Finn Taylor Interview
Finn Taylor has an infectious enthusiasm for his odd indie comedy about a girl under house arrest
Jovial, easygoing, enthusiastic, bright-eyed and comfortably stout, writer-director Finn Taylor leaves one with the impression of what a cherub might look like at age 44. The driving force behind "Cherish," an unusual comedy-thriller about a geeky beauty going stir crazy serving prison time in home detention (popularly known as the ankle bracelet program), he's a filmmaker who knows the definition of "labor of love" and is as eager to talk about his movie as a teenager would be to drive his first car.
"Cherish" was made on a budget of just a couple million dollars using a single warehouse in Berkeley, California, as both a production office and a soundstage on which most of the movie's 20 sets were built.
Taylor's unique script drew talented actors for minimal salaries. The film stars Robin Tunney (whose great work in indie films like "Niagara Niagara" has been overshadowed by supporting roles in big budget, low IQ fare like "Vertical Limit" and "End of Days") as the involuntary shut-in who spends her time looking for ways around the monitoring system that keeps her in her loft apartment while awaiting trial on a trumped-up hit-and-run charge. Her nemesis and only real friend, played by actor-director Tim Blake Nelson (Delmer the hillbilly in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") is the deputy who comes around to increase her electronic restraints every time she wiggles free.
Besides writing and directing on a limited shooting schedule, Taylor also spent a lot of time tracking down the rights to a slew of cheesy pop love songs from the 1970s and '80s (Soft Cell's "Tainted Love," Modern English's "I Melt With You," The Turtles' "Happy Together," Human League's "Fascination," and The Association's "Cherish" -- the title tune), which play a major role in the movie's mood and plot.
But when I met him in San Francisco to talk about the film a couple weeks ago, our conversation began on the subject of the movie's sexy, funny, eye-grabbing poster (reproduced in the left hand column of this page), which I saw for the first time when I walked into his hotel room.
|Q:What a great poster! It's such a great image. It reminds me of the poster for that Alicia Silverstone movie "Crush" -- the pouty girl in the sunglasses.|
A: [Laughs] Yeah, there you go! You think so?
|Q:As long as we're sitting here looking at her in the poster, I'd just like to say I think Robin Tunney is incredible. She's beautiful, but she's incredibly under-rated.|
A: Yeah, well, we really lucked out. People, after seeing this, really got it. She's now got like four movies in a row! After people saw her in this, they started offering her everything.
|Q:Good! You know, I was hoping when she was doing "Supernova," "End of Days" and "Vertical Limit" that she hadn't sold out.|
A: Yeah, yeah, yeah!
|Q:I was hoping she was just doing a few for the money, and when I saw her name on this little independent picture, I thought, "Oh, good!"|
A: She lobbied so hard too (for this part). There's very few women's roles that are a lead, let alone have a (character) arch, let alone get to do such range. So we had all these actresses wanting to do it. She lobbied really hard, and she was also so great in like "Niagara Niagara" and stuff like that. She just has a kind of charisma.
|Q:I can see how there would be a lot of actresses that would be interested in this part, but I can't imagine there are too many actresses that could pull it off. What's amazing about Tunney in this part is that she's beautiful but she has geek credibility coming out her ears. You completely buy her as this lonely, inhibited girl who has no sense of her own security.|
A: I know. It was partly talking to her on the phone a bunch that made realize in reality she has a kind of geekiness. She's like this hyperbolic ball of energy -- she doesn't come off restrained or trying to be slick at all. Yet she was beautiful and photogenic too. Most actresses are either one or the other. Also, she can still come to a role without a lot of star baggage, you know what I mean? I don't want to name names, but...
|Q:Well, I'll name names. Somebody else I was thinking could pull this part off is Christina Ricci, but Christina Ricci comes -- especially in an independent film -- comes with a built-in Christina Ricci vibe.|
A: Yeah, once you see Christina Ricci, you kind of think "tough girl" no matter what she's doing -- probably because of "The Opposite of Sex." It's hard to think of her as not having...
|Q:So how did you cast Tunney? Had you sent the script to several people or...?|
A: Yeah. I did everything really. I finished the script and I said to Mark and Johnny (producers Mark Burton and Johnny Wow), "OK, within three weeks I need a million dollars and a lead actress." And we got more money than that, and there were probably eight actresses -- well-known actresses -- that we were seriously considering. I met with all of them and ultimately decided on Robin, who kept lobbying me big-time. It ended up being just a great choice. I'm really happy with the way it worked out. She had such great chemistry with Tim Blake Nelson. I knew she was going to be willing to take risks and have fun with it. She really got the levels of the script and the tone, which is in between ironic and comic, but not too much either way. She really go that big-time.
|Q:It might have helped sell the movie with a bigger name, but it wouldn't have been the same movie.|
A: Right. But in a way I think this worked to our advantage because there are certain people who are very famous and have a persona, and in a way I think people like discovering something new.
|Q:So what was the origin of the story?|
A: A friend of a friend was under house arrest, and he told me about all the things that would happen. One of them was that his friends got him a 200-foot phone cord to plug into his modem (which connects the ankle bracelet monitor to the police) so he could go outside. They'd draw a chalk circle around him to make sure he didn't go beyond his range, then they'd play basketball. I heard that, and I became very curious. I sought out more people (in the bracelet program) and got more stories. And this was just something I hadn't seen before. There's been thrillers like "Rear Window" or "After Dark, My Sweet" (with people trapped in one room). But I hadn't seen a film like this, with such a contemporary milieu. Then I started interviewing guys from the county who administrate the program, and I just began to realize people will use every bit of ingenuity to find a way around (the system). Those stories were really interesting.
|Q:So those got incorporated into it as well. Do they really have the different levels of technology, so if you beat one, they bring in another one?|
|Q:They don't just start with the top-shelf global positioning system (we see used to track her late in the film)?|
A: No, they don't. In fact, they even have things now that I didn't put in (the movie). They'll have a breathalyzer attached to your phone, so when (the automated monitoring system) calls you have to breathe into it and they can tell if you've been drinking or not. But I wanted this ironic milieu of her trying to get around it, because she's smart, but every time she does, they send a guy out to increase her restraints. And ironically this is her main human contact for two years, so it becomes the most important relationship in her life, ultimately. I just love that irony.
|Q:I enjoyed the way the characters developed -- the way she starts toying with Tim Blake Nelson. By the end of the movie, she's grown considerably and she's attained a certain level of confidence from it.|
A: To me, they're both characters filled with fear. Her expression of it is that she can't stand to be alone. She's part of our attention deficit culture -- TV, computers, going out with a different person every night. His way of dealing with fear is to not go out, to not have contact with people. He does his job and he stays home alone. So I thought bringing those two together -- she's stuck in this apartment alone, he's forced to be in this semi-intimate situation with this girl -- over the course of time helps them overcome each other's fear. I like the way both of them strengthen over time.
|Q:I understand you shot all the interiors in a warehouse in Berkeley.|
A: Yes. We were looking for a production office. We went into this big, empty, raggedy space and (the landlord) said upstairs there was a 7,000 square foot attic with 15-, 20-foot ceilings! So we used the upstairs as our soundstage and built 20 sets.
|Q:Everything except the interior of the condo where she lives at the beginning, from which she brings all her IKEA furniture.|
A: [Smiles] Yes.
|Q:How much did you have allotted to spend at IKEA and who got to keep the furniture?|
A: [Laughs] Really good question! Well, I can't remember how much it was, but it was a modest budget. The furniture we divvied up among the crew! They worked so hard for very little. You know, I just kinda wanted a lot of bright primary colors in the apartment and in the film...
|Q:Well that's the place to get 'em!|
A: Totally. It was sort of to reflect the pop music theme.
|Q:I really enjoyed the music on a guilty pleasure level.|
A: That was the thing! We were trying to find songs that on one level, when you hear them on the radio you laugh -- but you also laugh at yourself because you're listening to them and you can't turn them off.
|Q:And you're singing along!|
A: Yeah, yeah! They kind of work both in a slightly ironic way because of the corniness factor, but they still carry some emotional weight because through repetition they've worked their way into our consciousness.
|Q:Well, they definitely carry some weight for anyone who was in their teens in the '80s like me. People also dance along when nobody's looking. Or in the case of Robin's character, rollerskate along, as she does in one scene to taunt Nelson. I had involuntary Rollergirl flashbacks (to the skating porn star played memorably by Heather Graham in "Boogie Nights") during Robin's rollerskating scenes. What is it about a girl on rollerskates that so sexy?|
A: [Shaking his head] I don't know! But I'll tell you, during rehearsals the costume department had these classic rollerskates, and I said to Robin, "Why don't you put these on and rollerskate around Tim. And whatever you do, don't sit down." Then I said to Tim, "Your job is to get her to sit down." Other than those directions, pretty much everything in that scene is improvised, and it ended up being one of the best scenes in the movie.
|Q:It's a great scene because it's exemplary of their relationship. She's toying with him, and he doesn't want to make her mad at him, but he want to be toyed with.|
A: He still wants to maintain the authority figure image. I know. I always love stuff like that. Another one we came up with during rehearsal was one Robin came up with -- the scene where she asks him to sit on the couch next to her. That scene was there, but she didn't originally ask him to sit next to her. It was the simplest thing, but the way Tim's character reacted to that was so great. I used every inch of film I had (in the camera) on that moment.
|Q:Other than having her try to escape, what do you do to keep a movie about one girl in one room from getting monotonous?|
A: Well, all kinds of things. I intentionally had the set built really big to be able to do different things. And I think doing things we all do in private -- like talking to one's self in the mirror or fantasizing about some guy -- that sort of thing helps. And she makes a connection with a neighbor downstairs, but he can't come upstairs (he's in a wheelchair) and she can't go downstairs (because she'll be out of range of the monitor), so they'll have an intimate conversation, but they're yelling through the stairwell.
|Q:I loved that scene. That was funny.|
A: Then in talking to people who were in the bracelet program, (I learned) it's this constant thing: How do you entertain yourself? How do you get things (from the outside world)? All those little details made it interesting to me, and I kind of liked the challenge of giving myself that obstacle then seeing what I can do with it. Getting addicted to TV, then destroying the TV. Trying to find ways to get the bracelet off. Measuring the string (which she uses to keep herself in range of the monitor while trying to go outside). With all the little details, I wanted to see if I could create drama and action from "is this string going to break" or "will she get the phone by the fifth ring" (if not, the monitor alarm goes off) instead of a giant, $30 million truck crash.
|Q:Speaking of TV, I liked your using her channel surfing to key into a montage of time passing.|
A: Yeah. I was trying to catch the feeling -- I think we've all had it -- where you're depressed or something and you watch TV for 24 hours straight or something like that. I wanted to capture the feeling of that and see it run its course.
|Q:So finally, how did you hit upon the title?|
A: Well, I had about 10 of the songs in my head as I was writing it, and listening to the song "Cherish" (by The Association) and it's got slightly obsessive lyrics like "If I could hold you like a thousand other guys/If I could mold you into somebody" -- they're a little tense. That became one of my touchstones for the film. And the way she's fantasizing about Jason Priestly (who plays a stud in her office) in the beginning, or the way Tim Blake Nelson is fantasizing about her, and the way the Brad Hunt character (a stalker) is fantasizing about her -- (the song) just sort of supported that theme. I wanted to use the pop tunes as a way of getting inside people's heads.
Taylor's next film will be "Chaos Theory," a $40 million action-comedy for Universal Pictures.