Q & A with Writer-Director Derrick Borte

Actor Gary Cole (left) with Derrick Borte on the set of “The Joneses” Photo credit: Gene Page.

Actor Gary Cole (left) with Derrick Borte on the set of “The Joneses” Photo credit: Gene Page.

As part of ZAMM.com’s ongoing series of interviews with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to Derrick Borte, writer-director of the dark comedy “The Joneses”, which premiered Sept. 13 at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Demi Moore and David Duchovny star in “The Joneses” as Kate and Steve Jones, a picture-perfect couple who appear to be the embodiment of the American dream. When they move their family into suburbia, the Joneses immediately become the envy of everyone around them thanks to their luxury cars and their gorgeous home. But little do their neighbors realize that this family isn’t quite what it seems to be. As everyone’s about to find out, keeping up with the Joneses isn’t quite as easy as you’d think.

Besides Moore and Duchovny, the film’s cast includes Amber Heard, Gary Cole, Ben Hollingsworth, Glenne Headly, Lauren Hutton, Christine Evangelista and Chris Williams.

Q: Tell us a little about “The Joneses”.
A: I would describe it as a dark comedy with some social commentary satire and a love story. This perfect family moves into this perfect McMansion neighborhood and they’ve got the best of everything — the best cars, the best clothes, the best electronics. You name it, they’ve got it. They are immediately a big hit in the neighborhood and develop a following of people who want to emulate them and begin buying the same things that they have. Then we find out that all is not as it seems in the Joneses’ household. I think that’s probably as far as we should take that part because there are some big spoilers there and I’d rather not be the one to reveal anything. The best description of the film that I’ve heard is, “The Joneses” is what a Frank Capra film would look like if made today.”
Q: How did the project come about? (SPOILER ALERT — Borte’s reply may tell you more than you want to know if you haven’t already seen “The Joneses”.)
A: I had been directing commercials for a long time and had been wanting to get into the feature world. I knew the only way that was going to happen was if I had material that would give me some leverage to actually get to direct something. I was watching an episode of “20/20” or “Dateline” or one of those shows about stealth marketing, where companies were sending models into nightclubs, for instance, to order a certain drink over and over and over again, and realized that other people around them would start ordering that same drink.

Or where they would have someone go out to a popular tourist destination and ask people to take a picture of them with the latest gadget of a camera or video camera and, inevitably, the people would ask about the camera. And when they described it, the sales of that camera would go up. In watching this, the light bulb just immediately went on and I thought about what would happen if you took this to its inevitable conclusion of placing a fake family into a neighborhood to be the Joneses.
Q: Now when you wrote this did you have in mind that you would direct it?
A: Absolutely. That was the reason I wrote it. Through a series of connections I got it to a producer, Kristi Zea (“Confessions of a Shopaholic”, “Revolutionary Road”), who immediately loved it and asked me if she could be a part of the team and wanted to help try to get it made with me. After that I probably took 200 meetings with various people and looked at all kinds of different opportunities to get it made. I had some offers to sell it as a TV show. Kristi had shown the script to James L. Brooks, whom she’s worked with for years. I got a call from him one day. I thought it was a friend of mine playing a joke on me, actually.

But I got a call from him and he told me that he loved the script and he said, “The only advice I’m going to give you is do not sell this as a TV show. Direct it. Make the film yourself and then you can do whatever you want. But you’ve got to make this film.” When you get advice like that from someone like that it’s hard to (ignore). It really just validated what I was just thinking already myself, but it’s great to hear. When you’re staring at the possibility of a large amount of money to sell something, it is tempting. But I ended up staying the course and writing, producing and directing it for a fraction of what I could have sold it for as a TV show.
Q: But you’re happy having done that?
A: I have no regrets whatsoever. It’s the smartest decision I think I’ve ever made.
Q: Well, it got accepted to play at Toronto, so obviously somebody thinks it’s good.
A: I feel proud of it and the team feels proud of it. What happens after that is out of my control. But the response has been really exciting and positive and the programmers at Toronto were just ecstatic in their support of the film, which is great.
Stars of “The Joneses” David Duchovny and Gary Cole (left) with Writer-Director Derrick Borte. Photo credit: Gene Page.

Stars of “The Joneses” David Duchovny and Gary Cole (left) with Writer-Director Derrick Borte. Photo credit: Gene Page.

Q: How did it get into the Festival?
A: Echo Lake, the production company on it, and ICM, who’s selling the film, submitted it. They saw a work in progress cut and they offered us a pretty choice time in their schedule the very first weekend, which is what everybody wants, at the Elgin Theatre, which is apparently the best theatre there, the biggest and most coveted location for a screening there. And we happily accepted!
Q: You’ve got some big stars in Demi Moore and David Duchovny. How, as a first time director, were you able to attract big talent like that?
A: I think it all started with the script. They all responded very positively to the script and then numerous meetings usually followed that and I just seemed to feel a chemistry with everyone. They all had great ideas and they really understood the story and the characters. I have an amazing cast that I feel very fortunate to have been able to work with.
Q: How important is screening at Toronto to an independent film?
A: From what they tell me, the market there is great as far as trying to secure distribution for independent films. Beyond that, you hear different things about all the festivals and I’ve always heard wonderful things about Toronto. All the programmers there seem to be really wonderful and they’re ecstatic about the film. I think that’s really what matters to me. What really struck me was it wasn’t just saying, “Yes, come on to the Festival,” they really seemed to be very interested in the stories behind the film and who all of us are that maybe they don’t know yet. They just seemed like really great people and it seemed like a great place for the film to premiere.
Q: When and where did you shoot?
A: We shot last fall in Alpharetta, Georgia. It’s just outside of Atlanta.
Q: Looking back at production, what were some of the challenges you had to deal with?
A: I had a really A list crew based out of Georgia. The crew was unbelievable and I was very surprised by the talent there, as well. We really didn’t have to go out of market for any of the smaller roles except maybe one or two. But for the most part a lot of the day players were Atlanta actors and I feel like we got some great performances from them. The people there were very nice and it was a beautiful place. And, really, the location, more than anywhere that we scouted, had these massive gated communities with these McMansions in a way that I really didn’t see anywhere else.
Q: Were there tax incentives for shooting in Georgia?
A: There were. The Georgia Film Office is very helpful in terms of everything from location scouting to anything you need. For me, it was motivated by creative decisions and when I saw these neighborhoods and I saw the places I was going to be able to get for locations there I knew that was where I wanted to shoot. Obviously, the business side of it gets involved and the incentives really seemed to work for them and that was a good fit all the way around.
Demi Moore (right) with Derrick Borte, Writer-Director of “The Joneses”. Photo credit: Gene Page.

Demi Moore (right) with Derrick Borte, Writer-Director of “The Joneses”. Photo credit: Gene Page.

Q: Did you take to directing easily?
A: I think my ideas about what it would be like ahead of time were probably far more difficult to deal with than how things actually went on the day there. Having been involved in production for almost 20 years and having directed a large number of commercials, it was pretty much the same thing. It really was going to work and doing the same thing. Obviously, it’s a larger entity in terms of the production, but there’s challenges in making an independent film in that you can’t always get all the time and all the toys that you want. And yet there’s a great sense of camaraderie and teamwork that everyone is really making some kind of sacrifice for the greater good of the project, which is wonderful.
Q: Did you run into any weather problems during production?
A: Mother Nature was incredibly cooperative in that rain delays really could have caused problems for us, but the only time we had rain was the two days we really wanted to have rain for the shoot. So the weather really cooperated. My producers were incredibly supportive in giving me what I wanted in terms of extra cameras or extra equipment on days that I needed it.

So I really didn’t feel like I faced much adversity at all there. It was a great environment of collaboration and really made for a lot of fun. It was really a lighthearted fun set that I think everybody seemed to thrive under. I know sometimes adversity leads to happy accidents and great surprises, but this was really just a wonderful set and a wonderful set of circumstances. It just went exceedingly well.