Australian director Fred Schepisi, known for such films as “Roxanne,” “A Cry in the Dark,” “Six Degrees of Separation” and “Last Orders,” among many others, took a rather long breather after the HBO miniseries “Empire Falls” in 2005, but he returns with “Words and Pictures,” a romantic dramedy that uses the on-and-off relationship between two prep school teachers (Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen)—both of whom are both facing personal difficulties (she’s afflicted with arthritis that threatens her ability to paint, and he’s an alcoholic suffering from writer’s block)—to muse about which of their disciplines, literature or art, is the more powerful key to human expression and understanding.
During a recent interview connected with the film’s screening at the Dallas International Film Festival, Schepisi remarked on the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process. But he emphasized that the writing of Gerald DiPego was the key. “The script is everything,” he said simply. “You’ve got to start with a very good script, well-crafted, well thought out and with the right intentions. And you build on that as you go along.
“For instance, during rehearsals we discovered that Juliette Binoche”—who plays Dina, the art teacher crippled by arthritis who argues for the primary of the image over the words championed by Literature teacher Jack, played by Owen—“actually paints, and not only paints, but has a whole career painting. Then we realized we could take her on the same journey as the character in the film is going on—changing from being a portrait artist to finding [different] way to express herself because of her infirmity. So she takes it to abstract.
“Or you’re going along, and you’ve got words and pictures, and you say, hang on a minute—what about music? So you find a place where neither pictures nor words will suffice and perhaps music is the way to go. So it’s an organic thing, but it always starts with DiPego’s script—and he wrote the poetry, by the way—and then the composer wrote the beautiful song that’s played in the music section with the poetry in mind, and the song at the end of the film is the same combination of the two.
“So it’s something that happens all the way along. The actors have ideas, composers, other people. And you get the writer and sit down and say, ‘We could incorporate this,’ or, ‘If we do this, we don’t need that.’ It just keeps growing.
“My role is to focus a lot of talents, so that we’re all headed in the same direction—to create a situation where they can feel free and comfortable in pushing the boundaries and giving their best and contributing and going beyond just the normal acting situation. Casting is obviously one of the first things that you do, and when we sat those two actors in a room the first time they met, you just knew this was going to be good—because they’re quite different, and yet they’re incredibly similar in what amuses them in their sense of play, and their seriousness in the work while not taking themselves seriously. That gives you a feel for how far you can go.
“For example, Juliette for the first part of the picture seems to be pretty tough, slapping down every advance from him. And yet she does it in a way that you just see that tongue-in-cheek smile or the little glint in the eye that he—as the character in the film—would pick up on. So you can see why he wouldn’t give up. Finding things like that, and encouraging that, and knowing where to put them—that’s the fun of the job.”
Where does Schepisi find these indications in his actors’ personalities? “Some in rehearsal, some as it’s being shot,” he said. “You’re constantly looking for the spot to give those clues. You develop certain aims in rehearsals—I don’t like to rehearse too deeply, I like to rehearse until you feel the essence of a scene, or the emotion of something, and then leave it alone, so that it doesn’t get overworked, it’s fresh on the day and you can build on the interaction. But of course on the day you’ve done a lot of stuff and seen a lot of interaction, so that colors what you’re going to do. It’s organic.”
Schepisi talked about why shooting out of sequence—the normal practice—might actually be a benefit. “There are some people who shoot in sequence, and like it,” he said. “There are good reasons for it, because the characters are developing, and you know where you’re developing all the time. Robert Altman used to do it—not in everything, but in some things—and I don’t think that was his best work, because you’re not refining, you’re not putting the pressure on something. You’re enjoying every moment as you go on, and so that would seem like a good practice. But by the end of the film, which may have stretched to three hours or something, you find you really went past the boundaries, because you’ve taken the most out of every scene, instead of allowing it to cumulatively happen.
“Donald Sutherland actually put it in a pretty good perspective for me in ‘Six Degrees of Separation.’ He said, ‘Please can we shoot something from about a third of the way into the script? Because it will give us a linchpin, so that we work up to that and work out from that’—which I personally believed in anyway. By the time you do the beginning of the film, you know a lot more about it and you’re more accomplished. You start off very confidently in the opening scene and you grab the audience. And by the time you get to that scene you did [earlier], if anything happened to be a little less than you had hoped in that scene, the audience will just think it’s a variation on the theme, because of the way the director has come up to that—and then really give it a damned good finish for similar reasons.
“I’ve always liked not to ease into a film. I like to take probably what I’d consider to be the hardest scene somewhere in the first half and do it on the first day. You get everybody focused.” In this case, it was a classroom scene in which Owen excoriates his students. “The first day—four pages of dialogue,” Schepisi recalled, “where he gives the lecture about twittering and all that stuff. Don’t think that didn’t make him a little nervous. Four dense pages the first day—everyone gets focused if one has to concentrate like that. You have to bring your ‘A’ game.”
In closing, Schepisi spoke about getting expert medical advice to make sure that the depiction of Dina’s arthritis was physically correct, and being gratified that doctors who have seen it have commented on its authenticity in that regard. But, he added, “We didn’t want it to be a movie-of-the-week, or an illness-of-the-week movie. Obviously it’s about that, but it’s not all about that. It’s about where you go and what you do and how you’re going to get on in your relationships.
“It was a fun film to do—a lot of complexity. It says a lot of things, and yet it’s just got that nice, simple, tough layer of two people trying to make it through the world and finding one another.”