Q & A: John Krasinski on “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men”

Writer-Director John Krasinski

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men Writer-Director John Krasinski

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with filmmakers Martin Grove talks to writer-director John Krasinski about his drama “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men”, one of 16 movies selected to be shown in this year’s Sundance Film Festival’s Dramatic Competition.

Krasinski, who stars in the hit series “The Office”, makes his directorial and screenwriting debuts with “Brief”. He adapted the book of the same name by David Foster Wallace to the screen and also is one of the film’s stars. Krasinski first became involved with the material eight years ago when he was a playwriting student at Brown University and participated in a staged reading. That was the defining moment, according to Krasinski, when he first knew he wanted to become an actor.

“Brief” is produced by Kevin Patrick Connors, Eva Kolodner, Yael Melamede and James Suskin. Wallace committed suicide last September after battling depression for several decades. In the book he looks into the “hideous” side of men by presenting interviews with a number of different types of males. In adapting the book to the screen, Krasinski created a graduate student character named Sara Quinn, played by Julianne Nicholson (“Kinsey”), who after breaking up with her boyfriend launches an experiment studying the male psyche. Besides Krasinski, the film’s cast includes such stars as Timothy Hutton (“Kinsey”), Chris Meloni (“Nights in Rodanthe”), Bobby Cannavale (“The Station Agent”) and Max Minghella (“Syriana”).

Q: Tell me about making your first film as a writer-director.
A: It was, to be honest, absolutely thrilling. I think I had it easy, though. I had some amazing people watching over me the whole time — people like John Bailey (his cinematographer, among whose many credits are “In the Line of Fire”, “As Good As It Gets”, and “How to Lose a Guy In 10 Days”. (Being selected for) Sundance would have been in my wildest dreams the ending to this story. And the fact that it’s a reality is completely overwhelming. I’m so astonished and thrilled. I’ve been there before with a little movie called “Duane Hopwood”. Because David Schwimmer was in that and doing all the press work I was just there on a glorified field trip and having a good time. Sundance has always for me been the place where it’s filmmaking for film lovers. It’s such a highly respected place and I’m just honored to be there.
Q: How did the film come about?
A: I had done acting at Brown really just for fun and because I had made some incredible friends. So it was always more of a fun activity. And then a friend of mine was putting together a staged reading of this book and when I saw who was getting involved it was all my friends that I really admired. So it was kind of that age old thing of really wanting to be a part of the cool kids’ table. I really hoped they’d ask me and they did. I ended up doing one of the interviews, which Chris Meloni does in the movie — and, trust me, he does a much better job than I did.
Q: When did you realize you had a project with potential beyond a book?
A: We had rehearsed all the different interviews alone. I thought immediately that it was such great acting material, which was interesting because I don’t think David ever intended to write it to be performed. But it was so well done (and) there was really a little three part (character) arc in every one of the interviews. I remember thinking that was fantastic. It wasn’t until I saw all my friends do the other interviews the night we performed it that I was completely and totally moved. I realized I could try to act for my life. I really wanted to do it. It was just so incredibly moving. The impact it had on the audience was pretty amazing and I’d never seen anything like it. I’d never seen an audience so conflicted. Some people were so moved and appreciated it so much and other people found it very provocative to a point where they weren’t sure how they felt. I found it so interesting that a piece could do that.
Q: After college you moved to New York to become an actor. How did the project move forward?
A: I wanted to work on the piece again with the same friends and try to do it (there). I was always so moved by it that I just constantly tried to get it (done). I remember finding out (about) this whole world of getting the rights. I had never known that whole world. I called and tried to get the rights and found out that it was already taken for the theater. I remember the only thing I wanted for this book was (for it) to reach more people. I wanted more people to feel the way I felt that night at Brown. And that was why I wanted to do it as a film — because I thought it would reach more people and more people would see how much of an amazing writer he was.
Q: Was it difficult to get the film rights to the novel?
A: I did get the rights after going back and forth for a while (and meeting in L.A. in 2002 with Wallace’s agent Bonnie Nadel). There was about a month and a half where it was looking like we were going to get them and then I remember my manager called and said, “It looks like they’re going to say no so I’m going to fly out there and talk to them.“ And I said, “Not without me.” So we went out and I basically found myself in my first pitch session.
Q: And how did that go?
A: I said, “I promise there will be no car chases, no explosions. Honestly, it’s such a moving piece. You have such a talented writer. The one thing I promise is to take care of his work as best I can. I won’t let it be manipulated in any way that (isn’t) adhering to the book.” At that time I was 23 and, believe it or not, I got the rights within the same week or a week after shooting the pilot of (“The Office”). The show hadn’t even come about yet. She (Nadel) took a real leap of faith with me and I can’t thank her enough for it.

(After getting the rights) it was a matter of putting together the script. Honestly, the interviews (in the book) were so good and so rich with material that the hardest part was cutting them down. I just had to edit them into a size and shape where they could be workable for actors. It’s not too big a book and I only used the interviews, themselves. Within the book there’s also a bunch of short stories, which I didn’t use.
Q: The graduate student character, Sara, doesn’t appear in the book. Why did you invent her for the movie?
A: The interviewer in the book is only represented by the letter “Q,” which is to say there was a question asked but you don’t know who asked it or for what purpose. So we had to create this whole character and back story. It’s the essence of the movie (and the person through) whose eyes we’re basically viewing this movie. That was really fun to come up with.
Q: How did David Foster Wallace feel about your screenplay?
A: The one conversation I did have with David Foster Wallace was (when) he called to give me his blessing. I had written the script and we were going into pre-production so we were very far down the line. I think he thought he was just calling to give me his blessing on a script. He said, “Just to give you a little back story on the book, it was a failed experiment.” I said, “What do you mean by that?” And he said, “I was trying to write a book about a character that you never hear from or see, but all the information about that person is through the other characters. I just imagine it’s some girl doing her dissertation at a college (and she’s) interviewing these men to get to the bottom of the male psyche. She’s probably studying something like feminism.”

My heart almost stopped because I didn’t know what to say. He said, “What’s the movie about?” I said, “To be really honest, that’s exactly what my movie is.” And he couldn’t believe it. It was really the highest compliment. That was when I really thought we had something special. To be true to the book was my first and main concern so that was really nice to hear.
Q: What was the advantage of having the character Sara to ask those questions?
A: I think the engaging thing about having this character is that she’s a sounding board. She’s someone you can get behind and see the movie through. She’s the character who gives you the go-ahead to do what I always hoped the movie would do, which is leave you with not a sense of judgment on these characters, but a sense of understanding. I think that because of her you don’t judge these men for being “hideous.” You see this vulnerable side and you see how they’re reacting to her and how she reacts to them. It gives you a real sense of what these guys are really all about.
Q: I know you shot the film in New York in just 21 days. That sounds incredibly fast.
A: It was very fast and furious. It’s definitely the epitome of an independent film. I had — and I think the crew and cast did, too — a great time. You know, the key was casting. For me, I knew that I always wanted to cast all my favorite actors in New York. I knew a few of them, but I known through other friends about them. When I was waiting tables in New York I always had to go to the theater and see plays to stay inspired and stay excited. So all these people that inspired me over the years, I immediately knew I wanted to cast.

I got all these incredible actors like Bobby Cannavale and Ben Shenkman and Michael Cerveris and all these people I had seen onstage or in indie films that had completely inspired me — and they came and did just that again. Being the director was more like being in the audience of a play. I’d just see them through the monitors or doing their scene in front of me and it was just wonderful to watch. I knew that if I got them I’d have a very easy job and I did.
Q: Did being an actor, yourself, affect how you worked with your actors?
A: I think absolutely. I’ve been lucky enough to work with absolutely phenomenal directors. What I found was you know what you respond to and I always responded to someone who had a clear idea of what they wanted but more importantly were also very much open to an actor bringing their own sense of the character. And every one of these people did. I think I was just guiding them. I would basically point them in the right direction and be a glorified cheerleader. I was there to provide the enthusiasm for it.

I didn’t give them the script. I tried to meet everybody for lunch or coffee and pitch them my idea and why I was doing it. And then if they liked it, I’d give them their scene. So everybody came in and knew that they were going to be a part of a whole, but not knowing what that whole would be. I thought that was just so incredibly courageous of them to do and it gave me the confidence to keep going. I owe so much of this movie to the cast.
Q: What was it like directing yourself in the film?
A: It was a tough battle. He’s such a diva — I’ll tell you that! I wasn’t actually going to do a part in the movie. Unfortunately, we had some trouble with casting and someone fell out right at the end and I had to do it because of budgetary and time constraints. Everybody thought it just might be better if I jumped in there. I’ll tell you, it’s probably the most terrifying part I’ve ever played because I’d just spent going on three weeks directing some of the best performances I’d seen and working with some of the best actors who had set the standards so high that I basically had left myself nowhere to go. So I had to hit that note, which was incredibly terrifying.