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At first glance, the likely choice for the directorial debut of uber-slacker-hipster actor Joshua Leonard (Humpday, The Blair Witch Project, Higher Ground) would not be an adaptation of a T. Coraghessan Boyle short story published in the New Yorker. And yet The Lie, Boyle’s 2008 story, which serves as the basis for the feature film, opening November 18, seems to gel beautifully with the ethos and realms that Leonard has explored as a performer onscreen, especially with his breakout role in Humpday. In that Sundance sensation, Leonard played a wayward Gen-Xer who refuses to grow up; the film’s conflict revolves around whether or not he will have sex with his best friend (played by Mark Duplass) in a demonstration of his manliness/hipness/et cetera.
In The Lie, which garnered its financing amidst the buzz for Humpday, Leonard is in similar territory, albeit with decidedly higher stakes. Leonard plays Lonnie, a commercial editor who splits his leisure time between dreaming of becoming a rock star and hanging out with his law student wife (Jess Weixler) and infant child. When the pressures of Lonnie’s day job prove to be too much for him to handle, he realizes that some time off from work is imperative; having (presumably) exercised all of his sick days, he tells his boss a horrible lie. Things start to get a bit complicated after that. I recently had the chance to speak with Leonard in New York.
Tribeca: The film speaks to the conflict between pursuing your dreams and taking care of necessities, so to speak, for one’s life. Can you talk a bit about how that conflict appealed to you?
So Lonnie’s been putting his wife Clover through school for years by working these mind-numbing day jobs. Clover’s finishing up law school, and the backstory we created for them is that they met at a liberal college in Olympia. Their best friend in the film, Tank, played by Mark Webber, represents from whence they came, ideologically – he lives in a Winnebago on the beach and he’s starting an organic facial care line – so Tank represents where they were. But now Lonnie’s working a job that he hates, and Clover opens the film by deciding that instead of going to work for a non-profit, she’s going to work for a major pharmaceutical corporation.
I think we wanted to be fair to both sides of the argument in the film – once you have a kid, your priority is the kid. Some of those compromises that I’ve seen my friends make in their lives are unassailable – it’s tough to judge them when they’re taking care of a life.
Tribeca: It would have been really easy to vilify Clover. But instead, like you said, you really show her side of the argument.
Joshua Leonard: I think, to a certain extent, you want your audience to be able to make a decision as to where they fall on a particular issue. An argument without a strong counter-argument is really just a diatribe. You have to couch this all in terms of the context – we’re talking about middle-class white people in their 30s having existential crises. There has to be some level of self-awareness, that to a vast part of the world, even having those problems is a luxury. But it’s a problem that many people that I know have. So to me, it’s very much a story worth telling.
And Lonnie, I think he’s still stuck in Seattle 1994. He’s aspiring to a dream that hasn’t held cultural relevance for 17 years. So someone’s got to be the practical one. Often, I think we find ourselves in that place in relationships, where we have to overcompensate in ways that aren’t necessarily organic to our own beliefs in order to make up for a certain lack on our partner’s side. I don’t think Clover really believes her own argument, but I think she believes that it’s the responsible choice to make. I have a lot of empathy for her. And for Lonnie. You’ve got two people who just want to do their best, and they don’t necessarily have the tools to do it right.
And you know, Lonnie tells this big lie in the film which instigates the plot, but to me, the lie was kind of a stand-in for all the brands of dishonesty that have infiltrated this relationship, which I think is very relatable. So often, I find that the dishonesty in a relationship is just omission of truth. It’s not even an overt lie; it’s just that you stop talking to each other. Life gets hard, and you don’t want to fight all the time.
Tribeca: I loved the character of their friend, Tank, who asks that wealthy couple in the opening scene for $100,000 to fund his facial cream company. Can you tell me a bit about that scene?
Joshua Leonard: Well, in the opening scene you’ve got a barbecue, and you’ve got Tank there, who’s come over from his Winnebago on the beach, and then you’ve got Lonnie and Clover’s neighbors, Ted and Mary: very successful, the sexy bourgeoisie. And then you have Lonnie and Clover, who are stuck somewhere between those two extremes. That’s the two opposites that are pulling at them: the comfort of selling out and gentrifying versus the ideology of their past.
Face Food, the name of Tank’s facial care line – because the film was predominantly improvised, we knew that Tank would pitch Face Food, but we didn’t know what his pitch would be. So when he brings out that piece of paper and the taglines, that was all Mark’s brilliant creation. So much of the humor in the film comes from the kind of awkwardness that I find inherently funny in life. I think TC Boyle really hit that tonal nail on the head in his story, although that specific scene wasn’t in the story. I loved the idea of a hippie with no cell phone pitching two yuppies he didn’t even know at a random barbecue—how that would make everyone around him feel.
Tribeca: When you’re directing the film, and starring in it, and it’s improvised, how tough is it to get a handle on what’s going on? I mean, it’s tough enough to direct oneself with a script.
Joshua Leonard: There were absolutely difficulties. I would imagine any time you’re in both roles you feel like you’re falling a little bit short. I suffered from that a little bit. At the same time, I had this film in my guts by the time we started shooting it. Even the decision to cast myself as the Lonnie character had more to do with more confidence in my ability to walk that tonal balance as an actor, after having been an actor for 15 years, than communicating that to another actor as a director of my first narrative feature.
The advantages that I had were that the story was so close to home; it wasn’t a tremendous stretch. Also, I had the most astounding cast and crew, and the majority of them were either friends or people I had worked with in the past. Our DP I had worked with on Humpday, and worked with on another film. All the actors, they were all people who I trusted to be a good mirror for what I was doing. So there were many times where I would lose objectivity, because I’m trying to wear so many hats at the same time, and I would ask whoever was watching the monitor whether I sucked or not, and I could trust them to be honest with me.
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