‘Reminiscence’ Director Lisa Joy on Her Noir Influences and Directing Hugh Jackman [Interview]

‘Reminiscence’ Director Lisa Joy on Her Noir Influences and Directing Hugh Jackman [Interview]

Reminiscence is a real deal, large-scale noir. Hugh Jackman plays a bitter and jaded detective of the mind, looking like he could walk the dark and rainy streets next to Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster and not appear out of place. Jackman delivers old-school blunt dialogue and narration only his signature sincerity could sell.

Filmmaker Lisa Joy‘s film is both new and old-school. It’s not the typical summer movie, in which characters solve conflict with fists, not brains. Joy’s movie is a carefully crafted mystery with more sorrow than action. It’s an ambitious feature filmmaking debut for the co-creator of HBO’s Westworld, who got her screenwriting career kickstarted when she wrote a spec for Pushing Daisies.

We sat down with Joy and she talked to us about making her sci-fi noir, including the classic films she references, how she writes action, and why Hugh Jackman is far more than one of Hollywood’s favorite good guys.

You’ve made a very nostalgic movie about nostalgia. 

Yeah, it’s about nostalgia, but also plays with certain retro elements in terms of the art deco, quality of the set design, and the costumes. But nostalgia is also a way of looking back at something that was classic and impactful. Something that can’t quite lose its grip on you. I think that the inspirations that I draw from them are all like that. They’re movies that you remember again and again. I love To Have and Have Not, I love Vertigo, I love Out of the Past, and that all comes back and they’re like these themes, phrases of songs that get stuck in your head and influence who you become and how you see the world. I think we are made of nostalgia.

Out of the Past definitely feels like a reference here. How was it writing such hard-boiled dialogue and narration?

It was really, really fun for me, and especially the picture of Hugh Jackman delivering the lines and the rest of our actors. All of my actors happened to be whip-smart. I hit the jackpot. They can deliver those lines with a severity that goes beyond anything that I wrote simply on the page. That was really fun. I mean, it was important for me in doing something that has elements of an updated noir.

I knew that one thing to look at was voice-over because it’s such a characteristic of those types of films. I wanted to make sure that I could incorporate it in a way that was embedded in the DNA of the film. It was fun to play with that.

Narration is tricky in sci-fi, too. With voice-over, how do you strike the balance between defining the character and the world?

It is very, very difficult. I think I consider myself done with voiceover and narration when as many people think that there’s too much as think there’s too little. You’re never going to please everyone. As long as you’re pleasing yourself and people are somewhere in the middle. People either love it or they hate it. But for me, it’s part of the language of noir and it’s central to the conceit and reveals of the film. I just tried to make it as poetic as possible. Also, I trust that Hugh Jackman could read me the phone book and I’d listen to it for years and years.

Did you and Hugh Jackman want to subvert the hallmark qualities of a noir anti-hero or really lean into what defined those characters?

From the very beginning of this, with both him and Rebecca, I was like, these are not your classic roles. We need to subvert them in performance. We need to change the expectation of what it means to be the femme fatale and the hero. For Hugh, that means he wasn’t always going to be the perfect hero. There would be times when he would cross lines and he would become the villain.

There was one scene where he’s holding the gun and we just did a push-in on him holding it. He begins to shake with rage. During that moment, he transforms, for me, from the hero into the villain, because he’s gotten so blinded by his desire for revenge and answers that he’s lost control of his own moral compass.

I remember telling Hugh, you are literally ugly for this, you cannot be this beautiful man of desire. You must show the ugliness within and on your face. He completely understood what I was talking about. He is an actor with no vanity who will do anything that a character calls for. It’s what’s so incredible about Hugh. There are not many movie stars like that.

And he never does movie star crying. He lets it be ugly, too.

He does. He is an incredibly decent, kind guy, but just because he’s nice, doesn’t mean he’s simple. He is one of the most complicated, emotionally thoughtful, and intellectually sharp actors I’ve had the pleasure of working with. He is very, very sharp. And so when he brings it to the screen, he really brings it.

The way that I directed Hugh was, on the takes I would say, give a note. We would talk about it beforehand. We were really in sync for the character in the film, but I would give notes during the course of it and always he would make these beautiful adjustments. But at the end, I always said, “Now, here’s the Hugh Jackman take. Do whatever the f**k you want Hugh.” He’s so bright that he adjusts to your notes. He thinks about the character from his own point-of-view gives and himself his own notes, right? And then by the end, when you let him run free, he brings something you’ve never seen before. Something that simply directing him to do would have never surfaced. He just internalizes everything and creates something so pure. So in every scene, I guarantee it’s the Hugh Jackman take that won.

When you put the hammer in his hand during that fight scene, was that an Oldboy reference?

[Laughs] It was. I love Oldboy. It’s just a great film and I love director Park. We talked. He actually was interested for a while in directing Reminiscence, which I would’ve loved to see but it was at a different studio at the time. And we could not agree on that, but he is a great influence. He managed to make a fight scene unlike any that I’ve ever seen before. And you’re always looking for something fresh in every fight scene.

The hope for me is that it doesn’t just ascend to punching and fast cuts and such a large, symphonic mash of colors and sound that you could literally leave, take a bathroom break and come back and still doing this thing. That to me is the definition of what you’re striving for. You can’t take a bathroom break during this fight scene and come back and be like, it’s cool they’re still mashing each other to bits. And so, I really appreciate fight scenes that are scripted. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. Action that has an arc in which the emotional journey of a character is as important within that fight scene as the physical blows that they are doling out and receiving.

How did the idea of the piano during that fight come about?

Again, that’s one of those things where I knew I wanted something really specific for that final fight scene. The piano came to me because first of all, we’re talking about the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, right? Orpheus is this musician and so much of this film also deals with music because music is a time-traveling device, much like nostalgia. Hear the right song and you’re right back in your father’s car making out with someone. It just puts you right there. I wanted some instrument to help embody the theme of that. And the other thing that I think is really interesting is I used to go to The Magic Castle. Have you ever seen The Magic Castle?

I have, yes. 

It’s cool, right? There was this magician that I saw once, and I’d seen a bunch of magicians, and then he came and he was playing a lot with ice and fire. Not only did they have this incredible sleight of hand and this visual flourish, but shifting the temperature of things, made the magic that much more powerful. And so for me, I know we have water, which is going to feel psychologically like we’re drowning and short on air. I wanted the sound to echo that, right? The music cuts out and we’re only hearing organic sounds, the sounds of blood rushing through one’s ears, the sound of a heart beating.

I wanted to strip everything down to its elemental cores, but I also thought that image of the piano, that image of music falling and descending would be so beautiful. And even if you didn’t hear a piano then, just the visual cue of a piano would remind you of those creaking strings. It was adding another sensory dimension to it that gives you a more visceral feel for the fight, I thought.

Also, I like pianos and I got to play that piano in there. It was all clunky and messed up, but it was fun.

With Bannister and Watts (Thandiwe Newton), it’s refreshing to see, really, what’s the main relationship in this movie be both intimate and platonic. It’s rare. 

For me, they have a shared past. They’ve known each other through better or worse. They already see each other fully. They are past infatuation. They know where each other’s bodies are buried. They know what hurts. And they know each other enough, in some ways to know that their friendship sustains them more than a romantic relationship ever really could.

I think it’s so funny because there’s a lot of… You get worried. And in Hollywood, if you cast two beautiful people, and Thandiwe and Hugh are both gorgeous, they have to make out, that’s the conventionalism. They absolutely have to make out otherwise, what are you doing?

And so casting Thandiwe, I was like, well, you are one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever laid eyes on, so I’m a little nervous. Everybody’s going to want you guys to make out. I asked, “Do you think it’s realistic?” And for me, I know that I have a lot of guy friends and those relationships are very deep to me. They’ve been big brothers. I was kind of a tomboy.

I wanted to know if that was universal. Thandiwe was like, of course, it’s ridiculous to suppose otherwise. We discussed that internally and she understood this bond. I even understand desiring in some way that person, but knowing it’s best to love him more fully in the one way that they really need, as well the one way that you can reliably give. And I think that’s a true testament of love, right? It’s selflessness knowing the state of love that sustains you both the longest and committing to that.

[Spoilers ahead in next question]

Night and day make for a nice visual motif, especially with the ending, in which you arguably get one happy ending, one tragic ending. Is that why magic hour felt right for those final images? 

I knew that in a world where day is night and night is day and the heat is so scorching, you can’t go out. I knew that if you had somebody you loved, the moments that would be most precious to you would be magic hour, sunrise, and sunset. When you could actually go out and see the world with your own eyes for a bit and enjoy that 30 minutes or so. It happens to be that filmically speaking magic hour is also the enchanted hour in which everything looks the most beautiful and the night just kind of shimmers on the horizon, but you still got this beautiful daylight.

And so basically, it was very important for me to shoot in Florida, as well as New Orleans. I knew that I needed to get Miami practically in order to make the world feel real. So on the day we just ran around like fricking crazy with the actors, everybody running, Hugh was changing in public to try to make the time for the scenes. And we shot as much as we could to capture all that light before it was lost, which becomes kind of a nice memory for how to live life. So, you have good memories in the end.

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