Twelve and Holding

Director Michael Cuesta talks about his latest movie...

Michael Cuesta (Director)

Twelve and Holding. Lionsgate FilmsIn your own words, what is the story of "Twelve and Holding"?

It reached me on many levels but ultimately for me it's about the unconditional love children have for their parents and how far they will go to be loved, and the sacrifices they make to secure stability and happiness in the home, despite the consequences.

How did you come across Anthony S. Cipriano's script? What was your initial reaction?

My agent introduced us and I was immediately taken by his sweet manner and how young he was. There was a power and honesty in the script that I couldn't shake. Being a father and seeing the children in "Twelve and Holding" make the choices they make was both troubling and interesting. Dreaming about making it the night after I read it also helped.

"Twelve and Holding" explores the themes of violence and the consequences of revenge, especially for children, why are these themes you wanted to explore?

I think the keyword here is explore. I'm not interested in being didactic. For me, I'm drawn to things that are challenging and interesting, then I just dive into it. What I like to put on screen is something that I hope provokes ideas, discussion, and maybe it answers some questions for people. I've always thought that it's best for an artist to ask questions, raise issues, put it out there and let everyone else figure it out.

Both "Twelve and Holding" and your directorial debut, "L.I.E.," depict very adult themes through the eyes of adolescents. Why is this a theme you wanted to revisit?

My own children happen to be young right now so I think that's spilling into what I'm reading, writing and how I respond to the world. Also, an adolescent is the archetypal figure that's trying to figure their place in the world and I think that's something that's timeless and universal. What I do like about these kinds of stories is the inherent drama that comes with innocence and vulnerability and the unpredictability of story.

Please discuss the relationship between each family in the film.

I really wanted to explore the gap that's created when adults become wrapped up in their own grief and insecurities. The kids in the movie are forming their own ideas of how to navigate their insecurities, grief, and sexuality with no help from the parents. I wanted to explore the journey children have to make on their own. Because the kids are discovering it for the first time, they garner a wisdom that they pass onto their parents. Our children always teach us something about the world and ourselves and it comes from experience, not intellect. I find that endlessly fascinating.

As a parent yourself, how difficult was this film to make, especially with the portrayals of parenting and the relationships these kids have with their families?

The film had the most effect on me after I saw the first assembly of the footage. I was intimidated by what I may have tapped into. When I enter a project, it takes awhile for it to reach me, emotionally. I'm not sure that's a good thing, but it allows me to discover it over a long period of time. I saw myself in the parents. I hope everyone does. If you don't empathize with the character's plight, good or bad, how can you make the movie? I'm sure for many filmmakers including myself, making movies are a form of therapy and education.

As a filmmaker, are you drawn to dark stories? Do you see these stories as dark?

I don't see my stories as dark. I see them as real. They may be difficult for some people, but a good story is a good story no matter if it's dark or uplifting. I think we all want things that are life affirming and mainstream cinema tends to make happy endings to get there. For me, it can be happy, sad, disturbing, depressing, whatever, as long as it's a good story and it makes us ask questions about ourselves and the world we live in.

After the critical acclaim of "L.I.E." did you feel a certain amount of expectation on making a second feature?

Yes, definitely. It took me four years and many false starts. I'd like to think it has to do more with patience like in making, "L.I.E." that took me six years to get it to screen. When you're recognized in the film world the pressure's there. I think navigating the stress that comes from expectation is harder than creating the work. You just have to put the blinders on.

How did you find the talented young stars (Conor Donovan, Zoë Weizenbaum and Jesse Camacho) of the film? How was the casting process?

I called Judy Henderson, my casting director from "L.I.E." We went through hundreds of kids for several months. Conor Donovan who was cast as Rudy/Jacob was the most difficult to find. I needed a boy that can play identical twins – one a tough, confident, sporty kid, the other, cautious, sweet, and insecure. Conor was the only one that was naturally both characters and had an apple pie, real, every-boy quality. Jesse Camacho, who was cast as Leonard was the first kid to be put on tape. The second day of casting I was sent a tape from Montréal with Jesse doing sit-ups. I thought he was very funny and endearing, but I needed to go through the full process of the search. A few months later I came back to him. He has a sense of dignity and intelligence that is beguiling. He has a huge future ahead of him. Zoë Weizenbaum who plays Malee fell from the sky. I knew she was right as soon as she began speaking. We made the offer right away and found that she was offered "Memoirs of a Geisha." At first, her parents wanted to keep her to only one film so she could be back in school by the late Fall which I totally understood. But of course I pushed, sent her mom an email and believe it or not, a DVD of "L.I.E." She called the next morning to say she was in.

And the adults? How did the parents come to star in your film?

Despite the shorter screen time for the adult roles, we were lucky to find great actors that saw the complexity that could be imparted in a short amount of screen time. I have to enjoy an actor as a person to really access their abilities. All of them were incredibly giving, smart, and gracious despite a next to impossible schedule and sweltering heat.

Why did you feel it necessary for Jacob (Conor Donovan) to have a birthmark?

The most important thing is that it makes him vulnerable. You care about the kid as soon as you see him. He's also the odd kid out. He's insecure and lives in the shadow of his "better half." It makes it harder for the character to navigate his obstacles. I guess you can say it's like adding insult to injury.

Please discuss the relationship between Malee (Zoë Weizenbaum) and her mother's patient, Gus (Jeremy Renner).

It's so innocent and sweet, at the same time, dangerous and troubling. You can't take your eyes off the two characters. They're two characters coming together with good intentions with the overriding sense that it can go terribly wrong. She's looking for a father figure in her life and it's clashing with her budding sexuality. Gus, played brilliantly by Jeremy Renner, knows this and knows that there are limits and boundaries to the relationship, but he battles with his inner need for redemption. He has to prove to himself that he is not a bad person.

How was the atmosphere on the set?

The only way to get good cast and crew people rallied around a low budget film is to have a strong script. Anthony's script was very clear. It was evident during production that everyone was confident that we were interpreting what was written in the best way possible.

How was the rehearsal process with the kids?

It was short, only a few days. On a small budget movie you're always struggling to find rehearsal time. With kids, you never have enough. They're not set in their ways, no serious learnt skills, no egos, none of that. They're clear slates. The possibilities are endless. That said, I felt I needed to spend more time explaining what the scenes were about and less playing the scenes, saying the lines. I also tried improvising to help the kids understand the scenes emotionally.

What is your favorite part of the filmmaking process?

I think most filmmakers would say casting and editing. It's less stressful. I'm able to take more pleasure in the discoveries. In casting, the text is first realized and in editing, it starts to look like a movie. Principle photography is tough, even on a big budget. The practicality of it all, more often than not, weighs on the creative process.

The score by Pierre Földes is very haunting, how did you team up with him?

Pierre scored "L.I.E." I admire filmmakers that have consistency in the use of music in their movies. I'm not sure music or a score is always necessary but personally I love music, so I find myself putting it in.

Will you be continuing the theme of adolescence in your next project?

I have a book that I adapted that's close to going that was around before I found "Twelve and Holding." It's a modern Dickensian, "Oliver Twist" like tale. It has a Native American boy tragically abandoned and left to find a home and find his place in the world. Maybe I'm arrested, developmentally, who knows. It's a good story and a great ride with a really good ending. It's something that is archival, to be shelved and remembered, hopefully.

What is the message that you hope the audience takes away from "Twelve and Holding"?

I don't really have a message. I'm not sure movies are about that. All I can do is point at the wounds in society, sometimes the grotesque, to understand things. Some people may find that to be pessimistic or cynical. I see it as something that can be healing and cathartic.

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