Interview: NY Filmmaker Jim Strouse on Making Uplifting Indie Films
by Alex Billington
July 28, 2017
"You really have to drive your own train and you have to keep it running." Yes indeed. Meet Jim Strouse. Also known as James C. Strouse. Jim is a filmmaker originally from Indiana, who now lives in New York City. If you don't recognize his name, hopefully you will recognize his films - Grace Is Gone (in 2007), The Winning Season (in 2009), People Places Things (in 2015), and now this year he has brought us The Incredible Jessica James. Jessica James stars the talented Jessica Williams as Jessica James in an optimistic, engaging story of a struggling playwright in New York. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, like every film Jim has made, and is being released by Netflix - it's available to watch now. I caught up with Jim at the Sundance Film Festival this year for a chat, and I'm happy to finally present our interview in full. I love his films and I'm glad I had the chance to talk with him out there.
Jim makes the kind of easily-enjoyable films that I wish more people would watch. They're indie films, no question, but they're also refreshing and upbeat and entertaining in a lighthearted way. They're optimistic when so many other indie films are cynical, and they're also genuine, in a way that makes them particularly endearing. He has a knack for casting and always gets great performances out of his actors. Jim first met Jessica Williams while making People Places Things, as she has a smaller role in that film. As he goes on to explain in the interview below, he then decided to make a film featuring her as the lead character, and so they made The Incredible Jessica James together. I reviewed the film at Sundance, saying "it will make you smile and laugh while watching." It's worth a watch when you have a moment and want something upbeat.
I met with Jim at a restaurant on Main Street in Park City at Sundance earlier this year. Our conversation began discussing Sundance, as he has premiered all 4 of his films at the festival. "I think Sundance is a very important place for independent film on the business side," Strouse explained. "To me, it's always been a very wonderful, nurturing, creative institution that has really helped me in my career." He went on to say that he is more interested in selling his film than gauging the reaction from audiences, because selling it is important and he was burned on Grace is Gone years ago. "I want to make the people that put the money into the thing, I want them to make their money back so that I can keep working." Indeed, this is what most filmmakers want, but he also wants to keep making the films he wants to make. So far that's been the case.
A potentially dangerous question: are you happy with the way your past films were handled in distribution?
Jim Strouse: You know, that is a tough question. I don't know. I will say there's been… Grace Is Gone was a big one. For whatever reason there was buzz around it, but buzz is meaningless in my experience. But there was buzz because John Cusack has a dramatic role and who knows how he's going to be? And then it was received pretty well [at Sundance]. Out of the festival, I don't think it was universally loved. But some people really loved it. And Weinstein brought this expectation of it being a potential awards contender, and it's going to make an impact. Then that just didn't happen at all. It was a great experience [at the festival], and I loved the experience of sharing the film with audiences here. But then between that time and getting it into theaters, the train completely lost steam. And it was in theaters maybe two weeks, three weeks, something like that. And it was kind of an abrupt and pretty severe drop-off. We're talking about Weinstein and awards and all this stuff and then suddenly it's out and it's gone. And I didn't hear from anyone.
So that was the beginning of what has been a long and at times painful relationship between reality and expectations, and what people are saying here versus what happens out there. I do wonder about if different choices had been made with each film, would the films have had different lives? I don't feel like I've had a lot of luck getting a movie to an audience. I've had a lot of success at Sundance and with initially getting a distributor involved, but then a lot of times for whatever reasons it just hasn't gone all the way. With People Places Things, I really loved making that film and I love the film. And I had modest expectations. The business has changed so much since Grace Is Gone. I will say, I was happy when Netflix bought this movie because my experience with People Places Things, it was hard to gauge any sort of reaction with the public until it got to Netflix. When the movie was on Netflix after a very small theatrical run. It took a while but when it hit Netflix, I could see from social media that people were seeing it and responding o it, talking about it, suggesting it, which I did not see or experience in any major way before then.
It makes me a bit sad that most people, aside from what you're saying with Netflix viewers, that wider audiences haven't been finding your films because I love them.
Jim: Oh, thanks.
I love them because they're refreshingly optimistic, and there's this happy feeling to them. And with this most recent film, it deals with the idea that even if you're a success, it doesn't matter. You still have to be passionate about what you're doing. Is that the main story you wanted to tell with this, in addition to the relationship?
Jim: I think so. It was a big deal for me, I moved to New York and I wrote the script Lonesome Jim. And I was able to get it, with some help from my girlfriend at the time, I got it to Steve Buscemi. And my girlfriend was actually producing. She had produced one or two films before, so that added some legitimacy enough for Steve Buscemi to actually accept it and read it. That was huge. Going from just a guy working at a bakery to Steve Buscemi's going to make your movie. And I think I thought my life would change. And then it didn't. And then Grace Is Gone, I thought my life would change and it didn't. It continues to be a struggle.
And I think early on, I was upset about this or disappointed, but now I look back and I think, yeah, of course it's a struggle. Look at what I want to do. And I've succeeded. I thought there was something outside of the act of making the movie and getting it finished, that was going to happen. And financially – it's not easy. It has never gotten to any point where it's like okay, well, now I can rest. If I stop pushing myself forward, then the train will keep going without me. To some degree I wanted to put that into Jessica James as – my experience as a writer is that you really have to drive your own train and you have to keep it running. And it can get lonely and there have been many times where I thought yeah, why not just stop doing this. Like, no one's asking me to keep doing it. So I tried to put that into Jessica, this kind of unflappable drive that won't stop because I think that's kind of what writers need to some degree.
Of course. So how did Jessica Williams get involved, and did she have any additional say in developing it beyond what you originally envisioned?
Jim: You know, it's funny… So Jessica and I started working together from People Places Things and I think… I always loved "The Daily Show", but I also read something. I think it might have been Indiewire or something like Indiewire where they said, "give these 15 women their own movies now." And Jessica was on the list. And I sent that to the producer. I said, "do you know Jessica Williams? I think I really want her to be in this movie." And I forwarded that article. So it all worked out with her being in that movie. And once I met her, I liked her even more. She's hard to get a hold of. She's so busy. She's all over the place, working, doing shows all the time.
I finally got a hold of her and had a meeting when I was halfway through the script. And I said, I'm working on this. I'd like to just finish it. And then I would like to show it to you. And we can work on it together. I want you to feel ownership of this. And I told the producers I worked with on People Places Things, they were interested in it, and I said, I'd like Jessica to be a producer on this – be an EP on it. I'm writing this for her, and I want her to feel ownership over it. She didn't really have the time or inclination to… So she was invited to, I was totally happy sharing a writing credit with her, but she didn't ask for that and didn't really have the time to put in a lot of input in that way. But I made it very clear from the beginning that I wanted her to feel like this wasn't my thing, it was our thing.
Was she completely happy with it or did she make changes on set when it came time to shoot?
Jim: I sent her the first draft. And I think it was an hour later she emailed me back: "It's really funny, LOL. I like the subverting patriarchy scene a lot." It was literally two sentences. And I thought okay, good. She didn't have a lot of notes. And then on set, every step of the way I said, tell me if this doesn't feel right, if you don't like it. The only time that ever came up was a scene with Keith Stanfield where she runs into him walking this dog and she is upset. For whatever reason she really didn't want to push Keith. She's upset. She's like, why'd you get a dog? That dog's so cute." And she keeps pushing him. It's the only real difference of opinion I ever felt… She's like, "why am I mad at him?" And I was like, well first of all, it's in your head. And you're kind of dealing with a difficult truth. So you're not really pushing Keith. But that line of argument didn't go anywhere. That was strangely the only real thing that I can remember other than her in the writing program and not having Final Draft.
This is interesting. Nonetheless, the film still feels very much like it's her film and your film. Which is impressive that you seem to know her well enough to craft this kind of film for her.
Jim: Yeah. I did spend a lot of time watching her and going to her shows and just thinking about a context for what I could see as her talents. And I think she did connect with it. She saw something there that felt comfortable for her. I wanted her to feel in each and every moment, that she could do whatever she wanted. I always said, if it wasn't working, I'd say, well let's try the script again, but I wanted her to feel very free.
This may be a cliche audience question, but I wanted to ask - what was the message and point of her excursion to Ohio? What were you trying to get across with that?
Jim: I was thinking about a three-dimensional view of this character. I wanted to touch on – there's her as she is in Brooklyn. And then there's her origin. She's in a point in her life where she's really trying to… This is directly out of my own experience, I guess. I bolted out of Indiana. And went straight to New York. And pretended like I didn't even have parents for a long time. And that's kind of where she is. And I thought it would be interesting to see this person and you think "wow, who is this person? Where does she come from?" And then you find out, oh she comes from the same place a lot of us come from – a nice suburban home and she's rebelling against – she's trying to figure out who she is, and form this voice as an artist. And I thought it would be interesting to show where she came from and how she's reacting against it. That jumpsuit, I like the idea of that purple suit that she's wearing.
Yeah, that was good.
Jim: It becomes an important thing in the movie where she goes home and is not accepted. This beautiful purple jumpsuit – everyone's like, what are you wearing? And it's only with this new family that she makes, with Tasha and this kid from the theater project, that can see and accept who she's becoming or who she is now. I think in her trajectory outside of the movie, she's going to come back and realize how important and informative that family is and Ohio is, and… That'll be part of her. And it'll coincide with her as an artist. Honestly, I just wanted to put a baby shower to Death Metal music.
Ha. I also love the opening dance number. That was great. I felt like that was a bit fresh for you. And I really loved it because it got me into the movie right away.
Jim: Yeah, I wanted to do something fun that broke from reality a bit. But at the same, always in talking about the dance sequence, I wanted it to feel somewhere between a real dance sequence that feels a little slick… To me, my favorite part of the whole thing is while she's eating the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And I do like the way she snaps out of it at the end. And you see she realizes oh, I should go back to my apartment. Yeah, I wanted to try to do something a little different.
What kind of films do you want to keep making? If Hollywood were to come to you and make an offer for you to do something bigger, would you want to do that? Or do you want to keep making indies and smaller films?
Jim: You know, that's a good question. There are two different films I would love to make. I would love to make something bigger… In the past, I really loved the script for Cedar Rapids. I really loved the script for 50/50. But those types of movies are like unicorns a little bit - heartfelt comedies made at studios. So I would love to do something like that. But they're very few and far between and hard to get. I would also love to make a broad comedy. I am semi-obsessed with Step Brothers.
Of course, who isn't?
Jim: Yeah, okay, good. I love Step Brothers. I purely enjoy every moment of that film. I was watching it not long ago and just thinking about how out there it really is. I love Adam McKay. Those performances are really out there. I think the tone of that movie is kind of miraculous, how it's so funny, how they're really going for it and it could have gone so wrong. But they're making crazy choices and really putting themselves out there and it's very funny. And the movie has heart, but without being corny. So I would love to make a broad comedy. Although, who knows? You have to work hard to try to get something like that and I like the zone I've been in. It's nice. I've been lucky that I can make what I want to make without a lot of interference. That's a whole other stream that you have to work really hard just to get people to take you seriously.
Do you have more creative freedom in this zone?
Jim: With a movie like this one, yeah, I have basically no one looking over my shoulder. Beachside Films did this movie, and People Places Things. They've made Morris From America. And they're great. And they are there to support filmmakers. And with the types of budgets we're talking about, there's not a lot of interference. Grace Is Gone and Winning Season both had bigger budgets, and that came with more people with opinions. The last two I've had two producers who are, we're all kind of on the same track. Not a lot of creative interference, it's a real collaborative team effort.
That's good to hear. Now that you've mentioned Step Brothers, are there any favorite actors you would love to work with?
Jim: Oh my God, so many. So many. I've worked with a lot of great actors. I feel really lucky. I'd love to just keep working with the people I've worked with in different iterations: Sam Rockwell, Jemaine Clement, Jessica, Chris O'Dowd, Keith Stanfield. But… Bill Murray. Me and everyone else in the world, right? Bill Murray. I mean, I like funny people. I would love to figure out a role to bring Rick Moranis back…
That would be awesome.
Jim: That would be so cool, right?
That's a good idea.
Jim: I love Rick Moranis. He gave up acting for a reason and I think he's doing fine, but I love Rick Moranis.
I hope that one of these Sundances coming up we'll see the return of Rick Moranis.
Jim: Who knows? Rick Moranis and Bill Murray, together again.
Make it happen! Last question - what can we do as audiences to support indie filmmakers? Is it simply just buying a ticket and seeing the movie, or is there something else that we can do?
Jim: I think, just seeking it out. Searching for it and when you find something you like, telling other people about it. My social circle in New York primarily comes through different basketball groups in Brooklyn. And not many of the people I play basketball with know much about the film business outside of whatever's playing at the multiplex. I forget when you're here [at Sundance] and in the midst of things you think everyone actually knows about movies that are playing at the Sunshine or Film Forum or BAM. But anything people can do, when they actually really like something, to pass it on. Other than that, I don't know. It's a wide world out there. There's more and more movies every year. And more ways to watch them. Sometimes I wonder about the state of the film business and independent film. It seems really healthy. My sense of it is, they continue to get made. I don't know about viewership. But, I mean, I keep seeing them.
A big thank you to Jim Strouse for his time, and also to Falco Ink for arranging the interview.
Jim Strouse's latest film, The Incredible Jessica James, is now available on Netflix as of today - add it to your list. You can also see Strouse's other films on Netflix or on iTunes as well - they're all worth watching.