The Trotsky’s Director JACOB TIERNEY Exclusive Interview
I recently got a chance to speak with director JACOB TIERNEY about his new movie, The Trotksy, which is in the Special Presentations lineup at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Jacob Tierney has a pretty big acting background, but The Trotsky marks his second directorial work. And while his first film, “Twist,” was pretty serious drama, this new one is a comedy.
During the interview, Jacob Tierney talked about his inspiration for the film, the process of getting the film done, some of his directorial influences, and more. So enjoy the interview below and check out The Trotsky at the Festival when it premieres on September 11.
Congratulations on getting a movie into the festival. That’s exciting.
Jacob Tierney: Thank you very much, it is exciting. I’m pretty pumped.
The premiere is in a couple of weeks?
Jacob Tierney: Well, I guess it’s the first of September. So ten days. It’s kind of weird to have a screening time on September 11th. You don’t forget it. I’m like, ‘I’m screening on September 11th. Okay.’ It’s also not going to be like, ‘I can’t remember. It’s some day, the 10th or 12th.’ It’s pretty clear.
Can you talk about the story of ‘The Trotsky’ and what the tone of the film is like?
Jacob Tierney: The story is basically about a kid who thinks he’s the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky, the Red Army founder and Bolshevik. He’s kind of determined to live out Trotsky’s life beat by beat, as he sees it. So when we find him in the story he’s trying to get arrested for the first time and trying to unionize the students at his high school. He’s also trying to find his first wife. That kind of picks up the crux of the story, and the tone, it’s a comedy obviously. Before I made it, I used to describe it as ‘Reds‘ in high school, only funny. That was kind of the movie that I wanted to make. This kid thinks his life is an epic and so the comedy kind of comes from there. The movie is on his side and we’re trying to make it in epic form and the irony results in other people just not viewing his life as being that epic.
What inspired you to write this story?
Jacob Tierney: In truth I was really moved as a teenager by Ken Loach, by his movies and particularly ‘Land and Freedom‘ which I saw when I was like fifteen. It just made the biggest impression on me. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I was a very serious teenager, very engaged and I wrote a lot and I was probably a bit boring. I wanted to make a movie about socialists in high school, something really revolutionary, something that basically felt like ‘Land and Freedom’ a bit. I wrote that script and it was about a bunch of kids in high school trying to get the Spanish Civil War added to their curriculum. It was just so bad and so boring, and I was like, ‘Fuck me. I am not Ken Loach.’ Then what ultimately happened is that I was reading it one day and I started to laugh because I thought, ‘Who the fuck talks like this? This is insane. You would never be able to listen to someone talking to you like this in real life.’ I thought that was kind of funny as an idea. ‘I like to laugh.’ Then the other shoe dropped and the tone of it came really naturally to me from that point on, when I kind of gave up the idea of trying to be Ken Loach. I still wish I could be.
It’s a funny Ken Loach.
Jacob Tierney: [laughs] Exactly.
Do you know when there’s going to be a trailer for the film?
Jacob Tierney: That’s kind of up in the air right now. I don’t know. The answer is hopefully soon, but I don’t actually know. Believe me, we’re all pushing for that to happen hopefully before the festival.
How did you get the project up and running, after writing the script?
Jacob Tierney: I wrote the first draft of the script when I was really young, before I made my first film. After I made my first film I did not think that this would be an appropriate second film because I thought it was just cost too much money and I didn’t want to be someone who spent seven years trying to get a movie made that was just too big of a budget for anyone to ever give me. The irony was then that I had much lower budgeted movies fall apart over that seven years and so I still ended up waiting that amount of time.
When the project came together for real is when my father, who’s the producer of the movie, had a huge success with a film he made called ‘Bon Cop, Bad Cop’ in Canada. He was given this thing called a Performance Envelope from Telephone Canada which is our federal funding agency for films. Basically, it acts as a discretionary fund where a producer can green light a movie which is not the way that it works up here. He decided that he wanted to do comedies and he decided that he wanted to do ‘Trotsky’ first. Suddenly it looked like it was going to be possible to make it at the appropriate budget level, and in a really cool situation of my dad producing. That’s how it ultimately came together.
Can you talk about the casting process for the film?
Jacob Tierney: Jay [Baruchel] was the first choice. He quickly in my mind became the only choice. He’s someone that I’ve known from a long time ago from being in the same city, but I have not known him well. When I started to talk to him and hangout with him, I just realized that this guy had the exact most important thing to play this part which is that he’s as smart as this kid. He’s so articulate. He’s so passionate about the things that he’s interested in which are not necessarily the same things that Leon is interested in but he’s equally articulate and passionate about what he wants to talk about. I was like, ‘This is not a guy who will trip over this language.’
Then beyond that he’s so funny and he’s got that thing, he’s got charisma. You want to watch him for the right amount of time. So I was thrilled when he signed onto it and agreed to do it. That kind of happened over the course of a couple of meetings and talking, kind of the normal way. Then I ultimately got my first choice for everybody that I wanted. I was really lucky.
I didn’t know that we would actually get Genevieve Bujold to play Denise Archambault. I was absolutely thrilled that worked. Then Colm Feore I’m an enormous fan of. It wasn’t obvious that his schedule was going to work out and then it did and I was thrilled. Saul Rubinek and Michael Murphy. The casting of this movie was largely a dream and then I wrote the role of Alexandra for Emily Hampshire. So I was thrilled when she agreed to do it. The casting of the young people ended up being the biggest [challenge].
I was a bit curious about how that would turn out. I didn’t feel like I knew that age group particularly well anymore and I was just blown away by the people that came in to read. We really lucked out, I feel because we have a huge cast and it’s a dialogue heavy movie. Every part is a big part. Every little moment of it mattered enormously to me and I think we ended up really lucking out.
How did the production go with all these people in the cast?
Jacob Tierney: It was pretty chill. We were really blessed that it was a very, very chill set. No big commotions. No big ado. We ended up finishing under budget in less days than we had planned. It kind of couldn’t have gone better. Part of that was because I was surrounded by, I mean my production designer Anne Pritchard has designed for Louis Malle and Brian De Palma. She did ‘Atlantic City’. My director of photography [Guy Dufaux], he did movies for Jean-Claude Lauzon, all the Denys Arcand films and these are pros. The people I was surrounded with were so good at what they do that it’s like butter, everything. It just flowed along and was great.
And the postproduction of the film, were you really involved in the editing and what’s your process in working with people at that point?
Jacob Tierney: Well, my process is that I’m just there everyday, all day long like it’s a normal workday for me, too, no matter what’s going on with the thing. I want to participate in as much of it [as I can] because I think that a good film is usually made up of little details. Theoretically my job as the director is to keep the big picture in mind and to care about all the little stuff and how it’s put together. So I tend to be very, very involved.
‘The Trotsky’ is in English but takes place in Montreal?
Jacob Tierney: Yes, and it takes place in Montreal. There’s French in the movie. His step-mom is played by Anne-Marie Cadieux who’s an actor that I didn’t mention before but who’s fucking genius and I couldn’t believe I got her in this movie. She stars in Robert Lepage’s movies. She’s super amazing. She plays his step-mom and they speak in French every once in a while and Genevieve Bujold has a couple of lines in French. What I wanted to do was to actually show the city that I actually live in. I grew up here. I’m English and my family is English. My school was English and that kind of thing, but when you go out to life and are at a restaurant or dealing with people you speak French. That kind of happens in the movie.
What was your favorite part of making the film?
Jacob Tierney: I really like the whole process. I love making movies. It’s so much fun. I really like pre-production. I really like production. On the set everyday there’s a lot of adrenaline happening and that’s really, really fun. I also love cutting and I love mixing. I love the mix so much. It’s so much fun when you get to finally mix your movie because then it sounds like a movie for the first time and it’s so exciting. I find the whole process really exciting. I couldn’t pick a favorite part. I love writing, too. That’s a huge part of it for me, the time that I spend writing. I really enjoy how kind of long and involved it all is. It gives you a chance to keep reassessing and keep thinking to keep imagining new things. It kind of opens up like an onion, a movie, because you suddenly start caring about things that you’ve never thought about before and you realize the deep effect that they have on your film. That’s cool. I like that stuff. I’m not one of those people that thinks of it as torture. That’s for sure.
What are you hoping that people will take away from watching the film?
Jacob Tierney: I just hope they like it. I hope they take whatever they like in it. I just hope that they enjoy themselves and that they have chuckle and get a kick out of spending a couple of hours with these people. What’s been cool so far is that young people have responded really well, like really strongly to the movie. I would obviously love to see that keep going. In my dream world I would love to make a high school movie that I would’ve loved in high school, like ‘Heathers’ or something. How cool would it be to make a movie that teenagers actually want to watch that’s about teenagers. That doesn’t happen very often and that would be amazing.
How was the experience on this film different from your experience on your film ‘Twist’ and since you’ve done a lot of work as an actor, what’s the difference for you being behind the camera and how does that help you communicate with actors?
Jacob Tierney: The biggest difference between my first film and this film was the amount of money that I had. This movie cost about $6.5 million and my first cost significantly under $500 thousand, significantly. I’m not sure what we ended up pretending it cost but it cost nothing close to that. We had no money in the bank when we made that movie. So that affects everything. It affects how much film you have to how many locations, all the different stuff that you can do. So that would be the most significant difference. I loved making my first film and I had a great time doing it. What’s so cool about making a first movie like that is directors can often be coddled and financial conversations can bypass you, people being like, ‘Oh, you don’t need to think about this stuff –’ but when you making these with that little money you really do need to think about that stuff because then it’s like, ‘Nope. You can’t afford it. So figure something else out. We’re not doing that.’ You have to know what your budget is, how much your spending, where that money is going and how it’s going to affect what’s going to end up on film ultimately. So that would be the big difference.
Did you find yourself more comfortable directing ‘Trotsky’ after having directed ‘Twist’ already? Did you learn anything in that process?
Jacob Tierney: Oh, for sure. It’s a weird job because it’s one that you do so rarely. I’ve done it twice and I consider it to be my job. It’s hard to accumulate a ton of experience but thankfully, and this will kind of answer your other question, too, what I think I have, the biggest asset of being an actor for so many years, is that I’ve just been on so many sets. I know how sets work. I know what a bad set looks like and feels like and what a good set looks like and feels like. I also know that I’ve never seen a good movie come from a bad set. If people are miserable, if you’re not getting your days, whatever the problem is you’re not going to end up with a good movie. That’s just not the way that it goes.
So I think what the actor part of me brings to the table is the actual work experience. A movie set is a very particular environment. It is its own weird beast, and thankfully I’ve been on them since I was a kid and have a sense of the way they go. In terms of talking to actors, I think there’s definitely a sense with actors being more at ease talking with another actor about performing. I’m sure that most of what I do with actors I don’t even realize I’m doing because it’s just what comes kind of naturally to me. I don’t micromanage my actors. I feel like acting is casting so much of the time. You hire the right person for the job and then they’re going to do the job most of the time. You guide them a little bit here or there.
Being an actor, the thing I guess I understand is that you’re so vulnerable up there and you feel so vulnerable and it’s hard to articulate that. There’s no real reason. You’re just standing there saying a bunch of lines but it can be very scary, very daunting and so I try to create a safe environment as much as I can. That’s part of why I like a really calm set. No yelling. No screaming. People talk in normal voices. They make jokes. We’re not too intense. In a relaxed environment I feel like actors do their best work. I feel like everyone does their best work that way.
Do you see yourself continuing on as a director or do you want to go back to acting or do both?
Jacob Tierney: The nice thing is that I don’t really have to pick but I can’t pretend that I’m not really focused on directing. I’m actually about to make my next movie. I’m shooting it in January. I haven’t acted in these films and I can’t imagine myself acting over the next year. Directing is definitely the most important thing to me.
Can you talk about your next movie?
Jacob Tierney: It’s going to be called ‘Notre-Dame-de-Grâce’. It’s based on a book, a local thriller here. It’s this really good book called ‘Chère Voisine’ which translates to ‘Dear Neighbors’ and it’s about these three neighbors in an apartment complex. One of them is a serial killer and the other two become his friend and kind of venture into… it’s kind of a black comedy/thriller, like a noir kind of. Jay [Baruchel] is going to be in it again and Emily Hampshire. I’m very excited to be doing that movie.
Are you hoping to be at the festival with this again?
Jacob Tierney: Theoretically we’d be ready next year. That would be great. Obviously, I wish for every movie that I ever make the best possible life that it can have. So, for sure, I’d love to be back at the Toronto Film Festival. It’s been very good to me.
Who are some of your influences as a director?
Jacob Tierney: It’s funny. I like a huge array of movies, but in terms of ‘Trotsky’ I think I would tell you that my biggest influence as a director might be Warren Beatty. Between ‘Reds’ and ‘Bullworth’ and even elements of ‘Shampoo’ and ‘Heaven Can Wait’, his movies have had a huge impact on me. I think he’s a really under appreciated filmmaker. Not just an actor but filmmaker.
I would definitely say that what came from that ashes of that Ken Loach dream was finding what a guy like Beatty was doing, making progressive movies, movies that aren’t a diatribe or aren’t a thesis, but it still kind of advances a particular agenda, a particular way of looking at the world that I can’t say that I disagree with. That was obviously important to me in making a movie called ‘The Trotsky’. I’m trying to put some kind of ideas out there. He really does that in a way that I find deeply entertaining, whether it’s serious or funny or something in between. I find his movies are really well made and really deftly handled in terms of tone. So he was definitely a filmmaker that I looked to and admired a lot for this and in general.
Did you see the last Ken Loach film ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’?
Jacob Tierney: I actually haven’t seen that film.
Jacob Tierney: They’re all amazing. I just went to a retrospective of his at the Cinematec and I saw ‘Raining Stones’. It’s one of the early to mid ’80’s ones and it’s so fucking good. They’re so good those movies. Goddamn it. I saw ‘My Name is Joe’ again the day after and nobody makes me cry like Ken Loach. It’s weird because he’s like the least manipulative filmmaker, but my, God, it’s like waterworks at the end of those movies.