Sundance Interview: THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES’ Jim Strouse

The PEOPLE, PLACES AND THINGS writer-director discusses working with Jessica Williams.

After a week of dramedies, hard hitting docs and mixed-result experiments it was immensely satisfying to see Jim Strouse’s infectious The Incredible Jessica James, the official closing of this year’s Sundance. Strouse is no stranger to Park City, with several of his films having bowed here including 2015’s fine People, Places and Things, a Jemaine Clement vehicle about a man who befriends a young woman played by Jessica Williams, then primarily known for her work with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

Tilting rom-com conventions slightly on their head, The Incredible Jessica James helps makes a star out of Williams in what should with any justice be her breakout role. With a terrific supporting cast including Chris O’Dowd, Lakeith Stanfield and Noël Wells, Jessica shines, illustrating once again how her humour and unique charm translates wonderfully to the big screen.

When did you have the idea of making Ms. Williams a movie star?

When I was here at Sundance for People, Places, Things I was traveling around doing press with Jemaine and Jessica. I kept saying how much I loved her and how much I can't wait for her to just star in a movie. I was saying that over and over and it really started to play in my head, that maybe I should try to do that myself instead of waiting for someone else to do that.

As a writer, when trying to capture the voice of someone you know, is there a tendency to slip into caricature?

If you read the script, there's lots of "likes" in it. I was really trying to pay close attention to Jessica's stage presence and specifically [her regular podcast performance with Phoebe Robinson] 2 Dope Queens, which I have gone to many times because it's in Brooklyn near where I live.

I was just paying attention to the way she talks and I tried to write some of her expressions into it from the very beginning, but there was always a hope that she would add more to it because she likes to abbreviate things. I tried to give her as strong a template as possible, but then I also said, there's only so much I can imagine, if and when I'm wrong, just tell me and say it how you would say it.

You also mentioned a play you saw that helped give you confidence to be able to write for her.

You know this play The Flick, by Annie Baker? Man, it's an amazing. It's a play for film lovers, because the premise is this sort of film geek who is working at one of the last film projection theatres in the outskirts of Boston and he just loves movies and is kind of a snob about it. The guy he works with thinks Avatar is good.

It's three hours long and it's a beautiful play. I think one thing that inspired me about Annie Baker's writing in general is just that it was such a detailed examination of a male friendship. I remember asking a woman that I was with, “How do women get to know everything about themselves and men while we barely know anything about ourselves?” She said because women are forced to. Male narratives are all around, and women grow up reading them.

I would have never tried to write a character like this until this point in my life. Now I felt comfortable enough to give it a try.

You have a thematic consistency in your work. Obviously, you draw some elements that are autobiographical, not just in terms of things that have happened to you, but things that have happened to those around you. Is there a moment when you're writing it that you're worried about senses of repetition and that stuff? As a writer, do you get neurotic about that, or do you just run with the idea?

I generally don't get too tied up in to. I’m so excited while writing that I don't get too distraught by those things. I only put it together once we were about to make Jessica how it definitely hit a lot of the same beats as People, Places, Things. I didn't actually see it until I stepped away a little bit.

I like stories about relationships. I mean, whenever I have a conversation with someone my curiosity lends itself to “Are you seeing someone? How is it working?” “How did you meet?” I just love that, I'm naturally inclined to it.

Your writing provides a beautiful, almost symphonic take on the romantic comedy in the sense that you're not simply creating a simplified version of something as complicated as love. On the other hand, you're not being dour and misanthropic. There's still a tenderness in the way that you actually express this stuff. When you're writing, is there a certain emotional catharsis for yourself?

Yeah, a little bit. When started writing my first script for [Steve Buscemi’s 2005 film] Lonesome Jim I had a lot of fun exploring. I was a little more pessimistic and sort of leaned in to that. As I've gotten older, and I think being a dad, too, I'm just a lot less interested in that. I have a dark side and a depressive side, but I guess I thought it was kind of cute and funny when I was younger, and now I think of it as a real obstacle to overcome and not really sort of celebrate.

There's a fine line between misanthropy and indulgence.

Yeah, that was [definitely] something with Jessica’s character. Jessica does not react to defeat and rejection the way I do, but I wish I did. I think writers need to be able to brush off rejection; my experience has just been so much failure and defeat, even the success sometimes.

Did you ever mount rejection letters and put them on the wall like she does in the film?

No, but I'd heard of that. Before I started writing screenplays I wrote lots of short stories. I only ever got two published and got hundreds of rejections. It did get to the point, like in the movie, where if there was a personal note or something in the rejection it was huge. I was never looking for a story to get published, but just recognition that someone read it and didn't think it was terrible. My god, that's a big deal.

How did you cast Chris O'Dowd?

When you make movies for the budgets that I have in the past, I write a lot of passionate letters, because we're not making an offer that's [huge]. You've gotta hope that they see something in the part that excites them and then you write a letter telling them how much you love them.

You send them an e-mail, or you literally handwrite them a letter?

I'll write them a letter and then usually their reps will forward it on to them. I wrote Chris a letter talking about what a fan I am, it got to him and he e-mailed me that he'd read the script and he'd like to make it work out. I don't even think we talked. He showed up on set and that first scene that we did was roller skating and the picnic and there was immediate chemistry with Jessica.

The producer took [the two of] them out to see Kanye the night before. I didn't go because I knew I'd be too tired, so they bonded a little over that concert.

Noël Wells is a delight as well.

She's from Master of None and was on SNL for a year. She's great, she's a filmmaker herself, she just wrote, directed and starred in something that I think is premiering at SXSW [Mr. Roosevelt].

Did you have a working relationship with her before?

The producers did, and so she was someone that I really wanted. I really wanted everyone that's in it, I was lucky that it worked out. I wrote Lakeith Stanfield and Noel Wells all letters and there was some courting. Lakeith was maybe the hardest.

What was your pitch with him?

I really liked him from Short Term 12 and then I saw that he was lead in Atlanta. It's my favourite show of the past five years. I knew that he was a great dramatic actor and then he was in this comedy, although it's kind of reductive to call Atlanta a comedy because it's many things, but primarily it is funny.

Would you say it's harder to do comedy than drama for actors? Getting comedians to do drama is more effective than getting somebody who's traditionally a dramatic actor to be funny?

When you have funny people, it's not that hard.

So it’s better to start as a baseline of somebody who knows how to be funny, to make them dramatic.

Chris O'Dowd can take anything. Anything. The jokes can be hackneyed, or there can be no jokes at all, and he will make you smile or laugh. He can do that, it's just in his DNA. Jemaine Clement's also like that.

Has success ever given you confidence? Or does it just open up new levels of neurosis?

No, I love writing, and I love making movies. Being at Sundance definitely feels good. My dream, as soon as I could even imagine it, was to make a living off of using my imagination writing stories. I don't know if I'd call myself confident, but I'm grateful. I just keep trying to evolve and I'm always proud of what I do when it's out there.

I get nervous about how it's going to be received. When Steve Buscemi directed my first film, and I asked him, “How do you feel at the end of it?” He said “Oh, I made the movie I wanted to make.” That always stuck with me as the mark of success. Who knows what people are going to think or say or feel about it? If you feel like you did what you intended to, that's kind of like the most you can hope for.