Jake Hoffman’s directorial debut Asthma is charming, hilarious, heartbreaking and like the lingering cough its main character can’t get over, it stays with you for a while. The film isn’t painful per se, but it definitely holds a mirror to paths we’ve all been down: addiction, love and the challenge of accepting responsibility for your actions. It’s the beautiful and agonizing nature of growing up … in your twenties or thirties.
We’ve been following Hoffman’s career for a while. His name has come up at festivals like SXSW, on shows like Luck and in the films The Wolf of Wall Street and Enter the Dangerous Mind. He’s both an actor and a director. Oh, and he’s Dustin Hoffman’s son. Upon meeting him after the Asthma premiere at the Roxy Hotel in New York, an essence of his dad circa The Graduate was apparent. Jake is humble, wide-eyed at his own after-party and yet his intelligence and passion is palpable. It was our interaction at the event that convinced us—we’ve got to interview this kid.
Hoffman, though, is far from a kid. He graduated from NYU Film School in 2003 and has since directed a number of shorts and acted in many films. Asthma draws upon his real-life experiences to create a relatable narrative about a twentysomething lost boy, Gus (Benedict Samuel). An addict, an artist and a hopeless romantic, Gus meets a girl at a concert, Ruby (Krysten Ritter). Months later, they reconnect and Gus offers her a ride to her friend’s house outside the city … in a stolen car. Over the course of the road trip, with Gus’ asthma—as well as his infatuation with (or love for?) Ruby— worsening, the struggles of both lost souls surface. Their great chemistry leads the audience on a journey of bittersweet introspection.
Paste spoke with Hoffman a week or so after the premiere, leaving time for the film to marinate properly. It was one of Hoffman’s first interviews—it is his first feature after all—and he checked in to see if he was boring us or talking too much. He most definitely was not. Actually, his unassuming energy was refreshing. We discussed his amazing cast—working with Ritter, Samuel and (surprise) Iggy Pop as well as the duality that exists in the film. Hoffman had to balance the delicate addiction story with the energies of his two main characters, and the areas where youth, freedom and consequence collide.
Paste: You said in an interview once, “It’s important to do what scares you sometimes, and not what’s always easy.” Did making this movie scare you at all?
Jake Hoffman: There’s two ways to answer that. When you write and direct a film, that’s not an easy thing to get to do and you have to work really hard to get to do it. Then, there’s this surreal moment that I’m at now. You fight so hard to get your stuff seen and now IFC is putting it out and this is what you pray for and then there’s this moment like, Whoa, people are going to see this now. As far as doing what scares you, to try to grow, that in itself applies here. I’ve never done this before! As far as the subject matter goes, it deals with the very sensitive issue of addiction and substance abuse. Finding the right balance was a big part of the risk on this one. I look back at a time when I was more naïve to consequences and was hanging out with a reckless crew and didn’t think of certain behaviors as reckless because I didn’t know better. Now, thank god that those consequences didn’t catch up with a lot of my friends. It’s not just a cautionary tale because there’s something beautiful about that time of your life where you have this innocence and you’re not afraid of consequence. That balance is the goal of the film and the risk of the film.
Paste: That duality exists in the character of Gus himself. But what was the seed of this film—was it his character? How did it unfold as a script?
Hoffman: The writing process on this was unlike any other. This is the first one that’s coming out but I’ve been working on writing scripts for 10+ years. The process of writing was always a little slower and more thought-out. With this one, I tried to not over think it so much. It sort of poured out of me. I ended up writing the first draft in two weeks.
Jake Hoffman on set with Benedict Samuel
Paste: Benedict sent his audition in on tape from Australia. There is this taped audition epidemic right now! I’m sure you’ve also dealt with it as an actor. From a director’s standpoint, is there a big difference casting someone on tape or in person?
Hoffman: As an actor you understand how the process of auditioning is really a flawed process. When you don’t have an opportunity to be in a room … if you were given direction you might have been able to take it. As a director I think the answer is clearer and you have to do the best you can to find the guy or girl that’s right for the role. Benedict had really just done theater in Australia and a TV show. I was just floored by how good he was. I didn’t intend to cast an unknown actor in the lead role. When I saw him in it, my producers and I all agreed: He was our guy. I knew he was going to be great because the talent was clear from the tape but I didn’t know if he would be nervous or slower on set, but I thought, If he can be that good I’m going to take the chance on him. We got lucky because he was always great right away and is also the kind of actor that made other actors better.
Paste: Tell me about the dynamic between Ruby and Gus. Krysten plays a lot of roles like this—very quick-witted.
Hoffman: I also see a lot of heart and soul in Krysten’s work. I knew that she was a great actor and I knew she’d be great for the role. As far as her relationship with Gus goes, because of a lot of his substance issues and in order to be true to that, he was going to have to be operating on a slower pace. To balance that out, I always imagined Ruby would be well served with someone who is comfortable with a fast pace. Krysten certainly can rock that rhythm.
Paste: An actor draws on themselves while crafting a role. Do you, as a director, draw on your actors?
Hoffman: You have to be able to draw from yourself, because one of the main jobs of a director—I’m paraphrasing a Coen brothers quote—a director’s job is to maintain the reality. What is reality? It’s a very relative term. We all see reality differently. You draw from yourself to make sure it rings true. At the same time, especially with Krysten, I loved working with her. She would be doing me a disservice if I said, “Let’s do it this way” and she’s like, “Yeah.” She’d take a suggestion and she’d say, “Jake, a woman wouldn’t really do that!” “Yeah, I take your point!” It’s a balance of the both of those things. I’m saying “balance” a lot.
Paste: Well, duality is throughout the entire film. It makes sense to me.
Hoffman: It makes me glad to hear you say that because that’s what I was really striving for.
Paste: It didn’t surprise me that Gus came from wealthy parents. Where does his rebellion stem from? Is it the pressure to be as financially successful as his parents or knowing that there’s a safety net?
Hoffman: I think that something important to remember with addiction … it doesn’t discriminate based on economics. No matter what your financial situation is you can struggle with addiction. The idea that addiction doesn’t discriminate was something that was really important to me. Why is Gus upset? I’ve put a lot of thought into it but it’s something I don’t want to connect the dots on. One of things that’s magical about movies in general is that each audience member gets to fill in the blank.
Paste: I really enjoyed the second half of the film when Ruby and Gus visit Logan’s house. I feel like you just cast all your friends. How did you get the group together?
Hoffman: It’s hard to say because it ranged from sending actors’ agents an offer versus texting a friend, Will you come be in my movie? It ranges based on the relationship. My brother makes a cameo in the movie, too. His name is Max in the movie [and in real life] and he’s playing that guitar and singing the song at Logan’s house.
Paste: That’s hilarious! It also took me a while to decipher who Nick Nolte is in the film—but when I did, it’s great. He’s sort of Gus’ inner demon. Can you elaborate on this choice? It’s the one surreal character in the film.
Hoffman: I will say it was pretty incredible when Nick said yes. When you’re directing any film, especially when it’s your first film, there’s this mixture between wanting to be as ambitious as you can be in reaching out to your dream cast versus Come on, that’s never going to happen. That was one of those where This is never going to happen. When he said yes and responded to it, that was just so cool. I’d met him before but we sent it to his agent and I wrote him a letter. It wasn’t like calling Uncle Nick.
Paste: Iggy Pop also has a cameo. How did you get him on board?
Hoffman: I can almost say the same answer! I had visual references of how I wanted things—my reference was a picture of Iggy Pop. I put it up on the wall, not even wanting to offer him the role! I had the idea to just go for it and I was excited when he just emailed me back that he’d read the script. That day was the coolest day. Everyone was very professional and kept their cool. We all had extra butterflies on set that day. We were all excited to be in the presence of Mr. Pop.
Paste: What’s your biggest advice to other people making their first film?
Hoffman: Patience and perseverance. It’s not going to happen easily. This is something I’ve been dreaming to do and working towards for over a decade. I wrote this film four or five years ago and I told someone it was that long since I wrote it. They were like, “Whoa, you did it fast.” I don’t know if I’m in any position to give advice to anyone—I’m still figuring it out myself!
Asthma is out in limited release through IFC Films and on iTunes and On Demand.
Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.