A Chat With Welcome to the Rileys Director Jake Scott
The British filmmaker Jake Scott (yep, son of Ridley) might not be a household name, but you probably came across his videos on MTV during the '90s—he's shot promos for Radiohead, U2, The Cranberries, and others. Welcome to the Rileys, a skewed family drama starring James Gandolfini, Melissa Leo, and Kristen Stewart, is Scott’s second feature film. It's showing right now at the new West End Cinema. Arts Desk recently asked Scott some questions about depicting post-Katrina New Orleans, about asking his actors to take a leap, and about his reaction to critics' across-the-board reactions.
Washington City Paper: Welcome to the Rileys seems to be a departure from your previous work, which mostly are in the realm of music videos. What attracted you to it?:
Jake Scott: It wasn’t like a conscious thing, really—of being attracted to something as an answer to something else. It was more that I read the script, and I really was interested in the main character, Doug. His struggle was really compelling to me, I guess because I’m a dad. And I think, you know, I’ve changed a lot since my first film. My life’s changed a lot. I’ve had children. I was drawn more and more to, and working on material that was much more character-driven, anyway. And so probably, unconsciously, without knowing it, I was looking for something like that. Honestly, I made it as a dad. I came to it as a father wanting to say something about parenting, and about fatherhood, and about my feelings, really.
WCP: What was the purpose behind setting the film in New Orleans?
JS: The original script, the first draft of the script had been written to be set in New Orleans. It was mainly because the writer, Ken Hixon, had an experience down there that spurred the thought to write the script in the first place. He met a girl that was a bit like that, he was with his friends down there and they were out drinking. They went into this club, and this girl was there. He never spoke to this girl, he just saw her from a distance, and realized that she was a lot younger than girls that are legally allowed to work in those clubs. You know, on the outskirts of French Quarter, which is sort of on the fringes of New Orleans, it’s quite a permissive place. There’s a lot of underage girls working in those places. And then, Katrina happened, and the story was sort of relocated to Savannah, Ga. I started working with Ken, and found out this film was originally intended to be set in New Orleans. And I said, we should go back there, it’s a much better location for this film. In its way, it’s very damaged. It’s a very damaged city, and it’s a surviving place. It embodies the idea of survival.
WCP: So the actual story takes place in pre-Katrina, then?
JS: No. The original script was written before Katrina. We didn’t make any attempt to hide the fact that Katrina had happened. The house that Kristin Stewart’s character lived in has all the markings of the EMT crews on the façade of the building, which were the actual markings left there after Katrina. People would mark how many bodies, or how many dead animals they had so rescue crews would know what they’d be dealing with.
WCP: New Orleans is a distinctively American city, with a very loaded history. What kind of perspective do you think you bought to it as a British filmmaker?
JS: It’s a city I wasn’t that familiar with before I started filming there. I was familiar with the music of New Orleans. New Orleans, and other port cities like New York or San Francisco can seem very familiar to Europeans. I looked at some previous films that had been made there. I felt that New Orleans, as you see it in cinema, is kind of a concoction of clichés. There’s another side to the city, which is the place that it really is, which I tried to show as authentically as possible .
WCP: All three of the main actors in the film—James Gandolfini, Melissa Leo, and Kristen Stewart—all play very different characters from what they are traditionally cast as. What role did you play as a director in shaping their characters?
JS: First of all, remember that they’re very good actors. And in many ways, eager to do something new. Kristen, at the time, had only done the first Twilight film and no one had seen it yet when she came down to New Orleans to work on this new film. She was still relatively new to playing Bella Swan. But you know, Kristen’s a young, very hardworking actress who’s trying to experiment and try new things. And James was eager to get past his 10 years of Tony Soprano and shed that skin by playing someone completely unlike anyone he had played before. Same goes for Melissa. In terms of the experience, we were all venturing into an unknown territory. That really helps, because you get fresh ideas, bolder performances.
WCP: No two critics seem to agree on their opinion of this film, especially when it comes to the quality of the performances. Why do you think that’s so?
JS: I don’t know, I’ve actually avoided reading anything. It’s interesting to hear that. I definitely perceived that there were very strong reactions to one actor over another in the film. I know from friends and family. I had a very good friend who couldn’t bear Melissa Leo in the film. And I had other friends who thought she was the best thing in it. I think, same goes for the other two. I know there’s been some critical discussion about Jame’s accent, which I think is a little bit...It’s interesting, because I know we were very careful about the accent, we actually did a lot of work on it. The accent’s actually perfect in terms of Southern Indiana and Northern Kentucky. That’s where it seemed to place him. And I think what’s happened is that you’ve got someone whose voice is very familiar, as Tony Soprano.
But you’re right, very, very distinctly different reactions to the actors, I’ve found. And of course, I’m always going to find a positive analysis of that. I feel it’s because all three actors are playing real people. Melissa Leo’s got the hardest task in that she’s playing a character that’s very frightened, very damaged, but also, neurotic, who’s really controlling. She becomes a difficult character, she’s not necessarily a sympathetic character for the audience. But Melissa Leo’s strength as an actor is that she’s able to play somebody unsympathetically. And that was my intention as a director, and I think the actor’s intention, which is not to play these characters who tell a story where you’re being guided emotionally through it. I was interesting in being kind of objective about it: Looking at these three lives, and the intersection of these three lives without passing judgement. And there are things in the film that you question, there are motives in the film that you question. I did read one criticism of the story, that the fact that James character moves in with this girl; the film almost doesn’t get away with it, you almost don’t believe it. That critic said that nearly sank the film. Just through the power of the performances.
WCP: What’s next for you?
JS: Yeah, I’m looking at a lot of potential projects. I have a script in development that has a winter setting—it’s set in Scotland during the winter. It’s called Transit. It’s a thriller, a vengeance thriller. And a number of other things that I’m looking at. I’m always looking. At the moment, I’m trying to let the dust settle off of Welcome to the Rileys.