My Cinema

16 January 2011

Exclusive Interview with “The Trotsky” Writer/Director Jacob Tierney

By // Cinema

One of the best films to come out of Canada last year (actually, just one of the best films period) was The Trotsky, a comedy about a teenage re-incarnation of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, starring Jay Baruchel and Colm Feore.

If you’ve seen the film (as all of you should have), you’ll remember the lackadaisical 20-something version of Lenin who Leon tracks down at the end of the film. That’s actually Jacob Tierney, the film’s young writer and director. 
The Trotsky is nominated for a 2010 My Cinema Awards for Best Comedy and Jacob himself is nominated for Best Screenplay. 

Last week I got the chance to speak with the clever and amicable writer/director about The Trotsky, his writing process and current projects. 
Read on for our full interview

Your resume is full of acting gigs. Would you consider yourself more of an actor, a writer or a director? Acting is something that I’ve done since I was a little kid, it’s been my whole life, since I was 6. So I will always consider myself an actor, in some way, though that’s definitely not what I’ve been doing. What I’ve been focusing on for the last few years has been writing and directing. 

How did you transition into writing and directing from acting? 
I just started writing. That’s all, and no one paid me to do it, I just wrote a lot. I wrote my first 2 films, they were both written by the time I was 21, 22. I started using those as writing samples. Then I made a short. And I cobbled enough money together to make my first feature. And that was really my calling card, my first film Twist. Then that was when I started getting paid to write, after that. 

What inspired you to helm such an ambitious project? 
It was just the script I wrote. I didn’t really think of it at the time as particularly ambitious or not ambitious. It was this thing that I wrote that I wanted to make. The script came out of the impulse of  wanting to contribute to good teen movies, like the movies I used to love when I was a teenager, like Heathers. Wanting to make one that I thought people would like and trying to make something a bit different. Trying to say something different than what they usually are.

Where did you get the idea for The Trotsky? 
When I was a teenager I was pretty involved in politics. I read a lot and became very interested in Trotsky. Honestly, it was my interested in Leon Trotsky that gave birth to the script. 

It’s an incredibly academic film. Were you drawing from your own knowledge or did a ton of research go into the writing? That’s just stuff I knew. It was finding a place to put all this stupid information I had about Trotsky. I guess you can say I was doing research for years, but I just read about him a lot. 

Your protagonist Leon fights for his very strong ideals. Do you share his philosophy? 
I don’t know if I share his philosophy- well, there was definitely a time in my life when I did- but what I like about Leon is that ultimately he doesn’t need you to believe what he believes, he just wants you to get involved. And that I definitely believe in. 

Walk me through the writing process. How long did it take you from concept to final draft? 
It’s difficult with this script because I wrote a serious version of it first, a version that was not a comedy. And I don’t mind telling you, it was pretty damn bad. So I re-wrote it, a page 1 re-write. And that script I took to this place called Praxis in Vancouver at Simon Fraser University, it’s a screenwriting organization. You go there and get to work with a story editor, if you get selected, which I did. I was lucky, I got to work with Noel Baker, who wrote Hard Core Logo. So then I did a couple of different passes around that time. Then it was a script I didn’t do a lot to for many years until I geared up to make it. That all happened before I made my first film, so I would have been about 21 or 22. I made the movie when I was 29. So between the ages of 23 and 27 I didn’t work on the script at all. 

Do you a full treatment and outline the whole script before you start or do you just go to page 1 and write? 
I just write. When I’m forced to articulate things before I understand them… part of writing is finding what it is. I can’t be too sure. I have an idea, so I can’t start writing until I can walk myself through the first 20 minutes of it and the last 10. But the middle I’m natural. I’ll get there. I’m very much like that when I write.

I only write a treatment if there’s a gun to my head. Instinctively I hate that stuff. I don’t usually start writing things unless I’ve been thinking about them for years. I think about them a lot. But then I usually write them pretty quickly. But I don’t do outlines and treatments and stuff like that.

Did you develop the script independently or was it a project firmly in place with you set to direct when you began?
I developed it with Movie Central, Shelley Gillen was an executive there. Then I started developing it with my father, who’s the producer on the film. He’d always read it, he was always reading drafts, but we actually got to work on it together a year and a half to two years before we started to make it. It was a beast of a script, it was way longer- even the movie we shot was way longer than the movie itself. It was too long, I had to cut a lot of stuff out.

You said you wrote the original as a drama. Was it tough adding in the humour? 
I didn’t add it in, I just started over. I was like “Oh my god, I’m such a terrible fucking writer, I can’t believe I even poured this out”. I was reading it one day and I was laughing at it, how bad it was. So I thought “oh, what if I just made this kid crazy” I was trying so hard to make it a real political film… with middle class high school kids. It was gross, just gross. Everything that came out of their mouths was just disgusting. Then I thought “but it could be funny” and that really liberated me to write way better. 

Tell me about casting- you’ve got everyone from Canadian stage legends to local TV stars in the film.
Casting was super fun. Obviously it began with Jay. Then Emily. The people I was most concerned about finding was the kids, the teenagers. I thought that would be hard but it was actually really easy. Tiio Horn as the first person who walked in to read for Caroline and I was like “okay, so that’s done”. Then she read with a couple of guys to play Tony. And Ricky Mabe was already Jay Baruchel’s best friend in real life, which is awesome, and he was great. At any rate, the kids worked out really well. At the beginning of the process, I said to my dad “if we get Saul Rubenik, Michael Murphy, Colm Feore. I will be as happy as I can possibly be with this”. It was a trio of men that we had to fill out in the supporting roles. I was so thrilled that they all said yes. I thought two out of three would be amazing, but to get them all, I was absolutely delighted. We just lucked out, everyone we asked to do it seemed to want to do it. I didn’t think we’d actually get Anne-Marie, but she wanted to do it, it was amazing, same with Genevieve. It was a lot of lucking out. Then a lot of forcing my friends to do stuff, like Jessica Pare and David Hirsh, those people didn’t have a choice. I was like “I’ll fly you in, you’ll like it”. There was a nice community feeling on that set. Because there were a ton of actors on any given day. There was very rarely less than 4 or 5 in any scene. Everyone worked a lot so I think the cast got along pretty well. 

What was the toughest obstacle in getting the film made? 
We were pretty lucky once we started getting it made. It was a film that people got behind. We had an easier time than most I would say. Making a movie is always hard, it’s a ton of work, it’s a huge endeavor, so I don’t want to make it sound like it was easy. But we were lucky on this film. Things went along pretty smoothly for us. 

What’s your favourite moment in the film? 
There are a lot of moments that I like. I love Jay and Emily miming at each other during the Ben Mulroney interview, that’s one of my favourite moments in the movie. And I love Ricky’s scene in the café with the kids at the end of the movie. Those are two scenes that I particularly enjoy. Oh and Colm’s first big speech, he’s got his full Darth Vader on, I love that too. 

My favourite joke in the film is when Ayn Rand isn’t allowed in the party. 
She used to be in the film. I had to cut her. In the old version of the script her and this guy dressed as Atlas come up to the booth together. And Leon’s like “who are you” and he says “Atlas”, so Leon says “don’t tell me, are you Ayn Rand?” and she’s like “yeah” so Leon says “Get out”. And the stage directions read: “Ayn looks to Atlas, Atlas shrugs and they leave”. That was my favourite, we call them “stage direction jokes”- that no one will EVER see. They’re like my “in jokes”, lowest form of comedy. But that one made me chuckle. 

Did you ever consider putting other historical figures in? 
No, because I really wanted to stay true to what he was doing then in his life. All that stuff really happened to Leon Trotsky when he was that age. He was a student rebel, he got sent to jail. He got in a lot of trouble, eventually was exiled. Meanwhile he met an older woman, got married, stopped talking to his dad. I just wanted to do those things. It was my responsibility to be able to dramatize that properly. A ton of people were like “would he really end up with the girl?” Well, it happened to this kid! You might say you don’t believe it, but that just means I have to write it better or do it better because it really did happen. If that guy can do it then why not this guy? 

You appear as Lenin at the end of the film. Is the supposition that you and Leon then join forces to start a revolution? 
The supposition is that if there’s a sequel they may not have to hire me as a writer or a director but I have to play Lenin because I’m grandfathered in, that’s why I did that, that’s the only reason. 

Any possible chance of that actually happening? 
 Very slim. Deeply slim. 

Can I put in a request to see that movie?
Yes! The Lenin, that’s the next one. I could do a full trio: The Lenin then The Stalin, that’d be ugly. 

Teenage Stalin, he’d be fun. 
Yeah, it’d be a great time. 

Was the film able to connect with an audience outside of Canada?
The first place outside of Canada that I went with the movie was Tokyo. We won the audience award in Tokyo, which was pretty shocking to me, because it’s a pretty well-attended festival and I just didn’t know if the comedy would translate. But it did. It won audience awards in Bulgaria, one in Turkey. People do seem to respond to the movie outside of the country. And the Tribeca festival picked us up for distribution, they released us in the US as well. We did pretty well, it seems like. Obviously there are certain jokes that certain people aren’t gonna get if they’re not Canadian, maybe even if they’re not from Montreal. But I tried really hard to make a movie that wasn’t about that. That you don’t really need to. I mean, I don’t understand every joke in British movies, because I’m not from there, but I still feel like what registers strongly is how personal it is and the real-ness of the characters. And that was what I was going for more than anything else. I wanted to make a movie that people could appreciate wherever they were from. 

What are you working on now? 
I had another film at [the] Toronto [film festival] this year called Good Neighbours with Jay again, Jay Baruchel, Emily Hampshire and Scott Speedman. That movie’s going come out in March (Canada) and April (US), so you should be seeing that soon. And I’m adapting a Doris Lessing book called The Good Terrorist right now. So hopefully that film will get made at some point later this year. 

Are you dedicated to the idea of staying in Canada to work?
Right now I’m really lucky that I’m getting to tell the stories about the place I’m from. If I come to the point where no one has any more interest in hearing them then I’ll probably go work elsewhere. I’m definitely interested in working in other places as well. But it just so happens that the stuff I’m writing now takes place here in Montreal or in Quebec. So yeah I’d like to stay here and get that work done because I think it’s cool that I’m getting the opportunity to tell these stories.

If you could pick one definitive moment in your career up to this point, what would it be? 
I don’t know. I hope to have a career that doesn’t have a definitive moment. I like a bunch of smaller ones along the way. I just want to keep making movies. I feel really lucky I’ve gotten to make 3 films. I’d love to keep working at this pace that I’m working at and getting to tell different stories. I don’t need one to go bang, I’d just love to keep getting to make movies.

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