What You Need To Know About Dramatic/Romantic Movies With Rebecca Murray: Kevin Spacey and Matthew Hoge on "The United States of Leland"
Actor/Producer Teams With Writer/Director
"The United States of Leland" is inspired by writer/director Matthew Hoge's experiences as a teacher in a juvenile prison. While working at the facility, Hoge was surprised by how ordinary the group of teens he was working with seemed. Taking the job, he had preconceived ideas of what the kids would be like. Hoge recalls, "Upon arriving on my very first day of work, I was led into a classroom with 17 minors charged with murder. I assumed they were going to be monsters. I thought, after all, what sort of young person would kill a stranger, a friend, a mother?" The young men he taught seemed more like typical teens than monsters.
While many admired Hoge's honest script, no one was willing to give the go-ahead to get production underway until the script landed at Kevin Spacey's Trigger Street Productions. Trigger Street is devoted to developing projects from new filmmakers, and Spacey was moved by Hoge's story. Spacey not only supported the project but took a role in the film as Leland's (Ryan Gosling) father.
INTERVIEW WITH KEVIN SPACEY AND MATTHEW HOGE:
Matthew, did you go to work at the correctional institute looking for a script?
MATTHEW HOGE: I went in to pay the rent because I needed a job. I just knew I didn't want to work in Hollywood. I didn't want to answer an agent's phone. Bu it was very, very easy to get hired because there's such a shortage of teachers and so I felt like I wanted a way I could teach a few days a week and then have time to write. I also felt like I'll probably meet people I wouldn't meet any other way, and that turned out to be the case. And I think it took me probably six months of being there, overcoming that kind of initial shock, because it was just so different than anything else I'd experienced.
I would hear about a kid's file before meeting them, or weeks after meeting them, but I was never there to witness the act that was now defining who they are. And I'm intersecting with them at this very different point where I'm just seeing a kid. I'm seeing a kid who's saying, “I really miss my mother. Can you please help me improve the grammar of the letter I want to write to my judge to improve my conditions, or thank you for teaching me square roots, or I drew a funny picture of you.” And that's how I interacted with them. I think that was almost immediate, the shock that this was not at all what I thought it would be. There were times when it was sort of harrowing, but by and large, it was like running any other classroom. And [there was] just this incredible range. I mean, you had two kids in a classroom who couldn't speak English and then at the other end you had a kid on the Harvard track before he did whatever he did - and everything in between - so it was just a juggling act to try to keep everybody involved, and try to give them something.
It took me a while to feel like I knew it well enough to write it honestly and respectfully, and try to communicate the story. I felt it was an important one because those kids, most people know about them by the one article that comes out in the paper that says so-and-so shot at a kid in a failed drive-by shooting and killed a 4 year-old. Or so-and-so shot up his high school or killed his mother, and that's it. They are a monster, they're not like us, we're going to lock them up for 100 years and we're done with them and that's all we're going to get from them on that story. I got to get past that. I'd actually see them for what they were, which is a human being just like me.
How much faith do you have in the platforming strategy of the film's release?
KEVIN SPACEY: Well, I happen to [believe] that the traditional form of distribution is probably going to change in the next 10 years. I think that tentpole movies or films released on 2000 screens or 3000 screens or 4000 screens or whatever it is, are the films in which studios put resources behind in hopes that they'll get not just their money back, but everybody else's money at the same time. I think that platforming in a lot of cases depends on the campaign, and it depends on the enthusiasm, to a large degree, of the critics. If critics get behind your film, then that encourages studios to get behind the film and not drop it. And we've been quite encouraged because while the film is a challenging movie, we've always had a lot of faith in it, and now that we've seeing the reactions that we're getting from the test screenings, it's very encouraging. I hope that it's encouraging Paramount Classics to say, “You know, this is worth continuing our idea of rolling this out. We're going to try to get the word of mouth out about the film and we believe we'll talk about the film in these kind of terms.” I think it really depends on the degree to which the studio is behind the film at the end of the day, and if they're able to get people to come out.
How did you develop these characters?
MATTHEW HOGE: Ryan [Gosling] has the harder job. I have the easy job of putting it on paper, and writing a character who's eccentric and has a sort of unusual world view. Ryan has to embody that, and we talked quite a bit about it, and tried to find ways in. I gave him books I thought were really valid, like “The Stranger” by Albert Camus, “Catcher in the Rye,” obviously. Books that are sort of important to this character that we could reference as a shorthand. We talked quite a bit about it, rehearsed quite a bit, but I really have to say if that character comes off as believable and a real person, that's Ryan. That's Ryan using all of the tools he has as an actor to change himself physically and to find certain physical manifestations for an unusual character with sort of an off-center world view. I mean, he changed his posture, he changed his body type, how he looked, he changed his voice, facial expressions, and just things that grounded these ideas that I had of him as a real person. It's a real credit to him as an actor.
Kevin, how did you develop similarities between you and Ryan Gosling?
KEVIN SPACEY: Well, the thing that I did was I watched a lot of Ryan's dailies. I wasn't on the set that much when I wasn't working because I just thought it was better to let Matt not have me over his shoulder. But I did watch a lot of Ryan's dailies because I knew he was doing things that were characteristic of things you might pick up from your father. I thought that if I could pull some of those characteristics into my performance - just little, small physical things – that I think that they both are remarkably similar. Obviously my character's world view is a bit cynical, and he's completely out of touch with his own emotional life. And obviously he's been a horribly absent father who's made choices that have been, I think, hugely detrimental. And I think it goes to the sum of the reasoning behind how the character Ryan plays ends up the way he does. I think that was, to me, the most interesting journey about playing the role and about producing the film, was that it does try to humanize things that we don't understand. As Matt says, it's so much easier to say that, oh, these kids, they're neo-Nazis, and they listen to bad rock music and they're on drugs and it's not my kid, it's not your kid, it's those kids over there and we don't want to know about them. I think in terms of the layering of these characters does provoke questions about that, and challenge the way we view events that we read about all the time and are horrified by. But do we ever go beyond that initial horror or do we go, “Oh, it's horrible,” and then go on to the next news story. Whenever you sort of spend the time, and we did, there are some pretty remarkable documentaries about kids that had done similar events.
Did you worry about whether the audience would like this character?
KEVIN SPACEY: There are times in certain roles where you can find a level of humor or a level of performance, but I'm not terribly worried about whether people like a character or not. I think that sometimes a movie is supposed to provoke, and sometimes there are people like this, obviously some of them are in our families. He would send him tickets to go lots of places and see the world, but he wouldn't go with him to see the world, wouldn't share his world with him, and there are absent parents. There are people who have children who shouldn't have them, but I don't set out worrying whether a character's going to be liked or not. In this case, it worked.
What did you think about Ryan sucking in his lip?
MATTHEW HOGE: That's Ryan. How he described it was that…as an actor embodying that role he can't invite people in. Actors have certain tricks and can say, “Come on, like me. I want you to like me,” and it would be completely false. That character would be unbelievable, and Ryan used that. He was trying to find other ways of physical manifestations of the idiosyncrasies of the character. How he described that to me was that Leland didn't want to give the world his expression, he didn't want to give them a frown, he didn't want to give them a smile, so he just takes the bottom lip away because he doesn't want people to be getting any insight into his emotional life. I had never seen it as specifically childlike, but he did give it to the younger versions of Leland. He sat around and kind of talked about, “These are the things that I'm doing with my face.” And the things that Kevin picked up on as well for his scenes. I think it's just such a neat way to look at a character to see where he comes from, where he was at five and twelve and sixteen. I think Ryan did a great job of inspiring the younger actors to get that and make the guy feel real.
The United States Of Spacey
For writer-director Matthew Ryan Hoge and ShoWest Star of Tomorrow Ryan Gosling, everything changed when Kevin Spacey jumped aboard The United States of Leland.
by Christine Radish
These days, getting an independent film made and released has become increasingly difficult, especially when the subject matter is as heavy and volatile as The United States of Leland. Writer/director Matthew Ryan Hoge (Self Storage) knew it would not be easy to find a production company fearless enough to take on the material, but he says he had no idea just how hard it would be.
After a long, hard search, Hoge was just about ready to give up, until the screenplay found its way to Kevin Spacey’s Trigger Street Productions, which is devoted not only to developing entertainment for multiple forms of media, but also to jump-starting the careers of promising new filmmakers. To Hoge’s relief, Spacey was so moved by the story and Hoge’s unique point of view that he dedicated himself to getting the film made.
“Frankly, in the course of a year, I think you’re fortunate if you come across five, or maybe less, screenplays that are really worth getting behind,” explains Spacey. “This was one of those cases where the script came and we fell in love with it. Then, we met Matt and fell in love with him, and felt that it was absolutely appropriate that he be the director.”
“That automatically sets up a certain series of border crossings that you have to get through, because it’s remarkably difficult to raise money for a first-time director,” adds Spacey. “Very often, what you’ll see happen is that a writer will be forced to give up directing their movie because they can’t get the money raised, so someone else ends up directing. But, we were very confident about Matt.”
The United States of Leland is a probing look at the aftermath of a crime that defies explanation. When a seemingly ordinary student named Leland Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling) commits a devastating, inexplicable crime, everything changes forever, not only for Leland, but for his family, friends and the teacher (Don Cheadle) who becomes obsessed with trying to figure out why.
“We just slogged through about a year and a half of beating down doors and trying to convince people that this was a good idea and a worthwhile project to do,” recalls Spacey, who founded Trigger Street Productions in 1997 and launched an offshoot web site community in 2002.
“What ended up really selling Leland was just bringing Matt in and letting him speak for himself,” he continues. “Matt really sold himself, but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes, you fail in trying to convince someone that it’s the right thing. I think a lot of it has to do with how the filmmaker presents their ideas. In this case, Matt was very clear about the movie he wanted to make.”
Inspired by his own eye-opening journey as a teacher in a juvenile prison, Hoge’s film probes behind today’s shocking teen crime headlines to reveal real lives that are far more complex than the news could possibly show.
“Leland is fictional,” reveals Hoge. “The kids that I interacted with in juvenile hall, where I taught for a couple of years, had stories that were really different. They were mostly coming out of the gang world.”
“It was more the experience that I had, as far as how those kids were judged, combined with the character of Leland, that went to the script. There was never a Leland.”
For Spacey, whose production company is named after a street in the San Fernando Valley where he grew up (which in turn was originally christened by cowboy star Roy Rogers after his horse Trigger), the main appeal of Hoge’s script was its universally haunting theme.
“I think what Matt’s script really explored for me was the idea that you had to stop and ask yourself the question, ‘Well, what if it was my kid who did that?’” he suggests. “‘Would I be referencing my child in the same way that I hear other kids referenced?’
“What I liked about the script was the exploration of a teacher who stumbles across this kid, and then it’s about what this student provokes in him about his own life and the way he views the world,” the 44-year-old actor/director/producer continues. “At the end of the day, maybe the film poses lots of questions so that people might walk away from the film, or the next time they read a story like this, and think, ‘Well, maybe there’s more there than what I’m getting.’”
Once Spacey was on board, Hoge knew set about looking for Leland, the bright, vulnerable, seemingly sweet young man whose face and demeanor just do not seem to fit the shocking crime of which he is accused. Early in the casting process, Hoge watched a tape of Ryan Gosling as the Jewish student who becomes a modern-day Nazi skinhead in the controversial Sundance award winner The Believer.
Although he was impressed with Gosling’s powerful and critically acclaimed performance, he just couldn’t picture the young actor as Leland.
“I read it and then I tried to convince them of the idea of me doing it,” says Gosling. “Matt saw The Believer and didn’t see Leland in that, so he just felt like I probably couldn’t do it. But, I felt like, if we had a meeting, I could persuade him a little bit.”
Spacey concurs. “Ryan really wanted to play the role, but Matt was not convinced,” he says. “He just didn’t resemble Matt’s idea of Leland at all. I think it was Ryan’s persistence, and his continually coming in and auditioning and trying to prove that he could do this, that finally helped Matt realize what an idiot he was.”
In order to develop Leland’s detached mannerisms, Gosling got so deep into the role that he immersed himself in research and literally wall-papered his house with the script so that he would be living and breathing Leland Fitzgerald every day. “It took a bunch of different roads to get where we got,” says Gosling, when describing his approach to the role. “A lot of the details were in the script. It was such a nice piece of writing.”
“It was taking all of those things and then putting a body onto that personality and spirit,” he continues. “I think Leland is a very confused young man, and I think that he is very emotionally disconnected. He’s kind of watching the movie that is his life, and isn’t participating in it at all, with the exception of a couple of weeks, where he decides to experience love, and all that comes with being a part of this life.”
As part of his research, Hoge took Gosling to the same juvenile facility that he had taught in, so that the actor could see the reality of that situation. “We spent a little time there and judged a Christmas talent show,” says Gosling. “It was really cool. I also had some one-on-ones, but I think that was a really unique way to get to know them.”
“I guess anytime you see anybody dance, you learn a lot about them,” he adds with a laugh. “I never found a Leland -- one person to model him after. He’s a combination of a bunch of ideas and experiences.”
Once the cast was set, the production rolled into a 28-day shooting schedule across 35 different Southern California locations. Having worked in the business since a pretty young age, Gosling reveals that he enjoys working with first-time directors because the energy on set is different.
“It’s just fresh because everything’s riding on that movie,” he says. “They’ve been in preparation their whole lives to make this movie, and it’s a big deal. You really feel like you’re a part of something that’s really special. It’s more important than a movie that has a lot of money behind it.”
“Sometimes, you work on big things and there’s trailers everywhere, and it’s supposed to feel important, but it doesn’t,” Gosling continues. “And then, you get onto a movie like this, which is really small, with a small crew, but you really feel like you’re doing something special because there’s a lot riding on it for the filmmaker.”
In addition to saving the film by producing it, Spacey also decided independently to come on board as Albert Fitzgerald, Leland’s father. Although his role in the film is relatively small, Spacey wound up spending quite a bit of time on the set, as producer.
"He came by a lot,” confirms Gosling. “He was very present, but he’d just come and wave, and then he’d leave. I think he knows what it’s like to be an actor on a small movie, where the producer is always looking at his watch. It kills the creativity.”
“I think he did his best to give Matt, and all of us, as much room to breathe as we needed,” the young actor continues. “But, at the same time, this movie wouldn’t have been made if he hadn’t taken it on. He got the money, he got Matt the cast that he wanted, he got him the crew that he wanted and he gave him creative control, which is pretty unique.”
For his part, Spacey says he did not make the decision to play the character of Fitzgerald until the film was fully financed. “Matt thought it was a good idea, and I thought it was a good idea,” he remembers. “We went to a couple other people prior, but ultimately, I said, ‘Yeah, okay, I’ll step in.’”
“It was a nice supporting role and I just tried to go to Ryan’s dailies as often as I could and pick out things that he was doing that I thought maybe he could have learned from his father,” he adds. “That sense of remoteness, and certain physical characteristics.”
Ultimately, Hoge and everyone else involved with The United States of Leland hopes the movie will help audiences rethink the way they judge others. “My hope is that the next time you read about a case like this, you put yourself in a position where, if you’re a parent, you say, ‘What if this were my son who had committed this crime?’ If you’re younger, you should say, ‘What if this were my friend?’” says Hoge.”
“What if this were someone that I know? Would I still want to speak of it this way and dismiss these kids? And, do I really need to believe that they’re that different from me? Is that really in the best interest of all parties involved?”
April 6, 2004
Driving Mr. Spacey!: The positively untrue life and times of Kevin Spacey, with a few real facts thrown in for fun. All collages and photo enhancements were done by me using Microsoft® Picture It!® 99
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