Max Mayer—Adam—7/24/09

Max Mayer has been to the dance once before as movie director, with 1998's Better Living. Over a decade later, the Sundance Film Festival got Fox Searchlight on his side with Adam, the dramedy he wrote and directed about love and Asperger's Syndrome. Mayer's background is primarily in theater, where his specialty has been premieres of new plays Off-Broadway. He has also directed episodes of TV favorites Alias and The West Wing. At San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Mayer told me all about Adam and his directorial approach on stage and screen.

Max Mayer: How are you?

Groucho: I'm alright. How are you doing?

Max Mayer: Good.

G: Are you going to get a chance to see any of the City?

MM: I kinda am. I'm so excited...

G: That's kind of rare. Usually they ship folks in and ship 'em right out.

MM: I know, but if they—yeah, well, this week we've been to D.C., Chicago, Dallas, Denver, and now here. But so I haven't seen anything of any of those...

G: So, in researching the script for Adam, you went to Asperger's meetings...what were the strongest impresssions that you took from those?

MM: Well, the strongest impression I took was the diversity of people on the spectrum. That people with Asperger's are as varied as the rest of us...There's a saying in the Asperger's community, which is "If you know one person with Asperger, you know one person with Asperger's." And that was really clear, 'cause everybody had their own sense of humor, interests, and degree of openness, all that stuff. What was great about that, I think that released me and Hugh to a certain extent. I mean, I guess Adam to some extent is me with Asperger's—as far as I'm concerned, you know? And then that was the imaginative process. And you make rules for a character and try to get into that headspace, but I didn't feel like I had to—like that there were rules about character, actually.

G: Was there ever thought of enlisting on-set consultants—did you do that, and if you did, how were they able to help refine the character?

MM: We had a consultant. We also had an extremely tight budget. (Laughs.) We had—and he sort of came to visit, I think, twice, but it wasn't like—I mean, it was more like we did the research and then we did the work.

G: Yeah. In casting Hugh Dancy, your initial hesitancy—

MM: (Laughs.)

G: I think was quite shrewd. Can you talk a little bit about that and then what Hugh did in his auditions or what he said that made you say, "This is the guy"?

/content/interviews/296/7.jpgMM: Well, I mean, there was—actually particularly my casting directors were huge fans of Hugh's, and I didn't really know Hugh's work, I think —I'm embarrassed to say—except for Ella Enchanted because I have a seven-year-old daughter. So they gave me...I remember particularly Elizabeth [I], which I was really impressed with, the HBO thing. And then, as we were casting, Evening came out. And in that movie I thought he really stood out. In some pretty fast company, so I thought if you can stand out in a movie with Meryl Streep and Vanessa Redgrave, that's saying something. So I already had a lot of respect for him as an actor. But as you said, so then we sent him a script, and he was interested, and so we decided to have a meeting, and then this extremely charming, affable, gregarious, socially adept, confident young British man showed up. (Laughs.) And, uh, I thought, hm, maybe this is exactly the wrong guy for this part. But then we got down to talking. The first thing that is sort of most glaringly obvious about Hugh, to me, is his intelligence. And it's not like he doesn't suffer fools gladly; it's not sort of overt like that, but you can see that—what so impressed me about him was how actively he listened. And you could tell that he was either making judgments for himself and considering what you were saying. And that's—A, that's something you can't direct. And it was something I desperately needed for Adam. Because he has a sort of smaller bandwidth of stimuli that he takes in, and also that he gives out, essentially. He's not, you know—except in sort of peaks and valleys—his emotional—y'know, he doesn't have as much emotional firepower. So I knew that I needed somebody who was really interesting when they were quote-unquote "just listening." And I got that from Hugh immediately. And then as we talked and we talked a little about things like boarding school and going to schools that—and being the new boy at school and that sort of thing, I realized that he probably had a fair amount of stuff to draw from in his life as well.

G: You're an experienced stage director, obviously. Do you feel generally you approach a piece in the same way? Have you sort of developed a—not a routine, but an approach to material that is fairly consistent, or does each project dictate how you approach the material? Does that make sense?

/content/interviews/296/8.jpgMM: Yeah, totally. I'm just thinking about what you're saying. I mean, I don't feel like I—I mean, one of the great things about film, for me, right now is that I feel sort of like a freshman still about it. I don't feel like I have a way that I—I think that I—much as one struggles against it, if you do fifty or sixty or whatever plays, you do tend to have a way that you approach material...and that's not necessarily a great thing. Because I believe, intellectually, that it's probably best to approach it organically in terms of what the material demands.

G: Of course, here you have your own material too.

MM: Right, right. Right. So I know to think about something essentially visually, and essentially to think in pictures, which I don't necessarily do to begin with in the theater, it has been a kind of liberating—you know, it's kind of shuffled up my mind and, like I said, made me a freshman again, which is exciting. I think the thing that's common to both is that I try to find the personal stake for me in telling the story, to begin with. That will sort of sustain the effort, so that you can go back and go "This is what was interesting to me about this, and what I wanted to talk about, figure out."

G: I suppose that also plays into what jobs you choose to take too. The one that you can't kind of get out of your head , like "I kinda have to do this"—

MM: Right.

G: Then you know you've got that stake.

MM: Yeah.

G: What about in working with actors? Do you feel them out for the way in which they work, because there are oftentimes very different methods that actors bring to the table.

/content/interviews/296/2.jpgMM: Yeah, but y'know, actors get to a good result in a lot of different ways. I was trained as an actor. And I was trained in a very sort of—I hesitate to say Method, because it's come to mean a bunch of things that it doesn't necessarily mean, about temperament, or something—but I was trained in a very Method-based, very "action," "objective"-oriented way of doing things. And Hugh, for instance, is—I know that he's extremely thoughtful, and he sort of crams his imagination full of every possible stimulus that he thinks is useful for the character. And then, essentially, behaves. And we never talked about whether he sort of uses "actions," "objectives"—I still talked to him the way I think is useful for directors to actors, or was useful to talk to me. And it seems to—according to him, I guess it was useful. And Rose is altogether different. Rose is really impulsive and spontaneous and just—as soon as she sort of understands the circumstances, she'll just let her mind, body respond to it. So, with her it's—y'know, I tend to be, actually, a little bit more intellectual with her. I tend to, like, talk about circumstances and make sure she's sort of rooted in the circumstances. And then let her play. And with Hugh, I'll assume that he's, like, done that to death. And then I'll give him maybe a different kind of action to play or objective to play or something.

G: I know the budget was tight, but were you able to carve out any time for rehearsal?

MM: We rehearsed—well, Hugh came on, like, six weeks before the movie, so he and I spent a good deal of time alone together, sort of more as like writer-actor than even director-actor. Going over the script, talking about story, talking about scene, beat, line, whatever either of us had thoughts about. He wasn't really acting, but we were just sort of aggregating a kind of common-knowledge base about the character. Which really served us beautifully when we got to the set, I think. 'Cause, y'know, we were practically sort of psychic, and it felt like the two of us were in on this kind of joke about who Adam was. And everybody else was weird, but the two of us (laughs) knew...but anyway—or he was strange to everyone else. And then we did a couple of those meetings that you were talking about with Asperger's groups. Then, just before we started shooting, I had a chance to do one day with Hugh and Rose, and one day with Hugh and evertbody else. And that was it.

G: You mentioned, you know, kind of meeting as writer with actor. One of the things that I was curious about is there's a very strong character in the script that never appears on camera...the father. And I wonder what your discussions were like about that character and what was sort of worked out about his relationship with Adam.

/content/interviews/296/6.jpgMM: Right. Well, there was actually a fair amount more in the script than appears in the movie. Harlan [ed. Frankie Faison] told, I think, two or three stories about his father, and whatever. Which Frankie did beautifully, but we—it was interesting: sort of almost everything that wasn't present tense in the movie just didn't feel right and sort of had to go. But to me his father was a jazz musician, basically, who was, I guess—who was teaching at Juilliard. When the mother died, he gave up gigging and his performing thing and...just was a studio musician. He made a pretty good living in order to support what Adam needed. And, y'know, I think Adam was very lucky in his father. He knows a lot of rules about NTs [ed. "Neuro-Typicals"], and he's had a lot of socialization. He could be in a lot worse shape at the beginning of the movie than he is. But he's fairly self-reliant, y'know, because of his father, because of that relationship.

G: And was the thought perhaps that Adam's interests in astronomy and theater had been somewhat inherited from his father: were those things that they shared?

MM: Um, between Hugh and I that was true about astronomy, and the theater part was his mother, who was an actress, supposedly, in our minds. So he got—he started looking at Playbills at an early age.

G: I'm curious if the idea of tracking raccoons' feeding patterns in Central Park was solely a bit of whimsy on your part or if that came from something in your own experience.

MM: No, yeah, my ex-wife and I had this sort of magical night in Central Park where we were walking in the park, and it was, like, midnight. And it was actually in Strawberry Fields, close to 77nd Street. And this family—it was sort of dewy—and this family of raccoons—and the first two of them, the larger ones, were walking on their hind legs. They were walking across this clearing, and there were three little raccoons trundling behind them. And it looked like they were, like, hobbits or something. And it was just amazing. And I, having lived in the City all my life, never knew there were raccoons in Central Park, and didn't ever really imagine there were, 'cause "How did they get there?", basically...So that was the derivation of that, but what was ridiculous, and like the rest of making the movie, was that—so, y;know, getting raccoons for our little movie was like a stunt, basically. So the producers finally found this family of raccoons in Pennsylvania that we could truck in and would work for scale and (laughs) whatever. And so everybody was excited about that. And then two days before we were going to shoot the scene, there was an embargo on the movement of raccoons on the Eastern seaboard.

G: Oh God! (Laughs.)

MM: (Laughs.) So we had to shoot them—we had to put them in later in Toronto. But of course, because of that, while we were shooting the movie, there were New York raccoons all over the place that night. They were just watching us, laughin' at us, it was—.

G: (Laughs.) Wow.

MM: (Laughs.)

/content/interviews/296/3.jpgG: I guess I'll wrap up by asking about the Cherry Lane Theater. There's a scene set there; I assume you have some history there.

MM: I—no, actually. My history with the Cherry Lane theater is of—the owner, the current owner, is a friend of mine, so we could get it for nothing.

G: (Laughs.)

MM: So I could—

G: So you've never directed there.

MM: Uh (thinks), no, I haven't directed there.

G: Well, now you have.

MM: Right. But the—and I had written that monologue for some other theater, and I can't even remember what it was now.

G: Well, we have to wrap up now, I think. Time is out here. Thanks very much.

MM: A pleasure talking to you.