For director Michael Cuesta, making films brings out a subjective passion, something suggested by his earlier career as a photographer and as a TV director ("Six Feet Under") and reflected in the hard life he ascribes to the suburban kids he has detailed in his two features — his well received debut L.I.E. and now 12 and Holding.
Interweaving the stories of three kids as the grapple with tragedy and coming-of-age, Cuesta looks to show the tough side of life without becoming too gritty and despairing. Fortunately he finds a cast of experienced young actors and a supporting teams of characters who help Cuesta flesh out what could easily become soap opera.
The L Magazine: Even though 12 and Holding debuted in the New Directors festival this spring, your real first film, L.I.E. also appeared in "New Directors?"
Michael Cuesta: Yeah, why is that? They do a sophomore film… they do. It's first and second films with "New Directors," and I had learned that with
L.I.E. because I met a guy, and I went ‘Hey, I saw your movie before this.’
The L: I interviewed another director who did a film before New Directors.
MC: It's fine. I'm really honored to be there because they have such
[a reputation]… I actually thought Twelve and Holding—because it's just a little gentler in tone and subject matter than L.I.E. and a little more, in my mind, accessible and more mainstream—I thought it wouldn't go the "New Directors" and end up at Tribeca or something. It went to Toronto. But they took it.
The L: How different was making this film from L.I.E.? There's
definitely been a lot of experience in between, but you're dealing
with kids again, so there are parallels and similar influences as well.
MC: Well, I didn't have a pedophile that was stalking the kids.
L.I.E. was easier in terms of drama because in L.I.E. there was a
huge antagonist in the movie, if you can call him a "monster." So it had that inherent dramatic weight in the movie to work with. No matter what scene you're in, the fact that he's lurking behind the scenes was easier to keep people interested in the narrative. In "Twelve and Holding," you're basically dealing with a kid's story.
The L: Was it a challenge working with an ensemble?
MC: And balancing the tone. Yeah. But I enjoyed that. Sometimes I
think I got in trouble a little bit with tone, but I really enjoyed
balancing a little satire with something a little more serious, and playing them off each other. It's something you do very much in the editing room.
The L: Do people ever confuse either one or both of these movies with your
own life and think that this is your background?
MC: Well, L.I.E. more. Not this one. I talked to my wife about Malee's
story, and she's like ‘Oh yeah.’ Well that's just the funny thing. The woman in here before was like, ‘I didn't go through that.’ She goes ‘I love your story, but that was not my story.’ And I said the movie is about what really happens. Most kids movies about kids don't do that. Some do really tell the other side of the story. Malee's story is the other side of the story. When I talked to my wife, Jackie, she said, ‘Yeah, that's my story. I was 12…’
The L: A friend of mine had a friend commit suicide at 14; my friend came
in, and found the kid hanging there in the closet. This shit happens so what made you decide to put this particular catalogue of characters and scenarios together?
MC: I didn't write the script. The script was brought to me and I did
some work on it—more character and structure work with the writer. I didn't take a writing credit. But he wrote a beautiful script with these kids. When I read it, I actually felt this unconditional love that these kids had. The movie was very much about love and how the kid goes about it the wrong way with locking his mother in the basement, which added this idea of ‘I love you.’ But he's 12. Same thing with Malee — father figure, the boy. Then, of course, the main story is done to keep the peace.
The L: Will kids be able to see this movie-that's the real issue.
MC: The movie is very much about “Do you know where your children
are." This kind of gap that's created when the parents are here and the kids are here. That gap is where this movie happens and what these kids are doing. It's because Annabella Sciorra's character and Jayne Atkinson are wrapped up in their own shit, their own need for retribution, psychosis. Whatever. I think if the parents can take their kids to see this movie, that would be the equivalent of filling that gap, in some way.
The L: Exactly.
MC: In a way, that's what the movie's about. Would I take my son who's
11? Yeah. He's going to see it in Huntington, at the cinema arts center. And I'm going to take him, and I'm going to talk to him about it. A lot of people are totally not into it. They're not ready for it. The subject matter is too complex. Children need everything black and white. Yeah. Definitely a certain age. But he's going to be twelve, ands he's getting to the age of what these kids are. So why not have twelve-year-olds see the movie. "L.I.E." was NC-17, so the kids couldn't even go to their own movie.
The L: It's a shame, isn't it?
MC: But isn't that funny. They're in the movie, and they're
understanding everything that I do. I don't know if you talked to the
kids, but they understood everything we were doing and what it was about. And they got it. So why can't that story be told? Is that
wrong or irresponsible?
The L: It's not irresponsible.
MC: I just feel that. People come up to me and say, ‘Michael, you're
wrong about that’, and I get into these arguments. Whatever. Maybe I'm wrong.
The L: I have a daughter, so I didn't have the experience of boys
discovering Playboy. She's now 20. I was the hip parent, so we could talk about things like boys and sex and what to do and what not to do. The best way to deal with it is to talk about it. This movie is a way to talk about it. That's valuable.
MC: Right. Out of all the people I've talked to, you've nailed it.
That's exactly what it is. And I don't want to be didactic or trying to be too preachy here with the movie, but that's what it is.
The L: I don't see why you wouldn't show the class? There would be a
problem with showing a guy's butt, but other than that…
MC: It's a guy's butt.
The L: What was the toughest part of making the film for you?
MC: Casting. I was just talking about that. Casting is the hardest,
because if you miscast, the movie's off track.
The L: You have the problem of dealing with parents. Even though you may
have the right kids, the parents might not appreciate it, and that could be a problem.
MC: All the parents were supportive. I felt that they trusted me and
that we were making something good and about the kids that was honest. They went with it the whole way. You run into that SAG problem when you can only have the kid for a certain amount of hours, but we constantly would go over, and they'd have no problem. As long as you don't abuse it.
The L: Having made two movies with kids, you could probably write the book
about it. Obviously, you want to go beyond making movies with kids, but what did you learn and what advice would you give? What is it that fascinates you about making films with kids?
MC: I don't know. It's how smart they are, and what they can teach me.
That what the theme of the movie is too — that wisdom is imparted by them almost unconsciously. They just know it. So working on the set, a lot of those kids made unbelievable intuitive decisions.
I've worked on Six Feet Under
. I've worked outside of my two films with learnt actors, and I've seen them not do that. They would
over-think things. It was beautiful to see kids make intuitive decisions. That's what I learned about acting through that. That's
what it's ultimately about. You just have to do it. Stop talking about it, and just play it. The camera's here to capture it, and I don't
know what the answer is.
The L: Did you get additional insights from the screenwriter?
MC: A little bit. Anthony wasn't on the set, but in rehearsals, he and
I did some rewriting in rehearsals. Anthony told a story that was close to him, where he grew up. He grew up in the suburbs of Boston. He's a great guy, and I'm really surprised he's not here, to be honest. I've very surprised that I haven't seen him in, but that's another story. He lives in L.A. He went out there to work in television and movies, and he's struggling.
The L: Do you feel that there's a difference between suburban kids those
who are more New York kids?
MC: Not so much. From the way I grew up? Yeah. But not so much now.
We're all connected now, you know? I think kids are more exposed to things in New York, in terms of poverty — they step over bums. You know all of that. But I think kids with the media…but even in the suburbs now, the city's disseminated so much into it. Definitely where I live. I moved out of the city six or seven years ago, and it just doesn't seem like the suburbs that I grew up in. I don't know if you know the town of Huntington. I'm in Huntington Bay.
The L: I've actually been in Huntington.
MC: You know it's a little street, a little village, I stepped over a
homeless guy the other day. I gave him some money, and my son…I think, ‘Oh, he's seeing that.’ When I grew up in the suburbs, it was much more squeaky clean. I grew up in the late 70s, and it was definitely different.
The L: What will you take from doing this film that you will apply to
future films that won't involve kids?
MC: That was the question you asked me earlier. Specifically…Well,
it's what I told you to just trust the instincts.
The L: There must be ways that you could apply that to all actors.
MC: Yeah. Just play it. I find on the set discussions about character
are really annoying, because as a director, you have a million things you're thinking of. You're thinking, ‘How's this cutting into the movie, the tone, and this guy just wants to keep talking about the character.’ Dude, just play it. I cast you because you're already there. You just have to play it, and you're into character. Unless the writing is bad.
The L: Besides the kids, you put together a remarkable cast. Do you think
it would have been a different film if they had all been unknowns? Or do you think it helps drive the film to have these seasoned actors that can get right there for you, so you can focus on the kids more?
MC: Those adult actors were not about seasoned actors or names. I
don't see them as names. Jayne is this character actor — she was in Syriana
. She actually had a great bit in that movie. Jeremy Renner is amazing.
The L: Well there's Tony Roberts.
MC: Tony! Fucking Tony! I completely forgot he was in the movie. He
came in. That was just a fluke. I was like I got to get someone to play the doctor, someone that would blow them off and be sort of glib. And then a friend said, ‘Tony is a friend of mine. He'll do it.’ Tony Roberts? From Woody Allen movies? Okay. It's funny. I forgot that he was in the movie.
The L: You had Annabella Sciorra.
MC: Annabella's great.
The L: Mark Linn-Baker. Look at the list here. Terry Urdang.
MC: I didn't know Mark. I didn't watch the TV show. Mark was a friend
of the producer's, and said, ‘You know Mark from Bosom Buddies?’ What show was it? [Perfect Strangers.] He was on a sitcom, and he also was in that movie, My Favorite Year. Then, when I met Mark, I was like ‘Oh my God.’
The L: He was in a Broadway show, too.
MC: Right. The Peter O'Toole movie, too [My Favorite Year]. But when
Mark came in, he played that scene. It was literally action, and [I told him] ‘Mark, just stand over here. Cut.’ Boom. Done. It was a little piece that he had to do, but he just got it.
The L: So the next thing that you do—will that be something you write?
MC: Yeah. I adapted a book with my brother. We work together a lot.
It's called the Miracle Life of Edgar Mint
, and hopefully, we'll make it this fall.
The L: You were working on something else, then got offered this. It's
strange to make that adjustment from something that's so close to you like L.I.E.
and your own experience in writing, and suddenly you get a project that you are a little bit distant from.
MC: I don't like to write. I worked on L.I.E. for years and I
brought in other writers. I can't write on my own. I just don't have the patience or the discipline for it. I'm not a classic writer-director. I'm discovering now that I'm more someone who likes
to interpret someone else's material and work on it with them. I don't have the patience. The book I adapted was grueling. A year of adapting this thick, dense book, and trying to extract the story was fucking hard. Some people can do that, but not be on a set and work, and that's what comes easier to me.
The L: Were you always thinking of being a director then?
MC: I was a photographer. And graphic designer. I don't know if they
talked about it here. I did music videos. I did commercials. It's all in there. So for me, I have to see it first.
The L: You started as a photographer, but really, your films don't
emphasize the shots you can see. They're very smooth flowing and narrative. You're not looking to make this grand shot.
MC: I know though that it's not about that, but it's just being more
of a visual thinker. It's just that simple. Observing and seeing human behavior through the lens. Being a photographer, that's what you do when you're capturing that. Like the way you're sitting there. It's telling something about that character, but it's still a shot.
The L: Do you always think in motion pictures, or do you still fall back
to still pictures in your mind?
MC: I see it as a tableau. Visually, I have to see it. When I work on a script, I have to see it first. My problem is articulating it onto the page well. That's why I have to work with a co-writer. I know what I want, but it's about making it…it's just harder for me. Your gift is that.