Those of a certain age will, at least until now, think of Jason Biggs as Jim from American Pie. They may be aware that Jason has starred in other roles, including reprisals in some of the seemingly endless sequels, but the role in that late 90s movie will forever be associated with him. A hard thing for any actor to shake off.
Well, enter The Subject (2020) from writer Chisa Hutchinson and director Lanie Zipoy. Jason plays the part of a successful white documentary filmmaker as he deals with the fallout from his most recent film, which inadvertently recorded the murder of a black teen on video. Hard hitting stuff, right? Could Jason handle it? Would his involvement be a distraction?
In our interview with the warm and affable film director Lanie Zipoy, she explains why she has no regrets in choosing Jason Biggs for the starring role – far from it. Lanie also touches on shooting in weather so cold they’d only managed 20 minutes of shooting, how they’d create a big family feel on set, and how the film happened to coincide with the Black Lives Matter movement.
There’s star turns from Aunjanue Ellis (When They See US, Quantico, Designated Survivor, NCIS Los Angeles) and Anabelle Acosta (Ballers, Quantico, Chicago P.D.) with a very strong supporting cast including a carefully delivered performance from Nile Bullock playing the part of Malcolm Barnes.
FF: What is your film The Subject (2020) about?
LZ: Yeah, The Subject (2020) tells the story of a successful white documentary filmmaker who is dealing with the fallout from his previous film, where he caught the murder of a black teen on tape. And now fast forward, he’s doing a new doc series for a big major network, and somebody else is following his every move and taping it. And it really sort of upends his life. So that’s what it’s about.
FF: As your first feature film, what do you think you did particularly well, and what may you have done differently if you could do it again?
LZ: Yeah, I think one of the best things was the people and the collaborator, every person… I would hire our cast again to be in the film because it felt like such a perfect crew from the cast: Jason Biggs, Aunjanue Ellis, Anabelle Acosta, everybody like that to my DP Darren Joe… We had an all female producing team… But it just ran so smoothly, because everybody really believed in the story. So I think in terms of team building and bringing a team together, that is something that I would definitely, you know, do again. I mean, there are always… whenever you go back over any project… I was a different person when I shot that film, because now time has moved on, I would probably do 20% of the shots a little bit differently because I have different experiences and a different take on it. But the thing that I’ve learned is you have to kind of be OK with that. And, I sort of prioritise… Is that a fatal mistake? And what I mean by that is, does it take the audience out of the story, and if it does that then that feels like it’s not in service of the film. But if it’s just something that I’m going to lose sleep over, I live with it ok.
FF: I think a lot of creative people have got a perfectionist streak and everyone self criticises a lot, don’t they? If you can let that go within reason, I think that’s important, just to get stuff done really?
LZ: Yeah. I mean, I think in the moment, you need to go for perfection. And that’s what you’re aiming for every single time but sometimes you just realise that’s not going to be every single frame of the film.
FF: How did casting Jason Biggs come about and did you have any reservations given he is known for and primarily associated with comedy movies and American Pie etc.
LZ: Actually, that that’s such a fantastic question. His name came up really early as we were talking with our casting director and other people. And we were like, ‘Oh, we love this thought because he brings a real likability to a character who otherwise could be really pouty, moody, etc. And he’s really the entrée point for the audience in many ways in the story and was like, ‘Oh, this is interesting!’ He’s done drama, though. A lot of it is on stage and I have a theatre background and I have friends who’ve worked with him in theatre and on film or on TV, Orange is the New Black… And so I’d seen him do drama, I knew he could do it and, also, I have really great respect for comedic actors. The timing that has to go into comedy is so difficult and I think often underrated because to hit that moment is so tough. So I had a really good inkling that he could hit every moment that we needed in this film, the operatic flow of it… and then I met him in person and was like, ‘Oh, yes, this is Phil. I can’t imagine anybody else playing this character.’
FF: I was really surprised at just how good he was. I don’t mean to sound disrespectful when I say that, but within a minute or two I completely forgot I was watching ‘Jim from American Pie’ and I was absorbed. So all due respect to him for, you know, shaking that off. I haven’t watched every film that he’s ever made and I know that, you’re right, he’s done dramatic roles, but primarily it is comedy stuff. If this film takes off and gets the exposure that it deserves, then I can see people maybe seeing him in a different light…
LZ: Yeah, and I think, you know, that was the challenge and the really exciting part for him was to do something really different, outside of his comfort zone, what he’s used to doing, and I have to give him so much credit because to go outside your comfort zone, if you’re talking about doing that with Martin Scorsese it’s really different if you’re talking about doing it with a first time director and screenwriter’s first film? That’s… that takes up a lot of risk! And so I give him a lot of credit for entrusting that type of performance with us as a team.
FF: Talk to us about filming in the freezing cold and the challenges that you faced with that?
LZ: Yeah, that was our final day of shooting and to say it was frigid… I mean, it was…I didn’t even want to go to work because it was so cold. I think we bought everything that’s at Uniqlo; the heating, clothing that they have for everybody. We had soup, you know, from the beginning of the shoot throughout everywhere as much as you wanted to keep yourself warm. It was just incredible! We had warming blankets for everybody, heated cars, like, we did everything we possibly could within our constraints. And the actors were so lovely. I think a couple of them luckily like cryotherapy so they’re used to the cold! Like, that was very helpful in that moment. But the other part of it was they were just so glad to see each other. And it was a shortish day, but it felt long, but because of the cold, and the person who was running our shoot that day, when we came in, and we were all hanging out, said that ‘Nobody’s leaving to go home, why is that?’ And I said, ‘We just all love each other. And we love this film.’ And we had a lot of background actors on the film and I was convinced that nobody was going to show up, because they knew they were going to be outdoors. And every single one of them – this is the magic of this film – every single one of them showed up. They were great! Now, we got them in and out… they were outside for maybe 20 minutes total, because it was brutal! But yeah, it was just, really, a team effort to make it happen.
FF: With the final scene, which is actually around a third of the movie’s length, was the scene set up and the length the same as the original stage production? Or was it very different?
LZ: No, it’s about the same. It’s about the same structurally; there are some differences in the stage play. Everything happens at Phil’s house; you don’t ever leave the house. In the film, we do leave the house. So, she opened up the world, but that part is about the same. And that final scene, which is about a third of the movie, we’ve actually cut, I don’t know, maybe four to seven minutes out of it. So there’s even more of that scene that is there. And probably, if I hadn’t been a first time filmmaker, I wouldn’t have gone for such a challenging scene to try and direct my first feature. That probably wasn’t the wisest thing, but I was excited by it. So…
FF: You’ve got basically got 40 minutes, more or less, of just two characters in one room talking in depth, which, for me, was fantastic; a really, really strong scene. But was that more difficult than usual? Because that’s not a usual scene length… or was that easier? I mean, you’ve just alluded to the fact that it was challenging. So why was that challenging?
LZ: Well, you’re shooting a long scene over multiple days, so it’s keeping the continuity. We shot that scene, two days, and then we had two days off, and then we shot two days, again, and honestly, it was the best because it’s a heavy lift of an emotional scene. So having a break in that was actually helpful to it. I mean, working with great actors, like Aunjanue Ellis and Jason Biggs makes it easier, they were so on point… We did shoot that with two cameras because I wanted to make sure we were capturing every moment that we possibly could and not making the actors go over and over it again… that would have been tough. The real challenge with that was, how do you keep the visual diversity in a scene like that, and so to be honest, we looked at a lot of David Fincher because he’ll use a lot of different angles and particularly this one scene in Mindhunter that we looked at it and so we said, okay, this we blocked out. We’re going to do this from this angle and we’re going to move the camera around and I think that that works. I think it keeps enough of an interest and you feel like you’re in it with them. It still feels claustrophobic but not like ‘God when are we getting out of this?’ Like, we’re still in it, then that’s what I hope for. I know it is a surprise how it comes. But we hope that it’s the payoff that you’ve watched this character through the film, what he’s going through, and then you get to this final sort of reckoning scene and that, that you can’t take your eyes off of that, hopefully.
FF: So what’s the main takeaway that you’d like the audience to get from The Subject (2020)?
LZ: There are so many, I mean, I think in the United States that I know across the world, too, there have been a lot of conversations and protests around Black Lives Matter, white privilege, and all of that, and I think Chisa Hutchinson wrote a nuanced script that impacts these but in a powerful story, and hopefully, you know, documentary filmmakers, artists, even like me that we think about the people that we work with and think about them as people, not as a mode to get us to something else, not as just, you know, something that we discard at the end of it, like used furniture, which is a line from the movie. And to think about how we all have to hold and do our part in society to make it better if we want it better if we want it equitable. That’s on everybody. And I’m saying that about myself as well. And hopefully we’ll have discussions, that the film can open up discussions around that.
FF: Yeah, the timing I think – I’m sure you must have spoken about this before – but the whole timing with the Black Lives Matter movement, etc. is…it’s almost come at the right time, really, the discussion point and it’s very topical, basically.
LZ: It is, you know, and we really were discussing, as the pandemic hit, because a lot of festivals were going online, is that the right thing to do? You know, for an independent film that wants distribution, there were a lot of questions around that. And for our first festival I had to make the decision on the day that in, here, in the United States, there was a video released of Ahmaud Arbery, being murdered by three white men in Georgia. And upon seeing that, I said, ‘Yeah, now is the time…’, because even though our film is not exactly that, it does bring up those issues and hopefully can allow for multiple people to talk about it.
FF: What made you decide to embark on a career in filmmaking? What inspired you to get into it?
LZ: You know, I think getting older, honestly, and I had a dream. I loved films from the time I was young. I tell the story that I begged my mom to take me to see Kramer vs. Kramer in the movie theater when I was like five or six. I wanted to see the movie and then on the way home, we discussed it. And I love movies that you can discuss afterwards. And, I mean, I love silly films. I also do live tweeting of 80s movies with people that’s gotten me through the pandemic. So I love that too, don’t get me wrong, but I do really love those ones that you can’t stop thinking about that you want to talk about with people. And I started producing for other people and I learned a lot watching other directors on set. And it sort of sparked to me this this desire that, you know, I’ve always wanted to do this. I’ve made short films in my 20s and at other times… ‘Why don’t I do it now? What time do I have to waste?’ and so that was it but it was just really about finding the stories that I want to tell. And once I read The Subject (2020), I knew that that was a story that I wanted out in the world and if I could make that happen then I should do everything I could to make it happen.
FF: What advice would you give to budding directors? I know you’re a first time director but, yeah, now you’ve obviously had that experience, and clearly you’ll move on with other projects… What advice would you give to others in the same position, basically?
LZ: Do it. Like, don’t hesitate, like find whatever you have whatever people you know, borrow any camera, do a story, do something that’s short, find a 48 hour film festival where you have 48 hours to create it, do whatever because it gets the juices flowing and every experience you have will make you a better filmmaker. Like I said, for me watching other directors work, I mean, that was like being in film school, because I got to see how they talk to actors and borrow the things that I liked. And then think about the things that were like, ‘oh, that I couldn’t do that, well, that person is really good at that, I would be terrible!’ And so, you know, that really hones that. I think any experience that you can get is great. And also…really figure out what stories you want to tell and what’s important, because that’s the whole reason and why you’re the person to tell it.
FF: What advice would you give to budding film producers?
LZ: Yeah, I would say meet as many people as you can, read as many scripts as possible. I came through, it was a bunch of theater friends that I had that were initially making some films and that led to other opportunities. And that’s how it normally happens, is word of mouth. If you want to be producing film then meet filmmakers because they’re the ones that you can be helpful for. Or reach out to a producer whose film you really like and see if you can come and, you know, intern, PA, be a part of it because you will learn a lot and watching how people work. And you’ll see, you know, what’s important to me is not only the work that you make, but how you make it and you’ll also see if that producer or that team makes work in the way that you want to make work, not just what they put out in the world, which can be great, but do they make it in a way that you would want to be a part of that, going forward?
FF: What are you working on now/next?
LZ: Yeah, so the pandemic is thrown sort of a curveball. I was going to do a docu fiction about dancers in their 70s who do swing dancing, it would be based on my aunt, as she finds a new dance partner after six years because my uncle has died. That part is true. My mom was going to be in a love triangle with a 50 year old man and his 40 year old girlfriend. Not true but very juicy – she was very excited to do that! But I think it’s unethical right now to shoot a film with seventy-year olds in enclosed spaces, dancing, like, not good. So I’m gonna push that to the side, come back to it when I can. So I’m actually – this surprises me – I’m developing a horror film, very gory, but has a lot of tension (ala the last scene in The Subject (2020)) which I’ve realised I like dealing with tension, and how do you bring that out? And I am super excited. We’re doing a reading of it this week, and then I think we’re gonna really start trying to work on it. So, head into pre production… But yeah, I’m very excited to play with those elements, and also the sort of aesthetics of horror. So I’ve been watching a lot of horror films or rewatching a lot so steeped myself in that.
FF: Cool, well thank you for the opportunity to speak with you about The Subject (2020). I think that final scene, if you can call a scene (being relatively long) was just amazing. I was honestly thinking in the back of my mind as I was watching it, you know, that it’s Oscars worthy.
LZ: Well, Richard, that means a lot. It really does. That’s why you make a film like this, that it will impact people and it means a lot that people see the work that Aunjanue and Jason did and see it in that light. I feel the same way. Like I feel like they should win awards or be nominated because I think that they poured everything that they could into those characters and were real with it. And that’s also after that experience, kind of what I’m intrigued about doing a horror film is like, can it have the scary elements, but can it be really character driven? Where you don’t forget the characters. Is, you know, is that possible? That’s the challenge, then, so…I guess I like challenges!
Film lover. Coffee hater. Raising a newborn during a global pandemic and interviewing indie filmmakers in between nappy changes.