Puzzle director learned craft by asking questions

Posted: August 31, 2018 at 1:48 a.m.

Actors Kelly Macdonald and Ifrrfan Khan get notes from director Marc Turtletaub on the set of the romantic drama Puzzle.

Before he started producing acclaimed movies such as Little Miss Sunshine, Arkansas alumnus Jeff Nichols' Loving, Safety Not Guaranteed and Sam Mendes' Away We Go, Marc Turtletaub made his living in the financial services industry.

When I asked him how he switched to producing and later directing movies, he told me that he did the same thing I was doing to him: asking questions.

"Before I was even in the financial world, I was a journalist for many years," he says. "So I've always loved great writing, and I've always loved film. When I came into the film world about 17 years ago, what I started to do was that I pulled upon my journalistic instincts, and I just starting meeting people and asking questions.

"I'd say, 'What is it that a foreign agent does?' 'What is it that a literary agent does?' 'How does distribution happen and how do you do development?' I spent almost a year interviewing them almost like you and I are talking now to learn as I could before I came into the business," he said, speaking from the Bentonville Film Festival last spring.

Turtletaub was in the home of Walmart to promote his second film as a director, Puzzle. It stars Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald (Boardwalk Empire, Trainspotting, No Country for Old Men) as a bored Connecticut housewife named Agnes who discovers puzzle competitions in New York and teams up with a lonely man named Robert (Indian actor Irrfan Khan from Slumdog Millionaire and Life of Pi), who becomes her mentor and teammate.

PART OF THE STORY

Turtletaub says the competition is only part of the story.

"The movie is a coming of age story about a woman over the age of 40, which is the kind of story we don't see very often. She finds out who she is through the competitive art of puzzling, but it's really a story about her ... it's really about the relationship between her and her husband and the people she meets in this new world. That's where the focus is," he says.

If life in Bridgeport seems so stifling that Agnes runs to the Big Apple to solve jigsaw puzzles, Turtletaub says he and screenwriters Oren Moverman (Love & Mercy, The Messenger) and Polly Mann avoided portraying her husband and grown sons as oafs. Because she's torn between her obligations and her newfound passion, there's tension in the story.

"It's a delicate line that I walk in the movie," he says. "We don't want to demonize anyone or diminish the role of being a mother or a wife. And yet at the same time to say that there's more to life than just that. It's a humanistic story in its telling that we can feel and understand each of the characters in it and still root for her to find her authentic self."

In addition, while the limited settings for the movie don't sound terribly scenic, Turtletaub recalls how he and his crew worked to make Agnes' and Robert's homes seem drastically different.

"With the one in Connecticut, we filled it with smoke to give it a feeling of you'd been there forever," he says. "You don't see the smoke, but it gives the feeling of having been there forever. It's the house that she grew up in. The house in New York having none as the light is coming in through the windows. I think that's one way you can differentiate the two parts of her life."

NO DIFFICULTY

Neither Macdonald nor Khan has any difficulty passing for a resident of America's eastern seaboard, but Puzzle itself actually originated in Argentina. Often intriguing movies from abroad make for crummy films here in the States because their stories are rooted in their native cultures. (Try watching The Outrage after having seen Rashomon. It's a painful experience.)

Turtletaub found a unique way to overcome this hurdle. He's quick to credit the script, which he says contains 98 percent of the film's content.

"The first thing I did was to make sure it had an authenticity and my own voice ... [and] that I intentionally did not watch the Argentinean film of the same name. I watched it after I got done making this film. I met the director and writer of that film (Rompecabezas), Natalia Smirnoff, and I told her I was looking forward to watching it, but I'm not going to watch it until I finish Puzzle," he recalls.

DIVINE REDEMPTION

If Turtletaub sounds giddy about promoting his current film, he's surprisingly courteous and tactful in recounting his first movie as a director, an adaptation of Marie Phillips' satirical book Gods Behaving Badly. While the movie featured a cast that included Alicia Silverstone, Christopher Walken, Sharon Stone, Edie Falco and John Turturro, it opened to hostile reviews at the 2013 Rome Film Festival.

Few have had a chance to see for themselves if the hateful response was justified.

Nonetheless, Turtletaub says the previous movie taught him how to make a better one.

"It was released very narrowly, and I felt like I went to film school on that movie," he says." There are elements of it that are good, and there are elements where there's an enormous amount to be learned. One of the things I've learned along the way is to look at the process of anything as a process. Any kind of art is a process.

"Many of the lessons that I learned from that movie, I think helped to direct this movie. One thing I think I learned is that as a director it's a delicate balance to keep your vision and at the same time to be open to the incredible input you can get from the actors to the cinematographer to the wardrobe person. I think I learned that far better, and that was to be open and to listen to what others had to bring to the table."

As of this writing, Turtletaub is teaming with director Marielle Heller (The Dairy of a Teenage Girl) on You Are My Friend, a biopic about the beloved children's television host Fred Rogers. Asked what he looks for in a movie to support, he replies, "With directing and producing, I do look for stories with meaning, but I do look for stories that touch people and have a broad reach. We've worked with some amazing directors and will continue, and some of the movies end up having a broad reach. We're not adverse to working with really talented people and telling really powerful stories. We just want to make sure they have some depth to them."

MovieStyle on 08/31/2018