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Exclusive Interview: Marc Turtletaub Director of Sci-Fi Comedy ‘Jules’

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Jules, written by Gavin Steckler and directed by Marc Turtletaub, is a quirky indie sci-fi comedy about aging, aliens, and friendships. It’s charming and endearing; this should be no surprise given the incredible actors that helped bring it to life, including Sir Ben Kingsley, Harriet Sansom Harris, Zoë Winters, Jade Quon, and Jane Curtin. We had the great pleasure of sitting down over Zoom to chat with the movie’s director, Marc Turtletaub.

Jules follows Milton, played by Kingsley, a widower with a quiet life in a rural town in Pennsylvania. Everything changes after a UFO crashes in his backyard, complete with an alien passenger named Jules. Jules and Milton become friends, but when Milton’s well-meaning neighbors discover the alien, things get tricky. The movie is a joy. It has science fiction, family, and a lot of endearing comedy.

Jules premiered to much fanfare at the Sonoma International Film Festival in March of this year. It was quickly acquired for US distribution by Bleecker Street Films, which has had a big year with releases including Mafia Mamma and Golda. The film has been a winner with audiences as it makes its way through the film festival circuit. Read on or listen in for the full interview.

[Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Interview with Marc Turtletaub director of Jules

Ayla Ruby: All right. I’m so excited to chat with you. I saw the trailer for Jules, and I told our editor-in-chief that we have to cover this because it just looks incredible. So, here we are.”

Marc Turtletaub: “Oh, well, thank you for doing that.”

Ayla Ruby: “Can you talk about the journey to getting this made? How did you first come upon Gavin Steckler’s screenplay and what connected with this for you? What made you want to do this?”

Marc Turtletaub: “I got it from two producers in Los Angeles, Debbie Liebling and Andy Daly, who had been working on it with Gavin for two years, and they sent it to me to direct. I read it. I actually had another project I was thinking about doing, and then I got this one, and you just don’t read two scripts like this. There won’t be another one like this in the next 10 years. It’s so unique.”

“It has three things that I look for. It is unique, I always look for something that’s one of a kind; it’s entertaining, which it has to be, otherwise people aren’t going to pay any attention to it; and then it’s about something, so that when you get done in the movie theater, you have something to talk about afterwards. That combination is the trifecta that I look for.”

Ayla Ruby: One thing I really love about this film, playing off of that, is the tone. There’s this dignity in aging that carries across, even though it’s this balance of funny and really profound and it’s not sad like a lot of other movies about aging. Can you talk about that? Can you talk about – was the tone a choice, what influenced that, and how did you translate that from the script to the screen?”

Marc Turtletaub: “That’s spot on, Ayla. I think that for me, that’s critical in this story. Usually when you read a screenplay or watch a movie about dementia or losing one’s faculties, it’s melancholic and very sad. This has real emotion in it, obviously, and people do cry when they see the movie, but they also laugh. I think that combination is what I always look for. If you can laugh and cry in a movie, I mean, then you’ve really touched people’s feelings and emotions.”

“So, it deals with serious subjects in a way in which we can feel good about it, if you will, and feel hopeful. But they’re real. It’s real. The key to that, I saw that in the script. I didn’t know if I could pull it off, and that’s the whole tone question. It goes beyond just the fact that he’s beginning early stages of dementia. It goes way beyond that because there’s all these other elements that you have to blend in.”

“There’s a bit of a science fiction element. Obviously, there’s a four-foot 11-inch alien. There’s a real, inventive creativity in the story. There’s great humor, and then there’s this emotion and pathos, and it’s a buddy movie. You also have these three elderly people who become buddies later in life. And all of that – usually, each one of those could be a movie in itself. I’ll do a science fiction movie, or I’ll do a buddy movie, but to put them all in one package, which is brilliantly done by Gavin, that was the challenge. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I knew I had to try.”

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Jane Curtin, Harriet Sansom Harris, and Sir Ben Kingsley in Jules (Bleecker Street)

Ayla Ruby: It’s got all these layers, which you mentioned, and it’s on the scaffolding of being a sci-fi movie, and it’s such a cool vehicle for the message of the film. Are you a big sci-fi fan? Was that new to you?”

Marc Turtletaub: “No.”

Ayla Ruby: “Ah.”

Marc Turtletaub: I don’t dislike sci-fi, but that’s not what drew me to it. What drew me to it was its uniqueness, and the core was three people finding connection later in life and the importance of that. That’s the core to me. It’s all from a catalyst of this alien that doesn’t speak. The character who doesn’t speak allows the three humans to find their voice, and then they, in turn, not only find their voice, but they open up about all their innermost secrets, and then they can find a connection with each other as well. So, that was the core for me. I don’t dislike the science fiction element. I think it’s interesting and fascinating way to, as you put it, scaffold it. But it wasn’t the heart for me. The heart was those three characters.”

Ayla Ruby: “Was there anything that you maybe watched in advance or read just to get into the mindset of this, or did you just come at it fresh?”

Marc Turtletaub: I came at it fresh. The only thing I would say I looked at, and I did this with my production designer, Richard Hoover, is I wanted to look at the classic science fiction from the ’50s and ’60s. So, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Flash Gordon, movies like that where you could see classic spaceships that look like saucers, and you could see aliens that were gray-blue that looked like Jules. I knew I wanted to make this very practical and not CGI-driven. So, that was the one thing I did look at.”

Ayla Ruby: “I’m really glad you mentioned that because I have some questions about that. There’s this big, obviously hulking spaceship, flying saucer, and I think I read that this thing was, in reality, 40 feet big, just this… Bigger?”

Marc Turtletaub: “No, that’s right. I’m shaking my head-“

Ayla Ruby: Okay.”

Marc Turtletaub: Because I’m remembering how hard it was to get it together.”

Ayla Ruby: “Can you talk about that? Because you filmed in Chatham, New Jersey, and a couple of other places. That seems massive.”

Marc Turtletaub: “No, it was. Those poor people who let us get into their house and backyard they won’t talk to me. No, I’m kidding. But they were incredibly accommodating. Our production team, headed up by Richard, I think it, was eight pieces, slices of a ship put together, and then we had to relocate it because the ship relocates in the yard. So, they had to disassemble it to move it over, and then we brought it to a gravel pit about 40 miles away for that scene near the end of the movie. They had to take it all 40 miles away and then reassemble it. So, it was a massive undertaking, and they did a beautiful job, I thought.”

Ayla Ruby: “I can only imagine the looks you got on the highway as you’re driving with this.”

Marc Turtletaub:Even the neighbors in Boonton, New Jersey, kept peeking in, and we kept saying, “Don’t tell anybody there’s a ship here.” We had only one person that took a photo of it and sent it out. People in the neighborhood, of course, could see it because it’s so big, even though it’s a somewhat rural area. The family that owned the home was really accommodating because not only did we build the ship, but we dug this enormous trench in their backyard.”

Ayla Ruby: “Back to the alien, I read that… Not that I read, but there’s this amazingly talented actress, Jade Quon, playing her. She’s in an alien suit, right? Can you talk about that? Because that’s not a choice that everyone makes these days, to go practical versus CGI, and I think that’s really cool.”

Marc Turtletaub: “Yeah, for me, too, I think it was critical. As soon as I read the script, I said, “I’m not going to do CGI.” There is something that you gain… Not something, an enormous amount you gain by having a real actor playing against other actors. The first thing that Sir Ben Kingsley, after he said yes, and he said yes immediately to the screenplay, he said, “Will I be acting against a stick and a ball?” As you know, the way they start with CGI, you talk to a stick and with a ball on top of it. I said, ‘No, there’s a real actress,’ and he said, ‘Oh, good’.”

Jade is, I think, really part of the secret sauce of the movie because she’s so present in every scene. The actors said, ‘I could get lost in her eyes,’ and that allowed them to imagine what she was thinking, how she was feeling, because she doesn’t say anything, but you have to be able to read into her face. I think that’s the real secret of the movie working is that she had that ability to do that.”

Ayla Ruby: “She’s got this amazing stunt background otherwise, too. She’s very much a physical actress, it seems.”

Marc Turtletaub: “She is, but even so, she said, ‘I’ve never done anything like this before,’ because you’re really focused so much on her head, on her eyes. Yeah, she was amazing. It took her four to five hours every day to get into the prosthetics.”

Ayla Ruby: “Wow.”

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Jade Quon as “Jules”. (Bleecker Street)

Marc Turtletaub: “Then she had to go to work. Then she had to act. I asked her at one point; I said, ‘Jade, how do you do that?’ She said,’ I just go to my quiet place’.”

Ayla Ruby: “Oh.”

Marc Turtletaub: I’m thinking, ‘Wow, you need to write a book about meditation,’ because how many people could do that and yet be present in every scene? So, I think she’s part of the real secret to the movie.”

Ayla Ruby: “That’s incredible. I love that. Now, you mentioned Sir Ben Kingsley. Can you talk about just casting overall? Because I think I read or maybe heard that everyone said yes, right?”

Marc Turtletaub: Yeah, right away.”

Ayla Ruby: “After reading the script.”

Marc Turtletaub: “Yeah, right away. It’s because I think they all saw the same thing I saw in Gavin’s screenplay, which is it’s about something meaningful, and yet it’s in a fresh way that we haven’t seen. So, everyone said yes right away, and it was a pleasure. Very early on, he said to me, Sir Ben, we were in his trailer, ‘Marc, you can let go of Milton.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, Sir Ben?’ He said, ‘I’ve got him. You can let go of him.’ It was perfect because I don’t like to rehearse. So, it allows these great actors to bring in whatever they’re going to bring in without my mediating it beforehand and I think that’s part of the key to working with great actors is you get out of their way.”

Ayla Ruby: “Now, I have to ask about Milton and the wig because that’s so obvious there. Can you talk about, was that anybody’s choice? Was it a production design choice? Because you don’t normally see him in a wig.”

Marc Turtletaub: “Right, you don’t usually see him in a movie like this, either.”

Ayla Ruby: “Exactly.”

Marc Turtletaub: “He’s probably done a hundred movies, and I can think of maybe a couple that were comedy, had comedic elements, and this has such strong comedy in it. I’m sure that’s part of what attracted him. I wanted him, and he said the same thing in interviews, he wanted to get lost in the role. That’s part of what makes it so beautiful is it’s not Ben Kingsley playing Milton; it’s Milton and you sense that when you see him. So, part of that was the choice to put a wig on him and put glasses on him. Usually, you just want to see that iconic face of Ben Kingsley, but in this case, he lost himself totally in Milton.”

Ayla Ruby: “This is the third film you’ve directed, but you’ve been a producer, EP on some amazing other films. I can’t even list them because there are just so many cool ones. Can you talk about, if at all, your philosophy or approach to directing? Has it changed from the first one to this one?”

Marc Turtletaub: “Yeah, it has. I think in the very first one, I was overly concerned about controlling everything. As I’ve, I think, matured as a director, I’ve learned to relax and to allow really great talent to interpret in their own way. There’s always an opportunity afterwards, Ayla. There’s always an opportunity after a take or two to go in and say, ‘Hey, can we try something different this time?’ Or, ‘What do you think about this?’ But I’d say the biggest change for me is not to be so determinative but to allow the actors a lot more freedom, and I think it helps the performance.”

Ayla Ruby: “Awesome. I just got the time warning, so I’ve got one or two more. What do you want people to take away from this film, or is there anything that you want people to know that we haven’t talked about?”

Marc Turtletaub: Yeah, I think really importantly, if you love the movie, please tell people about it because these independent movies are so dependent on word-of-mouth. I think it’s one thing that I would say to anyone listening or reading what you’re going to write. The second thing I would say is I like to leave people free to bring in and interpret what they’re going to interpret from it, but there are a number of subjects that I think you could talk about when you get done watching the movie, like how wonderful it is to have a perfect listener.”

“Jules is that perfect listener who allows these other characters to find their voice. It’s interesting, right? The alien with no voice allows all these characters to find their voice, the human character, and then they can begin to open up, and then they can begin to connect. So, that’s a subject I think that is worthy of conversation as well as the conversation around how important it is to live your life fully, all the way, and define connection with other human beings, no matter how old you are.”

Ayla Ruby: “Well, that’s a wonderful message. Thank you so much for chatting with me, and I’m so excited about Jules.

Marc Turtletaub: “Oh, thank you. I’m so glad that you like it.”

Ayla Ruby: “Bye. Thank you!”

Watch Jules in select theaters now

Julesis now playing in select theaters nationwide . Have you seen Jules yet? What did you think? Join the conversation and share your thoughts with us on Discord or social media. 

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Ayla Ruby

I am a writer and interviewer based somewhere in the Alpha Quadrant. I love all things nerdy - but Star Trek and Spiderman have special places in my heart. Find me at @TulinWrites on Twitter. And visit my other website for more reviews and interviews:

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