The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
The film adheres to the novel in some ways, and not in other ways. Charlie, when in your process do you make the decisions about where to stick to the text and where to depart?
Charlie Kaufman: When I’m starting to adapt a book, I read the book again in a different way than I first read it, when I’m just reading stuff. I start thinking about how it can be a movie and what I understand and don’t understand about the book. I had conversations with Iain Reid [who wrote the novel] and then I decided I needed to adjust some things for the movie version. I wanted to bring the young woman’s character into some sort of actual dynamic with the Jake character, so she would have some autonomy and some reaction to the things that were occurring.
When you send the script to your actors, you must know they are full of questions. Do you welcome those questions? And for the actors, how much do you want to know?
CK: I feel like I’m happy to answer any questions that I can about the script while talking to the actors. One of the things I did in the adaptation was make sure the scenes were playable, by people. That everything could be related to an actual human emotion or interaction. I think it’s very important when you’re working with actors that they have that, because it grounds it in something and makes it work on an honest human level, in addition to whatever symbolic level it might work on.
Jessie Buckley: I think that’s what was so incredible from the minute it became a reality, when we were shooting. The questions make you so much more involved. It’s such an active living when you get to set. Each moment is so active. Nothing in life is certain, so you’re constantly asking yourself questions about how you’re going to be in each moment, but also when the moment happens, that opens it up for you as well. Nothing was ever answered fully, it just became its own thing. And it could’ve been a million different things on different days. But the questions were so rich and useful, and they still are for me when I watch the film and talk to people about it now. That’s what’s beautiful; everyone has their own questions and it opens up your perspective about what you’ve understood of this world from your place because of how someone else understood it from their place.
Jesse Plemons: To a certain extent, in the beginning we did all the trying and getting close to one understanding. Close, on a basic general level. But it almost felt like just the asking of the questions was the most important part because when you do a scene that’s eleven pages long and sixteen minutes long, it kind of does what it wants to do in some ways. You can have an intellectual idea and then when you’re actually playing opposite someone like Jessie, or Toni [Collette] or David [Thewlis], the script is so rich and so open to so many different paths and thoughts and feelings. That’s where everything was discovered. We sort of picked at it intellectually ahead of time, but it was in playing with it that the real answers came.
It’s the exact gift and challenge you want as an actor
The design of the film is remarkably tight, from the camera movements to the framing. It feels like it’s designed to put us off balance. Can you talk about working with your DP [Lukasz Zal] to achieve that aesthetic?
CK: We talked about a lot, and we talked about the idea that this story exists in a somewhat alternate reality, sort of in a combination of memory and fantasy and thought. We chose the 4:3 aspect ratio because it felt right in terms of the closeness of it, and the claustrophobia of the story. In addition to that, we started working with the idea that when you’re imagining something, you know what the next step is in the story that you’re telling yourself. So we included this idea that the camera would anticipate what was going to happen next. There were a lot of camera movements that were designed to arrive at somebody before they start speaking. A clear example is at the beginning of the movie when Jake says “Have a seat in the living room,” and the camera anticipates that and actually moves away from them and positions itself where the young women is going to sit. There’s a lot of stuff Lukasz and I discussed… what the emotions of the story were, what different things needed to feel like. We were dealing with almost static situations – a big scene around a dinner table, all the scenes in the car – so we had some concerns about the limitations of those scenes and whether it would look boring. But I think what saved us, aside from those choices, is that the actors are so fun to watch. I never felt it was an issue in the editing room. Initially I didn’t know, but once I started working on it with Rob Frazen, the editor, we realized that there was no issue in terms of that aspect of things.
The set pieces in the car are remarkable and feel like theater. They’re long and thoughtful and full of allusions. How did you approach those?
CK: We did have some rehearsal beforehand. Jessie and Jesse were able to be there early and we did get to run through those scenes.
JB: I think we just kind of got into it! The takes were nearly twenty-five minutes long and we didn’t have that much time on each take. We probably had one or two takes before they’d try to wrap. We both got on and loved it very early, so there was a feeling of trust where we could just sit there and see what came out. Even from that first time we read it in the office, things were happening and that’s always a good sign. When you’re spending twelve hours a day in the car together, it is quite a bit like doing a play. You sink into something. It’s nice and there’s not much that can come in to distract; it feels intimate and protected.
JP: It felt like we were at the bottom of the ocean, or on another planet, and then Charlie would sometimes visit with an idea! Or sometimes he would sit in the back on a take, or jump in the car and chat in between takes. It was conducive to the feeling we were getting after. Once we got over the shock of it – which happened the first day – it just became so much fun. It’s the exact gift and challenge you want as an actor.
CK: I think that Jessie and Jesse were so good at keeping it alive. It’s always a concern when you rehearse things that there’s going to be a rote aspect to it, but it never felt like that. It always felt like they were in the moment that they were in and whatever was happening was being reacted to by the other person. Each take we took was always surprising and always exciting.