Director's Chair: Marc Turtletaub — <I>Puzzle</I>
Issue: August 1, 2018

Director's Chair: Marc Turtletaub — Puzzle

It’s fitting that Puzzle, the new film from the Oscar-nominated director and producer Marc Turtletaub, looks and feels like a period piece. While the fast-paced modern world occasionally intrudes in the shape of smart phones and rapid transit, the film is centered around the slower, distinctly old-time world of jigsaw puzzles.

Starring Kelly Macdonald (Trainspotting 1 and 2, No Country for Old Men), Irrfan Khan ( Jurassic World, Life of Pi), David Denman ( 13 Hours, The Office)  — and thousands of jigsaw pieces — Puzzle is a quiet, closely observed portrait of Agnes (Macdonald), a selfless homemaker who has reached her early 40s without ever venturing far from home, family or the tight-knit immigrant community in which she was raised by her widowed father. 

But that begins to change in a quietly-dramatic fashion when Agnes receives a jigsaw puzzle as a birthday gift and experiences the heady thrill of not only doing something she enjoys, but being very, very good at it. After years of concerning herself exclusively with the needs and wants of her doting and decent husband Louie (Denman) and two sons, Agnes begins to step out of her domestic bubble to pursue her new hobby and ends up meeting Robert (Khan), a wealthy, reclusive inventor and fellow puzzle enthusiast who immediately recognizes her talent and recruits her as his partner for an upcoming world jigsaw tournament. Each day she spends out in the world, puzzling and conversing with Robert, takes Agnes further along on the road to a new understanding of herself and her strengths. With that understanding come new insights and an assertiveness that finds her speaking out on her own behalf and pushing back against the assumptions and routines that have until now defined her role in her family. Ultimately, Agnes will decide for herself what comes next.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Turtletaub, whose credits include Little Miss Sunshine and Loving, talks about making the Sony Pictures Classics film, and why he loves post.

What sort of film did you set out to make? 

“The film I think we delivered, about this woman in her 40s coming of age.”

The subtext — a repressed woman in a man’s world who’s never had a chance to shine before — seems very timely.

“It is timely, but this all came together before the MeToo movement, so that wasn’t in the back of our minds. The big appeal for me was the story, and I was really taken by the writing most of all, and we just don’t see these kinds of stories much, especially about an older woman finding her voice.”

Is true that the story also resonated with you in terms of you own mother?

“It did, and I dedicated it to her. When I read the screenplay I said, ‘I know that woman.’ I grew up in New Jersey and my mother just doted on my father and me, and was the ultimate homemaker. It was that generation, but then I think there are still a lot of women out there today who are trapped by obligation or not realizing there’s something more out there.”

Are you a puzzle enthusiast?

“No, not at all, and when I first got the script I just thought it’d be the last thing I’d be interested in. But once I began to read it, I soon realized that it’s not really about jigsaw puzzles — it’s about human beings and passion and where that can lead you, and the whole puzzle of human nature. And it didn’t turn me into a puzzler, but Kelly became a big one during the shoot, and we always had a 1000-piece puzzle nearby on the set, and she’d get into it and crew members would join in.”

What were the main challenges in pulling it all together?

“Finding the right homes, particularly the New York house, as it’s such an odd space, so when we found it I knew it was the one. The shoot was pretty smooth, and we shot on location in Yonkers and New York City. We had a great DP, Chris Norr, who’s worked with Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Rob Reiner, and a great crew. We didn’t have one argument from anyone on set the whole 30-day shoot, which doesn’t usually happen with all the pressures of a shoot. Our latest night was just 11:30pm, and it was a very collaborative process.”

Where did you post?

“Although we were based in New York, we edited out here in LA, although we did a little bit in New York. I really wanted Cate Haight to cut it, and I wanted a woman editor, because I love her work and the whole story’s centered around a woman. And we had another editor, Joe Landauer, who helped out alongside Cate, but she did the lion’s share of the work. Then the rest of post was done in New York, at Harbor [Picture Company]. They did all the sound, visual effects, the color and they’re so good. I’ve worked there before several times on films I’ve produced.”  

Do you like the post process?

“I absolutely love it now. But when I started out, I didn’t feel that way. The first time I sat in an editing room working on a short I’d directed, I remember sitting there with the editor as he was working away, and thinking, ‘This is so slow, I can’t take it!’ And by the end of that day we had maybe a minute of the film cut, and I thought, ‘This is so painful!’ But then after a few days, you gradually get into the rhythm, and your nervous system slows down and you find the right pace to really finely craft something. Then you cut a :30 scene, and it comes together, and it’s so exciting and satisfying. So I came to really love post and now it’s my favorite part.”

Talk about editing with Catherine Haight. How did that work?

“She wasn’t on the set at all. She was here in LA while I was shooting in New York, and she did the editor’s assembly. And if there were scenes I wasn’t sure about, I’d call her and tell her to cut them together so we could see if they worked. It’s so easy now to send files, and she’d send me scenes or segments and I’d look at them and we’d go from there.” 

What were the big editing challenges?

“I think finding the right overall pace and rhythm for it was the big concern, like with every movie. And then making sure the chemistry between Kelly and Irrfan developed and worked. We ended up having scenes that were entirely constructed in post, which is the real magic of editing. This isn’t a fast-paced story — and it shouldn’t be — but there’s always a lot of back and forth about whether you need to speed up a scene or sequence. You worry about holding the audience’s attention, but then you also have to trust the material, and Cate is brilliant and it wouldn’t have worked without her and her ability to shape the coverage and mold it all in post. If I get credit for the film, I know just how much it’s due to her and Joe, because when you watch the finished film and it’s all flowing smoothly and naturally, you can easily forget just how much work is put into post and editing.” 

There were a few VFX, right?

“Right, and most of them were technical. When the woman serves tea, we had to jump her down the hallway, and Harbor did a bunch of clever little shots like that you’d never notice.”

Talk about the importance of sound and music to you.

“I take a very active role, but I also know to let the sound guys have enough freedom to do their work, so we discuss everything — how much sound you want, the kind of sound you want — and then you have to get out of the way. It’s the same with good actors, a great DP and so on. If you’re smart, you know when to say things and when to walk away. Then you come back, give notes, and so on. Sound is so important, and the first time Kelly opens a puzzle, they added this sound of sand pouring, like at a beach. It’s very subliminal, but it gives a sense of the tactile nature of jigsaw puzzles, as I wanted this sense that Kelly was almost having a physical relationship with the puzzle. It was so pleasing to her. So when you hear that sand sound, it tells you how she feels touching those pieces. And sound is like this giant puzzle too, with all the balancing of levels and elements. And the music by Dustin O’Halloran is another huge part of it, and I pumped up the music in some of the montages as I loved it so much, and I wanted to create space in the story. As they say, sound is half the movie.” 

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?

“At Harbor with colorist Joe Gawler, who I think is one of the best in the world. I’m also pretty involved in that, along with the DP. The movie has a very specific look that changes over time. At the start, the DP used a lot of smoke in the house, to underscore that she was trapped in space and time, and I wanted to give a sense that the house, where she was raised and then had raised her own family, was heavy and dense. And that ‘s also echoed in the costumes and wallpaper and cinematography and lighting. Then, when she gets to New York, we lightened it and took furniture out of the house, and the light changes. And we gave a lot of attention to all that in the DI.”

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?

“It really did. I’m very happy with it. I’m already reading a ton of scripts. I’m looking for another character-driven piece, where there’s tension and conflict, where the characters are nuanced.”