A vastly ambitious story about American disconnection in the suburbs, from a first-time screenwriter and an émigré director who arrived at USC film school on a recommendation from Billy Wilder, The Chumscrubber is a film of remarkable scope and thematic complexity.
"We think big," first-time helmer Arie Posin understates when asked about successfully orchestrating an ensemble film with multiple, interlocking storylines, and a tonal audacity that veers from absurdist comedy to deepest pathos. "If we're going to tackle the idea of repression in the suburbs and the separation that exists between kids and adults, I think you need that kind of canvas."
Shot over 30 days in half a dozen locations and two soundstages around Stevenson Ranch, Valencia (half an hour north of Los Angeles), The Chumscrubber has the great good fortune of having been shepherded to the screen by two of the most tasteful and talented producers in Hollywood: Lawrence Bender and Bonnie Curtis.
A longtime associate of Steven Spielberg, Curtis co-produced Saving Private Ryan and produced the filmmaker's A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report. Bender, a longtime collaborator of Quentin Tarantino, has produced every title written and directed by the groundbreaking filmmaker, including Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and Kill Bill, Vols. I and II. In addition, Bender has produced such critically and commercially successful motion pictures as Good Will Hunting, The Mexican, and Anna And The King, among many others.
"Lawrence and I had long admired each other's work but never had the opportunity to produce a movie together," recalls Curtis, who had just signed a first-look, two-year deal at Dreamworks and was looking to work on smaller budgeted films with young directors when The Chumscrubber screenplay found its way to her. "They sent over the script and I took it home and found myself giggling while I read it--not 'ha-ha' kind of funny, but more 'tee-hee-hee' kind of funny."
Curtis continues: "I've worked with Steven Spielberg for fourteen years--he was the only other filmmaker I've ever worked with--so I consider myself very spoiled. And what impressed me about Arie was, at our very first meeting, he didn't just talk about this film, but he talked about the kind of filmmaker he wants to be. He thinks like a filmmaker and has a tremendous depth of knowledge about cinema. On the set he seemed like a seasoned director."
Says Bender of his first reaction to the screenplay: "The first thing that should be said about the script is that the level of writing is extraordinarily high. All of the characters are very complex and interesting, and it's an ensemble piece about suburbia done in a unique way. None of the characters in the movie are entirely good or bad; it doesn't offer any clear-cut answers about life. Both Zac and Arie are tremendous finds."
"Pick Something To Protest Against"
Or: Paging Mr. Wilder
"Arie's father has this saying about making art, 'Pick something to protest against,' says Zac Stanford of Posin's father, Misha Posin, a Russian dissident filmmaker and contemporary of Andrei Tarkovsky. "When we began work on The Chumscrubber script, we didn't start with a story so much as certain themes that we wanted to explore. Hypocrisy was at the top of the list."
In The Chumscrubber, all of the adults in Hillside are attempting to live perfect lives, each chasing after some great goal, some big brass ring they expect will make them happy, some ideal of American perfection in a landscape where the grass is always green and the trees are always 14 feet tall and spaced exactly 12 feet apart. Meanwhile, right under the noses of their parents, neglected children are killing themselves, hooked on antidepressants, and hatching kidnapping plots. Yet, remarkably, the parents are never vilified.
"It would have been very easy to skewer some of these characters," admits Posin. "But we took special care not to do that. For instance, Rita Wilson's character, Terri, is so obsessed with creating her perfect wedding that she doesn't realize her son has gone missing. But we purposefully gave her a scene where she knocks on Charlie's closed bedroom door--assuming he's in there sulking--and turns the focus on him, explaining that she knows how upset he is about her wedding, and that his father Lou will always be his father."
In a wonderful story that sounds like a tall tale but has the benefit of being true, as a young man Posin met and befriended the legendary Hollywood writer-director Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment). "My father had met him in Russia, and once we were living in California, his manager contacted him," Posin recounts. "One day, I'm sitting in high school as a freshman and my dad shows up and pulls me out of class and tells me to put on a suit. 'You're going to meet Billy Wilder,' he tells me." So began a treasured, decades-long acquaintance, with Wilder alternately mentoring Posin and complaining "What's with all these kids wanting to be filmmakers? Whatever happened to wanting to become an accountant or a doctor or a lawyer?"
If Posin learned perhaps one great lesson from Billy Wilder--the great cynic humanist of American cinema--it is never to condemn your characters. Indeed, the very notion that it's an idea rather than a character that is the antagonist of the film gives a sense of The Chumscrubber's novelistic complexity and ambiguity.
High and Low Angles, and the Psychology of the Zoom
Or: Children Vs. Adults
"I thought of the kids versus adults as almost two teams, two armies, two opposing camps," explains Stanford, relaying that he and Posin were yoked together on The Chumscrubber from its inception. "And one of the things we decided early on in the writing process was that anytime the kids and adults come in contact with each other in the story, there has to be some kind of violence, whether its psychic or emotional or physical." Adds Posin: "We wanted audiences to feel that these are two separate worlds that live parallel to each other."
One of the great, subversive jokes of The Chumscrubber is that it is the parents who are immature and childish, and the children who appear much more emotionally grounded. (A sadly beautiful moment occurs when Dean's mom, played by Allison Janney, sits in the family garden drinking a glass of wine and, wonders aloud to her teenage son, "What would it be like if we reversed our roles? If you were the parent and I was the child, and you would tell me what to do.")
This dichotomy between the parents and their children lends The Chumscrubber something of a split-level narrative; one that Posin reinforces using several interesting visual strategies. "The Russian school of cinema strongly asserts that every shot contributes to the telling of the story, and that each shot can be handled in an infinite number of ways," begins Posin. "I purposely used different styles of camerawork for the kids as for the adults."
The scenes involving teenage characters are shot slightly below eye level (to give viewers a sense that the characters are slightly more imposing than in real-life) with mobile, dynamic camerawork; scenes involving the parents are photographed with the lens looking slightly down on the characters, with a reliance on stationary camera set-ups and zooms. (Tellingly, as Ralph Fiennes's character, Mayor Ebbs, reverts over the course of the film to a more childlike, wondrous state, the camerawork reflects that emotional trajectory.)
An unexpected inspiration for some of these decisions came from Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963), one of Posin's favorite films. "The way Fellini shoots the dream world and the real world and the flashbacks differently, allowing the viewer to distinguish between those worlds, is very beautiful," says Posin. "And, at the end of that film, he's able bring some unity and resolution to those different worlds."
(Akin to Fellini, too, The Chumscrubber is filled with mysterious, near trance-like moments of visual poetry that lend a slightly hallucinatory air to the proceedings: Ralph Fiennes standing stock still in front of a mural of a wave; a teenage character in a swimming pool opening his eyes underwater to glimpse the bottom half of a bikini-clad woman; red wine spilled on a hardwood floor soaked up with a sock with a person attached; smears of paint that look like schools of dolphins; pharmaceuticals spread out across a teenager's bed, sorted by color, like mountains of JellyBellies.)
The Chumscrubber's production design, too, grew out of this "us vs. them" split between parents and kids. The adult world is paradisiacal, idyllic, antiseptic, and soapsuds bright. The children's world is desaturated, almost monochromatic, and grungier, a color scheme reflected in the costumes (Dean always wears gray).
Navigating his way through both worlds is Dean, a character whose very name purposely invokes the entire history of troubled teenage movie outsiders, from James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause to Christian Slater's J.D. in Heathers. "We were trying to find a main character that would fit in this prototypical American landscape, and challenge it," says Stanford. "Once we decided on Dean, we got into the whole tradition of the teen movie and began asking, 'What can we bring to the table that's new here?'"
"The way the movie deals with kids and drug culture is really interesting," says Bender. "There are millions of kids in this country on Ritalin, and while lots of people may talk about the war on drugs, something profound happened when pharmaceutical companies were allowed to buy commercial time on television. We're becoming a drug culture where the line between legal and illegal is being blurred further and further all the time." Indeed, in The Chumscrubber, while Dean's child psychiatrist father prescribes his son fistfuls of drugs to "provide a little balance," the teens in Dean's high school trade colored pills with the casualness of baseball cards.
Noteworthy, too, is Stanford's extraordinary ear for teen patois: the dialogue is pitch-perfect, without a trace of preachiness, condescension, or faux-hipsterisms. "Zac talks to his [six-year-old] daughter, Julia, like she's an adult. He talks to her like she's a peer," explains Posin when asked about the film's uncanny accuracy in depicting teen life now. "And then the actors are just so good. Jamie Bell may be eighteen, but he's not a kid actor."
"My big secret is I write them like adults," Stanford deadpans. "I may change some words but I don't dumb the kids down. And kids are usually more honest than adults." That last sentiment resonates with one of the key lines in The Chumscrubber screenplay, in which Crystal warns Charley never to try to be something he's not because one day he'll forget who he is.
Posin decided to shoot The Chumscrubber in Super-35MM, an extreme widescreen format. "The question was how to make a somewhat banal environment that some of the audience members may be intimately familiar with and make it accurate but otherworldly at the same time," explains Posin. "Super-35 gives you more of an epic sense, a bigger, grander, splashier canvas that you have to fill with more stuff."
Super-35 also lends itself to some interesting framing dilemmas (how to frame a close-up?) and devices. In a scene toward the end of the film, Dean must make a decision whether to accompany his father to a wedding or his mother to a memorial service. While Dean is held frozen center-frame, with his parents on the extreme of either side of him, the camera dollies in, allowing the audience, along with their troubled teen hero, to shrug mom and dad out of the shared space. (At once organic and bravura, it's the kind of offhand visual moment that announces here is a director who can translate camerawork into psychology.)
"Everyone was on the same page," attests Stanford, who was on-set every day of shooting, of a production crew committed to maintaining The Chumscrubber's tricky tightrope tonal balance of comedy and drama. "When it came time to assemble his crew, Arie wanted to find his team," says Curtis. "He spent hours talking with DPs and editors and production designers. I truly believe he has assembled a team with whom he'll make his future films."
One Wedding And A Memorial Service
Or, Everything Connects
If the structure of The Chumscrubber exists in part to keep the parents and kids revolving in separate suburban spheres, Stanford and Posin pull off a major coup with the film's finale. Dean, who at the very beginning of The Chumscrubber silently walks away from a party without alerting anyone that his best friend Troy has committed suicide, has a long talk with Troy's mother about her dead son.
"It's the first scene of connection between an adult and a kid in the entire film," says Posin of this well-earned redemption song, during which Mrs. Johnson is reintroduced to the son she didn't know. "And it occurs between the two characters who have suffered the most."
Having presented two alternate suburbs of children and adults, the ending of The Chumscrubber has those worlds literally colliding. Terry Bratley and Mayor Ebbs's wedding occurs at the same cul-de-sac, on the same sunny day, as Troy's memorial service, with Billy careening between the two. "Luis Buñuel is one of my favorite filmmakers," says Posin. "I love that kind of absurdist comedy."
The scene is as intensely moving as it is funny. If Shakespeare contended that comedies end in weddings and tragedies end in funerals, in a perfect expression of The Chumscrubber's tricky tonal tightwire act, this remarkably assured debut has the good grace and audacity to end with both, occurring simultaneously, on a perfectly manicured cul-de-sac. A wonderfully orchestrated pullback reveals the meaning The Chumscrubber has been inching toward all along: Everything connects.
"Riding A Razor's Edge,"
Or: Completely Funny And Completely Serious At Exactly The Same Time
"I grew up in a schizophrenic film world," says Posin, describing how his father raised him on a steady diet of European art house cinema--from the Italian neo-realists to the French New Wave--while, as an American kid growing up in California in the seventies and eighties, he responded just as passionately to blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
With its European art-house moves--from Fellini's prowling camera to Antonioni-style alienation to an eye-popping homage to Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou--transplanted to a neo-Spielbergian suburban landscape, The Chumscrubber is an honest and eloquent expression of both strains of Posin's movie education. If The Chumscrubber offers a vision of American disaffection, it's a Pop, candy-colored one, replete with a hopeful ending.
"Billy Wilder had a line that every great movie has a bitter pill that it asks the audience to swallow," says Posin. "But you have to coat it in sugar, whether that takes the form of humor, or irony, or character development, or plot twists--all the fun stuff we go to the movies for."
In a neat foreshadowing of the film's tightly woven strands of drama and comedy, at the 2002 Worldfest Houston film festival, Posin's short film, Over My Dead Body, won the best comedy award while Stanford's entitled, Marked, won the drama award. "[At the festival] Arie had the funniest film I'd ever seen, and I had the darkest," says Stanford of this precursor of things to come and the evolution of The Chumscrubber's sensibility.
"The Chumscrubber rides this amazing razor's edge of comedy and darkness, humor and wildness," says Bender of his first reaction to the screenplay. Though Stanford had penned several scripts before, "This is the first thing I've written that I feel is exactly my voice," says Stanford of an authorial voice he describes as, "Completely funny and completely serious at exactly the same time."
"When I first read the script, I considered it a dark comedy, a surreal look at suburbia," says Curtis. "But we ended up filming something quite real. What's interesting is that Bruce Cohen, one of the producers of American Beauty, said they had a very similar experience on that film. It's fascinating to me how grounded and real all of the performances are, and how fully-earned the ending is."
Much of this can be attributed to a cast that refuses to place their characters' foibles in quotation marks. "There's a lot of humor in the script but it's not a comedy," says Posin. "I didn't direct the actors to play it for laughs. We played it for real." Adds Stanford. "Arie directed the cast to take it seriously: Ralph believes in those dolphins, and Rita really cares about that wedding."
The result is an emotional rug-puller of a movie--a film full of surprises in the best sense, one that unfolds with a feeling of inevitability without ever broadcasting its next move, a work that never allows itself to be pegged down or easily categorized. Serious and unserious at the same time, a deeply felt work of great screwball authority, The Chumscrubber is a debut film that juggles a tonal complexity and confidence rarely found in the work of even the most seasoned filmmakers.
Or: Ralph Fiennes Talking About Dolphins
"The nature of an ensemble like this sometimes lends itself to a remarkable depth of casting," says Posin of The Chumscrubber's phenomenal cast. "No one actor has to carry the picture, it's not a huge time commitment, so if there's something in the material that they respond to, that makes it a little easier for them to say yes."
"What Lawrence and I provided, in my opinion was access to certain agents, certain actors, certain production people," says Curtis about the process of assembling a cast worthy of a Robert Altman picture. Seconds Bender: "Bonnie and I sort of opened the door for Arie but he walked through it. He was the one who made it happen. And, bottom line, you can't attract a cast of this caliber without a great script."
One of the most rewarding aspects of The Chumscrubber is how certain well-known actors are cast against type: audiences may never have seen Ralph Fiennes in a role this gentle or enchanted before; as a sexy mom competing with her teenage daughter, Carrie-Anne Moss uncovers tremendous longing and pathos in what starts as an acid comedic turn; and, transforming what at first looks like a satiric Stepford mom, Glenn Close delivers The Chumscrubber's emotional payload in a brilliantly played scene with Jamie Bell.
"It's sort of like winning the lottery," says screenwriter Stanford about the amazing depth of The Chumscrubber's cast, perhaps the finest and most varied of any recent American ensemble picture. "I didn't think there was any real chance of breaking into the movie industry so I wrote something just for me. . . But that first time on the set, to see Ralph Fiennes talking about dolphins was incredibly surreal and gratifying."
"My biggest problem with this cast," says Posin, summing up his experience with the actors, "is that I'm forever spoiled."
"A Post-Apocalyptic Landscape of Subhuman Demons and Freaks,"
Or: What's A "Chumscrubber"?
A Director Prepares
Or: "No. 1 Helper"
"You Never Know Until You Ask"
Or: James Horner and The Chumscrubber Waltz
ZAC STANFORD (Writer)