*note this piece is written by Matthew Rovner.
Currently playing in wide release, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist is a good natured and often hilarious romantic teen comedy. I have known the director, Peter Sollett, and his writing partner (they did not collaborate on this film) and significant other, Eva Vives, since we were teenagers. I talked to Peter about his new film via cell phone, while he and Eva were out hunting for a kitchen sink. Their quarry proved to be no less elusive than the mythical band that the titular Nick and Norah pursue-Where's Fluffy. Peter's pursuit of a kitchen sink offers a good illustration of how the priorities of teenagers differ from those of early thirtysomethings. It's all the more impressive then, that his film is remarkably attuned to the personalities and concerns of today's sonic youth. Like the films of one of his prime directorial influences, John Cassavetes, Peter's films are very natural, open-hearted, and evince a great understanding for and empathy with people. It is not surprising then, that Nick & Norah's director is laid-back and unpretentious.
Music is obviously essential to this film. How was the playlist for Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist chosen?
Basically, we were shooting in New York, while Myron (Kerstein), my editor, was in LA. He was assembling the movie every day as he was getting the film back from the lab. I had e-mailed him a pretty big selection of songs that were just out of my iTunes to start him off; things that I thought captured the tone of what I was trying to do, and we started placing things. Then, after we would shoot a scene, I'd think about how it went, and e-mail him a couple of tracks, and I would do that every day. And by the time I got to LA at the end of production and looked at the assembly, I had e-mailed him two or three hundred songs, and he had placed many of them in the movie already. He's terrific with music.
I was really surprised to hear a Chris Bell song ("Speed of Sound") in the film. And, even more surprised to hear one of his songs open the film because he's this obscure musician who recorded only in the 1970s, from an obscure band (Big Star), and his solo album ("I Am the Cosmos"), is quite obscure, and that song is an obscure song on that album. But, it sounds like it was written for the movie.
Yeah. Thanks. There were two songs that were up for that opening spot, one was the Magnetic Fields's "The Book of Love". You know: "The Book of Love Is Long and Boring/No One Can Lift the Damn Thing..." It starts like that. And that's what we were planning on, and then we found this Chris Bell song that worked much, much better. And it's cooler, you know, because it was always appealing to us to try to choose something that maybe not as many people had heard yet. It's fun to turn people on to things, you know? So we went with it, and it works really, really well. His family's been extremely cool to us and grateful that that song has gotten out there. They feel he's an unappreciated artist, which of course he is.
How did you arrive at Mark Mothersbaugh (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) to score the film?
Well...Obviously he's a very successful, well-known guy. I love his scores, and he was always a dream composer for me. The film is very contemporary, and I think his sound is as well, and he seemed like a good fit. He's in a band that influenced all the other bands in the movie, Devo, and the movie's also got a tone that is very often quirky and a little off the wall, but ultimately very romantic. And I thought he would probably do both of those things. We showed him the movie and he really wanted to do it. After that, the deal was done because if Mothersbaugh wants to do it, he's going to do it...The guy is a mad scientist genius, his process is really interesting, really particular. He lives in his own world a little bit. He's got his own offices on Sunset Boulevard where he paints and where he makes music...He's a pretty amazing guy.
Did you describe to him what kind of sound you wanted?
Myron had temped the movie with the music of somebody called Adrianna Krikl...I discovered her music on the Four Eyed Monsters video podcast. And I thought it sounded great for the movie. Mothersbaugh heard that, and he really liked that it was very elementary and sort of child-like, very simple. So, he kind of took that idea and started making demos, and he would send them to me. And he would say, "just tell me the sounds that you like, tell me the instruments you like, tell me the melodies that you like." And through doing that he focused his approach, I think.
Let's talk about the actors. In your first film, Raising Victor Vargas (2003), you were working with non-professional and semi-professional actors, what was it like working with a professional cast this time around?
The professional actors...there was more of an abstract understanding of their characters. Some of them have been trained, a lot of them have a lot of experience and...they had a script [laughs]. Which is something I didn't give to the actors on Vargas. So, we could have an abstract conversation about the characters and motivations. But they both came up with good ideas, and it's my job to listen and to integrate them into the scene, into the film...It was just a different experience, it was actors who hit their marks and say their lines and improv occasionally or often. There was much more of a set plan, but it was interesting because we had the same number of days to shoot both films, so all that improvisation didn't take up as much time, we just had more complicated set-ups. You know, we were doing scenes in cars, and shots that take hours to set up. Whereas, in Vargas, we were just in somebody's living room so we could improvise all day, and get the scene and make the day.
Talk about the improvisation in Nick and Norah.
We improvised quite a bit because the actors were really good improvisational comic actors. Michael Cera is brilliant, that doesn't come as much of a surprise. But Kat Dennings and Ari Graynor are really, really funny people. They can really stick it out in a scene when they're hanging by a thread. There's a scene in the movie where Caroline/Ari asks Kevin Corrigan for a turkey sandwich. That whole scene wasn't in the script, that was something that she invented right there and then on the spot. There's a lot of stuff like that. They made a really good contribution to the film.
Michael Cera is so subtle in the film. I'm thinking particularly of that scene where he's just abandoned his ex-girlfriend, Tris (Alexis Dziena), and her lipstick is still on his windshield. You can see his face register regret or conflicted emotion, and then relief as he's wiping the lipstick off with the windshield wiper. There's no dialogue. It was one of my favorite moments in the film. When you were watching his performance on set, was it ever hard to tell when he had nailed the scene?
It wasn't hard to tell when he delivered the performance that made the point for the scene, but it was often very hard to realize, to notice, how well he had done it. And that's something in some cases we didn't know until we had printed the film and saw it on a giant screen. Because he's so subtle that there are scenes in the movie, and we couldn't see this on video, on AVID. There are scenes where the insides of his eyelids and the capillaries of his cheeks go flushed red with blood. There are scenes where his eyes water up, and you couldn't tell on video because it was so subtle. He's a pretty amazing actor, and a scene like that, that lip-stick scene, I'm glad that you noticed it. It's the kind of thing that he makes look really easy, and it's really not. He's all alone with the camera.
What were some other moments like that?
Another scene where that happened was before that sequence where he's in the car with Tris. And he's kind of whistling along with the radio and then Tris comes behind him and starts kissing on his neck, trying to seduce him. You can really see it there, because it's one of the few places where it was appropriate to hold on him in one shot for a minute or something like that, and you can see the performance unedited. He's just so emotionally available, and he expresses it so well.
Right before that scene you frame Nick in the background bisected by Tris's leg in the foreground as if Tris is Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate. I can picture the Tris character growing up to be Mrs. Robinson.
[Laughs] Yes. It was a visual reference to that and it was a little bit of a way to have fun with the scene and pay homage to an amazing director (Mike Nichols).
In the next installment of this interview with Peter Sollett, we will learn about how to direct an orgasm. And in a less pleasurable vein, we will discover the secrets of how to direct vomiting-gingerly.
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For Track 2, click here.