Jon Poll talks about Charlie Bartlett
Jon Poll, the director of the new movie, “Charlie Bartlett,” speaks to a Campus Press freelancer about his experience directing the film.
Poll was also invloved in the production of “Meet the Fockers” and “40-Year-Old Virgin.”
Campus Press: How did you go about creating a realistic depiction of high school?
Jon Poll: It all started with the script which Gustan Nash wrote. He was 26 four years ago; he had gone to USC film school like I had, and he was working the Burbank mall in a camera store selling memory cards and hanging out with the teenagers at “Hot Dog on a Stick.” They thought the [teen] movies talked down to them – they didn’t feel any authentic voice in any of those films.
I had a little saying when we were making the movie: “teenagers are people too.” For me, as a director I wanted to make the portrayals as realistic and honest as I could, and I had a great script that did feel authentic. I hope this is a new trend in Hollywood to make movies for teenagers that treat them with more respect.
CP: There seems to be a lot of similarities, as far as promotion, with “Charlie Bartlett” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. Was this intentional?
JP: To be brought up in the same sentence as John Hughes’ films is amazing – those are very beloved movies. It wasn’t really intentional; clearly they’re guys who have something similar going on because they are leaders. I think the difference with Ferris is, he’s pretty damn successful with it, and he pulls it off. And the difference with Charlie is he tries to but ends up failing at it and ends up showing a little more human side. The film that was actually more of an inspiration than any teen films was “Harold and Maude” which was a Hal Ashby film from the 1970s that mixed a lot of darkness and light. That was interesting to me about making the film; there are some really dark subjects but we’re trying to do them in a comedy.
CP: Was this film’s subject matter (pharmaceutical drugs, drug abuse and self medication) a reflection or criticism of today’s society?
JP: It’s tricky, because you don’t want to make a movie that is just a message; you want to make an entertainment. But we are trying to take some things on. I’ve been touring around for two weeks going to college campuses, and I know there’s a huge black market for recreational drugs that are prescription drugs. When I went to high school, beer and pot and maybe acid was it, but now kids are taking Ambien and staying up all night which is kind of a puzzle. There’s nothing wrong with these drugs, they help a lot of people, and we play with it for humor’s sake. But I question when you have a character who is a teen boy who is all hyped up and people will just give him a drug and see if it works and that’s kind of crazy. Because Charlie makes these mistakes that we’ve all made as teenagers we follow him and believe him as he goes on this journey and he figures it out.
If there is one word to encapsulate what the movie is about, it’s listening. I hope that somewhere if one kid doesn’t go for the easy fix of a prescription drug, he tries talking to a parent or a friend – that is better than a quick fix.
CP: Were you trying to convey that, in many cases, teenagers don’t want to talk to anyone?
JP: We’re all faced with a lot of challenges. And it’s scary when teenagers are unable to talk to their parents, and I think that’s more prevalent than being able to talk to them. It’s interesting, both Hope Davis [Charlie’s Mother] and Robert Downey Jr. [Principal Gardner], in the film, play characters with substance abuse problems. I’m proud of the fact that they both love their kids and try to talk to them. They don’t necessarily do it right, and that’s a source of a lot of humor, but they’re trying, and that’s important to show.
CP: Is the film geared towards an older audience as well as the younger demographic?
JP: It’s for teenagers first and foremost; I think we would’ve failed if teenagers hated the movie. It’s also for people who have a teenager, and I hope it’s also for anyone who ever was a teenager. I’m 49, I still feel like a teenager. I think we all remember those times and can relate to them. That is the nature of the beast though, you have to sell it towards a certain area – and it is a teen film. Anton Yelchin [Charlie] is only 17 years old.
CP: So no casting 29-year olds for high school parts?
JP: We had no 30-year olds that we would’ve had to shave four times a day. Of the eight teenage leads, only two were not teenagers. When I watch movies with people who clearly aren’t teenagers, I just check out.
CP: Did the fact that all of the actors/actresses portraying the main characters being young contribute to the realism in the film?
JP: I hope so. With the relationship between Susan and Anton’s Charlie, there’s a scene in the film, a very simple scene I call “The Bathroom Confessional” where they sit in the stalls; she sits in one side and he sits in the other. The interesting thing about it, which Gustin came up with, is there’s a wall between them. But there’s a sweetness because we see what’s really going on [while they’re blocked from each other] for them. I really like that in that moment those two talk about things and then they have their first kiss. I think that’s really what happens most for people; it’s not like a guy finds the hot girl, hits on her and they’re all of the sudden having sex – that’s more of a teen movie cliché.
CP: How much improvisation was there?
JP: There are always gifts you get from actors. There’s a moment at the end of a scene where Kat Dennings [Susan], is asking Charlie about his father and he changes the subject and sings a really goofy version of Yankee Doodle Dandy and they breakout laughing at the end. I didn’t cut the camera, and I think it’s one of those moments that feels really real. Actors are always bringing you gifts like that.
There’s a scene later in the film where Principal Gardner is really at his rope’s end, and we’ve heard the name “Charlie Bartlett” probably 100 times in the film, and all of the sudden he starts calling him “Charles” and “Chuck”. That was completely unscripted and thrown in there by Robert. In the middle of a dramatic scene it injected some humor.
CP: How did you find Anton for the role of Charlie?
JP: When I met Anton, he talked about how honest and optimistic the character was and it made me feel like he really understood that. He has a quality, to me, that he has a wisdom beyond his years, but again he is a teenager. I don’t know if I could’ve made the movie without Anton. He did everything we threw at him: singing, dancing, sensitive scenes and listening to kids.
CP: Why Robert Downey Jr. for the part of Principal Gardner?
JP: The great thing about Robert is that he would’ve played [Charlie] 20 years ago. He’s an iconoclastic kid with a lot of attitude and really smart – he saw that and really responded to Gustin’s script. He didn’t shy away from the elements in the film that are reflections on some of the things in his own life. He easily could’ve, he had every opportunity to say, “I don’t know, that’s a little scary,” but he took that on. And there’s a resonance in some of those scenes where his character, Principal Gardner, talks to Charlie about some of things that he’s doing and he helps Charlie realize that he’s making a mistake. I don’t know if it wasn’t Robert if we would’ve believed it.
CP: Did Robert’s connection to the character of Charlie help the interaction between those two roles?
JP: No question. Really at the crux of the movie is this character, where in most teen films the principal is just this silly goofball. Downey’s character sees Charlie and really likes him. He’s selling drugs in school, he’s making and selling fight videos, he’s going after his daughter, he’s trying to test his authority every chance he gets but Gardner is a reluctant principal and he feels like Charlie was a little bit like he was when he was a kid, and he doesn’t want to screw up his life. At the end of the film without giving away too much, they both really find a way to help each other out. Charlie helps him see his daughter, and what he’s got there, and Gardner does something to save Charlie’s life as well.
CP: Since most of this does take place inside a high school, what did you do to create that atmosphere?
JP: I visited 30 schools all over Canada. We were going to spend a lot of time in that hallway, and I wanted it to be a really cool looking old school – not a modern, boring-looking school. There’s a series of scenes where Charlie walks down the hallway with the same core group of extras. If you were to just pull those scenes out of the movie you can see how the story progresses and how Charlie’s character changes from the different reactions he receives from them. And yes, we do play to the fact that there are cliques and different groups in the movie, but ultimately I think we show that they’re all human beings. Even with Tyler Hilton [Murphy the Bully], we show that he was just a kid before too until somebody beat up on him, and maybe that’s what put him where he is. Some of it’s very tricky, there’s a scene right after the dance where Charlie and Murphy have sold Ritalin to all the kids and we play it for humor – there’s girls running around with their tops off and the character Len, who’s a mentally challenged kid, is wearing their bra and chasing them around the hall and it’s very funny. Then you’re walking down the hall with Charlie while a great song, “God Damn Beautiful Day” is playing and everyone is patting him on his back. Part of me is happy for Charlie, it’s like “alright he’s getting some friends, he’s got it together!” and then right at that moment I go, “did we just glorify a drug dealer?” That’s what makes it interesting, we have both of those things going on at once. It’s not simple, he’s not just an evil kid and he’s not just a sweet kid and he does learn from his mistakes.
CP: Did you have a large role in selecting the soundtrack, and what was your process for choosing the songs?
JP: It’s funny, in Nash’s first script we had a lot of Metallica and Linkin Park songs written into the script and they said it would be a $4 million soundtrack for a $10 million film; so clearly we weren’t doing that. There’s a band, Spiral Beach, who plays in the party in the film. I first found them, I was looking for Susan’s music, music that she would play in her room – that you could see that she would like and that her father would go, “what? I don’t get that music”. Then I went to Toronto to see them play, and saw that they were also teenagers, 15-19 years old, so I immediately thought, “alright, they are the band at the party” – and that’s huge. There’s a song “Sing Out” from “Harold and Maude” by Cat Stevens, which there is a funny story about. This was the one thing I had to force anyone to do. Kat Dennings, who sings the song in the end, said, “I won’t do it, I hate Cat Stevens, I listened to it my whole life, my mother played it every day, I hate that hippie stuff.” And I said, “no, we can do it, you can do it.” Until this day I tease her that we’re going to do an album called “Kat Does Cat,” but I think it really works. I used a lot of songs that I thought represented the school and teenage music, and to be honest, it didn’t cost us a $100,000.
CP: How much of Susan’s character came from your daughter and your own experiences as she is around the same age?
JP: A couple of the scenes that are in the movies now, weren’t actually in the original script. In fact, the bathroom confessional and another one. I just thought the way to make the movie richer was to highlight the triangle relationship between Charlie, Susan and Principal Gardner. I met my wife in high school and ran across the country together, and I still feel like I’m 15. I vividly remember that – and that became an inspiration for how we depicted the first love. I’m really proud of Kat Dennings’ performance because she doesn’t have a lot of humorous things in the film, but she’s the character who realizes that Charlie needs someone to listen to him as well. She really grounds the film with a lot of heart; she doesn’t feel like the typical teen movie queen, she feels like a real girl.