A Discussion with Jake Paltrow, Director

By Christopher Redmond

As Young Ones opens in the theaters nationwide, C. Redmond talks to writer/director Jake Paltrow about what he learned from working on P.T. Anderson's first film, how he communicates with each department on set, and what's it like to have his godfather, Steven Spielberg, show up at his film premieres.

You come from a family of Hollywood professionals — but what made you personally want to get into the business?

As a young person I was very interested in special effects and practical effects. I was very interested in creature creation and monster makeup, sort of in the mold of Rick Baker. As a pre-teenager, that's really what I wanted to be. Then I learned as a young teenager that I didn't really have the artistic skills to do that. You know, the sculptor or the painter was such a big part of all that.

But the thing that occurred as a side effect of that interest was making shorts, or sort of scenes built around some of these effects. You know, bullet shots, monster masks, something that would create a brief narrative for something I was creating. Out of that came the interest in actually making movies. So my interest really stemmed out of a horror background.

How did you get into directing?

In high school a teacher got me interested in the French New Wave, and the American cinema of the 30s and that really was a big eye-opener for me. When I was 19 I made a short film, but I got into actually working in movies as a production assistant. First on TV shows, then on some movies. I started travelling around the country working on these different projects with some of these assistant directors that would take you along with them.

Then I was dead set on making a short film as soon as possible, and at the time I'd gotten a grant from Kodak to do that, so I think I got five thousand feet of 35mm film, which at the time was a very meaningful thing. The resolution alone kind of set you apart as a professional versus an amateur because of the look. That's gone now, because there's an equality of material now, but at the time having 35mm film in itself was a big deal. I made a short and it got into Sundance and got a little attention, and I got offered my first TV show to direct from that.

That was really how I got into TV, because it wasn't a primary interest, even though my father had been in television. But it was an opportunity to be a professional and that's how I looked at it.

You were a Production Assistant on Hard Eight, Paul Thomas Anderson's first film. What did you learn being on that set?

In a lot of ways, I feel like I probably learned everything on that one. More so than on all of the other ones. It was a very small group and everyone became very close sort of right away. It was made quickly in Reno, and most people were living in the casino and I was living in a hostel nearby or something. It was very easy to tell how talented Paul was and what a great environment he created in making the picture. For me, it was really the model of how to do it,

and how to do it right. It was very convincing. At the end of the day, we all watched dailies together and the results were patently good. It was a great time.

What did you learn from directing TV? How has that informed your work as a feature film director?

I never really thought of them as too different. I always just approached them through my own interest or personal experience or whatever.

Certain shows are very rigid, and have a sort of rigid aesthetic, so you go along with that. Sometimes that produces a less interesting final result, because maybe it feels less and less like you. There are shows where you're ultimately more of a senior technician on crew, or you may not even be the most qualified person to really be doing it. Really the producers and the crew themselves could fashion together some sort of self-regulating system of directing a show when it's a very rigid aesthetic and you're cranking out over twenty episodes a year.

A show like Boardwalk Empire is the complete opposite. There's no mandate for coverage and they're really pushing you to just bring your artistic sensibility to their show and they want that. They want it to feel different, and I think that's something inherent at HBO and really fostered by those great producers.

Tell me about making your first feature film, The Good Night. You obviously had a great cast in that film with your sister Gwyneth, Danny Devito, Penelope Cruz, and Martin Freeman. What were some of the lessons you took from that?

That was a great experience. We made that in London. We certainly had more time than we did on this one, and I think the environment for independent movies at that time - and it was sort of a low-budgeted movie but I remember feeling like we had plenty of time to make it even though it was 37 days or something.

But that's pretty good for a drama, no?

Oh, it's very good. We made (Young Ones) in 35 days, and it's basically a visual effects movie. It has 200 or something visual effects shots and you're doing it very, very quickly.

I've always been somebody who plans everything as much as I can. I think for me I've learned to guard the process better from that experience. I think there are certain departmental things that I have maybe more control of now, or look out for earlier, so that we don't end up with any snafus later on. I won't single out any particular department, but there are things that I felt like I let slip through the cracks from the first one.

Maybe that was a function of coming from television where the departments are much more well versed in what these things need from the director, so you're getting delivered stuff that's so good that you don't even have to think about. A movie is created top to bottom, so there's less of a machine that's in place and more that you have to build from scratch. I think that we definitely did that in South Africa but we did it quite successfully.

Let's talk about some specific departments on this film and how you worked with them to achieve your vision. Starting with the camera department and cinematography.

We didn't really talk specifically about any real references for the movie except a movie called Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas' movie about Mennonites in Mexico. We only talked about the lensing. They were using a sort of older Russian anamorphic lens that is very inconsistent and it sort of brought a compression, but it brought a real look to it just in the lensing of the movie that I really responded to. So that was something that we wanted to mirror in Young Ones.

Beyond that, I'm very dedicated to working on film, and so is Giles (Nuttgens, the cinematographer). That's something we really see eye-to-eye on.

We're very close collaborators, so we sort of build an idea of what we want it to look like, but not in an imposed way. We're paying very close attention to what the environment is like and trying to get a very naturalistic representation of it but one that also feels heightened in a way. There's no filtration, the colour correction process is so minimal, we virtually do nothing. It's more of a colour balancing probably, or image balancing than it is a true colour correction. We don't add contrast, there's none of that.

I know a lot of people really get into the DI (digital intermediate) suites and start dialling in colours and creating a saturated look and that sort of stuff in post. We really are approaching it as a film-based process, really going from what film itself does so naturally and so well and trying to preserve that.

What was your approach to art direction in the film?

We wanted to explore the idea of a future of regression, regressive technology. In some ways, even though we have robots, the technology by which they're living has sort of reverted to an analogue state. So it's like HAM radios, absolutely no television, everything is sort of done on radio or CB, and that extended to the car. So we really approached it from a Cuba 1959 way of how one day everything just stopped when the embargoes were piled on and you have to make do with what you have.

We sort of thought of (Young Ones) as an aesthetic from the mid-1990s. It was the end of cars being more mechanical than electrical. We really tried to approach it from a practical standpoint of how would all these things still be working.

It's kind of informed by the world as well, it's regressive in it's social mores, regressive in the roles of women in certain ways and those were all things that we tried to mirror in the environment, and it's a very distressed world in every kind of way. And how do you reflect that?

That applies to the costumes as well.

Yeah. A lot of their clothes are, you know the idea of rationing, of food being delivered, but also some of those clothes are delivered. Some of the clothes are colour coded for men and for women, and why would that be? Possibly because in areas of conflict, law enforcement would have a very quick idea of who were women and who were men by the clothes. It's all about the undershirts. If you're in T-shirts and you're giving men blue and women pink which are very cliché obvious colours, but if you look at it from a law enforcement place, where they've had protests in the past, you very quickly have a sense of how many men or women you're dealing with. Those sorts of things that are all integrated even though we don't necessarily flesh them out narratively. Those are just the ideas we were talking about all through the process of building the movie from top to bottom.

That's why the film feels like it has a certain colour palette, those things were all sort of built in, we like to approach them from some sort of edict.

And what about the editing? You have a lot of long dissolves here, almost like an old Western .

I think that process was quite intuitive. Even though the performances were naturalistic, I wanted the movie to feel quite storybook. It was very inspired by the S.E. Hinton novels. Even though they have a naturalism to them, they also feel sort of storybook and nostalgic. That was something I wanted to mirror. So the chapter headings and the long dissolves, to me, made it feel more storybook. It makes it feel like this is a tale that can only be told as a film. Maybe it was adapted from a book, maybe it wasn't. But it feels like a movie. There's no sort of Cassavetes realism to it, and that I liked. I wanted it to feel fictional, I wanted it to feel storybook.

What about the sound design?

That's a part of the process that I really love. In a lot of ways, the mix is one of the times when I'm most relaxed. When hiring a sound mixer, I wanted them to be very flexible and very mobile in terms of the mic-ing. Most of all the production sound was very usable, which was great.

Julian Slater, who is the sound designer and mixer and everything was recommended to me by Edgar Wright, who is a friend. I was talking to him about how we wanted to create this unusual environment. So I said who is the sort of Ben Burtt in London? And he recommended Julian.

So I hired Julian ultimately, and he has an understanding of sound that feels real but takes a tremendous amount of invention to get there. So there's a real artistic quality to the elements that he's creating for the movie. Really iconic sounds. I always loved the way Indiana Jones' pistol has such an iconic sound the way it's shot. It's not the way the gun sounded - it's less of the realistic "let's record that sound" than come up with something that feels our own.

And Julian I feel did that many times from the gunfire, to the way that things reverberate, and the voices in the house - he just came up with very iconic sounds. And he mixed it so beautifully. Getting to hear the movie in a theatre with really great sound is one of the really wonderful experiences I hope people will find in the theatre there.

You brought up Indiana Jones, so I have to ask...your godfather, Steven Spielberg, was at the Sundance premiere of your first film, and this film as well. Do you welcome the kind of attention that brings, or do you feel like it adds pressure to how the film is received? And do you feel any extra personal pressure having one of the greatest filmmakers right there beside you?

I mean for me it's obviously a very exciting thing and you know, he's a great friend and somebody who I am lucky enough to get to show a cut of this movie to before it's finished. I think he has a small group of people that he does that with and I feel very lucky that I'm one of them, really. He's been a great friend and I feel very lucky.

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