No matter how cool your childhood was, it’s hard to imagine a cooler one than growing up as the son of the man who wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Storytime must have been pretty amazing for Lawrence Kasdan’s sons, filmmaker Jonathan Kasdan and his filmmaker brother Jake. Jon spoke with Paste recently about storytelling, high school experiences and how they came together for his new film The First Time, which is in theaters now.
Paste: Tell us about how the project started.
Jonathan Kasdan: Part of me is always harkening back to my high school years as a source of material, just because it’s such an emotionally fraught and sort of electrifying period. At least for me, in my life. Everything had a sort of cinematic scale and seemed big. Certainly one of the jokes at the heart of this movie is that as a teenager everything seems so enormous, and then occasionally you step outside yourself and it all looks kind of silly, how small it is. So that’s something that I’m constantly coming back to. And I find teenagers to be incredibly relatable. In a way, more so than your, say, average ‘28-year-old/500 Days of Summer/looking for love’ type guy. You know? Because being in high school is just universal. So, it’s something I go back to as a writing source a lot. At the same time, I wanted to write something that I could make very simply, on a very small scale, because I was desperate to make another movie and to get working again and to get my flow back again, as it were. I wanted to write something where, literally, if I had to go to my backyard to shoot with a hand held camera, I could do it. And that’s why the idea to write something in that Before Sunrise vein of “two people talking”kind of movie originated. It grew out of that opening scene and the back and forth of what would it be like to follow two kids from the moment they meet to the moment they decide they’re going to maybe try to go out.
Paste: You hit that. That was one of the touch points that I sort of picked up on as well when I was watching it. Kind of a teen Before Sunrise.
Kasdan: Yeah, absolutely.
Paste: Going back to your point about high school being relatable. How much of your own experience and feelings did you pour into that main character? Because there were certainly moments that I felt like ‘Oh man, I was that guy!’ You know?
Kasdan: Yeah. Well, that’s great! And that’s the thing, I mean that’s always the line you’re walking when you write these incredibly personal movies is you hope
There’s certainly an attitude you can take by going more personal. You’re more likely to hit upon something universal. And that’s sort of a philosophy that I think my dad ingrained in me, frankly. But this is, for me, as personal as it could be and no, it’s not literally about a relationship that I experienced, but it’s about all the relationships I’ve experience. You know? And not just in high school either! It’s about adult relationships that have been tricky or have been confusing. And it’s about the struggle for intimacy. And it’s funny, even just talking to you now, if there’s a through line through everything that I’ve written, it’s about some sort of trying to make a connection when that’s not something that necessarily comes easily to you.
Paste: That makes all the sense in the word. Do you know Josh Radnor? Your work has parallels.
Kasdan: Yeah, I do. And he’s someone that I hugely admire and I constantly like when people have referenced him and me in a similar vein. Just because I’m such an admirer of his and he’s got such a great, unique voice. He’s someone I had auditioned years ago, and we’ve been friendly ever since. When we were in Sundance we ran into each other and, for me, it was the best moment of the whole Sundance experience, the five minutes I spent with Josh. Because it felt like two gun fighters, you know, like meeting on the line. ‘How’s it goin’?’ Like, we’re both going through exactly the same thing. But yes. He’s great.
Paste: He’s got a great line in Liberal Arts where Richard Jenkins says ‘Ever since I was nineteen, I haven’t felt not nineteen. Nobody feels like a grownup; it’s the worlds dirty little secret.’ You know?
Kasdan: Yes. I think that’s great! And I mean, that is, I certainly feel that.
Paste: When you were in high school, did some of the films in this vein mean a lot to you in high school? Obviously the film has a great little nod to John Cusack.
Kasdan: Yeah, absolutely. You know, for me, there’s the ones that are sort of obvious, like, Breakfast Club and Say Anything, both of which you can clearly see in this movie. But then there are other movies that were hugely influential on me that are maybe not quite as obvious. There are some very strong homages to Pump Up The Volume, which was a huge movie for me for me when I was growing up. There’s a little seen movie called Angus about an overweight kid in high school, which was a huge deal to me too. That hit me right at the right moment. I have a very wide frame of reference for high school movies, so there’s stuff that I’ve sort of stolen and referenced from virtually all the high school movies I’ve ever seen.
Paste: And tell me about casting. I mean, Britt Roberston has now gone on to tear up the town. I think she’s got leads in like three more movies coming out now.
Kasdan: She seems to be killing it, and Dylan is too. He’s got a big part Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn movie The Internship that’s coming out next summer. They both seem to be doing great, which I’m always hugely relieved to hear because I don’t expect them to get anything off of the movie that I’ve made. Both of them have, I think, virtually unlimited potential. It’s great to see people recognizing that and it’s entirely, I think, off the strength of them as actors. They’re both just phenomenally talented kids.
Paste: Did you know early on in the casting process that that’s who you wanted to use?
Kasdan: I find it much harder to cast young guys than I do to cast young women. Partly just because the supply of that John Cusack type of guy is low. There’s not a lot of them out there. So I was inherently more nervous about finding him than I was about her. And it turned out to be right ,because there were a lot of really exciting actresses, a lot of whom have great careers now and have gone on from that audition to be in great stuff. They could have potentially done it. And there were very few guys that I felt could even have found the jokes. So I was really relieved to find Dylan. We read him with a lot of different actresses, and Brit and he just instantly had a connection and a chemistry that was very clear. It wasn’t hard to identify at all. So they sort of got each other this version of the movie. Which is exciting and it makes the thing feel right, you know?
Paste: Tell me about your approach to directing. Do you do rehearsal/no rehearsal? Lots of takes/only a few takes?
Kasdan: With this I was really determined to do some rehearsal, just because so much of the movie is talking and there’s so many big speeches in the movie. It really has elements of it that are like a play, in that respect. And I wanted them to really be super comfortable and to show up on the set feeling strong. Also, because we just had such limited time to do it, we needed to be as prepared as we possibly could be. So we did about two weeks in the room of reading over the script, and then I would sort of rewrite the script in the hope of better serving their unique voices. And then, when we got on set, the three of us were a very strong unit and they were deeply connected and they were able to do their work. Then there’s the other part of it, where you’re working the technical side of the movie. And you’re trying to keep the movie visually interesting and compelling and also trying to get the work done. I hope that as I make more movies, I can get more and more comfortable with the performance aspect of it, early on. And devote more of your limited time and energy to the visual realities of the movie. And the filmmakers I admire-you know, as much as I admire guys like Cameron Crowe and Woody Allen, I equally admire guys like the Coen brothers and David Fincher who tell stories visually. You know?
Paste: Well, to be fair, the Coen brothers do have Roger Deakins doing their cinematography.
Kasdan: They do! They do!
Paste: So I don’t know how much of it is their skill.
Kasdan: Yeah. They do. I mean the same could be said for Marty Scorsese these days.
Kasdan: I mean they get the best people in the world.
Kasdan: But I was recently looking at A Serious Man and you can just so many of the visual ideas in that movie are just written into the way it’s designed. I so admire that. I feel like, I tend to write very dialogue-heavy ‘two people talking in a room’ scenes and the stuff that’s really visceral and emotional to me is really stuff more like that.
Paste: I’m so with you. And it’s so intimidating to me as a filmmaker. Because I feel completely unequipped to deal with those issues.
Kasdan: Absolutely. What’s funny is I think the answer, for me at least, actually lies in the writing. If you can conceive of this stuff more in terms of visuals and rely less heavily on speeches and talking, then it serves the movie, ultimately. I mean, thats at least where my head’s at, right now.
Paste: Yeah. Yeah.
Kasdan: They’re calling me away so ask me something else quickly. We’ll fight them to the end!
Paste: I’m curious growing up in a household with your dad, do they drive you to it? Do they drive you away from it? Do you become this in spite of them?
Kasdan: I think they drive you to it. Just because, the world of it is very appealing. I mean, I grew up in a house where storytelling, really storytelling, was given real prominence. And I was someone who, from a very, very young age, I mean, like a baby, responded strongly to stories. And as I grew older, because of the environment I was in, movies just always seemed like the greatest way to tell stories, yet devised. So there was never really any ‘Well, do I want to do this?’ I always knew I wanted to tell stories, and movies seemed like the great version of that. My brother has found that he has just as much of an aptitude and a passion for television as he does for movies, and I admire that. I think it’s just a different permutation of the same thing. For us growing up, as big thing as anything is to grow up in a house where it seems like an acceptable way to make a living. You’re going to go off and write incredibly personal stories about your life. Turn them into movies. It’s not every house where that’s just something that’s like, ‘Yeah! That’s what my dad does.’
Paste: Kevin Smith has a great line in Kingdom Come where he says ‘Most people, if you just want to sing, you can sing, nothing’s stopping you. But filmmakers are like, I need to express myself and I need two hundred people and twenty million dollars to do it.’
Kasdan: Yeah! That’s right. It’s very hard. And it’s true of actors too. You can’t really act alone in your room. You need to get the job. But writing isn’t like that. Writing you can just do. You know? And I think that’s where all this stuff, at least for me, starts.
Paste: Last question. Tell me how awesome it is to be on the set of Californication? One of my favorite shows. Is it just hilarious all the time, to be on that set?
Kasdan: It’s great. You know, honestly, I-and I would tell you if it weren’t, it is almost as good as you’re imagining. It’s as good a job as I’ve ever had. You know? It certainly is as much fun as I can have. The guy that created it, Tom Kapinos, is someone that I knew from way back. He had sort of asked me in and said, ‘Will you play like, basically a version of yourself, just sleazier?’ And I thought it would be a one day thing, and we’ve ended up doing like five or six of them and I couldn’t enjoy it more. When I got there it was like the most warm, friendly, sort of inviting environment possible, combined with all these gorgeous gorgeous naked girls. So I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, I mean I think that’s as good as it gets, maybe. You know?
Paste: Sounds tough to beat, yeah. Thanks for talking to us!
Kasdan: Okay, thanks!