In Predisposed, Penny (Melissa Leo) and her son Eli (Jesse Eisenberg) find getting into rehab is much harder than anyone would expect. When the uninsured mother of two is told by a rehab counselor that they might be able to find her a bed if she comes back with urine that tests positive for drugs, she and Eli go on a wild goose chase to get her one last high. Along the way, they meet up with her drug dealer Sprinkles (Tracy Morgan) and his brother Black (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who decide that Eli and his Spanish-speaking skills are very handy in their dealings with their supplier. On top of all this, Eli has a very important piano audition that could change his life -- because he's not the only one teetering on the edge.
We sat down with co-writers and directors Phil Dorling and Ron Nyswaner and star Melissa Leo during the snowy Sundance film festival to discuss the film's evolution, mother-son quarrels, and why Sundance is hallowed ground.
You guys have been working on this a while, starting as a short, and I'm interested in the process of expanding a short into a feature.
Phil Dorling: I guess we should just lead off that we had this idea for making this film about people who were being turned away from rehab and told to come back intoxicated, and they would possibly be let in due to a lack of health insurance, so there was always this idea and we had asked Melissa very early on, before even writing anything, if she would be interested, and we would use her as our muse, and we did. But we had always intended to do this feature and then I made this short as a thesis for film school --
Ron Nyswaner: Sometimes we finish each other's sentences at this point. So, actually, at this point, unlike a lot of films which they start as a short and, as you said, get expanded, ours actually was always meant to be a feature and we actually sort of shrunk the feature to a short to sort of work out some -- to provide [Phil] something for school and I think some of the artistic questions in it, so we got to go back to the feature with that really great piece of information…
Because I'm lucky enough to often be employed and Phil was starting out as a screenwriter -- he'd done some film production work, as he was talking about -- but had been making short films from junior high school, for a long, long time, so it wasn't a new interest, but to go to the feature thing, the new thing, I gave him… a little bit of a test. [I said,] "You go write a first draft, and I'm gonna do something that somebody is paying me for, and you know, let's see." Because a lot of people want to do movies and they want to be in the movies, but you have to actually write a script that's 80, 90 pages long, or 120 pages long, that has a beginning, middle, end [and it] is not easy. There are a lot of people who have ideas and that really doesn't mean sh*t. You know, it's true. And he came back with a draft that was really exciting to me.
Melissa Leo: Ron has the same bone as I do, that you feel there's some talent in somebody and you don't know why you're feeling that because there's not that much to base it on and you say, "Okay, here's my suggestion to you." And you can tell very quickly by their response to that suggestion if they're somebody who's really going to have a chance in the industry. Definitely.
You and Jesse have a great rapport, and he has this nice kind of edge to him in this. He kind of gives you a hard time. How did you develop that kind of rapport?
Melissa Leo: Jesse gave me a really hard time. [laughs] No, it was the funniest thing in all the world, the whole -- like to make a movie of Jesse and I making that movie together would be a really funny movie. Anybody within earshot at different points thought Jesse and I were quarrelling off on the side of the set, but that was just for an actor to find another actor who will dive in and play in the sea that's given to you, first of all, it's just so much fun. Second of all, it's smart because while we're bullsh*tting on the side of the set, they're setting the shot up and in another minute and a half, Jesse and I are going to be in front of that camera telling this story, so the closer we remain to it while we're waiting, I don't get on the cell phone, I don't do other things, it's about being in it. And it's not every day of the week that you run into an actor who's willing to dive into that sea wholeheartedly. You feel a fool. People misunderstand your intentions right, left and, center. For my money, that's the way an actor prepares, so to be able to do that so freely and beautifully with Jesse was amazing.
There are so many interesting dynamics of mothers and sons happening, too. You see pretty much every male character has this mother, whether they get along or they don't. Sprinkles' mom is hanging out.
Phil Dorling: It's about moms. Moms and sons. Is there another mom?
Ron Nyswaner: We embraced that. It's about moms.
Phil Dorling: For myself, I have a very close relationship with my mother, and I think that's something that I've always examined as we've been doing this as well. Not that we're both fighting to get each other into rehab and to go to a piano school, but there's a very dynamic relationship there where we get at it pretty good, too.
Ron Nyswaner: And sometimes I'm in the middle, actually… And Melissa has a son that's actually [Phil's] age.
Melissa Leo: The way you started phrasing what you said is, "Everybody has a mother." That alone is the truth of the matter. Everybody's got a mother. I could venture to say that there's plenty of folks that have grown up not knowing fathers, but everybody's got a mother. And sometimes that mother's a grandmother, and every once in a while, it's grandfather. But that relationship, being a female actor, I have played a lot of mothers in my time. Probably far more than women without children. I'm constantly examining it. Humankind is fascinated by it. One of these days, they'll get it. I don't know if I'll be here.
Given that you're the age of Melissa's son, is that odd?
Phil Dorling: Odd in what way?
As a director.
Phil Dorling: I don't know that it's odd. I think I associate with a lot of people that are younger than me, older than me, and I think we all do that in this kind of endeavor. It's not about our age; it's about that we all really feel something for this story, and that's why we're all connected. So, yeah, I guess my answer is no. I don't know that it's odd to me at all. It's actually more comforting to me, really.
Ron Nyswaner: Exactly. As a matter of fact, we had a lot of strong women involved with this film. We have Neda [Armian] as a producer, we have Jane Musky, two editors [were] women, our costume, our gaffer, our best boy was female, actually!
So, what's it like to return to Sundance with this as a feature? Having grown with it and lived with it and seen it and then come back to Sundance with it?
Phil Dorling: For me, I mean, it's obviously an honor for all of us to be here again, and it's just, this is something we set out with just an idea so long ago, and we've been working and working and working through it, and making the short, just getting that here, and continuing to go on this journey, it's an honor but it's also a sense of accomplishment, because we've wanted to be here again. And I think just with the people who have come along on this journey, and Melissa has always been such a core member of this, and meeting with Jesse and Tracy and Isiah and all of these people that have come on this journey, that's really the most humbling thing for me about it.
It's a very surreal place. It's kind of an alien world. We sort of touch down for a little bit and we're in the same hotel bars and it's like, oh, there's Melissa Leo at the table next to me. So I can't imagine what it's like to be on the other side of that.
Melissa Leo: I first came out to Sundance twenty-something years ago with a short… Phil's not the first filmmaker that I've come here with a short and hopes and dreams and have come back again with more to show… For me, there's something that I'm just realizing because you asked the question to sit here with Phil Dorling and realize I am a part of something. This is not something that just happened one time. This is my life. And to me, that's extraordinary. It is touching down on another plane, and I don't know what the native peoples would say about this area here, but it is sacred, I know that in every morsel of my being. And Robert Redford didn't just think Utah was real cool and had a place here and [thought], "Well, that'd be really groovy." No, this is hallowed, this is sacred, and that's what the heart of Sundance is. And to be a part of that is hard in the world today.