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Good Neighbors: Bringing Humor Back to Noir

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Setting his latest film in 1995 allowed director Jacob Tierney to avoid cell phones and the DNA-spoiled world of CSI. And then he turned up the black comedy.


Good Neighbors
Scott Speedman, Emily Hampshire, Jay Baruchel / courtesy Magnolia Pictures

With so many action movies and shoot-em-ups and 3D extravaganzas on the cinematic landscape, it’s nice to find some respite with a good old-fashioned noir, one focused on characters in one charismatic location. That’s what you’ll find in Jacob Tierney’s latest, Good Neighbors.

Based on Québécoise author Chrystine Brouillet’s first novel Chère Voisine, Good Neighbors centers on a character-filled apartment building in the Notre Dame de Grace neighborhood of Montreal, where a serial killer has been terrorizing local women. As the film opens, two of the building’s residents—Spencer (Scott Speedman), a young widower in wheelchair, and Louise (Emily Hampshire), a waitress devoted to her cats—meet their new neighbor, Victor (Jay Baruchel), an eager to please schoolteacher. As their at-times-awkward friendship develops, tensions mount, secrets and jealousies rear their ugly heads, and Louise’s cats become as imperiled as the neighborhood’s young women. To give away more would be a crime; suffice it to say, there are delightful jolts around every ominous corner.

Tierney is a friend of Tribeca, as his previous film The Trotsky played at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, and was subsequently distributed by Tribeca Film. (The Trotsky also featured Baruchel and Hampshire.) It was a pleasure to catch up with Tierney recently, and find out what prompted him to bring humor back to the noir genre.


Good Neighbors
Director Jacob Tierney, Producer Kevin Tierney / courtesy Magnolia Pictures 

KMc: What inspired you to tell this story?

Jacob Tierney: It was the book, truthfully. It was a book that I read in high school, and I just loved it. Actually, when I was 17, it was the first script I ever tried writing. I always loved noir and black comedies, so there was just something about it that appealed to me right away. I’ve never been able to shake that book. 

KMc: Is this your first film adaptation? And can you talk about your book-to-screenplay adaptation process? How similar is it to the book? I understand you made a few slight changes…

JT: Spencer’s name is Roland in the book; that’s the most significant change I made. I hated the name Roland.

But my first film was based on Oliver Twist—pretty loosely, though—so I guess this is kind of my second adaptation. I wrote this script super quickly. It was a book that I’d lived with for years and years and years and knew super well. But books are not movies; they move at a different pace, and the way information is doled out is completely different.


Good Neighbors
Scott Speedman / courtesy Magnolia Pictures

I remember at one point, being halfway through the script, and being like, “I feel like I’ve written myself into a corner here.” I went back to the book to read it again, and I realized it was no longer helpful to me. I’d done things in a different order than she’d done them, like the way that information gets revealed [in the book]—through interior monologue, etc.—none of which, obviously, I’d used. So it’s really about thinking through the plot, and thankfully, her plot was very well structured; I knew the events that had to happen.

And then I really wrote it for these three actors, so hearing their voices kind of guided me through the rest of it. 

KMc: You changed the location and the timeframe?

JT: Yeah, it was set in the early 80s in Quebec City, and I moved it to the mid-90s in Montreal. Partly because I don’t know Quebec City that well… But the reason that I set it in that neighborhood in Montreal—Notre Dame de Grace—was because Quebec City is so much smaller: if there was a serial killer in Quebec City, it would scare the whole city. But if there was a serial killer in Montreal, it kind of wouldn’t; it would depend where he was. So if you put in a neighborhood… I wanted Montreal to feel small in that way. I also wanted every street to feel abandoned, to feel as isolated and cold as possible.


Good Neighbors
Jay Baruchel / courtesy Magnolia Pictures 

KMc: You also set it in a time before DNA was everywhere, and before cell phones.
 

JT: I could never write CSI; I don’t know how they do that. I feel like you would need a bio-engineering degree to write stuff like that. I also feel like that kind of information is the death of noir—it’s no fun when there is too much information available. And yeah, part of the attraction of 1995 was that I didn’t have to deal with cell phones, Facebook, etc. It’s too easy to find information about people now; I like it when you have to learn about people from what they tell you.


Good Neighbors
Emily Hampshire / courtesy Magnolia Pictures

I think at a certain point, humor was sucked out of noirs, and they became thrillers. The kind of psychosexual, misogynistic thrillers in the 80s—women went from being glamorous and awesome in those movies to being crazy, batshit villainesses. What I liked about this book and the idea of it was that I could do something really different with women in noir. What always appealed to me about the story was Louise. She’s such an interesting character, and you don’t see women playing that role—of the protagonist—and forcing the two men in the story to react to what she’s doing, as opposed to the other way around. That’s what I thought was the opportunity to do something different here.


Good Neighbors
Scott Speedman, Jay Baruchel / courtesy Magnolia Pictures 

Want to keep reading? Check out the entire interview at TribecaFilm.com.


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