In “About Alex,” a group of twenty-something friends reunite for a weekend away after one of them suffers an emotional breakdown. Sound familiar?
The film is a send-up of sorts to 1980s cult-favorite “The Big Chill,” a look at adult friendship and how that has evolved in the advent of social media and how we relate to each other.
Within that context, the film also gives a nod to the modern culture of seemingly being unable to describe anything, without referencing something else, while doing that itself in a very tongue-in-cheek manner.
To understand how the surprise Tribeca Film Festival hit (in limited release in theaters Friday) came together, The E.W. Scripps Company’s National Desk spoke with writer and first-time feature film director Jesse Zwick and producer Adam Saunders.
What was the inspiration behind “About Alex”?
Zwick: It was a story about a group of friends that I myself made in college and the difficulty of maintaining those bonds in the 10 years that had passed. It just came to me.
The way technology allows to keep in touch better, but at the same time, these mediums don’t show you what really goes on with a person. In the movie, people press pause on busy lives and are forced to spend time with each other, and see what their lives are really like.
How did the movie come about, and how did you become involved?
Zwick: It was a long process -- I’ve been working on the movie more or less for about 2 years. The script just sort of came to me, and it was just a thing I had to write.
I always had planned this sort of film to be this scale, and I was eager to have a script that would lend itself to this opportunity.
Adam Saunders raised the capital and I was lucky that he worked with someone untested as me, and I was lucky to have a cast that I really loved.
Saunders: I had worked with Jesse’s dad (Academy Award-winning director and producer Edward Zwick) on our last movie, “Family Weekend,” and he had been extremely helpful, and Ed is about as helpful and powerful a guy as there is. Ed sent me Jesse’s script for “About Alex” to see what my opinion was, I read it and said “I have to produce this, please let me.”
He set me up to meet with Jesse, and Jesse showed it to other producers, and I was very fortunate he picked me.
Do you have any funny behind-the-scenes stories?
Zwick: The first time I met Aubrey (Plaza, who plays Sarah in the film) it was over Skype when she was in I think Sweden, and we had a really bad internet connection.
I wasn’t fully sure what to expect, and before we started shooting I got this email, and it was a picture of food on a plate, and it was from her. I didn’t get it. Eventually she was like, “This is sea scallop risotto that I cooked! Since my character is a cook in the film.” Just putting in that kind of effort was great -- she cooked for the cast many times during production.
Max Greenfield (Josh) and Jason Ritter (Alex) were the resident hams on set, their jokes would propel us through long nights. They had funny bits they developed- a surfer voice they would do back and forth, and read the most emotional part of the movie in that voice to each other.
When I first met Jane (Jane Levy, who plays Kate in the film), I took her and a few other other cast members down to this river. I told her I jumped in the day before, and she was like, “You can swim here?” And she jumped in the river in her dress. I knew we would get along.
Saunders: It was really kind of a summer camp kind of vibe -- nobody’s cell phones worked, there was a bonding sort of thing.
We did have a very strict no-press policy on the set -- and one time Aubrey said her aunt was coming to visit. After chatting with her for a bit, it occurred to me, and I asked, “You’re a reporter, aren’t you?” It turned out she was, she was writing a feature on Aubrey for The New York Times. Aubrey had told her to pretend to be her aunt.
What do you think of the movie being called “The Big Chill” for millennials?
Zwick: I think most people who have enjoyed and not enjoyed (the film) have latched onto it for different reasons. My personal belief is that if you point out any movie, anything today, you can identify things it has referenced.
There are new stories, this story is similar, it moves in different directions, and and I ask different questions. I felt that one of the fun things about the movie is that to an extent these late 20-somethings may reflect broader generational ideas and views.
Saunders: We were aware of those influences, and now we’ve embraced it, but it wasn’t initially our marketing intention.
In the same way “The Big Chill” was of its time, “About Alex” is very specific to the now.
Naming the main character Alex -- the same name as the friend who died in “The Big Chill”-- is a pretty direct homage. Are there any more subtle nods to that film that a viewer might not pick up on immediately? A few I caught were the dog they talked about naming Jeff Goldblum -- and of course Siri stretching, and the younger girlfriend.
Saunders: Thematic chess pieces are similar. There’s a self-awareness- that’s what people do, is reference things within a certain context. This movie was symbolically saying that, while also being an independent cultural observation.
What’s next on your plate?
Zwick: I’m back writing on “Parenthood” -- NBC invited me back to write for the last season. I’m also developing a couple of features, including a modern love story, that’s steeped in a certain amount of technology.
Saunders: I hope there will be a lot of opportunities to cross over, and we are definitely talking about continuing our partnership and working as we move forward.
Jesse is an incredibly, incredibly talented guy with a difficult task, directing his first feature, he was absolutely extraordinary, he took control of the set, and was clear about what he was looking for.
I hope to work with him again, and I’d feel lucky to do so.
“About Alex” is in limited release in theaters, and available on iTunes and cable and satellite On Demand August 8.