Director Michael Sucsy knows how to deliver on the promise of a great script. After his successful HBO film, “Grey Gardens,” he was the perfect choice to helm “The Vow” because he was able to discover things about the story that no one else had thought about. “I just thought it sounded like an incredible premise for a film,” says Sucsy. “The fact that two people are already in love when the movie starts, and then they’re ripped apart, and then they have to find a way back to each other. That really touched me.”
MoviesOnline sat down with Sucsy to talk about filming “The Vow” on location in Toronto and Chicago and how he found the right talent to bring the characters to life. He told us about the casting process and reteaming with Jessica Lange, why the budget and day count were major challenges on this shoot, and what it was like collaborating creatively with a terrific editor like Nancy Richardson. He also revealed his upcoming project, a period comedy entitled “Rosaline,” inspired by the story of Romeo and Juliet but told from the point of view of the jilted girlfriend.
Q: Do you like filming in Toronto? You do all your films there.
MS: I know. They have great crews and great locations. Actually it felt like a different city because in “Grey Gardens’ we were covering it for New York in the 1930s and 50s and here I was covering for Chicago in present day. So honestly, it felt like we were exploring and scouting very different locations, which was a relief. But then, there was the familiar aspect of it, which was great too.
Q: You have a home town girl on this one? Can you talk about casting Rachel?
MS: Yes, that was just coincidence. It had nothing to do with her being in Toronto, but just when we were debating about which city to shoot in. She’d been away a lot. She’d been in Paris doing things and she said “I wouldn’t mind staying home” It was a nice thing for her, I think. Rachel was the first person we talked about at the first meeting that I went into with the producers on it, and one of the reasons that we talked about her was [the fact] that the character of Paige, for a chunk of this movie, is really estranged from the character of Leo. If you don’t play that role with a level of subtlety and if you don’t do it in a sympathetic way, you can check out from her. That’s never good if your audience checks out and stops rooting for your main characters. I think Rachel, as an actress, as a person, has an enormous amount of goodwill that audiences feel towards her. Therefore, you can give her rope to be a little bit bitchy and then still be able to come back. Whereas, if another actress goes into that territory, you’re like “Good riddance, see you later, lady.” I think that Rachel has that and it was very, very important to the casting.
Q: Rachel and Channing had not met before they were cast. Did you worry about them having the right chemistry?
MS: I actually met Channing first. I didn’t know Channing. I mean, I had seen him in films but I had never met him. And, the films that I’d seen him do, he had played a cooler character. He’d played military a couple of times. I’m saying emotionally cooler, and that wasn’t who Leo was. I thought oh, I’m not so sure. So I flew and met him. We had a great meeting, and I called the producers and I said “This guy has got a heart bigger than his chest cavity.” That’s what I said. And he does! That is who he is. Channing is the white knight that Leo is in this film. I don’t know if people know that about him. I didn’t at the time. Rachel had some of the questions that you are asking because she hadn’t met him and I told her I’d met him. “I swear he’s this way.” She moved the meter a little bit, but she was like “How do I know? What if we don’t have chemistry?” I said “Listen, for this particular story, if you have chemistry, it’s going to work. And, if you don’t have chemistry, it’s still going to work, which is different from a different kind of romance.” Well, they did have chemistry. I mean, it was immediate. You could see it in the dailies. You didn’t have to edit it together and put a bunch of violins over everything to make it look like they had chemistry. They had chemistry. It’s totally real.
Q: Does that makes your life easier too when they have chemistry?
MS: Oh, absolutely. You can still do things to make it work, but when you have the real thing, what’s better than the real thing? They did, and then I can focus on other things. If you have that, then you can just add all of the subtlety and the dressing and the details.
Q: Was it also tricky casting Scott Speedman who plays the villain?
MS: Scott is a leading man. It was very important to me to cast someone as Jeremy who is a leading man, because if you don’t, then the audience is like “Well, is she going to end up with the no name or is she going to end up with the movie star?” So, I’ve got two movie stars in it. Again, the way that movies go, people kind of know the formula. But I think people would probably bet that maybe she’d end up with Channing, but you want to keep the audience wondering. You want Jeremy to be a real, viable threat to the idea of Paige and Leo getting back together, and Scott does that. He’s a movie star presence.
Q: What was the big challenge for you on this project?
MS: Any director will tell you, no matter how big his budget, that it’s always the budget and the day count. We only shot this movie in 40 something days. When I first started working on movies as a production assistant, we were shooting 65, 75, 85 days. I mean, granted some of those things were “Godzilla,” “Deep Impact,” and those kinds of things, but these days it’s like 30-35 days or 40-45 days and you just feel like you’re humping trying to get everything done. It’s like “Move on, move on, move on!” That’s not the way to get the best performances. It’s not the way to get the most interesting shots. And so, you have to constantly balance schedule and quality of work. For me, that’s the biggest thing because you want to create a calm environment for actors to do their best work, but you’ve got to get the shots and you’ve got to get the coverage. So, for me, that’s it.
Q: What was it like shooting in Chicago?
MS: Chicago is great! It was in the script when I got the script. There was some discussion about would we shoot in a different city and move it to Boston or something like that. I said no, I really want to keep it in Chicago. It’s beautiful. It’s like the heart of America. It’s the center and it’s a beautiful city. It’s urban. There was this discussion also about should we shoot it in New York, and I’m like why would they have a car in New York. It’d be in Brooklyn. It felt like we were shoehorning something when it was already right to begin with, so we came full circle. You investigate these things. They came full circle. I said creatively I think it makes sense that we keep it in Chicago. And then, on top of that, I mentioned this yesterday. I mean, it seems so obvious, but it was sort of subconscious on my part. Leo is a musician. He starts out at the Music Box. After their wedding, they run away from the guards and they’re underneath The Bean which is really The Cloud which is this beautiful sculpture in Millenium Park. She’s a sculptor. It seems like I planned it out so obvious, but at the time, it wasn’t. It was just all subconscious, believe it or not. I mean, the Music Box might have been written into the script. I think it was. But again, those landmarks feel very romantic. The Music Box is a beautiful old theater on Southport. So, having those, they feel nostalgic which fits the tone of the film. Chicago has both this feeling of being [both] modern and nostalgic at the same time. So I think it’s a good city that represents the tone.
Q: You were great about using a lot of the landmarks in the movie.
MS: Thanks. I do it purposely. I think a lot of times people spend a lot of money on visual effects creating a big establishing shot and then “It’s Chicago!” and then we’re in Toronto. I don’t want to say where I did, but there’s not a Chicago skyline behind Casa Loma. So I do things and I put them out of focus. I weave them throughout instead of just putting them in these big places. I don’t want the average person to be [able to tell]. If you’re very familiar with one or the other, you’re going to see little things here and there. But, if you’re not, then it should dissolve.
Q: So we won’t see CNN Tower in your movie?
MS: No. But in “Grey Gardens,” if you were on the beach when Drew came out of the water, if you turn around, there’s the CNN Tower right there.
Q: Your film is beautifully edited. Can you talk about the contributions of your editor, Nancy Richardson?
MS: Oh yes! She is wonderful! Actually one of the first things that we had to work on with Nancy was definitely Paige’s bitch factor. Working that part of Paige so that she goes through that transition where she disconnects with Leo, but you don’t, as an audience, leave her, is subtle. I mean, Nancy is an excellent, excellent, excellent editor. She really helped with pacing and made a big contribution to the music as well. All of the music that we ended up using was all music that we were already using or had in our roster. But, when she came in, she helped shape the music in a way that was more true to the characters. I value her very much. Actually, one of the good things, someone told me recently, [is] the relationship between director and editor used to be more contentious. Studios used to leave directors alone more during the post production process and now they’re clamoring to get in. So, the director and the editor end up teaming up sort of against the studio to fight what they’re doing and you lose the creative tension that you used to have between an editor and a director. Nancy pushes back and I really respect that. We have a great relationship but when she’s “No, that’s a bad idea,” I’m like “Oh, okay! Good! Bad idea! Let’s not do the bad idea!” Honestly, I really, really respect that. I’m very strong and opinionated and I know what I want, but I also really sometimes need someone to push back to me to know whether I really want it or whether it was just an idea. Nancy is very experienced and this is my second movie, and so, literally, I’m not just saying this, every single piece of working with her was a pleasure.
Q: Did you see Jessica initially as the mom? We understand that her part was expanded as it came along. What was it like to work with her again on this?
MS: In short, amazing. She wasn’t available at first so obviously I thought about her immediately, and then she was supposed to do “Big Valley,” which I don’t know if it ever got shot. We had that problem and they had her under contract and on hold, so I couldn’t challenge the hold and all these kinds of things. I was really upset and I kept waiting and hoping it would work out, and then obviously it did. When we were in those discussions, the part was thinner, for lack of a better word. But Jessica is also a very opinionated person, so we did this and we did that and that is what I wanted. I didn’t want Rita and Bill to come off as these arch, two-dimensional characters. It really does relate to “Grey Gardens,” because with “Grey Gardens” I wanted people to walk out of it and say “Oh, the daughter was blah, blah, blah and the mother was right to do that.” And another could say “Oh the mother was so awful to do that.” I wanted it to be like a jury discussion where there was enough evidence on both sides that you could build an argument one way or the other, and definitely less so in this situation. I wanted you to be able to see that at least from Rita’s point of view, even if she was doing something awful by lying or hiding or whatever, you could see why she was doing it. People don’t wake up and say “I’m going to be an evil bitch today” or “I’m going to destroy someone’s life.” Sometimes you do things out of selfishness. It doesn’t mean it’s a good thing to do, but it’s a human thing to do. I wanted that humanity brought into it.
And then, to answer the second part of your questions, the experience I had working with Jessica a second time under totally different circumstances, meaning a different character, was so rewarding to me because I know Jessica so well through Big Edie (her character in “Grey Gardens”) that to see her in such an all new light inhabiting a whole new character, I can’t say enough good things about her. She’s a phenomenally gifted, deep actor. She’s amazing. I don’t know how else to say it.
Q: Did Rachel show you around Toronto at all? She said she took Channing ice skating.
MS: I did know that. I forgot about it. It’s a busy, busy time. I’m going back in my memory thinking about all the things we’ve done. We went out to dinner and we did stuff. I first met her when we were prepping. I went to her neighborhood and we went to one of her local haunts and things like that. But, to be totally honest with you, the film festival happened in the middle of our shoot and we were doing all these things, so it was just a crazy time. In prep, Rachel and I were able to do more stuff.
Q: So you were shooting in September?
MS: We were prepping in July-August and we shot in September-October. We were done by November 1st and we were off to Chicago. It was intense. We worked 16 hours a day. I worked 7 days a week for 4 months and I lost 20 pounds.
Q: What are you working on now?
MS: I have a project with Fox next called “Rosaline,” which is a period comedy. It’s the story of Romeo and Juliet told from the point of view of the jilted girlfriend. We’re still casting, but right now what’s been announced is Deborah Ann Woll and Dave Franco. We had Hailee Steinfeld but she just went off to do another Romeo and Juliet story so it’s a little bit up in the air but hopefully…
Q: Is it sort of like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?
MS: Yeah. A little bit. It’s a little “Shakespeare in Love.” The guys who wrote “500 Hundred Days of Summer” (Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) wrote it, so it’s a super, super cute script. It’s actually very well written.
“The Vow” opens in theaters on February 10th.