Director/writer Lee Toland Krieger knew the type of movie he was making when he sat down to write “The Vicious Kind,” a character-driven drama that follows Caleb Sinclaire (Adam Scott), a heartbroken and sardonic man who falls in love with his younger brother’s girlfriend when they come home from college for Thanksgiving break.
The movie would be small, inexpensive, and a hard sell in the Hollywood market. Krieger didn’t care. This was the type of film he wanted to make.
“Last year, audiences were clearly looking for an escape movie like ‘Avatar.’” Krieger told me during a phone interview. “We knew it was going to be an uphill battle.”
After debuting at the Sundance Film Festival last year, no major studio stepped up to buy the rights to the film. (It’s unfortunate since “The Vicious Kind” was No. 7 in CineSnob.net Top 10 movies of 2009). For the entire year it floated in cinematic limbo until the film earned two Independent Spirit Award nominations this year (Krieger for Best Screenplay; Scott for Best Actor). “The Vicious Kind” was also just released on DVD last week.
The 25th Annual Independent Spirit Awards airs on March 5 at 10 p.m. on IFC.
First, let me just tell you that I loved this movie. What inspired you to make this film?
For me it was a product of seeing a lot of these independent films in the last couple of years. Don’t get me wrong, I liked “Little Miss Sunshine,” but I wanted to see the type of independent films we were seeing in the early and mid-90’s like “Buffalo 66” and “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” These weren’t indies only because of their small budget; they had filmmakers who wanted to tell a story that wasn’t your by-the-numbers drama. I’m a big John Cassavetes fan like a lot of indie filmmaker. His films certainly carry that spirit. One of my favorite movies is “Faces” and clearly he wanted to create a piece where the actors could turn themselves lose. I wanted to make a movie in that spirit. Two more contemporary films that also caught me by surprise were Jonathan Glazer’s “Sexy Beast” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love.” I started with the Caleb character. It’s a character that – like him or not – I feel there were a lot of young actors out there that would like to sink their teeth into something like that.
The idea of an independent film has changed so much over the years. Twenty years ago, a filmmaker could get noticed with a good $10,000 film. Now you need $10 million. As an indie filmmaker, has the trend affected you?
Yeah, it’s starting to. In the last year, look at all the specialty division studios are shutting down. Now you’re either making a movie for a studio or maxing out your credit card and asking the doctor down the street for $100,000. You look at Neil LaBute’s first film “In the Company of Men;” that film was made for $25,000. I feel there were a lot more examples of that at Sundance in the mid 90’s than there are now.
If someone gave you $100 million would you know what to do with it? Would you make one huge movie or 100 indies?
(Laughs) I think I’m like every filmmaker that has a couple of big ideas that you might have to have a big budget for, but I would rather make a bunch of small movies than one big one. Beyond the practical reason of if you fuck a $100 million movie up you’d be sent to director’s jail for a long time, I’m draw to character-driven stuff. You look at the work that Paul Thomas Anderson is doing. I want to write something like that where you can get an actor like Daniel Day-Lewis to come out of pseudo-retirement to give a world class performance that will go down in history. That movie will have a longer shelf life than the $100 million studio film.
I see we share a love for Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. He’s my favorite director working today.
He’s arguably the best director alive. I’ll watch anything he does. I think he is one of the only filmmakers working who is incapable of making a bad movie. He might make a movie that doesn’t make money, but I don’t think he’ll ever make a movie that’s not interesting and well done. I don’t think you can even say that about Martin Scorsese. (Laughs) I know that blasphemy. It’s hard to deny how brilliant [Anderson’s] work is.
Recently, Adam Scott told New York Magazine that he’s never had an entire film rest on his shoulders like “The Vicious Kind.” Did you feel like all the pressure was on him?
I agree with him 100 percent. When you write a piece for a tour-de-force performance, it has to be all or nothing. We don’t have any big set pieces to distract the audience. The movie hangs on Adam’s work. If you read Caleb on the page, he could be this totally unlikable character. He had to find a balance between the dark and comedic elements of the character. I knew Adam had a great sense of humor and could do it. When we first sat down and talked Adam said, “I think this is really funny. Is it supposed to be funny?” I said, “Yes, thank God you get it!” Without that element that Adam brings to it, you’re sort of hopeless.
It must have been daunting to give the script to someone and they didn’t think it was funny. But not everything reads funny on the page like “The Squid and the Whale.”
That’s funny you mention that movie because I own that script. It’s one of my favorites. I didn’t read it before I saw the movie, so now I’m wondering if I had read it beforehand would I have thought it was funny as it is now. I think you just have to have a perverse, darker sensibility and humor to laugh at those sorts of things. My dad read [“The Vicious Kind”] script and said, “I think this is really fucking dark. I think this it’s really upsetting and I think you need to see someone.” He didn’t think any of it was the slightest bit funny. That was kind of disconcerting. There are some people that probably feel the same way as my dad, but we knew we weren’t making a movie for everybody.
Has he seen the movie since?
My mom and dad saw the movie at Sundance, yes. It’s hard to tell, but I think they are both bigger fans of the film than they were of the script. I think a lot of people that didn’t get it right away get it now. That’s really a testament to Adam understanding the balance. That charm and charisma he brings to his character is something I take no credit for. He made my job incredibly easy. He was Caleb from Day 1.
Tell me about shooting the supermarket scene. It seems like as a director you just need to step out of the way and let the actors do their work and hope they get it right because it would be hard to recreate that emotion over and over again.
Yeah, we didn’t have much rehearsal time, but we were able to go over some of the scenes that I thought where going to be the tougher ones and that was one of them. That was one scene where I felt it was really close to the way I wrote it and pictured it in my head. Adam and Brittney [Snow] had really settled into their characters and we had all really gotten into a groove. I think I was trying to stay out of the way and thinking, “How do we get him to that place.”
I know Adam called you up because he wanted the role. How did Brittney Snow get on board?
We were talking about Adam and a couple of other guys for the role like Paul Schneider and Jeremy Davies. I felt we wanted to switch it up with her. We like the notion of turning the role on its side and doing something people wouldn’t expect. A name we were really talking about was someone like Olivia Thirlby because she was and is such an indie darling. We didn’t really want to do something that was obvious. To me, Brittney was one of these pretty actresses that is really underrated. I met with her and we got along really well. Fortunately, she like the material and I think was looking for something to shed those studio roles she had been known for. She wanted something to challenge her.
What about J.K. Simmons?
He’s been able to work in such a wide range of movies. One of our producers was scared of J.K. because he only knew him as the guy from “Lost.” Then other people just wanted to give him a hug because they knew him from “Juno” or “Spider-Man.” Then the TV junkies love him in “The Closer.” He’s got TV, he’s got studio movies, he’s an indie darling. His simple take on it was that he only does what he likes. It seems so simple, but it’s obviously worked for him. Fortunately for us, he liked “The Vicious Kind” and wanted to come out and work for little money and spend a week in the freezing cold.
This is only your second film, but you are already getting some comparisons other directors (Neil LaBute, David Gordon Green). Is that OK with you or would you rather stand on your own this early in your career?
(Laughs) I guess it depends on what directors you’re comparing me to. I don’t really put too much stock in that stuff. I know what kind of movies I want to make. Someone like David Gordon Green – “George Washington,” “All the Real Girls,” “Undertow” – had a really big influence on me. Whenever I read something that says I’m like David Gordon Green meets Neil LaBute I can’t help but feel a bit flattered. Ultimately, I hope I can make more movies and that they will stand alone. I hope I can be a voice that is original.
You bring up David Gordon Green, who did some great indies, but then he went on to make a bigger film with “Pineapple Express,” which is good in its own way. Do you think there could be a natural progression for you into studio films like this or would you consider that selling out?
I think about this all the time. If you were to have asked me that question six years ago when I was in film school and my folks were paying all of my bills I would have said, “I’m going to do indies all of my life.” Look at Todd Solondz’s work. He truly doesn’t care about making other types of movies except the ones he wants to make. Give him $2 million and he’s probably just going to make the money back. I think I would like to find some middle ground. I love David Gordon Green. I liked “Pineapple Express.” I don’t know if that’s a movie – even if I’m given the opportunity – I would jump to make. Sure, making money is great, but if you’re not proud of your work, no one really cares. As a filmmaker you have to spend a bare minimum of two years with a film. For me, if it’s not burning inside me and consuming my every thought, it’s not going to work. I like money, but not that much. But I don’t have a mortgage or a family to worry about yet, so we’ll see what happens in a few years.