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Negotiating Entanglement: An Interview with Jason James

Entanglement_1

By Tom Ue.

Entanglement, the latest film by director Jason James, follows the story of Ben Layten (Thomas Middleditch) after he discovers that he nearly had an adopted sister: his parents abandoned their plan to adopt a child after learning that they had him. Ben searches for, and begins to fall in love with, Hanna (Jess Weixler), an event that makes his life more complicated. James is an award winning producer, writer, and director based in Vancouver and Los Angeles. He recently directed and produced The Burning Feeling (starring John Cho, Tyler Labine, and Paulo Costanzo), which earned Best Feature at the Vancouver International Film Festival. The film was released in North America by eOne Films and Search Engine Films in 2014.

Entanglement is in theatres and on demand/digital HD beginning 9 February.

What attracted you to this project?

When this script first came to my desk, I was going through a strange period in my personal life. At 35, my mother had just told me who my real father was. I think we all tell ourselves stories about who we are and where we come from. We might identify with a certain cultural heritage, tradition, or place as a result. For me, I fully believed that I had become the person I was, based on education, geography, and perhaps the people I surrounded myself with. But then you meet someone who is your flesh and blood, that you have never met before, and you start to see similarities. The whole idea of nature vs nurture comes into question. There was this nagging feeling or question about what my life might have been like if I had met this person sooner. So, there was a parallel with Ben’s journey in Entanglement that really spoke to me. Beyond that, it was a beautifully written script by Jason Filiatrault that was funny and fragile and completely engaging. I was struck by how visceral and imaginative and weird it was.

What were some of the challenges?

Entanglement_4The biggest challenge in Entanglement – for me – was making the unreal real. In the script, Ben is having a breakdown, to the point that he is hearing and seeing things. I wanted to find the real world version of this – so I met with a psychologist who read the script and diagnosed this character with schizo-affective disorder, bi-polar sub-type. We talked a lot about the mental affects of this disease and the physical attributes associated with patients as well as the drugs that are prescribed and their various side-affects. I wanted to make Ben’s disorder as honest, real, and grounded as possible – and juxtapose this fantastical, strange, and beautiful perspective on the world.

Was there anything that you had planned to do but couldn’t?

The hardest scene to shoot was also my favourite. In the film, there are three different underwater sequences. I had never done an underwater shoot before – so I storyboarded out all the shots. We allowed half a day to capture about 16 different shots. When it took approximately two hours to get the first shot, I realized there was no way I could get everything I wanted in that time frame, so I just had to improvise. There was an underwater speaker – where the actors could hear me giving directions like “swim to camera” or “dive deeper.” They were amazing, such good sports, and the footage looks incredible. I should also add that Thomas Middleditch can hold his breathe for an inhuman amount of time.

How did the screenplay develop during production?

Jason (Filiatrault) and I developed this script for about two years together before we went into production. For me, the script is a document that is constantly evolving and changing – based on actors that are cast, locations that are found, and new ideas that emerge throughout that process. That said, Jason is an amazing writer and he created a script that was so fragile and funny – I felt like I had to elevate the execution to match this weird fever dream of a script.

What was it like shooting in Vancouver?

Vancouver is an amazing place to make films – I have shot all of my films here. Our crews generally work on Hollywood service productions and become very talented and well trained. When I have a small indie – like Entanglement – I’m able to get really amazing technicians and cast that really help to elevate the material.

So much of the film is about whether we should let things go. How do you create sympathy for Ben without making it frustrating for us?

Entanglement_7I think all of us have been Ben at one point or another in our lives, when we are at a crossroads and feeling a bit directionless, hopeless. Thomas does a good job of creating empathy and understanding for a person in this position. I also think that the film tries to find the lightness within this darkness.

For me, Entanglement is about seeing the beauty in the world, discovering meaning in the simplest of things, and finding the light in even the worst situations, because if we didn’t laugh at these things, we’d probably just decide to end it all.

The cast is consistently strong. Tell us about the casting.

Thomas was the first person we went out to for this role. When I’m casting a film I always like to watch interviews with actors – to see who they are innately as people – and to see if there is a little bit of this character in them.

I remember watching an interview with Thomas at the Sundance Film Festival where he was asked what his favourite song was. He started describing Neutral Milk Hotel’s “The King of Carrot Flowers” and he started crying, and I remember thinking that is just perfect for this role. This guy is so emotionally fragile that he might just breakdown and laugh, or cry.

And working with Thomas was a dream  – he holds such a high bar and wants to make cool stuff. We were constantly re-working the material and trying new ideas all along the way, right before scenes and in the moment. It was a really raw and exciting way to work.

Thomas, Jess, Diana, and I did get to do a few rehearsals before the shoot, which is rare. I think the big thing for all of us was to get the tone right, making sure all of these characters belong in the same film, and throughout the production, making it as relaxed and comfortable as possible – allowing casual mistakes and improvised moments to become a part of the construction of the film.

What is next for you?

I am currently casting a road movie called The Mother Outlaws. I’m also developing an all female heist comedy called Bad Seeds with Amber Ripley (producer of Entanglement) and Jason Filiatrault.

Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.

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