- PHOTO COURTESY OF DARIUS FILMS
- IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED… : Ramblin’ man Duke White (Harvey Keitel) fails to kill himself in the film’s opening scene, but by golly, he gets right back up on that horse.
When writer-turned-director Jonathan Sobol looks back on the approximately three weeks in which he shot his ambitious Canadian dark comedy A Beginner’s Guide to Endings, he wonders what on earth he was thinking. Three narratives going at once? A suicide attempt in the opening scene? A stellar cast (Harvey Keitel, Scott Caan, Tricia Helfer, J.K. Simmons) who wholeheartedly agreed to come to Canada in November to work on a first-time director’s indie movie?
Sure, that’ll work.
Yet the film’s overblown situations are made instantly relatable by Sobol’s witty dialogue and eye for detail, and Beginner’s Guide, which screens next at the SLO International Film Festival, hits all the right notes.
When Duke White (Keitel) commits suicide, he leaves a will to his five boys. In the document, he also lets the three oldest boys know that they are going to die, a result of an experimental drug study he signed them up for several years prior. Beginner’s Guide then follows the painfully funny existential crises of the three brothers—“Nuts” (Jason Jones), Cal (Caan), and Jacob (Paulo Costanzo)—as they try to live it up before it’s too late. Simmons, as an unorthodox priest uncle, does his best to keep the boys from going off the deep end.
Somehow, though, the description just doesn’t do justice to this hilariously absurd romp through the surreal setting of Niagara Falls. It’s a film whose finite budget can barely restrain its infinite sense of possibility, like a mother trying to stop her daredevil son from careening over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
From his home in Toronto, Sobol talked with New Times about the inspiration behind Beginner’s Guide, the joys and heartbreak of being a writer/director, and the great incongruities of his hometown, Niagara Falls.
NEW TIMES I was so impressed that you were both the screenwriter and first-time director of this film. Where exactly did the story come from? Was it autobiographical in any way?
JONATHAN SOBOL Um, absolutely not [laughs]. No, no. I grew up in Niagara Falls, until I was like 17, and then moved away. You know, I have a deep and abiding love for the place, and it always felt like a natural place to shoot a film.
NEW TIMES It’s an unusual place to shoot a film, I think, but it’s a welcome change.
SOBOL It was a great pleasure to shoot there. I’ve been a screenwriter for a long time, and this is my first opportunity to direct anything. So I thought I’d try something flashy, though we didn’t have a very big budget, by any stretch of the imagination. Shooting in a place like Niagara Falls seemed like a good move, because it almost feels like a film back lot, that slightly larger-than-life quality, you know, rather than most of Canada—well, outside of the cities—which kind of plays like your typical Northern small town.
NEW TIMES What are some of the advantages of directing something that you wrote yourself, in terms of conveying your message?
SOBOL You can change any line that you want to without getting into trouble. That’s the biggest solace. You don’t have to worry about the writer’s feelings; you just do whatever you need to do. It’s easy, and it’s hard. It’s easy because you kind of know what you want to accomplish in each and every scene, and it’s hard because if you’re running late in the day, and you don’t necessarily have the luxury of time and money to get all the things you want, you have to leave some things on the road. It’s kind of doubly painful being a writer/director … oftentimes, you’ll have great scripts, handled very differently by a director. Likewise, you can have a mediocre script, and a director can elevate the material. It’s also common to have a misunderstanding between the two. And luckily, when it’s just one person, you kind of remove that risk.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF DARIUS FILMS
- YOU MUST BE NUTS : Jason Jones, of Daily Show fame, plays a failed boxer known as “Nuts” because of his opponent’s seemingly coincidental tendencies to kick him there. Harvey Keitel, right, plays his boxing match-rigging father, Duke White.
NEW TIMES Now, back to the story. I just can’t get over it. It takes a certain kind of brain to take this raw human tragedy and turn it into a comedy—in the right way that’s not too comedic and not too tragic. It doesn’t depress people when you mean to be funny. It’s tough to do. What were you thinking when you first got the idea for the film? What were you doing? Where did it come from?
SOBOL I was desperate to write a script to direct, specifically with the intent for me to direct it, rather than working on projects that I would just option to producers, either here or down in the States. I wanted to be a little bit flamboyant. I wanted to be totally challenging, you know? I wanted to do more than one thing. I wanted to do something comedic, and I wanted to do something dramatic. It’s kind of born out of that initial thought process. And then when I was just driving through my hometown with my grandmother, a lot of tangential stories of my youth and of the city kind of weaved their way into my thoughts, and I had the basis for a story.
NEW TIMES What struck me about that was that there were so many details. I was laughing so much at the pancake that “Nuts” serves Todd. He’s like, “Here you go!” And it’s this penis-shaped pancake.
SOBOL It’s not autobiographical. I can assure you that all my breakfast food is non-phallic.
NEW TIMES I guess it kind of shows their brotherly back-and-forth, but it was also one of those things that’s like, “Hey, why don’t we add this? Why don’t we call the little medical box ‘Rusty?’ And [a cricket bat] ‘The Management?’ It added something, a little flourish. To me it seemed like something that had to have come from real life, because how could you make that up?
SOBOL Well, the little touches like that, I enjoy them when I watch them, and I enjoy them when I make them. If you can have moments that make a scene brighten up, as a writer, and then translate that onto the screen, I think that just bodes well for any movie. I like little details in the margins, you know. It’s like with books. When I read a great novel, or even any novel that just speaks to me, it’s always these little flourishes that really intrigue me. It’s the little descriptions of, you know, an elevator, or a slight character mannerism that really, to my mind, the way my brain works, really elevates a work of fiction, or even real life, you know?
NEW TIMES Were you ever concerned with being too over-the-top?
SOBOL Of course. I mean, if I look back on what I was attempting to do, it’s crazy! I was juggling at least three narrative storylines, my first time out, with limited resources and very few shooting days. It was a challenge. It’s crazy. Is this too over-the-top? Is this too subtle? Is this too goofy here? Is this too straight there? That’s part of the exploration, you know? It’s part of the exploration of anyone’s first film. And then when something really works, you can feel it, and when something doesn’t work, you can feel it too. It’s interesting. Especially with dramatic comedy, the question of balance and tone is key. Tone is probably the key word. It’s creating a consistent enough tone. It’s creating a world that’s kind of wild enough for certain crazier things to happen, and at the same time real enough for an audience to identify with a character.
NEW TIMES Now, tell me about the Duke character. Was that written, or at least tweaked, for Harvey Keitel?
SOBOL Harvey was the first person we made an offer to. But it was actually loosely based on my uncle Horst, who is still with us, but was sort of a ramblin’ man, to say the least. It’s funny—when I was a kid he used to have a bar of gold holding open his bathroom door, and he wouldn’t tell anyone where he got it from.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF DARIUS FILMS
- PUTTING THE FUN IN FUNERAL : Scott Caan, Jason Jones, Paulo Constanzo, Siam Yu, and Jared Keeso star as ne’er-do-well Duke White’s five sons, in Jonathon SOBOL’s dark comedy.
NEW TIMES Is that where the silver comes from?
SOBOL Yeah, I think there’s a little bit of my uncle Horst in there. He ran a couple of scrap yards in his time, and some other more unsavory things which I’m not going to repeat right now. You know, he led the life. And the [Duke] character is essentially the narrator of the movie. It’s the audience’s way in and out. He kinda sets it all up and ties up all the loose thematic threads and ideas. Casting Duke was very, very important. And Harvey was the first person we approached, and it was very kind of him to come on up to Canada in the middle of November to work on a first-timer’s film. It was just a great pleasure. And I gotta say, on the first day, it was rather intimidating too.
NEW TIMES I can imagine. It seems that you got a stellar cast for your first time around.
SOBOL I was very fortunate with the casting process. We sent out the script, and luckily, everyone responded to it. And like I said, getting people to come up to Canada in November is not the easiest task in the world. But they were all game, and they were just phenomenal—across the board phenomenal to work with.
NEW TIMES There’s this one scene that has just stayed with me. It’s the scene with the barrel that nearly sails over Niagara Falls. If you didn’t have a gigantic budget, how on earth did you get that? Do you have to get permission to film there?
SOBOL Oh, it’s all CGI.
NEW TIMES Oh. I think I just buy into the world of television. It looks so real!
SOBOL A great company out of Vancouver helped us out on that. It’s very difficult to shoot around Niagara Falls because they’re very protective of the land around there, and it is dangerous too.
NEW TIMES How did you choose that amusement park setting for one of the opening scenes, when he’s trying to kill himself?
SOBOL Oh, that’s the main drag in Niagara Falls. That’s actually, like, a street.
NEW TIMES It looks like an amusement park. I’m sorry, I’ve never been there before. It just seemed so incongruous, this place that’s overtly happy, and he’s walking through it, wanting to kill himself.
SOBOL It’s one of the great incongruities of Niagara Falls. On the one hand, you have one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It’s a completely majestic natural phenomenon. It’s just amazing to behold. And all around it, you have kitschier tourist affectations. … You know, there’s this kind of odd tension in Niagara Falls; there’s still this great natural beauty, and then the certain more “pop culture” tourist traps that choke it. It is that type of dichotomy that interests me about the city itself. And in a way, I think the city is kind of a character in the film. So it’s really not weird to say that you noticed that parallel, because that parallel is really apparent to people who live there. And on top of that, there’s an actual city, with houses and schools, outside of that tourist core.
NEW TIMES How much time did this take to shoot, all told?
SOBOL All told? Including re-shoots? Twenty days.
NEW TIMES What? Twenty days? I was expecting several months.
SOBOL No, we shot it in 20 days, and we didn’t have any overtime. It was very, very challenging. Needless to say, I didn’t get a lot of sleep that month.
NEW TIMES What would you say was the biggest challenge of shooting?
SOBOL I think the biggest challenge of shooting any film is delivering on what you see as the promise in the script, delivering on everything you feel in a dramatic sense, in an artistic sense, in a comedic sense. It’s delivering on the promise that you see in the original material. And it keeps you up at night. That’s the real work in filmmaking; the rest is all fun. It’s fun to kind of be part of the circus that travels around and shoots things to tell a story. The work part is that burden that I just spoke of, that burden of delivering.
NEW TIMES I know the film has been to festivals, but are you anticipating a wider release?
SOBOL Yeah. We’re still in festivals. I’m actually off to Kingston next week … .
NEW TIMES [Gasps] Wow!
SOBOL Oh, no, no, it’s not Kingston, Jamaica! It’s Kingston, Ontario.
Arts Editor Anna Weltner is considering visiting Paris, Texas. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.