Actor, director, producer, screenwriter and father-to-be, Michael Knowles has his hands full—and blissfully so. With a laid-back demeanor, a healthy sense of humor and the occasional cigar, he wrote and directed the film adaptation of Douglas Light’s award-winning novel East Fifth Bliss. He navigates an artistic world that is truly indie, making films that he loves based on stories that he loves, and always—he insists—following his instincts.
Paste got to spend some time in that world when we talked about his third feature film, The Trouble With Bliss (starring Michael C. Hall, Brie Larson, and Lucy Liu), in theaters now.
Paste: Well, first off, congratulations are in order. I heard that you have a baby boy on the way.
Michael Knowles: Yes! Thank you—wow, word travels fast.
Paste: Well, you know … Facebook.
Knowles: Ahh—yeah. It’s a good thing and an evil thing at the same time, that Facebook (laughs).
Paste: I know you’re busy so I won’t keep you long. Can you talk about your relationship with the novel, East Fifth Bliss—how you came upon it and how it inspired you to make the film?
Knowles: I happen to go to the same cigar lounge as Douglas Light, the novelist—in the East Village at a place called the Velvet Cigar lounge on East 7th street. And him and I knew each other in passing and were friendly. I knew that his novel had come out long before I read it, and I had already made a couple of movies at that point, so I offered to exchange a copy of my first film, Room 314 for a copy of his novel—artist swapping, ya know (laughs)?
So I read it, and I just loved it. I found myself laughing. I just felt like [Morris] was so full and rich and interesting and different; it was very unique. And I felt like I was in this world—in Morris’s world—the whole time I was reading the novel. I wasn’t reading a script or reading a novel that some writer had some axe to grind on his teeth. He was telling me a fun story, and at the end of it all I felt like, “Wow I actually feel like I learned something,” or I got some kind of message here. And I enjoyed it.
As a writer, I just felt like Doug was great, so I approached him and said, “Hey, what’s the deal with the screenplay rights?” He owned them. And I said, “Well, you wanna write a screenplay with me?” (laughs)
Paste: (laughs) Nice!
Knowles: It was that simple—it really was. We met at the cigar lounge and would write three or four times a week—we would get together, smoke cigars and laugh.
Paste: That sounds like a blast. And I was going to ask about your relationship with him, but then I saw some back and forth between the two of you on Facebook. It was almost brotherly.
Knowles: (laughs) Oh yeah!
Paste: Was it like that working on the script with him?
Knowles: Yeah, we got along really well. We have a similar sense of humor, and we both respect each other’s talent and work. That makes it really enjoyable because we were both contributing to it. It wasn’t like one of us was carrying all the weight—it was really equal.
Paste: I think of the film as a sort of tribute to New York City—especially with the music and all the foods and different restaurants that were in there. Is that what you guys were attempting to do?
Knowles: No, not necessarily. I wasn’t even thinking about a tribute to New York City. From my point of view, it was [about] how to tell the story, and it happened to take place in New York City—which was really cool because I love New York City. I really enjoyed living in the East Village, which is where I lived most of the time I was in New York. So it was kind of an extra bonus.
Now I know Doug told me—because he lived in the East Village as well—when he first set out to write the novel he was writing about the building that he lived in, the people—all the really crazy, fun people in the story. That grew into him focusing on Morris, and that grew into what the novel is today. But I don’t think he was even focused on the East Village as much as just the characters, the people—it’s very character-driven.
Paste: Yes, I thought, actually, that that was made the film. It just seemed so flawlessly cast.
Knowles: Thank you.
Paste: And I was curious about the [casting] process.
Knowles: This producer, John Will, got involved in the project and started shopping it around to other production companies so we could raise some money. In that process, what I usually do as a filmmaker is to write a short list of actors who [I] think would play each role. You want to make sure that their talents make sense and that they’re, in some ways, famous enough (laughs) to raise the money. The director has to make sure that he has talented people as well as well-known people.
Michael C. Hall was on that [short] list. For me, he was the top guy. I find his work and his characters to be very unique. He’s so good at what he’s doing and that’s the kind of actor I want to work with.
[Hall] and I have a mutual friend. I edited a documentary for this filmmaker, Carolyn Corbett. She had talked me up to him a bit. He actually was one of the executive producers on the documentary that she had made [The Edge of Things]. When we started wanting to get some actors, I got the script to him. He read it, he loved it, we had coffee and just said ‘Let’s do it.’
Paste: I thought that the supporting cast made the film the comedy that it was. Brie Larson (who played Stephanie) was fantastic. Was it the same process with them?
Knowles: Brie was on a short list as well… this is a funny, interesting part of the process. I didn’t really know Brie’s work, but when you start looking around at, like, who’s popular (laughs) and then you look at their work and it’s good? Brie was a good example of that. There are lots of young actors that I just don’t know—you can’t see everything, ya know? I watched five different actresses’ reels, and hers just spoke to me. I was like, “Wow this girl can act.” And she’s not just good, she can act. So we had a meeting. Her manager called the next day and said, “Brie read the script. She loves it. What does she have to do?” I just loved the fact that she was that proactive, and that’s kind of like what Stephanie (Larson’s character) was like. Stephanie knows what she wants, so it made sense to me.
We got together, her, me, and Michael Hall for what’s called a chemistry read to just make sure that there was chemistry between them. (It doesn’t matter if two actors are great—sometimes there’s just not chemistry.) This was one of those relationships where it was vital that the right kind of chemistry is there—so that it didn’t feel creepy.
It was there! Right away. There were a couple of little things that I had to give notes on, and once I did and I kind of shaped it, it was perfect. I think Michael and Brie would attest to the fact that they had a great time shooting it.
Paste: (laughs) I think it’s great that you point out that depending on how some of the scenes were portrayed, it could have turned out almost creepy.
Knowles: (laughs) Oh, yeah! Easily!
Paste: Did you have any real concerns about that? Or any reservations about this or any other aspect of the book?
Knowles: No, because I knew a couple of things. I have a good amount of confidence in my ability to shape things. I always feel like all I have to do is give a certain amount of direction or notes and, with the right actor, we can shape the relationships and the scenes—if we focused on the tender stuff, as opposed to the sexual stuff.
Knowles: That was rather easy. Of course, the sexual stuff is there. In the opening scene, they’re walking around—and she’s walking around—and it’s sexy and we know what they did, but you don’t have to focus on that. So we really focused on just having that strong connection with somebody and took the age thing out of it. But what I think makes that relationship funny is that every so often in the movie you’re reminded of how young she is and how different their ages are. And that’s what makes it humorous.
Paste: And then there are those moments, too, where she comes off as being older than he is.
Paste: You’ve said that as a director you try primarily to follow your instincts. Did you feel like the cast had a similar philosophy in their work?
Knowles: Absolutely. They’re all great actors. Michael Hall’s a great example of this—he’s very in his body, and that’s what I think makes a great actor. They know what they’re feeling and have impulses and trust themselves with it. Although, Michael is extremely intelligent and can analyze things—we had great conversations analyzing Morris and analyzing all these characters—he can then shift to, “Ok, now I’m in my body and I’m feeling what I’m feeling.”
Paste: I read an old article in the New York Times called, “A Rebuilding Phase for Independent Films.” It was about how changes in the economy have affected indie filmmaking. Do you find the industry very different today from what it was back in the ’90s? What adjustments have you made? Or is it the same? Is it still all about filmmaking?
Knowles: I’m sure that it was never all about filmmaking (laughs). I think that for 90% of the people making these things, it’s about something else. I have no idea what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.
Paste: Fair enough!
Knowles: From my point of view, I always work the same and I will continue to work the same, which is to keep the focus on the story, spend what needs to be spent and make a really good product, so that the movie looks good, sounds good, and everyone involved in the process can do their best work.
Paste: And what about upcoming projects? Is there anything going on at 7A Productions that we should know about?
Knowles: We have some scripts in development, but it’s really a matter of getting this film out there. I don’t like to be too busy, I don’t think it’s healthy to be too crazy busy. I like to focus on one project.
Paste: Well, I loved the film. It was really refreshing to watch something lighthearted and fun, and not with so many over-the-top philosophical quandaries—not that Bliss didn’t have some of those! But it was great.
Knowles: You know, that’s exactly what I loved about the book—it pondered some things but didn’t linger too long, and that’s ultimately what we tried to capture in the film.