Jack Goes Boating is the tale of Jack (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an awkward limo driver who stumbles into romance with Connie (Amy Ryan), aided by his best friends Clyde (John Ortiz) and Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega). Previously a play, which also starred Hoffman and Ortiz, it has been made into a movie which marks Hoffman’s feature-film directing debut. The screenplay was written by Robert Glaudini, the man behind the stage play’s script.
North by Northwestern sat down with Hoffman and Ortiz at the Elysian Hotel in Chicago’s Gold Coast to discuss directing, acting and the transition from stage to cinema.
The two of you have been at LAByrinth together for a while now. Had you talked about doing a movie for any period of time? Or did this just kind of come up?
JO: We tried very hard not to bring film into [LAByrinth]. We had a lot of offers and interest in the film world — something as simple as a festival to “let’s work on making a film.” We did that for a lot of reasons. It’s really hard to be committed to doing theater. There’s very little money involved. It’s really hard work. You’re working around the clock. LAByrinth is unorthodox, and it’s even harder because its run by the membership -– who can be crazy sometimes. It needed a very precise focus to be able to honor that — to keep the mission true. The mission was a lot about process. The minute you bring film into it, or some kind of result-oriented thing, you’re cutting to the heart of the company. [The movie] happened organically. It happened because it needed to happen. It just made sense to continue riding the wave of this collaboration. It just was right, without cutting into or compromising the theater. Hopefully it can help the theater. We were able to keep a lot of the cast. Because it happened and it was organic and it was authentic, it can help us, not compromise it.
How does your approach to directing reflect your acting experience?
PSH: I’ve been directing in the theater for like 13 years. I’ve had time for that to evolve and develop. Being an actor, and being a director, they kind of work well together, if your mind works like mine does — if you’re interested in the telling of stories. I’m able to, from early on, see myself in other actors. As an actor you’re very subjective. It’s very hard to be aware of where you are. As a director, you are incredibly objective. You can really take everything in. So when I would go back to acting I would have more of an understanding and an empathy toward what certain directors wanted me to do.
What do you look for in a director?
PSH: I definitely want them to be in charge. I like that. And I definitely want them to be honest. I also don’t want them to settle. How they go about directing is always different, but those three things are important. Some directors will be like “It’s fine. It’s good.” I don’t want to feel that. Don’t be scared to tell me it’s not right. Don’t be scared to tell me you want more. Even if I’m giving off an energy of “don’t come near me,” because I’ve done it enough, please still come near me. Because that is the director’s job: To keep confronting the actors, even though the actor looks like they don’t want to be confronted. As the actor, I appreciate that very much after the fact.
Back when this was only a play, many described it as being cinematic. Is the reverse true? Does the movie feel theatrical to you?
PSH: I don’t think it’s very theatrical. I think if you didn’t know it was a play, you wouldn’t think that at all. Because you know that it’s a play, that’s what you project onto it. “Theatrical” is kind of a general word. There are rules to be broken all the time. There are a couple of shots in the film that are purposely set non-realistically — of the apartment — almost Proscenium-like. One of them is where [the characters] start doing coke. It opens up and you’re seeing the apartment in a way you haven’t seen the apartment before. That’s on purpose to kind of get you off-kilter. Everything is set just right and the music comes in and it is set up like a set. Both of these mediums should be complimenting each other and feeding each other and helping each other break the rules. It should just be up for grabs. Let’s go for it. Let’s not delineate it.
The characters in this story have menial jobs. They don’t make a lot of money. Does that play into their frustrations?
JO: Yes. That’s a really strong part of Clyde. When I was working on the play, it was the one pillar I could latch onto — the economic realities of where they’re from. Coming from a poor, working class environment, what does it mean to have the pressure to make money, to have to survive in a city that forces us to make a lot of money or get the fuck out? Not only was the city telling Clyde that, and his history, but his wife was kind of an embodiment of that as well. That’s where a tangible fork happened in their relationship. That’s why Clyde is going to business school. He’s definitely capable of something else, but is it that? That accounting class? Is that who he is? Maybe not, but he’s doing it because he’s trying to catch up in a way. He’s desperate.
And that’s real.
JO: It’s real in many cities in this country. It’s a fact. People’s lives are just fucking upside-down. They don’t have a job, they’re losing their house, they can’t pay their bills. It’s a very real thing.
What’s the love story here?
PSH: I think what’s beautiful about the story is that a woman is plopped right in front of [Jack], and she talks about her dad in a coma, and he falls in love [snaps]. Just like that. It’s what’s unique about this tale. He sees her that first time, and they’re in love. The drama isn’t “I don’t know if I like this person,” and being kind of nasty to each other before, “Oh, you’re kind of cute.” Instead, they first see each other and it’s like “Let’s have sex.” It’s about how powerful that is. It’s “I have to see you.” With these people, it’s very powerful. And I think it’s powerful for Clyde to see.
The two of you previously starred in a theater production of Jack Goes Boating through the LAByrinth Theater Company. How did you maintain the collaborative atmosphere of the theater as you told this version of the story?
JO: One thing we did was — we kept the writer. The writer wrote the screenplay. And that was a great collaborative effort. It wasn’t about let’s hire X screenwriter from Tulsa or somewhere else, and doctor up this really successful play into a movie. Even though we were mindful that it needed to be different, we were also mindful that we had something great going on – the play, the experience and each other. Faith does a lot. We took it a step further and made sure that everyone that was part of the culture of LAbyrinth was involved. We had amazing actors who had one line in the movie. It was more than a favor, a job, a step to entering the film world. It was about an immersion. And that’s what we do at LAByrinth. And when we’re doing it well, that’s what’s really special.