Thursday, June 14, 2012

Daryl and Zoe on Lola

Lola Versus is Playing in Theaters

Daryl and Zoe on Lola

(from 6/14/12)

lolaversuszoedaryl.jpg Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein
Mainstream critics have praised the first-rate cast in Daryl Wein's Lola Versus, which opened nationally last week, but I'm disappointed that several have accused the film of being trite and conventional. I'd love for those critics to try to list those films that it copies because they'd be hard-pressed. A lot of care went into making this perceptive comedy about a twenty-nine year-old, Lola (the always unconventional Greta Gerwig), whose life unravels after long-time boyfriend Luke (Joel Kinnaman) dumps her before their wedding, original--and it was done so subtly (almost line for line and scene for scene) that lazy critics didn't bother to notice. True, Wein and his life partner and cowriter Zoe Lister-Jones' second feature, following the acclaimed $15,000 indie Breaking Upwards, didn't venture into jaw-breaking extremes--for the simple reason they wanted to base it in reality--but the dialogue, characters, locations, cinematography, relationships, and even the way Gerwig and Lister-Jones (who matches the indie star as Lola's acerbic best friend Alice) move within the frame are not common to contemporary movies. Last week, I posted a four-journalist roundtable I was in with Gerwig ( As promised, here are roundtables I participated in with Wein and Lister-Jones (a personal favorite whom I interviewed for Stuck Between Stations last year) on the same day. There's a profile of the couple in today's New York Times--it's mostly about them (and is worth checking out), this is mostly about their new movie. I note my questions.
Roundtable with Daryl Wein
Danny Peary: Why isnt there a third word in the title?
Daryl Wein: Zoe and I were lying at bed at two in the morning trying to come up with the perfect title. One of us said, Lola Versus... and we tried to think what the other word should be and we realized in that pregnant pause that it might be more interesting to leave the title open-ended because Lola's up against so much in the film. We thought that was a little more unconventional to let the audience fill in the blanks. Also we were exploring what it is like for Lola to be a PHd student studying the verses of silence in poetry, so in another incantation we actually spelled it with an es, and it was The Lola Verses. Then we decided that would be too confusing, and that people could just think of that subconsciously. So that was the inspiration for the title. Also: Lola being Lolitaesque, in that there is a young naivete to her, was part of the reason we gave her that name.
Q: Lola's about to turn thirty and people set themselves up with weird challenges because of this number.
DW: There's all this societal pressure that comes with these age milestones. At thirty, everyone expects you to have your life figured out. You want to at least be close to settling down with a steady job and a family. The anticipation of what you're supposed to do is in conflict with how you're socially conditioned to think and believe. When the rug is pulled out from under Lola, that's what makes, proverbially, the shit hit the fan even harder.
DP: But she learns there is no need for urgency.
DW: Absolutely. It's not about this desperate need to find that perfect person right away and have that plan so well mapped out. You can take the time to figure out who you are and what you want and get to a comfortable happy place before you're bringing others into your mess.
Q: Zoe just kills as Lola's best friend Alice.
DW: Zoe is hilarious. She's a brilliant comedian. She has sharp comic timing and also a vulnerable, dramatic side, too, which had a good showcase in our last film, Breaking Upwards. She's good at playing both. Zoe makes what could have been a really schticky sitcom thing into something grounded, authentic, and truly funny.
DP: Does Zoe write all her own lines?
DW: No, we write everything together. We have a healthy combination.
DP: Is it easy for you to write her?
DW: It is because I know her so well. We've actually been dating for eight years and I'm well-versed in the female experience.
DP: Because you've known each other so long I thought you might have a pattern where she writes the females and you write the males.
DW: It's funny, but we don't. It's pretty traditional in that whoever is feeling more excited or passionate about characters or part of a story jumps in with the writing and later offers up their notes or rewrites to the other person. It's gender equal. We don't write in the same room. We write separately and then show it to the other. If we sat in the same room and tried to craft sentences, we'd drive each other crazy. It would be like a painter trying to paint with someone next to them.
Q: Since you've been dating Zoe for eight years, was there any awkwardness when writing the breakup scenes?
DP: That was your whole first movie...
DW: Yeah, luckily we got that out of our system with Breaking Upwards. That was a very therapeutic process to go through. This one was less autobiographical so it was easier for us to write it and not be so worried that we might be offending the other person in our interpretation of what our real relationship is like. This one was more born out of our being friends with so many smart, funny, interesting women in the New York dating world--and Zoe's experience of being a single woman when we were in an open relationship.
lolaversuswomenstreet.jpgZoe  Lister-Jones and Greta Gerwig
They were having all these weird encounters with men and weren't able to find something that worked. That inspired us. It's rare to see funny, authentic single women post-breakup that aren't Sex and the City or Bridget Jones's Diary or any movie starring Julia Roberts or Katherine Heigl. It's rare when the woman make mistakes and isn't always charming and constantly the victim. Sometimes Lola crosses boundaries and alienates people.
Q: Lola isnt forgiven just because she's cute.
DW: Right. Often she's not cute. She's messy and raw--that spoke to us more than her being an always pretty and charismatic leading lady. You rarely see women in movies being unapologetic in a raw, genuine way. Sometimes people criticize women characters for speaking so candidly. They're not used to seeing women talking about their vaginas. We're used to men talking about their penises and pee-pee and poo-poo humor, and we only started seeing women do it in Bridesmaids, but there it was in a broad context. We tried to ground our humor in a reality we can identify with. We were trying to challenge the expectations of what a female protagonist tends to be, not only by casting Greta Gerwig but also in the way we wrote Lola's trajectory. She is ping-ponging back and forth in a way that doesnt take her from A to B, where at B she meets the next guy and they fall in love and have everything wrapped up with a bow at the end.
DP: What is harder or more fun for you two to write: characters who are breaking up or characters who are getting together?
DW: I think were always drawn to characters and alternative forms of relationships that we don't typically see. So it doesn't necessarily have to be them getting together or breaking up as long as it feels fresh and hasn't been written about to death. At the time of Breaking Upwards, we were seeing what it was like to be in an open relationship and having the nitty-gritty rules of being together but seeing other people. So we were trying to craft a couple who is together but is strategizing a breakup--they're not just breaking up but are actively creating rules. In many breakup films you see both sides but in Lola Versus we are seeing it solely from the female perspective.
DP: If you had made this film Luke Versus would you have been more sympathetic toward Luke? He seems to get out of the marriage because hes overwhelmed but otherwise he seems like an okay guy.
DW: When we were writing this we didn't want to portray him as the asshole villain, which he could have been. We wanted to show that it was more complicated than that. He goes through complex emotions surrounding the breakup. We dont show the breakup scene, but you can imagine what he says. In the conversations he has with Lola subsequently, we realize there were all kinds of factors that played into why they aren't together. They've been together for eight years, there was all this pressure around getting married, and maybe they weren't still exciting each other.
DP: I think what I'm asking is: If the film had been Luke Versus and we saw things from his perspective and got to know him fully, would we think that Lola should get back with him?
DW: In my opinion, and it's open to interpretation, I dont think they were ever truly right for each other. We imagine them to be the kind of couple that gets together in college --they fell for each other when they were too young--and thinks they are the ones for each other, and they stay together for a long time out of fear of leaving each other or because they're in denial about what's really missing between them. I think that ultimately Luke isn't fulfilling her, and visa versa. They are both looking for different things. Obviously, we're mostly focusing on Lola's pathology in this. If it was Luke Versus, I think we would have understood his pathology even more, post-breakup. And I think you'd see that he doesn't want to be with Lola anymore. He has been craving being with other women and having new experiences.
DP: At their age, everyone who wants to break up and let the other person down easy lies, "It's not you, it's me," although it is them. Then they add, "I need to be alone so I can go off and find myself." It's a cliche that is usually also a lie but in Lola's case it is a cliche that is true. She does need to be alone to find herself.
DW: Well, you're always rooting for the guy to get back with the girl and the girl to get back with the guy. You rarely see a movie where the woman ends up alone with herself by choice. There is an expectation that there will be a happy ending where she'll run off with the guy. But for us it was more important to root for Lola to figure out herself. It takes Lola months to figure things out and that she can say no to Luke. When the other person holds the power and broke up with you and they're happy and you can't stop thinking about them and wanting to get them back, you're in a vulnerable position. Lola goes through so many trials and tribulations but has to hit rock bottom to realize that's not the direction she should be going in.
Q: Why didnt you have the breakup scene?
DW: We wrote it and shot it and then realized we'd seen breakup scenes so often and it was more interesting to tell the story without it. You get what's happening and it's more fun to catch up to what went awry. We knew that because of the film's marketing and trailer, people would already know they break up. It's more interesting having them on the happy track to getting married and buying the flowers and then boom there's a 180-degree flip. The rug is pulled out--that's how it happens sometimes. It was more important for us to get into the story of this woman spiraling after the breakup then it was to focus on why they were breaking up. The story for us starts post-romance.
Q: Talk about Lola's parents and casting Debra Winger and Bill Pullman.
DW: Lola's parents are supposed to be these New York hippie intellectuals who led an unconventional life in the seventies. Lola might have lived a more out-of-control life when she was a kid, and she rebelled by having an in-control planned-out life. When I was casting I was looking for actors who could fit perfectly into this world, and I cast great actors with amazingly long careers. You dont really see Debra Winger in comedies like this of late--the last movie we saw her in was Rachel Getting Married and she played a really dramatic role. It is interesting seeing her in a lighter, poignant, motherly role. She's smart, cool, and unconventional and that made her perfect for Lola's mom. Bill Pullman is such a sweet, kooky father. He has an offbeat quality and I'm always attracted to that, like Hamish Linklater playing Henry and Ebon Moss-Bachrach playing the one-night-stand guy, Nick "the Dick." There's something more unexpected about them than actors who tend to be polished.
DP: Did An Unmarried Woman flash through your mind while making your movie?
DW: We watched Paul Mazursky's film after we started writing our movie. It was an inspiration because it has such an interesting tone and the ending is so ambiguous and open-ended, with Jill Clayburg walking through SoHo carrying a large painting. That was a film that we referenced a lot while developing the project because we couldn't think of any other post-breakup story that follows a single woman in an honest way. Still to this day I cant think of any film with that trajectory. We were inspired by Jill Clayburg's performance, which was so powerful and compelling. Like Lola, her character is unapologetic, raw, vulnerable, and messy.
Q: Talk about the New York you shoot in this film.
DW: We moved around the city, trying to show different pockets. We used twice as many locations as are usually used in independent film. We shot in Vinegar Hill, Dumbo, the High Line, the East Village, Tribeca, even Times Square, so we were jumping around everywhere. There were homages to classic locations of New York, but there were also fresh, interesting places like Russ & Daughters smoked fish shop--it has been around for a hundred years but we were the first crew to shoot there.
Q: You seemed to take a lot of care with the cinematography.
LolaVersusDaryl.jpg Daryl Wein.  Photo by DP
DW: I think that almost all romantic relationship movies are shot very broadly. I haven't seen attention paid to the way they have been shot since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And that was shot by the incredible Ellen Kuras eight years ago! I wanted the way we shot this film to be more interesting than what you typically see and that's why I hired the amazing Swedish DP, Jacob Ihre, to give us more of a European art house aesthetic. He shot this great Norwegian film, Reprise, and I knew that the way he mixed styles would match the trajectory of what Lola goes through as a single woman in an interesting way, rather than just shooting everything conventionally. That's why we mixed hand-held with blocked off and tracking shots. We used all kinds of techniques to achieve the overall look. We also shot on film, which is rare, and worked really hard to get the budget to work for film. You see so many filmmakers shooting video because they can't afford film--or they dont care about the aesthetic. But I believe there is heart and soul in film.
Roundtable with Zoe Lister-Jones
Danny Peary: When I interviewed you before, I pointed out that you like doing scenes walking down streets. That's apparent again in this movie when many scenes have Lola and Alice walking outdoors in New York. You're the best at it!
Zoe Lister Jones (laughing): Walking and talking is fun! Wearing high heels on cobblestone streets in New York City makes walking and talking more difficult, but it adds to the challenge!
DP: We talked about the pacing, how you have to walk slowly but make it seem natural.
ZL-J: That's totally true so you can hit your marks at the correct time during the dialogue. It's all pretty technical. But it's fun in New York especially because there's so much to look at while you're talking. So many New Yorkers do walk and talk, including on their cell phones. New Yorkers are always talking. There's almost no silence.
DP: And Lola almost gets killed talking on her phone while crossing the street.
Q: In the Times Square scene you don't do any walking.
ZL-J: I know. There was just a skeletal crew on that. Daryl and two others followed Greta and Hamish and got to capture the madness of Times Square on film.
DP: I assumed that you wrote all your own zingers but Daryl says he writes some of them, too.
ZL-J: Yeah! We really switch off a lot. He writes dialogue for men and women and I write it for the men, too. It's not a gender-based process. Whenever I write a scene I'll pass it to him and he'll make notes or do some rewrites, and it's the same when he writes a scene, so at the end it's kind of an intricate melding of both of our voices. People ask us if he wrote something or I wrote something and neither of us can remember who wrote it.
Q: When you write about a female character do you think that you're going to play her?
ZL-J: No. Our last film Breaking Upwards was loosely based on the open relationship that Daryl and I were in, so we played versions of ourselves. But at first we didn't want to do that. We wanted Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel to be in it. And then 500 Days of Summer came out with them in it and we were like, "That's sooo weird." I think we're always trying to get recognizable actors because that allows our film to be viewed by a larger audience. Because we're just starting out, that's always our goal. When Lola Versus began we thought it was going to be a micro-budget indie like Breaking Upwards and I'd play Lola. But the script got such a great response that it was made by Fox Searchlight, which was so exciting. When Fox Searchlight came on board and it was going to be a legitimate production, Greta Gerwig seemed like an exciting fit for Lola and I stepped into the character of Alice. We don't really write for actors in particular. We just write characters who are interesting and funny to us and then have a casting process.
DP: Did Greta Gerwig audition?
ZL-J: No, she didn't read lines. We sent her the script and had a meeting with her and we hung out one night at the premier of her film No Strings Attached. We had a lot of fun. Then we had her read opposite other actors when we were casting around her. That was the first time we got to see her really put the part on its feet.
Q: You had a lot of funny lines directed at Greta but you couldn't knock her off her game.
ZL-J: Yeah, she's really present in a scene, and really works off what is given to her moment to moment. She listens. It's exciting working opposite her because she never plans anything, so [laughing] from take to take it can change pretty dramatically. That's great in the editing room because there are a lot of options for which way scenes can go.
DP: Do you change from take to take, too?
ZL-J: I do. I think I always have a bit of a director's head as well. Especially when I write a scene, I have a pretty good idea what I want it to look like. I don't change things dramatically, but I change little things. Especially for comedy, there are things you can change to help the comic effect and give it variety. But I don't think I go from zero to one hundred from take to take. Greta can change more dramatically--she gives herself a lot of room to play.
DP: Was it a fun or challenging dynamic working with someone like that?
ZL-J: It was always fun. Because I'm also one of the filmmakers, while acting opposite of Greta I was also crafting it and seeing how things were fitting into the story. So it was always interesting to see her take on things. She has a very specific rhythm as an actress and a unique energy that she brought to her character and helped bring Lola to life in unexpected ways.
lolaversusdancing.jpg Gerwig and Lister-Jones
Q: Talk about the theme of silence in your movie.
ZL-J: We wanted to deal with noise, particularly in a woman's head. I can only speak as a woman and don't know what the noise is in a man's head. A woman's head can get, figuratively, noisy. There's so much about self-image and relationships and a lot of self-analysis and a lot of self-loathing. And we wanted to capture that through Lola's fantasies and her dissertation--because her journey is to ultimately find a sense of peace. She is her own worst enemy in that journey. It's hard for her to apply the silence that she's studying in her thesis to her life--it takes time before she can make some of those connections and find a little bit of silence.
DP: Alice says to Lola that she has no friends but for her and Henry. I think that's significant in the movie. I asked Greta if Lola is a good friend, and she said, yes but not for that year.
ZL-J (laughing): I think she was a good friend. But what happens when you're in a long-term relationship is that your friendships really shift. When you're not in a relationship, your friends are your main priority, and when you're in a relationship your priority becomes your partner. That is a difficult transition and there can be jealousy and competition until you adjust to what your new role is in that person's life. So Lola has been with Luke for eight years. Alice is her best friend but Lola is ultimately a homebody who has found a routine with her long-term boyfriend so it's not about going out and partying and going to the bars where the cute guys are. That's more Alice's M.O. I think Lola has had been a good friend while with Luke but I think Alice is selfishly excited when Lola's single again so she can get her wing-woman back.
Q: In their case, opposites attract.
JL-J: Well, I think that's kind of true in friendships. Obviously there are shared interests among all those in Lola's social circle. They're fashionable, into music, intelligent, and have a sense of humor. But I do think that people are drawn to people who have different energies than their own a lot of the time. I think that's what makes the social dynamic interesting. In the film, everyone has a different rhythm but (laughing) "they make beautiful music together."
DP: Lola blames herself for her downward spiral and alienating Alice and Henry, but I told her that I also blame Luke, Alice, and Henry for letting her down. What do you think?
JL-J: Yeah, but I don't think it's black and white. I think throughout the film we were trying to not have all of those conflicts have a very clear villain or victim. Even in Lola's relationship with Luke, we never wanted to make him a villain. We wanted his trajectory to also be thoughtful and sensitive. He did something he had to do that hurt Lola but he isn't a total asshole. I think Lola is victimized but she also alienates herself from the people still around her during this year. When people are going through moments of crisis, especially breakups at that age, they can be pretty self-absorbed. So, yeah, there are definitely shades of gray in who's to blame.
SPOILER ALERTDP: Should Alice have gotten together with Henry?
JL-L: I don't want the audience to know that happens, but I will say I personally believe that she is allowed to. From the beginning--what makes it so complex--is that we hint that Alice has always been thinking about Henry. Lola has always been pushing Henry on Alice and telling her to date him; and Alice says that he does look cute and Henry says Alice looks pretty. Then when Lola drops the bomb that she made out with Henry, it's quite devastating to Alice because she had a glimmer of hope of getting together with him. So I think Lola and Alice are stepping on each other's toes. I think when you have to confront a close friend with difficult information, you don't always make the best choices. Sometimes you wait a little bit too long.
END SPOILER ALERTQ: There's a naval term for what happens with Lola and Henry after her breakup: "port of convenience."
ZL-J: Interesting! That's a good title for a movie.
DP: Lola and Luke have the same first initials, like Ross and Rachel on Friends and Luke and Laura on General Hospital. Were they the perfect match at one time and just grew apart?
ZL-J: Yeah. They met and college and grew up and are very different people from who they once were. They stayed together because they were on the same track and it's hard for either to jump off the train. They fell in love at a particular moment in their life but after eight years Luke starts to panic about the idea that they have grown into different people. They just haven't taken the time apart to realize who they are because of their codependence. In the back story we imagined that Luke was a total hunk and Lola felt that she scored big time. When you're in college, getting the dreamboat is so exciting! The thrill of that probably didn't wear off that much.
Q: Until thirty came. People don't realize that there's a long life after thirty.
ZL-J: I know. We were in a park and there were all these high school students who were acting so old--at every age, we feel we're so old, that we know everything and have done everything. Approaching thirty seems like a huge transition but in retrospect it is almost nothing.
LolaVersusZoeone.jpg Zoe Lister-Jones, photo by DP
Q: There's a funny scene in the movie in which Alice appears in an awful heavy experimental play with her boyfriend. Did you guys actually see a play like that?
ZL-J (laughing): Never like that. We took it to an extreme for comic relief. The most experimental theater Daryl and I saw was when we studied acting at Tisch at NYU. We'd see some black-box insanity. We liked that Alice is an actress because that lends a whole other level of desperation to her character. She can't be fulfilled in her love life or in her career! Everyone who lives in New York especially has seen plays their friends are in that are unwatchable and they have to lie to them afterward. So it's a funny New York moment when Alice comes out of the theater after being in a terrible play and Lola and Henry tell her it was amazing.
Q: What inspired you to write about Lola?
ZL-J: In the year Daryl and I were in an open relationship, my experiences as a single woman were very different from his as a single man. The dating scene for a single woman in her twenties was pretty bleak. All my single girlfriends were experiencing the same comically tragic lifestyle. We'd get together and laugh about it but also share our war stories about the variety of lame dudes we encountered and the guys we liked who would treat us like shit. So we felt it was a ripe story that we could mine a lot of humor and raw emotion from. We hadn't seen an authentic portrait of a single woman on the screen. There are the glamorized versions, like Sex and the City and Bridget Jones's Diary, but there was nothing that felt young or that we could relate to and that shifted between comedy and drama. Lola Versus is sort a call back to Paul Mazursky and Woody Allen in the seventies.
DP: Lola says at one point that to love yourself you have to love other people first. Is that true?
ZL-J: I think so. Often people say that you first have to learn to love yourself but sometimes I think it's the opposite in that self-judgment sometimes follows how judgmental you are of other people. Really appreciating the people who love you is sometimes the one of the hardest things to do--it's really hard to accept love in this day and age--but it creates an environment where you can ultimately love yourself.
Q: Are you interested in only writing scripts from your own ideas?
ZL-J: No, we're interested in working from other material. We like to write our own scripts but it would be exciting to veer from that path and do something really different.
Q: What's your next project?
ZL-J: We wrote another script for Fox Searchlight called Motherfucker.
DP: That title will go over well.
ZL-J (laughing): It will never get through. It's about a young couple and the girl introduces her boyfriend to her parents and he falls in love with her mother. It's an intergenerational romance!



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