AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2012
By Don Simpson | November 22, 2012
Ex-Girlfriends is a deftly written film that feels much more literary than cinematic. That is not necessarily a bad thing, it just means that the cinematic devises play second fiddle to the writing and performances. Typically, when a film plays so blatantly with the perspective of the narrative, the result is something that is overtly writerly. Somehow, writer-director Alexander Poe is able to pull off this trick while maintaining a high level of naturalism. Sure, we are made aware that the story is being told by the Graham; he is a writer and this is his autobiographical tale. To add another level of meta-ness, Poe plays Graham. The story is told from Graham’s perspective and therefore inherently biased. The only difference between Poe, the author of the film, and Poe’s character is that the writer-director understands that he is creating a work of fiction while Graham is too naive an author to distinguish between truth and fiction.
Smells Like Screen Spirit had chance to chat with Alexander Poe and Jennifer Carpenter (who plays Graham’s ex-girlfriend-turned-best-friend, Kate) the morning after the world premiere of Ex-Girlfriends at the 2012 Austin Film Festival.
Don Simpson: Can you talk about your approach to the perspective of this script?
Alexander Poe: It was a device for me to show that Graham is someone who turns his life into a narrative that departs from reality. He is always idealizing the girl that he needs to win in order for the story to be complete. I think Graham’s journey is really moving from that detached — almost like Don Quixote — idealism to a deeper understanding that people are a little more multifaceted. He has a few more hurdles to overcome before becoming an adult than he thought he did at the beginning of the film. Essentially, I just stole it from [François Truffaut's] Shoot the Piano Player (1960)…
DS: Well, that’s a great film to steal from!
AP: If you are going to steal, you should steal from the best.
DS: The perspective you’ve chosen to use is a narrative device that typically comes off as overtly writerly in films, but in the case of Ex-Girlfriends it seems very toned-down, if not natural.
AP: In addition to the Truffaut stuff, I took more from literature — Lorrie Moore and Jay McInerney have that second person style. I wanted it to always be servicing something in terms of the character, while not becoming writerly to the point that it is no longer dramatic. As long as the narration is not just summarizing what is happening in the scene, but is actually telling you something about the character that contradicts what you are watching. The things he says in the narration I really hope are not taken as the literal way that the audience should see things, but perceived as comedic. You know, this is a wry, strained narrator who probably should not be trusted.
DS: You also insert a lot of self-criticism of the narrative while Graham’s story is being torn apart by his classmates.
AP: I think a lot of that criticism is somewhat valid really. I think the entire rest of the movie is about Graham realizing that their criticisms are actually true, and those are the obstacles that he has to overcome in order to become more honest in his self-perception and the basic ways he interacts with the world. That’s a real gut-punch to base a story on yourself, then have someone criticize your character as being so shallow and unlikable. Sometimes hearing that type of criticism is part of the learning process. You get better by making mistakes and writing a lot of bad stuff.
DS: So, its not only his story that is being critiqued, but Graham as a person as well.
AP: Exactly. He thinks they are critiquing his story, but really they are identifying how he needs to improve as a person. It is a group therapy session, really.
DS: With you as the writer, director and lead character, that seems to create a blur between fiction and reality. Are you concerned that the audience will walk away thinking you are Graham?
AP: Well, a lot of it is a true story… I definitely tried to take inspiration from situations that are true — either factually true or emotionally true — to everyone who is trying to figure out what the hell they are doing with their life. I don’t think it would be interesting if it was just a retelling of a story that actually happened; but maybe if it is really just trying to get at why people make such contradictory, self-hating choices in relationships… Should you stay with someone who has done something like this? Should you idealize someone like that? How can you be in a relationship in mature way? Rather than an idealized chasing after a girl whom you are putting all this stuff on, seeing her for who she really is?
DS: Since this was based somewhat on reality, did you find it difficult to cast Graham’s two ex-girlfriends?
AP: Casting was a weird process. I knew I was acting in it, so I was just trying to work with friends whom I have worked with before. I have acted in a lot of what I have directed, and I always have collaborators who are keeping an eye on me, making sure I am not straying while I am focusing on directing rather than acting. We had another actress cast in the role of Kate, and everything fell apart when she left for another project. We were so incredibly excited that Kristen [Connolly]‘s manager gave us a list of actresses who were available for the role. I immediately saw Jennifer [Carpenter]‘s name. I love her in Dexter. At first I felt taunted a little bit. “Hey, your movie is falling apart, but here is a list of people who are so far above your little tiny film.” Jennifer Carpenter will be in this movie? You are basically just joking with me right now, right? But we gave Jennifer the script — and meeting her, I was just so blown away by her down-to-earth enthusiasm for doing something she was excited about, regardless of the size of the project.
Jennifer Carpenter: My manager sent me the script and didn’t make any proclamations about the budget of the movie. I had no idea how much money was behind it. I genuinely liked it. I felt like it was a great fit for me, and it was something that people have not seen me do for a very long time. I was pretty aggressive at our meeting. Alex made it really clear that the production was going to be very run-and-gun; there would be no trailers, no fanciness. I was like, so what? Let’s get dirty!
I learned so many lessons on this and there are things I reconnected to in my whole process that I am so enthusiastic about now. I have three months off while I wait for the next season of Dexter to start and I am begging Alex to write something else. He is the real deal. He had just gotten out of school, and he risked being evicted from his apartment, and he was racking up debt on his own credit card, and they were borrowing equipment, cars and locations. It was awesome! It made me feel like I wasn’t working hard enough.
DS: And you were given such a strong character to work with — both female leads are very strong characters.
JC: Yeah! Really, really rich. He put this really rich bag of soil in front of me and told me to grow something. Good direction is a lot of things, one thing is to pass the character on to the actors and tell them it is their responsibility. Alex is there to push you back within the lines — or pull you out of the lines, even.
DS: Were the two female leads based on real people?
AP: I always like to draw from life more than try to make things up. I think its more interesting to see what people actually do, than what they do in scripts when you say that the character’s motivation is that they have to get to X-then-Y-then-Z, so they have to fit in there. People go very roundabout ways before they figure out what they want or to get to their goals. I didn’t really want to base them on one person or situation, so I took this part of this weird weekend I had, and this is really interesting… Why do people lie to each other when it doesn’t really matter? It seems really odd for Graham to withhold this information from Laura. Why not figure out what’s interesting? You see things that you don’t normally see in a movie where characters are usually more straight-forward. This is more elliptical, and I hope you look at it and think “I’ve had nights like that, for sure.”
DS: At what point in the process did you begin to form the narrative structure?
AP: The section that is the narrated story, I had actually written as a story, but then I didn’t know what to do with it. Oh, this big thing happened one night and then nothing came from it. But that’s the way things happen. You have this amazing life-changing night, then the next day life just goes right back to normal. There are not these huge irrevocable shifts. So the structure of the film has a lot of those build up to something that should change everything, then the following day we are back in the same place. Graham has the two big nights with Laura, but then ultimately the reality is that these sweeping gestures are just forgotten. Graham is not the protagonist of Laura’s story. Laura and Tom have their own narrative that has Graham as just this minor figure. I like that about Fellini’s movies. In La Dolce Vita, the protagonist has this great night, but that doesn’t change anything, he just has to go back to work the next day.
JC: The reason I reconnected to a part of my process, is that Kate was a whole person who I made decisions about and then asked her to read the script and perform it. Because it is written like real life, the characters had to be like real people. There is a lot more work associated with good writing, because there are not answers screaming out at you about what it is supposed to be or should be. You are not broadcasting things. I was so surprised at things like when Kate scratches her nose when she talks about boning — I was thinking, that could be me!
AP: Those are the fun parts, the moments when it feels like “that just happens.” Let’s make it real.
JC: Early on, Graham makes this proclamation while having coffee with Laura that guys are not thinking about anything, they are just thinking about what they want for lunch. I just thought that was amazing, because you look at Graham during the party scene and his face is so neutral. He is thinking about nothing and he tells you all of the nothings he is thinking about, some of the idiotic things that he is thinking about, like about coffee dates being bad. It is ridiculous what we project onto other people.
AP: That is totally what I think about every day. Oh, she doesn’t want to go out for a drink, she just wants to meet for coffee. She texted me back, she didn’t call me. Uh oh!
JC: This movie is all about secret keeping or secret fielding. What do I want to expose and what do I want to keep secret? What am I really thinking about you? What I know about you and what I am going to tell everybody.
AP: Yeah, that’s really cool. I like that! I’m going to keep that and use it next time.
DS: How did you balance your roles as writer, director and actor?
AP: With great difficulty. [laughs] No, I tried to surround myself with really talented actors who would bring so much to the table. I feel like awesome actors make me look like a better actor. If you have someone who is really giving you a lot, it really raises your game. I also like to have a lot of collaborators. My producer Jennifer Gerber was involved with all of the creative choices of the film; our cinematographer [Gregory Kershaw] was involved with the story. Everyone was looking out for each other and had the best interests of the film in their hearts. While it seems very solitary to be a writer, director and actor, it really felt to me like a very collaborative film.