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Exclusive Interview: Nick Cassavetes for "My Sister's Keeper"

By Melissa Algaze Monday June 22nd 2009 12:41PM
Nick Cassavetes for "My Sister's Keeper"

Nick Cassavetes is tall, tattooed and commanding from the moment he enters the room. This is not what you would expect from the man who brought us the hit romantic drama "The Notebook," based on the bestselling Nicholas Sparks novel and starring Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, James Garner and Gena Rowlands; and the upcoming tender family drama, "My Sisters Keeper."

But Cassavetes' facility for character-driven intimacy was first evident in his feature film directorial debut, the critically acclaimed "Unhook the Stars," starring Marissa Tomei, Gerard Depardieu and Gena Rowlands, which he also wrote.

Over the years, Cassavetes has created personal films marked by narrative authenticity and universal resonance and has done so again with "My Sister’s Keeper," based on the bestselling book from Jodi Picoult.

"My Sister’s Keeper" centers on Anna Fitzgerald who has coped all her life with her older sister's Kate’s rare cancer, and has served as a donor for her for as long as she can remember. She has missed many opportunities to live a normal life in order to be there for her sister, but has never resented it. Finally, Anna says no. Seeking medical emancipation, she hires her own lawyer, initiating a court case that divides the family and that could leave Kate's rapidly failing body in the hands of fate.

Cassavetes spoke about the personal perspectives he brought to this story as a parent of a sick child, the challenges of making adult dramas in today’s studio environment and the casting of Cameron Diaz in her first role as a mother. Melissa Algaze reports

Question: This is a very different ending than the book has. I was wondering why you chose to change the book?

Cassavetes: I would say this. When I read Jodi’s book, when I got to the ending that was one of my favorite parts of the book. I loved it, but that being said, I would say that movies are different than books and when you do a movie, you have to do a lot of research to do a movie because people are asking you questions and you don’t know what you’re talking about. So, what you do is you go and visit sick kids in hospitals. I’ve had a lot of experience going to pediatric hospitals, in my own experience, going to cancer hospitals and talking to kids and doctors and finding out what this and that and the other means. Really, when Jeremy [Leven, the screenwriter] explained to me that at the end of the day, "Stop thinking about the book. What would you do if you were her? Don’t think of it as a topical kind of story. Don’t think of it as a legal type of story. This thing is actually happening to a family. There’s a mother, there’s a father, and they have a sick kid and they’ve got problems." So, when I thought about that, it seemed to simplify this story for me.

Question: Is this process cathartic for you, dealing with your daughter?

Cassavetes: I think that it’s great as a director, you get to play all the parts and you try to make them all real. I think it’s important, it’s what we do. You explore the material that’s in the movie or in your story. That’s why I get my kicks making movies, man. I get my kicks making movies so I never shy away from the work.

Question: With what you said about the research you did, I imagine audiences might find some of the ideas controversial – not just asking hard questions but suggesting hard answers like maybe the mother wanting to protect the child at all costs wasn’t the best thing for that baby or it was okay for Abigail (Anna) to be a little selfish. How do you propose those ideas without coming across as judgmental or conceited?

Cassavetes: Families aren’t logical. Families are emotional. There’s always some weird person in the family and, if you’re like my family, all of us are strange. When things happen, people are entitled to have opinions that aren’t politically correct. I don’t believe the mother is particularly sympathetic in this movie, but I understand her completely. I don’t think that the daughter wanting to stop being poked, prodded and cut upon is perfectly logical, but I don’t sympathize with her. If things were so politically correct and pat, then they’re not worth exploring. The fact that this family doesn’t come together and all the pieces don’t exactly fit is what makes the story worth telling and it’s also my experience with family. I’ll probably have a message on my machine right now with my family having some kind of a problem that they shouldn’t have, but that’s the beauty of it. What Jeremy’s done so well is to capture a family in all its imperfection. That’s really what the film sets out to be and hopefully becomes, is an examination of a family that’s going through something very hard.

Question: This film works because of the two young actresses. Can you talk about the process of finding the two young women who play the sisters?

Cassavetes: It’s strange because I don’t do a lot of auditioning. The auditioning of children is an empty experience because some kids are very well prepared for auditions and aren’t particularly good actors and some are really great actors that have certain problems with auditioning. That’s true with children and adults alike. So, what you do for an adult when you cast adults is that you go by their body of work and then you talk to them about the part and their points of connection to the character and all the kind of stuff that you do when you’re making a movie. With children, it’s harder, not because they can’t talk eloquently about their part, it’s that they don’t have the body of work to support your absolute belief in them. With Abigail, that wasn’t the case. I’d seen her work. She’s a 70-year-old woman in a 12-year-old’s body. She’s so soulful and so gets it. I find myself trying to catch up to her intellectually as opposed to dragging her along. There’s something very, very special and still and knowing and nurturing about Abigail Breslin. It’s astonishing when you think this child who’s so caring, and she just gives that off, that she’s not going to help her sister, which really helps our film. So, when she said she wanted to play the part, I was like, "Okay, we’ve got her. Good. That’s my girl."

Sophia was something completely different. She was on a television show. I had never heard of her. My casting director walked back into the office -- she and Mark had found this girl -- and said, "You’ve got to see this." I said "I’m busy right now." She said, "No, you’ve got to see this." So I came in and I read with her. With Sophia, the beauty, the thing that you want to capture, exploit, whatever the word is, is she leads with her heart. She feels so much sometimes, she almost feels too much. Her sensors are wide open to the world. When you watch her, like we talked about before, selling the fact the a girl is 16 but she knows so much about this world and the other world that she decides it’s better to go to the other world now and that’s okay. That’s a tough thing to sell and it’s a tough thing to sell for a girl who is not still water, who you don’t believe has an understanding of this world and the next. With Sophia, that responsibility fell upon her shoulders and it fit her like a suit. For some reason, I believed that she was the type of person that would make that sacrifice, not only for herself, but for her family. It was just as simple as that. Obviously, she’s going to be one of these brainiac kids that graduates summa cum laude from some Ivy League university. She certainly has got the intellect but it’s not what I was looking for. I was looking for her emotional intelligence. I was very lucky to have her.

Question: Can you talk about casting Cameron? What did you see in her that made her Sara for you?

Cassavetes: I’ve known Cameron for a number of years and did you ever know or get to meet somebody and they do something and you’re like, "That’s not them." I see her in comedies and I’m like, the totality of Cameron, I have to think about it. This is a girl who’s probably made a lot of dough in her life. She can make people laugh. She’s pretty. But, that’s not her. She’s a woman who cares about the planet. She has a lot of thoughts about being responsible to this world and to her community. She’s just a great person and a very mature person. But the fact that she can make people laugh, that’s the first thing that people jump to. Remember when Tom Hanks was doing "Bachelor Party" and "Nothing in Common" and suddenly he decided to make serious films? People were so mad at him. They were like, "C’mon, dude. You can make me laugh. Woody Allen’s making "Stardust Memories". Are you crazy?" It’s such a rare commodity for people to be able to make you laugh and take you out of whatever experience you are in at the moment that they not only expect you to do that but they want you to do that because it’s such a satisfying experience.

Question: Did you have to reassure Cameron she could do it?

Cassavetes: That’s a very good question. I had an idea for this character because I kind of lived it. You have to understand that some of the traps actors fall into are in life; we never want to show people why we’re doing stuff. I’m not really trying to show you why I’m answering the questions. Most of my life, from most people, it’s private and intentionally so. But actors sometimes feel the need; they want their character to be universal. They want the audience to relate to their characters or they want to show you. Usually what that translates into is they suck around for sympathy a lot.

With this character, it’s very strange because her character is one that has singleness of vision. She wants to take care of her daughter. She doesn’t give a sh*t, excuse my language, she doesn’t give a damn what anybody thinks about her. She’s just doing that and if anybody gets in her way, she’s going to bulldoze them. It’s not 100% sympathetic of a character but that was how I felt. That’s kind of the truthful nature of what my experience is and what I could give to the part. So when I explained to her that’s what I wanted, she said, "Really!" I said, "Really." And to her credit, she said, "Okay." So a lot of terrible things happen. It doesn’t all happen, it’s not a waterfall that one thing happens, it’s just one pin drops, another pin drops, another pin drops. In the hands of a lesser actor, they would, how can I say this? The character would go to the audience and say, "See, look how bad this is getting. Don’t you feel sorry for me?" But she’s a tough character. Sara Fitzgerald is exactly the mother that I would want if I were sick. That’s who I’d want. That character right there. Thank God I got one like that.

So really, our experience of working together was identifying what we wanted out of the character and being diligent about keeping that. Clearly something happens later on, she’s able to get some vision and the character changes but really just right at the end of the movie. So it’s a brave performance. It’s brave in concept and no doubt she could do this. This is a really wonderful actress and over the next few years you’re going to see, she’s going to be borne out to be one of the finest actors of our generation.

Question: Now in many ways this film bookends John Q.

Cassavetes: I think there are just a lot of experiences. I don’t know about John Q. I think each film is a separate thing and John Q was one thing and this is another and maybe I was better prepared to make this film than I was to make John Q a million years ago, although I like the film a lot. I think that people go to movies for all sorts of reasons. Am I going to go see Transformers? You bet I am. I like to see cars change over into robots. I think it’s awesome. No, I do. Escapism is great, but there’s room for all types of movies. Just because I don’t direct movies where helicopters explode, it doesn’t mean that those movies are bad or those movies have any less validity than the movies that I choose. I’m interested in stuff. I’m interested in people.

Question: Would a studio exec greenlight this movie today?

Cassavetes: Who cares what executives think? I mean, I don't know. I really don’t know. To be quite honest with you, it’s hard to get any movie made these days. We’re in difficult economic times and movies cost money. People like to bet on sure things. They don’t like to bet on things that aren’t sure things. It always is an absurd process of trying to get a movie made. The ones that should get made never do and the ones that shouldn’t get made always do. It’s mind boggling. I don't think you can take dramas out. You know why? Because girls go to the movies and girls like to see things that are interesting rather than exciting. Young guys like to see things that are exciting. Me, I like to see everything. Every single movie that’s out I like to go see because I love movies. But would this movie get made now? I don't know. I think it would. I think that what happens is, strictly from a business level, that - - I know, I know, I’m putting my foot in it. But the book is a very successful book and it gives the people who put the money up confidence that a lot of people will go see the movie. Whether that’s true or not, who knows?

Question: The film is beautifully shot. Can you talk about your collaboration with Caleb Deschanel and how that worked in support of the story?

Cassavetes: Caleb is a salty old guy like me. He’s got great eyes. He suffers fools very little so he’s not only a great DP, he’s a great storyteller and a director in his own right. So when you have two guys that really are opinionated and kind of know their stuff to a certain degree, there’s a chance that it can all fall to pieces and there’s a chance that the combination of the two is greater than the sum of its parts or whatever, what have you. Caleb and I, and it’s really weird because shooting a movie is about taste. Young lady, you probably have a favorite color and you probably have a favorite way the film looks. Everybody has tastes about certain things and not only that, they don’t change. They’re pretty consistent. You don’t have a new favorite color next week. Sometimes it does that but most of the time it doesn’t. So Caleb and I sat down, like we do with a lot of your department heads, you talk about what you like. Basically, the stuff that I like is stuff that he’s been doing for years. We decided to do a certain number of technical things on the film and we had some challenges for us because we’re doing flashbacks and we wanted to represent certain - - we didn’t want to put the supers of "Now it’s 1989" because we flash back and forth so many times. It would’ve been annoying. But he said to me, "When beauty and accuracy collide, what wins?" I said, "Beauty." He said, "Okay." That was the way we approached the film and I wanted to not only show that then this happens, then this happens, then this happens. I wanted to show, as a director’s point of view, the world is beautiful, man. Even the most mundane things, hospitals are beautiful. Everything is beautiful. That’s the way he shot it and I’m very pleased with the look of the film.

Question: How important is pacing so the audience doesn’t collapse?

Cassavetes: It’s interesting when people describe your film as there’s points in the movie where they feel relief. I think pacing is always important. You never want to be self-indulgent. You never want to sit in something too long. I don't know, but a lot of stuff happened in the movie. So that’s kind of a - - I guess it’s story dependent and this had a lot of story in it and a lot of things we wanted to get to so I think the film is helped by a quicker pace. Otherwise you’d sit around and have it be a cryfest.

Question: What’s the status of "Bombing Harvey"

Cassavetes: I don't know. The script is written and they need to put the money up for the film. It’s a great story.

Question: What’s your next one?

Cassavetes: I don't know what it is. I’m writing a script right now that is out of my own brain so it’ll probably take three and a half years to do, but no. I’m very excited about something I’m writing right now and I’m just choosing between a couple of things right now.

Question: Will it be lighter? Dramatic?

Cassavetes: I don't think I’m going to do any cry baby stuff for a while.

Question: Where does The Dame Daphne Sheldrick stand?

Cassavetes: You know what? They just pulled the plug on that. I thought I was going off to Africa to do that but they didn’t want to do it.

Question: That’s a powerful story.

Cassavetes: I loved it. I was surprised that they didn’t.

Question: I’m sure it’s no surprise that men also love The Notebook.

Cassavetes: You know what? It’s okay for guys to be able to feel stuff, you know. We can be men and cry.

Question: I’ve been at junkets and talked about this and Ryan calls us all [male reporters] sissies.

Cassavetes: Ryan does? You know what, Ryan, he’s a young man and he doesn’t fully understand his place in the world. He’s far too cool for this movie. You know what? One day, he’ll look back on it and he’ll realize that he wasn’t. [kidding] I’m happy that you like it. It’s a strange film. It is a strange film but one thing that’s good about it is I believe in love so I believe in going all the way. Some of my films will say that and I think that’s what’s important about that movie. Men are portrayed like kind of unsure of commitment and women are portrayed as needy but I feel that if someone goes all the way with me, I’ll go all the way with them and I believe in that.

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