The Back-Up Plan is touted as Jennifer Lopez's comeback after her long break from film acting. I had the opportunity to speak with the director of the film, Alan Poul about challenges of going from television directing to film directing, his advice for aspiring directors and what he really thinks of Jennifer Lopez.
What is The Back-Up Plan about and why should we run to see it on opening day weekend?
The movie's about how relationships have been complicated by the alternative methods available for building a family today. It's a comedy, but it tackles issues that are of-the-moment, especially for single women in their thirties (and beyond). You should see it because it will really, really make you laugh; but hopefully beyond that there's a layer of genuine emotional content that will linger, especially for women who have dealt with issues of fertility, ill-timed romances, and the biological clock. Structurally, it's a classic romantic comedy that harkens back to more traditional Hollywood forms, even though it deals with edgier issues.
What was the biggest difference in directing television compared to film? How do you think television best prepared you for it?
In television, you are making critical decisions every minute of every day. There's no time to second-guess, no time to dither, no time to say, "Let's shoot it a hundred ways and make up our mind in the cutting room." So you learn to trust your instincts. That skill was enormously helpful in transitioning to features because it bought me the time I needed to concentrate on performance. Because you have more time to make a film, and fewer pages to shoot each day, there's so much scrutiny of everything--inevitably there's more focus on the trees (and the branches, and the twigs), and less on the forest. The most minute aspects of set decoration or wardrobe suddenly loom huge. If you're a perfectionist, and what director isn't, it's so easy to become obsessed with any given detail as "the most important thing in the whole movie!" at any given moment. The TV training kept me focused on the forest, on the one or two absolutely essential elements of each scene. That is, when I wasn't freaking out over an ashtray being the wrong color.
Was it difficult getting a break into film directing even with your track record?
Television and features are like two parallel universes. They exist side by side, but are largely populated by different hierarchies. As a director, crossing over proved more difficult than I had anticipated. It's like there's a public school and a private school in the same small town, and everyone knows everyone and a lot of them socialize together, but it's much easier to transfer in one direction than the other.
What was it like directing Jennifer Lopez? There are always rumors about working with her but what surprised you the most?
I did my homework, and I already knew from other directors who had worked with Jennifer that rumors to the contrary, she is always prepared, professional, and enthusiastic, so I can't pretend I was surprised when that turned out to be true. She was entirely committed to the film, and never brought any temperament or bad humor to the set. There were definitely days when I was way testier than she was. And this on a film where she worked 51 out of 53 days--she's in nearly every scene. We had a good time, and a very collaborative relationship. The thing that surprised me was that her mind is such a steel trap. Of course as a dancer, she has complete control over her physicality. But she also has near total recall, so eight weeks into the shoot she could still remember the exact phrasing of a line as we'd done it in pre-production rehearsals, or the precise rationalization I'd used to impose a certain interpretation on a scene. It kept me on my toes. She's un-foolable.
Will you ever go back to television directing or are you hooked on films?
I'll be spending the month of June directing a few episodes of Laura Linney's new Showtime series The Big C. It's a great show with a great cast. I love directing television and will never give it up. That said, there are aspects of features that I find more rewarding, and I hope to make as many as I can. The biggest problem is finding movies suitable for grown-ups. I'm not the guy you want to make movies aimed at teenage boys. That takes me out of at least half the jobs. Television, especially cable, has become the repository of complicated character-driven narratives, which is where I gravitate. On the other hand, there is nothing in television that matches the thrill of sitting in a theater full of 350 strangers and hearing them react in unison to something you did. It beggars description.
What advice do you have for today's filmmaker to break in?
Don't be precious. Get whatever job you can get. Jobs lead to jobs, and befriending people opens doors. And don't talk about "wanting to direct." It's so different today because anyone can shoot an HD film and cut it on their Mac. So there's no excuse for not doing it. If you suck, hopefully you'll learn and get better, but you have to do it.
What's your next project?
I have a number of independent films I'm developing, and a number of TV pilots I'm waiting for the green light on. If anyone can tell me which one will be next, I'll buy them dinner.
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