Today we are sitting down with Jane Spencer to talk about her latest movie The Ninth Cloud and what it was like working with Michael Madsen and Megan Maczko. We also cover a whole range of other topics such as the struggle involved in getting a film made, attending The Actor’s Studio with legends like De Niro and what Rik Mayall was like on set! Read on for more!
Before we start I would just like to say congratulations on the film and thank you for taking the time out to talk with me today.
Thank you very much!
There’s a lot going on in this film from a social study to philosophical musings to a loss of innocence, what, if you can only choose one thing, would you like people to come away from this with?
I think basically if people could question conforming to what they would call reality. I think everybody creates their own world in this, and somehow she [the lead character] triumphs even though one would look at her and think ‘wow she is in some other universe’. It’s about looking for some good in a very difficult world.
What did you start out with? What inspired the film?
There was a little kid who was in Venice, California who had a problem with his leg similar to the child in the film. He wasn’t hurt by a landmine like him but had been abused and was diseased. I felt that this kid needed help and so I went to some people and the very wealthy were the ones who would not put up anything and those who didn’t have much money were the ones who tried, and I thought that was really interesting in a social context. That was the seed where the idea came from, but then years later Zena and all that came from someone who is trying to deal with harsh reality in their own way.
When you first came up with her did you know that you were going to use the child with the leg story? How did they weave together?
As all writers do you identify with your lead character so I thought about what I was trying to do, but I’m obviously not her. She’s a lot more innocent and not very worldly. And I knew a girl who would never take her coat off because she had been through a traumatic experience and so it all just came together. It all started story wise with the kid but thematically it was with Zena. And I used her to ask questions like ‘why are we here?’ etc.
Her character is a tricky one to get right, a little more dreamlike and she would lack empathy, but if you had made her that little more grounded it wouldn’t have worked either…
Exactly. I didn’t want to write someone who the audience didn’t even want to know because she was too out there, but also everybody has had some sort of tragedy happen in life and I think our connection is that we are all looking hopefully for something. Unfortunately she focuses on Michael Madsen’s character though, which is funny in itself. I love Michael and he is a sweet person but he is pretty weathered, he’s been through a lot. But he’s also honourable in the film…
He is somewhat cast against type here, was he an obvious choice all along?
You know oddly enough I was thinking about Guillaume Depardieu who would have been more normal in this role, but actually a casting director came up to me and said what about Michael Madsen and I immediately said ‘what! He’s always got a gun!’ and he said ‘no no he’s looking for things where he doesn’t have a gun and isn’t cutting people’s ears off’. And I thought about it and spoke with him and found out that he actually is a poet, a good poet. He really wanted to play the role, so much so that he hung with the film until we got the finance, which was a couple of years. But on the other hand he’s going to do Tarantino’s next film playing some crazy Western guy!
You know he’s not an actor that you need to give much direction, he’s pretty independent! And I always believe that you cast it as you wish and then you see what they do in rehearsal and carve it a little bit thematically. So I didn’t give him much direction I have to say, he just went to the part of him that was and is struggling and used it. He is a very well trained actor, he was at Steppenwolf and The Actors Studio so he just finds it and I let him go with it, within certain contexts.
How did you approach working through Megan’s character on set then?
Well I first saw her understudying Keira Knightley in a play called The Misanthrope and she was really good and I thought well, we don’t need a big name for the role and she has a quality that’s interesting. So we just worked on this weird strange girl who’s living in her mind and for me it was the strangest thing as she just seemed to morph into the character…. I had her watch A Touch of Honey, which is an old movie by Tony Richardson and she may have taken some of that in.
I was going to ask actually whether there were any characters that inspired her as, although they’re very different, I detected a touch of Amélie…?
Yeah I know, a lot of people have said that as she has a slight similar resemblance to her, and of course the hair! And there’s a similarity with that Amélie is trying to do good, but I didn’t mean to do it! This character was actually was created before that movie came out but I just didn’t think about Megan’s hair!
What was it like when you were at The Actor’s Studio when Arthur Penn was running it?
It was really great, I was very young and my eyes were huge because all these people would be coming in who I had studied. Elia Kazan was there and I was like ‘oh my god its him!’. Paul Newman would come in, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro would always sit at the back and not call attention to himself as all the unknowns were chasing him around. It was really fascinating… Norman Mailer… Shelley Winters was fun, just all these people who you would not normally see at a class, these were legends. So for me it was very vibrant, to watch them work.
Oh wow! How has your time there gone on to inform your career then?
A lot. I saw how they worked with actors and it was really interesting watching the process of how they would get to plays and the material. It was really fascinating like when Norman Mailer started reading his play Strawhead which was about Marilyn Monroe, Shelly Winters who was roommates with Monroe stood up and they started screaming at each other. He actually put that in the play in the end and I saw that happen when I was about twenty-three!
I saw how hard it is too. I see some of the actors who worked with De Niro who never quite made it, and they were as good as he was but they it just didn’t happen for them. But they were still working and going regularly. It was like a church really there, the people there were very dedicated to their work. Very different to Hollywood!
I came from New York and my first movie was Little Noises and I had to work with Tatum O’Neal and Crispin Glover and they were Hollywood kids! It wasn’t about ‘I shall do this for my art’ it was more ‘how much money do I get?’. But Rick Mayall was on it and I loved Rick.
How was he on set then?
He was very disciplined on set, he was very funny and inventive but he would always come up to me and say ‘if I get too big bring me back’ because he knew he came from broad comedy and was very careful about that. He was hilarious with Crispin who is just out of his mind half the time, brilliant, but out of his mind! Rick would say ‘just say the line!’ and Crispin would get all flustered… but they got along very well.
In what ways have you noticed your progression since Little Noises then?
Well it’s been slow going! It wasn’t a big box office hit, it mostly did well critically but I thought I would get a next film right away. But I write unusual scripts and being a sort of idealist I kept writing unusual scripts and in LA it’s difficult to finance those, so I ended up doing plays for a while. Then I came back and was trying to shoot a film in London but the company folded!
Years later I started on this one which was at first a play and I thought I would make it into a film but it took five years to finance because of the financial crisis. A couple of companies pulled out, and then one of our actors died, Guillaume Depardieu died of pneumonia after I had been working with him for a year. So we had to pick up the pieces and start over again. Michael stayed with us through the whole process though, just kept his name there for us.
With all of the setbacks that you had did you want to give up at times?
Yeah absolutely! I just wanted to make my other film (I have a science fiction movie on the way) and forget this thing about the girl with her coat! Also I was told many times ‘don’t have a female lead as you won’t get your money as quickly’, and then I used one who wasn’t known which was probably insane… but I thought she was great so here we are. Also the film before this one had fallen apart too and I guess I didn’t want to give up.
Is that other film something you want to return to in the future?
It’s something that I want to come back to it absolutely, I had a bunch of people interested, Johnny Depp liked it. He wasn’t set to do it but I met him at Cannes and he was interested so… it’s a nice piece and I would like to do it. I’ll see how this one does and see if I can get it seen by the right market.
The next movie is a science fiction piece called South of Hope Street and is set in Norway. We have a nice set of actors; Michael is going to do it, not a big part, but he is going to play a crazy ex-hippie called Benjamin Flowers who’s handing out flowers. It’s a strange piece! I’ve got Hilmir Snær Guðnason, an Icelandic actor who’s wonderful, and Tanna Frederick who’s an upcoming actress and then I’m going to put a couple of international names in there to round it out and have an easier time of it. But still have an interesting movie which takes place in Norway in the mountains.
Fantastic! I would like to thank Jane for taking time out to speak with us and wish her every success in the future. We will leave you for now with this trailer: