SXSW 2010 Interview: “Helena from the Wedding” Director Joseph Infantolino
By David Cornelius
Posted 03/04/10 21:17:26
The South by Southwest rundown on “Helena from the Wedding”: Having recently experienced a spectacular career failure, the last thing playwright Alex Javal (Lee Tergesen) wants to do is host a weekend long New Year’s Eve party for his successful friends at a small cabin in the mountains. Yet that is what he is on the way to do when we meet him and his new wife Alice (Melanie Lynskey). As the clock ticks away another year and a surprise guest, the very beautiful and very young Helena (Gillian Jacobs) arrives, facades begin to buckle.
Just what is “Helena from the Wedding”?
I hope it is an entertaining film that leaves you with a little something to think about. The Helena of the title is a beautiful young girl who comes to what is supposed to be a New Year’s Eve party for middle aged couples and unleashes various doubts and anxieties that the central couple of the film (Lee Tergesen and Melanie Lynskey) have been harboring.
What inspired the story?
The story was inspired by what I was feeling and seeing around me at the time of my own marriage a few years ago. I was a late bloomer marriage-wise but many of my friends had gotten married long before I did, much like my parents generation, in their 20s, and had kids. By the time I was set to marry, their marriages were showing some strain. Some were ending. At some point I got an image in mind of a man and woman standing facing each other and began thinking about how they got there and whether they were coming together or coming apart. There is a small hunting cabin in upstate NY that my family has and that I knew I could have access to so I put the aforementioned man and woman facing each other in that cabin and started writing.
The film’s website states you shot the movie mostly in sequence. Why did you choose this method? Did it make filming more difficult?
I felt that shooting in sequence as much as possible would be helpful both for production (i.e. we had no script supervisor for continuity) and for me and the actors in fleshing out the nuances of their inter-relationships as well as building their character’s arcs and the general arc of the overall story. Because the film is set almost entirely in and around a hunting cabin and I decided on a very stripped down approach to filming using a handheld camera and as much available light as possible, shooting in sequence wasn’t as difficult as it might have been. I only had twelve shooting days and the weather upstate in the winter is very unpredictable so I had to pick my spots and didn’t get to shoot in real continuity. But for the most important things to me, they were shot in script order. For example the last moment of the film was the last moment of the shoot. The crew was literally loading out as we shot the scene.
You also filmed entirely on location - a cramped cabin and snow-covered woods, neither of which sound film crew-friendly. Any troubles on the set?
We were a little tense about the plumbing at times but other than that, while the degree of difficulty was very high, it was a dream shoot in every way. Because I was so familiar with the location I wrote the screenplay very specifically. So not only at the script stage did I know where and how to stage scenes near available light and for composition but I was able to only use a few of the rooms in the cabin. For example, I specifically didn’t write any scenes on the second floor so I could use it for holding actors and for hair, makeup and costume. It was a bit limiting but limitation sometimes can be a fount of creativity. It forced me to think of the areas outside the cabin for example. The limitation of the cabin also required that I use a very small crew as it would be maxed out at about 20 people and I knew I had eight cast members. A small crew meant not a lot of equipment and I think all these things resulted in a film that hopefully feels very natural, which was a main goal from the outset.
You seem to be shifting from producing to writing/directing. Is this a move you’ve always set out to take, or did it happen by chance?
I think I only set out to write and direct after I had produced a few films. And once I did it once, I was hooked. But it felt like an organic transition and I love to produce and hope to continue helping others express their visions. I actually feel like I have learned an incredible amount about producing by directing.
What got you started making movies?
It’s been a long strange trip. For some reason I went to law school and after a few years of life as a lawyer I had the chance to get involved with a college friend who was one of the founders of the Shooting Gallery. I helped write the business plan and then declared myself an entertainment lawyer and started representing the various writers, actors, producers and directors who I came in contact with. This was in my 20s in the 90s. One of them introduced me to Alexa Fogel, who was then the head of NY casting for ABC and we declared ourselves producers around 2000 and have since produced an eclectic mix of films such as Jim McKay’s “Our Song” and Richard Ledes' “A Hole in One” and most recently David Schwimmer’s directorial debut which was written by Michael Ian Black, “Run, Fatboy, Run.”
Around 2005 I had the idea for a short film called “Jimmy Blue” about a conflicted loan collector in Queens, which I decided to write for an actor I liked. I had always written but never really in screenplay form. Of course I had read many screenplays at that point both good and bad so I was familiar with the form and what worked and what didn’t. The short screenplay turned out well and I got it to this actor who loved it. He wound up having to drop out at the last minute but I found another fantastic actor, Pablo Schreiber, at the 11th hour and directed it for no money and it wound up getting into the New York Film Festival in 2006. I loved the whole process and it gave me confidence to make a feature.
Any lessons learned while making this movie?
I think I got to learn most of my lessons for free by participating in and watching the process as producer so a lot of it was affirmation. The foremost importance of unity of story and style. The importance of casting enthusiasm as well as talent, on both sides of the camera. I had learned on my short that as a writer, you want to be careful to leave things open enough on the page for an actor to surprise you in the moment. So for example, be careful about stage directions. On “Helena” I think one reinforcement was the importance of creating a safety net for actors and an atmosphere of freedom to explore the text and one lesson was that when directing actors, if you can say it in one word, don’t use two.
Are you nervous about coming to South by Southwest?
A little because it’s one of the only major festivals I haven’t been to so I’m not sure what to expect and of course because I’ve only shown the film to very few people so far. But I am mainly very curious and very excited to show it to a real audience.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing a few screenplays and have a lot of ideas including more stories set in the world of marriage.
Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d probably be...
A bankrupt novelist.
Beatles or Stones?
The Rolling Stones.
In ten words or less, convince the average moviegoer to watch your film.
Within it lies the meaning of life.
“Helena from the Wedding” has its world premiere as part of the SXSW Narrative Competition. It screens 7:30 PM March 14, 2:00 PM March 15, and 4:00 PM March 18. For more information, visit www.helenafromthewedding.com.