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Jon Poll—Charlie Bartlett—02/14/08

Besides editing everyone's favorite David Letterman film (Cabin Boy...see it with someone you love), Jon Poll is known for his fruitful collaboration with Jay Roach (the Meet the... and Austin Powers films). Poll also contributed to the editing of Peter Weir's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and executive produced The 40 Year Old Virgin for Judd Apatow. Now, Poll assumes the directing mantle, with his debut feature Charlie Bartlett. In the hopes moviegoers show his film a little love, Poll spent part of his Valentine's Day 2008 chatting with press at San Francisco's Grand Hyatt. [WARNING: some spoilers follow--you may want to read after you see the film...]

Groucho: To begin at the beginning, your father was a film producer, is that right?

Jon Poll: Yes.

G: Were you able to traipse around any film sets when you were a youth?

JP: Um, well, he and mom divorced when I was quite young. And we have an awkward relationship, but yes, when I was really young, I was on a couple film sets, when I was like 9. Yeah. Probably before that. I can't remember back much before that.

G: How did you make your way into editing and from editing into directing?

JP: Well, I went to USC film school. When I was in high school, all I did was photography; and my house is still filled with my still pictures—Imagery is where I came from. And then when I was in film school, I did a lot of cinematography, I made a lot of short films, and some of them won awards, and I always wanted to be a director. And I realized really quickly that editing was so much closer to directing than anything else except writing, and I wasn't a good writer. When I got out of film school, my first job was working at a trailer company, because they would pay me $200 a week, and they were really lazy. So they would cut the trailers, and I would get to cut the TV spots and all the sound and finish them. I did that for a few years, and then I was an assistant editor, and then I was really lucky: at 27, I got my first shot on a feature, on a movie called Weeds with Nick Nolte. And I was very lucky to keep working for twenty years. And I've gotten to work with many extraordinarily talented people as an editor—y'know, Jay Roach, who I worked with for years, Mike Myers, Danny De Vito, Peter Weir, Judd Apatow. I hope I picked up a thing or two from all these smart people I worked with. And I always was hoping I'd get a shot to direct, but I was really happy with what I was doing. And, y'know, I had to earn a living—there were all kinds of complexities there. But in the last few years, I got a chance to do more and more stuff. Jay's always said to me for years that he'd like to make me a producer 'cause there's always nine producers on a movie, and none of them actually help make the movie. That's not always true; that's a little facetious. My goal as an editor was always to meet half the producers on the movie. Ironically, on our movie, I could tell you (and someone asked the question the other day) what every producer—every producer actually performed a function.

G: That's good.

JP: There's only one I don't know what he did, and I haven't met him. But that's pretty good out of eight or nine! So I got to do a lot of stuff on Meet the Fockers. I was a producer, and I got to direct like over a month of second unit, which is kind of invisible: it was all the babies. I cast the babies six weeks before we shot the movie and trained them and worked with their parents and a baby wrangler. Jay would go and shoot the scene, and shoot a master with the baby. And it would've taken six years to shoot the movie with the babies doing what they had to do. And then we'd go cut the scene. And he would either shoot a green screen or an element, and then I would come back with the babies and shoot the opposite, either shoot the one with the room, or—.

G: So you would know exactly what you needed—

JP: I would have Robert De Niro or Ben Stiller, over their shoulder to the kid, and so I could line it up on video, and I would have the kid, and I knew it would composite. I think he shot eight-hundred thousand feet of film, and I shot two-hundred thousand, 'cause trying to get a kid to say "asshole" takes a while. So it was a great opportunity. I got to do a lot of stuff, and I really got the bug—I really wanted to direct more after that. And I was lucky enough that—the studio doesn't see what second-unit is, so the first time they saw any of that, it was the babies and the animals. I got to make a cat fuck a dog. A cat have sex with a dog: that's better.

G: (Laughs.) It's Valentine's Day.

JP: Yeah—a lot of that stuff was some of the funnier stuff in the movie, 'cause it's just silly and funny—not related to anything. So the studio was very encouraged when they saw it; I think that's part of why they asked me to help out on 40 Year Old Virgin. And that was really like: I get to go to big-time film school, I get to watch Judd Apatow make one of the best comedies ever made, and sit on the set and kind of consult and, y'know, field calls from the studio. And that got me really juiced, too, so I started to read scripts, actually while I was working on 40 Year Old Virgin, I started looking for a movie. Actually on Fockers. I read a hundred scripts.

G: And this one was passed your way by Jay, is that right?

JP: Well, I read a script called Youth in Revolt, that Gustin Nash had written. And I called Jay up, and I said, "Hey, do you know this guy Gustin Nash? It's this amazing voice here!" And he said, "Oh! Didn't I ever tell you about Charlie Bartlett? I just backed out of directing it. You should read it today." And I read it, and I loved it, I thought it was great. So he called up David Permut and Barron Kidd, who were the producers in control of the project, who had just spent six months waiting for Jay to direct it, and now he's not going to direct it. And he said, "Hey! I'd really like you to meet my editor." And I'm sure there was a long pause on the phone. And so I went and pitched to those guys, and I never pitched to direct a movie before. You know, you'd think I would have asked a few people a question or two. So I had seven pages of single-spaced, typed notes and a whole pitch of what I wanted to do with the movie. And I went in and I had a two-hour pitch. And it was like an 11:30 meeting, and they're like looking at their watches. I go, "I'm not done, I'm not done! You gotta let me finish." And they humored me. And they liked a lot of what I said, in all honesty. And a couple months later, they called me up, and they said, "Okay! We'd like you to direct the movie," and they introduced me to Nash, Gustin Nash, who wrote the script. He and I talked, and he liked my pitch as well. Basically I wanted to try and make it a little funnier and warmer and lighter and more accessible because I felt—the darkness and the depth was always going to be there and that if we could make it as much of an entertainment as possible, people would be more willing to follow us into the second half of the movie, where I think there's some surprises from where it starts. And he was great; we had an amazing collaboration. He's the only writer on the movie. Rare in Hollywood—he wrote every word. And after I met with him, I took the script to Universal, like they said, "Show us something." And they said, "Jon, we really like you, but are you out of your mind? We're not going to make this movie, and if you think anyone's going to make this movie, you really are crazy. It's an R-rated movie with kids and drugs. It's a kid dealing drugs at school!" I was like, "Yeah, but it's going to be really optimistic and heart-warming!" And understandably they looked at me like I was nuts. I had never made a movie. And the script wasn't that optimistic and heartwarming yet; it was leaning that way. And I think naiveté is good sometimes, because I was like, "Well, this is the movie I want to make. There was one other script I'd read, which I'll just throw out there because—um, it was Juno, that I really liked. I couldn't get near that thing. Luckily, Jay is a very generous man and was willing to lose me as a collaborator and, y'know, come and produce the movie for me. So we hooked up with Bill Horberg and Sidney Kimmel Entertainment. And they make a lot of brave movies that other people don't make: Lars and the Real Girl, Breach, United 93, Kite Runner, the list goes on. And Bill said, "Yeah! We'll make the movie. Let's go find a studio partner." And I was like (exhales dejectedly) "Great." So we spend another couple months futile looking for a studio. And no one wanted to make the movie. And eventually I called Bill up and I said, "Look. Will you guys make it yourselves? What, I mean—" and he said, "Yeah, we will. For less money, but we'll do it, 'cause we like the movie." And that was the week before Christmas '05. February 1st I was on a plane scouting locations, April 1st I was in prep—this is like the fastest it ever happens—and June 1st I was shooting. And by August I was back in L.A. cutting the movie. And we finished the movie and premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in May. And it's been a great experience. I'm a very, very lucky guy. Yeah.

G: Were you say any blows were softened in the process of developing the script, even, say, for tonal purposes?

JP: The drug stuff wasn't softened at all. One of the most compelling things in Nash's original script is something that I shot and we cut out of the movie. There were ten scenes that began and ended the movie and were interspersed throughout the whole film of kids talking directly to a video camera about Charlie and kind of the myth of Charlie. And those were some of the darker elements. And some of them were very comedic. In fact, probably the funniest thing in the movie was a minute-long speech Lauren Collins had, about having sex with her girlfriend, that, y'know, will now be lost forever. But the drugs were always there, and actually, interestingly enough, the studio's lawyers, when we first sat down and started talking about the movie, they said, "Well, you're obviously changing all the names of the drugs,' and Nash and I looked at each other and went "Why make the movie then? You want to call it Tirarilililin? I mean, what are you going to call it? How is it going to be relevant?" And they said, "Well, you can't get sued," or "We can't be sued." And we said, "We'll be responsible. We've already been doing research." And we had a psychiatric consultant. And ironically it helped us. Because one of my favorite sequences, just for fun, is the Ritalin montage. And our consultant said to us, "Well, what you really need to do is very clearly say: you take Ritalin for three days, and if you have no side effects, then you take the higher dose." So that let us spread it out over—so I got some more piano-playing and running around in the pool before he ran in the street. But no, the extent of the drugs was always there. And, y'know, Kip's suicide was always there. In fact, that may have become more poignant and stronger. Because the movie has all these huge shifts in tone, which was the biggest challenge for me. And we were always trying to have humor in a serious scene and vice versa. That was a scene where we had what we thought was a humorous twist at the end of it, which wasn't so humorous, so we cut it out. So in some ways, I think the drug stuff became more poignant. You know, the dance at school was clearly played for humor and, y'know, we have a couple of girls running with their tops off for a half a second and Len chasing after them. So in the end it's really the same movie. Again, there are some people who are quite shocked by the film. It was interesting; I talked to two parents last night, at Arizona State University. And it was the second marriage for both of them. And somehow between the two of them they had four kids between fourteen and seventeen. And they said they loved the movie but they were terrified, because it made them realize what—they said, "It played so real it made us realize, 'Maybe our kids do live in the world where this is happening,'" and I said, "Well, I think they do." I don't know that that's bad. Y'know, there's a complexity that we were going for. I still have the same reaction every time I see the movie. The night after the dance, he walks down the hallway. And we've got the Eels song going, ""It's a Goddamn Beautiful Day," and everyone's patting him on the back and he's smiling, and all of a sudden this kid who wanted to be popular, he's popular, and there's a part of me that's going, "Alright, Charlie! I'm happy for you." And then I go "Oh, wait a second. We just glorified a drug dealer."

G: Right, right.

JP: And I think that the thing that you have both of those going on at once is what gives us the credibility to, in the end, be as sweet a movie as it becomes. And, um, look: in the end it's a movie about listening, not about drugs. And, y'know, I hope we're providing a little bit of an alternative and we're not just slagging on shrinks and drugs, 'cause I think shrinks and drugs serve a great purpose when they're properly prescribed. But to hand a kid a pill to see if he is going to have a certain reaction to it is both dangerous and quite prevalent.

G: Yeah, you don't want to treat the kid like the rat in the box.

JP: No.

G: But I think the saving grace of the movie is that Charlie is so relatable and likeable. And he's doing sometimes the wrong things for the wrong reasons at the beginning, but it's a picaresque, right? I mean, he's learning along the way.

JP: Yes.

G: That's what really I think really pays it off: like you said, the film has those two distinct halves. You've talked about that you still feel like a teenager, but you also had the parental perspective. What do you think is the teen perspective that the film projects and also the parental perspective. Or what should the parental perspective be on it?

JP: Well, it's easier because of my age, in some ways, for me to—it was easier for Robert Downey Jr. and I to really talk about—we both have kids who are fourteen years old: they're a day apart. And it was easier for us to relate about that than, for instance, Gustin, I think: y'know just turning thirty. But I hope—I actually believe the movie is for teenagers and for parents of teenagers and, I'll take it one step further, anyone who ever was a teenager. But I think it's a movie that—it's a good film for parents of teenagers to see, and God forbid, maybe they'll rip the headphones off or pull the texting toy out of their hands and talk to their kids. Because I'm lucky enough to have a daughter that I talk to, and she shares her fears with me. And that's kind of the biggest gift I have in my life. It's funny, I've been on this tour, and a couple of days ago she was auditioning for this—this is totally off-topic but now I'm halfway down—she was auditioning for the school play. And it's a musical, and it's mandatory for her small school that everyone—she's the fourth-year whatever it's called—they have to all be in the musical. She's terrified. And I told her, it's true, when I was a junior in high school I was required to do public speaking. And I didn't do it, and I took an "F" for that little part of the thing. I didn't fail the class, but I said, "So look: and now you've seen me. I get up in front of hundreds of people at Q&As and talk about the movie. And she sent me a text the next day; she said, "Daddy, that really helped. I survived." And, y'know, that kind of means more to me than anything. And it meant a lot to me, and it meant a lot to her. This is the corny stuff, and it's kind of silly to talk about it, but I hope people talk to each other more. Y'know, I hope if a parent and a kid go to this movie together—what I like to say is, "You can sit in front and make your parents sit in back so you don't have to, y'know, sit near them, but when you get in the car on the way home, I do hope there's something to talk about. I really don't want to be preachy. Hollywood has this saying: "You want to send a message, use Western Union." Which is another anachronism I pulled out on a college campus the other day, and everyone was silent. And then the guy who was moderating said, "Do you guys know what Western Union is?—Pretend it's an email." (Laughs.) But I do hope it's an entertainment, and part of what I responded to is it's a movie that had something on its mind. I didn't know if I would make a decent movie. I still don't know if—I hope I'll get to make another one; I'm close. I always said this: if I got to make one movie, I'm glad it was this one. Because it's something that I could relate to and that I thought other people could relate to. And that's kinda—it's a way to communicate. Y'know, aren't I a lucky guy that people let me do it?

More to come...

[For Groucho's review of Charlie Bartlett, click here.]

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