Justin Lerner’s new movie Girlfriend sees three very different people thrown together in small town America with heartbreaking results. Alan Corr talks to the director about filming in his hometown, working with Amanda Plummer and casting his high school friend Evan Sneider in the lead role.
Girlfriend tells the story of a love triangle with a difference. Set in rural Massachusetts, Justin Lerner’s film gets into the hearts and heads of three desperate people left exposed by both the vagaries of the heart and the fall out of the economic downturn. Candy is fighting off both her volatile ex-boyfriend and eviction; Russ is desperate to get Candy back; and Evan, a young man with Down syndrome, is the innocent of the piece whose love for Candy sees him manipulated by both her and her errant ex.
Alan Corr: This is a story of small town desperation and how the recession motivates and changes people. Do you feel these small town stories aren’t been told or heard enough?
Justin Lerner: “Hardship and the economic crisis has permeated a lot of the art coming out of America right now but also the economy of means and how people are making films with less and less money these days. For me, I decided to make this movie because of what was going on in my town and small towns like the one its shot in. When I saw what was going on in the country, the desperate times that everyone was in, I thought can I use this to make this happen for Even? I wanted to come up with a scenario that wasn’t too far-fetched that someone like Evan could actually go about the motions of a romantic relationship with a woman. How could that happen? We’re all a product of the times we’re living in and a lot of my favourite film makers in the sixties and seventies used what was going on in their part of the world. It gave an authenticity to it.”
The lead role is taken by Evan Sneider. You’ve been friends with him since high school and this is the second time you’ve made a film with him. How easy is it for you to get inside his head and see how he reacts to the world?
“Getting inside his head wasn’t as difficult as it might have been if I’d cast someone else with Down Syndrome. I don’t know many other people with Down Syndrome and I certainly don’t know anyone else as closely as I do Evan. It was less about him having Down Syndrome and more about his personality. Evan is funny, he’s surprising, he’s unbelievably smart and perceptive, his emotional intelligence is higher than most people I’ve met in that he can feel and sense when someone is upset or happy. There is an unconditional love and he’s always very concerned about how everybody is doing. I knew all that about him so I wrote it into the script so it was not as difficult to get inside his head. I wrote a character that was very similar to the real Evan. The task was getting what I already knew into the fiction of the movie.”
"Evan wins out because he’s unable to lie, he tells you exactly how he feels at all times. He can’t hide that.”
Amanda Plummer plays Evan’s mother in the movie. It’s been far too long since we’ve seen her. How did she become involved?
“I met her at a dinner with Wim Wenders and I had the fortune of being sat next to her at this fun little dinner in a Korean restaurant in LA and by the end of the night we were great friends. We were talking about French film and Japanese film and she gave me her number and she said let’s hang out an watch movies some night and I showed her my short film and she said she’d love to work with me on something and a few months later I had the script for Girlfriend ready so I called her. Directing her was intimidating and horrifying but I learnt more from her in the few days she was on set then I’ve learnt from directing anybody else. People are going to be seeing a lot more of her because she’s in the next Hunger Games sequel.”
From an Irish point of view, Amanda sings Evan to sleep in one scene by singing On Raglan Road by Patrick Kavanagh. Was that her idea?
“Yes it was. I told her Evan’s mother is going to sing him a lullaby and she sent me song after song and then one night she e mailed me a beautiful rendition of On Raglan Road by Sinead O’Connor and I fell in love with it. The lyrics were very similar to what was going on in the script about her “dark hair would weave a snare that I would someday rue”. We found the literary agent of Kavanagh’s estate and they were very, very supportive and let us use it.”
The dark hair that weaves a snare for Evan in the movie is his high school crush Candy who is played by Shannon Woodward. She has the right mix of anguish and desperation when she ends up using Evan after he comes into a lot of money . . .
“Shannon was a real discovery for us. We found her through the regular casting process. We cast non-professionals in the smaller roles but we spent a lot of time finding the right person to play Candy. We saw maybe a hundred young women and Shannon had the most unique interpretation of the part and she had a really strong idea of who this young woman is. We were very lucky to have found her.”
Jackson Rathbone of the Twlight saga plays the volatile ex-boyfriend who makes life difficult for Candy and Evan. Were you hoping that casting him would bring a lot of Twilight fans to Girlfriend?
“They already have. As an independent filmmaker who makes more difficult art films you’re always fortunate to have another audience come in so in my mind bringing new people to see this film who wouldn’t normally see a film like this is a great thing. Maybe now they’ll get into more independent films. They have been very supportive. Shannon also has quite a few fans because of the TV show she does Raising Hope. Word of mouth around the Toronto Film Festival saw us have two sold-out shows and a lot of people saw it at the Galway Film Fleadh. Amanda Plummer came with me to Galway and we did a week there. It was fun because we just stayed inside and watched films all week because it was raining the whole time. The Twilight fans who migrated over to follow Jackson’s career has been a great help.”
One of the other stars of Girlfriend is your hometown of Wayland. You make great use of nature in an almost Terence Malick way. Is shooting on location a very important part of your movie-making?
“Absolutely. Because this film is about human nature and what human beings need physically and emotionally and each character is pretty emotionally raw and naked because of what they do and the morally complicated things they have to do. Setting things in the wild and things from the earth rather than manmade things is always something I look for because it gives a sense of place. If ever given a choice between shooting on a set or a real location I’ll go for the real location. I like showing a place that really exists. I’m a big fan of Malick and I’m also a big fan of Lenny Abrahamson.”
Obviously you’ve seen Abrahamson’s movie, Garage . . .
“Not only have I seen it but my first short film screened at the Torino Film Festival in Italy where Garage won the Grand Prize and I met Lenny there and we became friends. A couple of years later I was in the Toronto Film Festival and he was there with What Richard Did and we got to reconnect. I’m an admirer and friend of his and he’s a big supporter and he told me that he’s going to see Girlfriend this week at The Lighthouse. Garage and Girlfriend have a lead actor that, by most standards, is not a professional actor. The lead guy in Garage is mostly a comedian and Evan is a friend of mine who is mostly untrained. Evan is very innocent and says exactly what’s on his mind at all times and that is more of a reflection of the people around him. Evan wins out because he’s unable to lie, he tells you exactly how he feels at all times. He can’t hide that.”
Girlfriend is on at The Lighthouse in Dublin and also be seen on volta.ie