast towards [Charlie’s] qualities. My thinking was that Stephanie is such a gifted improv actress, so if anyone in the audience knows that about her, it makes the fact that her character is struggling with improv a little more interesting. I liked that Stephanie was in that world and that for a big handful of people, it might mean a little extra.
SM: At this point, setting a film in New York City and shooting on location seems like such a risk because it has been so overdone and exhausted. At Sundance this year alone, I’ve seen at least three films set in the city. There are so many tropes and traps that befall contemporary filmmakers when they shoot there, and it’s a relief to say that your film avoids a great many of them. Were you hyper-aware of the dangers of setting a movie in New York when writing this script and shooting?
JS: Yes, it’s a risk, but I’ve lived in New York for fifteen years and had two kids here at this point. I never thought when writing, “What’s a great New York location that I can set this scene in?” The story is specific to my experiences in the city. When I first started writing, everything I wrote was about the Midwest, about Indiana [where Strouse is from.] I would have never tried to make this film even five years ago, probably. But I took a writing workshop with the author Sam Lipsyte – one of my favorite writers as well – and got to know Astoria [where Will lives] very well. I guess I have finally lived here long enough that it doesn’t make me nervous anymore. I did not compare my movie to any other “New York films”, which is good because if I had sat down and watched Manhattan [1978, dir. Woody Allen] or something, I probably would have been paralyzed with fear and doubt *laughs*.