Movie directors can come across as all sorts of personalities — arrogant, collegial, mercurial, dictatorial. Filmmaker Henry-Alex Rubin arrived on the set of “Disconnect”, his first narrative feature, striking an unusual pose: clueless.
“I have no idea how to direct a movie,” said Rubin, 39, a prize-winning commercial director who made (with Dana Adam Shapiro) the Oscar-nominated 2005 documentary “Murderball,” which chronicled the grueling sport of wheelchair rugby. “I know how to make commercials and direct documentaries. I am just bringing the only way I know how to do things to fiction.”
Constructed around three interwoven stories, “Disconnect” — opening Friday — tries to dramatize how technology is fracturing human relationships. Paula Patton and Alexander Skarsgard play a troubled couple who are victimized by an identity thief. The lonely son (Jonah Bobo) of a Blackberry-addicted dad (Jason Bateman) is cyberbullied with tragic consequences. And an ambitious television reporter (Andrea Riseborough) tries to advance her career by exploiting a runaway boy (Max Thieriot) who performs sex chats.
LD Entertainment President David Dinerstein, whose company is producing “Disconnect,” said Rubin was able to attract a solid cast because “of his body of work — his documentary moved a lot of people. And equally important was that Andrew Stern’s script really spoke to people.”
On the heels of “Murderball,” Rubin was sent a pile of scripts. Because he has a fruitful commercial career (he’s done spots for Reebok, Samsung, Budweiser and Gatorade and has won 14 Cannes Lions awards for his advertisements) and because he was working on a couple of other documentaries, he was reluctant to jump into a project he didn’t love. Narrative filmmaking, he thought, was a lot more complicated than what he was used to: taking out a camera and shooting something.
Rubin was penciled in to direct an Ethan Hawke movie called “Bridgewater” in 2008, but the project perished when financier David Bergstein’s movie empire imploded.
“In many ways, I dodged a bullet,” Rubin said, glad that he wasn’t further along with the film when Bergstein’s troubles began (those woes, for example, have stuck David O. Russell’s “Nailed” in limbo for five years and counting).
Yet Rubin kept hearing the feature film siren call. “It is a documentarian’s dream to break into the mainstream,” he said.
Rubin spent two years working on another sports-related documentary, this one about an able-bodied rugby team from West Point, but when the squad failed to qualify for the 2011 Collegiate Rugby Championship, the film went down in flames.
“For every documentary you see, there are 20 carcasses along the road,” Rubin said. “That one really broke my heart.”
Around the same time, producer Bill Horberg, a fan of “Murderball,” saw Rubin’s commercial reel, and thought his shooting style would be well-matched to the plot of “Disconnect.” (Rubin’s commercials typically are filmed like mini-documentaries, with lots of hand-held cameras.)
“These were three stories that felt really relevant to me,” said Rubin, who began making films as an eighth grader by interviewing (and thus disarming) a schoolyard bully. “And I wanted to shoot each of their stories as real and as researched as possible.”
After a few meetings, Horberg and producer Mickey Liddell, whose LD Entertainment financed the nearly $10-million production and is distributing the film, gave Rubin the job.
Obviously there are differences between documentaries and commercials, magnified in a feature film. Documentaries are largely unscripted, and the star of a commercial is a car, a sports drink, a tennis shoe. Movies have 120-page screenplays, and the focus of the camera isn’t a product but a living, breathing actor — who may have strong feelings about the character they’re playing.
Liddell and Horberg gave him wide latitude, yet Rubin wasn’t sure how to know if he had made the right casting choices.
“I read in Elia Kazan’s book that you should always walk around the block with them,” Rubin said of the how-to primer “Kazan on Directing.” So he did just that.
Skarsgard, who plays Patton’s husband in “Disconnect,” said though he was a fan of “Murderball” he was initially skeptical of Rubin’s graduation. “There are a lot of fantastic documentarians who can’t direct actors,” he said. But a four-hour meeting with the director calmed his fears, and Skarsgard said he was a joy to be around on set. “He’s a phenomenal director,” the actor said, who was struck by how Rubin hid his equipment. “He made us feel very free. It was almost like doing a play in a way — you never knew his cameras were there.”
Once on set in his hometown of New York, Rubin tried to mimic his nonfiction techniques. “I really would say I didn’t direct the movie. I allowed the actors to be themselves,” he said.
He shot in long takes, shot the story in chronological order, didn’t follow the script too slavishly, and tried to place his cameras so the actors wouldn’t play to a specific place.
“I knew I wanted a lot of the actors to improvise the dialogue in a way that felt natural — that they put things in their own language,” Rubin said. “I hid my cameras so far away from them that half the time the actors didn’t realize I’d already got the reverse shot.”
In a way, it’s the same in a documentary interview: You want the subjects to relax and open up. “To me, it’s all about forgetting about the camera,” Rubin said.
“If the camera gets bumped, the camera gets bumped. If a line of dialogue gets stepped on by another actor, the line gets stepped on. I am just bringing the only way I know how to do things to fiction.”
The documentary-to-drama path has been successfully traversed by several directors, including Paul Greengrass, José Padilha, Michael Apted, Kevin Macdonald and Werner Herzog, among others.
Rubin has made dozens of commercials since filming “Disconnect,” and isn’t sure he’s ready to give up advertising. Shooting “Disconnect” “makes me really enjoy making commercials. They are such a delight — these little adventures you get to go on,” Rubin said a few hours before heading off to Alaska to work on a new spot. “And the more I make commercials, the more the clients are starting to listen to me.”
As naive as Rubin might have been when he started making “Disconnect,” he isn’t certain he’s all that wiser for the experience.
“It was a grand experiment. I really have no idea how it turned out,” he said of the film, which has attracted mixed to positive reviews. “I don’t pretend to know what we made.”