By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Report: Director Marc Turtletaub on Puzzle

Puzzle, a beguiling contemporary love story adapted by Oren Moverman and Polly Mann from Natalia Smirnoff’s 2009 Argentinian film Rompecabezas, heralds producer Marc Turtletaub’s arrival as a director. Upon leaving a long career in the financial industry he transitioned to film in 2004, and after only four features, enjoyed his big breakthrough in 2006 as one of the producers behind Little Miss Sunshine. After that he was on a roll, producing such acclaimed pictures as Chop Shop (2007), Away We Go (2009), Jack Goes Boating (2010), Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), and Loving (2016).

His movies tend to be about relationships rather than genre, and Puzzle especially reflects that sensibility, although it nods to the genre of the Forties and Fifties that was known as the women’s picture. Kelly Macdonald plays Agnes, a suburban housewife who has spent her life devoted to taking care of men–her father, husband, and two sons—seemingly without question. When by chance she discovers she has an uncanny knack for assembling complex jigsaw puzzles in record time, she ventures into Manhattan to buy more, and stumbles upon an ad from a wealthy businessman named Robert (Irrfan Khan) who is looking for a partner with whom to compete in an upcoming jigsaw championship. What follows is a journey of discovery, where Agnes winds up surprising everyone: Robert, her family, herself, and us.

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Andrea Gronvall: Could we talk about the tone of Puzzle? The opening sequence feels old-fashioned, in that we see this housewife, Agnes, toiling alone in this big old house. There are no digital distractions, no TV in the background, like in the 1950s. Then we learn she’s doing all this scrubbing, decorating, and baking for her family and guests, yes, but it’s her own birthday party. The setup is not only funny, which it is supposed to be, but it also stings, you know? And that establishes the tone for the rest of the film, because you blend these different emotions—love, devotion, levity, pain—into a current that builds momentum as it flows outward. How do you decide, going in, what the tone of a film is going to be, and how do you maintain it?

Marc Turtletaub: That is a question I haven’t heard before, and I think about it a lot—not necessarily when I’m shooting, but beforehand. You think about how grounded you want a story to be, but then you also think about sections of a movie. The opening of the movie does feel like it’s going to be about the 1950s, and that was intentional. We shot it in silhouette; we shot it with Agnes wearing a dress that could have been from a different generation—it almost blends into the wallpaper, right?—but subliminally. And although this is 2018, the house itself feels like it’s frozen in time; it was the house she was raised in.

As far as overall tone is concerned, I’m drawn to nuanced characters, characters that aren’t stereotypical, but distinct. When I have real characters, who are behaving in a real way, it helps to define what the tone of a movie will be. And sometimes you find it in the editing. You have a certain intention going in, then you’ll realize, okay, I’ve shot this scene three ways, and I want to be consistent with the tone of the movie, so I’ll pick this take over that one. It’s a question that’s hard to answer, but you often are developing the tone as you go.

AG: What was your average number of takes, and did you rehearse with your actors beforehand? You shot Puzzle in, what, six weeks? 

MT: We shot it in 30 days. And I would typically do three to five takes, and not rehearse, because I wanted the actors to bring in what they were going to without my mediation. I had amazing actors, and because I’ve become wiser as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to let great actors do what they can do.

AG: Kelly Macdonald is terrific. 

MT: She’s marvelous, isn’t she?

AG: She was the best thing about Goodbye Christopher Robin.  And then there’s Boardwalk Empire and No Country for Old Men.

MT: She’s wonderful in everything she touches. She’s a chameleon, so I love her as an actress. And she’s in every scene in this movie.

AG: She carries Puzzle, without a doubt, but I’m not going to slight Irrfan Khan. 

MT: No, Irrfan is one of our great actors. Because I hadn’t rehearsed, I didn’t know what his performance would be like until we were rolling. And it was so unexpected, and that’s what I always want in a movie, a story where I don’t know which way it’s going to turn, and performances that are not what I expect. And that’s what I got from him, in spades.

AG: You must have seen The Lunchbox, right? Was that a factor in your casting him?

MT: Yeah, a big one. I loved it.

AG: Khan has such range. Whatever he’s in, he elevates the material. But maybe because I haven’t seen a lot of his Bollywood films, I never thought of him as a romantic lead until The Lunchbox. In Puzzle he’s almost rakish, but just as appealing. 

MT: He is a handsome guy. It’s not typical casting for him, and I think that’s why he wanted to do it, and came all the way from India to shoot it, because it’s not where you expect to see him.

AG: Is Agnes attracted to his character Robert because he’s so worldly, and she’s been so sheltered? Is it a case of opposites attract? 

MT: That’s a good question. The viewers will have to answer it for themselves, but I know that many of the women who have seen the movie said what a handsome man he is. And my editor—it’s really funny—I wanted a female editor [Catherine Haight] because this is principally a story about a woman, and as a man making a film about a woman I wanted to have one in the editing room. And she said “I’m going to make sure that we’re telling telling Agnes’s story.” While you’re shooting, the editor creates an assembly cut. It’s basically putting together the whole movie, as it was written, without much interpretation, no changing of the story. When I went in to see the cut, it was so heavily about Irrfan that I said, “Wait a second—you told me you wanted the female perspective here, but it’s Irrfan 365 days a year. What are you doing?” And she said, “He’s so good!” So, I teased her about that a lot, but he is great.

I think David Denman is also a surprise to people, because we remember him for his comedic role in The Office, but here his character Louie could be stereotypically unlikable. And I think that he played Agnes’s husband in such a way that he’s not a stereotype:  he’s likable, and yet, at the same time, not likable. There’s a complexity to the role that I thought was really wonderful.

AG: Well, his character’s not likable because he’s kind of obtuse. It’s not convenient for him to think about what his wife really might or might not want. But Denman’s got that big bruiser body type, and at one point the viewer fears he might hurt someone. I love how this movie upended my assumptions of where it was going.

MT: It’s the rare time that a screenplay that came to me is one where 90% of what you see on the screen is on the page, and so I was really fortunate to have that.

AG: You’ve had an impressive career producing movies, some of them very successful, quite a few of them critics’ favorites as well. With Puzzle you’re both producer and director, so you have to wear both hats. Did you often find that your work habits as a producer were compatible with your instincts as a director, or did you, upon occasion find… 

MT: It’s a little schizophrenic, huh? Well, I think as a director you have to focus principally on directing. So, yes, but I had my producing partner and two other producers on the set every day, so I was surrounded by great producers. Because I’d been on the other side of the table, I got the practical aspects if they said, “No, we can’t afford that,” or “We don’t have time for that,” and the need to figure out how to make that work. And because I’ve had enough experience, I know how to accept “no” sometimes. Many directors don’t want to hear “no”—and yet that’s reality.

AG: You started out in the film business at a later age, without have grown up in it. So you really didn’t have any movie business mentors. Do you mentor people now? 

MT: I do. We started a company, my producing partner Peter [Saraf] and I—I think it’s almost 14 years now—and we were struggling at first to make one film a year. And this year we’re going to make four films, and three TV shows; we’re shooting in Tunisia, China, and Norway; and we’re making a story about Mr. Rogers starring Tom Hanks. I just pinch myself and go, you’re so fortunate. What really gives me great joy, though, is that we have people working on those movies that have been in our company and started as assistants or interns, who have been with us nine, ten, twelve years—and to see them grow into producing their first film, from getting it set up at a studio, is rewarding.

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin