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Rocket Science - Jeffrey Blitz interview

Rocket Science

Compiled by Jack Foley

JEFFREY Blitz talks about the challenges of bringing Rocket Science, his follow-up to Spellbound, to the big screen…

Rocket Science was premiered at the Sundance film festival this year. Was it a Sundance Lab project?
No. In fact, let me detour immediately. My first film, Spellbound, didn’t get into Sundance, and so for a while I had this fantasy of myself as being a filmmaker who’d do very well with his films but would never be at Sundance at all. I was gonna wear that as a badge of honour, so I never would have gone to the Lab. But then I made Rocket Science and Sundance wanted it. I thought: “Er, you know, it’s better to be wanted than not.” So I had to let go of that idea!

What was the original starting point?
I think what happened when I was making Spellbound is that I had this sense that I was going to meet certain types of kids. Now, some of those kids I did meet along the way, and they’re in the movie, but some of those kids I never met at all – they were just ideas of characters I hoped I would encounter.

When I was done with Spellbound I still had a list in my head of characters I felt it would have been great to meet, so Rocket Science became my way of letting those characters come to life. For instance, when I was making Spellbound I thought: “Wouldn’t it be great to meet a kid who can only speak in gigantic words? Someone who’s lost the ability to talk in simple words and can no longer talk to his or her peers any more.” That character eventually became Ginny in the film, someone who talks a mile a minute and tosses in gigantic words willy-nilly.

How did this idea become a movie?
When Spellbound went on to do well in the States, I had a meeting with a producer there who essentially said she wanted to produce my first fiction film. I told her I had all these ideas for these kid characters and that I’d like to try to build a story around that. She said: “Well, that sounds great.” And as were trying to figure out what that story would be, I happened to tell her about my own experience, about how I stuttered, and how I joined up with my school debating team, and she said: “Stop! That’s your movie right there!”

I was very dubious of doing anything that had an autobiographical component to it like that, but she talked me into it. And I took enough of my own life out of it that it doesn’t feel like my story any more. It just feels like it’s its own thing now.

Do you see it as a companion piece to Spellbound in any way?
I see the arc that takes me from Spellbound to Rocket Science but I think you could see Rocket Science and not feel like there was any connection with Spellbound. In some ways, it’s the anti-Spellbound. Because Spellbound has a kind of dramatic arc that it stays faithful to, whereas Rocket Science really goes out of its way to sloth off that arc.

Were you conscious of trying to defy audience expectations?
For me, the biggest letdown in any movie is when you can predict where it’s going to go, and most movies – Hollywood films in particular – suffer from that. Five minutes in, even if you’re not a movie critic, you have some kind of internal sense that, y’know, the boy will get the girl, something will happen and he’ll lose her, but then he’ll get her back and he’ll win the big competition at the end. And if the movie sticks to that path it’s not interesting any more. So I tried to say: “What is the organic path of this story?”

I knew everyone was going to bring in their expectations of a sort of sports movie, and I wondered how I could have people be excited by feeling like it was going to follow that arc but then actually end in a completely different but still appropriate place.

i>Rocket Science does draw on a lot of elements from sports movies: the idea of the underdog hero, the washed-up mentor who comes out of retirement, the big showdown…
I drew on all sorts of tropes from those movies, and that was the fun of it. Those movies have such a clear formula to them that it becomes easy just to hint at that formula, and people will think: “Ah, so it must unfold in this way…” And so I let the audience do the work of surprising themselves. They bring their impression of what the movie is going to be, and for my movie to take one step away from that just makes it more interesting.

I mean, there really is such a formula to those films. They always end in wild applause. No matter how private the actually victory ought to be, there’s always a audience gathered around to witness it, and usually even the people they were competing against have to agree that it was such an outstanding victory that they join in the applause… Jesus, it’s such a predictable way for the story to unfold, and it taps into the deep-seated desire that people have to feel like there are clear markers to victory. But I don’t think life really conforms to that idea, so I tried to make a film that was more honest than that.

What kind of person is your lead character, Hal Hefner? Is that a conscious reference to Playboy founder Hugh Hefner?
Although Hal’s stuttering is patterned after my own, he’s a very different kind of kid than I was. Hal has no mastery of the world around him at all, and he’s just sort of lost in the mystery of how to live, and he’s lost in the mystery of love, really. And I loved the idea that a kid who is lost when he’s confronted by love and sex would be saddled with the name Hal Hefner. I thought it was a funny contrast between who he might have been and who he actually is, somehow.

But Hal’s stuttering is just another manifestation of his lack of mastery, to me. And his stuttering becomes, in my mind anyway, a metaphor for that. He can’t control this thing that ought to be so simple. You ought to be able to control your speech and it ought to be a thoughtless process, but it’s not like that for him. And so much of his life is like that.

Is that how you felt a kid?
No. I was always a much more assertive kid than Hal is in the movie. I give Hal some place to grow. So he starts as a very timid soul. Hal is kind of comfortable being in the background, but I was always so pissed off that I stuttered that I would insist on taking as much time as I needed to say something. Sometimes it was incredibly frustrating. I’d be in the classroom, I’d raise my hand, and you could see my teacher thinking: “Crap, I’ve got to call on him now.” And I would just go for it. I’d take as much time as I needed and I was quite aggressive about it.

How did you conquer your stuttering?
It’s very circumstantial for me. On the telephone I’m still quite terrible. I had an experience while I was writing the script. One of my best friends is the film director Breck Eisner, who made the movie Sahara with Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz. I went to visit Breck when he was shooting in northern Africa and I was working on the script for Rocket Science. I arrived at my hotel and I wanted to order a hamburger, which is a stupid thing to want to order in northern Africa, but I was really craving a hamburger! So I called up room service and I just could not say the word hamburger. I couldn’t get it out in any fashion at all.

So, this poor woman who answered my call – she knew something was wrong but she wasn’t really sure what – ended up reading the entire room service menu to me so that I could just say, ‘Stop!’ And she skipped hamburger! So it was a very tangible thing for me to write those scenes when Hal is trying to order food in the cafeteria.

What goes on in the world of debating teams? Is it really as competitive as it looks?
It’s very competitive, and people actually speak faster on the debating circuit than they do in the movie, so I had to slow it down just to make it more comprehensible. But what’s happened is that a style of debating has evolved where you just try to cram as many arguments as you can into your allotted time, and that requires you to speak blazingly fast, to the point where most of what you say is really just incomprehensible jargon. But when you debate on that circuit, as I did, you’re very proud of the speeds that you can attain. It’s a funny thing. I think in the UK the style of debate is much more oratorical, but in America it’s much about quantity over quality. You’re trying to win on the basis of the number of arguments that you can throw out there and not necessarily the skill of those arguments.

b>Read our review of Rocket Science