Puzzle interview: Director Marc Turtletaub discusses the power of spontaneity
After producing some great indie gems like Little Miss Sunshine and Jack Goes Boating, Turtletaub sits in the director’s chair for a second time. Puzzle – which opened this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival – is the story of Agnes (Kelly MacDonald), an insulate Catholic housewife who escapes her drab existence of cooking and cleaning for her family by completing large jigsaw-puzzles. But this seemingly innocent pastime changes her as a person, and risks her relationship with her husband and two sons.
The Upcoming was fortunate to speak with Turtletaub about the film – discussing why he wanted to direct the feature, the similarities between Agnes and his own mother and his resistance to rehearsals.
Puzzle was originally an Argentinian film by Natalia Smirnoff. When did you first become aware of it?
I became aware of it when the screenplay was sent to me. We didn’t develop it, we had a production company but we didn’t develop this one. I had never seen the original movie – in fact, I didn’t watch the original movie until I finished making Puzzle.
You’re primarily a producer, bringing us films like Little Miss Sunshine and – more recently – Loving. What was it about Puzzle that made you want to sit in the director’s chair?
It was the screenplay. It always begins, for me, with the written word. 90 percent of what’s on the screen was on the page. That’s a great way to start. And then it was about a subject which I always care about: someone finding who they are, finding their authentic voice. And then to find one about a woman of a certain age is even rarer. So, all those things sort of lined up for me. Then, on a personal level, it’s a story about a woman who’s a mother and a wife living in suburban Connecticut, doting on her husband and her sons. And I knew that woman – it was my mother. I grew up in suburban New Jersey, and she doted on my dad and me. When I read [the screenplay], I felt like it was a story I could tell.
You decided not to rehearse with the actors prior to shooting. Was there a particular reason behind that?
Yeah, there was. I’ve done otherwise, and then on the last short I did I decided not to rehearse and I liked the results. When you’re working with world-class actors like Kelly [MacDonald] and Irrfan [Khan] and Dave [Denman], they will surprise you with what they’re gonna bring in. If you rehearse, it can deaden that. That’s why we didn’t rehearse.
I read an interesting interview by a well-known director, who said: “Every time I cast an actor, it’s like a little death”. What he was saying was “I’ve got an idea of how that role should be played, and how those words should be said and once I’ve cast an actor, they’re gonna do it differently”. I took the opposite tact. Every time I test a great actor, I’m gonna get surprised in a way that was unanticipated. It’s an opportunity.
Did that make the overall shooting experience more spontaneous than is perhaps normal?
Did you enjoy it?
I loved it, and I think the actors like it because it doesn’t beat a scene to death. We would talk about difficult scenes, and sometimes we would walk through a scene beforehand because they needed to know, “OK, where am I going to stand? Where feels right for me? Do I like to sit there? How should the scene play out?”. So you might walk and talk through a scene, but it wasn’t a real rehearsal.
To me, the most stimulating moments in the film are when Agnes completes these massive 1000-piece puzzles, and then rips them apart. Did you have a feeling of satisfaction when filming these scenes?
The satisfaction I get is seeing a great scene take place, whether it’s having to do with putting of the pieces together or anything else. I’m mostly focused on those moments of the performances. Of course, it’s critical that Puzzle be done right and the story be told properly, but I’m focused – in those moments – on the performances.
Are you a “puzzler” yourself?
I’m not, and I’m astounded at how many people are puzzlers. When I first got the script, I went, “oh, who’s gonna be interested in a movie about jigsaw puzzles?”. Little did I know how many people that were out there that really care about it. But beyond that, it’s really a story about a woman coming of age at 40. That’s what drove me to it.
Photo: Linda Kallerus, Sony Pictures Classics
Puzzle is released nationwide on 24th August 2018. Read our review here.
Watch the trailer for Puzzle here: