Sundance: “The Sessions” Filmmaker Ben Lewin on “The Catcher Was a Spy,” “Please Stand By” (Interview)

CatcherPleaseStandBySundance Film Festival / Magnolia Pictures

Australian filmmaker was working in relative obscurity Down Under before bringing his drama The Sessions to Sundance in 2012. It was one of the breakouts from the festival, eventually garnering another Oscar nomination for Helen Hunt. And then Lewin seemingly vanished, although he was actually developing a number of films.

Lewin was back at Sundance last week with his new movie , a period spy-thriller starring as Moe Berg, the former Boston Red Sox catcher who was called upon by the government to use his talent for languages and strategic wits to find and kill German scientist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong). Heisenberg had been helping the Nazis build nuclear weapons, and Moe’s mission leads him to war-torn Italy along with a scientist (Paul Giamatti) who might help him change Heisenberg’s mind, rather than outright killing him.

Co-starring Sienna Miller, Connie Nielsen, Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels, Shea Whigham, and Hiroyuki Sanada, Catcher was a bit of an anomaly at Sundance, being a vast and epic story of Berg’s accomplishments both on the field and in the field.

As luck would have it, Lewin’s previous movie Please Stand By was also released last week in select cities and On Demand. That movie stars as an autistic woman named Wendy who has a proclivity for Star Trek, which leads her to enter a writing competition and sending her on a cross-country journey to turn in her sample before the deadline. (It’s something many Tracking Board readers can relate to, I’m sure.)

The Tracking Board had a chance to sit down with Mr. Lewin at Sundance to talk about both films in an extended interview. 

Your two films The Catcher Was a Spy and Please Stand By are two very different movies, but I think Catcher is more surprising because it’s much bigger than The Sessions, but you did Please Stand By first so how did that come to you and what interested you about the story?

: After The Sessions, I really was looking just to direct other people’s work, and the reason the films are so different is they came from different writers, different scripts. Ultimately, that’s what defines what you get to see regardless of which filmmaker’s hands they’re in, so I really wanted to go into other people’s minds and sort of realize their visions. There was a lot of appeal in the idea of a young woman with autism in the case of Please Stand By, because [autism is] more typically represented in men who get engaged in sort of nerdy highly mathematical activities. I think that this Wendy character was a fairly crucial difference in apparent emotional needs of women with autism as distinct from men. I think this is what fascinated the writer, too.  I just liked the idea of having a heroine as opposed to a hero, particularly in this kind of Star Trek context. Again, you normally associate “Trekkie” behavior with guys. I have a friend in Australia who has a daughter in a very similar kind of situation. When I told her about Star Trek, the connection just fell into place immediately, so that really intrigued me. I mean, honestly, it’s like very instinctive. A script grabs you or a subject grabs you and if it happens, then it’s very hard to predict.

DakotaFanningPleaseStandByMagnolia Pictures

But you were writing a lot of your own material over the years, so did you just reach a point where it would take longer to get another movie done if you had written it as well?

Yes, I’m terribly slow as a writer. I agonize, and it’s really not a pleasure the way I write. I’m sure many other writers share the same thing, but I mean compared to the adrenaline buzz of actually shooting a movie, writing can be very torturous and given that I was on people’s radar and they were offering me scripts, I thought, “Okay, let me do someone else’s torture for a change.”

I have spoken to a number of filmmakers including Guy Ritchie who told me that they just want to be directing and be behind the camera more, and that doesn’t happen if you’re busy writing something.

Maybe now I feel like going back to writing. You know, it’s a different experience doing other people’s work and a good one, but different. I don’t know, we’ll see where the river takes me next.

Was the script for Please Stand By something that had already been written and developed before you came on to direct?

That’s right. It came to me through some producers I knew and who correctly suspected that this kind of material would spark my interest.

What about Catcher? I haven’t seen all your movies, but I’ve seen two or three of them and Catcher seems like it’s completely out of left field. (Pardon the pun.)

I guess it does, but you know, way back, I did do a TV miniseries, which had started off as a feature film project that was quite large scale at the time, which was a World War II movie, a true story, but one of those stories that was kind of hidden under something and no one had ever told it before. It was called The Dunera Boys, and one of the stars was Bob Hoskins. It was a story that in some ways kind of put me on the map a bit, so in a way for me it was a return to that kind of interest. I became and always had been fascinated with World War II stories. My parents were survivors of the Holocaust and to me that’s very recent, meaningful history. Those stories have always appealed to me, so it wasn’t a complete gearshift, I’d been there before, and I thought, it sort of somehow reminded me, this one of those stories that’s very peculiar and has this absurd side. Again, I was okay, if we can get this together, this would be cool.

Had you heard of Moe Berg before getting the script?

No. I just got the script and then I started from there, and then I read the book and you know, became sort of sucked into the Moe Berg cult if you like. And there are many people out there trying to “Well, who was this Moe Berg character?” When it was first announced in the trades, a rabbi emailed me, who was a self-proclaimed scholar of Moe Berg, and said “Which Moe Berg are you going to make the movie about?”  Also made these different Moe Bergs, all of whom are historically correct, but very different characters. I’m hoping there are a whole lot of Moe Berg fans hidden out there who are just suddenly gonna wake up and “Oh, they have a movie for me.”

CatcherWasaSpy1Sundance Film Festival

For someone who never heard of him, it’s a really surprising story to learn that there was this baseball player who also had been a scholar, an academic, and knew all these languages. What brought you to to play him? It feels like something we haven’t seen him do before.

You know, these things really tend to happen very serendipitously. You don’t necessarily kind of reason it all out. , I think the conversation came up strangely with Michael Douglas. We’d been involved in some other project, so he invited us to the premiere of Ant-Man, so during the premiere of Ant-Man, I’m sort of talking to some agent, [and he asked] “Oh, what about ?”. For a while I thought, “This is just agent talk,” and then, “Well, I’d like to [meet him] if he’s really interested. I’d like to hear it from Paul.” In fact, I did have a sense that Paul was looking for something different. He wanted to step out of that kind of lovable, goofy guy thing into something that was gonna test him a bit. I think the enigma of this character really challenged him. When we first met, we sort of started to get on. I mean a lot of this has to do with not only getting a sense of this being the right guy for the part, but this will be a good partner to make the movie with. Once you cast the lead, it does become that kind of partnership. I thought he had a temperament that would be good for me, and it’s also going to carry through to the character. At least this rather unknowable and probably maybe distant character was going to have some relatability, and people would like him, which doesn’t hurt.

The character is the type Tom Hanks might have played twenty years ago, and it’s nice to see Paul doing a more dramatic role, because that’s what he was doing before meeting Judd Apatow.

You know, he’s one of those actors that I don’t feel the acting. You just feel the character coming through and I don’t feel the wheels turning. [It’s] very natural.

In this sense, he’s dressed up in period costume and has to speak different languages, so it seems a lot more difficult than his usual freeform comedic roles.  I don’t know if he already knew some languages or had to use cue cards to seem fluid in Japanese, German and other languages?

No, no, he took that part very seriously and worked really assiduously with the language coaches and no, no, there were no cue cards. (laughs) 

It would make filmmaking easier if they actually did use cue cards…

No, no, no, he really did his homework. I don’t know how proficient he was in any other language, but he certainly got those lines right.

I know a little German from my parents, so the actors that spoke German did a pretty good job, especially Mark Strong, although he’s played a German before.

Yeah, he was educated in German, absolutely native German, I think he speaks.

BenLewinPleaseStandByMagnolia Pictures

I apologize that I’m going to jump around a bit, but what was your experience working with on Please Stand By?

was a learning experience for me. Here am I sitting at the feet of a 20-year-old or a 21-year-old kind of learning how to make a movie. Her technique, I mean, quite apart from just her spirit, technically she has to be the best actor I’ve worked with. I mean, extraordinary work, she can do. To have that kind of access to your emotions as well must be some kind of function of youth. I don’t know, just their ability to do that while making it seem painless. And her attitude is just impeccable. I mean, she really respects everyone around her and is very process-oriented. It’s the process that’s important to her and the sense that it’s a team process as well. I loved working with her.

I haven’t spoken to her in many years, but I interviewed her when she was 12, and I was blown away that she had good answers to every question. She was actually better then than some older adults are now.

She’s a wonderful actor and a very nice human being and probably the best takeaway that I had from that movie was the pleasure of working with her.

One of the parts I enjoyed in that movie was when she’s telling Toni Collette of her day-to-day and you created this elaborate montage to visualize it. How long did it take to shoot that montage with all the different pieces?

Oh, it was spread over so many different days that it’s hard to say, but I think we shot the whole movie in just over five weeks.  You know, it wasn’t a big budget.

Did you do the two movies back-to-back?

Yeah, it was amazing. I went from Please Stand By into doing an episode of Speechless, and right into the pre-production of The Catcher Was a Spy. I mean, I don’t usually get a role like that. It’s not typical and it’s never spaced out… it’s sort of two films in two years plus a TV show or a drought for five years. I mean, it’s impossible to program it.

It’s the nature of the business, I guess.

Yeah.

As far as preparing for Catcher, you mentioned having done another war movie. I was really impressed with the fact that you had a war movie within this spy-thriller, but then you also have a baseball movie at the beginning.

Well, it was a real challenge in terms of defining the story you’re telling, and on the one hand there was this fascination with finding out “Who the hell is this Moe Berg character?” And on the other hand, real necessity to have a narrative. Not just to figure out who he was, but to see his part in the story that this was. I think this is one of the potential pitfalls of a biopic for example. That is: this happened and then this happened and then he died, and so on. It’s not really a story in the kind of dramatic sense of a story. And really it was a problem finding this enigmatic character that no one seemed to understand and placing him in the story of the birth of the atom bomb, which is what he is essentially remembered for. I think that if he didn’t have such a part in that chapter of history, then the whole business of the whole when he was a baseball player and then he was a this … Wouldn’t have been so exciting for people. I think that was the central assumption of the movie, that we were telling the story of the birth of the atom bomb, but through the story of this strange Moe Berg gentleman.

CatcherWasaSpy3Sundance Film Festival

I like the fact that there are different sections that keep it from getting dull. It reminded me a little of Spielberg’s The Post. Not sure if you saw it yet but I can’t think of another director who could pull off a ten-minute section in the middle of the Vietnam War before getting to the full story.

Yes, I’ve seen The Post, and I’m flattered by the comparison. Thank you.

There are plenty of directors who could pull off the baseball section or the political thriller or the war section, but not all three in a single cohesive film.

Well, I guess I was trying to give some kind of concertina’d representation of the many lives that Moe Berg led.

Was there any newsreel footage out there of Moe?

Yes, there is.

Did you use any of it in the movie?

Not of Moe.  I mean, there is one piece in the movie, which is a replica of a piece of newsreel and I thought it was so funny, where he’s juggling oranges in a Japanese market.  There is a piece of Moe doing exactly this, and I thought, “I have to put that in the movie, even though it has no relevance to the story.” I just felt that of all the moments that you see of Moe Berg, that was him at his most childlike in a way. And joyful. He usually was a fairly somber kind of guy, I got the impression.

I asked about newsreel footage because I wondered if Paul had something to watch to get some of Moe’s mannerisms or anything like that or if that was even a concern, since so few people will know who Moe Berg is.

I think that it starts with the fact that there isn’t a close physical resemblance between Paul and Moe. I mean at the end of the movie, you see the real Moe Berg. You see he’s a tall guy with a uni-brow, and his voice was pretty deep, so we never talked about actually mimicking him. We talked about picking up a bit on his OCD, obsessive-compulsive behavior.

I don’t remember that being mentioned, but I think you can assume that might be the case from Moe’s thirst for knowledge. 

Well, it was something that we kind of talked about. There must have been that aspect of that in  Moe. I mean there were so many peculiarities about his life that they all fit into this. I mean, he was one of three siblings, none of whom ever married or had children, and you think, “Wow, what kind of parenting evolves into that result?” If you went into details of his life, like his behavior with newspapers, it was rather obsessive-compulsive behavior. No one was allowed to touch his newspapers. He’d throw them away if anyone touched them. They were alive or dead and things had to be a certain way, so we tried to interpret that a little bit, but in small ways.

CatcherWasaSpySiennaSundance Film Festival / Magnolia Pictures

I didn’t even recognize Sienna Miller as Moe’s girlfriend Estella, which I’m sure she would be happy to hear because I know she tries to transform herself with every movie she does almost.

Well, I like that. I guess that’s acting. I’ve never seen her as a type. I’ve always seen her just doing whatever character she comes into. Estella was really a very class act. She was a very accomplished woman, who just gave up on Moe.

I’ve spoken to a few filmmakers who have worked with Paul including Jim Brooks, and they’ve mentioned that he’s a good asset to have because he’s able to punch up lines even though he rarely gets a writing credit. Did you find that was the case on Catcher as well?

Well, no more than the other actors in this case. I mean, given that he was the central character, there was a lot to talk about. and we talked about every single line and made adjustments and if that’s what you mean. We did go through every single line of the script and reworked things, but at the same time, I did the same with Paul Giamatti. So some actors want to do it, really get in there and others are, “That’s what’s on the page, I’ll do that.” It’s an evolving process.

Plus you’re a writer yourself and when you’re getting these scripts, I imagine the writers have spent a lot of time researching the subjects.

Yeah, well, we go further and I did a lot of my own research, which I enjoy.

Do you have any idea what you might want to do next? Do you still have a pile of scripts to read or something you’ve been developing yourself?

I think that I’ve forgotten the concept of “want,” as in that actually being relevant to anything. It’s kind of like what’s going to happen? I do have a number of projects. I don’t know the nature of your program, but do you like to hear about what goes on in filmmakers’ minds or just about the movies?

The Tracking Board is a site for screenwriters, producers, financiers, all kind of getting together to make projects happen. There’s a lot of younger screenwriters and filmmakers who read the site, so anything that can help them learn about the business is always welcome.

One of the things I want to do is just go back to making a movie that in some ways is like a home movie using someone else’s money, where I’m not trying to make a business statement. I love movie-making, but over the course of my career, it’s become a more and more brutal business, and in a way, you kind of lose sight of your own personality and are more preoccupied with what people are going to say and think about you and above all rank you. Will you get a B-plus on Indiewire? What number are you on this IMDb Starmeter? What’s your score on Rotten Tomatoes? It kind of confuses your intentions. I changed from being a lawyer to being a filmmaker, and thought, “Well, if I can actually make a living out of it, it seems like more fun than meeting with criminals every day. And it really was. I thought “My God, I can get away with this,” and just tell my stories and so on and so forth. I would like to just find a channel in the whole process… I’m doing this because I’m enjoying it. I don’t know whether that means anything in the context of…  You asked me what I want to do and what I want is really too amorphous to describe. I want to keep working, but I want to find that kind of old path of pleasure that I used to have.

There are obviously people who are directing and they just want to direct as much as possible and keep working, and then there are others that are driven to tell a more personal story or only tell personal stories, so they have to write their own material… and they can be a lawyer as their day job. I was curious where you were coming from having done television in the past and more recently.

One of the things I really enjoyed about The Catcher was a Spy was the fact that it was perceived by most people as “Oh, why is he doing a war spy movie? He makes intimate little emotional movies.” So I enjoyed that side of the…. “Well, why not? It’s the same stuff.” I mean, honestly, having been through the experience, it’s easier to do a battle scene then a two-hander, two people talking in a room, in many ways. The Catcher was one of those movies that was very rejuvenating. It took me into places where I had to be on my toes. “You have to know what you’re doing here and these are more complex pieces to fit together than boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again.”  I suppose it was a very challenging movie, particularly telling a story about someone that everyone who knew has a different opinion about. I know I’m gonna get some flack on that front.

Right, but then you have people that don’t know anything about Moe, and they can learn about him from the movie.

Yes, yes, and it sort of stimulated a lot of different nerve areas for me, love of history and search for character and so on, and the baseball part. I mean I am really not a baseball expert, but I got to understand a bit about the passion behind it.

Please Stand By is now playing in select theaters and On Demand, including iTunes and Amazon Video, while The Catcher Was a Spy is still looking for distribution.

  | East Coast Editor
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