Interview: Filmmaker Justin Lerner and Star Joseph Cross Talk ‘The Automatic Hate’

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Indie films almost always hit the mark and The Automatic Hate is no exception. It is a deep and thought-provoking family drama that explores the taboos and awkward moments that exist within dysfunctional families. Young actor Joseph Cross (LincolnMilk) anchors the film which is written, directed, and produced by Justin Lerner (GirlfriendThe Replacement Child). Cross and Lerner recently took some time to speak with me and it was illuminating, to say the least. Here’s how that interview went:

So how did you guys get involved with the project?

Justin: Well, I wrote it and directed it, so Joe, do you want to talk about how you got involved?

Joseph: Yeah, I auditioned. I auditioned for Brad, the casting director. He and I have actually become – it’s funny because he cast me in something else, and he said, “Why don’t we get drinks?” And then he was telling me about this movie that he had just casted. “I just cast this incredible film called The Automatic Hate. It’s a shame you’re too young for it,” and he was telling me about Adelaide Clemens and how amazing she was and how much she had moved him when he had first seen her audition. And then I get a call three weeks later from Brad, and he says, “Do you still have that beard?” And I said, “Yeah.” He’s like, “Yeah, actually, I don’t think you’re too young anymore. Why don’t you come in?” I said, “Alright, fine.” I auditioned for Justin, and then Justin and I sat down at a place called Figaro in Los Feliz, and we chatted, and we decided to do the movie.

Justin: Yeah, what’s interesting, what I do, I mean obviously if the audition is good, that would be the first step, but really in casting, I really, the second part is equally as important is getting to know the person and explain how I work and see how they work and if it’s a good match. I tend to not work and shoot in a conventional way. Not that I’m crazy and completely different, but it definitely is a different way than a lot of stuff that I was on while I was observing other people directing coming up. So it’s always super helpful to have the second part of the casting be a long chat meeting, and I think it’s almost more helpful in my casting than establishing whether they can say the lines because once you’re on a certain tier of actor, you know that they’re talented enough. Then it’s just trying to find a good fit with each other.

Did you have the roles in mind? I mean, did you have a cast in your head already, like I’m going to cast Richard Schiff as the dad? I mean, did you have them in mind before you casted them?

Justin: So I wrote this with a partner, Katharine O’Brien, who is a talented writer/director, and we disagreed about all of this because she had her own people in mind and I had my own, so I can only speak for me. But not every role, no. For example, I had no idea that would be Alexis until I saw Adelaide Clemens’ audition tape. I said Adelaide Clemens has created an Alexis far richer and more shocking and funny and alluring than anything that was on our page, so she has to be it because she’s going to make us look really good. But no, the only role that I knew I had someone in my head while literally punching away at the keyboard was Ricky Jay. Ricky was in my mind from the very first line and my first draft of the script. I’ve always wanted to work with him. He’s maybe one of my favorite human beings alive, not to mention actors, performers, writers, magicians, whatever, so yeah, he was the first. The other ones, obviously there were other people that were in my head, but Ricky for sure.

What were some of the challenges you guys had during production?

Joseph: (laughs) What were some of the challenges?

Justin: The biggest challenge for me was the big dinner sequence that’s the last fourth of the movie. Every major character in the room for a week, shooting that entire sequence that ends in that eruption. Joe, how about you?

Joseph: I know, I’m trying to think. I mean, the movie was challenging in and of itself. For me, I had to be in a lot of it.

Justin: I think there was only one day that Joe didn’t work on the entire shoot.

Joseph: Yeah, which yeah, my one day was one of your two most challenging days because it was the beginning of that dinner party sequence. I had no idea what to do with myself. I was, like, pacing in circles at the hotel room.

Just keep growing that beard, right?

Joseph: Yeah, exactly.

Justin: The beard thing was an issue for me. It was a very big issue for me. I did tell Joe that he would not only have to keep it growing, but he would have to dye it a darker color.

Joseph: Justin wanted somebody to look as much like him as possible, so I had to dye my beard darker, and I had to wear a messenger bag everywhere.

Justin: And our costume designer actually stalked me on Facebook to pick out his clothes.

Wow, okay.

Justin: I just wanted him to look a little bit like something I had in my head. It wasn’t a conscious thing, and then all of a sudden, my costume designer said, “You know, you’re describing everything that you wear.” And I was like, oh my god. (laughs) I no longer have messenger bags because they messed up my back, so I now wear a backpack or a suitcase.

Joseph: If only this had been now, I could have had a backpack or a suitcase, a rolling bag.

Maybe in the sequel!

Joseph: I don’t know. In terms of challenges, we dove right into it. As soon as Justin casted it, we started talking a couple hours each day about script and about character and about backstory and all that stuff, so we were – what’s great is I think Justin and I like to work the same way in this regard, that we do a lot of talking about everything up until we get that we don’t have to do any talking, and so we can really gain some momentum and get moving. Maybe the biggest challenge that came to us, Justin, was that last day when we shot the scene where Alexis first arrives.

Justin: Yeah, the thing about the way I work is that we don’t rehearse, so if a problem does – ‘cause I like to keep people in their most kind of innocent first kind of discovery of the scene. I’d like to get that on film than have it be stale. I’d rather it be a kind of roughness to it than polished, boring perfection, but the problem with that is sometimes, the scene isn’t clicking immediately, and we’re sitting there, wasting valuable time trying to get it to work. Usually it wasn’t a problem because these two, Joe and Adelaide, had such good chemistry that they just found their way into the scene because we had also talked it to death beforehand, so they knew everything I wanted. They knew what everything meant, so it wasn’t like we just showed up on the day. We talked it to death, but actually getting it up in front of people, if for some reason lightning strikes and there’s just no spark, there was the one day, the last day of shooting, that it did happen with one scene. So the challenging thing I think was just in those scenes that required a little bit of thought. Keeping them exciting, like any kind of physical intimacy or any sort of intense scene like that, was always a little bit tough, especially when you’re making a film about two cousins.

Joseph: It was really, we actually shot the master as it was on the page and then Justin just came to me and was like, “Alright, something’s not working.” And I was like, “Yeah, I don’t know what it is.” And Justin was like, “Oh, I’ve got it! You’ve got to tell her to leave! You need to say to her, ‘Okay, you need to leave,’ like you’re freaked out, who is this person who is stalking you around town?”

Justin: Oh, you might want to tell him, this is the very first scene where Alexis shows up on his doorstep, in the very first five minutes.

Right.

Joseph: Right, and we actually shot it on the very last day.

Oh, interesting.

Joseph: So Justin re-wrote it between the master and going into coverage, which was kind of amazing.

Justin: Yeah, so actually we couldn’t use the master except the beginning for her showing up and the first line and then the scene was completely different, which I had never done before. I had never changed a scene mid-shooting, but it was the last day, and I was in such a groove. Alright, I’ll quickly edit this in my head.

Joseph: That was a good testament to your adaptability.

Justin: The other biggest challenge I think is just also with all of those talented people in one room, that big dinner sequence with the fight and the big song, making sure that I’m kind of utilizing all the talent in the room at one point and not – you know, when you have so many talented creative people in one place, you can get overwhelmed and want to default to your pre-conceived ideas, but when you have so many big talented people there, things can change in a really amazing way because they’re all so talented. They can come up with stuff. I guess being open to Richard Schiff and Ricky Jay are geniuses and allowing that to do things with each other that isn’t in your script that could really help and being open to that while keeping the fact that we have a certain amount of shots we need to get because we’re on a schedule, and we can’t afford to shoot two more days of it. We have today, so we’ve got to get everything. So I mean, that was a whole, I felt like a, not even a conductor in a symphony because that would suggest that it was a, I’m thinking more like a beautiful chaos. Like an air traffic controller, that’s what I felt like, or at a five-lane intersection where the lights have gone out from a power outage, and I’m the cop in the middle, trying to make sure no one collides in the middle. That’s how it felt.

Nice analogy. Joseph, you’ve done film, TV, theater – out of the three, do you have a particular favorite?

Joseph: It’s so funny because I’ve just gone back to doing a TV miniseries, and I haven’t done TV in a really long time. Don’t know if I have a favorite. I love being on location. I like the comfort of the soundstage, of course, but there’s something about being on location that changes the chemistry of the scene, I think, so I love to be on location. I mean, I kind of, there’s something really wonderful about – I’ve done bigger movies, I’ve done smaller movies, and there’s something fun about smaller movies on a smaller budget because usually I have a little bit more responsibility on them, and there’s an energy and there’s a need to complete the project in the way that the filmmakers envisioned it, so the smaller movies are certainly more difficult, but they’re also maybe more cathartic at the end of the whole experience. You really feel like you’ve given yourself over to something, and theater, I haven’t done a play in a while. The last one I did was at the Haymarket Theatre in London, probably seven years ago.

Justin: Was that Breakfast at Tiffany’s?

Joseph: Yeah, it was, with my friend Sean Mathias directing. Theater is great because it’s like actor boot camp. I mean, you are such a better actor when you’re on-stage every night. You just are. You’re just better. You’re just working a muscle really thoroughly, so I definitely would like to do another play. To answer your question, no, I don’t really have a preference. They all satisfy a different part of my curiosity of that work.

Is there a particular role in the future you’d like to sink your teeth into?

Joseph: You know, it’s so funny, people ask that, and I can’t say that I – I mean, to me, what’s most important is to work with great filmmakers. I mean, that’s my, that’s constantly my goal, or you know, just directors in general, so whether that’s – a lot of directors are crossing into television now, so I’m doing this HBO mini-series, but before that, most of the people were in film, and I was getting to work with a lot of them, so I think that more than dreaming of – I mean, I would love to find a transformative character, something that was challenging. I’d like to be able to study a lot, to be able to learn a lot, and do a lot of work before the movie begins, but for me, what my focus has always been was just working with the best filmmakers that I can.

Justin: I was just going to say, Joe really is one of those actors that excels when he trusts that the director knows what they’re doing. Any time that I even hinted that I wasn’t sure what I was doing, you could see Joe – he’s got a very good knowledge of film and of editing and understanding of the final product, so he definitely excels with directors who are really opinionated and strong-willed and that have a plan. Like, he feels safe, like most actors do. He’s no different.

Joseph: And I had a great time with Justin and then Justin decided to bring me into the editing room with him, and then I got to really see what he was doing this whole time, and Justin, to watch him in the editing room is really great. I feel like all directors must be breathing a sigh of relief and enjoying their time once they’ve got it all there and they can cut it together. But when I first saw the movie, I was like, oh, you did it! You fucking did it! Amazing, you know?

Justin: It’s always funny watching actors see something all put together later. They’re like, wait, I didn’t know you were gonna use that piece and that piece.

Joseph: Yeah, you know, it’s very hard. As an actor, you want to be really careful because some will then become, like, aware of themselves.

Justin: It’s on a need-to-know basis. Never doing it during the shoot, ever.

Joseph: And you know, it doesn’t always work out so well. You know, I’ve talked to a lot of people – I haven’t had this experience too often, but once in a while, you pour your heart into a movie, and I never thought this about Justin, but you pour your heart into a movie, especially on smaller movies, and then you realize that, you know, maybe this director was just making a movie with money that his Aunt Sally gave to him, and he never should have had a camera in his hands to begin with. So it’s particularly great when you find somebody that you can work with and I feel about Justin that now I’ll forever trust him, more so than probably when we were on set because I got to see the final product, and I really enjoyed the movie.

So you’d say a friendship developed?

Justin: Oh, yeah.

Joseph: And a really good working relationship.

Justin: I very rarely – I mean, I’m friends with most of the actors I’ve worked with, but Joe and I have become, he’s one of the first actors I’ve worked with on a feature film that I’ve become close friends with too. I think it’s also out of a mutual love of movies. We definitely, a lot of our friendship was not only about the movie that we did together but other films. We’re both cinephiles, so we’ve kind of bonded. After going through such an intense experience together on this movie, it’s kind of like war buddies. You were on the front lines together, and now you’re back home with your wife and going to the supermarket every day and still talk about the war. (laughs)

Do you guys have plans to work together again?

Justin: Given the right project, I would definitely do it. I definitely – it’s weird, next thing I’m doing, I’m kind of working on right now, and it’s about two teenage girls, so I don’t know, I mean, I don’t know. Even though Joe without his beard looks very, very young, I don’t know if I could get him there, but I’ve been trying to do this film I’m working on next. You know, I wrote it before we shot Automatic Hate, but for projects in the future, including one that I wrote after The Automatic Hate that I’d like to do as well. You know, clearly if there’s a role for Joe in something I’m doing, I would like him to be there just because, you know, it makes sense obviously because these movies are so hard to put together. Yeah, I think that it would be a really, just the way that I keep working with my same cinematographer and costume designer, I think there’s a language developed that makes things easier the second and third and fourth time around.

Joseph: And I just want to make sure to get in a little bit about how wonderful it is to work with Adelaide. She’s so, so talented and fully, entirely committed to what she’s in.

Justin: She’s someone that I would cast as a man if I only had a male role. She is as good as it gets.

(Laughs)

Joseph: Transforms across gender lines, and she’s a good friend of mine as well, and when I lived in New York, Adelaide and I were making all of our audition tapes together, and it was really, really helpful.

Yeah, the chemistry you guys have is really amazing. I haven’t seen chemistry that good between two young people in quite some time.

Joseph: Well, thank you.

I wanted to congratulate you guys on that.

Joseph: Thank you.

Justin: She’s someone that if I – I mean, I’ve been bitten by the Adelaide bug. I’m scouring my next projects, looking for something for her, and I’m sure it will happen.

Because of the subject matter in the film is rather taboo, was it awkward or uncomfortable on-set bringing this story to life?

Justin: Sure, yeah. I thrive on that. I love when it’s awkward and uncomfortable. Think about it, I mean, it’s one of the best ways to not feel like what you’re doing is boring. My fear is that my film will go on a DVD shelf in a few years and no one will remember it. At least we’ve made a memorable film about something that’s a little bit uncomfortable, and I think those are the stories worth remembering and thinking about, so if you’ve got that vibe on the set too, then it’s there and you have to capture it. But yeah, I think sometimes the best sets, the ones where everyone is happy and the most relaxed, make the worst movies. (Laughs)

Joseph: That’s true, yeah, from an acting perspective too. If you feel awkward and uncomfortable and that something’s not quite right, usually it’s much better than when you feel, “Oh yeah, this is going great.”

Justin: Do you know why that is? Your body holds the conflict in your face and in the way you look, and as human beings, conflict is interesting to us, and everything going great is not interesting.

I agree.

Justin: You asked Joe what directors he wants to work with. Were you about to ask me if there were any actors out there?

Yeah, yeah. The both of you, are there any filmmakers or actors that the both of you are looking forward to working with in the future?

Justin: I think that Emily Browning deserves to have a film written specifically for her. I think that she is one of my favorite actors working today that maybe hasn’t been recently in something that would – I don’t think she’s a household name, but for me, I think that she’s this actress that I would, I think that she is so talented, and I’m putting it out into the universe now so that maybe she reads this. (Laughs) I would like to write something for her. That’s how much I like her, and obviously I love Joe and Adelaide because I’ve worked with them, but other than that, Emily Browning deserves to have an entire film built around her. She is that enjoyable to watch.

Yeah, it’s been a good five years since Sucker Punch, so you’re right, she’s due.

Justin: Yeah, she’s due, but like, I’m going to make it my mission to find a project for her and find a way to work with her because I think that she’s so great. Other than Joe and Adelaide, I’m a humongous fan of Ben Foster, Shia LaBeouf –

You like these rugged, everyday men.

Justin: Yeah, I think so, I think so, and then there’s something about, for this movie obviously I discovered Adelaide and Joe in the casting, but my dream person to make a movie with before this was Ricky Jay, and I got that.

And he was perfectly cast, by the way.

Justin: Oh, thank you. I wrote him a letter saying, hey, Ricky, I’m a big fan. I wrote this – I’m half Jewish, and my dad’s a Jewish guy from Brooklyn. I went to Cornell, you went to Cornell. I wrote Uncle Josh with you in mind specifically, and I don’t have a second choice for the role, so if you don’t say yes, then I’m totally fucked. And then he met with me, and I convinced him to do it, mostly because I think he’s used to getting offers for gangster roles and magicians, and he never got a hippie, pot-growing pig farmer from upstate New York.

Joseph: I’ve been so fortunate in that I’ve gotten to work with a lot of really great actors and great filmmakers already. I think that for me, my filmmaker holy grail has been Paul Thomas Anderson for a while, and I got Ricky to tell me as many stories as I possibly could from Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and I think that’s always somebody whose movies I’ll watch and I watch the performances that he gets, and so that would be, that’s the name I’d like to put out to the universe.

Justin: That’s a good one to put out into the universe.

Joseph: It will be me, Justin, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Emily Browning, all in one bed together.

(Laughs)

Last question, what is it about independent films that brings out the very best in performers?

Justin: I think it’s because everybody who is there wants to be there because if they didn’t, they would just leave because nobody is making any money. I mean, don’t you think on some level to make an independent film, everyone is there because they are passionate about it, and on bigger budget films, they can clearly be passionate about it too, but there is a level of some people are doing this for a paycheck? You’re not, you know no one on an independent film is doing it for the paycheck. You know they are all there because they are truly interested in acting and being part of the project. That’s all I’m saying.

Joseph: Yeah, I think that sort of passion, I don’t want to say desperation because that sounds negative, but there is a desperation to tell whatever story you’re telling. You know, Justin is talented enough that he could be writing whatever the agents want him to write, that they think they can sell. He could be fitting himself into a mold. It’s very difficult to finance a movie of this size about this relationship between cousins. Once you’re on set, it’s a really long journey for the filmmaker and for the writer and for the producers, and I think that energy is infectious and trickles down to the actors as well as to the crew, and I think that you all want to do right by the filmmaker with a passion project like this. You know, it’s an honor to be brought into that, to be trusted with these parts in telling that story.

Justin: I think also you have a lot more to lose as an independent filmmaker because if you don’t do a good job, nobody is going to see your film. It’s not going to get into a festival. A distributor is not going to buy it. You already know the odds are stacked against you when you’re making it, that only less than 1 percent of indie films get into a really good market festival, and of that, less than 10 percent end up with a distributor, so you know you’re threading like three needles to get an audience for this movie. So your game has to be stepped up. I think also on the flip side of that, content-wise, when you’re making films outside of the studio system, there is more autonomy. Obviously there is more responsibility and less guarantees and more danger, but the trade-off is more autonomy. So you’re able to tell stories that I think are maybe a little bit, controversial is the wrong word, personal, unique, you pick your adjective there, but a little bit off the beaten path, and I think that is why the people who get attracted to those things are so excited about it because it hits a very intense chord for them because the director is kind of, for the good ones, blazing a different trail that hasn’t been done before, that I haven’t seen a film like this before. That kind of energy is infectious, I think. There is a lot of space to do that when nobody is looking and nobody is paying for it.

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