Jim Strouse talks 'People Places Things'

Photo Credit: Sundance
August 14th, 2015

Director Jim Strouse must be very pleased to see his latest creation People Places Things do so well with critics and audiences as he gears up for the films release this weekend. The film received very positive reviews from this years Sundance Film Festival and was even nominated for a Grand Jury Prize. The film revolves around a middle aged graphic novel artist named Will (Jemaine Clement) who catches his wife (Stephanie Allynne) cheating on him at their twin daughters birthday party. Will must pick up the pieces of his life and find out what direction he needs to go. Jim was gracious enough to discuss his new film and his love of the visual arts.

Nick Leyland from TheMovieNetwork.com: You wrote and directed People Places Things and you've done that on several of your films. Do you find that that's the best formula for you to work with?

Jim Strouse: I haven't done it any other way yet, so I don't know what to compare it to. But I know, I guess from my own past through this career that writing something has really helped me figure out how I wanna direct it. So I do like that, I do. I wanna say stress-free, but I guess writing has its own stresses, but at least you don't have the pressure of production. So the writing is a long process of figuring out, how you're gonna tell the story you wanna tell and I'm always thinking about the visual component and actors that might be good for the roles. So they really feel inextricably linked to me.

TMN: I would be a nervous wreck if I had to do both.

[chuckle]

Jim Strouse: I mean, ideally you don't have to do both simultaneously. Not rewriting while directing.

TMN: Well, I feel like if you're directing a scene is not working it's like, "Alright, send it back to the writers." But that's you, so you just gotta go and work on it.

Jim Strouse: Yeah. Well, I've never been in a situation where you had the time or resources to say, "Let's rewrite the scene," as you're making it. For better and worse I've just fully committed to the script I'm making by the time I'm making it.

TMN: The film has a darker side to it with kind of more depressing comedy, which I like and I like the film. Jemaine (Clement) has such brilliant dry humor, I've loved him in almost everything he's ever done. Do you feel like you got the overall tone you were looking for?

Jim Strouse: Oh yeah, definitely. I think this film, of everything I've ever worked on, I think this film represents the tone I've always been looking for and that I like the most, which is equal parts comedy, drama or comedy that respects the emotional truth of the situations. So I think for every laugh in here there's something that kinda... It twists you the other way as well, which I like, I admire. Those are the types of films that... You know, films like Elaine May's Heartbreak Kid or Hal Ashby's The Last Detail are the types of films that really inspired me when I was young and just watching films. I like those really rich, complicated films that you don't know what's gonna happen from moment to moment, if it's gonna make you laugh or gonna make you sad. And it's a delicate tone to kinda maintain and get in the first place, so I've been attempting that for years and I really like how this one turned out.

TMN: I feel like a lot of filmmakers struggle with the right way to get imagery across and you kind of had this open plate for it because you had the drawings that got the audience into the main character's mind. Was that the spark that started this film or was that just a happy coincidence?

Jim Strouse: You know, I teach at the School of Visual Arts and there is a... I can't remember exactly the chronology of events, but there was an exhibit at SVA years ago about the history of the graphic novel at the School of Visual Arts and that was really inspiring and informative for me, as a fan of comics and graphic novels. To see that I was already teaching at a place that had such a rich history with comic art and I think it seeped into my head that this was... 'Cause I like writing about stories about writers and artists, but it can get hard to make that visually interesting. And I thought, well, here's an opportunity to actually show what this person is working on and it will be of visual interest, and I can do a lot of economic story telling without, you know, getting too expository.

TMN: Looks like you pretty much nailed it on the head with the whole write what you know thing.

[laughter]

Jim Strouse: I teach screen writing at the School of Visual Arts and at Tisch sometimes and I'm always recommending, encouraging young writers to look inside to, not necessarily write their autobiography, but these stories they have to come from, you have to be able to recognize and understand the emotions of the people you're writing about. So I'd say no place better to start than with yourself, your family and pulling from the immediate experience. Not necessarily transcribing your own life into a story, but at least using that material to compare against the characters you're creating and ask, trying to ask yourself honestly, "Is this how a person would act in this moment?" And how do you figure that out? By trying to put yourself there yourself.

TMN: Where did Bill Watterson end up on your list of comic people?

Jim Strouse: Oh I love Calvin and Hobbes.

TMN: I love it so much.

[laughter]

Jim Strouse: Yeah, Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts, Far Side, I love those comics. Some of those of Gary Larson's images are just... I mean I think they're so pure and, and wonderful it's just sort of, what they can get across in the few panels or a panel.

TMN: Right.

Jim Strouse: I love it.

TMN: I was thinking that you were gonna mention Bill in the scene when they're at dinner.

Jim Strouse: Oh yeah.

TMN: And they're talking about the art form, and I was like, "I think he might pull out a Bill Watterson quote here," but...

[laughter]

Jim Strouse: You know I didn't, the only thing that's actually, the only writer that was ever mentioned by name got cut, but Alison Bechdel's Fun Home was mentioned in the movie. And we put up a credit at the end for Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics which I have learned a lot from reading that book and incorporated into the story.

TMN: Another interesting part of this film is how you handled the character of Charlie, played by Stephanie Allynne, because she's not a bad person I don't think but you put her under such a microscope that like the audience has no other choice to really, just not like her.

[laughter]

Jim Strouse: Yeah, Stephanie Allynne. I think she did a great job with that character and also with discussion we had a lot was that she isn't a bad person and that she's not like all the other characters or almost all the other characters besides the kids, she's a confused and unhappy person. And I tried to respect that throughout the story. I mean she starts off on this note where she has nowhere to go, but I mean, you have to dislike her because she's cheating on the hero of the story. But I think as the story progresses and Will evolved as a character, you understand that he hasn't, he had a lot to do with their failure as a couple and that she was trying her best and that it's not her fault or his fault, it's both their faults, and they failed each other. It didn't work because it's not as simple as she cheated on him. It goes way, way back before that moment.

TMN: When you were making this film, when you make any film, are you mainly thinking about what the audience is gonna wanna see or are you more focused on your own vision of the film?

Jim Strouse: I try to put myself when I'm writing and directing in the mindset of, I consider myself the first audience member. I have in the past wondered what a ghost audience is made up of, you know, different people and trying to satisfy all these different tastes and ages and stuff, but I have reduced that to an audience of one and it's myself and why am I watching this? Why am I reading this script page one or watching this moment? What is the entertainment value here? What makes this interesting and compelling? So I am asking myself, I'm trying to meet my own standards, but I think you can start chasing your own tail if you try to anticipate a more general audience's reaction. I haven't figured out how to do that quite yet.

[laughter]

TMN: Well, speaking of the audience reaction, one of my last questions for you is, can you tell me about the reactions you received at Sundance?

Jim Strouse: We had a great time at Sundance, the film was in competition, and it was a great year at Sundance. I've seen almost all the films in competition and I'm really happy and proud to be part of that years' competition films because there's really, really great films there. The audience reaction was great. What I find is probably the most revealing is what happens on social media after the premier, that is amazing to me. I've been with Sundance a couple of times over the years, but I really became aware of Twitter this year and how instantaneous the reaction is and how it's spread so quickly.

Jim Strouse: But luckily, for the most part, reaction was positive for us. I think it represents the film I tried to make, closer to other things that I've made in the past. So I knew going in, no matter how people sort of receive the film, it's the film I made and I was proud to stand by it. And as we go through, as it makes it way towards release, I accept criticism, but I'm happy to see that it seems to be connecting with a lot of people and critics in a positive way.