Catching Up with Andy Garcia on At Middleton

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Most films have a fairly prescribed audience, or certainly unfold in a manner that makes their intentions clear. At Middleton is not most films. Co-written by Glenn German and director Adam Rodgers, the movie puts a pleasantly bewildering spin on existential life crisis, tossing lighthearted adult romance, slightly goofy (pre-) college ensemble comedy and something a bit more barbed and bittersweet into a blender, and hitting puree. While their respective headstrong kids (Spencer Lofranco and Taissa Farmiga) take a college visit and disengage from their parents, two strangers with different personalities, George (Andy Garcia) and Edith (Vera Farmiga), disengage from the official campus tour and tumble into an afternoon that leaves its mark on each of them. For Paste, Brent Simon had a chance to chat with Garcia recently, about the film, the inspirations for his character, his penchant for song, and his long-gestating next project behind the camera as a director.

Paste: In the late 1990s, you started producing as well as acting, and transitioned into directing, too. Because I know you’re pretty hands on, what elements are you most looking for when you decide to take the extra step of taking on a producing credit?

Andy Garcia: Usually it’s a combination of how the material speaks to you. And this was like City Island, which also came to me as a written script with a director attached, but no money. First, [you want to see] if you get stimulated by the material, and get that tickle in your belly and say, “I want to play this part. I’d like to see this film get made.” It brings up your sensibilities and sensitivities about a part, and the challenges of a part that maybe wouldn’t normally come your way. Once you meet the director—who in this case was Adam Rodgers, and also one of the writers, along with Glenn German—you see what kind of feeling you have about them becoming your partners, because when you’re raising money independently, you’re basically shaking hands and going on this journey together. So you basically ask yourself, “What can I do to help this movie get made, and what am I prepared to do?” Of course, you can also say I like the part, let me know if you ever have the money to make the movie, and walk away. But if you feel like you can help then you can take a more proactive approach to help get it to the finish line.

Paste: In City Island, your character, Vincent, has a secret passion that he hasn’t shared with his family. George is more contained and stuffy, and a lot more of a formally educated, intellectual character, but do you feel like George is similarly a guy who’s been living a lie in some respect?

Garcia: You know, I think the way Glenn German put it is that if 10 is bliss and zero is hell, then [George and Edith have] been coasting at five-and-a-half for a while, and not because their relationships are necessarily dark ones or anything like that. It’s just that the fuse has gone out for a long time, and they’re kind of coasting, and they’re both vulnerable enough to have this experience. And little by little, they find their potential soul mate at this one day at college. I just thought the conceit of that, and the way that the piece was structured in one day, and how they declare themselves at the end of the day but have to then ask themselves what they’re going to do about it—I thought that was very powerful. And also I thought that the piece had potential for certain humor and stylistic elements because of the architectural settings of a campus and the predicaments they were put in. I saw George as sort of a throwback to a Jacques Tati. There was a Buster Keaton quality about him, or sort of like Harold Lloyd—this sort of conservative man out of his element. Edith has this energy that he’s never come across before.

Paste: The manner in which George’s physical discomfort is manifested through these slight mannerisms and ticks provides a nice parallel to the kids, because it reminded me of the way that especially as a teenager you feel so overwhelmingly uncomfortable around a woman that you’re attracted to—that the nervousness just comes off of you in waves.

Garcia: Absolutely! He becomes like a child. Edith is like a vortex of energy, and George gets sucked into her wake. That’s kind of the image that I had when I read the script and saw the potential of the physical humor regarding the film—that he gets sucked into her energy, and at the same time has an ability to make her laugh, which is something that she hasn’t really done in quite some time. So that kind of thing is what they find in each other. She awakens in him this teenage enthusiasm or effervescence, but at some point in the movie the game’s over, the tide turns and they have this experience in the acting class where they get lost in this psychological experiment, during an acting improvisation. And it’s like, “Okay, what just went down?” And he becomes the more mature one in the relationship and asks what happened.

Paste: The chemistry you have with Vera is great. How did she come into the project?

Garcia: I knew of her work and was certainly a fan, but had never met her. But she was on my bucket list of actors who I wanted to work with, so we sent her the material and she responded to it immediately, and I guess I was on her bucket list. On a movie like this, the essential thing is who your partner is, so she jumped on board and she came in on a Saturday and we met on Sunday at a wardrobe fitting—which of course is very simple and short because there’s just one wardrobe since the movie takes place on one day. I came out dressed as the character, but instead of the pants I had in the movie like chinos I had on these seersucker pants [because] I saw this formality in George and thought that would contribute and make him even more out of time. When she saw me walk out like that, Vera started laughing at me, just cackling uncontrollably. I just looked at her and remember thinking, “Okay, we have this. I can make her laugh and that’s the movie.” And we did a couple shots with the kids that day, just to see what the look of the movie was, and we had to change the pants because the seersucker would strobe in the digital camera we shot on, the Arri Alexa. So we changed it to chino pants. But I said to her, “Do you want to go over the script? Do you have any issues?” and she said, “No, I just want to execute.” So we got to know each other as actors and the characters on camera—we never really rehearsed the scenes. We started shooting, and every scene the first take was the rehearsal, and we shot that, too. Everything was very spontaneous, and I think in this particular case it contributed not only to the way me and Vera like to work as actors, but also to the spirit of this thing that we were discovering moment to moment.

Paste: The audition exercise scene you touched upon is one of my favorite scenes of any movie this year, because it’s so bracing. It elicits an uncomfortable laughter because of the turn it takes.

Garcia: We’ve seen the movie many times with audiences, and sometimes there’s dead silence, sometimes there’s nervous laughter. Depending on the audience it has different reactions—it’s very curious, that whole scene.

Paste: I’d be interested in how it read, and the discussion you may have had before shooting, because that scene reminded me of the feeling when kids realize their parents are actual people. The film as a whole does that too—it honors the fact that as adults you can still meet someone and get turned on and charged by them, that they can have an impact on you even in a brief moment in time.

Garcia: We didn’t speak about it or say, “Hey, let’s really go for this.” It was just two characters really bringing their back stories to the forefront through this acting class exercise. But George and Edith were changed, absolutely. And there are a lot of people that when we screen the film, the majority, maybe even 90 percent of the audience, want George and Edith to be together—they ask if there’s going to be a sequel. And well, that depends if the movie garners attention and an audience, you never know. It certainly merits it, from a narrative standpoint—you can explore that. We kid around amongst ourselves, and say that it’s Parent’s Day and they have to come back, and bring their spouses. But the point is that viewers want them together, and how that was explored was very moving for them. What I say is that the ending of this movie, the decision they make is the decision they make that day, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the decision that lasts for a lifetime. Whether that decision holds true, you don’t know. It’s up to your own interpretation. For me. the joy is not only the chance of playing that character and working with not only Vera but also the whole gang, doing this film, but that the movie fulfilled itself the way I saw it when I read it. I see a beautiful story, a funny film but also a powerful and human film, because it’s funny in a human way.

Paste: You also collaborated on a song with composer Arturo Sandoval. What was that like?

Garcia: I’ve been writing music all my life. I wrote the score for Lost City, the movie I directed. A lot of times I may write something that can be used in the film or not, just if I get an inspiration. I was in the studio with Arturo, working on the soundtrack, and Adam was there with us, and I just had one of those things, a germ of an idea thing that comes to you. I heard it in my ears: “There was a day/A day like any other day.” I heard that melody, so I broke that down and knew the movie so intimately already, so I wrote the lyrics to tell the story of the film: “She has a way/A way like no other way/She has a style like no other style/And then there was a kiss/A stolen moment true/A simple I love you/There was a day.” That’s kind of a classic ballad style, and I wrote the lyrics in like three minutes as they were talking and went to Arturo, who then went to his keyboard. And once I gave him the melody he was off and running—he’s just a genius. So we recorded it and had it finished, and Adam had to make a determination on whether he wanted to put it in the movie or in the end credits or not at all. He thought about it, and in the end he felt that he didn’t want to comment on the film once the film was over—that he wanted to leave the audience with this ethereal feeling. And Arturo had written another piece of music that is beautiful, for the end scene, and then goes into the credits, so Adam made the decision he wanted to go with that, and I supported it. So then when we did the DVD, we said, “Hey, why don’t we put it this on there as a special feature?” So it’s on it just because it was there. We’re proud of it, and it’s part of our creative experience on the movie. Whether it’s in the movie or not, it’s part of the envelope which is the film and our experience making it.

Paste: Is Hemingway & Fuentes still happening, as your next directorial effort?

Garcia: Oh yes, it’s very much on the plate. We’re hoping to go this summer, and Jon Voight is going to play Hemingway and Annette Bening has been attached for many years, so we’re in the process. It’s an ongoing struggle to put all the financial pieces together, but the movie gods are with us at the moment and it looks like we’ll be able to pull the trigger, at one price or another. And we’ll definitely be shooting in the Dominican Republic and Ketchum, Idaho—those are the two main locations.

(Editor’s Note: At Middleton is now available on digital and Blu-ray and DVD, inclusive of a robust reel of outtakes; a feature-length audio commentary track with Adam Rodgers, Glenn German and Garcia; and a performance of “There Was a Day,” from Garcia and composer Arturo Sandoval.)

Brent Simon is a regular contributor to Screen Daily, Paste, Playboy, Magill’s Cinema Annualand ShockYa, among many other outlets, as well as a current member and former three-term president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.