Talking ‘The First Time’ with Jonathan Kasdan!

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Last week I had the pleasure of talking with writer/director Jonathan Kasdan, son of the legendary Lawrence Kasdan.  Jon’s latest film ‘The First Time’ is now playing in theaters, and it’s one of my favorites of the year so far…just see my review here if you need proof, so it was nice to get to talk turkey with him.  Kasdan is an incredibly nice guy and I would have chatted all day with him. We spoke over Skype and below you can find the transcription of our conversation, though it actually starts off mid-sentence as I wasn’t able to start recording and Jon was actually in the midst of thanking me for my review and embrace of the film, so I felt bad asking him to repeat. You’ll see the context and be able to understand though, I promise.

As mentioned above, the interview starts with him thanking me for my review. In short, apparently I made his day. I won’t try to recreate his words, so we’ll just pick up when I was able to start the recording, already in progress…

Jonathan Kasdan: …I was thrilled to see it and I’m very thankful.

Joey Magidson: My pleasure, and this is coming from someone who liked ‘In the Land of Women’ also.

JK: (Laughs) Well good, I’m glad. But this one, I’m thrilled you got to see it and certainly got what we were going after.

JM: Definitely, and we’ll get into that in a minute, but just to backtrack for a minute…what gave you the idea to make this movie?

JK: Well you know this movie came out of a couple of things. Partly it’s a sort of a period and subject in my life that I’m constantly going back to you. High School is just such a vivid time in my life and you know, 16 and 21 are the years in my life that I relate to most clearly and see most clearly as defining moments. So often in my writing I’ll go back to those things as a well of emotional energy, and the other thing is I’m drawn to High School movies a lot because I find lovelorn teenagers are slightly more sympathetic than lovelorn 30 year old guys that just can’t quite get it together. I think it’s sort of an inherently cinematic and sympathetic world and subject matter, so I’m always attracted to writing these kind of stories. I also wanted to write something that was very simple and straightforward to make, with the understanding that if I had to I would literally get a videocamera and shoot it in the backyard behind my folks’ house, just like something that I actually couldn’t be told no on, and that’s how this thing sort of evolved…just a play written for the movies, a play where you could use actors that were not known and not celebrities and just really work on working with actors and finding the characters. Those two things are just how this evolved…the desire to write an independent movie and the desire to write a High School movie.

JM: For me, it’s interesting to watch it. I’m 25, so I’m right in between…

JK: Yea!

JM: …and these used to be my ideal type of movies. In the last year or two, one I have a girlfriend now, so that helps…

JK: That sort of changes things, doesn’t it?

JM: Yep. And once or twice I’ve gone back and watched other movies for this age group and they just didn’t work for me. So I’m wondering if maybe I’m just dead inside now…

JK: No, no (laughs). Certainly I’ve had that experience too. Like, these things, depending on the moment you’re at in your life, you see them totally differently. I have experiences like that as disparate as ‘Reality Bites’ and ‘The Usual Suspects’ where you come back to them later and you’re just like “really, this is what I was so fanatical about?”.

JM: It was just weird. I sat down for this one being a fan of your last film, it starts, the first scene plays, and…I’m not feeling it…

JK: Oh boy…

JM: But then…

JK: And that’s sort of the intent. The shape of it is related to the shape of their relationship and the way they sort of meet and come together and fall in love. It has that kind of pull back, push forward dynamic to it.

JM: But then every subsequent scene gets better!

JK: That’s great and exactly what you hope, that you invest in these characters and by the end you’re rooting for them.

JM: That was sort of my long winded compliment I was building towards.

JK: It’s really appreciated.

JM: In terms of an actual question…the actors. This is the sort of thing where you couldn’t just randomly cast this. So, how did you come up with your actors?

JK: That’s the thing, when I wrote it I wanted to be free of the obligation to cast movie stars, you know? So much of my life has been spent watching my father and brother write these scripts which you’re really excited about, and then the next thing you know, Colin Farrell has passed on it and suddenly you’re “that” movie and can’t get anyone to be in it. So I wanted to write something that didn’t “need” anyone to be in it. That plays both ways, too. I got to make this movie with unknowns, but it’s a real challenge when you go to sell the movie and get people to see it, since that’s why we have movie stars…so the way we did it was to literally read every young working actor we could who was of teenage years like Dylan was or could pass for teenage years like Britt. For about a month we read everyone we could until we had about 4 pairings we had to work with and see which ones worked. So I kept reading different people and everyone who’s in the movie read for one of the two leads, but when I put Dylan and Britt together there was some kind of inherent chemistry between them that I was excited by and the producers were too, we could clearly see there was something great about them and at a certain point you just need to jump off and say “these are my kids”. Then we went off and sort of worked together in a room for a couple weeks and I tried to rewrite the script to the sound of their distinct voices while retaining what it was. That part of it was as satisfying and rewarding as anything that I’ve done, since they’re both just energetic and delightful. One of the great things about working with teenagers, particularly non movie star teenagers, is that they’re just enthusiastic to be acting and there’s no ego there. That’s the most fun kind of directing.

JM: And it definitely shows on the screen. For my part, I think for Britt, this is going to be a launch…

JK: I hope that’s true. No matter where they are in their career, I always feel this enormous responsibility to them and I want it to be a good thing for them. I felt it with Kristen with ‘In the Land of the Women’ and I feel it here with both of them. I just want them to look back and be proud of their work.

JM: I actually just saw Kristen this morning in ‘On the Road’…

JK: Oh, how is that?

JM: It was good.

JK: Yea? I heard it was a little difficult.

JM: If you didn’t like the book then you won’t like the movie…

JK: I do like the book but I’ve heard it sounds a little challenging.

JM: You feel the length a little, but it’s just the book there on screen, and she’s the standout to me.

JK: I love her and sort of felt for her during this personal thing she’s been going through, since it seems like a lot of burden to put on a 22 year old kid.

JM: Indeed, I don’t any of us would want our 22 year old selves out in the spotlight like that.

JK: Exactly, it’s not that crazy that she’d have an interest in more than one man during her life. Seems like she’s getting a lot of flak.

JM: Speaking of her, and going back to ‘In the Land of Women’, the supporting casts in your movies. You’re very good at filling your movies with character actors. For example, the father character, to be someone like Clark Gregg or Joshua Malina…

JK: That’s an Aaron Sorkin thing, both of them. I’m a huge fan of Sorkin’s work and with them I was like “I’m just gonna offer them this part”. With Clark I was desperate to work with him and with Josh I had seen everything he’d ever done with Aaron Sorkin and knew a lot of it by heart…

JM: Me too…

JK: (laughs)

JM: He’s always the moral center of Sorkin projects.

JK: Yea, he’s a little bit of a stretch that he’d be Britt’s dad, so it was great to get Christine Taylor in there as Britt’s mom to balance out the genetics a little bit. I couldn’t believe we could get her, she was living in New York and happened to be available and liked the script, so I ended up with these two parents that I hope are a little bit different than you usually see.

JM: Agreed, and that was true last time. How many people go back to the last movie and see Clark Gregg and then see him in ‘The Avengers’…

JK: Yea! You know, I see him in ‘The Avengers’ and he’s such a great element of a movie I love. He’s so good in these movies, you just look at him and you go “well he’s the perfect guy for that part”.

JM: Exactly. When he made his directorial debut on ‘Choke’ I remember thinking he was so familiar and then realizing that he’s in everything!

JK: Absolutely, and now you wind up seeing him in old stuff and he pops up in literally almost everything. I was just devastated when he died in ‘The Avengers’ since I was hoping he’d be back!

JM: There are rumors about him coming back…

JK: Yea, but that’d be silly. It worked for the story they’re telling, but it was a heartbreaking death.

JM: Indeed. From him on ‘The West Wing’, which I’m still behind on and only on Season 4 with…

JK: You know, those are a treat, but unfortunately the first 4 seasons are really the great years. He’s irresistible on that show.

JM: And then Malina on ‘Sports Night’…

JK: Oh yes, and you know ‘Sports Night’ ends with Clark Gregg, he’s in the final two episodes and is just great.

JM: Back on your current film, having someone like Craig Roberts…

JK: Yea, and you know Craig just happened to be in L.A. while we were auditioning. He came in and I asked him to do it in his accent, he’d come in to read for the lead, and he was so funny! That part was originally written for a sort of loudmouthed Jewish kid and I immediately thought to rewrite this and get Craig in the movie. He’s like Malina and Clark in that he’s just someone that you love to see and hope you get to work with.

JM: He’s slowly popping up in more. He was in ‘Red Lights’…

JK: He’s got a big future ahead of him…

JM: And ‘Submarine’ was great last year…

JK: Terrific. That’s as good a High School movie as there’s been in some time.

JM: Very different. I’m slightly partial to yours…

JK: Ah! Well, I’m glad to hear it and it’s cool company no matter what. They’re telling me I need to get off the phone…

JM: Now I wish I’d pressed record when you were first complimenting me!

JK: (laughs) Again, thank you so much. Thanks again. Listen, when I make another movie I’ll be eager to have you see it.

JM: It’d be a pleasure. Quickly, before they kick you off…what’s next?

JK: I’m rewriting a script for Universal, a sort of a ‘Superbad’ meets ‘The Bourne Identity’ kind of thing. It’s cool, it’s fun, true and pure entertainment. You never know if these things ever see the light of day, but it’s a cool project and it’s fun.

JM: I’ll be on the lookout for it. It’s been a pleasure and please keep in touch!

JK: Absolutely.

JM: Good luck with the movie.

JK: Thanks again Joey, I truly appreciate it!

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!