Sometimes movies are anchored in the minds of those who watch them, so much so that they become a permanent part of the landscape of when they were watched or released. I first saw The Big Chill when it hit home video back in 1984, but I had already soaked in an integral part of the film as my parents played the soundtrack (on vinyl of course) at home on a regular rotation (and usually at parties they threw). I was immersed in the film and although its subject matter was rather advanced (suicide) for someone of 9-years old, I truly think it is a film that had a profound effect on me without me really realizing it. So when I had the chance to review Jesse Zwick‘s About Alex, a film that covers many of the same themes as Lawrence Kasdan‘s 80s classic, I jumped at the chance. I am excited that I was able to interview Adam Saunders, CEO of Footprint Features and producer of the film, which helped fill in some blanks about the film, its production and the process by which it was made.
While I did mention that this film mirrors The Big Chill in some ways, it also redefines the scenario (suicide) and modernizes it. There is an Alex in both films, both of whom try to end their life. The titular Alex in About Alex (played by Jason Ritter, the late John Ritter‘s son) is not successful in his attempt to end his life. When his closest college friends hear of this, they band together and descend upon the sleepy town where Alex lives to regroup and try to figure out how and why this happened. Estranged from each other for some time, the group’s once tight knit dynamic has frayed and they struggle to bring back the old ways with the spectre of Alex’s suicide attempt hanging over them. A tenuous situation at best, especially when parts of their past lives mix with their lives now. Some things are just not compatible.
Ben (Nate Parker), Alex’s best friend, and his girlfriend Siri (Maggie Grace) are the first to arrive. On the way to Alex’s house, Siri tells Ben of a fellowship that she was awarded that will take her to L.A. There is clear tension between the two as Nate doesn’t want to quit his job in New York and move to L.A. But Siri has something else she has yet to tell Ben. It isn’t helping that he is a frustrated writer, who has been blocked since he published a story in the New Yorker. Later in the day, Josh (Max Greenfield) and Sarah (Aubrey Plaza) arrive at the train station and meet. There is clearly past chemistry bubbling to the surface as they awkwardly negotiate conversation in an attempt to deflect said chemistry. After Alex arrives home from the hospital, his guests aren’t sure how to act, especially since he is acting like nothing has happened and that all is well. The last arrivals are the final college friend Isaac (Max Minghella) and his very young girlfriend Kate (Jane Levy), who is a source of ridicule throughout the film.
As the weekend “reunion” progresses, the dynamic shifts, past catching up with present – Josh and Sarah fall back into old habits only to have Sarah realize it isn’t what she wants, Sarah reveals something to Isaac that he was too blind to see in the past, thus clouding his present and Ben and Siri have tough decisions to make, both about their future together and the nature of their friendship with Alex. Good times are had and tough answers are hammered out to questions that have been outstanding for some time. In the end, are they better off for what happened with Alex and that his selfish act brought them all together? I reckon that’s for you to decide.
While many are decrying About Alex for being a Big Chill knock off, and it certainly has distinct similarities, this film still has plenty of merits. I can’t speak highly enough of Max Greenfield‘s performance as Josh. Taking the snarkiness of his character from The New Girl and adding to it the surliness of a Max Beaumont from Kicking and Screaming (played so perfectly by Chris Eigeman), he really steals the show. Aubrey Plaza is always fun to watch although it sometimes seems like she is trying to hold back from attacking people verbally. The two of them make a great mismatched pair. Jesse Zwick‘s script has some really great moments and most of it rings incredibly true, careful not to veer too far into melodrama or being too sentimental. This is a well put together film smartly shot in virtually one location forcing the characters to confront the issues that face each of them. The dialogue sparkles and never did I think to myself, “that character wouldn’t say that.” This film deals with heavy emotions on a number of levels, which I don’t think happens enough in film. I applaud Mr. Zwick‘s first feature effort and expect to see more great work from him in the future.
I was fortunate enough to get some time with Adam Saunders, CEO of Footprint Features and producer on About Alex, to talk about his organization and this film in particular. Here’s a few bits that I wanted to share:
I love Footprint’s mission. Is this a way that you feel Footprint can distinguish themselves from other production companies?
I think it does. [Footprint Features] came about organically. It started as a theater company, and as an actor, I asked myself, “What are the roles, stories we want to play?” and we did that. The film company has that same sensibility. We want to get great young actors to do these great scenes. I love watching stories about feelings and human beings. And with Ben’s car crash in About Alex – that is why I don’t want to produce action films. Jerry Bruckheimer once said produce the movies you want to see. That’s what we’re doing.
Are there any genres that you would shy away from making? I know your website says you are looking to stay within an $8 million budget – as we know from films like Shane Carruth’s Primer that even sci-fi can be done under this budget.
No action, no horror. Sci-fi is not really our genre either. We look to comedies/dramas/thrillers, films that feature a truly human element.
About Alex is very reminiscent of The Big Chill, except the Alex in this story lives. Was there a conscious effort on Jesse Zwick’s part to align the two films?
It was definitely intentional. The Big Chill inspired Jesse. About Alex like The Big Chill is a universal story about friendship and captured what it means to be friends in this particular time. There is no substitute for real in-person connection. Now, with social media like Facebook and Twitter, you don’t have that same adherence to the face-to-face. The themes of loneliness and friendship and how this film is about people…we hope that will resonate with viewers.
I love the Josh character in the film and how Max Greenfield plays him. He’s very reminiscent of Chris Eigeman’s characters in Whit Stillman’s films Barcelona, Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco as well as Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming. Was his character always supposed be as surly, or is that something that Greenfield himself contributed?
Josh was really a fusion of the actor and what was on the page. Josh was written acerbic and angsty, and kind of over everything. Max really elevated [the role] with comedy, with his depression. Max was a great choice, because he…maintained the angst/anxiety, almost being comic relief while playing perhaps the most messed up character. That says a lot.
How were you able to secure such a great cast for such a small film?
There are three reasons we were able to put together this cast:
– We had a script that stretches what the actors can do, apart from what they play on TV or other films.
– Our casting directors, Linda Lowy and Will Stewart, were great.
– Executive Producers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz lend an air of legitimacy to the project.
One last question – was Timmy the dog someone’s involved in the production?
Casting Timmy was an interesting part of the process. We met all kinds of show dogs and none of them really worked. Timmy is a dog that belonged to a friend of someone on set. They asked if he could “audition” and we had strict guidelines – the dog can’t bark, and must sit still. He/she has to stay on their marks. This can all be difficult when working with animals, so we were very lucky with Timmy. He worked out great.
So that’s that. About Alex opens in theaters this Friday, August 8 as well as being available digitally/on deman. If you get a chance to see this interesting film with a great ensemble cast, take a chance. I’d like to think that you’ll enjoy as much as I did.