Oct 26, 2010

An interview with Spork director J.B. Ghuman, Jr and actress Rachel G. Fox

For a lot of reasons I felt much more relaxed for this interview than I had for my last one. Rather than a rather blank office we sat in the Central London Hospital Club bar, much cosier (if noisier) surroundings than a conference room. Even before the interview actually began JB Ghuman and Rachel Fox were funny and engaging, both remarking on my little voice recorder when I put it on the table.

From the dress (JB remarked on Rachel’s tight striped number, saying that she looked “like a sexy zebra”) to the manner the whole interview was casual, the tone relaxed and chatty, as JB and Rachel expanded on my questions, often ending up talking among themselves. I hope the transcript manages to capture the tone between JB and Rachel, which was close, chummy and occasionally good naturedly kidding. The talk gets a little rambling at times, but you try and interrupt these two in mid flow (you’ll see what I mean).

I don’t know if I’ve just been lucky so far, but this was another very easy interview, with two people who seemed excited about their film and were only too happy to talk, again we overran, I was booked for 20 minutes, but the interview ended up running for the better part of half an hour.

My questions and other interjections will appear in normal type, with JB Ghuman’s answers in bold, and Rachel Fox’s in italics.

[Before the interview, I’ve just put my recorder on the table]
J.B Ghuman: Oh cool, looks like a robot. We’re easily impressed.

Rachel Fox: Yeah, amused very easily.

24FPS: Nice and easy to use, fortunately.

24FPS: Okay… I wanted to start by asking you about casting, because with a film so character driven as this it’s obviously key to its success so; that process from both of your points of view, and JB, particularly casting Spork, because it’s such an unusual role.

JBG: First of all, my casting director is Jeremy Gordon, and he came in and it was a very Type A casting situation, we put out a casting notice and we got hundreds of kids to come in for all the parts. Spork, I had seen tons and tons of kids. I got this crazy reaction; I wrote the film, just some crazy artist who doesn’t know what he’s doing. I didn’t know what to think, I didn’t know if agents were going to think “Oh my God”. The dialogue is very crisp, it’s very candid and to the bone, so I didn’t think that I’d get that big of a response, but I got this crazy response; all these casting directors and agencies “we love your script”, blah blah blah. LA’s so weird.

I got hundreds of kids to come in for the different parts, and Spork, obviously that role was the big role to cast and I saw hundreds of kids, but when Savannah Stehlin came in. I’m big on character, so I don’t know if they say you should or shouldn’t dress for the part, to me I think that’s totally good advice, and she came in totally dressed for the part. I’m very visual, so for me as a writer/director, I love that stuff. She had her crazy hair, she came in in jean overalls and she really nailed it. I didn’t give her nay notes and I said “definitely her for the callback”. She came back for the callback and she had to do the scene where she yells at her mother – the gravestone. I didn’t want to do that scene, I went through an acting phase myself and I hate, hate auditions like that.

RF: Where you have to scream and cry.

JBG: It’s like, really? And you’re outside the room and you hear the other actor screaming. I hate auditions like that.

RF: I agree.

JBG: Because, when you get the part you have time to prepare.

RF: But in the audition you just have to turn it on right there, and you get one time to really nail it.

JBG: It’s like “Oh, nice to meet you. Go crazy.” And you’re thinking “Oh my God, I have to act like a sociopath” [Both laugh]. It’s so weird.

RF: And you have to not care about what anyone thinks.

JBG: And then they say “thank you” and you think “I’m going to leave, and totally go crazy”. It’s so unhealthy to do that to anyone, let alone children. But, mind you, I did it. I put it in there, because I was scared, it’s my first film, so what if I get on set and... this moment is so pivotal in the film, and if this girl, whoever I cast as Spork, can’t do it… It’ll ruin the film, it won’t have any heart, cause she won’t ever get there. Savannah came in – nailed it – never embarrassed for a second or anything, she came in and completely fell apart. I hugged her, she was crying, and it wasn’t even that, it was just her vibe and her energy. I’m not Miss Cleo, but she had a great vibe to her, I knew that she was the one.

Rachel came in – her story is awesome [Rachel laughs] – Rachel Fox who’s sitting next to me who played Betsy Byotch, she’s been working for a while, she was in Desperate Housewives, so she didn’t come in the conventional classic way, she wasn’t waiting in a queue at a casting session, me and Rachel had a meeting. Cause when you’re an actor, in the States at least, and you’ve done a lot of work you end up taking meetings with a director rather than coming in for casting. She came in, and she took a different route, Rachel didn’t come in in character, didn’t come in looking the part with her bangs and super bitchy. She actually came in very sweet and humble, very professional, and she brought a guitar with her.

RF: [Laughs] Yeah, I remember.

JBG: And she was like: “I’m going to sing you a song”. [Rachel laughs]. The song was about loving yourself, and I said “You know you’re up for the evil rotten bitch, right?”

RF: I came in like the opposite of my role, I don’t know why I did that.
24FPS: But obviously the singing is key to the part as well.

JBG: Yes, and she performed the song, she’s a singer songwriter as well and she wrote and sang it, and she nailed it. So of course that’s great… and now let’s read some lines where you have to be a complete witch, and she did, and what it did show me is that she has incredible range. Lucky for Rachel her body of work really complemented the part, because she had done a role on Desperate Housewives where she played a really mischievous, evil, female Omen child, and I knew, when she left the room. We already had the casting session out, it had been set up before I met Rachel, so I ended up seeing hundreds of girls for the part, but throughout the process Rachel was the comparison. I was like “Not better than Rachel, nah, not better than Rachel” [Rachel giggles]. At the end they said “who do you want?” “I want Rachel, as long as she will frost her hair”.

RF: [Laughing] Cut my bangs, bleach blonde, completely.

JBG: But she did it.

RF: That pretty much explains it from my perspective too, I don’t even remember why I came in sweet, with my guitar. I was just being myself.

JBG: You are sweet.

RF: Thank you. I don’t know, maybe I wanted to show how much I could flip it, how evil I could be. It was fun, we had a kind of general meeting, we talked about stuff and life and then about the script. I got the script from my agent and I loved it, and I definitely wanted to be a part of it.

24FPS: The singing and dancing is a key part for you, so I imagine there was a lot of rehearsal for that. How involved were you in putting those scenes together, you and the other girls?

RF: Really involved. I actually had to learn three different dances. One was the dance down the hallway, I had to learn a Britney Spears dance – a Britney Spears parody – and then I had to learn a dance from the sixties… sixties disco music so ... Actually a lot of the rehearsals were quick, we had to learn the dances kinda quickly. We learnt the sixties dance disco thing the day before we shot it, so we had to be good with picking up things quickly. I actually didn’t sing in the film, just mostly dancing.

JBG: People keep calling my film a musical. It’s not a musical. They say “It’s like Glee”, and no it’s not, it’s way cooler.

RF: No one’s singing. Just dancing.

JBG: I keep calling it a dancesical. “That’s not a word”. I’m like, “it is now”.

24FPS: Another big element in the film is obviously the visual design of it, which is very striking. So how did you and the art department go about designing that very particular world?

JBG: I’m what you call a type ADD control freak, so… All of this was in my script: the lightning bolt on the finger, the boom box with the Christmas lights around it, it was all in my script. The vines reaching her feet, her collage wall, it was all written down from 2003. How did I go about it? You know, ---, he was my visual effects supervisor, I art direct my own films, and I just came into it with a big imagination and hard work. It just came about by seeing things, drawing things out, working with my special effects artitsts. I’m a huge Tim Burton fan…

24FPS: I can see that with the vines.

JBG: Yeah, so obviously I don’t have a Tim Burton budget, so I don’t have Johnny Depp running around with scissors on his hands, but I do love surrealism. To me, everyone has their own reasons for telling stories, I like to see stories from a point of view we can’t see with our two eyes, cause to me if you’re going to tell a story, why tell it in a way you can experience it? Might as well tell it in a way we can’t ever see it, so that’s why I like that stuff.

24FPS: As far as Betsy is concerned, I think we’ve all met a Betsy…

RF: In our lives, absolutely, yeah.
24FPS… you don’t have to name names, obviously, but is there a particular Betsy that you based yours on?

RF: I had a couple of Betsy’s, cause I’ve been to different schools and I know that every school I went to definitely had at least one Betsy, so I pulled from the different ones that I knew. I guess I should thank them for helping me out with the role, cause I just basically pulled from exactly what they did. I just used that as my backbone for Betsy Byotch, I remember the feeling that they gave me in my stomach when they were doing really evil things, and I tried to put that into Betsy and give the audience that feeling, and give the other actors that feeling. That same really evil, tight feeling.

JBG: Rachel Fox is strong, even if you’re unaware of it. Most these Betsy Byotch girls are insecure, anybody that’s really mean to other people and is really hurtful and vile with their mouth and just overall spiteful, they’re obviously very insecure. It reads as very strong, but it comes from a place of their own pain and all that crap. Rachel Fox has a very strong sense about her. At her age usually girls are girls and women are women and Rachel Fox is lucky, at least I think so, because her face is… the way her bone is structured, and her cheeks, she has the semblance of a woman, which gives her a strong face. For a girl who is 12, 13, 14, she’s very mature, so it can read as very bitchy. I don’t know how much in your private life that affects you, or if you go to school and everyone thinks you’re a total snob or what. But when you look at Rachel Fox, she’s so sweet [looking at her in this moment, sweetly embarrassed would be an accurate description], she came in with a guitar and sang a song about loving yourself [Rachel starts laughing, clearly a little embarrassed]. Then if you Google her she’s got this song – I hope I’m not embarrassing you – she’s got this song about shopping, she’s like this Clueless girl. [To Rachel] That’s a 90’s reference, sorry.

RF: No, I know.

JBG: She’s like this valley girl, and she’s actually very funny and she’s very sweet, very kind. She’s very sweet to me at least, but she has this sense of strength about her whereas in the film it comes across as very bitchy evilness, which is good. Most of those girls come across as very strong, and they’re leaders, but the real reason is that they’re so insecure, that’s why they make such an effort to be a leader and be so mean. Lucky for me her strength can be perceived in this film as very bitchy. Might be why you keep getting those roles.

RF: It must be.

JBG: She’s like a little Madonna, her face is very angular, she has these strong cheekbones and your eyebrows are so beautifully pronounced over your eyes.

RF: [slightly questioning] Thank you.

JBG: She looks like a woman, but she’s 13 in the film. So when you put Rachel Fox around other 12, 13, 14 year old girls you’re like: “That’s the leaderbitch”. [Rachel and I start laughing]. She looks like the mean girl in the middle, but it’s really because she looks so mature, and so strong. I hope that doesn’t backfire on you.

RF: I hope it doesn’t either. That’s a good point.

JBG: Do you get flak at school for being a brat? Do they call you snobby girl?

RF: No, cause they know me, but like you were saying I’m just a girl with a guitar; I’m nice and happy and I don’t hurt people, I’m not mean.

JBG: If I didn’t know you, and I was a nerd in school, I’d be like “here comes Rachel Fox, she thinks she’s so cool cause she’s on TV”

RF: It’s so funny, I asked my friend what her first impression of me was, when she saw me, and she described something similar to what you said.

JBG: For film and roles it’s great, cause you walk in the room and it’s “she’s very strong”, but in life the kids who aren’t as strong would think “She’s such a brat”.

RF: They’re so quick to judge you by the way you look.

24 FPS: That’s another thing I wanted to bring up in relation to the Betsy character

JBG: Oh yeah, you’re here.

[Everyone laughs]

24FPS: No, it’s fine, thank you…. was that you do seem very nice and very sweet…

RF: Thank you
24FPS:… So does that make it a particular challenge to play someone who’s so bitchy, and such a vile person?

RF: Well, acting is what I do, so I have to go and change into completely different people, so it’s not difficult, it’s just fun. I just look at other people, other Betsy Byotches and I follow after them, I look at other films, at the people in them and I follow after that. It’s what I do. Everything has its challenges, but, it’s just fun for me, it’s like an activity.
24FPS: Something else I was going to bring up with both of you actually is, are there other films that you particularly looked at? Particularly, JB, from your point of view; there are a lot of different cultural references in Spork so I wondered what the particular influences were on you?

JBG: I keep laughing when people ask “who are you influenced by?” and I’m a complete hack, I’m the Gwen Stefani of filmmaking; I don’t care, I will openly say it just like she does: I am a giant mixtape of things I love, and anybody who says otherwise is totally lying. To think you have an original voice is so egotistical. I don’t think it’s possible, I think it’s like saying “My hair’s an original colour”. Everyone has their twin and for me, of course, I’m just a collage of what I like – I’m confetti. I love Todd Solondz; Welcome to the Dollhouse. I keep being told “it’s like Glee, it’s like Napoleon Dynamite” I’m like, “seriously, dig deeper”, neither of those movies inspired me. Welcome to the Dollhouse I love, Todd Solondz I love, such a talent, and why he’s not doing giant studio films I don’t know, maybe he doesn’t want to.

24FPS: I can see that, and also I mentioned John Hughes.

JBG: I like John Hughes, I’m more of a John Waters… actually that sounds so arrogant. I’m not John Waters, but I’m more of a fan of John Waters. John Hughes, he’s a little before my time [Ghuman will be 30 in December]. I didn’t really get into it, cause it was very much a Molly Ringwald misfit, it wasn’t really biting or offensive, it was just heartfelt 80’s, whereas to me John Waters was crazy. Divine and drag queens killing each other [Rachel laughs], surburban moms becoming serial killers? I’m like, he’s amazing, he’s so crass and crazy. So I love him for his characters.
24FPS: Rachel, were there any particular things that you looked at? Heathers seemed like a reference to me.

JBG: She’s not gonna get that, but Heathers was a huge reference for me, thank you for saying that.

RF: What is Heathers?

JBG: Heathers was the predecessor to Mean Girls.

RF: That’s amazing, cause I was just about to say Mean Girls, the role of Rachel McAdams, that was what I based Betsy Byotch on in my mind. I pulled from my own mind and girls that I knew, but Mean Girls was the main film.

JBG: Which, literally, everyone called the new Heathers.
24FPS: [To Rachel] Well, Kim Walker in Heathers.

JBG: Yeah! Heathers is a little darker, cause in Heathers people die.

RF: Oh God.
24FPS: One thing we haven’t mentioned yet is that Spork has a particular identity, as an intersex kid, which is very unusual, as a leading character. Did that make it especially challenging to get the film made, and have you heard anything back from people with the same issues?

JBG: Did it make it harder? No. I wasn’t, and I openly say this, I wasn’t and am not trying to make an anthem for intersex, hermaphrodite, whatever term is considered not offensive, for that walk of life. I’m a gay man, and I didn’t make this movie for gay men. I’m not trying to speak for anybody, other than the misfit. With this movie I was reaching out to everybody in the room; the cool kid, the nerdy kid, everybody. So, was it difficult making this movie cause that was my lead? No, because it’s indie film, I wasn’t going to Fox or Disney where, yeah, that probably would have been an issue.

Did anybody come back to me? Yeah, I’ve got nothing but positive feedback though, I think because I didn’t try to hit the nail on the head, because I didn’t try to do a shower scene where she cries at her crotch. I’m not trying to go there, I’m not trying to speak for the intersex community, I’m trying to tell a story about a misfit, who happens to be intersex – or in my film we say hermaphrodite. I think the reason the community has responded so positively is probably because I did that, because otherwise I’d probably have fallen short. I don’t know the jargon, I did not research references and a ton of media for hermaphrodite little girls or boys, because I didn’t really feel the need to, because that’s not really the centre of my story. I treated it just like a common thing kids go through, or just something she had, but really she needed to love herself for who she was, not just because she’s a hermaphrodite.
24FPS: We’ve talked about this a bit, but as far as the cast goes most of them are very young. So is there a specific approach that you took to directing the kids as opposed to the adults?

JBG: Yes. I love answering this question when I’m with the kids. When we’re on stage with one of the adult actors I don’t know how to answer it without offending them. It’s my first feature; I’ve done music videos, I’ve done some documentary shorts, I’ve done experimental art shorts and I’ve done a couple of narrative shorts, but never a feature film with kids. So, as a first time feature director, I was nervous, and I didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes, do I say “Do it again, but my way”… is that rude, what do I do? [24FPS laughs]. I went through an acting phase myself so I did know a little bit from an actor’s perspective. But working with kids, I would say, is awesome, by far a better experience and I’ll say that to anybody. I think we’re born smart, and then as we get older I think the trick is staying smart, not getting smart, kids are just so much more uninhibited, they’re so free.

I’m sitting next to Rachel Fox right now and she comes across as very mature, very together, but on the set he ego is so minimal. She doesn’t have that life experience behind her, she hasn’t been told, she hasn’t been told yes or no so much. So she she’s so accessible, so open, so free and that goes for a lot of my kid cast, it was like having fun. They take their art very seriously, and they work very diligently, their age doesn’t make a difference, they’re just as focused as the adult actors. But on the flipside, directing them and handling them, particularly with Rachel cause she’s here now, it was very much more like having fun, which I appreciate. Mind you, the material is light hearted so it wasn’t like we were doing Gone With the Wind. So maybe it’s a different experience if I were doing Let The Right One In or something [laughing] might be a little more intense. But in this situation, which is my genre, and I’ll probably stick to my genre for life, it was fun.

The only part I was a little nervous about was the dialogue versus the age. Rachel, and I’m sure you’d be fine to admit it, she said “I don’t wanna say the F word so much”, and I said “It’s in the script sweetie”, she’s like “alright, well can I do some where I say fudge?”

RF: Yeah! I remember that, we did takes of one scene where sometimes I’d say freaking, and other times I said the F word.

JBG: And she’s a sweetheart, and she’s like “I don’t talk like this in real life” and she’s a very professional actress… this is actually a cute thing, but she always gave me two options. She said “Look, I’ll totally do it your way, the way in the script” but she’s an independent young woman, growing into herself, and she has the right to own what she does, and she’s like “Well, I have my own rights and wrongs and I’d like to do it both ways, just to say that I did my thing”. That was the only thing. Even with the other kids… she had to say some racist stuff, they had to curse a lot, Charlie was being called a fag, I was like “this is so awkward”.

RF: It was awkward for me. It didn’t matter cause when you watch it it’s not… it’s funny.

JBG: I think in the moment it feels a little more biting, cause you haven’t seen the final product yet, so in my brain I knew what the final result was, and it’s not supposed to be taken that seriously, it’s hyperreality.

RF: Exactly, when we watch it it’s funny.

JBG: But in the moment it’s… “This dialogue’s really intense”. I’m saying “It’s not supposed to be, just say it, trust me”.

RF: [laughs] “Just trust me”, yeah.

JBG: Cause in the moment you would have to say it over and over and over again. She’d say “I really feel bad saying ‘fucking wee wee’”. [Rachel bursts out laughing]. I’d tell her “Just trust me, it won’t be taken so seriously once you see the film.

24FPS: You’re using a lot of stereotypes obviously, but also to break them, I think.

JBG: Right, so in the final result once the music was in and the colours and it was very colour booky and hokey. The film doesn’t take itself very seriously… I mean, Spork falls off a swing at the end, right when she says “love yourself” and then once that energy is put in there… I hope at least, people realize it’s not… that offensive.

RF: No, it’s not.
24FPS: I think we’re going to be wrapping up pretty soon, so I just wanted to ask you both about your next projects. JB, obviously this one took a while, so is there something you’re going to be able to move on to quite soon?

JBG: Oh, absolutely. I have another script called Rhino, and it’s another JB collage/ripoff of fifty things. It’s about a half latino half… I keep saying Mullato, but that’s not the right word, it’s actually Blatina, which is more offensive. I’m like “don’t say that” [24FPS laughs] but it’s half black, half latin girl – she’s blatina – and it’s hopefully Rosario Dawson, she’s my muse I’m going after. She dresses in these lace unitards, she’s crazy, she’s so awesome. It’s very late seventies, she’s obsessed with Prince; Purple Rain era [to Rachel] that’s another era where you’ll go “What?” [Rachel laughs] but it’s crazy, it’s fun. She works in a tollbooth on the highway. It’s very, very dark, but funny, and it’s a film more about being yourself in that she teaches people to strip down to their underwear and kinda explode into magic and love and all that crazy hippie shit I like. So it’s gonna be a musical.
24FPS: So this one IS a musical?

RF: This is going to be singing and dancing?

JBG: Well, it’s more of a dancesical again. I don’t get singing, I can’t sing so I can’t relate. But I can dance. And I’m putting together a studio film with Hasbro.

24FPS: And Rachel, I understand you’re working with Daniel Craig.

RF: Yes, I just wrapped a film called Dream House, we shot up in Toronto for a couple of weeks, it’s with Daniel Craig and Naomi Watts. It’s really cool, and it’s coming out February of next year.
24FPS: So that’s a big release in the States, right?

RF: Yeah, it’s a worldwide release, with Universal, and it’s a psychological thriller so the complete flipside of Spork, which is a comedy and this is a dark scary… it’s not a horror film, it’s a thriller.
24FPS: And just to finish up, again for the both of you. Leaving aside Spork, what’s the best film you’ve seen lately?

JBG: [To Rachel] You go first.

RF: I just saw The Social Network, and I thought that film was amazing, cause all the actors in it were really… [to JB] Have you seen it?

JBG: No, I’ve been told by so many people that it’s amazing.

RF: It’s such a good film [to 24FPS] have you seen it?

24FPS: It’s one of the best films of the year.

JBG: Does it make you hate Facebook or like it?
24FPS: I hate Facebook already.

RF: Yeah, I hate Facebook too, but it makes you see the genius points of it, the creation and why it’s such a phenomenon.

JBG: [To 24FPS] Oh, really? I haven’t seen anything new.
24FPS: Doesn’t have to be new, just something you’ve seen lately.

JBG: Well, there’s a movie I watch all the time that I love.

RF: What is it?

JBG: The Dark Crystal. I love that movie, I love Jim Henson, so I’ve seen that movie on a loop. You know what, to give you a really cool answer, cause I’m watching movies for the Hasbro film I’m trying to put together, and I watched a film called Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains.
24FPS: I’ve been wanting to see that for ages.

JBG: I stumbled on it for research, cause it’s a rock n roll girl hero movie. It’s so good; Diane Lane and Laura Dern, so random, so obscure, but it’s so amazing. It has the drummer from The Clash and all these crazy people in it and it’s a really kickass movie.
24FPS: You can’t get it anywhere.

JBG: I have it, I got it on DVD, can you believe it?
24FPS: No.

RF: Where’d you find it?
JBG: Netflix. And it’s really good, Diane Lane’s obviously beautiful in it and she’s really talented, and the make up and the clothing. It’s so kickass to see it.

And with that I thanked JB and Rachel for a great interview. I hope you guys enjoyed it, any comments will of course be welcomed as I’m still pretty new at this whole thing.

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