Q&A with Director Dante Ariola
You're an award-winning commercials director who chose a gentle, searching romantic comedy for your first feature, as opposed to the typical loud, flashy big-budget statement that's typical among your peers.
Commercials directors wind up helming giant tent-pole blockbusters, especially if they have experience directing big commercials. Having worked in that medium, which I love, made me want to focus on something that was all character and story, with the bells and whistles taken out -- the very opposite of what I was used to on a commercials set, where you have limited time to tell a complex story.
What appealed to you about Becky Johnston's screenplay?
It struck a chord with me when I first read it because I had just turned 40. I liked that it could appeal to someone in his or her twenties as much as to someone who's 40, 50 or beyond. It's a story that I found appealing no matter where you're at in your life. Mike is trying to find out who she is as a younger woman and Arthur is an older guy who's trying to figure out where he went wrong -- and where he wants to go next after his failures. It felt so universal.
How would you describe ARTHUR NEWMAN in your own words?
For me it's a film about identity -- who you wanted to be in life compared to the person you ultimately become. There's something interesting about stripping down all the layers of a character in order to see the authentic self underneath. So I guess I would describe the film as a journey of self-discovery that side-steps similar, more conventional journeys. The film asks What would you do if you could start your life over from scratch? And that's an interesting question that's far more complicated in practice than it is in theory!
The script was written more than 20 years ago and it has the feel of some of the great movies of the '70s and '80s, like HARRY & TONTO, MELVIN & HOWARD or SOMETHING WILD...
I'm first and foremost a movie fan and my parents showed me a lot of '70s stuff when I was young. I think what worked in those movies was the pacing of the story, which is often more measured. They gave the audience a chance to connect the dots as the story unfolded at its own pace. I felt like ARTHUR NEWMAN was road movie but not a road movie; a romance but not a traditional romantic comedy -- in a manner that recalled FIVE EASY PIECES or some of Hal Ashby's work, which were more about tone and subtlety, with some very real emotions conveyed along the way.
What was it like to collaborate with the film's screenwriter and producer, Becky Johnston?
Becky was a great collaborator who was willing to make changes in her initial script, but I wanted to try and preserve the unique voice of what was already there. I felt it had a timeless quality that I wanted to hang onto. It felt like a lot of those '70s movies that were slow burns.
You've said that you love telling a story in which the antagonist exists only inside his or her own head. Can you elaborate?
I think ARTHUR NEWMAN is an easier film to watch than describe in my own words without sounding too much like a self-help book in terms of its character motivations. In most movies there is a literal antagonist working against the main character. But here there were two characters that came together and the only thing that stands in their way is how to come to terms with who they are. There wasn't a conventional antagonist. In a way, Mike and Arthur are their own worst enemies and the battle is going on in their own minds. But they use the device of identity to figure out who they really are over the course of the film. They struggle to learn how to live an authentic life, authenticity being the core message of this film.
Why Colin Firth and Emily Blunt?
I'm not a fan of putting together big cast lists during pre-production. You can fantasize with lists and it can turn into this drawn-out process. But I made one early on that included two people; I only ever had one actor in mind for Arthur and it was Colin. When you have a character like that, who has failed in life bearing a personality he's not proud of, it requires a certain amount of empathy on the part of the actor playing him. When Colin was doing romantic comedies earlier in his career there was always something true about them, even though they were these (frothy confections). Later on he did movies like A SINGLE MAN, where he showed more depth. But in all his work there is this inherent sense of empathy, which is so important for a flawed character like Arthur. In terms of Emily, she's such a chameleon in the role. It was like discovering someone you hadn't seen in a movie before. I felt like she was able to inhabit a strange character without bringing any baggage to the role. From the first moments I saw Colin and Emily's real-life dynamic together, I knew in my heart we would be making the film I had imagined.
Can you talk a little bit about the rehearsal process with both actors?
I'm a big fan of trying to find spontaneity, but also having a plan in place once the actors find out what they're doing in their scenes. We discussed who the characters were underneath the identities they assumed. Becky, the writer, provided elaborate backstories for both actors, giving them insight into what made these characters tick. We had minimal rehearsals so that they could capture some spontaneity. I wanted Colin and Emily to feel each other out, because they didn't know each other at first. We filmed pretty much in sequence, and I watched them find the chemistry together. It's such a rarity to shoot chronologically, so what evolved between them is what you see on the screen. When they finally make love -- when they're not assuming another identity because they've found their authentic selves -- it was the second-to-last night of the shoot, and I felt like they'd reached a certain truth in themselves as both characters and actors.
Where did you film, and for how long?
We shot in Wilmington, North Carolina for 30 days. Because it wasn't a conventional road movie, we had no interest in shooting at the Grand Canyon or on Route 66. We were more interested in embracing the seasonal change in Wilmington because it reflected the mood of the film. It was a kind of visual corollary to characters who were undergoing a change in their own right.
What were some of the biggest challenges of working on a film set as opposed to a commercials or music video set?
When you think about the world of high-end commercials, you envision bells and whistles and more than enough money to accomplish what you need for what amounts to a limited screen time. This film however did not call for things like cranes or flashy toys. One of the biggest challenges for me was the amount of time we had to shoot the film, which unfurls at a leisurely pace in the vein of episodic television. Another challenge was keeping the quality of the performances at a certain level, which meant giving the actors the space to hone in and find their characters without the distraction of a fast shoot. The actors had to do a lot of very intense work in a very short time and
I think there's something to be said about the English school of actors -- they're able to roll with the punches without letting stress get in the way of the shoot. A director can always find visual solutions on set, but you want actors who can find their own way. Finding the tone and balance of the film was the most difficult task. How to balance real emotion and absurd situations under the same roof can be a tremendous hurdle.
Can you discuss the tone of ARTHUR NEWMAN, which is a romantic comedy that is rough around the edges but never really descends into abject darkness. How did you manage to strike this balance?
It's not a film like JUNO that depends on witty repartee. And it's also not a traditional romantic comedy (in terms of its breeziness). You find these two people at a very specific time in their lives and it's not played for laughs, it's more situational. They come together and they could not be more different. The tone really comes out of the connection between two people who wouldn't ordinarily connect -- but who wind up coming together in such an unexpected way.
What do want audiences to take away from the film?
Perhaps to ask themselves, "Am I living an authentic life or do I have identities as well?"
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