Very few films are as small (literally and figuratively) but pack the emotional punch that Marcel the Shell with Shoes On does. Dean Fleischer-Camp’s film is an extension of the web shorts that date back over a decade ago. The first short has over 32 million views as of July 2022, and what began as a three-minute short has now expanded into a 90-minute feature film.
Jenny Slate voices the adorable Marcel, a one-inch-tall shell that is being interviewed by Dean, played by Fleischer-Camp himself, a young filmmaker who I mistook for Cooper Raiff just by his voice. But like Raiff, who is an up-and-coming filmmaker himself, Fleischer-Camp has made a special film with Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, and it’s a film that truly appeals to all audiences (bring tissues for a beautiful rendition of an Eagles classic).
I could go on about the film for hours, but because of the dense nature of this interview, I’ll introduce our subjects. I spoke with live-action and stop-motion cinematographers, Bianca Cline and Eric Adkins over Zoom. They were so generous with their time, and I had so much fun hearing them go into such detail about the process of making the film that you won’t get anywhere else. In this interview, they discuss what their unique working relationship was like, the differences in techniques filming live-action and stop-motion, and the way the two blend together.
Coastal House Media: Could you two describe what your working relationship on this project was like?
Bianca Cline: It’s a really unique film because it wasn’t one or the other [live-action or stop-motion] — the two overlap quite a bit. It wasn’t like there were sections that are stop-motion and sections that are live-action, it was a constant blending of the two. When I came on in pre-production, they hadn’t hired a stop-motion DP, and so I was like really excited when I met Eric [Adkins] because that collaboration was going to be so important but also unusual because it’s not like there were normal delegations the way you would [have them] with grip, electric, or the art department, so it was like we were developing a new thing and it was different for Eric because [he] doesn’t usually have to work with somebody like me.
We started the film like a live-action film. I think we filmed for 24 days, but there was so much more that went into it. We wanted Marcel and his grandmother and some of the other characters to always be made in stop-motion instead of doing them as CGI characters. But doing that isn’t as simple as just doing the character and putting it in because he’s constantly interacting with things that are in the real world, spoons, books, fruit and all of these other things including living things like grass and dirt — dirt’s not alive — but tangible, organic things. So it was a constant puzzle of [figuring out] which pieces need to be replicated in stop-motion, which parts need to be captured in the live-action portion of the film, and also [figuring out] what things can work for the stop-motion; like what kind of camera movement can work? What kind of lighting is going to be replicable [without] adding too much? If it’s going to make the film much better, we’d do it that way.
And Eric was there every day of the live-action [portion of filming], constantly watching what I was doing because we were creating the look of the film there, but it [also] needed to be replicated on a stage, which is a much different situation especially since we wanted it to feel like a documentary. Even though most of the lighting wasn’t natural, we had to make it feel natural and we were trying to push the envelope a bit with things that you might do in stop-motion because we had the opportunity. With live-action, you might film sunlight coming in the window with leaves which [are] constantly moving and is something that [is] very easy for me to film but then super difficult for Eric to replicate on stage.
Eric Adkins: Early on, I did some testings almost a year before the live-action [filming] and we were trying to figure out what would be the easiest way to do these interactions. And what came out of that was that the real high-tech way, which not only would be extremely expensive but also was the least successful way how to go, especially because the original production — the little web episodes — were done by this director [Dean Fleischer-Camp] who is an editor [and he] would essentially do a live take and then animate many different cuts and animate in post [production] and edit. So what was baked in was this beautiful movement of wind blowing, a branch or something, or light shifting because of the window. Traditionally, you don’t do that in stop-motion; you control that stuff and make that not happen, so the idea of working with this fluid live-action feel came down to trying to interact with what is captured as much as possible.
So while live-action is beautiful and sometimes you capture unique things, my part was to actually translate what was captured and actually lock it into something that is a reaction to what was given.
The fact that you’re dealing with live actors too was really kind of interesting because there were all [of] these focus issues: making sure you’re not too closely-focused, making sure it’s not a diopter situation where you ruin the background focus just for the sake of what’s up front. So it’s really a nice, collaborative scenario where each of us are doing our own jobs but [are] also working together to try to create a whole, and it was really fun to do that.
CHM: So neither of you worked on the original short films then?
Cline: Yeah, I think it was just Dean [Fleischer-Camp] and Jenny [Slate] that made those.
CHM: Whenever I interview a duo that worked together, I like to ask this. Could you guys complement each other and name one thing that the other brought to the table?
Cline: Going in, I was really worried. I thought that it would be very restrictive, that Eric [Adkins] would say, “Oh, that’s too hard for me to replicate,” or, “I can’t do that,” over a sustained period because it could take days to do one scene [and] we wanted it to feel spontaneous so that it would feel like a documentary [and] also so Marcel would feel more real. I thought that that would be really difficult, that it was going to be very restrictive, that we’d have to have the camera locked off a lot and that camera movement or having interactive lighting would be tricky, and Eric was just constantly pushing to make those things better. I’m like, “Oh, let’s film the scene with candles,” and sure, it’d [have] super unpredictable lighting, but Eric was like, “Yeah, we’ll find a way [and] we’ll make it work.”
He [Eric] was taking notes on everything; how the lighting was working and focal distance and lens and was never snobbish. I could just do my job [and] didn’t have to worry about all those things because Eric was just on top of it constantly.
Adkins: Well, thank you. I felt blessed in the sense that the spirit of Bianca and what she was trying to achieve and her relationship with the Dean [Fleischer-Camp] the director whom I knew a little bit about but I didn’t know as much about the project as a whole; that was probably a good thing [because] it was just nice to experience firsthand what was transpiring, what was being worked out, [and] not only Bianca was inclusive, but [the] entire crew was very helpful to me, too. It must have been weird [to have] this guy taking notes and eventually he’s going to take over the show, but yet, her whole crew was very supportive and giving me color temperature reports or distance to the main subject on [a given] take and we were all doing different things and because of that, I think we were able to just work well with each other.
I think when you work with stop-motion people, they’re working so tight that you really have to have a good spirit in life, and so going into a live-action world, I knew I wasn’t going to be a problem but I also was really happy that I was included and [that I] had a good time.
Cline: I didn’t even know that that was happening, Eric. [There’s] a whole world of numbers and problems that I just didn’t even have to think about or worry about [and it was] so nice that it was taken care of without me having to think about it.
CHM: We’ve talked a lot about stop-motion, but was there any CGI in the film or is it all stop-motion?
Adkins: Well, we had puppet people there to not only move characters around if Kirsten [Lepore], the animation director, didn’t do it, but things like the worm going through the box were practical puppetry in real live-action and then we had some puppets that were oversized that we were going to use for the bee or the spider and all that. But they decided to actually photograph those objects because the bee was going to be so small and the spiders’ part grew. But [because] they’re so detailed, the spiders ended up being CGI. Some of the mannerisms were based out of some puppetry and some design work that [would have] been done had they been stop-motion puppets, and they would put them on a Lazy Susan, a rotisserie gear, getting a 360º of them so they could actually scan them so [that] they could actually play with them. [While] they were authentic to the puppet creation, they ended up being sourced-out CGI. But everything else, all the shells, all [of] the other products that were used, were stop-motion. They weren’t real shells; some of them were, but the lead characters were not because they had to be exactly the same, [though] they were designed after a real shell. We had like a dozen Marcel’s on set.
CHM: I heard that Bianca, you have some stories about creating the look of the film and the landscape, for Eric to do the stop-motion work. Would you be able to share any of those?
Cline: I mean, we wanted the film to feel a little bit homemade, so we wanted there to be some amount of the film feeling kind of “off the cuff,” a little bit thrown away in certain ways because it’s meant to just be impromptu. Not every scene, but for the majority of the film is meant to be this filmmaker named Dean who’ll [see] Marcel has something to say and film, so we wanted everything to feel very spontaneous but obviously it doesn’t work that way, especially with feature films in general. But [we] also knew that it had to be replicated, so everything was very planned but had to feel like it wasn’t, which is a really difficult thing to do. It’s like trying to make something [that is] super controlled but make it feel like it’s a little bit chaotic and out of control.
We filmed almost the entire thing in one house — I think it was 18 days in this one house —so the house was also our production office for pre-production so we were basically there every day. I’d spend 12 hours a day at this house and when I came on the film there, actually I didn’t see a script and they sent me locked audio; it was like sound effects, dialogue, music, everything was fairly locked and they had storyboards to go with it.
And then what we did during prep was Dean and I kind of went around the house and found locations in the house that would work for the different scenes. And [if] we would find [that] we had too many scenes in the kitchen [we’d] try to find somewhere else and look to spread it out and so by the time we started production, we had locked audio with photo boards that you could watch. They’re all stills, but you could just watch, see this is happening here, this is happening here, which was really great for inter-departmental work, especially [as] everything becomes very complicated.
Usually, when you’re filming a live-action with human actors, it would just be like, “Okay, the art department will dress this room and it’s fine and we’ll put the lights outside the windows,” but it just didn’t work that way because, if he [Marcel] is interacting with certain things cannot be replicated or cannot be removed from the house [like] a hundred-year-old wood floor [that you] can’t pull out and take it to the stage. So [we’d] set him [Marcel] on a book or something that can be taken to the end; [we would] like constantly [have to do] that.
The other thing that was really tricky was Marcel is very, very tiny and [while] he comes across as small, when you’re thinking about it, I think he’s less than one-inch [tall]. Trying to film somebody that small is difficult without looking down on him all the time, and we wanted to have depth and feel things and other characters in the film as well as we wanted to be at Marcel’s eye level just so he could be in his world.
We ended up doing a lot of testing for the scenes that were going to be on the actual floor or on surfaces where we couldn’t lift him up. We got prisms and we would film him; so the lens was all the way to the floor and then we were just trying to incorporate a lot of things that you would into a documentary like filming near windows and filming near lamps and light sources and as well as what Marcel [would] do, what’s going to be really cute [and asking] What does he do in that world?
We sat with a couple of people, I can’t remember their names; [one] developed all of the treehouses and there was another woman who was developing props, little chairs and little things that Marcel would live in and that a one-inch-tall character would create. So we were constantly trying to do that, repurposing candles; birthday candles become this thing that lights the entire room if you’re one-inch-tall, that was kind of our theme, that’s the world we want and then we’ll see how we can make it work on a stop-motion stage.
CHM: This is probably going to sound like a stupid question, but you mentioned some of those shots where you’re looking at him on the ground, whether he is being chased around or running around or whatever the case is, is Marcel CGI in those scenes, or is that all stop-motion?
Adkins: You know, the live-action unit shot reference footage of the character in the route, but we also put tracking dots on the floor: one that represented another character, one that represented the Marcel in the route that they were going to take and the focus defined where the contact was going to be. But if it was a wide shot of Marcel running down the floor, it was still stop-motion. We would actually cheat the scale of it and shoot it closer, but as long as we had the measure distance that they ran and we were at the right tilt angle and the right lens, everything could just be placed in there and tracked with it.
As far as my knowledge, none of Marcel or Connie was CGI, but the concept of a wide-shot, like the bee who was a non-supporting character [doesn’t] make ground contact so why not have it be an object just floating around? As far as Marcel and the contact, we had different surfaces whether it was a wood floor or a metal enamel on top of the washer machine, there were always different reflections. There were always different things that helped make Marcel feel attached to that surface, even on the glass table where the dog was interacting [with it]; there was the puppeteer flicking water up in the dog’s face and there was the glass top surface and we got the natural reflection of that table. It was a nice blend and yet they were shot in two separate worlds.
Cline: My kids were asking me about that shot last night. They were like, “How did you get the dog to do that? And the water?” and I was [like], “Well, it’s actually a bunch of different shots composed together.”
Adkins: I think it’s even confusing for me sometimes, and I was glad I watched it the other day again because sometimes there were things that were completely replaced and sometimes they were just applied onto the existing surface that was in the actual plate. It was easy for them to roto the coffee table and have the background be in there, but when there was an elaborate camera move or something that, the dynamics and the layout were changed.
It’s all about interactivity and making it believable. Sometimes the animators would use sticky wax or things that would’ve fixed the character and then the cleanup artist has to paint all that out because that wouldn’t be there or how shiny the map ended up becoming because the wax kind of bored into the paper pulp of it and then all of a sudden the lights got a lot more contrasting, but “Hey!,” we said, “it’s GoPro footage — it’s going be a little bit hot,” you know?
CHM: There’s a scene where Marcel is trying to launch a fruit onto a shelf, was that done with the same process you guys just talked about?
Cline: No, I mean, we did it fairly practically on set. Our puppeteer had a stick with an actual Marcel on it and he [was] trying to drop down into frame, hit the spoon and make the berry fly for real. Other than [that], we’d replace the black stick that he was holding and the Marcel and replace him with a stop-motion Marcel, right? That was at least the plan on set, I don’t know how it actually went.
Adkins: Yeah, I looked at that shot again because it was a sequence of shots and I think that there were some shots that were practical that were left like Marcel [was] flicked over and just laid there and didn’t move and then there were shots where Marcel hit it and then walked away.
I know we lined up the spoons exactly the way it was and tried to create reflections within the spoon that felt like they were in that environment. I don’t know because I wasn’t part of the composite layer of how much of that was actually reused from the plates and how much was over-shot because the animator physically had to animate the spoon to copy the movement of the spoon of each take. So it was rapid-fire recreation and whether or not they just used the reflection of the spoon or the whole spoon, it’s a mystery to us, too.
Cline: There are two more people on this team: Kirsten Lepore, the animation director, and Zdravko Stoitchkov, the visual effect supervisor. The four of us together had a really symbiotic relationship.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is still in select theaters now and available for rental on digital platforms. For information about showtimes, click here.
Alex Lehmann Discusses Tackling the Rom-Com Genre with Meet Cute, Filming in New York City and Working with Pete Davidson and Kaley Cuoco | Interview
The ‘Meet Cute’ director sheds light on bringing something new to the rom-com table.
2022 has been a big year for the rom-com. In the first quarter of the year, we got the J-Lo and Owen Wilson-led Marry Me, The Lost City starring Channing Tatum and Sandra Bullock and next month we have George Clooney and Julia Roberts starring in Ticket to Paradise. But Meet Cute is set to take the rom-com genre by storm. It follows Sheila (Kaley Cuoco), who discovers a time machine and uses it to relive the same date that spawns from a “meet cute” with Gary (Pete Davidson). It’s like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind meets Palm Springs from a few years back, and it’s truly something special and unique.
In this interview, I talked with director Alex Lehmann about approaching the rom-com genre, filming in New York City and working with Couco and Davidson. Thank you to those at Peacock and Brigade Marketing for allowing me the chance to speak with Lehmann and seeing the film early. You can watch Meet Cute on Peacock on September 21.
Coastal House Media: Congratulations on Meet Cute! I’m not a big rom-com fan, but I really enjoyed your film.
Alex Lehmann: I’m not a rom-com fan either [smiles].
CHM: Oh, good [laughs], we’ll get right into that in a second, but I just wanna ask you because I haven’t seen any of your other films, could you pitch me one of your films to watch?
Lehmann: Sure, there’s a film called Paddleton and it’s [about] two older men, one of them has terminal cancer and he asks his friend to help him do [the] “death with dignity” thing — you know, die on his own terms — and it’s a comedy, [which] is the best part, but it’s not like a gallows comedy.
So yeah, it’s another two-hander and that was with Ray Ramano. But kind of like Meet Cute, I think it’s about finding the more honest version of a film that we’ve maybe seen before and using that honesty as an entry point for humor and for a little more humanity than, you know, like the more commercial film we’ve seen before [that] glosses over [it]
CHM: So you kind of answered my next question earlier, I guess you’re not a big rom-com fan, so I’m then curious why you decided to kind of dive into that genre. Was it that it just happened to be a rom-com? You just liked the script? Or did you think that maybe you could add something new to the genre?
Lehmann: Well, I’m there are some rom-coms that I love. They’re maybe not what everybody would call a rom-com, but I’m a huge romance fan, and I guess that’s the bigger thing: I love love, and I love relationships. And I loved the relationship between Gary (Davidson) and Sheila (Cuoco).
The reason I usually don’t like romcoms is we root for these people to do really crazy things to fall in love with each other — kind of messed up things. Oftentimes we just pretend it’s all okay — even though it’s a little weird — and then by the end of it, we’re like, Thank goodness she got together with him! [and] the credits role. And then the next summer we’d go see a movie where she’s now falling in love with another guy, and I’ll [be] like: What happened to this relationship? We were so invested [and] what happened to the other guy? Like, we just don’t care anymore.
And so what’s great about Meet Cute is, through Noga [Pnueli]’s really smart writing, there’s this device where we get to look at more of a relationship than the typical rom-com. And we get to see what happens when you see the things that you fall in love with someone start to be the things that annoy you about them or that you’re like critical of. And then it [the film] really does explore those next couple years in a relationship where you’re like: Can I change them? Can I make them the person I want them to be? That spoke to me as a really honest rom-com [and] I think this is an honest rom-com even though it’s got a tanning bed time machine [laughs].
CHM: Where did the idea for the time machine being a tanning bed come from? Was that in the script already, or was that something you added?
Lehmann: No, the tanning bed was in the script already, and it’s brilliant. You know, more important than the tanning bed is the person operating the tanning bed [which] is the June character who was written brilliantly and performed even more brilliantly by Deborah S. Craig.
I think [in] most of the movies that I would see with this device and that character, I would roll my eyes [at] because that character is usually really trope-y and is kind of like the genie that’s just there to serve everybody and doesn’t have any attitude and doesn’t have a complete story.
Honestly, June really was one of the selling points to me for the film because she was a full character and she added really a lot of meaning to what the story is, which is the whole concept of your scars and [how] your trauma is a part of who you are. You can’t just erase that without erasing, your identity, essentially. She was really cool and she makes the tanning bed cool. The tanning bed’s funny but not gonna take us on a whole ride unless you have the best operator.
CHM: There are plenty film references that are sprinkled in the film ranging from Blade Runner to The Terminator to Sophie’s Choice. Were all those already in the script or did you have any input on which films were mentioned?
Lehmann: So I do a lot of dramatic and comedic improv on my films, especially when you’re working with Pete Davidson and Kaley Cuoco, like, why not see what you can do? So we improv’d a lot of that stuff. I think we discovered one day on set [that] Gary should be a cinephile because that’s all Pete Davidson did, was watch movies as a kid in the basement of his house.
And I was like, “Let’s just lean into that and hear him go on a rant about all his favorite movies,” which is both lovable and also makes him sound like a total film dork, which he is.
CHM: I wanna get into the time-loop of it all. I would say that despite some flashbacks and other locations, most of the film repeats the same night with the same actors and the same outfits. How do you go about filming these sequences? Do you knock out X amount of takes in the bar before moving onto a new location?
Lehmann: Yeah, there’s really two ways, I guess, that we could have gone and there have been a few time-loop, time-travel movies — especially recently — and I think we stand apart from them and part of the reason is we’re not really obsessive about the intricacies of like, you know, “the phone needs to ring at this point,” and then “this person drops their glass,” there’s that version where our whole production office would’ve been [covered in] a bunch of red yarn and whiteboards [saying] like, “Okay, this happens at this [point].”
Or, we just say, “You know what, this is an emotional time-travel movie and the audience is really smart and the audience wants to have fun. We’re gonna write a couple of really good jokes, mostly for June, but also for the other characters where we basically dismiss and joke, like the owner going back to sell the time machine.” You write a couple of those and then the audience is totally on board with it without them playing detective and trying to like catch stuff because, you know, life is messy — that’s the whole point, and I would like to think that time-travel is not as clean as “everything happens exactly the same time every day.”
But yeah, the way we filmed it was called “block shooting,” where we’re in the bar for three days and then we’re on the street for three days and then we’re in the Indian restaurant for three days. That could have gotten old if it wasn’t for the fact that Pete and Kaley are so funny.
The hardest thing for me was when Pete would just start making us all laugh because he’d just go on these tangents that were hilarious — not usable at all for the movie — but so funny that we just kind of had to, for five minutes, just sit back and enjoy [his] comedic style.
CHM: Speaking of your lead actors, I noticed that both of them are executive producers on the film. In your estimation, what do you think it was about this particular project that got them to really show their faith in it?
Lehmann: I think it was giving them the power to be able to fire me at any moment. That’s really the reason they signed on. I promised them that they could literally fire me at any point. Kaley never did, Pete fired me every single morning but then would hire me right before we would start shooting again [laughs]. No, they were great collaborators.
I mean, you get actors of their level, their talent, their fame to do something like this because it excites them. Nobody’s showing up for this gritty New York City tight schedule shoot unless they absolutely love the characters and they think that there’s a lot of room to play.
And that’s what shooting was. I felt like I was just playing with Pete and Kaley on camera for a month straight.
CHM: And they have great chemistry, which is vital to a movie like this. Did they just show up on set and it was natural, or did you have them do anything together before shooting?
Lehmann: Actually, the first time that we met, they both happened to be in LA — I was flying back from New York, I had just done some location scouting — and the three of us went to an escape room and that was an absolute blast.
We did horribly, like, we did not escape. We would’ve died in that room if it was like a Saw-type situation, thank God it was just, a game [smiles]. But yeah, we bonded a lot in that escape room session and got some lunch and I remember [that] I called the producers afterward, I was like, “These guys have so much chemistry, it’s just great.”
CHM: I also read that you’ve known your cinematographer on this film, John [Matysiak], for a long time, right? I think since college?
Lehmann: That’s impressive. Yes, I’ve known him since college.
CHM: So I’m speaking to him next week and I’m just curious, are there any fun college memories that I can bring up to him when I talk to him next week?
Lehmann: [laughs] Well, we were in film school when we met, you know? And so what does every film student have in common? They think they know a lot more than they actually do and so I think what’s awesome is when we were making student films, we were these cocky kids and maybe a little too arrogant and not as collaborative because we all needed to prove ourselves. And I love that 20 years later, he and I reunite — we had just done another movie of mine, Acidman, and then we’re doing this movie [Meet Cute] — and I think we’ve been humbled enough in what it’s taken to get to where we are. Ego’s [have] just gone out the window and we’re so excited to work with each other. And we’re so excited to like both fail and succeed and just to explore everything. So it’s been really cool seeing him and myself grow up, right? It’s just a window to tear past, which I’m obviously a very nostalgic person, so that’s always an enjoyable collaboration.
CHM: And going back to New York, you talked about location scouting, what did that look like for you? Did you go in with any expectations or you were just open to everything?
Lehmann: Well, a couple of things happened. First of all, I started walking around the streets and it was so loud. I remember calling a friend of mine who just made a movie in New York and I was like, “How do you record dialogue anywhere? It’s so loud,” [and] I couldn’t even hear him on the phone. I was like: What am I gonna do?
The other thing is, I didn’t wanna go looking for the New York that I see in other movies. I wanted to film the New York that I saw just walking around, the experience that I actually got. So, for example, walking down a certain section of New York, hearing a lot of Latin music, Cumbia music — which is in the film — or seeing guys play checkers on the street, the multicultural aspect of New York, I felt was really cool and I wanted it to show that — I wanted to capture that.
And then I also love the fact that there’s a bunch of trash on the sidewalks everywhere. My production designers, they kept asking my production team, they’d be like, “We gotta remove the trash from that sidewalk,” I was like, “Don’t touch it — that’s New York.” You know, the scaffolding, that’s New York. Like I don’t need that beautiful, curated New York that doesn’t exist. I want the New York that I actually experienced walking around and scouted.
CHM: So was the plan always to have the film set in New York or were other states ever considered?
Lehmann: It was always written as, [New York City]. I mean, New York City, man, that is the place to tell a love story. The fact that there are so many people in that city and you can feel so alone walking — I felt so alone walking [while] scouting. I remember I would try to make eye contact with people. I’m an LA dude, I like to smile at people [while] walking, looking for locations [laughs] and they were freaked out, they thought I was gonna like mug them or stab them [and were] like, Why is this guy smiling at me? It really taught me immediately that like, you can feel so alone in a city of so many people, which is the best backdrop for telling a love story, let alone a “meet cute” love story.
CHM: My last question for you before I gotta let you go is, the film’s coming out next week and you know, I feel like there’s so much content out there, right? There’s always stuff coming out on streaming, there’s something new every day. I know I had you pitch one of your movies to me earlier, but could you give one last pitch for Meet Cute to anybody who doesn’t know what it is?
Lehmann: I would say, if you like rom-coms, you should definitely watch this. If you’re not feeling so sure that you like rom-coms, you should definitely watch this. It’s a more honest version of a rom-com and it’s funny. Who doesn’t wanna go on a date with Pete and Kaley?
Meet Cute will be available to stream on Peacock on September 21.
Petr Jákl Talks About Medieval, Casting Michael Caine and Having the Film in the Can for Four Years | Interview
Films set in the medieval era feel like a lost art. Sure, I guess the House of the Dragon could quench that thirst, but historical films set in The Middle Ages feel like such a rarity. Luckily, Petr Jákl’s film which also happens to be the most expensive film in Czech history, Medieval, is here to buck the trend with a gritty and gruesome historical epic. Featuring an all-star cast with the likes of Ben Foster, Matthew Goode and the legendary Micahel Caine, Medieval is a fascinating watch and released in theaters this past weekend.
In this interview, I spoke with Jákl about the challenges of making a historical epic, the casting process and securing Michael Caine.
Coastal House Media: Hi, it’s a pleasure to meet you! How’s your day going so far?
Petr Jákl: Hi, good, good. I’m in Prague, where are you?
CHM: I’m in Pennsylvania, so quite a ways away. But congratulations on Medieval, I really love any sort of film in this kind of time period and it’s amazing. I want to talk to you about setting a film in that time period. What kind of goes into recreating that time period and were there any specific challenges with doing that?
Jákl: One of the biggest challenges always [is] to find perfect locations for this kind of movie, but luckily in the Czech Republic, we’ve got a lot of castles, a lot of beautiful nature [and] downtown Prague is pretty similar to those times. Of course, you have to replace some commercial signs [or stuff] like that and we also have over 600 VFX shots. We have Charles Bridge, which is the most famous bridge in Prague — every tourist wants to go there and take pictures — so we recreated it to make it look [like it’s] from [the] 15th century.
Overall, it was not that difficult. If we were shooting somewhere else, like in the U.S., it would cost five times more to make it look this big, you know?
CHM: If you’re shooting around a kind of historical bridge or a castle, how delicate do you have to be with your production?
Jákl: Yeah, you have to be very delicate and you cannot do everything. [There are] some rules [and] they can tell you, “You cannot replace this window,” “You cannot touch that,” “You cannot touch the walls,” “You cannot use fire,” many things [that] you cannot do, but you always find a way to do what you need — and that’s great. It’s always about talking to the people who take care of the castle and [they] don’t want [you] to destroy anything, but, for example, you can create your own throne, which is what we did for the movie.
CHM: I think I read that the filming finished in 2018, is that correct?
CHM: To put that into perspective, your film wrapped when I was a freshman in college and I’ve since graduated. So that’s a long period of time but can I ask you why there was such a long delay and how does it feel for you now to finally have the film come out nearly four years later? Is there any relief or are you just ready to get it out there at this point?
Jákl: I already have [had it] ready two years ago, but there was [the] pandemic, you know? And you couldn’t do anything, you couldn’t release it theatrically. This film was made for theaters so it was frustrating. But on the other side, I’m actually glad that it happened because we are close to the war in Ukraine and they are fighting for freedom in the war. Suddenly we all see [that] there could be a war in these days close to us, which is very scary. And Medieval is [about] fighting for freedom and about hope, [which is a] big element of the movie. I think this is absolutely [the] perfect time for people to watch this movie and to remember what was happening before, what is happening now and what is going to be happening again because it comes in circles.
CHM: You have such a loaded cast in your film ranging from Michael Caine to Matthew Goode among many others. Do you remember who the first person was that you got on board with the film? And then do you also remember who was maybe the hardest actor to secure?
Jákl: The hardest part was securing the lead because everybody told me, “You have to secure the lead first and then you can hire the others. Otherwise if you have another supporting actor who is famous, he will first ask you, ‘Who is the lead?'” and if you don’t have the answer, it doesn’t make sense to approach it. So I was trying to get Ben Foster, and that was the toughest call [but] once I got him and he said, “Yes,” then I said, “Okay, now I want to try Michael Caine.”
And they told me, “It doesn’t make sense — he’s not gonna do it. It’s not going to happen.” I produced it with Cassian Elwes, who has done many movies and he’s British and he told me, “Hey, Petr, I’ve done over a hundred movies and I always wanted to do a movie with Michael Caine [but] it never happened. And then I said, “Okay, let’s try,” [and] he said, “Yeah, you can try it,” and then [I] tried. Michael Caine called me [at] my cottage [from an] unknown number and he [said], “Hello, it’s Michael Caine here. You’ve got a lovely script, I wanna do it,” and I was like, “Oh my God,” and this producer called me and he sent me a picture [from] when he was 13 and Michael Caine is next to him when they were in Great Britain and he said, “It took me 50 years to make my dream [a] reality. And I didn’t believe that it could happen with you, a guy from Eastern Europe. ” Once we had Michael Caine it was very simple because everybody wanted to be in a movie with Michael Caine. Til Schweiger, he’s [a] German star, said, “Oh my God, sure! I wanna be in this movie.”
CHM: You’re met of many hats, you’ve done everything from acting to stunts to producing and directing. Do you have a favorite of those and then kind of an extra question on that: Did any of the three outside of directing, prep you for directing?
Jákl: I love directing the most, but I also love producing and writing. [Directing is] something [where] I feel I know what I’m doing and it’s just like all [of the] things come together in my head and I know why I’m doing this.
I was prepping the most for, uh, video because that was like, you know, the biggest movie [I’ve done] and I wanted to make sure that it was gonna be done as I wanted. But once we got to the set, many things were different. Actors couldn’t train with stunt men, so some fights were not rehearsed and I couldn’t do them as I wanted. So I had to create some other things like smoke, which actually made it better in the end. So something [that] wasn’t exactly as I wanted was better in the end because of that, you know?
CHM: Can you give me an elevator pitch for your film for someone who has no idea what this is about and they’re trying to decide what to see in theaters?
Jákl: It’s a movie about the most famous Czech hero who is one of seven [that is] undefeated generals of all time in history. There is also a strong love story, and it’s [about] fighting for freedom, people helping each other and coming together and I hope that by the end of the film, people will see the hope of the future.
Medieval will be released in theaters on September 9.
Interview | Director James Ponsoldt Talks About Summering, the Horrors of Middle School and More
Thus far in my career, it’s rare that I have interviewed the same person twice. It’s happened a handful of times with a composer here and there, but I was fortunate enough to speak with James Ponsoldt twice in as many days. My friend happened to ask me to guest co-host this past weekend when James was his guest, and we spoke about The Spectacular Now (one of my favorite high school dramas). Now, I got to speak with him one-on-one over Zoom about his new middle school film, Summering. He was such a pleasant guy and it was amazing to speak with this brilliant mind once again. This interview closes out our week of Summering but read on if you want to read Ponsoldt discuss the steps he and co-writer Ben Percy — whom I also interviewed for this film — took to make sure this was an authentic representation of 11-year-old girls, the horrors of middle school, casting the adult actors, and so much more.
Coastal House Media: Hi again, James, it’s great to see you. How’s everything going? Heat 2 just came out today, did you get a copy?
James Ponsoldt: Man, no, I haven’t yet. I need to — that’s a good point. I’m thinking about the bookstore that I’ll swing by and grab it at.
CHM: It’s great to talk to you again, congratulations again on Summering! I didn’t get to say this on Sunday, but I wanted to thank you for your work. After we spoke on Sunday, I was talking about your films and I realized how much The Spectacular Now and Summering meant to me; they’re such personal films. The former really hit me at the right age and I saw it for the first time a few years back while I was transitioning from the colleges I was transferring between. So thank you and I really appreciate your work.
Ponsoldt: Oh, thank you very much.
CHM: So I know you’ve talked about this ad nauseam, but I have to ask you for the sake of this being for a different audience: What made you want to write and direct Summering?
Ponsoldt: Yeah, it started for me [with] being a parent of three kids; finding myself in conversation with my kids about both the films that they were watching and sort of how they were being represented and [that] made me think deeply about stories that are rooted in a child’s perspective and how that’s fundamentally different than my perspective as an adult. Also, as we were kind of trying to navigate, traumas, as a family, both small and large scale the way every family does [and] things that were affecting my kids: The death of a cat, the death of a grandparent, COVID, all of those things, I was trying to support my kids and be honest with them and listen to them while recognizing that they have a different way of interpreting the world and perceiving it, creating language and meaning in it, and different tools that maybe I don’t have access to their imaginations. I think all kids have wonderful imaginations and that distance, that gap between parent and child and the way that we process and make meaning out of change about loss, about trauma, all those things, was something that I really wanted to explore; that conversation between parent and child.
CHM: And you co-wrote the script with Ben Percy, who I spoke to the other day and he really spoke so highly of you. I know you guys are good friends and I want to spread the love back to him a little bit. I asked him what about you as a director made him trust you to take this material that you guys wrote together and then go and direct it. So for you, what was it about Ben that made you trust him to write a feature-length film with you?
Ponsoldt: A long time ago, we were roommates at a writer’s conference and he’s a remarkable writer. When I first met him, he was writing mostly short stories and then novels, and now comic books and podcasts and all kinds of things; he’s a force of nature. But he had written a short story called Refresh, Refresh that I really loved that was about young men and violence, toxic masculinity, young men in the Pacific Northwest whose dads are Marine reservists that are activated and deployed and about these sort of primitive violence rituals; these kids creating fight clubs and videotaping them and sending videos to their dads in green zones, Iraq and Afghanistan, to let them know that everything’s just fine. I really connected to the story [and] I adapted it to a screenplay and went to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab with it and that script was ultimately adapted by an amazing graphic novelist named Danica Novgorodoff.
At the time I thought I would make a movie and then her graphic novel would come out; I’ve never made the movie, but she made a remarkable graphic novel about young men in violence and that was selected for Best American Comics by Alison Bechdel and that whole process of an adaptation of an adaptation of an adaptation began a long conversation that Ben and I have been having about family dynamics and gender politics and structural violence and stories containing multiple subjectivities and why we need stories that have multiple subjectivities.
We need women trying to interpret men and men trying to interpret women if we’re going to understand our culture, the culture that we’ve created for better or worse — oftentimes worse. Part of it also involves acknowledging our blind spots. We all have blind spots as viewers [and] creators of stories, and it’s worth trying to examine and lift up and expose sunlight on these things. Ben is someone that I’ve collaborated with on quite a few things over the years, and he’s just a remarkably thoughtful, sensitive person and he brings that in his own life with his own children, with his own daughter — who is like the age of the characters in this film — and in his art [and] writing.
CHM: And this is just a coincidence I spotted with Summering and The Spectacular Now, but both of their settings are suburban neighborhoods. I remember you saying that you based The Spectacular Now around your hometown in Georgia last time we spoke, but was that the case with Summering?
Ponsoldt: The Spectacular Now was [set] in the exact place I grew up. It was in Athens, Georgia in the exact houses and streets where I grew up [and] the memories were like one-to-one. It was like, “Oh, that’s where I would drive”, “That’s where we would buy beer”, and “That’s where we would party.”
Summering was initially written in the area near where I live now in California. [It’s] an area that sort of has an “every town” quality and where there are tracks of land, like dry river beds and things where young kids could go and make-believe and where their older teenage siblings could go to smoke pot and get in trouble or whatever they want to do [smiles]. In some cases, that can be like five minutes from their house. [It’s] not in downtown LA, it’s not in downtown New York, nor is it in the utter middle of nowhere. We ultimately filmed Summering in the suburbs around Salt Lake City, which had very similar qualities that I had experienced spending time in Utah and that I’d seen in other films like the film Brigsby Bear that my producing partner, Jennifer Dana, produced.
CHM: And you guys wrote some horror elements in the film, I noticed an homage to Psycho — which Ben confirmed — and he also mentioned Halloween as a reference point and I’m just curious why you guys infused that into a coming-of-age movie?
Ponsoldt: I mean, coming of age can feel like a horror film, you know [laughs]? I mean it is. We think of the sun-kissed stuff of childhood innocence, all of those clichés that we have. I don’t think anyone romanticizes middle school. These are characters that are going into middle school, no one romanticizes middle school — it becomes Welcome to the Doll House [and] it can become a horror film. And I think this is a film about real specific kids who are growing up in a culture where they’ve been inundated with images of violence, chiefly towards women whether it’s in horror films like Psycho or Halloween, or just in film noir, or in cop shows [like] Law & Order.
This is a film that yeah, the opening frames of the film are reference to Psycho, and then turns it on its head because it’s about a female friendship and a female experience and not about violence being inflicted on one of these four girls. But they [also] live in a world where there are cop shows playing in the background that are chiefly about male subjectivity that perhaps treats the dead female body as a prop or object and aren’t really interested in exploring that subjectivity whether or not these kids are conscious of it, whether or not they’ve seen Psycho or Halloween yet. Both of which are amazing movies [and are] the shoulders on which much of modern horror is built but there are a lot of things that I think are worth unpacking and looking at in those stories (and all stories). I think we all benefit from stories that have multiple subjectivities, especially if we’re going to look at the way structural violence sort of passes on from generation to generation.
CHM: And you do have four lovely young actors at the forefront of the film. I found that each character had bits about them that I could recognize in my own family and people I know, but they’re all so distinctly different. Did you write these based on anybody you know or bits of people that you knew or is it just as it came about?
Ponsoldt: Yeah, everyone in it’s based on people we know [laughs]. They’re all bits and pieces of our own kids, our wives, our friends, their kids, whatever. As I might have mentioned, my wife works in a middle school-high school. I’ve been there from the very beginning of that, so every year starting next week, there’ll be a whole new group of 11 and 12 year old’s coming in and their parents coming in excited, hopeful, and a little anxious. There are so many people that both offered their feedback and healthy criticism on how it [the script] reflected their own experiences and what it was like for them then as children and what it’s like for them as parents.
CHM: Last time we spoke, we talked a little bit about the casting process for the kids, but what about for the moms? Did that take place before that or after it was after you had cast the kids?
Ponsoldt: We knew it would be hard to find four young actors that we thought were amazing, inspiring and captured our imagination and that just seemed like they will grow up to be really interesting adults and that could serve the characters and just play and make-believe. Then it was kind of step-by-step [process] and it was finding them, creating a friend group and [then] trying to cast actors that believably would be their mothers. And because those actors are older, there are more reference points to go with.
If someone’s an actor who’s in their 30s or 40s, you’ve probably seen some things they’ve been in as opposed to an 11-year-old. In the case of Megan Mullally, I was lucky enough to have worked with her on Smashed with her husband, Nick Offerman. She’s amazing and one of the funniest people on earth. I’ve always been a huge fan of Lake Bell’s both as an actor and as a filmmaker; she’s just a real collaborator and a deep thinker and had so many thoughts in her own life [about] this relationship between this mother and daughter as a mother [herself].
My wife and I got through the first year of COVID through the videos Sarah Cooper was making that were everywhere online. They just made us laugh when everything else in the world was not making us want to laugh. Ashley Madekwe is so remarkable and Avy Kaufman, my great casting director, really was just a [fan] of hers [Madekwe] and introduced us and I was blown away by her as an actor.
OTN: Last time we spoke, you also spoke about how you put the four kids on Zoom together and they just clicked instantly. Were you at all concerned that once you got on set that it may disappear?
Ponsoldt: I wasn’t as concerned with the adult actors because I think one of the things that becomes interesting [is] that before I had kids, it’s just one of the things that wouldn’t have occurred to me, but it does now, which is my kids’ best friends — the kids that they think are going to be their best friends for their whole lives — are a product of geographic proximity. They’ve been zoned into the same school and they wound up in each other’s classes and they may have only known each other for a few years, but that’s a huge part of their lives.
And because they’re friends, I’m acquaintances — or friends, in some cases — with their friends’ parents. They might not have been the friends that I would’ve chosen, or they might not have chosen me, but we happen to know each other. So in some ways, there’s very little commonality other than our young children [between us and] our friends, and that’s a specific dynamic that’s fascinating.
As adults, we bring the awareness that our kids think they’re going to be friends forever. Some of them might be, some of them might not be talking in a year [laughs] — that just might be the case, and [then] will we [the parents] still be friends? Do we have anything in common? Maybe we don’t have anything in common except for our kids, but it’s nice to make a new friend, and that sort of interplay between generations is something that I find fascinating and lovely, and that I wanted the film [Summering] to contain.
OTN: I’m running out of time with you, but I have to ask because I love your work: Do you have anything coming up that I can look forward to?
Ponsoldt: I’ll be on set tomorrow and Thursday. I’m finishing a new Apple TV+ series called Shrinking from the Ted Lasso folks [and] with Jason Segel, Jessica Williams, Harrison Ford, and Michael Urie, and a lot of really amazing people. It sort of has that Ted Lasso “laughter in tears”-vibe to it but [is] about psychiatrists in Pasadena. That will probably come out sometime early next year.
I also worked on a show before that, that I also produced and directed a lot of called Daisy Jones & The Six, based on the Taylor Jenkins Reid novel which is about the biggest male-female band of the late 1970s and how/why they broke up. [They’re] a fictional band, they look a lot like Fleetwood Mac at their core. [It stars] Riley Keough and Sam Claflin, but the whole cast is amazing. It’s rock-and-roll in the 1970s, so if you like things like Almost Famous, I think you might like it. It was amazing to make — it has really amazing music and real scope — and it was amazing to recreate the 1970s in the Sunset Strip and actually film in the places like the Whisky a Go Go and the Troubadour and Sunset Sound and all these amazing places where a lot of that music in the late 1970s was actually created.
Summering is in theaters now.
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