Interview: Elizabeth Banks and Chris Terrio-Reaching for new career "Heights"

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/24/05 06:41:31

She is Elizabeth Banks, whom you might recognize from a series of supporting roles in which she has shared screen time with the likes of a race horse (“Seabiscuit”), a web-slinging super-hero (the two “Spider-Man” films) and Madonna (“Swept Away”). He is Chris Terrio, who you probably wouldn’t recognize at all unless you either caught his short film “Book of Kings” at a festival or have hung around the sets of Merchant-Ivory productions (where he worked behind-the-scenes of “The Golden Bowl” and “Le Divorce”).

The two of them are now sitting together on a hotel room couch to promote “Heights,” a new film that they hope will propel them up to the next level. In Terrio’s feature debut (which was produced by Merchant-Ivory, making it one of the last official productions of the partnership that officially ended with Ismail Merchant’s passing last month), Banks gets her biggest role to date as Isabel, a young and vaguely dissatisfied New Yorker who finds her entire life turn upside-down over the course of 24 hours through the machinations of her diva mother (Glenn Close), her fiancee (James Marsden), a wanna-be actor who lives upstairs (Jesse Bradford) and a journalist (John Light) working on a story that reveals a shocking secret or two about one of the aforementioned characters.

In the following, Banks and Terrio talk about “Heights,” the experience of working with such high-profile colleagues as Close and Merchant-Ivory and reveal some dirty truths about international film festivals.

As we sit here, it is less than a day until the opening of “Heights” in theaters. Considering how significant it is for your careers–it is Chris’s directorial debut and marks Elizabeth’s highest-profile performance to date–how are you feeling right now? Nervous? Excited? Nervously excited?

Terrio: A little bit of both. At this point, you have to send your baby out into the world and there is nothing you can do about it. Of course I am nervous about reviews and what people are going to say and whether anyone is going to show up at the box-office. I’d like to be one of those people who is so Zen and has such equanimity that I can truly say that I don’t care. Of course I care, but I’m trying to keep focused on the next thing and understand that it will pan out in the way that it does.

Banks: (laughing) I feel no responsibility for how well the movie does. I think it is a great movie and I hope that people find it, but there is a whole machine that lets people find movies or doesn’t let them find movies that I have nothing to do with. I hope people think that it is a good movie and that the word-of-mouth gets people to come and see it. I think there is always an audience looking to find a cool little movie like this. I think that it is decent counter-programming option for people. Everyone is going to see “Batman Begins” anyway but I’ll probably see two movies this weekend. Hopefully, this one will squeeze in and people will go to see it.

How did “Heights” come into being?

Terrio: It started off as a one-scene play–there are only about two lines from it left in the movie–that was a creative writing exercise for Amy Fox. The assignment was that there was a table set for a romantic dinner but that there were three characters. That was the play and the screenplay took off from there. Ismail Merchant added the character of Diana, the Glenn Close character, and other characters were added and it took off in a very different direction.

I came to it through Ismail Merchant, who was looking to do a project in New York with younger characters–after 9/11, he felt it was time for him to do a movie in New York again. He lived there for 35 years but most people associate him with London or Paris. He was looking for something to do and someone in his office had seen the play in a festival of one-acts and thought that the love triangle might be an interesting basis for a film. Ismail got a hold of Amy Fox and asked her to develop it into a screenplay and gave me a draft of that. I was on my way to the Deauville Film Festival with a short film and I read it on the plane.

What was it about the script and the character of Isabel that made you want to play the part?

Banks: Well, first of all, the cover letter of the script that I got said that it was a Merchant-Ivory film starring Glenn Close, so I thought that if it was good enough for Glenn Close, I’d do it. Then I read it and it was a very elegant piece of writing. I recognized Isabel and I knew people who I felt were going through what I guess is now called “the quarter-life crisis”–wondering what am I going to do with the rest of my life and whether I am just going to go along with what has been happening to me or if I am going to take the reins and make the life that I want to have happen, happen. I felt that Isabel was finding the courage throughout the course of the events to lead the life that she wants. She gets the kick in the pants to send her off to be the person that she wants to be.

One of the intriguing things about the film is the way that tone gradually shifts as it progresses. It starts out seeming as if it is going to be a light and chirpy romantic comedy but as time passes through the 24-hour frame, the story and the characters grow darker and more serious. Can you talk about creating that shift as a filmmaker and playing it as an actress?

Terrio: I wanted to build that structure into it–that as the day literally gets darker, the tone also gets darker. To me, the scene that is the turning point is the one on the roof where Elizabeth and Matt Davis are having a moment where they almost have a second breakup. The sun is setting just then and for me, the film gets a lot more serious At the beginning, you think that it could be a romantic comedy–you have Tommy Lennon from “Reno 911" as the funny office mate and a traditional camera style. At a certain point, the camera begins to fragment a little and becomes more hand-held in order to get a little closer to the characters. You start to see under the masks that the characters are keeping on throughout the film. A lot of this film is about the world of theater and the certain facades that everyone puts on in their daily lives, whether they are a big character or an ordinary person. By the third act, all of that starts to fall apart and people can’t maintain the illusion anymore

Banks: As an actor, honestly, I was unaware of the structure of the script. You just go to work every day. That is the joy of movies–you get to perfect every little moment in each scene and you have the knowledge of what has come before. Other than that, it was just about being in the moment.

Terrio: Also, we shot the film chronologically. Partially, this was because night shoots are complicated and people don’t like to do them early in a shoot. We had the advantage of a chronological shoot and by the time we get a little more naked and stark with the characters towards the end, the actors were really in the skins of their characters. By the time of that last scene, Elizabeth and James and Jesse had gone a month and change as those characters, so they really knew what was true and what wasn’t true. That helped the tone evolve as well because they evolved with the characters.

Considering that a combination of night shooting, location work in New York and high-profile stars could stymie even veteran filmmakers, how hard was it for you to deal with those elements on your first feature?

Terrio: :Luckily, I was so clueless that I didn’t even know how complicated it was or I would have been scared of it. Some of my short films were set on location in New York in the outer boroughs, so I was used to the documentary aspect of jumping into the streets and getting dirty in order to get the shot. Shooting in New York wasn’t hard for me because I knew the drill and I knew how to steal shots in order to get it done. The ensemble cast–now that I look it at, it was daunting because there were all of these great actors in the thick of things doing it. It may be Isabella Rossellini but we are both on the same page of trying to get the comic timing of the scene, so you forget that it is an illustrious person because we are trying to figure out the text in order to do the scene. I forget that Glenn Close was Alex Forrest or the star of “Dangerous Liaisons” because we are both trying to make the blocking work.

Aside from Glenn Close, whom you had met when you both worked on “Le Divorce,” how did acquiring the rest of that cast come about?

Terrio: I just made my wish list with the producers. I saw Rupert Wainwright in concert and thought that someone should put him in a movie–then I figured that I’d do it. Michael Murphy is a guy that I loved in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” which is one of my favorite movies. George Segal, whom I’ve loved since seeing him in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” happened to be staying in New York for two weeks. It was really just a case-by-case basis of thinking about who in my dream world would be the perfect cast and then going out and trying to get them. In most cases, I got exactly who I wanted.

Elizabeth, what was it like for you to act opposite the likes of Glenn Close and the other performers?

Banks: Glenn was especially cool because I haven’t really had the opportunity to work with big-time female actresses who have had the careers that I would like to have and who I emulate and admire. She is such a fierce talent and intoxicating to work with, I have to say. Part of what was going on was that Elizabeth Banks, the actress, wanted approval from Glenn Close, the actress, and my character also wants approval from her character as well. It was a very natural relationship and we got on well from the get-go.

With the passing of Ismail Merchant, “Heights” will go down as one of the last official Merchant-Ivory productions. Chris, having worked with them on this film as well as behind the scenes on some of their earlier works, can you talk a little bit about the man and his legacy?

Terrio: Ismail wasn’t one of those producers who sits up in their office and just writes checks–he was there on the set making dinner for people and taking you out. If he was working with you in any capacity, you sort of became part of his family and he feels like your uncle or grandfather or something. It was extremely shocking and it feels like there is a big absence at the center of this whole thing–he was usually the one who was the life of the party at the premiere. That said, he was happy that this film was made because he wanted to do a film in New York and he wanted to do one with younger characters. His legacy is that he brought together a group of filmmakers to do what he wanted–to make independent films in their own way.

“Heights” made its debut at Sundance earlier this year and has played at other festivals as well in the subsequent months. Considering that the name “Merchant-Ivory” has certain connotations among moviegoers, what has the festival experience been like for you?

Terrio: People think of “Masterpiece Theater” and hoop skirts but it has been great. The response at Sundance was phenomenal–we sold out the first screening and there was standing-room-only at the second. I think it is unexpected–what Glenn does is unexpected and I think the fact that these younger actors keep up with the luminaries on screen surprises people. I think the structure of the film and the way it has been shot surprises people. It is so nice to take it out to show to people–you sit in a little black box editing room for so many months and when you take it out, you feel as if you have shot an arrow over the fence and it has hit something.

Banks: I’m always gratified to see it with an audience and have them react to it. That is why you do it in the first place–you are trying to affect people in some way. I love going to festivals because they are very loving audiences and film buffs–they are people who want to root for the film. I have no idea how that translates to the rest of the world–I hope it translates well, but I never see it as indicative of anything.

Did the film change at all after the Sundance premiere? “Heights” was scheduled to play at the Berlin Film Festival until it was pulled at the last second without any clear explanation.

Terrio: It hasn’t changed. The thing about Berlin that was a fiasco was that if they were going to book it for a premiere, we had to make sure that all the actors were there for a photo op–purely a publicity thing. A bunch of the actors were working on other things that they couldn’t get out of–Glenn was doing “The Shield,” Elizabeth was working and Jesse was working–and so the timing didn’t work out for the photo op. Unfortunately, Berlin these days seems to be more about the photo op than the film, so they said that we couldn’t show it in that slot. We pulled it and just decided to release it in June and that was that. It was eye-opening to see the politics that go on behind-the-scenes of a festival. We could have said that there was something wrong with the print or something, but we decided to let Berlin make the choice over whether it was about the film or the photo op and they made their choice.

What is next for each of you? Elizabeth, I understand that you are currently working on a new zombie movie.

Banks: Yes. It is called “Slither” and it is more of a creature-feature. It is very original and fresh and it is from the writer who did the “Dawn of the Dead” remake, James Gunn, and I think he is a fierce talent. It is funny and scary as fuck. I’m a fan of that genre-I love scary movies–and I was looking for one to do. This script struck me as being like Fay Wray and King Kong–it is a love story between a woman and this monster that she eventually has to kill in the end.

You don’t want to blow the ending, do you?

Banks: I think you’ll pretty much know right away who survives and who doesn’t.

Terrio: I am doing an adaptation of this book–the contract hasn’t been signed yet, so I can’t say which one–that is about teenagers in the South Bronx in the early 1990's at the height of the crack wars. It is a completely different world than the one in “Heights” but it is also a multi-character thing, though more visceral and aggressive.

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