Jules is a new sci-fi dramedy from Bleeker Street that stars Ben Kingsley, Harriet Sansom Harris, Zoë Winters, Jade Quon and Jane Curtin. The film centers around Milton (Kingsley), a retiree in a small Pennsylvania town whose life is upended when a UFO crash lands in his backyard. Milton develops a close relationship with Jules (Quon), the craft’s extra-terrestrial, as do his neighbors (Sansom Harris and Curtin). At the same time, the government knows something crashed in Western PA, and is now trying to track down the whereabouts of what it’s calling a “satellite.”
Jules was written Gavin Steckler and opens in theaters on August 11th. I had a chance to char with director Marc Turtletaub just prior to its release. Here, he discusses the production and how the film found its voice during the long editing process.
Marc, tell use a bit about the shoot for Jules?
“Well, for starters, the shoot was, I think, 35 days. We had to wait a year during COVID, so the movie was pushed for a long time. Even then, we were all wearing masks on-set, so when we weren't shooting, the mask were on and the shields were on. It seems like it was a lifetime ago, but it wasn't that long ago.”
What year was that?
“2021, so it's been a while, and frankly, it took me a while to find the movie's tone and keep it 100 percent consistent. I love the name ‘Post magazine,’ because to me, the editing process is so critical. And I had two wonderful editors (including Ayelet Gil Efrat) working with me, and they helped me to find the tone and keep it consistent. But that took a long time, and it took me about ten months to cut this film.”
The camera work is very deliberate. Is that reflective of who Milton is?
“Yeah, I think it is Marc. It's a character-driven movie. It's not a wild adventure movie. There's not a lot of running. There's no car crashes. There's no big CGI. And so it's sort of baked into the screenplay, which is, it's a story about three old people finding meaning and connection later in life, and that's character driven. We go from one face to another (and) hopefully, visually, keep it interesting by the performances. And then it's all broken up by the fact that we've got this 4’11” alien in a spaceship in the backyard.”
Do you recall what camera was used and does your director of photography have a preferred camera and lens package?
“It was (an Arri) Alexa and we rely on Chris Norr. He's worked on the last two features I've done, and I've got a little I've got a little votive that I put on my mantel and light every day for Chris Noor to thank him for all of his work. Chris is a real artist and we often think very much alike, but he has the eye and the technical capability of doing so much.”
Photo: Ben Kingsley and Marc Turtletaub
Beyond COVID, did you run into anything unexpected during production?
“Not really. We had one day where there was lightning and we lost power. But other than that, it was a fairly-easy shoot. When you have great actors like that, you have a really great screenplay, you have a good set, great cinematographer, great production design, you just get the hell out of their way and let them do what they can do.”
There is a sci-fi element to the film, but it’s not a VFX-heavy movie by any means. What were Jules’ VFX needs?
“The needs were, as you recall, there's a moment where cats turn into fuel. They did great work on that. There were a number of moments where the spaceship flies away or repositions, so that had to happen. It was interesting. We would take the ship — physically there were, I think, eight pieces of it —and we would move it across the yard to another location, and then through effects, they would have the ship go up or move over and land. So we had the starting point and the end point, and the effects created the movement of it.
It was same thing when we moved it 60 miles away to a gravel pit to look like maybe they were on a different planet. We moved it in pieces, reassembled it, and then the lifting and taking off was all done through effects. There's a ton of little things that have to happen in every movie, but especially where you have an alien wearing a suit — that there's quite a bit of work. It has to be done in post.”
With all the make up and prosthetics, did you shoot Jules’ sequences together for efficiency purposes?
“You try to be as efficient as you can, Marc, but some of it is just based on the shooting days that you have. And also, I love to shoot in continuity so that the actors have a sense of what's going on with their characters and what's going on with the story. So I try to do that as much as possible.”
Meaning that you were going linearly from the beginning of the story?
“As much as you can. You try to and that it helps the story. You pay a price in terms of maybe efficiency, but you make up in terms of believability and it puts a heavy toll on the actress, Jade Quan, who played Jules, because it would take her four to five hours to get into costume each day. And then she had to go to work, and then an hour and a quarter to take her costume off. There's probably one woman on the planet that could have done this, and I got her. I was so fortunate we got her to work on this movie. I asked her at one point, I said, ‘Jane, how do you put up with that? How do you stay sit there while they're doing all this stuff to you?’ And she said, ‘I just go to my quiet place’ and I thought, ‘Wow, what a special person.’”
Her whole performance is in her facial expressiveness.
“Yeah, I think you're spot on, Marc. And I think that people will recognize it. But when you realize what she had to go through to the get to that point, that's more impressive. She's always said, ‘I always want to be present in every scene. And even though I'm not saying something, you want to feel like you can read something into my face.’”
You mentioned the edit earlier. Is it taking place close to production or are you completing production before moving on to the edit?
“I'm not cutting, my editor is cutting. She was cutting all the way through to have a cut to show me when we got done shortly thereafter. But the real lifting happens after the shoot. As soon as we got done, I was able to join her. And then later, our second editor.”
How far along is it by the time you get to sit with them?
“It's a rough edit. This film has so many diverse elements in it that don't usually go together: the science-fiction elements, the emotion, the pathos, the buddy movie, the humor, the effects. (With) all of that going together, it was critical to get the tone to be consistent. It took literally ten months to find the tone and define the movie. I'm very happy with where we ended up, but it took that long.”
Is there a sequence or scene that came together unlike what you had expected?
“Yeah, there's always scenes that are tricky, Marc. I can think of a few, but that's part and parcel of making every movie. There’s almost nothing that just cuts exactly the way you saw it and thought of it. And that's part of the genius of filmmaking.
“There’s movie that you read, a movie you shoot, and then there's a movie that you actually cut. I think in this case, the cutting was such an important part of the story. And then there are wonderful, wonderful creations that happened in the editing room that you don't envision.
“There's a sequence, for example, where Sir Ben walks to the door, and then we cut to the hippie house, where the agents are, and then we cut back to Sir Ben and we realize that he's opening the door for Joyce (Jane Curtin). And then we cut back to the hippie house. This intercutting that wasn't in the screenplay. That was the invention of really great editing that our editors came up with.”
When do the visual effects come in?
“They all come in during the post production process. You can't do all the visual effects before some things are done. That stuff, you have to do once you know what the picture is, otherwise you're going to spend a lot of money on something that might not make it into the movie. So all of those effects are done later on in the process.”
Can you talk about the color grade. The film evolves color-wise, and of course, Jules has a signature look.
“Yeah, it does. We worked at Harbor. Joe Gawler is one of those just geniuses in this industry...And he's a storyteller. We wanted the film to gradually lighten as it went on, so in the beginning, the early scenes of Milton, they were a little denser, a little darker, as he's alone. And then, as he begins to find friendship and connection with Jane Curtin’s character and Harriet Sansom Harris’ character, it begins to lighten, and the look begins to change. That, among many other things, are all part of the coloring process.”
What's next for you?
“I'd love to be onto my next one, but we have a strike, so we're not writing and we're not shooting or casting, but I do have my eye on the next one.”