Picking Up the Pieces: Marc Turtletaub's 'Puzzle' stars Kelly Macdonald as a housewife who finds fulfillment in jigsaws

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Sony Pictures Classics’ Puzzle, as Yul Brynner used to sing, is a puzzlement. That’s the way director Marc Turtletaub, working from a blueprint by adapters Oren Moverman and Polly Mann, designed it—a low-flamed character study that lets us put the pieces together.

The two missing pieces that eventually complete the picture are introduced at the outset when we first encounter the frayed, fragmented life that’s being examined.

Her name is Agnes. She’s a mousy housewife in the burbs of Connecticut who has lavished her time and attention on her husband and sons for so long that she herself has virtually evaporated. We first see what’s left of her, hosting a party for friends and family in the first scene, fussing over one and all.  When a saucer is broken, she scoops up all the pieces she can find, bolts to the kitchen and Crazy-Glues them back into place—all but one piece. She’s on the floor searching for it when her husband tells her to forget it and show a little dignity. It’s only when she delivers the cake to the crowd that we realize she, the workhorse-in-residence, is the evening’s honoree.

That missing sliver of saucer shows up in the next-to-the-last-scene—embedded in her foot and extracted by her husband. The last scene reflects the other missing piece—which sets the plot, and Agnes, in motion: a Montreal postcard shot, shattered into 1,000 ready-to-assemble pieces, a birthday gift from a friend. By the fade-out, she’s decided—of all the forces pulling on her: her lover, her husband, her sons, herself—who deserves her doting.

This lover, a jigsaw puzzle champion, enters the picture in a circuitous way when Agnes visits the New York puzzle shop to buy more puzzles where the Montreal one came from. She finds his name written on the wall, advertising for a puzzle partner. It seems that his last one—his wife—just exited with most of the furniture, so it’s a little more than a partner position he’s looking for. They practice, make beautiful puzzles together, win the Manhattan competition and become eligible for the big international standoff in Brussels, “the ancestral home of the Brussels sprout.”

Although Puzzle was made before the movement sparked, the ending will sit well with #MeToo supporters: Agnes finally gets a little time off for good (and bad) behavior.

“I think we left it open,” the director contends. “Oren and I worked together on the ending. We had a version where she was alone in New York City. In fact, we even shot that version as well. But the sense I had at the end of the screenplay was that she needed not to be with any man. She needed to sort of have some time to herself, so it’s ambiguous whether she’s going to go back to her husband or her lover.”

This is Turtletaub’s second outing as a director. Gods Behaving Badly, his first, sure did. Filmed in 2011, it was shown only once—at the 2013 Rome Film Festival, where it was booed into oblivion by critics. Alicia Silverstone and Ebon Moss-Bachrach starred as a mortal couple who encounter a gaggle of Greek gods in NYC (Sharon Stone as Aphrodite, Christopher Walken as Zeus, John Turturro as Hades, Edie Falco as Artemis, Oliver Platt as Apollo, Rosie Perez as Persephone, Gideon Glick as Eros).

In contrast, his second is more down-to-earth and real. In fact, the script really struck home with Turtletaub—literally: “When I read it, I said, ‘I know that woman,’” he recalls. Her name is Beatrice Ann Turtletaub, and he dedicated the film to her.

“I grew up in suburban New Jersey with a mother who doted on her husband and her only son. She was someone who wasn’t living the life that she was meant to live.

“I think she’d have loved to have lived in New York and had some sort of work that involved teaching young women in a college. Instead, she was a housewife. Not in any way to diminish the role of mother or wife, but there was more to her than that.”

By any other name, Alice and Beatrice Ann began as Maria del Carmen in a 2009 Argentine film called Rompecabezas (Spanish for The Puzzle). Maria Onetto won a Silver Condor as the housewife who jigsawed her way out of a humdrum existence. The film itself was up for an Argentine Oscar and won Natalia Smirnoff awards from the Argentinean Film Critics Association for Best First Film and Best Director.

“I intentionally didn’t see that film or read her original screenplay,” Turtletaub admits. “I wanted to keep my thoughts open. Only after we’d wrapped the picture and put the music in did I watch it for the first time. I liked it. It’s very different, obviously, and cast a little bit older. Natalia actually came on the set for a couple of days, and that was a real vote of confidence to me. She apparently liked our film.”

The 72-year-old Turtletaub has picked up a few awards himself in his 15 years and 27 films as a producer. In 2000 when he, as CEO, closed down The Money Store, a company that his father had founded, he walked away with $700 million to begin again in Hollywood, where he was received with open arms, if not palm leaves.

Two years into this second career, he produced his only Oscar contender for Best Picture, Little Miss Sunshine, which did get him the Independent Spirit Award and his first Producers Guild of America Award. His second came, a decade later, for Loving.

Those two films are indicative of what brought him to filmmaking: “something that touches my heart.” And both of these are by writers and directors new to movies. He has said that he wants to change people and use his money, through film, to do good.

His technique as a director is rather radical and certainly unique: He doesn’t believe in rehearsing his actors. “I discovered this over time, doing a couple of shorts. I rehearsed for my first short [2009’s Looking at Animals] but didn’t for the other one [2015’s The Breatharians], and I thought the second one felt much more alive. We cast these amazing actors, then we don’t allow for the spontaneity of the moment. You can always tweak a scene later, and—for me, anyway— I found that works best.

“I read an interview with a famous director who said, ‘Every time I cast an actor, it’s like a small bit.’ What he meant was, when he’s writing or redoing the screenplay, he has an idea of how those lines should be said. Then, of course, once an actor embodies the character, it’s going to be different. He’s going to take it his own way.

“For me, it’s just the opposite. Every time you get a great actor, you’re going to be surprised, and there’s going to be something you didn’t expect. I think that’s the pleasure of working collaboratively. I enjoy watching actors do their thing.”

For the demanding role of Agnes, Turtletaub got a great actor—the inestimable Kelly Macdonald, 22 years down the road from her Trainspotting debut, playing a character a couple of decades overdue actualizing herself. It’s her first starring role.

“I’ve always loved Kelly as an actress. I remember seeing her in a TV movie years ago with Bill Nighy called The Girl in the Café. Not a lot of people know it. I loved that performance. I said, ‘Who is she?’ not realizing it was Kelly from Trainspotting. A few years later I saw her in No Country for Old Men, then a few years after that in ‘Boardwalk Empire.’ You realize what a versatile actress she is. I’ve wanted to work with her for a while. Then when I read this script, I said, ‘This is perfect for Kelly.’”

The men in her life—her hard-working garage-mechanic husband (David Denman from “The Office”) and the wealthy inventor who becomes her puzzle, and sex, partner (Irrfan Khan, the Bollywood actor known here for The Lunchbox and Life of Pi)—are treated humanely and evenhandedly by Turtletaub. “Part of it is in the writing,” he says, “but I also didn’t want any of the characters to come across like stick figures.”

The sleeper performance in the film is Bubba Weiler’s touching depiction of Agnes’ older and slower son, Ziggy, who longs to be a chef but has been shoehorned into his dad’s garage. “I hadn’t seen Bubba’s work before, so I asked him to come in and read the scene where he says to his mother, ‘I’m miserable,’ and she says, ‘What do you want to do? What are you good at?’ And he says, ‘I’m not good at anything.’ As a parent, your heart just goes out to him. I’m in the room with Oren and my co-partner, Peter Saraf, and Avy Kaufman, who’s casting it, when he was reading this, and I got choked up. Then I turned around and saw both Oren and Peter were crying.”

Puzzle premiered in late July in New York, and Turtletaub planned to stack the house with relatives who would particularly appreciate the secret homage that is going on.

“I’ve been encouraged just by the general response,” he says about the first wave of raves greeting his picture. “The response from the critics—but, really, the response from the audiences—tells me so much. It’s interesting. When we screened it at Sundance, one of the things I noticed was where people laughed. After you work on something so much, you just smile at something—but then, when you screen it in front of a live audience and you hear all the laughter, you go, ‘Oh, that’s really funny.’

“Independent films like this—they’re labors of love, and when somebody appreciates them, it means so much. Ultimately, they survive on word of mouth.”