A filmmaker with a successful formula

The Baltimore Sun

Jeffrey Blitz is one of the most articulate new writer-directors around; he also stutters. So when his documentary Spellbound opened four years ago, he promoted it with e-mail interviews.

These days, he says, his stuttering "comes and goes." But for utmost fluidity and ease, another e-mail interview seemed just what the speech doctor ordered to mark his made-in-Baltimore debut feature, Rocket Science. It's set where Blitz grew up, in suburban New Jersey, and it has a stuttering hero, Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson), who joins the high school debate team, as Blitz did.

It's no wan coming-of-age film. Witty and allusive, Rocket Science is to Superbad as Woody Allen is to Mel Brooks.

Blitz and Superbad's screenwriters, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, like Allen and Brooks in their early movie days, share a primal comic flame but fan it in wildly different directions: Blitz (and Allen) into absurdist romps and depictions of "sex in the head," Rogen and Goldberg (and Brooks) into ebullient scatology and sexual burlesques. Blitz even cast Superbad's star, Jonah Hill, not as a randy teen hedonist but as the would-be catalyst of the Junior Philosophers club.

Happily, there's nothing junior about the filmmaking in Rocket Science. It's a witty, assured look at adolescent insecurity.

What lured you to Baltimore were flexible child-work laws and financial incentives. But what about the existential advantages of being in an area that has cozy and tough neighborhoods like the movie's Plainsboro and Trenton?

Hmmmm. In truth, practicalities end up ruling your choices at the end of the day. And the practical advantages offered by Maryland were the ultimate enticements. It was the legal, fiscal and tangible advantages that had us shooting in Maryland. It is, after all, a film set in New Jersey; practical things needed to dictate that we wouldn't shoot there. You tend to let the existential stuff take care of itself.

You studied creative writing at the Johns Hopkins University -- and this is really a written piece. You want us to feel close to Hal yet also have an ironical distance to him. Was that where the narration came from?

Sure, I think the narration is a specifically literary device. But the movie is about a kid trying to find perspective in his life and, through that, to find a voice. To me, this idea is underscored by having a character who is purely a disembodied voice. One character lives in the world and utterly lacks a voice; another character exists only in the form of his voice. This kind of opposition always felt intriguing to me.

You wanted your sense of humor to be your main guide. But what you learned at Hopkins, especially about point of view, must have come into play. Did any of your former teachers comment on the film after the Maryland Film Festival screening?

While I certainly wrote with the idea of making each scene funny, I can't help but approach my writing, any writing, with my Hopkins background in mind. As far as I know, [John] Barth hasn't seen the film yet, but Jean McGarry and I sat down the day after the Maryland Film Festival and had a great and far-ranging discussion about the movie. That's been a highlight for me, to return to Homewood and get feedback from my old friend and former professor.

Did you get a better grip on what was happening in your early life after you made this quasi-autobiographical movie?

I wish I could say that I did but it's not really so. I created a lead character who is actually nothing like me, who blends into the background, keeps his trap shut and kind of dissolves as his family crumbles. I was never that kid and my family was never that family. I was always tougher, more willing to take risks and to fight to be heard, and my family is still together and ever-supportive. So, no, when I see the film or reflect on it, it doesn't feel personal in that way. Had I made a documentary about myself, it would be a different story, I'm sure.

How did you take to working with actors? Did you ever study acting yourself?

I believe that the real secret to great performance is first to cast right and second to protect your actors on set. The first part of that equation is obvious but many people don't know how to cast; it's a learned skill, I think, to sense an actor's potential based on a few minutes of unrehearsed performance. The second part is even harder because film sets are notoriously tough on actors and as a director you have to be strong about creating safe spaces and open lines of communication. Actors speak in a language that's different from everyone else on set and you need to be fluent in that language. I'm no actor, I've never taken acting classes, but it's unnecessary to directing.

The film doesn't trade in the usual geek-freak-jock categories, but there's a lot in it about status, and there's a general air of people protecting their particular turfs -- even Hal's sneak-thief brother, Earl, insists that Hal not muck around with his stolen goods. Is this how you feel people organize their identities?

Well, what I like about your observation is that I always imagined the characters in the film as being on an even playing field: They're all outsiders. But instead of bonding over this ex-communicated status, they all have their own outside turf that they try to protect. It's part of the loneliness of the film, the way these detached people can't manage to push past their own territories.

This film is about silences as well as talking -- perfect for a stuttering hero. And music plays a strong role in it. Are we supposed to take some of the soundtrack's song lyrics as the voice of the movie?

The music to me was always less the voice of the filmmaker and more the voice of Hal. Stutterers often find alternative ways to express themselves. Many become painters or cinematographers. But some become strong gesturers. And some become obsessed with music. I felt like all these things were available to me in shaping the film. There's a lot of "giving the finger" for example which is more than just a dumb gag -- it's an unspoken way of expressing a powerful emotion and it carries even greater weight when it's used by someone who can't find the words he needs.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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