Everybody's Fine - Kirk Jones interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
KIRK Jones – who has previously directed Waking Ned and Nanny McPhee – talks about the experience of directing his first Hollywood film, Everybody’s Fine and coaxing a terrific central performance out of leading man Robert De Niro.
He also reveals why he felt it necessary to travel around America by himself to prepare for writing the script and what the film says about families and communication…
Q. How was the experience of making your first Hollywood film?
Kirk Jones: It was pretty good, actually. I’ve waited long enough to take the plunge into doing it. This is my third film and pretty much since my first film, Waking Ned – about 10 years ago, embarrassingly – I’ve been looking for a project that would allow me to go to the States and make a film that I was proud of, but also that I’d keep some control of. I was so aware of directors, not just in the UK, going to the States and often working on big projects and coming home quite disillusioned. They would say there were so many writers on the project, so many producers that they lost control.
So, I was determined to do whatever I could to try and go over with a project that I had written and that I was going to direct. I knew that didn’t mean that I’d come up against some competition and some resistance at times from the studio, but I knew that if I was the writer-director I was immediately in a much stronger place to keep control of the project. I’ve read scripts for years now, I’ve been lucky enough to get sent a lot of scripts, but there were very few that I really related to. It was like a comedy in a High School setting and I don’t really know that world, and can’t really relate to it that well.
So, I felt a bit uncomfortable attaching myself to projects like that. But I was sent this as a film, Stanno Tutti Bene, that was originally written and directed by Guiseppe Tornatore after he’d finished Cinema Paradiso in 1990. I started to watch it and was aware that the film hadn’t travelled very much outside of Italy. So, it wasn’t like I was dealing with a classic that everyone knew. But I watched the film and I really connected to it emotionally and thought it had a really strong universal theme, which is a family.
I remember when we were looking for finance pretty early on, I was asked by the studio the question they always ask: “Who do you think will go and see this film?” They like to try and pigeon-hole everything and have some reassurance with the market. So, I surprised them and said: “I don’t think anyone will go and see this film…” There was a little silence and then I followed it up by adding: “Unless they have any experience of parents, or brothers and sisters, or children. So, essentially it’s pretty much everyone who has some experience on some level of those relationships.” It just struck me that making a film about family and how they communicate with each other potentially had a very universal theme.
So, I identified it as being the right project for me to go to America to make and the experience was very good. I was lucky enough to have my cinematographer with me, and my producer, and we had a really good crew. But to be honest, once you’re shooting you can be anywhere in the world and so long as you have a good crew together you kind of forget where you are. The studio had a very open relationship. We discussed different changes together and I’m really proud of the film. So, if people like it, great; if they don’t, then at least I know it’s the film I wanted to make rather than coming back and blaming the studio.
Q. How does making a film like this inform you as a father? Obviously, having written the screenplay, you’ve added some of your own experiences as a father and as a son. But do you find yourself second-guessing yourself afterwards? Do you ponder how you measure up to Robert De Niro’s character perhaps?
Kirk Jones: Parenting is very, very interesting and I would never dare to tell anyone how to look after their kids or how to bring their kids up. But you can’t help when you work on a project like this conveying some of your own feelings about parenting and communication within families and things. I have a really good relationship with my parents but I know for sure that I don’t ring them enough or keep in touch enough. When I do ring them and ask them how they’re getting on, it’s a bit like when you come home from school and your parents say: “What did you do at school?” And you just reply ‘nothing’, because you can’t sort of be bothered. Sometimes by talking about it, it reminds you of all the things that are worrying about you about your work, so you’d often rather not discuss it.
So, I guess I was aware there were things going in there that relate to myself and my parents. I don’t have brothers and sisters, I’m an only child… but I have three children myself, so I was aware of this family dynamic. But what amazes me is the number of people that are coming out of the cinema saying: “That was my dad.” I would expect it in America, but in this country as well.
Q. Why would you expect that more in America?
Kirk Jones: Well, this is an American guy, in an American setting… a thousand miles away from here. But a lot of English people are saying: “That was my dad… there are elements of that performance, and elements in his attitude and his character, that I can actually relate to and are very much a part of what my dad is about.” There are also people coming out and saying they are relating to the brothers and sisters and the dynamics within that family. But a lot of people are also saying: “Do you know what? I’m actually going to ring my mum and dad”… or “I’m going to ring my kids.” It reminds them of the importance of keeping in touch with each other. It also reminds us that no one’s around forever, whether it’s parents or relations – and it doesn’t really take much to call home.
Q. How satisfying is it to think that you’ve got such a great performance out of Robert De Niro? He’s had his critics in recent years… people who say he’s phoning it in more and more…
Kirk Jones: I think actors make choices sometimes that are their own choices, or sometimes because they’re influenced by people they’re working with, or situations. Genuinely, sometimes actors sign up for a film only to find that they’re disappointed; that they were promised a film would be more than it actually is. I was aware that he’s come in for some criticism. I was thrilled I was able to put together a project and give him the space to work in a way, which people are saying has brought out one of his best performances for a number of years. That’s really exciting for me.
Q. Why do you think that is?
Kirk Jones: I think he related to the film seriously on an emotional level. He has five kids, I think ranging in ages from 10 or 12 to late 20s. It was clear right from the beginning… we had a read through in New York that was really emotional. A number of actors were in town came in to read the part – some quite well-known actors – and by the final act pretty much everyone was in tears in the room. It was after that read through that he committed to the project. I think he and a number of people sensed just how powerful those emotions can be when you talk about families. I think we all harbour this guilt; I think we all know that our family relationships could be better, but I don’t think we should give ourselves a hard time about that. I think that’s the nature of families.
When you hear people say: “Oh yeah, they’re a perfect family…” You know there’s something really weird going on because families – by being forced to live with each other and get on with each other – are nearly always comprised of different characters, and there’s nearly always some kind of argument going on. But I think that’s the perfect family. If it’s a family where people feel the freedom to be able to argue and raise concerns and stuff, rather than a family that looks impeccably behaved and all the kids are at Oxford and Cambridge… you know you always get that. You’re proud of your kids and stuff and then someone says: “Oh yeah, all of my four went to Oxford and they’re all doing this and they’re all millionaires and stuff!” But I think the perfect family is one that’s slightly dysfunctional. That’s where members of the family learn the most.
Q. Have you sat and watched the film with your dad?
Kirk Jones: Yeah, my dad saw it quite late on. He didn’t see a lot of the early cuts. I think there’s a lot of him in it, in the details… things I’ve observed over the years that I put into the script. But I don’t think he spots those things at all. But the turkey dinner at the end of the year is kind of something we go through as a family every year: everyone gets obsessed by cooking the turkey perfectly!
Q. How much did the road trip that you took across America inform the screenplay?
Kirk Jones: It was pretty crucial. I knew that, especially as an English writer, I was very paranoid about not getting it right. I thought the only way to do it was to take a trip myself. So, I flew to New York and went straight across, travelling on the Greyhound and things. First of all, it helped me to get under the skin of the country, but also things like the [telephone] wires and working out what Frank [Robert De Niro]‘s job should be… that all came about from the trip. When I saw those wires I thought wouldn’t it be great if he’d helped all these people to communicate through his work, yet ironically he couldn’t communicate with his own kids. So, ideas like that… I took about 2,000 photographs and interviewed about 100 people and there were ideas that came out of that almost on a daily basis. Without that trip I don’t think I could have written the script.
Q. Did you do that alone?
Kirk Jones: Oh yes, I couldn’t have done it with my family. Too many prams and baby seats and stuff!
Q. But that must have been difficult in itself, being away from them for so long?
Kirk Jones: It was. I was away for about 14 months in all making the film. I saw them now and again, but there were like three or four month chunks when I didn’t see them. It’s ironic though… I realised I was making a film about the importance of family and I was neglecting my own [laughs]!