About The Production
It was a Romantics literature course at Kenyon College in Ohio - Josh Radnor's
alma mater - that intensified the writer-director-actor's passion for university
life, planting the seed for what would ultimately become LIBERAL ARTS.
Radnor's sophomore feature, following 2010's award-winning
HAPPYTHANKYOUMOREPLEASE, is a campus romance set amid a leafy Midwest university
not unlike the one Radnor himself attended. Indeed, though unnamed in the film,
LIBERAL ARTS was filmed at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, fulfilling a dream
on Radnor's part to return to the source of his heady undergraduate days. "For
years after college I ached like Jesse to go back to that time," Radnor admits.
"I felt intensely fortunate to have gone there. I knew these were special years
even as they were happening, and it was great that I didn't have to leave the
place before I began appreciating it."
Radnor and his crew, including producer Jesse Hara, were fortunate in that
university officials warmly opened doors to the production. The tree-lined
walkways, cozy dormitories and elegant brick classrooms that make up Kenyon's
picturesque campus become de facto characters in the film. "It's truly one of
the most beautiful college campuses in the world," Radnor boasts. "I'm actually
shocked we were the first feature film to shoot there. I joked to someone that
the first day we shot b-roll it seemed like the buildings were posing for us."
Radnor describes Gambier, Ohio as a sleepy college town consisting of little
more than a bank, a bookstore, a deli and a grocery store. "The crew was a bit
shell-shocked when they arrived," he adds. "But I assured them the town would
work its magic on them - and sure enough it did. It was such a thrill to be able
to watch people fall in love with a place that was so important to me."
Radnor began writing LIBERAL ARTS after screening HAPPYTHANKYOUMOREPLEASE on the
Kenyon campus two years ago. He was 35 years old at the time - the same age as
his LIBERAL ARTS protagonist Jesse - and suddenly realized how much older he was
than the students on campus who came to watch his feature debut. "Time started
to bend in this weird way," Radnor recalls. "It seemed impossible that I was
nearly twice the age of my audience there - especially because my memories of
college were still so vivid." He remembers remarking to his producer, Jesse
Hara, how inappropriate it would be to fall in love with a college student,
prompting Hara to suggest that this premise would make a great movie. Radnor
began developing his hook, avoiding the usual campus clichÃ©s. "Most college
movies tend to be about fraternities and partying," Radnor says. "I wanted to
make one that felt closer to the experience I had: the books, the professors,
the watershed moments of encountering new thoughts and new ideas."
At the heart of LIBERAL ARTS is the protagonist Jesse, a 35-year-old university
admissions counselor in New York City whose life is initially awash in chaos,
beginning with the theft of his laundry during the film's opening scene and
extending to his emotional entanglements which serve as the beating heart of the
film. Only when Jesse leaves the city to attend the retirement party at his alma
mater does the film take on its seductive rural veneer. "The juxtaposition
between urban New York and rural Ohio was crucial to the film," Radnor explains.
"Jesse's New York, especially at the beginning, is a kind of gray cinder-block
prison. His drive back to campus is not unlike Dorothy emerging from the house
after the twister in THE WIZARD OF OZ - suddenly everything is in color."
In Jesse's universe, a book is seldom far from his grasp, and reading and
learning become nourishment for the soul - whether one is absorbing gothic
romance bestsellers or the deeper stuff of college lit seminars. "I really enjoy
talking about books," Radnor admits. "And I had fun writing characters that also
like connecting over and arguing about books. Never mind that reading generally
feels like something worth celebrating and defending." Book talk abounds in
LIBERAL ARTS, whether it's Jesse's discussion of David Foster Wallace's Infinite
Jest with his troubled new friend Dean, or the literary flirtations between
reader and bookstore clerk in a New York City scene. Indeed, one of the crucial
moments in the film involves Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) defending her love for
cheap vampire romances over establishment literature or elitist attitudes
towards reading material - "You think it's cool to hate things," she chides
Jesse. "(But) it's not - it's boring. Talk about what you love and keep quiet
about what you don't."
It's a powerful and timely line of dialogue, one that Radnor admits is among his
favorite in LIBERAL ARTS - for the way that it sheds light on both characters
and their literary tastes (not to mention their age difference) and also drives
a wedge between them. It elevates the argument to a more profound level,
positing one generation against another and revealing an unexpected victor in
the neophyte Zibby. "For Jesse, what someone reads is a reflection of who they
are at the deepest level," Radnor insists. "While Zibby has no problem reading a
book purely for entertainment." Radnor himself admits he had great fun
developing this dispute because Jesse is so uncomfortable with their growing
intimacy, latching onto a book to justify his own simmering resentment of Zibby.
"Zibby's embrace of the book signals to Jesse that America has become this
cultural wasteland," Radnor continues. "But I'm with Zibby. I think she wins the
argument hands down. I think culturally we're gripped by an epidemic of
negativity where everyone is a critic. Our snark level has grown fairly high.
I'm of the opinion that it's a lot cooler and more fun to love things and keep
quiet about things we're less fond of."
Another source of tension in the story emerges between Jesse and his mentor, the
aging literature Professor Hoberg, whose retirement festivities ignite the
central story line. As such LIBERAL ARTS becomes as preoccupied with growing old
as it does with grasping for youth. Hoberg's transition from working life to
begrudging retirement counterbalances so much of the youthful optimism in
LIBERAL ARTS, revealing a melancholy character that is mired in anxiety over the
so-called golden years. "Professor Hoberg is a bit of a curmudgeon and a cynic,"
Radnor admits. "As much as he complains about faculty meetings, you get the
feeling he dearly loved teaching and his life at the college. When we're young
we want to speed things up; when we're older we want to rewind or do things
over. This film is about stepping fully into adulthood, no matter what your age.
I totally believe what Professor Hoberg says at one point in the film - 'Nobody
feels like an adult. That's the world's dirty secret.'"
Featuring a stellar cast including veteran character actor Richard Jenkins as
Professor Hoberg and lauded upstart Elizabeth Olsen (MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE)
as the precocious Zibby, LIBERAL ARTS serves up a stellar ensemble orbiting
around the central protagonist played by Radnor himself. After Jenkins' cameo
appearance in HAPPYTHANKYOUMOREPLEASE, Radnor set about writing the part of
Professor Peter Hoberg specifically for him, if only to work with the seasoned
pro for more than a few hours on set. "Richard can be tough and intimidating but
also deeply vulnerable," Radnor admits. "Peter's at a real crisis point in his
life and Richard lets us see all his pain as well as the mask he puts over all
that. Richard is an intensely smart, charming guy and a really gifted actor. If
he were in all my movies, I'd be a happy director."
Radnor describes 19-year-old sophomore Zibby as a character trapped between
worlds - an old soul in a young person's body who is wise and sophisticated but
also young, energetic, even goofy at times - the opposite of the character Olsen
played in her breakout feature MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE. "Many people who see
the movie assume I must have written the part of Zibby for Elizabeth," Radnor
admits. "Even though I didn't, it's one of those parts that you can't imagine
anyone else taking on. It was just a great meeting of actor and role - I've
rarely been so confident in someone's bright future."
Of his supporting cast, Radnor has nothing but similar praise. From Kenyon
alumnus Allison Janney as the glib, reprimanding lit Professor Fairfield
("Directing Allison is like playing a Stradivarius - it all sounds so much
better than you ever thought it could," Radnor says) to Zac Efron as the
mystical college golden boy Nat ("Zac has a terrific and endearing sincerity,
which was essential for Nat. I had this suspicion that Zac would be really funny
in the part, and my suspicion proved correct," Radnor adds), LIBERAL ARTS brings
together the cream of the crop of several generations of indelible screen
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