The world changed on September 11, but Austin Chick's second film, August, focuses on the moments right beforehand. Starring Josh Hartnett as a young start-up entrepreneur deluded by power trips, the movie moves along with a subtle pace, letting the natural drama emerge from a situation about to veer out of the control with the crash of the stock market. Chick's first feature, XX/XY, explored a three-way relationship; August, which opens in New York on Friday, explores the relationship between money and power during a key time in American history. Supporting performances from Rip Torn and David Bowie elevate the movie, while Howard A. Rodman's script keeps its conceits in check. Chick spoke with Cinematical about envisioning August's themes and working with his talented cast.
Cinematical: The film uses a very specific setting -- August 2001 -- immediately before 9/11. What interested you about that time?
Austin Chick: It captures a moment on the eve of change. If Howard (Rodman) and I were to move it to any other time, we would probably move it further back. The market really started crashing about eighteen months prior to when the movie is set. But I feel like there was still a certain amount of momentum in New York up until 9/11, this sense that things were going to turn around. The market had completely crashed, but there was still this crazy sense of decadence. All that really changed with 9/11.
strong>Cinematical: Did you have any personal relationship to entrepreneurs like Josh Hartnett's character?
AC: Not personally. I had money in the market that I lost, and I had a lot of friends in those businesses. I definitely felt close to it, but I never worked for a dot com. There are aspects of those characters that I drew from people I know, but not having written the script, I don't know who Howard had in mind. I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't lift any of it from his life. He wasn't in New York during 9/11.
Cinematical: A key point in the movie arrives when Tom's father, played by Rip Torn, talks about visiting his son's business and observing that people just stood around eating Oreos all day. What fascinates you about that moment?
AC: Obviously, there's the clash between two generations, but the thing that interested me most about that scene was that so much of Tom's psyche is visible. You can see the groundwork, ideologically, for who Tom once was. He tells his father, "You just don't understand. You thought you could change the world. What have you settled for? Tenure. Well, we're changing the world." On a certain level, Tom knows what he's saying is bullshit, but it's a rhetoric he once believed.
Cinematical: Did you give Torn much direction for the monologue?
AC: Rip's an interesting actor. He's obviously been around for a long time. We played that scene a number of different ways. From one scene to the next, we came up with very different things. It's part of what's interesting about working with somebody like that. When we got to the editing room, there were a lot of choices.
Cinematical: Torn famously got into a brawl with Norman Mailer on the set for Maidstone. Did you have better luck working with him?
AC: [laughs] He keeps you on your toes. The very first time I met Rip, I had a meeting with him at French Roast on Eleventh Street and Sixth Avenue. Rip ordered escargot and lemonade, and the first story he told me was that one, and he showed me the little piece of his ear that got bit off in that fight.
Cinematical: Ha! "Keep your distance, kid."
AC: Yeah, basically.
Cinematical: What do you think attracted Josh to his role? This is not a likable character.
AC: It's so different from stuff he's done in the past. He tends to get cast as these kind of passive, boyish characters, and Tom is a much more active character. He's also a much more verbal character. There's probably more dialogue here than Josh Hartnett has spoken in his entire career put together. It was a big challenge for him. His boyish charm goes a long way towards making Tom a little bit more palatable.
Cinematical: David Bowie shows up at the end of the movie in a rather frightening role. How did that come about?
AC: We got a call from Bowie's agent, asking if we'd be interested in considering him. He read the script and liked it. We were warned that he doesn't tend to commit to things quickly, so we had to wait. Then I got this call, saying that he watched my first movie, XX/XY and it wasn't his cup of tea. My response was that it was fucking cool that David Bowie watched my movie. A couple of days later, I got a call saying that he'd only watched the first fifteen minutes of XX/XY. Somebody encouraged him to watch the whole thing, and he did. He loved it and wanted to do the movie. It took awhile. The first time I actually met him was when he showed up on set. Obviously, he's an amazing, iconic figure and I think he's a fantastic actor.
Cinematical: Despite the presence of Bowie, Hartnett and Torn, this is still very much an independent film, and you're very much an independent filmmaker. Do you prefer this route, or would you like to work up to the studio level?
AC: The size of the project doesn't really concern me that much. Different budgets make sense at different levels. I don't think I ever made a choice that I was only going to make independent films. I've been involved on the writing level in a number of films that were supposed to be studio films. August is really a character study, and it's not a big action movie. It makes a lot of sense with the budget we made it with.
Cinematical: Are you happy with the release it's getting?
AC: It remains to be seen what kind of release it's going to get. Hopefully, it'll do well in New York and go on to play all over the place.
Cinematical: You premiered the movie at Sundance. Do you think the festival circuit works for movies like August?
AC: Things have changed pretty rapidly in the time I've been involved in them. There are fewer people seeing the smaller films and there are a lot fewer avenues for theatrical distribution. I really think certain types of stories make sense at certain budget levels. I'm definitely not determined to stay in the independent film world, but it's not like I'm trying to leave it. I have a couple different projects that range from a million dollars to upward of fifteen or twenty. Who knows which one will come together first? I've written a couple of scripts, and there's also a project I've been developing for awhile that I'd like to direct. The movie that looks like it's closest is a character-driven thriller about two friends who went to a house in the Hamptons for the summer and found a bunch of money. They think they can keep it without anybody knowing about it. Of course, they're wrong. Bad shit happens.
Top: Josh Hartnett in 'August.'
For more on August, see our review of the film.