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The audience at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival packed the Eccles Theatre in Park City, Utah, last week for a screening of director Josh Radnor’s sophomore effort Liberal Arts.
The film proved to be a massive leap forward for Radnor, whose Happythankyoumoreplease received mostly positive acclaim at Sundance two years ago. As someone who only enjoyed bits of his directorial debut, I’m happy to say that Radnor has come into his own with Liberal Arts, which centers on 35-year-old Jesse (played by Radnor), a guidance counselor living in New York City who returns to his alma mater Kenyon College for the retirement of the beloved professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins). He meets, and subsequently falls for, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a student 16 years his junior, and also reconnects with his icy British Romantic Literature professor Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney).
The movie focuses on how finding oneself is not relegated to youth, and Radnor’s writing is endlessly charming. Janney and Jenkins absolutely crush it with hilariously memorable performances, and Olsen’s wise-beyond-her-years demeanor makes her a formidable ingenue. The movie also includes particularly memorable turns by Zac Efron (as something of a yogi frat boy), and John Magaro as depressive Dean, the Infinite Jest-reading Kenyon student Jesse inadvertently mentors.
This movie will definitely be a hit with audiences; in an industry saturated with romantic comedies, it’s difficult to find one that’s both intelligent and imminently watchable. Liberal Arts is what Garden State wishes it were – as soon as the credits rolled, I wanted to hit replay.
After the screening, Radnor took the stage to answer audience questions about his inspiration behind the subject matter, lifting tips from real-life professors, the challenges of making a second film, and his penchant for David Foster Wallace.
What was the inspiration behind the themes of this movie?
We went back to my college, where we shot this, to Kenyon College, in Ohio. And I showed my first film Happythankyoumoreplease there. And … I had this very strange feeling all of a sudden. I realized I was significantly older than the students there. And I’d been back over the years, but I never felt that gap. My memories of being in college were so vivid — I couldn’t track how that had happened. Like, how I got to be 35 and they were all 18 to 22. I was suddenly like an elder. And it kind of freaked me out. And I just had this thought: What if I fell in love with a student? That would really complicate my life. And I told my producer Jesse Hara that, and he said, “That’s a great movie!” And then I wrote it. And I wrote it fast.
What was the most fun to make of a very fun movie for us to watch?
The great thing about finding like this new part of my life, this kind of writing/directing part ,is how much I enjoy all the parts of the process. Like, a lot of stuff you don’t see … once principal photography’s done, the fun starts. I love editing the movie, I love mixing the sound, I love doing color correction. I only hate looping – that’s the only thing, when you have to re-record dialogue. I hate it so much because it’s so kind of uninspired. And actors hate it – they’re just resentful they have to do it. I enjoy collecting people. Like kind of recruiting this ensemble to be in the movie and getting everyone on the same page. I mean, most of that’s in the casting – and I enjoy casting. Also, getting to work with your heroes. Richard Jenkins did a part in my first movie … and I wrote this part for him. So I’m hearing his voice as I’m writing it. And I didn’t know that I was writing this part for Lizzie Olsen but I was, somehow, weirdly. And Allison Janney, I’ve always been such a huge fan of her – she’s actually a Kenyon grad. She went to my college. So it’s an amazing thing to be able to invite her back.
Can you talk about how much the movie was scripted versus how much it was improvised?
The movie’s pretty tightly scripted. I can be annoying about making sure we have it as it’s written before we jump off the page. But different actors enjoy improvising more than others. Richard has some improv in there. He just plays and I would play along with him. You know, it’s weird … you want to give actors freedom to do that sort of thing, but also coming from the theater it’s like you wouldn’t dare improvise with a playwright in the room. But I’m trying to strike a nice balance because sometimes your favorite things just happen in an improv. So I’m still learning that.
I love How I Met Your Mother – it’s my favorite show.
[sarcastically] I’m sorry, what are you referring to? [audience laughs]
And you play a professor in that show, and obviously you’re a professor in this film. What was your experience like as a student at Kenyon, and have you had similar relationships with professors in your life?
I was a professional student for a really long time. And I still love that kind of teacher-student dynamic. And it took me a long time to shake off being a student. It took me a long time to figure out how to feed myself without a meal plan. There’s something really touching to me about the mentor/mentee relationship. I had some really important teachers in my life, and specifically at Kenyon I had a history professor named Peter Rutkoff, who remains a very dear friend. He was teaching a history class … he had us read this book that he taught for two weeks, and then at the end of it he said, “So do you guys really believe this crap?” And then he took it back to the book and started saying why he thinks it’s crap. And I thought, “What a brave, awesome thing that he taught a book that he didn’t actually like or believe in.” I appreciated the Liberal Arts education because I was forced to read all this stuff that maybe I wouldn’t have read otherwise. I took a British Romantic Literature class with a Keats scholar named Ron Sharp. He told our class that the first time, when he was a young teacher, and he was teaching Ode on a Grecian Urn … he got to, “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” he said, “beauth is trudy, trudy beauth.” And it’s a story I always thought was so funny and so I just gave it to Allison’s character.
I’m a big Infinite Jest fan – I just read it last year.
That’s so funny – John Magaro just finished it. Wait, is John Magaro here? Oh – come out here! [motions backstage, John emerges] This is John Magaro, who played Dean. [audience applauds enthusiastically] How great is this kid? John was reading Infinite Jest while we were shooting and he was wandering around campus holding Infinite Jest, and it was like the lines between him and the character were very blurry. And John just finished it. I didn’t let you finish your question!
I was just curious if you went over it again to add it into the script. And what was the book you were holding in the bookstore near the end? I didn’t recognize that cover.
That’s a fake cover – our props guy made that cover. That’s why you didn’t recognize it. I have a thing about proper nouns in movies, like sometimes I don’t want to name things. It was a conceit that I wasn’t going to name any of the books. The reason was – I mean, there were a few reasons. But one of the main ones was I wanted it to be everyone’s favorite book. So like I just wanted you to bring in your favorite book and if I said, “It was this” people would be like, “I don’t like that book. That’s not a good book. I don’t believe this movie any more.” So I just decided to leave it. Yeah, that book that Dean is reading that Jesse loves is Infinite Jest. I have a very strong tormented relationship with David Foster Wallace. I was, and remain, a huge fan. And I also grieved his suicide very strongly. It just kind of wrecked me in a really profound way, and I continue to wrestle with it in so many ways. But I found I also had a lot of rage at him – this rage comes up, I get angry at him, for kind of dropping this wisdom and then deserting. I know it’s irrational on my part to assume I even know anything about that. [motions to John] John – do you want to talk about your experience reading Infinite Jest? Because he also said it messed him up.
Magaro: I actually started reading it when we started shooting this at Kenyon, and I got about 500 pages into it while we were shooting, and then I went back to New York after it was done and I just set it down, because at that point it wasn’t really making sense to me and I was having trouble following it. And then I saw Josh again in L.A. and I was like, “I gotta finish this.” So I picked it up again and around 600 everything just started coming together, and it was clicking. And then I get to the end and I was totally messed up, like you said [motions to Josh]. And then you find yourself going back and wanting to start it again, which is so crazy. That book can really mess you up. But read it! [audience laughs]
How did this experience compare to the writing and directing of Happythankyoumoreplease?
I was terrified for both of them, but in kind of different ways. I was terrified of the unknowns before the first movie and I was terrified of the knowns before the second movie. I knew what I was getting into more for the second one. I found my happiest days on set were the days when I wasn’t in the movie, I was just directing. And foolishly, I ended up writing myself into most of this movie. And it was largely because it was a story that I felt like I kinda had to play that part, I just had to. I’m trying to write a script that I’m not in – it would be so exciting. And it was also weird – I was directing older actors in this movie. So I kind of had to feign confidence a little bit. Allison and Richard I think are two of the greatest actors in the world [applause] It was no less terrifying and no less overwhelming, but there was a kind of boldness I think to some of my choices. I’m learning what visual vocabulary is and I’m expanding my own cinematic vocabulary. But yeah, it was tough and awesome all at once.
In both of your films your character wants to save a younger lost person, and I’m curious why that’s an important relationship to you.
I never, uhhh, thought about that! [audience laughs] Freaking insightful guy! [audience laughs harder] A friend of mine came and saw it early … and he thought the Dean/Jesse relationship, he called it the birth of a mentor. That Dean gets this mentor and Jesse steps into this role that he didn’t even know he was capable of because he’s so lost himself. I sort of picture it like this: if we’re all climbing somewhere, sometimes we’re reaching down and helping people, and other people are helping us. And it’s just this web of inter-connected relationships where we’re sometimes playing the role of the person lifting someone and sometimes we’re being lifted. And I think those are interesting dynamics. I think it’s kind of sweet, it’s like the blind leading the blind. I think we’re all kind of bumping into furniture and clueless, generally. No one feels like an adult, you know? But we’re doing the best we can, and I think that’s an interesting dynamic to explore.