About the Production
Andrew Stern's screenplay elicited immediate enthusiasm from the Disconnect producers. Much like the interwoven yet parallel lives of the characters in the movie, the script made its way to both producers Mickey Liddell and Jennifer Monroe of LD Entertainment as well as producer William Horberg of Wonderful Films.
Not only did the script present a collection of richly drawn characters in dramatic situations that were both riveting and relatable, there was something else about Stern's story that touched the producers and stirred their imagination: its keen relevance to the times we live in. As it turns out, the movie sprang from Stern's literal observation of the world around him. The screenplay reflects how technology both unites and divides us.
"I wrote the screenplay when I noticed that at the dinner table people had their phones out and were emailing and texting -- that people were present and strangely not present with one another," Stern says. "I decided I wanted to write a multi-story film about how technology is connecting us in one way, but also disconnecting us at the same time. Overall, it is about the need for people to connect to one another, regardless of whether or not they do it on a computer, a cable, a smart phone or simply with the person facing them, it's the innate need we all have in common. But because of the way we've all accepted living online, texting, tweeting, emailing and so forth, somehow face-to-face personal communication and real human interaction has become less and less important. The film deals with this."
"Jennifer and I happened to read the script and we both instantly fell in love with it," Liddell says. "We asked around and found out that the script was with Bill Horberg. And so we went over -- we literally just burst into Bill's office, introduced ourselves and said, 'We love Andrew Stern's screenplay and we would love to produce it with you.'"
"I'm always reading new scripts, eager and excited to find something good," Horberg says. "Andrew Stern's screenplay Disconnectcame to me on a weeknight with no real fanfare. At ten o'clock in the evening I decided to crack it open and to my astonishment found that I was still reading it at midnight, turning the pages in a desperate attempt to see what happens next. I couldn't put it down."
"It is such a real, contemporary story that speaks to so many issues that are occurring in today's society in terms of human interaction, communication, lone, vulnerability, hope,community and healing.Best of all, it told this ripping good tale! Three of them!" Horberg says.
As with Horberg, the project's myriad storylines and characters and its contemporary and universal themes also resonated with Liddell in a big and genuine way.
Liddell says, "We loved the script and responded to it emotionally. We were excited because we felt it was so timely: it spoke deeply to the era in which we live in. We told Bill this is exactly the kind of movie we wanted to make, the kind of material we are always looking to find. The story concerned situations we all recognize, the way people sometimes try to connect but wind up distancing themselves from one another."
With their partnership and the financing cemented, Liddell and Horberg confronted the next crucial step in bringing Stern's story to the screen: finding a director.
While dozens of directors expressed interest in the project, there was something about Henry-Alex Rubin's passion for the movie that spoke to Liddell and Horberg. Not to mention, both men were already fans of Rubin's freshman offering, Murderball.
Murderball was a stunning documentary, nominated for a 2005 Academy Award for Best Documentary: it is the story of paraplegics who play full-contact rugby in Mad Max-style wheelchairs overcoming unimaginable obstacles to compete in the Paralympics in Athens, Greece. The film has a power and force to it, but it's also extraordinarily moving with unforgettable and completely relatable characters -- not unlike the intertwining stories and characters in Disconnect.
"He was the first director who walked in and said, referring to the script, 'I grew up with this. This is all true.' He had a profound understanding of these characters, their emotions and the path of their circumstances," Liddell says.
Disconnect is Rubin's first non-documentary feature length film and it was the characters and their stories that motivated and inspired him.
"I love documentaries. I love making them but I always toyed with the idea of making a fictional feature," Rubin says. "When I read Disconnect,I was moved by each of the intertwining stories. Primarily I find myself drawn to people's emotions, and I was really drawn to these people and their situations."
With a director on board and financing in place, the next urgent task at hand was casting -- assembling an ensemble of players to bring the stories in Disconnect to life.
Concentrating first on the story of Derek and Cindy Hull, the couple whose marriage has deteriorated after the death of their child, the filmmakers approached Alexander Skarsgard for the role of Derek, a former marine, and Paula Patton to play his frustrated and unhappy spouse, Cindy. Skarsgard was the first actor to commit to the project.
Although Skarsgard is well known for his role on HBO's True Blood, it was his breakthrough portrayal of Sergeant Brad "Iceman" Colbert in HBO's miniseries, Generation Kill, won him critical acclaim and the attention of American audiences.
Says Horberg, "It's perfect casting for Alex to play an ex-marine, a man of few words whose stoicism and quiet determination hide a deep valley of emotion.
"I've known Paula for a couple of years and have always wanted to work with her. She has fantastic range. We felt Paula and Alex would work really well as a couple in a story that is both subtle and intense."
Skarsgard was particularly interested in Derek's painful relationship with his wife.
"I read the script on the plane back to the US from London and Stockholm and fell in love with it. I was intrigued by the character of Derek, interested in his relationship with Cindy. She and Derek are married but their marriage is falling apart. I like movies about relationships and relationships that aren't working. This is something I'm interested in exploring. Derek is not very happy. Life is not what it used to be or what it was when he was in the service. Now, he works at an office, he hates his boss, and he and Cindy have drifted apart. Deep down there's still love between them, but it's like they're living two separate lives in the same house, which is the situation at the beginning of the story. It gets worse between them before it gets better and that's really interesting," Skarsgard notes.
"Alex is not playing an easy character," Rubin says. "Derek doesn't exactly show emotion. He's a man who's come back from war and who's locked into a job he detests. He doesn't say much -- he shows it with his eyes. Alex gives you layers and layers of meaning with his eyes and his body language. He does so much with so little. It's astonishing."
Skarsgard was a fan of Henry-Alex Rubin and ironically, got to initially know his director via an Internet video chat.
"I had seen Murderball and thought it was a beautiful, beautiful documentary. I hadn't met Henry before this project but we got to know each other by Skype. I was in Stockholm and he was in London. I really liked him. He had some interesting ideas about the script, the character and how he wanted to tell this story. It seemed like a terrific combination: a great script and a young director with a real vision. I was thrilled to do the film."
Paula Patton was equally enthusiastic. "I just loved the script and when they asked me to play Cindy, I jumped at the opportunity. The story has such relevance to the way we live today. Henry did such a perfect job on Murderball that I thought he was a natural for this. I think the film shouldfeel like a documentary, as if we are peeking into the lives of other people.
"Cindy is a really interesting character. She and Derek have been married a long time. I understand the ups and downs of married life and I believe with true love you can get through anything. Cindy finds herself in a place that seems like despair and the challenge is for the character to fight that despair," Patton says.
For the roles of Rich and Lydia Boyd -- the affluent, loving, but pre-occupied parents in the tale of a cyber-bullied teenage boy -- the filmmakers cast Jason Bateman and Hope Davis.
"The casting of Jason Bateman was a gift," Horberg says. "Henry and I both felt instinctively he was the perfect person for the role. He's such a versatile actor who brings so much empathy to everything he plays."
Although Bateman is more known for his comedic performances, it was his accessibility that appealed to Rubin and convinced him he was the perfect choice for this dramatic role.
"Jason is a very thoughtful, perceptive, precise and intense person who doesn't always get to express that side of himself on screen -- all of those aspects played into Rich, who is a driven lawyer and also a father. It was exciting for me to watch and I hope it was for him to play. Jason has innate compassion along with his humor. Rich is not funny but somehow when you meet him you like him instantly. I think that's part of the gift that Jason brings to his roles. He's like Jimmy Stewart or even Tom Hanks. You immediately warm to him. And that's what we needed for Rich," Rubin says.
Bateman says, "I don't get a chance to do a lot of dramatic work on screen and this seemed like a great opportunity. When I read the script I kept thinking of real people and real situations. Because I'm always on my iPhone or my computer or my iPad, it made the story feel relevant and personal to me."
In fact, the chance to work with Bateman first drew Hope Davis to the project.
"To be honest, when I heard Jason Bateman would be playing my husband, I just jumped at the chance. I really wanted to work with Jason, I think he's great," she says.
"I was also really drawn to the film because it is a family story and that is appealing to me. It was written so truthfully: parents who painfully discover all of a sudden that they don't really know their son because it is so difficult to communicate with teenagers, especially one's own. Lydia and Rich's son Ben is 14, and he's becoming mysterious to her in that sad way when your child suddenly becomes an adult and you don't know who he is any more. But it's not for lack of love or trying on the parents' part. Lydia's the type of mom who cares about everyone sitting down to dinner together and for the family to have conversations," Davis explains.
The Boyd's have two children, Ben, their musically gifted but socially withdrawn son, played by Jonah Bobo, and their popular teenage daughter, Abby, portrayed by Haley Ramm. Their lives are forever changed by the actions of a classmate named Jason Dixon, played by Colin Ford. Dixon instigates what becomes an elaborate and tragic case of cyber-bullying.
Jonah Bobo is a musician as well as an actor. The filmmakers relied on both of his talents. The original tunes the character creates are in fact Bobo's own compositions.
"I knew we were going to shoot a scene in which my character, Ben, would be playing the keyboard, working out a theme he has written. That was a thrill, especially since it was going to be something I composed," Bobo says.
Happily, Bobo adds, he does not attend a school where bullying happens but he realizes he is lucky. He hopes the movie offers some guidance for parents and teens.
"The school I attend is very diverse and everyone accepts each other, but you hear stories in the news about this kind of bullying that are disgusting. Henry and I had long talks about this. We felt like this role can help a lot of people in the same situation. He's just a misunderstood kid who takes solace in music. People don't really get him -- not his parents, not his sister, not the kids at school. The irony is that all that technology divides this family. At dinner, they sit with their iPods and cell phones and they are all in their own little world. The heart of the film is that you have to see past the technology to be able to see what is really important. It is not your phone or the people you are texting. It's your family," Bobo says.
His sister, Abby, is a typical shallow teenager, dismissive of her family and especially of her unpopular, eccentric younger brother.
"One of the themes in the story is that you can't go back in time. We all make mistakes and they can't be changed. So you just have to acknowledge what you've done and deal with it. This is so true for Abby, who does love her brother and her parents, even if she doesn't always show it," Ramm notes.
For Ford, the chance to play a character whose outward bravado masks a deeply conflicted and fraught relationship with his father was a real challenge.
"Jason's not a bad kid. You see both sides of him and you see how unhappy he is with his relationship with his Dad. In the end I think you feel for him. You understand what he did. He also understands and he suffers real remorse," Ford offers.
Frank Grillo plays his father, Mike Dixon, a tough ex-cop, who is raising a difficult son on his own. Neither father nor son have recovered from the death of Jason's mother and both share a simmering resentment towards one another -- in the case of Jason, it boils over into cyber-bullying.
Grillo appeared in the hit film The Grey, which Liddell produced. Afterwards, Liddell sent him the script for Disconnect.
"I read it and fell in love with it, met the director and was really impressed. One of the reasons I connected with the script is because I have three sons, ages three to fourteen. I have an open and loving relationship with my sons. In the movie Mike has a loving, but strained relationship with his boy. It's a difficult situation and it was something I wanted to explore. I know it's not uncommon and it intrigued me. It's very human. I have friends in this situation and I wanted to see what it felt like," Grillo says.
Andrea Riseborough plays Nina Dunham, the ambitious, attractive and smart television reporter whose life becomes entwined with a teenage boy named Kyle, who works on an adult-only website. She is one of Britain's most respected young actors with a background in film and television, as well as theater both in London and New York.
"For me, the character of Nina felt like a whole woman," Riseborough says. "Very often characters you have to play are conceived as either weak or strong, insecure or confident. But Nina felt fully formed and multi-dimensional. I could see the good and the bad, the damaged part of her and the vibrant part. It was very exciting to portray a character like this in such an involving story," Riseborough explains.
Nina's conflicted relationship with Kyle also appealed to Riseborough.
"At the beginning for Nina, Kyle exists solely as a way for her to get a good story that will help her career move forward. She's ambitious and has built up a faĆ§ade as a way to function and get ahead in this male-dominated world. But Nina also genuinely feels that she can help Kyle, rescue him and lead him to a better life. And what happens is that he inadvertently winds up rescuing her -- rescuing her from herself and from the way she has become disconnected from her soul. Kyle touches her, he makes her laugh and he helps her rediscover something essential about herself."
Max Thieriot plays the charismatic Kyle, who, in the end, knows himself -- and perhaps Nina -- better than either of them anticipated. When Thieriot read the script, he did so on his iPhone.
"I thought, wow, what a perfect way to read this script. I loved it and this character was definitely different from anyone else I've played. Kyle's a bold character and as an actor you have to go outside your comfort zone to portray someone like that. Being in this porn world is not a big deal to Kyle, it's just something he does. Someone like Kyle has had a rough up-bringing, probably suffered a lot of abuse and a lot of violence in his past. I thought to myself: you can't be scared about this, you just have to do it," Thieriot explains.
Filming took place on location in and around New York City for six weeks: two weeks were devoted to each storyline. Shooting began in Oceanside, Long Island to film Derek and Cindy Hull's house (Alexander Skarsgard and Paula Patton).
Production then moved to the modest, middle-class section of Yonkers, New York, where scenes of the Dixon (Frank Grillo and Colin Ford) household were staged. In addition, a real high school in Yonkers was used to shoot the scenes with the teenagers. The unit then moved to Harrison, an affluent town in Westchester County, for the scenes of the Boyd's ultra-modern house (Jason Bateman and Hope Davis).
The scenes with Nina (Andrea Riseborough) and Kyle (Max Thieriot) were shot in Elmsford, Westchester County, in and around a roadside motel and her apartment was filmed in Riverdale, The Bronx. The studios of local Manhattan television station NY1 doubled as the workplace for Nina, the television reporter.
Despite the fact that Disconnect was his first feature, director Rubin kept to the schedule and the breakneck pace of filming with a sure and steady hand -- working intensely with his actors and his crew.
Rubin's background in documentaries influenced his approach to Disconnect on several levels. For instance, he based his fictional characters on real life counterparts.
Says Rubin, "I wanted everything to seem natural, real. After reading the script, I spent time with and interviewed real life people in these situations. They all influenced how I interpreted the script; they brought out truth and details that we couldn't possibly have imagined. In many cases, my actors also met the people they would be enacting. We wanted everything to feel fresh, immediate and believable."
Rubin also encouraged improvisation but with a documentarian's ear for dialogue. While the improv technique is often played for comedy, Rubin used it for a more naturalistic effect.
"I tried to just go for the truth of a situation and of the relationships between people. After we did a few takes with the actual written dialogue, we'd encourage the actors, who of course intimately understood their characters and circumstances, to speak what was on their minds. Sometimes accidental dialogue would come out that would circle the subtext better than anything that we could imagine. And sometimes those moments were far more real than anything that we'd anticipated," Rubin says.
Rubin's cinema verite aesthetic carried over in Disconnect, typically meant he gave the actors a lot of room, literally and figuratively.
"I find that when you make documentaries you never have a clear line of sight to your subject. For instance, if two people are talking at a dinner table the only way you'd capture that in a documentary is through a hallway, through a window or over someone's shoulder. You'd be removed, out of their space in order to allow them to speak freely and not be self-conscious. I applied the same process to movie making. The camera was at a distance and we would zoom in. Hopefully it feels natural and as if you're eavesdropping on real life," Rubin says.
That style resonated with the actors.
"It felt different, interesting, very real. Sometimes the camera was hidden from view. I couldn't tell where it was, and for an actor that is great," Skarsgard says.
Davis adds, "the documentary feel -- that sense that the camera is spying on a group of people is just perfect for the story. Henry wanted everything very real. He didn't want us to wear a lot of make up or have our hair perfectly in place. That kind of atmosphere is conducive to creating a real character."
It also fostered a safe and an authentic atmosphere in which the actors could explore and develop their characters organically, especially the relationship between Riseborough and Thieriot.
"It was so real. Working with Max simply evolved in a way that was very natural, as if the story was really happening to us. We gained insight into our characters in unexpected ways. Nina and Kyle are from very different worlds but they both share a certain world-weariness that we hadn't been aware of, which came out in the playing of our scenes for Henry's cameras," Riseborough notes.
Not only was Disconnect's first fictional feature, it was, by definition, his first time working with actors, though Rubin would not exactly call it "directing" in the traditional sense.
"I feel like I don't really direct people, I just sort of make them feel as comfortable and confident as possible, in order to allow them to be in that emotional space and then to film that. There's a great quote from Truffaut where he says, 'I don't direct actors, I love them.' And I feel the same way. I loved every one of these actors; I admired and respected them," Rubin says.
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