Auggie — Review and Interview

This movie is like Her (Joaquin Phoenix) meets About Schmidt (Jack Nicholson). And I liked it better than those movies, and those were films by Spike Jonez and Alexander Payne — two of the best filmmakers working today. And to think, this movie was made by the young filmmaker Matt Kane, who was an actor before taking on directing duties.

It might not be as good as Ex Machina, which dealt with artificial intelligence. But this movie is a lot better than Marjorie Prime (Jon Hamm as an AI hologram designed to look like a widow’s husband from their youth). 

I like Auggie about as much as I liked Robot & Frank (Susan Sarandon, Frank Langella). Robot almost made my Top 10 list in 2012. Auggie is currently on my Top 10 list for this year.

This type of premise is perfect for sci-fi in this day and age.

Felix (Richard Kind) is an architect. We see him at his retirement “party.” You can tell from his facial expressions, and his speech, that perhaps he’d rather be staying with the firm. Instead of a gold watch, he’s given a pair of “auggie” glasses (augmented reality). He’s told by the woman handing them to him, that it’s a digital assistant that only he can see and hear when he wears them. 

Since Auggie is played by model Christen Harper (real life girlfriend of Rams QB Jared Goff), any guesses on if Felix is going to fall for her?

It’s not just that she’s easy on the eyes (pun intended), but these glasses tap into your brain, help figure out your needs, and have conversations based on what you might find interesting.

What makes this story even more interesting is that Felix has a wife (Larisa Oleynik), and because the script is smartly written — their marriage seems like a real marriage. It’s not some movie marriage where they’re madly in love. It’s not a bad marriage where they’re always fighting. They sometimes snap at each other. They’ve grown comfortable with each other. She wants him to start up a consulting firm, and she got a promotion that has working her a lot more hours. While she’s working those hours, she seems to possibly be gravitating towards her boss. 

Richard Kind is one of those great character actors that plays the perfect sad sack, schlub. He was my favorite part of the Coen brothers movie A Serious Man 10 years ago. And his performance in this is so good, I really can’t think of another actor I would’ve rather seen in the role.

I don’t want to say too much about the movie and give things away. But in the ‘70s, when I was a kid and first started to love film (and what a decade for movies that was)…one of the things that fascinated me were character actors. I’d love watching films and seeing people like Charles Durning, Brian Dennehey, Jack Warden, Yaphet Kotto, John Savage, 

Currently, Richard Jenkins, David Straitharn, M. Emmet Walsh, J.T. Walsh, Oliver Platt,  Ann Dowd, Harry Dean Stanton, David Keith in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Keith David now, and J.K. Simmons. Rarely do they get a part like Simmons got with Whiplash (and it led to an Oscar). This is that kind of role for Richard Kind, but since it’s a smaller picture, it won’t be leading to an Oscar; or even a nomination. And that’s a shame. Hopefully people will at least go out and see it.

4 stars out of 5.

 

I was told I could interview Richard Kind, but I dropped the ball on getting back to the studio in time. I was glad to be able to talk to the two young men that put this picture together — writer/director Matt Kane and writer Marc Underhill.

JOSH BOARD: I liked the movie “Her” but thought your film was better. It seemed a bit more realistic and…something about watching Richard Kind going through a midlife crisis, is more interesting than Joaquin Phoenix moping around. That makes me wonder…when you write a script like this, do you worry about any movies that have similar themes?

MARC UNDERHILL: That’s really kind of you to say. When we get compared to Her, it’s a huge compliment because we’re big fans of sci-fi done well. The genre is so ripe for storytelling because technology has increasingly become a part of our daily lives and interactions, and sci-fi allows us to comment on humanity through a technological lens. While some of the basic story elements are the same in these films, the specificity of each hero’s character arc can explore something unique. In our story, part of what we’re highlighting is how our relationship to technology affects our interpersonal connections, namely Felix’s marriage. The protagonists in Her, Ex Machina, and Marjorie Prime are single and so their relationships to technology don’t verge into the territory of emotional infidelity. That being said, it’s always a concern that people may compare our film unfavorably to any of the films you mentioned. Our hope, however, is that, a lot of the people who like these kinds of films will also enjoy our film.

JOSH BOARD: Matt, you were an actor. How did writing and directing become something you gravitated towards?

MATT KANE: From age nine to 18, I went to weekly classes at the ITV workshop, an acting/filmmaking studio in Bristol, UK. We’d come up with scenes to act in and shoot, then analyze the footage. It was a great way to develop an understanding of how scenes come together on screen. In addition to the classes, I’ve been fortunate enough to get some TV and film work over the years. I took every opportunity on set to absorb the experience, and would often shadow the various directors when I wasn’t on camera. I think in my early teens I started to be truly affected by film and decided that one day I’d love to write a screenplay and direct, but I knew I wanted to wait until I was just old enough that people wouldn’t doubt me. At least not enough to try and stop me from attempting it. That time came when I found a creative partner. Marc and I have been friends since 2012, but started to collaborate and put our ideas in motion for our first short in 2015, followed by an experiment short, then Auggie.

JOSH BOARD: Your movie is currently in my Top 10 of the year. I like that you have a story that…you didn’t try to throw too much into. It’s a story for adults, that I think any adult will enjoy watching. But at any point, did you ever consider adding something to the script, thinking it needed a bit more excitement? I can picture somebody at the studio saying it needs an explosion or car chase or…well, there’s a scene in the movie involving a car accident. I thought for sure, the person involved in causing the accident was going to have been found to be wearing a pair of Auggie glasses, but that didn’t come up. Was that originally something that was in the script, or was that just my mind thinking too much about that specific scene?

MATT KANE: That’s great to hear, thank you for being so kind about our film. We were an entirely independent production where we were fortunate enough to maintain creative control throughout every step of the process, so the simplicity of the script is something we were keen to uphold. At one point, though, we submitted the script to a competition for a grant and received a response from a juror that we ought to consider adding some more “thrills” from an AR standpoint…the specific note was to have Felix and Auggie casually take a trip to the mouth of an active volcano, which made us chuckle.

JOSH BOARD: That’s hysterical. Let’s turn this into Joe Versus the Volcano, and watch Richard Kind melt with lava spewing on him, and the glasses melt on his face like they did to the Nazi in Raiders in the Lost Ark. 

MATT KANE: Now, in regards to the other drive in the car accident that you brought up..that driver could have been wearing auggie glasses. We didn’t think of that! But, in one draft, there was a patient in the ER who had hurt herself while wearing her auggie glasses.

JOSH BOARD: I love nothing more than seeing a movie with a character actor I dig, getting a starring role. For example, J.K. Simmons in Whiplash, and earlier this year, Mary Kay Place in Diane. How incredible lucky you guys were to get Kind. How did that come about?

MATT KANE: We were very lucky indeed. We had an amazing casting director, Alice Merlin, and once the “breakdowns” of our characters were available to talent agents/managers, we heard from Rich’s manager that she thought he might find the project intriguing. We were very excited about the prospect of working with him, having loved his previous work, and sent the script along with our offer almost right away. Rich read it and got back to us the following week about how pleased he was that we brought the project to him. As soon as he was on board, the project had a new level of legitimacy that really helped us secure the rest of our excellent cast for the film.

JOSH BOARD: Over the last few years, I’ve gotten a bit obsessed with how much money movies make at the box office. Mostly because crappy films make so much. Hobbs & Shaw and Angel Has Fallen are recent examples. But a great character study like this might tank, because of the subject matter. Last month I saw Luce, which is brilliant, and I was bummed it didn’t make much money. Is that something you have to worry about, or do you just make the best picture you can with what you’re given and hope for the best?

MARC UNDERHILL: The film industry is going through a huge shift right now, as evidenced by Disney acquiring Fox. The big studios are forced to make films that will do well around the globe, which means mostly comic book movies or sequels. With Netflix and other streaming companies putting out so much content, distributors are finding it is difficult to get the average consumer out of the house and hire a babysitter for anything other than a big-budget film. Luckily, box office returns weren’t a concern for us because we made this film outside of the studio system. Auggie is our feature-length debut as filmmakers and initially no production company was willing to take a financial risk on us. We ended up crowdfunding for the initial production funds, and then later partnering with Strangely Compelling Multimedia to bolster the budget. Now that it’s being released with Samuel Goldwyn Films, we’re hoping to use it as a calling card to establish ourselves in the industry and make more films. Any money this film makes will just be icing on the cake for us.

JOSH BOARD: This movie will certainly establish you guys. It’s terrific. Now Matt, is it easier to direct when you have an actor the caliber of Richard Kind? Are there times he’s doing a scene and…he can be so expressive with his face. Do you think — perfect! He nailed it! Or were there ever times you had to say, “Well, when you’re fighting with your daughter here, you’re getting a little too angry, let’s scale it back”? I only ask that because each argument he had, I thought was brilliantly done. There’s a scene where his daughter is giving him the business, and he points at her and says, “Enough!” It was just so perfect. It’s what a father would do, if being lectured by a much younger daughter, in a way he doesn’t feel is quite warranted. And in the opening scene with him being put out to pasture. The expressions on his face tell the whole story. Is that something you direct, or he just does this based on his instincts as an actor?

MATT KANE: I think that casting is one of the most important parts of the creative process as a director; knowing what exactly to look for in someone’s work that will line up with your material. Luckily for me, Richard’s done so much that I knew without a doubt that given the opportunity, he could depict all of the complex vulnerability and loneliness that Felix goes through perfectly. The subtext — what isn’t said/written in the dialogue — is where Richard’s performance becomes internal, subdued, and rich in emotion. It was a pleasure to see a truly great artist elevate our material with such nuance and depth. If you cast your film with actors that understand the tone you’re going for, established through rehearsals and thoughtful conversation about the material, the best way to work with them is to trust their instincts and gently collaborate on guiding the ship in the right direction. Through that, I was able to gain Richard’s trust as a first-time feature director, along with the other actors…and we had a fantastic experience making the film.

JOSH BOARD: Are there any scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor?

MATT KANE: There was a moment where Felix was caught dancing in the gazebo by a stranger and he walks away with his head down, embarrassed. We cut it because we didn’t want to take away from Felix’s joyful state and force the audience to look at him as someone on the outside would; a man dancing alone in a park and smiling into thin air. Having shot the film so quickly, there was very little we could afford to lose and almost everything else ended up in the final cut. Each and every take was incredibly valuable as our time was so limited, so even the b-roll/connective tissue you see in the film was shot between takes with the actors in order to be used in the edit for breathing room.

JOSH BOARD: I always wonder on smaller pictures about the limitations, and if the days you have to shoot are limited. Sometimes I’ll find out productions only had three weeks to shoot or something like that, and it blows me away. What were you working with in terms of time, budget, or anything like that you feel comfortable divulging.

MARC UNDERHILL: You are correct! We shot the film in Connecticut in just two weeks. Actually, 12 days. The budget was very small, so we slept our LA-based crew members on the second floor of the same house we shot in. It was basically sleepaway camp and was an extremely special, challenging, but fun experience. The town of Fairfield also basically opened their doors to us; practically every location in the film was donated. We’re incredibly grateful for the support we’ve received from our crowdfunding campaign, having stretched every dollar as far as it could possibly go. We’re grateful to everyone who played a part in bringing our idea to life and thankful that you took the time to check it out.

MATT KANE: It’s been an amazing journey for us and we’re excited to tell more stories in the future.

JOSH BOARD: And I’m excited to see what those stories are. If they’re half as good as this, I’ll be a happy critic.

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