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Ridiculously Imaginative, Grounded, and Poetic: Director Marc Turtletaub on Jules

Jules” is a new film from CEO (The Money Store) turned producer (“The Farewell,” “Little Miss Sunshine”) and director (“Puzzle”) Marc Turtletaub. It is an endearingly gentle fable about an elderly man (Sir Ben Kingsley) in a small Pennsylvania town who discovers an alien spaceship in his backyard. Like E.T., the small blue creature inside is just trying to go home. In an interview, Turtletaub talked about his joy in collaborating, being inspired by 1950s sci-fi classics like “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” and making a “ridiculously imaginative“ feel grounded and poetic.

The last time we talked, you told me that your background as a CEO helped you learn about collaboration. How did that apply to your work on “Jules”?

It's true on every film. Directors get far too much credit. There are 100-plus people that are participating in making the film, and the director's job is to make sure we all see the same movie. So, for me, that's one of the joys of making movies. You're working with a team, and you're collaborating. Sometimes one of you will make a mistake, and then someone else will pick it up, and then it'll flip, and it’s just the opposite. And that's one of the real joys. Plus, you get to work with all these experts at things that I'm not an expert at. Cinematography, production, design, costumes, all these different elements. I love being able to participate, even if it's around the margin.

Your title character is an alien but very different looking from some of the scarier aliens we’ve seen in movies. What was your goal in designing the character?

It starts with the screenplay. In my mind, I envisioned an alien, not a creature. And most movies which have something coming from another place, they're creatures, they're fearsome with sharp nails and teeth. That's not at all what this alien is. That interested me very much because then the alien can play as a catalyst for what really is the heart of the movie, which is the connection between these three main [human] characters. And that's what appealed to me about Jules, that it is a catalyst for connection. It helps them to connect to Jules, and then later to connect with one another.

Two different elements. So, for the physical design, I worked with the folks who did the prosthetics, and I worked with my production designer, Richard Hoover. And I told Richard, “I want this to be practical, but more than just practical, I don't want it to be CGI.” As Sir Ben Kingsley said, "I'm so glad that we're not going to act against the ball on top of a stick." I wanted to have a real alien, and I wanted to have a real [space] ship. And so, for Richard, we talked about the goal in the very beginning. He began drawing pictures of the spaceship. I said, think about “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Flash Gordon,” and these classic '50s and '60s movies. That was our reference. Because otherwise, it would have been too contemporary, and I wanted it to feel like a classic science fiction movie. 

The look of Jules, similarly, I wanted to mirror what the aliens looked like back in the days of the little gray men. And Jules is played by a woman. Although everyone calls Jules “he,” it's is a woman, Jade Quon, who is amazing in this role. And again, I wanted her to look like the classic gray alien we've seen back in old science fiction magazines. And the look for that was crafted by Josh Turi and Howard Berger, two people that normally make creatures and not benign aliens. And they did an exceptional job. 

Jules’ facial expression, if I can call it that, is a little bit wistful and very appealing. And the beautiful blue skin color. And as for the movement, what direction did you give Jade Quon?

The only direction was, “Don't give too much. Don't give away what you're really thinking. Let people interpret it.” I'm really interested in that. And then, the actors can read into her eyes what they want to read. So, there was that. The only other direction was “Don't walk like a creature. Walk almost like a normal person.” 

I want the whole movie to feel grounded. So, even though it's ridiculously imaginative and it has all of these wild strains and humorous things and laugh-out-loud moments, I kept saying to the actors, Let's keep it grounded. Let's play it real. Don't play it for the joke. And people will laugh. They'll get it. But let's make it real.”

Sir Ben Kingsley plays Martin, a man beginning to experience memory loss. How did you talk to him about calibrating that performance?

He calibrated it. Again, directors get too much credit. I don't rehearse. My approach with actors is I want them to bring to the screen what they can bring without my mediation. And there's always time after the first couple of takes to talk about how to maybe shift the performance or try something different. But my first instinct is to let the actor bring in what they're going to bring in and surprise me. 

There's a famous director who says, "Every time I cast an actor, it's like a little death." I won't identify who he is because everyone will know him. But what he meant was, “I know how those words should be said and how the body should move. And anything other than that is going to be a death. It's not going to be what I want.” But my idea is that I want to be surprised. I want to see something I haven't envisioned. And that's why you have people like Harriet Harris, Jane Curtin, Zoë Winters, and each of these actors, and of course, Sir Ben, bring you surprises that you would never have thought of.

Part of the charm of the film is that the people who encounter the alien pretty much take it in stride. They're older. They’ve seen a lot. What do we get from the focus on having old folks as the center of the story?

As they get older, people get less seen and heard. It's harder to make connections when you're older, for many people. Having gone through Covid, we all had to go through a re-entry period and I think that gave us a little taste of it. But what's interesting to me is that this is a movie that from our screenings, the movie doesn't come out until this weekend, but from all the screenings we've done and all the tests that we did ... We did one test. So, the one test is that young people are responding to the movie, which is wonderful. It's a great surprise and pleasure because of the humor and because of the inventiveness in it. And it doesn't matter whether you're looking at older people or young people, the emotions are real. And so, it's been interesting that it's had a resonance for people of all ages.

The small-town setting is also very significant, especially the town meetings, which I thought were wonderful. Would you say that people making the same complaints every week was a way of setting up the need for some change of direction?

Gavin Steckler, the screenwriter, said to me that's what started him on this journey of writing the screenplay. He used to live in L.A. He lives in Spain now, I think in Madrid. But he used to live in L.A. And he would listen to the town hall meetings, I guess, on the radio. He was fascinated at how certain people would repeat over and over the same story each week, just needing to be heard. That’s what the arc of this story is, people needing to be heard. And in the end, they are heard and able to communicate.

The last time we spoke, you quoted Mike Leigh, who said, "Take the mundane and make it poetic." How does that apply to this film?

This story is the mundane. And we played it for mundane. We didn't play it for extraordinary. But I think it's a fable. In that sense, it's poetic. And so, while on the one level, it's grounded, everyone's playing it for real, they're not playing it for the joke. And we're startled when we see the alien because they're startled, but we don't make a joke out of it. And yet, it has a poetry to it because just like a child's fairy tale, you can imagine so much, and it becomes a metaphor for something much bigger. 

Those are the best stories, I think. When there's a fable involved, whether it's for a child reading Beatrix Potter or whether it's a movie with aliens and spacecraft for old people, the metaphors touch us on different levels.

"Jules" is now playing in theaters. 

Nell Minow

Nell Minow is the Contributing Editor at RogerEbert.com.

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