Friends, fears and Facebook: Jesse Zwick on 'About Alex'

ScreenerBlog

Jesse Zwick, writer and first-time director of About Alex, starring Jason Ritter, Maggie Grace, and Aubrey Plaza, sat down with us to talk ‘80s films, social-media ambivalence, and the educative benefits of trial-by-fire. About Alex made its Tribeca premiere last Thursday.


As the marketing for About Alex, which calls the movie “a Big Chill for our current social media moment,”
Aubrey Plaza and Jason Ritter

suggests, Jesse Zwick’s directorial debut bears a number of similarities to the ‘80’s ensemble drama. Both movies follow a group of former college friends over the span of a weekend. Both groups of former college friends have assembled after one friend attempts suicide. The one friend who attempts suicide in both films is named Alex (although in Zwick’s imagining, unlike The Big Chill,Alex survives.)



“I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a remake,” says Zwick, looking as if he would easily fit in among his cast of twenty to thirty-ish actors, dressed in the casually formal gear of a plaid button-up and khaki slacks. The Big Chill “was definitely a movie I was conscious of and I’m a fan of. When I thought about the story I was telling, it offered a structure that made sense to me, of an inciting incident that would bring a group of friends that was separated by time and space together. It bears a lot of similarities, but from that point on, I took it in a different direction… I do hope that it asks its own questions.”


Questions such as: To what degree does social media connect, distance or trick us into thinking we’re in touch? Jason Ritter plays Alex, the friend whose attempted suicide opens the movie. As he prepares for what appears to be his final act, Alex doesn’t forget to tweet. He chooses an ominous line from Romeo & Juliet: “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.” Later in the film, we learn Alex’s tweets and Facebook posts had become increasingly erratic in the period leading up to his breakdown.



“I don’t think social media is inherently bad or good. It’s a tool, like a hammer. You could kill someone with it,” but of course, that’s not what the tool is for, says Ritter, who didn’t sleep for three nights prior to Alex’s suicide scene because he wanted to be “exhausted and calm.” Social media can give you “a false sense of being in communication with somebody.”

“I really have a pretty ambivalent feeling about a lot of it,” Zwick says. “I didn’t want the film to rail against something or to praise it either. It was more just a meditation on what it does qualitatively to how we interact and our friendships. I use Facebook, I use Instagram. I try to use Twitter, but it’s too overwhelming for me and I don’t do it that much.”



Aubrey Plaza’s character Sarah is comfortably at ease with social media. To her, Instagramming photos of meals and friends is as normal as sharing a meal with friends. Her nighttime bedfellow and daytime antagonist Josh (“New Girl’s” Max Greenfield) espouses the opposite view. Josh is a


Jesse Zwick and actor Nate Parker

neo-Luddite whom Greenfield describes as “more educated than anybody needs to be,” and who is writing his dissertation on the biography of the future. What will future biographies look like when the future biographer has such an abundance of tweets, posts, photos, blogs, etc., from which to cull?

It’s an interesting question, as is the one raised by Maggie Grace’s Siri when, after Sarah observes their gathering is “just like an ‘80’s movie!” Siri asks, “Why does everything always have to be like something?” Someone else chimes in, Why does everyone nowadays talk in references?



“Yeah, that was our little Meta moment where I figured we would sort of acknowledge our influences, and yes, The Big Chill was one,” says Zwick. “A lot of John Hughes teen movies from the ‘80s as well, whether it’s The Breakfast Club or 16 Candles or Say Anything, things like that.”



Unfortunately, About Alex often misses the opportunity to probe the many questions it raises. The movie lays out intriguing modern dilemmas like cards on the game table in a country house somewhere in, say, upstate New York, which is where Alex was filmed. But it doesn’t gamble by taking a firm stance.



The director says most of his attention was focused on his characters, the individual performances and maintaining emotional veracity. In this sense, About Alex succeeds, and Zwick attributes the film’s relatability to his cast, who were able to create a sense of camaraderie in what amounted to a brief period of time.



“The actors are all busy people with busy lives, and we didn’t have a lot of time to do rehearsal. But that intimacy and shared history is a very important part of the story. I think part of it was aided by our location. We were two-and-a-half hours from New York City, in this little farmhouse in the Hudson Valley. We didn’t have great cell reception, so it did sort of force everyone to be present. They all lived in these little condos, and visited each other’s places and cooked dinner with each other. [Actress Jane Levy] actually moved into Aubrey’s condo the second night because they didn’t want to be in their own condos alone in the woods, so they spent the whole time together.”



Says Zwick, “I think there was such a blur of activity on set that I focused a lot on the actors’ performances, and I think those come across really well, but I’m interested in exploring my own abilities as a visual filmmaker and moving the camera in more and interesting ways.”



One might think Zwick’s father, Ed Zwick, a renowned producer and director of, among many other films, Love & Other Drugs and Blood Diamond, would be invaluable in providing formal guidance. And while his advice on About Alex was very helpful (“We went through a couple drafts of the script where he was giving me notes, we watched some audition tapes together, we watched some cuts of the movie later, when it was done.”), Zwick says, “He ultimately said to me you just have to kind of learn by doing it. And I definitely made some mistakes along the way, but I do think it was an amazing experience for myself.”



The former writer for The New Republic is already working on the script for his next project, which he laughingly refers to as a “romance with comedic elements.”



“I’m going to say that, because it’s not necessarily a formulaic rom-com, but it does fall into that spectrum. [That’s] another genre that had an amazing run in the ‘80s that I love, that sort of has a bad name now but has a lot of good elements. I’m hoping to be a part of that.”