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Sundance: Dennis Quaid & Writer/Director Lee Sternthal Talk Shooting Digitally & Making 'The Words'

The Playlist By John Lichman | The Playlist January 28, 2012 at 10:49AM

Dennis Quaid is as talented as his willing to tackle of variety of films. From big special effects blockbusters (“G.I. Joe: The Rise Of The Cobra”) to acclaimed dramas (“Far From Heaven,” “Traffic”) to carefully pitched dramedies (“In Good Company”), he’s shown a knack for moving skillfully from project to project, whatever it may be.
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The Words Sundance Crew
Dennis Quaid is as talented as he is willing to tackle of variety of films. From big special effects blockbusters (“G.I. Joe: The Rise Of The Cobra”) to acclaimed dramas (“Far From Heaven,” “Traffic”) to carefully pitched dramedies (“In Good Company”), he’s shown a knack for moving skillfully from project to project, whatever it may be.

2012 finds Quaid on the slopes of the Sundance Film Festival where his latest effort “The Words” has made its world premiere. The film, a long-developing dream project from writer/directors Lee Sternthal and Brian Klugman, finds audiences traversing three intersecting narratives in a story about a writer who steals another author’s work and finds fame. We caught up with Quaid and Klugman at Sundance to talk about the film. Here’s what they had to say.

How does it feel to have your first film closing Sundance?
Lee Sternthal: It's amazing. When we went to the [Sundance] Lab back in 2000, that was such an amazing experience. There's all these chances to go to Sundance just to come into the festival, but I said I didn't want to come unless we had a movie to show here. And then to have the opportunity to do that even though it took a decade is amazing.

Ten years in, how has “The Words” evolved?
LS: When you're 26 you write something, you're going to have ten years of experience by default. And for a movie that's a little more personal you're going to bring that experience to bear. So I'm hoping that it's become more emotionally truthful and sophisticated as opposed to more precocious, guessing. I think I said in ten years I'll say, “I wish more could happen because I'd know so much more now.” I don't know if the structure has changed as much as the understanding of life.

Dennis Quaid: I was really surprised, especially when I met you guys and how old you were. Having written something so far beyond your years and life experience and maturity.

What was your mind-set in taking the role of this author?
DQ: To me the ambiguity -- is this Clay's story or a story he made up out of his head? Even that is a question to me, to tell you the truth. The truth lies in things that have no words. So each of the other characters, whether it's Rory or the Old Man, are a piece of Clay and what he'd like to be. Then he's also very mysterious about where his life is at right now and he's used to this situation where he's going to these readings of these books and there's always one beautiful, seductive girl around that's really into the writer. And she's the one he's trying to pin it down for and in a way she's the audience to find the definite answers he really can't supply himself.

What was the experience of working on short, 25-day shoot?
LS: The actors were so prepared and we were so fortunate to have this cast. They bring their ideas and adjust a couple things, but that’s the experience that Dennis, Jeremy [Irons] and Bradley [Cooper] bring to bear. I think it makes you sharper, those challenges put you on point for the right reasons.  It's not only the 25-day schedule, it's the weather, the location. You sit down and plan this out with your production designer, cinematographer, actors and then you get to the location and that dictates so much. You have all that preparation you did and that allows you to be spontaneous. That's the joy of creating.

DQ: It gives you less time to think. I love working that quickly—sometimes we were doing six, seven pages a day. There's no time to think about any of it and you let it reveal itself.

Why did you decide to shoot using a mix of film and digital?
LS: We had film—for very particular reasons. For Rory's story we shot on straight film and we wanted the gritty realism of Clay writing; this young bohemian artist making it in New York. When we go to Paris we shot with a Panaflash, we did a bleach bypass that gives it that dream-like feel because that is a dream and romanticized vision. We love Terrence Malick and “Days of Heaven,” so we wanted to use some of those techniques. For Dennis and Olivia [Wilde], that's contemporary, so that's real and we used the Alexa to capture the reality of right now. Just doing these subtle things visually to set off each story and that's why we chose to do it.

As an actor, has the evolution of behind the camera been interesting to watch?
DQ: Yeah, it has. At first coming on a set and seeing the digital, you're always wary of it to begin with. But it actually winds up making things easier. You're able to move faster and my least favorite times on a set is when they change a reel. Half the people are standing around and there's nothing to do in those moments. There's the ability [with digital] to shoot in all different kinds of light that makes things more efficient.

Speaking of shifts to digital, I understand you’re working on a film with Ramin Bahrani
DQ: Yes, I am. He's a very interesting cat. “Man Push Cart," "Chop Shop," "Goodbye Solo” -- he's just a very interesting director that I felt I needed to work with and see the story he wanted to tell. It takes place in Illinois, I play a corn farmer. Ramin just makes an interesting film. I haven't seen it yet. It's about the choices that we make in life. It's just this family that comes from a long-line of corn farmers and keeping family together [and asking] what is family?

Lee, what do you have going on after “The Words?”
Lee: Brian and I are writing a film for Warner Brothers based on a graphic novel called “Rex Mundi,” that Arvid Nelson wrote. It's takes place in Paris in the 1940s, but it's an alternative history where the Inquisition never ended and still reigns. It's going to be a fun movie, we're excited about it.

"The Words" closes the Sundance Film Festival this weekend and will be released by CBS Films.

This article is related to: Lee Sternthal, Dennis Quaid, The Words, Sundance 2012 Interviews


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