puzzle

For most of the 2000s, Marc Turtletaub has been one of the leading producers of mid-size indie works (many of them quite successful), so it should come as no surprise that he would take an interest in directing one of his own. After making his directorial debut with 2013’s Gods Behaving Badly, he’s helmed Puzzle, which received a great deal of attention at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and is scheduled to open in theaters today.

/Film spoke about Puzzle with Turtletaub in Chicago back in May when he was a guest at the Chicago Critics Film Festival. He spoke of taking a deep dive into the world of puzzling, the personal connection he had to the material, the subtle ways in which he depicted loneliness, and yes, a bit about Mr. Rogers.

Based on the 2009 Argentine film Rompecabezas from writer/director Natalia Smirnoff (and scripted by Oren Moverman and Poly Mann), this deceptively simple story concerns Agnes (Kelly Macdonald), a suburban Connecticut mother, who is taken for granted by her husband (David Denman) and her teenage sons. She had many other interests before she was married and seems on the brink of being miserable when she is given a jigsaw puzzle for her birthday and discovers she has a gift for solving them in near-record time. Taking a trip into New York City to visit an actual puzzle store to buy more, she discovers there are puzzling competitions and meets Robert (the always-intriguing Irrfan Khan) who has recently lost his puzzling partner and is looking to pair with her, perhaps in more ways than one. Puzzle is a fragile film about a woman in the early stages of coming into her own, and it’s a fantastic showcase for Macdonald and Turtletaub.

Turtletaub’s production credits include such critical darlings as Laws of Attraction, Little Miss Sunshine, Sherrybaby, Chop Shop, Sunshine Cleaning, Away We Go, Jack Goes Boating, Our Idiot Brother, Safety Not Guaranteed, and Loving. He’s also slated to being production soon on You Are My Friend, from director Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl), about the early days of the real-life friendship between Fred Rogers (played by Tom Hanks) and journalist Tom Junod (Matthew Rhys), who was reluctant to write a profile of the beloved children’s television host and had his life changed by the experience.

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The thing I immediately notice about the film before I even saw it was that Oren Moverman had a hand in writing it. He’s a phenomenal writer and filmmaker in his own right. How did connect with this material?

The screenplay was sent to me by a producer that I know, and Oren had worked on it already. I didn’t know Oren but I knew him by his reputation. This is actually a remake of an Argentinian film from 2009-2010, and I had not seen the original film and didn’t watch it until I was done making this movie. I didn’t want to get my filter clogged, so to speak. So, someone sent it to me, thought I might want to direct it, and I read it—probably 85 or 90 percent of what you see on the screen was on the page. Of all of the films that I’ve produced, there are maybe a handful where you can see that the screenplay is so far advanced that it needs very little work, and this is one of them.

What do you remember specifically about this story and this character that you responded to?

What hooked me was that I loved stories about people finding their voice and to find one about a woman over the age of 40 is rare. The writing was excellent, as I mentioned, and on a personal level, it’s the story of a woman who attends to her husband and her two teenage sons, and we find out in the backstory that she’d been attending to her father, who’s now gone, before that. And when I read it, I thought, “I know that woman; that’s my mother.” She reminded me, from another generation, of my mother taking care of my dad and doting on her only child. So it had a personal resonance to me.

Isn’t it interesting the way this story resonates maybe even more now than when you shot it? It’s a story about a woman who is voiceless and selfless and living for other people. You don’t get the sense that she resents her family for this; she seems more frustrated with herself for letting it get to this point.

I don’t think she knew any better; that’s what I think about her. She’s not angry. I don’t know that she’s even unhappy. She’s doesn’t know what she doesn’t know; nor does her husband. They’re just living this very simple life that is bound by just a few things—work, family, church—it’s a small world for them. Suddenly when she finds a passion she has, it leads her down to New York from suburban Connecticut, and the blinders go off when she gets to Grand Central Station, and the movie opens up. Then she begins to say “There’s all this much more.”

Were you worried that the puzzle metaphor was a little too on the nose? At least no one says “I found my missing piece!”

[laughs] Exactly. I didn’t really think about it, to be honest with you. I wasn’t even sure that was going to be the name of the movie until I was done. To me, it was just about telling the story and telling it well, and hopefully it will resonate with people. That’s the way I approached it.

There’s a wonderful, low-level tension running through the film, most of which is of her own making because she’s keeping her trips to New York a secret. Did you do anything to build that tension as things go on?

I think that’s in the writing, so you follow the story, and there certainly is built-in tension because she’s living two lives for a long period of time. It’s in the writing and in the performances I got. I had some amazing actors, and that makes the director’s job very easy.

Was Kelly Macdonald the first person you cast? What was it about her?

Yeah, first cast, first choice. I fell in love with her as an actress in a little movie called The Girl in the Café [2005] with Bill Nighy. It was a TV movie [for HBO], and I remember thinking “Wow, who is she?” Not realizing she was the same person from Trainspotting. That’s what happens with her, people go “Who is she again?” And then she was in No Country for Old Men, where she plays a Texas woman, with perfect Texas accent, which she can do. Then she played in Boardwalk Empire, with an Irish accent. And you start to connect the dots and realize what a versatile actress she is.

Irrfan Khan is one my absolute, all-time favorite actors. Tell me about his presence in this film and what he adds to the mix.

As you know, he’s one of our great living actors. I knew him, like many people knew him, from his big American movies where he’s “the Indian guy,” like Jurassic World. Although I’d seen him in some independent movies, the one that more recently showed his incredible depth was The Lunchbox [2013]. And then he did a TV thing on a great series called In Treatment. So he’s great—the best of the best. I was so fortunate when he read the screenplay, and we Skyped from India, and he said he was in. We also got David Denman, who had never had an opportunity to do something like this before after doing so much comedy, and I got to see him walk a line in this movie that is really, really interesting. It would be very easy to demonize that guy, but there’s a humanity to him, so you dislike him and like him at the same time; he’s not stereotypical. The three adult actors, I thought, were all superlative.

And he’s such a giant physical presence next to Kelly. And the sons also seem tall, so they all overwhelm her space in the house. It’s a great visual metaphor. How deep did you dig into the world of professional puzzling?

There is a doc—I forget the name of it now—about the national jigsaw puzzling championship [he’s likely referring to 2014’s Wicker Kittens]; I don’t know if they’re still doing that contest. It’s set somewhere…I think it’s in Minnesota. That was worth seeing for the way it’s laid out, how it shows how they dump the puzzles out. But what I think is that people will see the name of our film, hear that there’s a jigsaw puzzle element, and if I were one of those people, I’m not sure I’d want to see a movie about jigsaw puzzling. “It must climax in a big jigsaw puzzle tournament, like a dance contest or something [laughs].” It’s not really that. That’s the string she follows to go into New York.

For me, the movie is really about this woman finding her voice, beginning to understand who she really is, and it’s about relationships—her and her husband, her and her kids, and eventually, her and this new guy. Ultimately, it’s about her and herself. That’s what I would say. I learned about puzzling; I’m not a good puzzler; Irrfan’s not a good puzzler; Kelly’s a good puzzler. But it’s not really about that.

It’s not, and yet I’m going to ask you how long it takes you to put together a 1000-piece puzzle.

Never. We always had one on the set, and I don’t know who started that, but Kelly is quite facile. She would run over between scenes and start putting in pieces, and all of the sudden, we’d have a half-dozen people coming over and start filling in the puzzle, and that continued for the whole movie.

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