Why Marc Webb Loves Working With Independent, Collaborative Actors

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Photo Source: Niko Tavernise/Amazon Studios

You can tell that Marc Webb loves music, directs to it even, regardless of whether a scene or sequence actually has music in it. The director finds the best rhythms and beats and seems to use that as a way to orient his camera and, just as much, his actors; hence the buoyancy found throughout his feature debut “(500) Days of Summer,” in his “The Amazing Spider-Man” one-two punch, and now in his latest outing, “The Only Living Boy in New York.”

Raised in Wisconsin and an alumnus of Colorado College and University of Wisconsin-Madison, Webb developed his career primarily as a director of music videos for the likes of 3 Doors Down and My Chemical Romance. But he moved to feature film directing in 2009 with “(500) Days.” After two web-slinging superhero films, he returned earlier this year with Chris Evans and Jenny Slate-starrer “Gifted.” “The Only Living Boy in New York” hits theaters Aug. 11.

Webb doesn’t play coy about the film’s sense of fantasy about the city, and even his music choices seem to texturize that approach and understanding of the film. Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel pepper its eclectic soundtrack. Backstage spoke with him about how the film came together, how he uses music to ramp up actors, what it’s like working with Jeff Bridges, and what he was looking for in the audition room when casting the likes of Callum Turner and Kiersey Clemons.

You’ve had two films released this year. That must be exhausting.
Well, fortunately, those films were a blast to make, so it wasn’t too exhausting. “Gifted”we shot in the fall of 2015, so that had been in the can for a while, and “The Only Living Boy in New York” we shot last October and November, so the turnaround was very quick.

How did ‘The Only Living Boy’ come about?
Well, I read the script about 10 years ago, before “(500) Days of Summer,” and I tried to get hired, and they wouldn’t have me. After doing the “Spider-Man” movies, I thought, That was a really fun script. So I asked my agent to send it to me, and he sent it to me and it was a very different version of what I had read before. Now set in Chicago, and something awful had happened to this great piece of work. So I went back to Allan Loeb and I said, Let’s go back and start from the beginning. I worked with Allan for a few years on it, and then Jeff Bridges came on board. He was the first person we sent it to. And when you have Jeff Bridges, you’re very close to having a movie. I think it’s the 11th Commandment that Jeff Bridges must be in all movies.

Did he abide on set?
Yes, he abides. [laughs] You imagine the best possible collaborator and then you make it a little bit better, and that’s who Jeff Bridges is. He’s such a great teacher when it comes to acting and performance, it’s incredibly magical. But also very technical. First of all, he’s warm to everybody, he’s very gracious, deeply thoughtful about the character. He’s very open to what’s happening in the moment. If an actor takes a different pause, he’s so alert. He finds so many details in a performance that I can’t imagine anybody else doing this role. But I want him to play every role in every movie I do ever again.

How did the script develop and shape with a collaborator like Bridges on set?
Well, you know, there are always little changes you make here and there. But the fundamental arc of the character is the same, and he really reacted to that in the script. One of the things we talked about was the alcoholic nature of the character. What preceded the moment in the movie, why did he put himself in that situation, what happened the before, how he got here—those were conversations we had. It didn’t really impact the screenplay, but it did impact his performance. There’s this line in the script where Thomas [played by Turner] is relating to W.F. [played by Bridges] how into Mimi [played by Clemons] he is, but she has this boyfriend that plays in this band called Fahrenheit 185. W.F.’s response is, “It’s the exact temperature to cook heroin properly.” And the script just says [that], but he put a pause between “heroin” and “properly,” which implies a level of experience with improperly cooked heroin, and suddenly you realize this guy has had a whole life outside of this moment. It enriches your sense of this character just by the reading of this one line.

What was the casting process like for the other characters in this film?
Yeah, for Pierce [Brosnan], we needed someone with charisma, and also the sophistication that someone like Pierce has. Fortunately, he read the script and liked it and came on board. His charisma is recognized around the world, and we needed someone with the good-looking power, but also the kind of intellect that is really hard to find. He has [a] temper in this movie, which is so cool and interesting and something that I haven’t seen from him before. We think of him as James Bond or the Matador, but seeing him explode…was pretty cool. Kate Beckinsale knew about the script, and I’ve been a fan of Kate since “Much Ado About Nothing.” I think she’d always been intrigued by that character, and as the cast was coming together, it felt very fortunate to have an actress of her caliber. The woman has sexiness, allure, but also, more importantly, intellect. Having somebody that can tackle that character is really tricky and she just killed it.

This film is very much about how New York City has changed overtime and how it changes people. How did you work with the actors to orient themselves to New York and think about those ideas?
What I explained to them was [that] this is not about some realistic version of New York. It’s the New York I imagined before I move to New York. It’s a fable, it’s a melodrama. It’s a little bit of a fantasy. Heightened things happen: Jeff Bridges is your neighbor, and Pierce Brosnan is your dad. I wasn’t after any kind of realism. I just think New York is a kind of mystical place. It means something different to every person, whether you’re in it or outside of it, it represents something. It’s the greatest success of the “American experiment,” but it’s also the greatest failure of it. There’s conflicts and triumphs and failures. There’s this grotesque Wall Street element to it, but it’s also the heart of American ambition and enormous culture and fashion and literature and art and compassion. It’s such a messy, messy place, and whenever you try to clean up something this messy, the corrosive nature of these lies are exposed.

I was interested in this fantasy version of New York you speak of, not only in the present, but also in the nostalgic presentation that Bridges speaks of.
There’s always nostalgia for the past. I’m sure the people of the 1970s thought the New York of the ’50s was more dynamic. I think even in terms of the story, Thomas’s character, he knows something’s off, he senses something doesn’t quite fit, there’s something too clean and wrong. And he’s got to tug that thread, and his world unravels. But at least he finds the truth. I think it’s an important theme of the movie: It’s a house of lies built on a foundation of love.

How does the setting specificity of ‘500 Days of Summer’ and ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ shape your way of working with the actors?
I don’t know that it really changed the way I worked with the actors. But in terms of communicating the tone of the film, we brought a lot of music from New York, like John Mingus and Dave Brubeck, even some Bob Dylan, Bluedog, Bill Evans, all these artists that have a sensibility that is familiar. That I think kind of created a casual sophistication and an intellectual rapport that bounced around in the performances.

You have a background in doing music videos. Did that shape how you work with on-screen talent?
Working on music videos with musicians is very different from working with actors. When you’re working with actors, they tend to embrace stepping into somebody’s shoes. When you’re doing a music video, you’re channeling an artist and you have to build a world around who that artist is and the identity that is important to them.

Did you ever use any music during principal photography to get your actors to where you wanted them?
Absolutely, all the time! I had a series of songs for every scene. We would play “Peace Piece,” that Bill Evans song, and actually Jeff brought that one in one day. We found a way to incorporate that into a movie. The Mingus piece at the burlesque show is something I obviously played on the day. We played Dylan in the breakdown scene. There’s all sorts of atmospherics that help not only create a vibe for the actors but the cameramen, the production designer—for all the people working that day. It creates a vibration, and everybody flows and everyone’s on the same page.

What were you looking for when you were casting for Tom?
Well, I wanted to find someone that is on the precipice of manhood. We needed someone that we would be rooting for to get with Johanna [played by Beckinsale], but also [someone] boyish enough to be put on his heels by someone like Mimi. That’s a precarious moment, and requires specific physical presence. If he’s too boyish, then why would Johanna want to eat this guy, consume him? But Callum has this nascent manliness that’s pretty interesting. He’s got a nerdy quality and a toughness and a swagger that can come out…. It’s a little easier to cast nowadays. And you can anticipate the pitfalls a little more. I want to make sure that the actors I select are prepared to handle what comes their way and become collaborators. I really love discourse and engaging.

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