The strangeness and beauty of Famke Janssen’s first feature film, Bringing Up Bobby (2011) is that it mimics “real life,” at the same time that it exposes the artistry of cinema. This filmmaking-wizardry allows unsuspecting viewers to misconstrue Bobby as comic relief, when it is really, its polar-opposite.
Bobby is set in present day Oklahoma. As such, the landscape and its inhabitants appear stereotypically grey and bland. However, meandering the obvious, are 11-year-old Bobby (Spencer List) and his free spirited mom, Olive (Milla Jovovich). Clad in the neon-eccentricity of Anita (Tina Aumont) in Tinto Brass’ The Howl (1968), the Ukrainian-born Olive traipses her mid-western playpen, with her wild child, Bobby. A mother and son version of Bonnie and Clyde, the duo steal, pillage and horrify the fundamentalist locale, all in the name of fun. It is only when we step outside the plasticity of the movie, and ponder the effects of Olive’s criminal upbringing of her boy, the we are reminded of 8-year-old Rhoda in Mervyn Leroy’s The Bad Seed (1956). And perhaps even more horrifically, we imagine young Adam Lanza, and his recent massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut.
I had the opportunity to speak with Famke Janssen and Spencer List about filmmaking, acting, and life. Our conversation, beginning with Spencer List, is excerpted below.
How old are you, Spencer?
I’m 13 now, but was 12 when the film was made. Bobby is 11 years old.
Are your parents supportive of your acting career – and that of your twin sister, Peyton’s?
Yes, they are.
Tell me about your work on television that deals with crime.
In CSI Miami, I played Troy Faber. Troy is a tattle tail that is about to tattle on these kids for smoking weed. Troy gets killed, stabbed, before he can do that – because they don’t want to be arrested.
Was that scary?
Yeah… I also played Tate Walker in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. I only had one line in the beginning, but actually added five more lines. The director said, ‘Oh, I really like that…’ and he [kept] them in. I played the son of someone accused of kidnapping.
Bobby was a very happy kid, and that’s how I played him. I thought he was a lot like me. He didn’t realize how serious things were, and even what he was stealing – until his mom got arrested.
So he saw it as just having fun with his mom?
We’ve all done stuff like that, to some extent. But what happens when Bobby realizes the consequences of their criminality?
I did realize the seriousness of the situation, but played Bobby happy until his mom was gone. Then I [Bobby] didn’t know what to do, and was really upset. Bobby just loved his mom so much.
Have you ever seen kids in similar situations, and talked to them?
Yeah, I have. I lived in Brooklyn, New York, and had a friend who stole. Luckily, because of his age, he didn’t get taken away.
Tell me about when Bobby was put in the fancy school, after his mom went away.
I think Bobby liked some of the kids at that school, but he was bullied a lot because his mom was in jail. I think everyone knew that he didn’t really belong at that school. He was bullied, but it wasn’t really his fault.
Have you ever experienced bullying or seen kids bullied?
Yeah, I have. On the first day of middle school, one kid actually pushed me down. I got up and pushed him down to the floor. Then they all respected me. But it was really bad for my sister, because people were just really jealous. That’s how some girls are.
What was it like working with Famke Janssen?
She was amazing! She told me to play Bobby the way I wanted to do it. I enjoyed the whole experience, even though I felt really bad for Bobby when he was losing his mom.
Did you ever take your work home with you?
Naah… After work, I’m out of my character. My mom and dad always make sure [of that].
Film directors that are actors themselves are the most likely to successfully acquire the best work from their actors, and Famke Janssen is no exception. In the excerpt below, Janssen speaks about how acting shapes her filmmaking in Bringing Up Bobby.
I’m actually mostly an actress. It’s what I’ve been doing for the last eighteen years of my life.
What’s it like to cross that line, and direct?
You pay attention on set. As an actor, you have the opportunity to observe a lot of different things. You see how the director works, you see how the cinematographer works, you see how things are lit, and how the art and wardrobe departments work – production – and interactions with everybody. And that’s really a unique position to be in. I think that people who go directly into filmmaking from film school, lack the understanding of how a set functions. As an actor, I’ve had all this time to observe, and come up with my own way of doing things.
Tell us about the transition you experienced.
When you go behind the camera, to direct, you have to become a different person and shut part of yourself off that would normally like to indulge in things that now you have no time to do. [Suddenly] you have a ticking time clock and you can’t really discuss scenes at length. You’ve just got to move forward.
Where are you from, Famke?
I grew up in Amsterdam, and came to the United States about 20-something years ago, and worked as a model. Then I went to Columbia University, and studied writing and literature. Then I began taking acting classes, and fell in love with acting.
Was it easy to get acting jobs?
No. I constantly got turned down because I was too tall, or too foreign, and finally, I applied to and got accepted into the AFI writing program. Then at that moment, I auditioned for the Bond film and got cast. At that point, I took a detour [from writing] and have been acting for eighteen years.
But all along, I was thinking that I wanted to make a film.
Was it easy to make Bringing Up Bobby?
Well, we tried to do it during the worst economic time. Then there were the 20 days of struggling in Oklahoma to get the thing off the ground.
Did Bobby play the festival circuit?
We played at festivals all over the world – and it’s been really fantastic.
The story came from the fact that I am a foreigner who’s lived in the United States for a long time. I thought I understood America because I lived in New York for all this time, until I went to visit my boyfriend’s family in Oklahoma. That’s when I realized that America is a very complex and different kind of place. Bringing back all these feelings that I originally had when I first came to the United States – all based on movies, really. My opinions about the United States, had all been informed, by the films I’d watched. I think it’s really hard for people who live in the United States to understand how powerful the film industry is for foreigners. Oklahoma reminded me of all the movies I’ve loved over the years – like Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thelma and Louise, Paper Moon – I mean, I could go on and on…
What’s it really like in Oklahoma?
It’s deeply religious and very conservative – and [people] are extremely kind. In my movie, Olive misconstrues this and thinks people are stupid, which they’re not. People are just kind and non-jaded.
Would you say that you embody all of the characters in Bobby?
Well hopefully, not Walt…
What was it like to tell the story?
Well, I have a problem when things get too sentimental. When you tell a story about a mother and son – and the mother thinks she’s doing right by her son – as an audience, you see she’s doing just the opposite. I also don’t enjoy exposition. So there are a lot of things that are kept mysterious in the film. You never really know how Kent and Mary’s son dies, or what happened to Bobby’s father. But in most people’s lives, you don’t really know these things.
And he was raised by his mother… But by the end of the movie you get a true sense of Olive – even though she’s a fabricated person, with a fabricated name. Then, when she finally breaks down, and starts crying, Bobby is the one who makes it light at that moment. Because that’s what she’s done for him – his whole life. That’s her imprint upon him, as a mother – and I always imagine that they’ll find each other, again.
And your imprint on Bobby?
I let him be himself.
Amy R. Handler is a Boston-based film-maker, film scholar, writer and critic.