Movie Review: ‘Write When You Get Work’ And Interview With Director Stacy Cochran

By James Lindorf

After a hiatus from directing, Stacy Cochran, best known for directing the Winona Rider movie, Boys, is back with an all-new romantic heist film that she also wrote. Ruth was a wild child who has settled down into a career in the admissions department of a posh prep school on New York’s Upper East Side. Jonny was her first love, and after the death of a mutual friend, he is back in her life after nearly a decade apart. His efforts to reintegrate himself into her life is unimpeded by all traditional boundaries, including locks and 3rd-floor windows. Nan is the mother of two students at Ruth’s school, the wife of an investment banker that is being investigated by the government, and the perfect target. Write When You Get Work hits theaters on November 23rd.

Given its low budget and quick filming schedule, the biggest win for the film is the addition of cinematographer Robert Elswit. Elswit is known for shooting There Will Be Blood and Nightcrawler among many more, and he brought a luxurious and timeless look to the film. It is the clothes and technology that lets you know this is a contemporary film and not something from the 70s.

Everyone in the cast does an acceptable job, with the big three turning in the best performances. Of the main characters, it was Emily Mortimer as Nan that lead the way. The mix of elitism, wholesomeness, and desperation set her apart from everyone else. Jonny is charming in his obsession and Finn Wittrock portrays him as more of an opportunist than a big bad villain. Rachel Keller was probably the second-best actor in the film. Ruth’s drive for normalcy while using the knowledge gained as a teenage rebel means her students can’t get much over on her.

The film suffers from an over complicated script. The love story and the heist could each be the focus of their own movies, and here they are mixed together in a way that isn’t wholly satisfying. Ruth disappears for swaths of the film, and the love story means there is no time to see Jonny developing his plan to make off with millions, leaving the audience in the dark, just like his victim. Instead of flowing together seamlessly, there are portions of the film that come off as a series of well-written, well-acted and beautifully-filmed vignettes.

Stacy Cochran is undoubtedly a talented writer and director. Her first film back in the chair after 15 years is a success, even if it isn’t everything it could be. When you are tired of shopping or visiting with family this black Friday, Write When You Get Work, with its themes of love, desperation, elitism and gate keeping, will be a good way to pass 99 minutes.

Interview:

As the release date nears how are you feeling about things?

Great, actually. I’m scrambling a little because I’m trying to finish [another] script. It’s basically finished, but I want to be sure it’s completed before Friday when the movie comes out. I just want to have it done so I don’t think about it, and I’ve turned the release date into a deadline on something unrelated.

It’s been a few years since you last directed a feature film. What was it like getting back to directing?

Well, it was absolutely wonderful, of course, because I didn’t spend all that downtime thinking, “I don’t really care if I were shooting at a movie or not.” When that day came, and it was day one on set, I was really excited. I mean, it was incredible to return, but also kind of like a first movie all over again after that long.

You apparently had the drive to do it again. What was the biggest reason for the hiatus?

Well, as you know, like most sort of gigantic things that take up something like 15 years in your life, there’s more than one reason and to try and choose what the number one reason is would be difficult. I guess I’ll be very honest and say that I was sort of surrounded by kids and my husband, and also the time that we were in was kind of a rough time. It was right after September 11th, and we lived right next door to the World Trade Center, and I think that that all added up to being really needed by significant parts of my personal life. That also coincided with feeling extremely unneeded by the movie business. Had someone said, “No, we need you to come to do this,” I would have, but it was a hard time to try and reinvent the wheel. That, of course, leads to the third corner of the triangle which is, I really needed to get back to work. It took me a while to get to that point, but once I did, I was very happy to. I did do other kinds of work in the meantime, and it’s all stuff I loved doing. I taught a bit, I got involved with museums and a bunch of other things like that, but it was all in the process of getting back to the point of shooting again.

You typically write and direct most of your projects. Is that because of a connection you feel to your script, an inability to relinquish control, a combination of the two, or something else entirely?

Well, it’s all those things except the control thing. If someone wanted to direct a script I had written, I’d be happy to have them do that. If someone brought me a script that I wanted to direct, I’d be happy to shoot it. I started as a writer, and so in writing a screenplay, you’re kind of writing something that isn’t really finished when you finish the screenplay, because the next step is the cast, pull a crew together, find financing and shoot it. It’s really all one thing, that’s not to say I refuse to do it otherwise, but when it’s all one, it does probably make the most sense to me.

When you sat down to write this new film, did you have a specific inspiration or the type of project you were hoping to do? Or is it just what came to mind?

Both. I mean, I had written a few things in the meantime, and this one presented itself as the one to shoot, partly for practical reasons. I could film in New York, inexpensively, very quickly on the street, and what I really needed was a great cast and a great cinematographer, both of which we found our way to. Of course, why do you write the things you write and why do you then feel the sort of desire to finish it as a movie? I guess it has to do with a combination of decision making and following your intuition. I guess there are things about the subject of the movie that I find kind of fun, and there are things about it that are responding to things I’m genuinely angry about.

Ultimately, the movie is about gatekeepers and who gets to decide who matters and who doesn’t. I think perhaps on some personal level I felt that, or I think about what my father had to contended with. The ways in which he was told by the world that he mattered or he didn’t is something that makes people feel very helpless. There’s something in the swirl of that idea that is unresolvable, and I think that the core of the movie, for me, was a way of trying to resolve things like anger.

You mentioned earlier that you had to shoot quickly. What was your filming schedule like?

20 days, which is not a lot, especially shooting on film. Although that suggests that shooting film takes longer which it doesn’t. It just wasn’t like just grabbing a video camera and running out shooting. But, working with Robert, we weren’t going to do that anyway. He’s not really a minimalist. So, whatever camera we had, he was going to shoot it, and he was going to light it beautifully.

I was actually going to ask about working with Robert Elswitt. What was it like having such an acclaimed cinematographer help bring your story to life?

We worked together a couple times before I was thrown from a fast-moving train, and we stayed very close during the time that I was not working. When I finally was able to find financing and get another project going, basically I said, “Robert, please, would you shoot this?”, and he said, “Okay.” It is really just fun to go have a drink with him or go have dinner, so you can imagine how great making a movie with him would be, plus he is brilliant.

When it came to casting your three main characters Nan, Ruth, and Johnny was it a long process? Did you know right away when the people that ended up in the roles auditioned that they were the right choice?

Yeah, right away. Full stop, definitely. I worked with a casting director named Todd Baylor, who I’ve known for ages and absolutely love. He just did it the old-fashioned way by sending the script to their agents. Emily was the first to join the project. After reading it, she offered to meet me for coffee in Brooklyn. We talked about it there, and before we left, she said let’s do it. It takes about two seconds to realize that somebody is exactly perfect for the role you’ve written. Emily was that way and so were Finn and Rachel.

I never write with actors in mind, but as soon as I finish, then I start to think about it. Sometimes you find the absolute perfect fit for a character, and they want to do it, but find out they can’t. So you need to be able just to say, “Okay, that was one great idea, now scrub it clean and start over.” The next person who walks in could be perfect for the character in, perhaps, a totally different way than the first person. But, lucky for me, that didn’t happen with Finn, Rachel or Emily. It was a struggle to find the right people, but not to keep them.

There was an actor that actually left about twenty-four hours before he was supposed to start shooting. He just didn’t show up on set. He had gotten a higher paying job and went there. So, there is one character, who is just spectacular, and the actor got a call from Todd, saying, “Can you please get on a plane tomorrow?” That was a wonderfully happy accident, but this movie was full of happy accidents.

That had to be a little bit of nerve-wracking, given your tight schedule.

Yeah, it was, but there were so many things like that. There was a production designer who couldn’t start until the fourth day of shooting, and we didn’t really have a location manager until the second week of shooting. It didn’t feel that stressful in the moment, because if we wasted energy being too upset about any of this, we wouldn’t be able to make the movie, so we just kept rolling with it.

Johnny isn’t a horrible person, but he’s not a boy scout either. Was it a hard choice for you to leave the rough edges on him and not make him a little more likable?

I don’t know if I would say he is unlikeable, because I like him that way. I guess it is my love for imperfect people that sort of helped to define who all of them are. I didn’t want any of them to be particularly viewed as heroes, and for them all to have their foibles.

I was curious about Ruth and her growth throughout the film. I felt that it could have been taken multiple ways. Was she progressing to who she actually is, just becoming more comfortable with who she is, or was she actually regressing back to her teenage rebel days?

Everyone is kind of on the make in this movie. They are presenting like upright citizens, but they are something other than what they appear to be. Ruth is the same way, dressing in clothes that could be described as camouflage, because she is a good, but mostly harmless crook. One thing I will say for Ruth is that she’s never dishonest with herself about who she is. I think that sounds kind of clichéd or corny, but it is part of the reason that she’s heroic. Where ever she goes, and even when she backslides, she’s still always having honest conversations with herself. And that’s something that Jonny hasn’t quite figured out how to do, at least not at the beginning.

One character that I had a strong reaction to was Ellen. Obviously her character is not meant to be someone that you necessarily agree with, or maybe even like, so I was curious what your motivation was in creating that character and what she represents to you?

Oh yeah, Ellen, who is the head of the school, is played by Jessica Hecht. She is a brilliant actor and someone I absolutely adore. I was so excited when she read it, and said she really wanted to play Ellen. She is the closest we come to a flat-out bad guy. I don’t like going over a double-digit running time, but I think if I made a longer movie, we would see how fearful Ellen is and how she clings to the rules for safety. And that makes me feel a little sympathetic towards her, whether you like her you don’t like her, I believe that she is doing the best she can.

You mentioned that you don’t like going over 100-minute mark, why is that?

I guess I like limits. There can be infinitely long TV series, other people can make long movies, I go to movies that are three hours long. I just think that for me, that’s my size. I don’t want to make tiny little things, but that feels like the right amount of time for a movie. It’s very rare that I go to a film that is two hours and five minutes that I don’t think might have been stronger at 99 minutes. I can’t think of a play I’ve enjoyed more than Jerusalem, and that was three hours long. So, it’s not a hard rule.

This movie comes out next week. What can we hope to see from you next?

There is this hockey movie about the NHL in 1969 that’s based on a book called A Year on Ice that Jerry Eskenazi wrote. He was the New York Times reporter for the Rangers in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even into the 90s. He’s retired now, but he’s really a wonderful guy and kind of excited about this and so am I.

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