By Gary M. Kramer.
Former actor turned filmmaker Scott Coffey’s Adult World, which received its World Premiere at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, is a genial—and at times laugh-out-loud funny—comedy about Amy (Emma Roberts), a twenty-something would-be poet. While waiting for her big break as a writer (and the accompanying financial security), Amy takes a job at a sex shop to earn money. When she later happens upon a book by Rat Billings (John Cusack), a cult author who lives in her town, she stalks him and begs him to be her writing mentor.
Adult World deftly addresses the perils of fame and celebrity by having the obnoxiously sunny Amy irritating the curmudgeonly Rat at almost every opportunity. Roberts displays terrific comic timing in her role and Cusack lends strong support—as does Armando Riesco, as Rubia, a transgender character who takes Amy in and teaches her some life lessons before Rat gives her some cold, hard truths.
Coffey nimbly directs the comedy and the drama, making Adult World a savvy coming-of-age film, and an engaging sophomore effort by a director who is developing a fine career for himself behind the camera.
Film International met with Coffey at the festival for a Q&A.
GMK: This is your second feature film after your short-turned-feature Ellie Parker that deals with issues of celebrity. What is your fascination with this topic?
SC: I guess because I was an actor for a very long time. I’ve always been interested in how people—and it’s a very American thing—define themselves and their value by how other people perceive or think of them. Maybe that’s a personal struggle I have, but that’s not what totally attracted me to this movie. It is a big part of the movie, for sure—your value as a human being manifested by what’s reflected back to you. It’s interesting…
GMK: How do you feel other people value you?
SC: I don’t know. It’s nothing I think too deeply about—that just leads to unhappiness. I think I’ve had a lot of experience doing that as an actor: you put your work out there in the world, and its value is often what people think of it. What the reviews are going to be, is one person’s opinion going to dissuade you from having a sense of value about yourself? Those are important themes, especially for young people.
GMK: Because you’ve been in the public eye, and you are making films about people in the public eye, is there something you are trying to reconcile?
SC: I did try to make Adult World as personal as I could, and put myself in each of the characters in some way and make them as full and rich as I could. In a lot of ways, I really relate to Amy, and I relate to John Cusack’s character as well—that guy talking to younger people and going, “Jesus Christ, you’re not anything yet! Have a life and some experience!” and then [hoping] something should come of that as opposed to just desiring fame and needing attention.
GMK: Ellie Parker was very indie, with handheld digital video camerawork. This film was much more accomplished. How do you feel you have developed as a filmmaker?
SC: My first movie was more of a jangly series of events that are interconnected. This film is much more of a traditional beginning-middle-end story, even though it’s also character-driven, and [at times] the plot takes a backseat. It wasn’t my script, but I spent a lot of time making it as much “mine” as I could. But it was a much bigger movie.
GMK: The film celebrates difference—there’s even a friendly transgender character. As a gay man, was it important to tell a story about marginalized characters?
SC: I think that everything informs my point of view on that outsider status. I grew up in Hawaii, and that was tough because I didn’t surf and I wasn’t a jock. I was fair-haired and outside of the mainstream. I retreated into the movies, and into a fantasy life. I imagined being an actor and being famous, so I could relate to Amy a lot.
GMK: What can you say about your experience in sex shops?
SC: I don’t really have much. My brother worked in one in San Francisco, and I used to go visit him. And it was unpleasant. It wasn’t a friendly, nice sex shop like the one in Adult World. It was sleazy.
GMK: One of the things Amy deals with is learning to cope with failure. How do you cope with failure?
SC: Um….I don’t know….I guess I just—time.
GMK: I guess you’ve never had to!
SC: No, I have—a lot—it’s just hard, you know!
GMK: Have you been in a situation where you’ve had to find yourself, or define yourself, as Amy does?
SC: I guess being an actor was really tough for me. I didn’t love doing that, even though I made a living at it, and I loved being on set, and the process of working on movies. I was a little bit miserable as an actor. I didn’t love that. Even when I had really good roles, it wasn’t totally fulfilling to me. Once I sort of admitted that to myself, and still continued to do that, it was tough. I lost my sense of identity I think, my self-value. That was hard. I was living in Los Angeles, and really hating LA, the drudgery, and the sameness of it. When I finished Ellie Parker, I ejected myself out of the city. I moved to New York, and I lived in Oregon, and I wrote a bunch of scripts. A couple of things got made, and I did a lot of music videos and commercials in the meantime. It’s hard to make the kind of things I’m interested in making—indie, character-driven films. A lot of that stuff has migrated to television. [There are] a couple of movies I’ve been close on getting together and they haven’t gone…
GMK: Do you feel pressured to make your own opportunities?
SC: Whenever I’ve done things for myself, I’ve been rewarded and for the most part they have been the most successful [projects] for me.
GMK: Books and authors are important to Amy. What books or authors have made the greatest impact on you?
SC: Loon Lake by E. L. Doctorow, Dennis Cooper’s Closer, and The Sheltering Sky—that’s a book that I could read over and over and over again. It’s really haunting and amazing. Those are the three.
GMK: What about filmmakers you admire, or do you have any mentors?
SC: Bertolucci, Woody Allen, Robert Altman, and David Lynch—even though he’s a mentor to me, he’s also an idol. He taught me the most about being on set and directing.
GMK: How did you work with Emma and your other actors on their roles?
SC: I gave them a lot of freedom, and guided them to moments that were the most honest. That’s what I was mindful of. Instead of “Be angry,” I say stuff like, “When he says that line, it’s hurtful—defend yourself” as opposed to throwing out abstractions. But watching is really important—be the best audience member ever. I love watching actors.
GMK: Last question: Do you have any regrets like the characters in Adult World do?
SC: There’s a lot of stuff I’ve done that I wish I hadn’t. What Amy does in the movie, but wishes she had not done, is pretty benign. They are pretty minor things. I’ve reacted in ways that I regret reacting. I lost my temper in ways I wish I hadn’t. I don’t do that much anymore. I don’t have regrets about too many things. Guilt is a real human thing—especially weird misplaced guilt that’s not specific. That’s interesting, I wonder if that’s a very American thing or not…
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the forthcoming Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.