Interview: Jon Poll from “Charlie Bartlett”
Interview: Jon Poll from “Charlie Bartlett”

The Massie Twins recently had a chance to sit down with “Charlie Bartlett’s” director, Jon Poll, who chatted about his experiences as a first-time director, working with Robert Downey Jr., and his successes as a filmmaker.

The Massie Twins: We’re thrilled to be able to speak with you today! We heard you were concerned about how entertaining Will Ferrell’s newest film Semi-Pro is. We’re supposed to assure you that it’s not that bad.

Jon Poll: I was in Austin yesterday and I had three different interviews where people said I was a big Will Ferrell Fan, but I didn’t say that.

MT: Well, we won’t quote you as having said that. Now Charlie Bartlett was a pleasantly surprising film in that the marketing appears to want audiences to think it is a raunchy teen comedy, when in fact it has a lot of deeper drama substance.

JP: Thank you. The whole marketing thing is fascinating. We tried to make it a comedy that sneaks up on you and turns a different direction and you’re willing to go there because you were laughing.

MT: We heard that there was an interesting story behind how the script was written.

JP: Yes. Let’s see if this is the story. Gustin Nash who wrote the script was 26 and went to USC film school like I did (I’m not 26), and he was working at the Burbank Mall at a Ritz Camera selling memory cards trying to figure out what to do with his life, hanging out with friends, especially at Hot Dog on a Stick. That’s a fun thing to say. He talked with them about how much they didn’t like the movies that were being sold to them every week. He felt that they were really disappointed with what teen movies were. He wrote the film partially to make a movie for these kids. He’s planning on February 22nd to go to the Burbank Mall and hopefully find some of his friends to see the movie there. We had a silly saying: Teenagers are people too. It’s a teen film, but it’s a movie about people. Anton Yelchin was 17, which I think makes a big difference.

MT: How did you get involved with Charlie Bartlett and what drew you to the project?

JP: I read about 100 scripts trying to find something that seemed like it was worth all the work. I was looking for something that had a lot of humor, heart and something on its mind. There aren’t many out there. I found two scripts out there last year that did that: Charlie Bartlett and Juno. Ironically I read another script by Gustin called Youth and Revolt, which hopefully will be made later this year. I called up Jay Roach and he said, “Didn’t I ever tell you about Charlie Bartlett?” I love edgy and independent films that are trying to do something dark and mysterious, and I love Hollywood entertainments, but a lot of the time they’re divided. Can we make a film that’s really well crafted and paced like a Hollywood film but does have something on its mind? My hope is that you’re laughing, you’re entertained and when you’re driving home you actually have something to talk about.

MT: You have a lot of producing and editing credits. Was directing something you always wanted to do?

JP: Pretty much. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. I’ve always considered myself a filmmaker. I made a lot of short films in film school and I always thought directing was something I would do. Life was dealing me a very nice hand. I got to work with Mike Myers, Jay Roach, Danny DeVito, Peter Weir and all kinds of talented people. I enjoyed it a lot and learned from them. I kept getting these opportunities and then it finally felt like it was time to direct my own film. I love to be able to help make movies that people go see.

MT: Was this your directorial debut?

JP: Yes.

MT: Do you prefer producing or editing over directing?

JP: I love directing. It was so much fun to make this movie. It’s been a great treat this last couple of weeks. I’ve been flying all over the country showing this film to college students. We premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, won awards at Quebec, Maui, and had really successful screenings at a bunch of other festivals. Most of those audiences were older, and so it’s been especially nice to show the film to people closer to the age of the characters.

MT: Was there a scene that stood out as your favorite to direct?

JP: It changes sometimes. Sometimes my favorite scenes are the ones between Anton Yelchin and Robert Downey Jr. in the principal’s office. It was a crazy six-page day and they’re two extraordinary actors. There’s such an interesting dynamic between them because they’re adversarial yet their relationship changes and they try to save each other at the end of the movie. Those scenes are kind of like chess moves between them.

MT: What kind of relationship do you have with your movies? Do you stop to watch them on TV or do you see them multiple times in theaters?

JP: That’s an interesting one. Never heard that. I have a ritual that for every movie I’ve worked on, I always go see it with a paying audience. Obviously I’ve seen it a thousand times with preview audiences and with friends and family, but there’s something about the people who pull $10 out of their wallets to see your movie – that’s really the true test. There are some filmmakers who make films for themselves and don’t care what audiences think. That’s fine, but I like to see a film with an audience.

MT: It’s probably very rewarding.

JP: Absolutely!

MT: Let’s see if I have another question for you that you haven’t heard before. In Kip’s room there’s a poster of Marilyn Manson in the background.

JP: Yes! No one has ever brought that up!

MT: Was that a conscious decision?

JP: That was a very conscious decision. It’s no slam against Marilyn Manson. It’s meant to be a source of humor. The thing about this movie is that there are tone shifts everywhere, and I was always trying to find odd, funny things to put into the frame. There are comedic scenes with darkness in them and there are dramatic scenes with humor. I don’t know if you found that funny or just scary, but especially in the last few cuts of the scene before they play video games, Charlie gets bigger and Manson gets bigger, and we actually cheated them together. Pop culture does have a little bit to say. On one side of Kip’s room he has the Marilyn Manson poster, and behind him he’s got these metal racks filled with National Geographic. As a director its fun to do that. Keep going with your questions!

MT: Tell us something about Robert Downey Jr. that we don’t know.

JP: He’s about as generous a person as I’ve ever met, onscreen and off. You know the onscreen part, but he came to this movie and he wasn’t doing it for the money. He’s playing a role in a movie that twenty years ago he could have been the star of and he’s obviously bringing so much personal stuff in his life that it’s a really a brave thing. He may be the healthiest person I know. He does yoga and he’s probably about ten years younger than me, and he’s physically like 30 years younger than me. He’s such a healthy guy.

MT: Was there much improvisation or did everyone stick to the script?

JP: Compared to a lot of the films I’ve worked on, it was quite tightly scripted, but actors always bring something to a movie. Two things Robert Downey Jr. did that were improvs that were great were first when the bully is giving Charlie a swirly in the toilet and he interrupts these guys. I said, “Here’s the deal. Tyler Hilton (Murphey) is the badass of the school, he beats people up, you see him in your office once a week, you spend much more time with this guy than you could ever imagine. Jordan is kind of like Gilligan to the skipper. He wishes he could be Murphey. You’ve never met the kid.” So Robert came up with, “Mr. Bivens, get going, and you…” He doesn’t know his name. It was a really organic thing. The other thing was that there are two spots in the movie where Charlie is not called Charlie Bartlett. Later in the film there’s a scene where Robert Downey Jr. is out by the pool, and he calls him Charles and Chuck. Those were both improvs.

MT: Were there any scenes that didn’t make it into the film?

JP: There was one big scene that we shot that didn’t make it in, which was a football game where Charlie bet with the dads. I’m not disappointed – I took it out. It was another bad boy thing that he did.

MT: Can Anton Yelchin really play the piano?

JP: Another good question! He played the guitar, badly. I said, “I need you to learn the piano,” and he said, “I can’t do that in five weeks!” The jazz pieces he was playing were really complex too. I need to prove that the character can play the piano – it’s an integral part of the film. There’s no trickery there. When there’s an insert of hands, sometimes it’s him and sometimes it’s a pianist, but there’s about four shots in the movie where you see his hands and his face playing, and that’s really him.