Behind the Scenes Charlie Bartlett

What makes for the ultimate road trip? Hitchhiking, truck stops, angry bears, prickly porcupines and a golfing goose with a duck caddy. Just ask Kate and Humphrey, two wolves who are trying to get home after being taken by park rangers and shipped halfway across the country. Humphrey is an Omega wolf, whose days are about quick wit, snappy one-liners and hanging with his motley crew of fun-loving wolves and video-gaming squirrels. Kate is an Alpha: duty, discipline and sleek Lara Croft eye-popping moves fuel her fire. Humphrey’s motto — make ’em laugh. Kate’s motto — I’m the boss. Back home rival wolf packs are on the march and conflict is brewing. Only Kate and Humphrey can restore the peace. But first, they have to survive each other.

This weekend, Jon Poll makes his feature film directorial debut with the edgy coming-of-age comedy ‘Charlie Bartlett’.


Expelled from yet another private school for his blossoming, though illegal, entrepreneurial activities, wealthy teenager Charlie Bartlett (Yelchin) finds himself at regular High School.  His smart, geeky appearance gets him a first day beating from the school bully so his overly medicated mother calls in the family psychiatrist to help him out.  An opportunity not to be missed, Charlie sets himself up as the school agony aunt, dishing out advice and prescription drugs, courtesy of the family shrink, from the school rest rooms.   His charm and access to medication soon starts to win him new friends as well as the attentions of the principals daughter, much to the annoyance of the Principal (Robert Downey Jr.).


While the film may mark his introduction into the world of directing, Poll is no stranger to comedy films, having worked on films like ‘Austin Powers’, ‘Meet the Parents’ and Judd Apatow’s ‘The 40-Year Old Virigin. We talk to the first time director about the movie.


Q:Just how realistic is the movie’s theme?

A:There is a huge college black market in all prescription drugs.   In all honesty, the film is not saying there is anything wrong with these drugs.  We just want to point out that some people are given those drugs too easily, especially at young ages.  I know we kind of play fast and loose with it for humour sake but there are a lot of 17-year-olds being given Ritalin. I think we provide an alternative to the idea that prescription drugs are the quick answer. We tried to make it as realistic as possible.  There’s a moment when Charlie first shows up at school and two kids are smoking pot. That literally happened to me while scouting locations in Canada.  We didn’t want it to look like a TV show with a bunch of 28 year-old actors. What was really important to me was that teenagers could see the movie and feel like it was real.


Q:Where did the story come from?

A:The writer, Gustin, was working in the Burbank mall selling memory cards. Hanging out in the mall with a lot of teenagers, he would ask the kids what they thought of the teen movies, and they would say that they were really disappointed in most of them. They felt that there was no voice that they related to, and he took that as a challenge, to write a movie for those kids that he hoped would be authentic to them.


Q:After so long in the business, why did this become your directing debut?

A:I read over 100 scripts trying to look for the one that would really connect, and in that time I read two I really liked. One was Juno ironically.   CHARLIE BARTLETT had a lot of humour and a lot of heart. I liked the challenge of making a film with a lot of mixed tones that had serious issues. And it was optimistic.  The humour in it is so truth-based.  We live in a world of a lot of cynical, clever, smart filmmaking – “Tarantino-esque” if you will.  And here we find this character who is not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. Ultimately, people relate to that kind of character and situation.  I don’t think it was a bold choice, but it’s a different one in today’s climate. I liked that it’s not straight comedy, it’s not a gritty indie, but a little bit of everything.


Q:Why did you choose Anton?

A:What I ideally wanted was Bud Cort a couple of years before Harold and Maude.  It was David Duchovny, who had just worked with Anton, who suggested him.  82 different young actors had tried for the part, but nobody had the ability to portray Charlie’s depth and be all the different elements that Charlie could be.  Then Anton came in and just blew me away instantly.  What made me realise he was perfect is when he said it was the honesty and optimism of Charlie that drew him to it.  If anyone was ever destined to play a part, I think it was Anton as Charlie Bartlett


Q:Was it a risk casting Robert Downey Junior as an alcoholic?

A:It was never really about him or his history.  One of the first things he said on that phone call was “I know this film is about another character and I am here to support that character”.  He was very brave about dealing with his own issues and how they are reflected back through the film.  He was not afraid of that – you know, it’s a movie about people making mistakes


Q:Who are your inspirations?

A:Hal Ashby has always been my favourite filmmaker. I was trying to make a movie that felt like a ’70s picture.  There are funny scenes that have poignant moments, and I think that there are serious scenes that have funny moments.


Q:How did you react to Charlie Bartlett being compared to Juno?

A:I am really encouraged by the fact there’s another idiosyncratic teen movie with an oddball lead character that’s kind of smart and goes their own way.


Q: And the inevitable Ferris Bueller references?

A: It’s interesting – the comparisons come up more than expected.  I have a great respect for John Hughes, and I take it as a compliment, but Ferris was never on my list of influential characters and films, and there was never a connection for me.  I can see how some people might make comparisons as both kids are manipulators and movers-and-shakers.  Ferris and Charlie do both become the oddball messiah leaders in their school, but Ferris pulls it off and Charlie fails miserably.


Q:Who is it aimed at?

A:This is a film for everyone who was a teenager …or still is. We’ve found all ages and genders have related to the movie.  We want people to leave the theatre feeling a little better, maybe listening a little more to their kids, and adopting parts of Charlie as I have.  I certainly hope that I can find the honesty and optimism to move my life forward as he does.


Q:So it’s not a teen movie?

A:I’m not a huge teen movie fan. There’s a lot of discussion on the internet of films CHARLIE BARTLETT supposedly references, most of which I’ve never seen.  I wanted it to play more like Harold and Maude.  It was the mix of tones and having scenes that had darkness and light mixed together and tones that shift radically. I think in some cases we did very well with it, and in some we did not so well. But we always kept trying to have some humour in the midst of darkness and vice versa.


Charlie Bartlett is in Irish cineama this Friday.