Kirk Jones, a British writer/director, is best known in America for the delightful comedy “Waking Ned Divine.” His first American movie is Everybody’s Fine, a remake of an Italian film, with Robert DeNiro as the father of four adult children who don’t feel they can tell him the truth about what is going on in their lives. I spoke to him about parents, children, and an outsider’s view of the American landscape.
NM: How do you decide how much to protect your parents or children or how much to tell them?
KJ: That’s a fantastic question. It’s the first time I’ve been asked that but I was expecting to hear it a lot more often. I have to say I don’t know the answer. It’s an incredibly fine line. We should all be totally and completely honest with each other. But we’re all sophisticated enough to know and our emotions are sophisticated enough to know that there are times when if you don’t need to fill people in on every detail of every situation then that can only help protect them and their own emotions. I’m certainly not proposing that we keep huge secrets from each other but it is human nature to want to protect the person you care about the most and at times that means not being 100 percent honest with them
NM: How did you as someone from outside the US use the settings to help tell the story?
KJ: I was very aware that as an English writer and film-maker that I needed to take this road trip very seriously, so I flew to New York and went cross-country to Vegas mostly on Greyhounds and Amtrak. I drove a little bit as well just to get off the main highways. And I went across the country on a three-week trip. I took about 2000 photographs and interviewed about 100 people.
A number of things happened. I felt I really got under the skin of this country and felt I was much more qualified to go back to London and write a road trip movie that takes place here. The second thing was on a daily basis I was inspired with ideas that I saw out of the window of the bus and the train and they went directly into the script. Things like Frank’s occupation. I knew it was important. I knew I wanted it to have some relevance. I kept looking at truck stops and factories, trying to work out what he could do. Literally, I was traveling from St. Louis to Kansas on an Amtrak train. I looked out the window and my focus shifted to the telephone wires, and I just thought how beautiful and elegant they were and I looked at the wire and I thought, “Someone has to cut that wire and someone has to protect it from the elements.” And what a beautiful irony it would be if Frank had helped all these people communicate and protected the line of communication but was struggling to communicate with his own family. So that kind of dropped into place.
And I realized this was a chance to show these stunning landscapes. This country is so beautiful. Most of the people I talked to have not traveled as much as I did. I think that’s very common. I haven’t traveled very much in the UK. We take our own homeland for granted. We feel like we know it because we see it on the news or we see it in pictures, read about it in encyclopedias or studied it in school. But I think it is very important to get out there and appreciate the beauty of your own country.
I knew I wanted to include these landscapes but I didn’t want to just insert them in the movie as I think happens in other films just because they’re pretty pictures. I wanted to dramatically have a reason for them being there. So, I thought, the wires are stretching between the poles. The poles are incredibly graphic, these wooden crosses stretching across the country, through deserts and mountainous areas. So there was a dramatic reason to include the poles and the wires and we could hear the conversations and at the same time it allowed me to present the beautiful landscapes.
NM: Your stars in this film are all very accomplished and talented actors but they have very different styles of acting. How did you make that work for the movie?
JK: I was very keen that the level of acting throughout the film should be very natural. This is a film about a real family and the real problems they have. As a film-maker, I always find that it’s more effective to present a realistic view of the world because then you have a better chance of the audience believing in it and therefore investing in it emotionally. So the brief for the actors in general was to underplay, to keep it believable. As the younger daughter, more insecure, drawn to the bright lights, Drew’s way was to overcompensate and be bubbly and charming and more affectionate. I think that is often the way with the youngest.
NM: Is there one theme you keep coming back to?
JK: In the modern world, the importance of us communicating as families. It’s common for us to consider keeping in touch as something on our to-do list. When we used to live more predominantly in communities, more people had direct contact with their brothers and sisters and parents and children. Now it’s much more common for people to say, “I need to be in LA” or “I need to be in New York.” Supposedly we have more sophisticated ways to keep in touch with cell phones and the internet and texting and Skyping and video conferencing. But it takes quite an effort to make that call. Even though it is easier to keep in touch I am not sure that translates to actually keeping in touch. So many people leave this film saying, “I have to ring my Mum. I have to talk to my brothers and sisters.” That is a very fulfilling theme to be able to address.