By Pat Mullen
VANCOUVER – “I’m a total research nerd,” admits Jason James. The Vancouver filmmaker explains the process of exploring the worlds of his movies, like the new dramedy Entanglement, which opens in theatres this February. James often begins his research on Tumblr, creating micro-blogs filled with videos, songs, and images that inspire him. “It’s like a moving, shifting scrapbook where I throw thoughts and ideas,” he says. “When I’m trying to get an actor on board, I’ll write them a warm, fuzzy email and send a link to the Tumblr site.” This practice of finding nuggets of art and culture brings the characters to life and gives Entanglement a world that is offbeat and humorous, but painfully real.
Entanglement stars BC native Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley) as Ben, a lonely and depressed man who learns he nearly had a sister, but that his birth complicated the adoption process for his parents. When Ben finds this spiritual-sibling, Hanna (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’s Jess Weixler), their relationship inspires him to see the many lives with which he’s intimately connected. James notes that he began to understand Ben after consulting his friend, psychologist Dr. Maia Love, who diagnosed the character with schizoaffective bipolar disorder. Identifying Ben’s mental illness helps ground Entanglement in reality and contrasts the offbeat magical realism of the film.
James likes to get inside the heads of prospective actors during casting.
“I watch interviews with actors on late night TV and at film festivals to see who they innately are as people,” he says. “I remember watching this interview with Thomas at the Sundance Film Festival and they asked him, ‘What’s your favourite song?’ He started talking about Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘The King of Carrot Flowers,’ and he just started bawling. To me, that was Ben. He’s on the verge of a breakdown. He’s this raw, emotional dude.”
Music, and our relationship with it, also inspires the aesthetic of Entanglement. “When I first read the film and created that Tumblr site,” says James, “the first word that came to mind was ‘vinyl.’ I wanted the film to feel hand-made, hand-drawn, and a little bit messy.”
Entanglement’s visual design flows with underwater sequences and dreamy images that let viewers swim in Ben’s sea of self-doubts and desires. One scene offers a trippy blink-and-you’ll-miss-it effect in a bowling alley where Hanna snaps her fingers and the wall behind her, a galaxy mural of sparkling stars, ripples like a hypnotic vision. It’s the first signal for a twist that reveals the extent of Ben’s illness.
James turned to local crews for visual effects, since his previous films, like the rom-com That Burning Feeling, didn’t call for many. However, the crews skilled in creating visuals like spaceships and explosions for Hollywood tent-poles are like digital to vinyl’s analogue.
“Their job is to make the unreal real,” James observes. “I wanted the visual effects to feel unreal and bump up against reality. I wanted them to feel childish or handmade and to create this collective consciousness of images and ideas coming out of Ben’s head.” For example, James cites some cartoon deer that Ben and Hanna spy during a drug-induced trip that recall the classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer cartoon, while fireworks resemble Windows 95 screensaver fireworks: “Cheap, weird, and a little bit off-putting,” he laughs.
Researching the story world extends to the city itself. James doesn’t hire location scouts and instead drives around listening to playlists inspired by the script.
“Sometimes the locations will inform the story, like the bowling alley,” says James. “It really suited the film, so we rewrote a scene that was originally at a park bench into this location and then the visual effects moment came from that.”
Langley dive Lee’s Chicken offers another element of local character. The fried chicken joint isn’t in the original script, but enjoys a prominent role as Ben’s go-to greasy spoon. He even takes Hanna there for a date where menu offerings of chicken-fried steak bewilder her.
“Jason [Filiatrault] had written this fancy hipster hot dog restaurant in Calgary into the script,” says James, who visited locations that inspired the screenplay. “It felt a bit sad, lonely, and left behind, and that spoke to what Ben was going through. We rewrote the script. We couldn’t change the sign, so we had to change some of the dialogue, like the chicken-fried steak. It was something that I found in the real world to inform the creative.”
Having juggled producer, writer, and director roles on different projects, James appreciates that filmmaking is a malleable process.
“When you’re making a film, you have three different scripts: the film you write, the film you shoot, and the film you edit,” he says. “And you’re constantly reworking the material along the way. The idea of finding things in the real world that inspire the process is something I love about filmmaking.”