WRITER-director Jeffrey Blitz stuttered terribly in high school, surviving the pitfalls of adolescence -- literally -- by his wits.
Each time he got stuck on a word, he'd turn the sentence every which way in his head, casting about for a good punch line or a synonym that might harness the thought without the stutter.
That struggle gave him a killer vocabulary, a great sense of humor and a lot of pent-up drive that eventually drove Blitz to become the high school debate champ of New Jersey. Only years and years later did he realize his verbal tic gave him the perfect skill set to write and direct.
Blitz's comic ode to this experience is the Picturehouse release "Rocket Science," a quirky little film opening in L.A. on Friday about a hapless stutterer named Hal Hefner who falls for the high school debate champ. It's his debut feature, the follow-up to his Oscar-nominated 2002 documentary, "Spellbound." And though "Rocket Science" isn't exactly based on a true story, Blitz has preserved some of his more painfully funny memories in the script. In one, Hal struggles for eight minutes in his first debate to say one word, a scene taken directly from Blitz's own life.
"Stuttering was the world's way of telling me that I could not speak in public, and I was so [angry] about that as a kid that I wanted to do the one thing that the world was telling me I could not do," Blitz said over lunch recently. "I think it foreshadows the fact that I would eventually become a director. Filmmakers hate to be told no. We hate it. And we never hear it."
"Rocket Science," this year's grand jury prize winner at the Sundance Film Festival, stars Reece Daniel Thompson as 15-year-old Hal, who is seduced by debate champ Ginny Ryerson (played by Anna Kendrick), only to find later her affection was part of an elaborate plot to win the state competition.
Blitz's triumph over his own stutter is ripe material for a first feature. But "Rocket Science" was actually his second go at a feature script. Long before he made "Spellbound," Blitz wrote a screenplay against the backdrop of spelling bees. Then his documentary on the subject took off. So Blitz and HBO Films Vice President Maud Nadler "started brainstorming other story lines," Blitz said, "and I happened to mention my years as a debater."
"That," said co-producer Effie T. Brown, "was the genesis of 'Rocket Science.' "
Blitz, 38, grew up in Manhattan and central New Jersey the middle of three sons -- his youngest brother is "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" comedian Andy Blitz -- with a research psychologist father and a pediatrician mother. As a kid, he was shuttled to a whole gaggle of well-meaning but largely ineffective speech therapists, including one who rewarded him for every fluent word with a baseball card.
"It was just very weird, trying to bring this Pavlovian thing to it," Blitz said. "I ended up with an amazing baseball collection, but I was no more fluent at the end of it than when I had started."
In "Rocket Science," Hal's hilariously vain therapist Lewinsky (Maury Ginsberg) trumps Blitz's own experience, telling Hal: "It's really a shame you're not hyperactive. That I can work miracles with."
Blitz remembers being an outsider in high school who fought that status until he was "hovering somewhere between class brain and class clown." By his sophomore year, his exclusive focus became debate, although, initially, that decision brought its own special set of humiliations.
"My debate coach had very cleverly realized that whomever I was partnered up with we would be a losing team," said Blitz. "So there was a girl on the team who was a complete wipeout also, who was claustrophobic, a very scared person. So when it came time to give her speech, she started to talk and then freaked out and she ran out of the room in the middle of it. So needless to say, we didn't do so well at that tournament."
"Rocket Science" evokes Blitz's nostalgia for this time, cast in washed-out tones and ambiguous about its decade. A voice-over narrates, Blitz said, to amplify Hal's struggle with language. Blitz wanted to "create a sense that everyone in the world is sort of a misfit."
Dialogue drives "Rocket Science," and it's easy to miss lines. That too is emblematic of Hal's -- and Blitz's -- impediment.
"As someone who goes through the day, who doesn't have the ability to say what I want to say -- I love movies that have a lot of verbiage," said Blitz. "It's such an outlet in what I write. As a stutterer, you are in awe of the power and beauty of words. In fiction films, you get to share some of that."
After working with the children on "Spellbound," Blitz said he'd acquired new respect for the inner lives of kids. On "Rocket Science," he had his main cast spend a day writing a character journal. They wrote such thoughtful observations that Blitz pilfered some lines. One of them comes at the film's conclusion, after Hal has humiliated himself trying to get Ginny's attention and confronts her about her heartless deception. Kendrick's zinger made the script.
"I upped your game, little man," she tells him.
Blitz wrote Hal's dialogue in his own unique style of stuttering. And though they share the same speech impediment, Blitz points out that Hal is more reticent and naive than he was at that age, and he didn't give the character the attitude that Blitz himself possessed.
"I was a talker," Blitz said. "Even when I stuttered badly I never let it shut me up, so when a witty or pungently obnoxious line would pop into my head I would fight hard to share it even if I had to stutter through it."
Thompson, an experienced Vancouver, Canada, actor then 16, worked with a speech pathologist to learn Blitz's specific way of stuttering. Blitz even had him dine out in character so Thompson could better identify with the self-consciousness that comes with stuttering.
"I tried to order something, but the burger was the only thing that I couldn't say," Thompson recalled. "I'd name everything else on the menu until they suggested it, and I'd say, 'Yes, that one."
Thompson eventually became such an expert stutterer that he got stuck on certain words for days after the film wrapped.
Blitz still wrestles with a stutter today, but his coping methods have made it all but indistinguishable in conversation. Sometimes he spells out words to avoid getting stuck on them. Other times when he senses a block approaching he uses breathing techniques.
"I did this interview for the Sundance Channel and then I went to a Sundance party and they're projecting interviews on the wall," Blitz recalled. "Every sentence that I spoke I immediately thought, 'OK, that's the word I'm trying to say. I can't get there. I turned that sentence upside down.' You feel so self-conscious. You have an idea of what to say in your head, a sentence that arrives in your head and you can't say that sentence. It's such a bizarre thing."