The little 'Lie' that could ad-lib

It's midafternoon on a crisp and bright late October day in a parking lot overlooking the ocean in the South Bay, and the small crew on "The Lie" is wrapping up its lunch break. The feature directing debut from actor Joshua Leonard ("The Blair Witch Project," HBO's "Hung"), the film follows a young couple (Leonard and actress Jess Weixler) who are struggling to settle into the newfound responsibilities of parenting and nascent adulthood. When the husband impulsively crafts a hurtful and easily disprovable lie one day to blow off some work, it sets in motion a series of events that push him, his wife and their relationship to the breaking point.

Earlier in the morning, the RV that essentially makes up the set for the day died at the wrong end of the parking lot. Instead of waiting for the repair truck, the crew collectively pushed it the final few hundred yards to where it needed it to go. (Could there be a finer visual metaphor for the state of indie film?)

Visiting the production provides insight into a creative process that's been gaining ground with a new generation of filmmakers. Writing on "The Lie," adapted from a T.C. Boyle short story published in the New Yorker in 2008, is being credited to Jeff Feuerzeig, Leonard, Weixler and Mark Webber (who also acts in the film). There is no traditional script, however, because the film is being done in a style of structured improvisation similar to that of many recent micro-indie films (often referred to by the now-disavowed moniker of "mumblecore"), including the work of filmmakers Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski, the Duplass brothers and Lynn Shelton.

Though the scenes for "The Lie" have a preconceived shape and direction, there are only spare snippets of specific dialogue written, in the hope that the tightrope walk of the creative moment will help capture some real-life spark.

"This is very setup," says Weixler, comparing the style of "The Lie" to her work on Swanberg's recent "Alexander the Last" while sharing a cigarette with Leonard. "It's not so much 'Let's just shoot and see what we get' but 'We have this scene here, and this needs to happen.' It's really broken down, so when we go in we are covering like a real movie."

"Myself included," adds Leonard, who appeared this year in Shelton's "Humpday," "I don't think any of us realized that until the second day of production. Like, 'Oh, we're not making a mumblecore movie.' I don't think we realized it was as structured as it was until we started shooting."

This is the 12th day of a 14-day shoot, and the first scene after lunch has Weixler visiting Webber at the RV. Webber dropped 20 pounds for his part, giving the actor a wiry frame that contrasts with the bushy beard he spent a month growing out, adding up to a beatific air of dropout consciousness. His character acts as go-between for the husband and wife, and the scene being shot has his character applying an avocado face mask to Weixler as he attempts to salve her anxiety.

At first Webber can't keep from laughing about the green goop he has to apply to Weixler's face, requiring a few takes to settle into the scene. The cinematographer, Ben Kasulke (who also shot "Humpday"), is operating the digital camera from a crouch below and behind the seated Weixler, and for the end of the scene Leonard asks the actors to turn as they hug so they can both be seen in semi-profile. A couple of takes go by as they try to get the framing of the final gesture right.

And then, things just snap into place. Webber captures the aura of spacey wisdom needed for the scene and gets his lines out with a gentle grace. The actors get the hug framed just right, and Webber even adds a teasing moment where he tosses Weixler the jacket of her business suit, a symbol of her wounded bourgeois respectability.

"Cut. I love you both," says Leonard happily. This style of shooting suddenly makes sense.

The crew starts to rearrange the equipment for another scene, this time between Leonard and Webber inside the RV, where they will be pulling bong hits and absent-mindedly working on recording a song called "Soulcrusher." The shooting process starts over again, as Webber and Leonard struggle to find the right tone for the scene, which is intended to be ironic and slightly pathetic as they earnestly work on their (intentionally bad) music.

After a few huddles between the actors and Weixler, who has been watching takes on a monitor from outside the RV, their lines shift from sounding forced to feeling spontaneous and funny, and soon everyone seems satisfied.

As the sun begins to slip behind the horizon, the crew sets about packing up the gear from the day. Leonard hops on a small vintage motorcycle and rides it for a few laps around the parking lot. Since the film won't be finished for submission to the Sundance Film Festival (an obvious choice), that leaves such spring festivals as South by Southwest, Tribeca and even Cannes as reasonable possibilities for where the finished film may finally surface -- depending on how the final product turns out. And as with most indie films these days, finding meaningful theatrical distribution will be another significant challenge.

But for the time being, the only concern is making the movie.

"Part of the thing that was fun in fleshing this [story] out," Leonard explains earlier in the day, "was coming up to this breaking point, this couple going one way or the other. I want it to be hopeful at least from some vantage point, that they make a choice.

"I don't think there's any absolute clarity at the end of the film. We always refer to the end of 'The Graduate,' where there's that ellipsis of the potential hope, but there's an equal potential of absolute doom."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World