“We were very lucky to be working for Woody Allen’s producer [Jean Doumanian],” said Jason Alexander of his new film “Just Looking.” The actor-turned-helmer, famous for playing George Costanza in the long-running “Seinfeld” series, explained that Doumanian’s participation allowed his low-budget picture, set in 1955 New York, to achieve a remarkable degree of visual authenticity. “Woody had huge warehouses of set dressings, props and wardrobe from his period films that we…raped,” he said, chuckling.
Alexander was in Dallas along with writer Marshall Karp, whose screenplay for the coming-of-age piece was based to some extent on his own life. “I think what’s rally autobiographical is the ring of truth about the time, the innocence of the age, how dumb I was [about sexual matters],” Karp explained. The picture centers on 14-year old Lenny (Ryan Merriman), a Bronx youngster who wants desperately to witness the act of lovemaking, and gets his chance when he’s sent to Queens to stay with his aunt and uncle for a summer in order to give some time alone to his recently-remarried mother and her new husband. Over the course of three months Lenny learns a lot about life through new friendships with some local kids, observation of his relatives, and an infatuation with a lovely neighbor named Hedy.
“I did go away and spend the summer with my aunt and uncle in Queens,” Karp recalled. “But I wasn’t kicked out–I was rescued by my aunt and uncle…and I met three kids. It all came from personal experience,” he continued, “[but] I kicked it up a couple of notches to make my life into a movie, ’cause whose life is a movie?”
Alexander got involved in the project through Doumanian, who contacted him about helming. The actor had directed for the stage before, and had even made an earlier (unreleased) feature, but he hadn’t been satisfied with that picture, which demanded more technical skill than rapport with the performers. Karp’s script, though, was different. “This was really a movie about the richness of the characters and the exchanges that they had, and it actually needed somebody who could direct actors,” Alexander enthused. “The camera could go almost anywhere as long as the performances were good. And I went,’This is something I’ve got to do.'”
“Just Looking” was originally designed as a memory-piece narrated by a much older Lenny (to be voiced by Alexander), and its first title was “Cherry Pink,” after the song “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” which was the number one on the hit parade in mid-1955 (only to be supplanted by a whole new genre represented by “Rock Around the Clock,” suggesting the same sort of radical change the lead character goes through). But the song proved too expensive to lease, and eventually it was decided to have young Lenny tell his story himself. That change was at least partially determined by the makers’ enthusiasm for star Ryan Merriman. But, as Alexander admitted, his satisfaction with his cast was a long time coming.
“I could cast an all-retarded version of ‘Hamlet’ easier than I could cast this,” the director joked. “Nobody with an actual career in show business is right for any of the roles…. Gretchen [Mol, who plays Hedy]…actually was foisted on me. She was not at all what I had in mind for the role.” Hedy, Alexander explained, is “a tough New York chick, and [Mol] wasn’t Hedy for me.” But Doumanian and the film’s backers insisted, and he finally relented. Now, of course, he couldn’t be happier with the choice. “It worked great,” he said. “Her vulnerability was exactly what we needed.”
The casting of Lenny proved even more difficult. The filmmakers unsuccessfully auditioned many New Yorkers, but “four days away [from shooting], we didn’t have the kid,” Alexander recalled. Then he and Karp remembered a tape they’d gotten from Merriman, in Alexander’s description “a Baptist kid from Oklahoma,” which they’d tossed aside thinking a youngster from such a region would never be credible in the role. In desperation they dug out the tape and were blown away. Even after bringing Merriman to New York for a full reading, however, they were uncertain that he could master the accent. Within a day, though, he had, and went on to give a give a performance that still amazes Alexander. “He’s a freaky little actor,” the director observed. “He knows what to do. I didn’t have to tell him very much. Had he been anything other than brilliant, we never would have made it.” And Merriman’s excellence persuaded Alexander and Karp that the story had to be told in his voice.
The remainder of the casting was tough, too. Alexander and Doumanian initially disagreed whether Peter Onerati was right for the role of Uncle Phil, but the director insisted and his producer now enthusiastically supports the choice. And Rich Licata, who plays Lenny’s new stepfather, a character that undergoes a huge transformation over the course of the story, is actually a non-professional who hadn’t acted before. As Alexander remarked in amazement, the success in the casting “was just pure dumb luck all the way around.”
Alexander and Karp also expressed surprise and satisfaction that “Just Looking” is being released to theatres at all. After finishing the independent production they shopped it around to larger distributors, many of whom loved it but said it would cost too much to market. But Sony Pictures Classics–one of the few companies left, Alexander noted, whose executives “still actively vote with their hearts more than with their wallets”–picked it up and has begun a platform release. Now it’s up to audiences to decide whether their risk will pay off.