Joe Leonard, “How I Got Lost” Director
Among the many films in the current festival run, you’ll find a little independent drama making an impressive run with strong acting turns and a depth of character seen in only the best dramas each season. How I Got Lost is the love child of writer/director Joe Leonard and features Aaron Stanford (X-Men: The Last Stand) and Jacob Fishel in two compelling roles about NYC friends finding their way after the tragedy of 9/11.
In this latest SSv interview, we spoke with Joe Leonard about translating character depth from the script to the screen and how he managed to get his little movie made in the first place.
SSv: Before diving into the movie, I’m wondering about the first version. There was a short film called How I Got Lost as well, right?
Joe Leonard: There was. I did a short film of How I Got Lost in 2003 or 2004 before I moved out to Los Angeles. I needed to know if I had a project that was worth putting the time into and I was also a little afraid that I’d never get a chance to film any of it if I moved to L.A. So I raised a bit of money and shot the first 20 pages of the script that I had then. That was part of my process of re-writing. I figured out really quickly what was working and what wasn’t, but I found that I did have something I could go deeper with and keep pulling out of.
SSv: Biggest difference that you change from the first one that wasn’t working?
Joe: The first one was focused more on the New York section in the beginning and that group of friends. So there were more characters and it was more of an ensemble. It was more about what a group of friends were going through together after 9/11 as opposed to just Jake and Andrew. They were still the main characters, but they were also in the spotlight at different points. So on the rewrites, I just ended up focusing on Jake and Andrew.
SSv: In all that I can find from you about the film, so much of this film is very personal for you. How much of that is found in Andrew and how much in Jake?
Joe: I think a lot of the personal stuff related to Jake is me, but it’s funny because I think they’re both different aspects of my reaction. I have a lot of friends who are kind of like Andrew, but I also have certain elements there. I think that it’s a relatable character as well, even though he’s essentially self-destructive. [Laughs] It’s a tricky question because I don’t totally know. A lot of it is just how my friends and I would interact, but I don’t know.
SSv: The biggest issue with character-driven films like this can be depth of character. So how do you engage that challenge in moving from the script to the screen?
You have to figure out what works. So you think the movie is already done in your head, but it really isn't. You have to find it still and the script is the road map to getting to the movie.
Joe: Do you mean how three-dimensional the characters are?
Joe: Well, what it comes down to for me always is working with the actors and making sure that it’s real and coming from that real place and talking through the circumstances surrounding these characters with them. I treat them like real people and I treat the situations like real situations. You don’t approach it like, ‘Okay, this is the scene in the movie where you’re doing this. This is what’s been going on and this is where you are right now.’ [Laughs]
You talk to them about the scenario and fill in as much of the backstory as you can for them. I’m fortunate because I worked with actors who did a lot of that labor work for me. So when we were talking, I had been living with the script for five years and they’d been living with it for a month or so. But they had already caught up to me in terms of filling in the backstory.
SSv: Were you the one who cast these two in these roles?
Joe: I had a casting director, but yes, we saw a whole bunch of actors in New York and L.A. and it was hard to cast the roles because I had a general idea of what I was going for. But I’d been writing the script for several years and it had to be right. And the dynamic between them had to be right. So we saw a ton of great actors, but these were the ones. There was no doubt about it. As soon as we had them reading together, it was like, ‘Okay, now this is it. This will work. Now we have a movie. Now we can do all these scenes and if nothing else works in the entire movie, at least it will be interesting to watch.’
So there was a casting director in New York named Paul Schnee and he was terrific and he really was the one who set it up so that I could meet these great actors.
SSv: I would think that would be one of the biggest challenges in the film, to find these guys. If the film is so personal, if there’s already another version and you’d been living with it for so long…
Joe: What’s funny is that you can’t get too locked into your idea of how things should be. You have to figure out what works. So you think the movie is already done in your head, but it really isn’t. You have to find it still and the script is the road map to getting to the movie. So when I found these guys… the most important thing about this was finding guys who were engaged by the script and by the characters, because we were going to spend a lot of time together. So that’s why it was so important and it worked out great. They’re good friends of mine even still through the making of the movie.
SSv: What did they bring to the roles that weren’t already there?
Joe: Well, Jake Fishel, who plays Jake, had a really interesting response to the role and really connected with it. Jake was a very passive role, the way it was written. Jake’s still a passive character through some of the story where Andrew is dragging him along. But among the many things Jake brought, he brought a specificity to each of the scenes and really had to sometimes struggle with me to find the most active way that we could keep his character engaged. He had a lot of good questions.
They both had a lot of good questions that brought out good details. Aaron Stanford completely took to Andrew. I knew that I had written a role that would be very interesting in the right hands and he was totally dedicated and serious and took it to the kind of extreme that it needed to be taken to. On set, other actors might have been talking or chatting up other folks, but he had this interesting way of finding a corner and just doing his thing and then showing up and knocking it out. He was terrific because he was just no-nonsense and had a real seriousness about how he approached the role. That was helpful for me and the other actors as well.
SSv: I did want to ask about the use of color, because it’s so powerful or effective in the film. How much of a vision did you have for that going into the filming?
Joe: Sure, the DP [Director of Photography], Chris Chambers, and I had this theory where we did shot listings, but we had a theory where we wanted to find key images for every scene. We sort of planned everything around that. A lot of that, then, became a question of color. We start in post-9/11 New York, which is a pretty dismal place, so we purposefully kept it desaturated and kind of bleak looking. Then as the characters are loosening up a bit and going on their journey, we started letting certain colors out of the bottle. So it’s meant to be a subtle but powerful indication that their state of mind is changing.
SSv: So what are the hopes from here with the film?
Joe: Right now, we’re talking to distributors and my hope is that I can do some kind of theatrical distribution in the next six months to a year and then put it out on DVD after that. It’s interesting because the distribution models have changed so much in the last two years even that there’s actually a lot of options, so we’re going to finish up our festival run and then see what’s out there for the film. We just want to get it out there for as many people to see it.
SSv: Are you spinning any other creative plates?
Joe: Well, when we were finishing the film, I was putting all my energy into this. I’ve had a good six months to a year to get back on my feet and I’ve been doing a lot of writing. I work as a television editor and I’ve been doing some of that and that’s been a nice way to regenerate and find more creative projects to work. I’m the sort of person where it takes me two weeks of not having a project before I get bored and need something new to work on. So I have a couple of things in the works that I’m excited about now.