We chat with director Justin Lerner about his new film, Girlfriend

Justin Lerner first worked with actor and long term friend Evan Sneider on the short film THE REPLACEMENT CHILD. The two reunite on the first feature length film that either have worked on, and bring us the thought provoking and often-uncomfortable GIRLFRIEND. Movies.ie caught up with Justin Lerner to find out what it was like working with a Down Syndrome actor, who also happens to be his friend and how he convinced Twilight star Jackson Rathbone to write the music for the film.

Where did the story come from?
JL: The idea for GIRLFRIEND came to me in a single sleepless night over the Christmas holiday a few years ago, when I was home visiting my family in Wayland, Massachusetts, the town where Evan Sneider and I went to high school together. Evan had called me that day to check in and say hello — something he still does even now, a decade after we’ve graduated. So he was on my mind that evening. I decided to build a work of fiction around Evan, and also around the current financial and housing crisis, which was at the time devastating small towns across the United States. I wanted to write something that would cater to fit his personality and the things that he, a man with Down Syndrome, already wants in his real life — the foremost being a chance to have a real, loving relationship.  Using the financial collapse and money problems as the context, the script is the construction of a situation which could give Evan that chance. Or, so I hoped. And then the other characters evolved after I had figured out Evan’s journey in the film.

As a writer, how did you balance Evan’s character so that the audience were able to see past the physical?
JL: Evan’s physicality is very much part of the story and his character and why I chose to cast him in this role. I want the audience to be aware of him as physically different in all moments. Then, once they “get to know him”, and see him live his life, deal with loss and let down, and be the kind and gentle soul that he is, it is up to the viewer to decide if they’re willing to see past the physical and realize he’s going for something noble, that is acceptable for all humans go for. But that is not something that concerns me when writing or directing — it’s a reaction. Of course, many people have, after watching the film, told me that in watching Evan’s journey they slowly came to the realization that his struggle to love and be loved is universal and human and a right of everyone, regardless of what they look or sound like, but that’s not for me to control or to worry about.  I think it’s dangerous to try and worry about an audience’s reaction or “balancing” how they might feel — there’s just too many people out there who will think too many different things.  I have to tell my story and allow you to do what you want with it.  In GIRLFRIEND, casting Evan in the lead role was a storytelling decision. I wanted to allow you to watch someone with certain physical and cognitive differences going through a story we can all relate to and have all seen before many times — the pursuit of a girl, the attaining of love, the loss of that love, and ultimately, some hope and experience for the next one. Whether a viewer was able to see past the physical with him is really up to them. I would never try to be so manipulative as to use the story to solicit that sort of reaction.

Since you have been friends with Evan for many years, were there any challenges in directing a friend?
JL: There were, yes. Sometimes he would get too comfortable with me and would want to either change his lines, not say a certain line, or, because he was so invested in the story and what ultimately happened to Evan, he even once or twice asked to change the outcome of a scene completely. I did actually amend and slightly alter certain scenes to better fit Evan’s personality, so sometimes his suggestions would make it into the film. This is because I had a strong desire to put as much of Evan’s real personality and mannerisms into the film as possible (whenever it was appropriate and possible to do without fundamentally changing the story). But yes, I would often have to remind him that in addition to being his buddy, I was also his “boss”. This happened not only because we’re friends, but also because he was living the story, at times, as if it was really happening — his imagination was so vivid, he felt every heartbreak and sad part of the script so intensely.  But because we are good friends from childhood, there were many advantages, too — he trusted me a lot more than he’d trust a stranger directing this film, which came in handy when we shot the more difficult physical scenes (sex, fights, etc.) and the emotional scenes. We had years of shared experience and stories to draw on and discuss to put the other scenes in context, which made him more comfortable.

Evan is incredibly strong as an actor; did you ever doubt Evan’s ability to carry the emotional and dramatic heart of the film?
JL: Yes, I knew he’d be able to do at least an adequate job, but I’ve said many times that his unbelievable performance is something I was not fully prepared for. In the months and days leading up to production, the question I got most from my producers, casting director, actors who were cast was, “Justin, Evan’s in nearly every scene of this film and other than a minute long cameo in one of your short films, he’s never acted on film before — can he do this?” Of course I said “yes, don’t worry”, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t secretly a little worried. But at the same time, the risk excited me — there was this unknown element in the film that would be so fun (and a little scary) to explore. Also, knowing Evan for many years, I knew he would work as hard has I needed him to — being a professional actor is something that he wants so badly — so we had in common a desire to make this thing great and the willingness to work ourselves to the edge of sanity and sleeplessness to get there. It was an unspoken agreement we had — not to abandon each other, to just keep pushing through no matter how many sceptics there were. That said, I had been prepared, if needed, to sit slightly off camera for every scene, feeding him lines… But I didn’t end up needing to — and I was not prepared for him to do what he did — which was, he channelled something beyond him and in most of the difficult scenes, temporarily convincing himself that the scene was actually happening. I didn’t see this until the second or third day of shooting — he was finding a way to make whatever was going on in the script absolutely real inside his mind. Even hours after we’d finish shooting a scene he was re-living it in his mind. He was getting angry at fictional characters; at the way someone in the script mistreated him (or his character). It was astounding to watch. I found that if I saw this happening — particularly in the scenes where he was emotionally involved enough to lose the line between real and make believe — my best decision was just to stay out of his way. I ended up using a lot of moments in the final edit that were either not scripted or just improvised by Evan and the other actors. For this type of film, I couldn’t cut that stuff out because I wanted people to better know the “real Evan”, so I had to use anything genuine that he gave me.

How did Jackson Rathbone and Shannon Woodward get involved with the film?
JL: Jackson is a friend of two of the producers of the film and from the very start was mentioned to me about possibly playing Russ, the jealous ex-boyfriend of Evan’s love interest. I met with him and discussed movies, music, and we got along well and offered him the role.  We came across Shannon Woodward through the casting process. Our casting director Brad Gilmore brought her in and she offered one of the most unique and interesting interpretations of the role. I’m very pleased with the performances both actors gave — and they had a lot of chemistry on-screen together as well.

Jackson Rathbone’s band – 100 Monkeys – did the soundtrack for the film; how did that come about?
JL: Jackson and his band had expressed interest in doing the score very early on, before the film was even shot. I was  hesitant at first because I had only known them as a rock band, and music in my films tends to be more “ambient noise” than music.  Also, until GIRLFRIEND, I had exclusively worked on my film scores (which more resemble soundscapes than score) with the amazingly talented Daniel Lopatin, a friend of mine and Evan’s from high school, who is now better known as the recording artist Oneohtrix Point Never.  I won’t lie — it was a challenge working with the band, both for me, and I think for them, too. I had to take some time to find a common language with them, and I don’t think they were used to taking directions from some guy outside their tightly-knit band. But it was a great learning experience, and in the end I think we ultimately came out with some really nice stuff and I’m quite happy with the music in the film.

What do you hope audiences take from the film?
JL: I just hope for the time you were watching it, you were invested in its reality, that you wanted to see what happened next, in whatever way that means to you — emotionally, artistically, narratively. Whatever you take from a film is up to you, and it’s correct, because it’s what you experienced. There’s no such thing as a wrong reaction to a film.

Girlfriend premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and our own Galway Film Fleadh, how useful were these to the film?
JL: [Toronto is] a wonderful festival — and one of the biggest in the world, so it’s easy to get lost there with all the Oscar films and big gala premieres, but I can’t say enough good things about the people there and all they did to make sure the film was seen and talked about. We screened in a section called “Discovery” which showcased new filmmakers, and we had three sold-out shows, and Evan was able to do a lot of press — it was a dream come true. We all had a great time and it really put the film on the map in the international film community. Toronto was the first place to get behind us, and with their support and endorsement, we were able to travel for the next year to seven countries with the film, including Ireland. Screening at the Galway Film Fleadh was perhaps one of the best festival experiences of my life — I spent the week there with Amanda Plummer and my brother, meeting international filmmakers and artists, watching films, drinking Guinness and Jameson at the Rowing Club until the sun came up, and on the one day it didn’t rain, we walked around a bit.

What’s next?
JL: I’m in the early stages of preparing my next feature film called THE AUTOMATIC HATE, which I wrote with Katharine O’Brien and is being produced by Alix Madigan. It’s another story that deals with an “impossible” or “taboo” love, but that’s all I’ll say at the moment.

GIRLFRIEND is showing exclusively at the Lighthouse Cinema, Dublin and on Volta.ie

Words: Brogen Hayes