J Blakeson’s latest feature, I Care A Lot, made waves after premiering at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Telling the story of a legal conservator (Rosamund Pike) who bilks elderly clients until she mistakenly catches the wrath of a sinister presence (Peter Dinklage) who threatens to destroy everything she’s worked for, the film boasts wickedly daring performances from the entire cast; Eiza González, Dianne West, and Chris Messina also join in for one hell of a time. Although, much has to be said about the creative force at the center of the film, J Blakeson. As writer and director, his clever script and vivid direction elevate I Care A Lot to unforeseen greatness .
With a career spanning from low-budget indie thrillers to blockbuster studio productions and everything in between, J Blakeson’s rise to prominence is quite peculiar. Now that it’s debuted on Netflix, I Care A Lot is proving to be one of the sleekest and most colorful originals on the platform. In honor of this career milestone, we had the pleasure to sit down with J Blakeson and dive into the complexities of not only his dark comedic hit, but his journey as a filmmaker. We also, of course, talk about his unique time leading such a bold project with Rosamund Pike herself.
So just a quick question off the top, what inspired you to become a filmmaker in the first place?
J Blakeson: Well, mostly it was just my love of film! I watched thousands of movies growing up and just fell in love with the visual style of film. I was one of those guys who had a video camera when I was a teenager and would make bad movies with my friends, and then eventually tried to step that up and make short films. At my university, I made short films on 16 mm, and then I tried to make features, but it’s hard to do it on your own, so I started writing. I started off very young, as a kid, I used to act a lot, but I realized I was pretty terrible (laughs). So I went from that to a different aspect of it, which was that I would be working in theater with somebody who was a [theater] director, who was putting adaptations and things on. That was interesting to see behind the curtain a bit. That matched my love of watching movies, so it came together and became [my] aspiration to make them.
Your first film The Disappearance of Alice Creed, which also premiered at TIFF like I Care A Lot, was made after a few shorts and a television film. What was your journey like to get your first feature from script to screen?
J Blakeson: I had been writing films for a while. I knew some people in the industry and I had been attached to direct something before that, but that didn’t happen. I just felt like if I was ever going to make my first feature, I would have to write something that I could make on my own. So I basically started with what I had, which was like an apartment, and I thought I would get three actors to be in it. I covered the windows so I could shoot day and night in there, and everybody was wearing their costume for the whole show. I basically made it very achievable in very low-budget, because I thought I was going to finance it myself.
Having the idea of making it really achievable, I then wrote a script that I thought was going to be the most compelling narrative that would be like a twisty thriller, because again, it would be easily sell-able once you’ve made the movie. But when people read the script, they really loved it but didn’t want to make it. Then finally, I think it was like the 40th company, who initially turned it down, they quite liked it. Initially, they didn’t even want me to direct it, but I just hung on and it was made for lower than a million dollars. It was made all in one location in 24 days, so really fast. We had really good actors, who were all fantastic in the movie. I think the film was successful because of them. Because three people on camera for the whole movie really exposes you to their performance.
If you don’t have actors that you really want to watch and really care about, then it doesn’t really matter what I do as a director – no one’s going to care. So I was very lucky that they really liked the material and wanted to do it. For something that I wrote to make with my friends in my apartment, we eventually made it on a set with professional actors and with a professional crew. The film ended up being way better than I thought it was going to be, which is often the way it happens (laughs). We finished about two days before we had to show it at TIFF, and I don’t think I had even seen the final version before I got to TIFF. So to rush there and go to this premiere, and nobody had seen it – it caused quite a lot of attention. Suddenly, everybody wanted to take a meeting with me, that was really exciting.
After coming off a larger film like The 5th Wave, what drew you to tell a smaller indie comedy-thriller like I Care A Lot?
J Blakeson: I think The 5th Wave was obviously a studio movie, when I didn’t have a huge amount of power or influence over the script, or even the final cut of the movie and things like that. That’s just part of the ecosystem of making a studio movie, a lot of that was quite frustrating. So off the back of that, I just wanted to go back to what I thought I enjoyed the most, which was writing my own material to direct myself. I just basically started writing films that I wanted to make, and I Care A Lot was one of those. It was far more [representative] of my voice and my personality, and the kind of movie I wanted to make than The 5th Wave ended up being.
I learned a huge amount during The 5th Wave, about making movies with visual effects, scale, and scope with longer shoots and budgets. But taking all those lessons and applying them to something that I was much more interested in like I Care A Lot felt more like what I wanted to do next. It just felt like having control of the scripts and being able to write the thing I wanted to make became much more important after making The 5th Wave. It was a really satisfying experience making I Care A Lot. I could sort of really make the movie I wanted to make which, being a smaller director in a bigger film, it doesn’t matter which studio you are working for.
Apart from your clever script and direction, people are buzzing around the casting of Rosamund Pike, Eiza González, Diane West, and Peter Dinklage. How involved were you in the casting process and what was your experience like collaborating with them on set?
J Blakeson: When I write, I don’t tend to write with any particular person in mind. I just write the characters as I see them. I wrote I Care A Lot on spec, so this script was done before anybody started thinking about actors, but by the time we started testing, we kind of knew who we would like to work with. I watch lots and lots of movies, so I tend to collect ideas in my head about who I want to work with, and you sort of see if they’re interested or available. There’s a bit of a process, it’s really exciting to see your scripts out there and people reading it, and you’re taking these meetings at the same time.
On this film, I had some people who worked on The Disappearance of Alice Creed. For example, Mark Eckersley, who’s the editor, and Marc Canham, who did the music. We were working together again after Alice Creed. But there’s some people who I’ve never worked with before. Like Doug Emmett, the cinematographer who made Sorry to Bother You, who brought a really great colorful look to that movie and to ours. And then the fantastic production designer Michael Grasley, who did Euphoria and Assassination Nation with Sam Levinson, and Deborah Newhall, the costume designer – they all really helped build that world for Marla.
We shot everything on location, so we really had to adapt the world to create a colorful film with characters that were riding the line between likable and unlikable. All the actors had to understand the very specific tone, and it wasn’t really that clear in the script, because the script sort of went from quite disturbing themes of Marla kidnapping this little old lady to a bunch of [gangsters] trying to break her out of a care home, which read like a comedy scene and sort of flip-flopped from one thing to the other. It was really important to find people who really understood the tone that we were going for – to make it playful and funny, but dark, you know? All these sort of contradictions together.
You have to find a line between light and dark, and write it very carefully. With Rosamund, Peter, and Chris Messina, and even down to some of the people who were just there for like a day or two, we had this very deep cast of very good actors who all got what we were trying to do and all had a lot of fun making the movie. There’s always a special sprinkle on top that makes the film all come together and work, but the fact that they all sort of really trusted me with the tone, I think was quite essential.
A wide range of styles and influences are visible in I Care A Lot. Can you tell us about your main inspirations for the film?
J Blakeson: Before we started shooting, Rosamund and I both lived in London and we were sort of waiting for the film to start production. She would come over and we watched movies together and talked about the tone. I showed her a bunch of different movies, some of which are about unlikable characters. We watched some Billy Wilder movies like Ace in the Hole, and then for inspirations on a strong female character, we watched Johnny Guitar, the Joan Crawford movie that [touches on] ambition.
I would talk to the production designers a lot about the sort of color in those [Jean-Luc] Godard films of the 1960s, like Weekend. We talked about Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown and the way that they used color and high contrast, and the camera movements as well. The camera movements are very specific to start with, and then they kind of get more chaotic as I like it. We really spent a lot of time talking about that and those early 90s thrillers where you have complicated, unlikable characters. I watched a lot of movies as a teenager in the early 90s (laughs), so a lot of our inspiration came from that time in all of our lives.
So what’s next for your career? Do you have any upcoming projects that you can tell us about?
J Blakeson: I always seem to be drawn to crime. [In my films], there’s always people being manipulated and some sort of power exchange going on, and normally there’s some sort of crime running through the stuff that I do. I actually can’t get into too many specifics, but hopefully details will get announced quite soon. I’ve got a TV project, I’m working on the script stage at this very moment. Then I have a couple features for the future, in the early script stages as well.
What advice would you give to aspiring creatives who are trying to get a start in such a turbulent time?
J Blakeson: You’ve got to do it. The best way to prepare, if you want to be a writer, is that you have to actually sit down and write. Then what I would do, especially in this time of year, you can read all of the screenplays for the top 40 films of the year online right now. Then when you watch the movie, go back and read the screenplay again and see how they did it. The first few times I wrote things, they weren’t very good, but you have to share them and you have got to find your people, you know? So I think the thing is just to try and do it rather than just talking about doing it.