Filmmaker Jane Weinstock follows up her directorial debut of “Easy” with “The Moment,” a compelling psychological thriller starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Martin Henderson and Alia Shawkat. In the movie, Leigh plays Lee, a photojournalist who has just ended a tumultuous affair with troubled writer John (Henderson). But when she goes to John’s place to get her things, she discovers he has disappeared and is nowhere to be found. The stress of not knowing his whereabouts causes Lee to have a nervous breakdown, which in turn lands her in a mental hospital. During her recuperation, Lee reconnects with her estranged daughter, Jessie (Shawkat), and ends up meeting Peter, a fellow patient who somehow looks a lot like John. As Lee struggles to get a grip on reality and learn the truth behind John’s disappearance, the clues she is given lead her to the most unexpected of places.
Just as with “Easy,” “The Moment” has Weinstock dealing with the contradictions of human nature and psychological realism. It was fascinating talking to her about this movie, and we discussed the challenges of writing a highly complex screenplay, what it was like working with Leigh who is very serious in her approach to playing a character, and how her studies in psychoanalytic theory and semiotics came to inform this film.
Ben Kenber: Regarding the screenplay, how difficult was it for you and your co-writer Gloria Norris to write it?
Jane Weinstock: Well our starting point oddly enough was the Edith Wharton novel “The Mother’s Recompense,” but we weren’t able to get to the rights to that. We didn’t want to do a period piece, but we wanted to sort of take the basic structure of this extremely complicated mother/daughter relationship and make a movie out of it. So once we realized that we couldn’t even get the rights, we just kept that relationship as our starting point and then we went on to write this piece. We decided quite early on to make the character of Lee a photojournalist because we have a fascination with danger, and at the same time a kind of ethical commitment to try to do good in the world. We both love Hitchcock, so I think there were Hitchcockian elements that we gravitated towards, and it also changed in various rewrites. We worked on it for a very long time so we rewrote it a number of times.
BK: When it came to the subject matter, did you do a lot of research on photography as well as depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder?
JW: Yes, I definitely thought of researching PTSD first. We actually showed it (the movie) in New York to a posttraumatic stress disorder specialist at Hunter College, and she felt that we really got it right so that was very gratifying.
BK: There’s a scene in the movie where Martin Henderson’s character is eating sardines which he says are good for those suffering from depression. Is that true?
JW: No, not really (laughs). They are good for your brain and they don’t have a lot of mercury.
BK: Jennifer Jason Leigh is well known for her method approach to the characters she plays. How did she approach the role of Lee in this movie?
JW: Well I did a lot of research and I gave her my research and she looked through that, and she’s known photographers before and she just was her many ways. During rehearsal we worked on the script together. We made some changes as we were rehearsing, and she’s a writer/director so she’s very, very good at that. She also looked at different cuts of the movie and made suggestions, so she was very involved creatively and not just as an actress.
BK: There is a moment in the movie where Peter is standing in front of his place of work and Lee is taking pictures of him, and he is covering up part of the word “storage” to where only “rage” can be seen. What was your reasoning for shooting the scene like that?
JW: It was just a little reference that I thought not many people would get, but you got it. He is a character who was filled with rage. He was imprisoned for five years for a crime that he didn’t commit, so he’s got a lot of rage that he turns against himself and feels towards the world as well.
BK: Alia Shawkat is fantastic as Lee’s daughter, Jessie. How did she get cast in the film?
JW: Well Jennifer had already been cast, so we had her read with several actresses. They were all great, but when I asked myself, ‘could this actress be capable of murdering somebody,’ I always came up with the answer no except for Alia. I really wanted her to feel like someone who is capable of murder, and I also really liked the fact that she looks like she’s part Iranian, and she is part Iranian, so we could give her an Iraqi father.
BK: How much time did you have to shoot this movie?
JW: We shot it in 22 days, and then we had two days for re-shoots.
BK: With movies like these, the shooting schedule always seems to get shorter and shorter.
JW: I know. It’s crazy.
BK: I read how while you were at New York University you focused on psychoanalytic theory and semiotics. Did any of those studies factor into the making of this movie?
JW: You know it must have especially in terms of the writing and having a psychoanalyst be in the movie. But there’s also a way in which I had to drop a lot of my theoretical knowledge and just make it more organic, and at other times I could get very heady.
BK: In some ways “The Moment” is timely because our reality keeps getting distorted by technology and in other ways as well. By the movie’s end we’re not entirely sure if Lee is even dealing fully with reality. With technology today we are getting closer to the truth, yet at the same time we’re being taken further away from it. Was that something you thought about during the making of this movie?
JW: I guess something I thought about most in terms of that kind of general theme of the movie is that we live precariously in an uncertain world which is partly a function of technology but also a function of the times and all the wars we’ve been living through. The last 20 years has been a very, very uncertain time, and then the reaction to this kind of need for certainty comes up in the form of the Tea Party and other kinds of very fundamentalist types of positions. I thought about it in terms of that more than in just technology specifically.
BK: It seems like these days people are not fighting for the truth necessarily, but more for the truth as they see it. “The Moment” reminded me a bit of David Lynch’s “Lost Highway.” It’s a very different movie, but like with Bill Pullman’s character, Lee is trying to get a grip on all that is happened to her. Still, we’re not entirely sure she has succeeded in doing so.
JW: Yeah, people have compared the film to David Lynch’s work. He’s not somebody who I respond that strongly to. I’m much more of a Hitchcock person, but I can see that. Another big theme in the movie which is definitely Hitchcockian is guilt, and even if none of these people actually killed John, is that really the end of it? Can people carry guilt with them, or for the moments that they have created that may or may not have led to John’s death? For example, the moment where Lee kisses John, at that point there’s no turning back. This has to end badly, right?
Thanks to Jane Weinstock for taking the time to talk with me about “The Moment,” a film that constantly challenges your perception of reality throughout its running time.