Available to rent on VOD in Ireland this week, THE LITTLE THINGS has been a film in the making for 30 years. Originally written from Steven Spielberg, who passed on the project because of its dark story, the film story languished for many years, before director John Lee Hancock was convinced to pick it up again. Starring Denzel Washington as Deputy Sherriff Joe Deacon and Rami Malek as LAPD detective Jim Baxter, the story follows the two as they try to solve a string of horrific murders. Once they have Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) in their sights as a suspect, Deacon and Baxter find getting to the truth harder than they first thought.
Movies.ie caught up with the cast and crew of THE LITTLE THINGS to find out more about how the movie finally got made, the score and who was looking for the worst wig in Hollywood, and why.
John, this is a film that has been in the works for a long time, what was the inspiration for this story? John Lee Hancock: I wish I could remember! I wrote it in 1992, I was living in a kind of crappy apartment in Hollywood, so I think I was looking out the window and writing about what I was seeing to some degree. I had been a big fan of crime dramas and psychological thrillers, but I felt that they had become stale because of the third act where it all became about the good guy chasing the bad guy, and then dispatching the bad guy in some morbid fashion. That was always less interesting to me than the first two acts, with the clues and the misdirects. I thought was there a way to embrace the genre and subvert it at the same time. I do recall that thought process, other than that I wish I could remember, but having to go back and read a script from yourself from so long ago, it’s a little like looking at a high school yearbook or something; you see both fear and a little promise.
How did the script change over the years?
JLH: Really not that much, Mark [Johnson – producer] had pushed me to read it for almost a decade after I started directing, and finally I said yes and opened the drawer and dusted it off. I had some trepidation about it as well, ‘cos you’re going back and looking at your writing from almost 30 years ago, but I enjoyed it, it was really good. The only thing I did; there was some dialogue polish that I did and also that continued working with the actors, in terms of looking at scenes and changing dialogue where necessary. The most important thing was taking out… There was a whole bunch of criminal investigation forensics type stuff, that was in the script because when I wrote it no-one was seeing that stuff; there was no CSI, there was no FIRST 48 HOURS, there was none of that stuff. Now every one of us gets educated every week on forensics, so I was able to take all of that out of the script, which actually makes the script better.
John, you have a spectacular cast in this film, when you were writing it, did you ever think you would have three Oscar winning actors telling this story?
JLH: It’s a dream come true. Denzel and I knew one another a little bit from me coming out and doing production re-writes, and spent some time in South Africa together, so we had been in a room and talked story before so there was already a bit of a shorthand. Working with all of these guys, during prep, just all of the conversations helped so much to dig deep so you are not dealing on the day with silly stuff; you have already talked about it. Denzel had an office in prep at Warner Bros right down from me, and almost every day we would sit and just talk about scenes for hours. Not rehearsing, just talking. One day we might just be listening to love songs from the 50s and 60s, and all that helps; all that builds a foundation so when we start shooting, we have talked about all this, and all three actors were completely game for this discussion and their input in prep made the movie so much better for me, and aided me greatly.
Rami, was there something in particular about the character of Jim Baxter that drew you to the film?
Rami Malek: I did definitely love the idea of Jim beginning to emulate Deke, and the psychology that would take me down as an actor. And this character starting out with this really altruistic perspective and having that type of conviction turn into obsession, I think that was something psychologically that was really complicated. John’s script was aces from the beginning; one of those scripts that you fly right through. The Denzel [Washington] of it all was really a no-brainer and in comes Jared [Leto] and I know it was going to be some explosive energy in there with all of us. I couldn’t pass that up.
Jared, Albert is such an interesting, terrifying but humorous character. How much did you work with John in figuring out how you would play him?
Jared Leto: Thank you for pointing out the humour part of it. I guess when I think about Albert Sparma, I think of him as kind of a charmer! I guess I wasn’t on the receiving end of whatever might seem scary, but I never really felt that. I thought he was kind of a lovable guy. John Lee Hancock… Amazing director. We had met about a year before because I think I chased him down after I saw THE FOUNDER, which I thought was just a spectacular movie; Michael Keaton was just phenomenal, the direction, and it was just shot so incredibly, and I really wanted to work with him. John Lee was the first line of defence; it’s a character that has many, many nuances piled on top of one another, and John Lee was my guide through the process. He’s just a fantastic actors director to work with.
Jared, you juggle your music and film career, what was it about this film that made you want to be a part of it?
JL: These guys here [Malek, Washington and Hancock] on the Zoom today were really the reason that I wanted to be a part of it. John Lee Hancock wrote a great script; you look for a great director, a great script, a great part, a great producer, great actors and this just ticked off all the boxes, and it made it impossible to say no to. There was a moment where I did think… I’ve kind of walked on the darker side of the universe a lot in my career, maybe it’s time to not do that again, but after seeing the opportunity here I just couldn’t say no.
Denzel, what makes Joe different from other cops you have portrayed in your career?
DW: About 35 lbs! [laughs]
Your character is slowly revealed in layers, how did you approach this?
DW: The universal stems from the specific, so as John said, I could only imagine what it would be to be John Lee having to deal with the three of us asking a million different questions [laughs] so you just start asking questions, and questions lead to questions, so hopefully to answers and you just get specific. What does he eat, why does he eat it, what time does he eat it? Why is he this, why is he that? Those kind of questions.
Did you seek out a police department to spend time with?
DW: There’s a show called THE FIRST 48, and I am hooked – or was, I haven’t watched it since we finished the movie – it’s one these reality docs, whatever they call them, and they solve murders. Just watching their behaviour and how they go about things and their tenacity, it started there… It didn’t start there, it started with the script, but I went there.
Jared, what stereotypes did you avoid in playing this character?
JL: I did a lot of observing and watching, whether it was documentaries or looking at PI transcripts or my fair share of reading, as Albert was a crime buff. I really spent more time thinking about him as a person, I was really curious about Albert Sparma and what made him tick, why he didn’t fit in and why he couldn’t connect with people and why, why, why and why again. As Mr. Washington says, it’s where you ask questions and you get more questions and sometimes you get some answers, and that’s the game. The thing about Albert Sparma is he has a strange way of reacting sometimes to what he hears [laughs]. I just found him so funny; the way he saw the world and interacted with people, in some ways he was very free, and it is kind of attractive to be in those shoes; he could never really say the wrong thing.
Rami, why do you think your character decided to rely on Joe, even though he has been warned about his past?
RM: I Personally, if I see wisdom and great instincts and experience in front of me, I’ll lean on that. I think that was inherent in the script. For someone who was struggling in a case with so much building up, so much responsibility, to have the ability to lean on someone who had clearly been there before and seen something quite dark, there is almost a need to bring that person into your life and seek counsel from them. I think Baxter knew, in a sense, it could get him down a harmful road but there was something advantageous to working with this man that could help him solve this very difficult puzzle.
Was the physicality of the character something that you worked with the hair and make-up departments to decide what you needed to add to your own features to give him certain characteristics?
JL: Yeah, we did quite a bit; I have different colour eyes, I had a different nose, we had some other prosthetics… Different teeth and of course there is the walking and talking, but John Lee Hancock was right there to be the first line of defence. I think at one point I tried on… We were looking for the very worst wig in all of Hollywood, and unfortunately, we didn’t find it because I would have worn it! We had these two wigs, one where I looked like Annie, from the musical – I think we might have tried some freckles, I’m not sure! – and then we had another… I just thought that maybe he was losing his hair, and he had chosen a wig he thought was really handsome. I have the wigs though, and you will see them in another performance! [laughs]
You mentioned the character’s walk, what was the thought process behind something so small but so effective?
JL: Rami and Mr. Washington…
DW: Denzel! [laughs]
JL: …were both a great inspiration for me because when they work, it’s head to toe. For me, being a physical actor, I am interested in that. I let the cat out of the bag – it has been my secret – but Denzel and I were talking about it before, about the walk, and I actually took it from Kim Jong-un, he was the first inspiration, I think Sparma feels pretty powerful when he walks across a room, and I kind of got into that.
Denzel is your character in the finished film different from how you imagined him when you first read the script?
DW: You don’t imagine the character the first time you read the script; you have to find the character. You are introduced to him when you read the script, but that’s day one of the work. By the way, I took my character’s stomach from Kim Jong-il. [laughs]. It’s so funny, we have such like minds!
Rami, I have heard that every actor learns something from the characters they perform. What did you learn from Jim Baxter?
RM: I think where obsession starts to take over so many other aspects of your life, it’s a good thing to be reminded of. I think this year has probably taught us a lot about that as well; we get so focused on certain things and we are so narrow minded and tunnel vision about what has to be achieved in life, and what we have to do, and we perhaps start to neglect the most important things. Perhaps Jim gave me a little bit of that.
John, the Thomas Newman score is beautiful and a great contrast to the darkness of the story. How did you choose him as composer? JLH: Thomas is kind of talented that way! I had worked with Tom a couple of times before and, when we talked about this movie, he said ‘This is going to be a different kind of score for me and I am excited by that, to try to do something different’. It’s very different than the scores he did for me for SAVING MR. BANKS and THE HIGHWAYMEN, so I work with him and learn from him the way I learn from these three guys [Washington, Leto & Malek], for Tom its character first. It’s about what does this character want in this scene, and those discussions just make the movie better the whole way through; he’s stupidly talented so when Tom says Yes to take yes for an answer, and I always enjoy the process with Tom. I think it’s a beautiful score and at the end of it he said ‘This is different from anything I have done’, and he is not lying.
The pandemic has made us discover the little things in life again, which ones matter most in your life?
JLH: I think having my kids who are in college and would be off at college, home for all this time has been really special. I know it’s not exactly how they drew up their college year but having them at home, and having more, and more, and more time at the dinner table, and having discussions about not only our family and what we are doing, but the world and the changes in our country and those kind of things, it’s a gift that I didn’t see coming. Just to be able to re-engage with family was really a blessing.
RM: Perhaps it just shined a brighter light on things; I am not sure that I was shook with some kind of great realization about everything. I think it just reiterated how important relationships are. Loving your fellow man, the relationships that you have with your friends and family, how interconnected we all are, and the sense of equality all over the world is something that we are probably all thinking about now in a very, very strong focused way.
JL: Yes, yes and yes, I agree with what everyone has said; it’s remarkable what can shine through period of adversity like this, and a period of challenge. I think about how fortunate I am, I have an acute and very large amount of gratitude for my life. I think when you stop running on that treadmill and you are not chasing or consumed with your work it gives you time to focus. I don’t know if you guys know this, at the very beginning of the pandemic I actually went away on a silent retreat. When I went away there was only 150 cases in America – we had no phones, no eye contact, it was pretty intense – and when I came out, there was a shutdown, a state of emergency, so that was my introduction into this time. I had this new skill; I went away and I learned how to meditate and sit with myself, and I am really fortunate that I had that opportunity.
DW: I am not a religious man, I am a spiritual man. I think religion, in my humble opinion, is when man gets hold of spirituality. Looking at this through a spiritual lens – I read the Bible every day, I am in the Book of Judges right now – like in the Old Testament in Exodus, God sent a plague down and sent every man, woman and child back to their tent, and I think that’s what’s happened to the world. In an instant, we have all been sent back to our tent, we have to deal with ourselves, our families, our loved ones, we have to reassess who we are, how did we get here, and I think through that same spiritual lens God is saying to us ‘when you go back outside, if you don’t look out for your fellow man, it could not only kill your fellow man or woman, but it could kill you’. So through a spiritual lens it’s a sharp and a harsh reckoning that we have to deal with, but I think we will come out of this more united.
You can rent the movie premiere of The Little Things at home from 11th March