Life of Riley: Jake Scott directs James Gandolfini and Kristen Stewart in drama of loss and healing
It was inevitable, being the son of Gladiator and the nephew of Top Gun, that Jake Scott would go into the film business. His siblings, Luke and Jordan, are similarly following suit, and Jake’s own offspring seem listing toward movie-directing careers.
Yet there is very little of the family tree on display in Jake’s first real entry into the Scott trade, Welcome to the Rileys, a flash-less, affecting character study about real people quite far afield from the clangs and thunderclaps and sonic air-blasts doled out by Papa Ripley and Uncle Tony in their high-octane box-office bonanzas.
He likes the word “life-size” for what he has wrought. “That’s a very amazing way of putting it, ‘life-size,’” he remarks, turning the word over in his head. “I never really found the words for it. I wish I had that word to explain it while I was shooting it.
“I come from television commercials and music-videos in a very visual family. I’m actually more inclined to being overt with visuals and sound, but I was so drawn to these characters that I felt very strongly that the film should have a realism to it that didn’t come from what I consider to be contrived verite—endless handheld camera, rough soundtrack, all that. Also, the tendency in those kinds of films that are trying to seem real is for performances to be so downplayed as to convey no feeling at all.”
There is a palpable undercurrent of emotion coursing through Ken Hixon’s original screenplay. His Rileys—Doug and Lois—are a middle-aged married couple in the ’burbs of Indiana, estranged by the loss of their daughter eight years earlier.
Their grief has driven Lois into agoraphobia and isolation in their immaculate home and Doug into consoling adultery with a local waitress. When the waitress succumbs to cancer, Doug packs up his sorrow and heads on a business trip to Louisiana. Out of boredom more than anything else, he ambles into a strip joint and meets Mallory, a 16-year-old lap-dancer whom he takes a strange shine to. His proposition isn’t at all what she expects: $100 a day to take a break from The Life and live platonically with him. The domesticity that sets in prompts him to phone his wife and say he’s extending his trip, which, in turn, prompts her to quell all her fears and go fetch him.
The plot triangulates conventionally, but it refuses to stand up straight that way—primarily because the potential Sugar Daddy insists on playing Surrogate Daddy.
“The script,” in two words, is what attracted Scott to the project. “It wasn’t really the story, it was the characters. I was, in particular, drawn to the Doug character. I’m a father. I read it as a father, I responded to it as a father. It was really the characters because the story is perhaps familiar. Certainly, men with savior complexes come up in movies quite a lot, actually—and particularly with strippers and prostitutes.”
The genesis of the film is authentic. “Ken had been to a bar in New Orleans and had seen this young girl—that’s what spurred the thought. It never went further than him seeing her across the room, but, given the way his mind works, he saw a plot.
“He’s from Indianapolis, and the Rileys’ home is in Indiana, but the film takes place mostly in New Orleans. We shot the whole thing in Louisiana. We didn’t have the budget to go to Indiana, but I went, spent some time there, met the people and tried to get a sense of the society there and types of friends Doug and Lois would have.”
Welcome to the Rileys, opening Oct. 29 from Samuel Goldwyn Films, took three years to finance and 28 days to film. “It was difficult to get people interested because it’s not particularly commercial. They’re wary of films like this, with middle-aged characters and a fairly sullen and difficult teenage girl. Along the way, there was a lot of pressure to cast a star.”
Casting-wise, Scott lucked out. James Gandolfini, free at last of “The Sopranos” and gunning for a big-screen career, signed on as Doug and cried on cue as required.
But he’s more than a tad intimidating for a newbie director. “It’s a bit like bear-taming. He can be quite fierce and then, at the same time, very lovable, but I stood my ground. I grew up in London. That’s how we’re made. He’s a very deep river, that man. And he’s a very principled and disciplined actor who came very prepared. He’s very self-deprecating. I don’t think he even thinks of himself as a very good actor, but he gives so much. He’s such a dedicated soul. I love him so much—all three of them, in fact—that I really looked forward to going to work every day. One of the things that I really enjoyed about making this movie was working with them.”
Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden was originally cast as Gandolfini’s wife, “but she had to pull out because she was going to do a play with James in the winter after we finished filming, and I think she made a choice—which I understand completely—to do the play with him instead. I don’t know that, but I took that to be the reason.”
Whatever, it was a wise career move. Harden and the play itself (Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage) won Tonys, and Gandolfini nabbed a Tony nomination, as did the rest of the cast (Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis). And it was a whopping commercial hit.
Melissa Leo stepped in to take Harden’s place three weeks before principal photography began. “Melissa was someone I had always wanted. She signed before Frozen River opened and made her an Oscar nominee,” says Scott, pleased to have his taste confirmed.” It came out when we were in preproduction in New Orleans.”
His biggest coup, however, was casting Kristen Stewart, co-star of the blockbuster Twilight films, as the underage hooker that the plot turns on. “I loved her in Into the Wild. I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s exactly the right quality I’m looking for in Mallory.’ It’s a sort of feral quality.”
Scott spent a good year with the screenwriter, streamlining plot points and making them subtle. The death of the Rileys’ daughter is established in a deft and unexpected manner. “She used to exist in flashbacks, but one of the first things I did with Ken was take all the flashbacks out. I kept going back to the idea of restraint.
“While we were in New Orleans, it was very tempting to photograph the cityscape for all of its beauty, but I really didn’t think that was relevant to the characters.
“Some people have said, “It’s a shame you don’t get to see Kristen actually dancing on a pole,’ but that was again a conscious decision. I didn’t shoot it. I was being asked to shoot it, but I wouldn’t shoot it because I didn’t feel that it was relevant to what Doug was going through. And I think, if I had shown her doing that, it was possible the audience would connect that to Doug and to something he was doing as a character. I didn’t want that to happen. I didn’t want that to be in question.”
The word agoraphobia is not used in the film, but Lois’s symptoms are in plain sight—her terror at getting the morning paper, the hairdresser and the pastor who make house calls to her, et al. It’s even the basis for a suddenly funny scene about her difficulty getting the car out of the driveway and driving to reclaim her husband.
“Again, that was something that was more explained. In fact, we actually did shoot material that really made that clear, but, in the editing room, it just seemed almost to become a story about this agoraphobic woman when all you really needed to know about her was that it was not possible for her to accept that her husband was not going to come home—it was untenable—and that she had to go out that door.”
The first, and only other, feature film that Scott directed was 1999’s Plunkett and Macleane, an English costumer with Robert Carlyle and Jonny Lee Miller as 18th-century highwaymen. “My first film was, for me, flawed—and the flaws had as much to do with me as a first-time director and an inexperienced director as anything else in the movie. It didn’t really suggest any real ability in terms of directing actors.
“I’ve really been desperately trying to get another film going over the past 11 years, and I’ve come close on a number of occasions. The problem was that the types of films I subsequently decided I wanted to make as a director were more like the film I just made. My favorite films are more character-driven, not just visual exercises. As time passed and I became a father and got more children, my interest changed.”
Yes, this is a Scott talking—and the seeds of change were planted by his father via Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God. “It really hit me, that film, when I was 12. My dad screened it in a little screening room in Soho in London because he was looking at it as a reference for a project he was working on. It was a school break, and my brother and I were dragged to a screening of it. It had a profound effect on me because it was at that moment that I realized that there was another type of film.
“Herzog is still one of my favorite directors. I love Robert Bresson, but that’s very heady. I love Hal Ashby. I was very lucky because I had a father who would watch these things. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of film. When I was probably in my early 20s, he turned me on to things like The Cranes Are Flying and all this European cinema I had no idea about. By the same token, I turned him on to Come and See.”
Welcome to the Rileys, it is hoped, will translate as Welcome to the Club for potential producers. “They’ll be more inclined to take a chance with me now. I hope that this film shows there’s an ability as a director with actors. I hope it makes my life a little easier in the future, so, hopefully, it won’t be another 11 years. God, I hope not.”
On the drawing boards are a couple of new projects, he says. “I’m really trying to get something going in the U.K., which is more of a thriller, a vengeance thriller. The working title, which I don’t think is quite right, is Savage Atonement. It’s almost too explicit, that title. It’s a little bit like a kind of 39 Steps in terms of its scope.”
This moves ahead of his previously announced Murder at 19,000 Feet “because it’s a script that’s already written. We’ve done the work on it. It’s pretty much there. Paul Webb, who wrote the script called Selma about Martin Luther King and the Selma riots, wrote this really fast and very character-driven thriller. I read it just out of interest because I like him as a writer, and I thought, ‘Bloody hell, this is really good.’ I’d love to make something in the U.K. because I’m from there, and I’d love to go back and make a film there. Hopefully, we’ll be starting shooting in January.”
The aforementioned Murder “is actually based on a true story, which is about the converging lines of three groups of people, really—two Tibetan girls, refugees who are making the trek from Tibet into Nepal across the mountains; a group of mountaineers who witnessed the murder of one of those girls, who was hoping to become a nun; and the Chinese forces that took her life. It’s fundamentally about the friend of the girl who died and friendship and what one’s prepared to do when faced with a moral choice. It’s quite realistic. I’d like Mark Ruffalo to consider it as one of the climbers, but that’s a long way off right now because we haven’t got a script yet.”