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Philip Seymour Hoffman looks back at directing the movie 'Jack Goes Boating'

Amy Ryan and Philip Seymour Hoffman at 2013 First Time Fest in New York City
Amy Ryan and Philip Seymour Hoffman at 2013 First Time Fest in New York City
Carla Hay

Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman (who was found dead in his New York City apartment on Feb. 2, 2014) was a respected and highly accomplished actor, but he was just getting started in directing movies. His feature-film debut was an adaptation of the off-Broadway play “Jack Goes Boating.” Hoffman co-starred in the “Jack Goes Boating” movie (released in 2010) with John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega, who were both in the play with him. “Jack Goes Boating” would turn out to be the first and last movie that Hoffman directed. A few days before his untimely death, it was announced that Hoffman was going to direct the movie "Ezekiel Moss."

Philip Seymour Hoffman at the 2013 First Time Fest in New York City
Carla Hay

“Jack Goes Boating” tells the story of four New Yorkers who share common bonds through work and through love. Jack is a lonely limo driver whose closest relationship is with his best friend/co-worker Clyde (played by Ortiz, one of the executive producers of the film). Clyde is in a crumbling marriage to Lucy (played by Rubin-Vega), who works at a funeral home. Clyde and Lucy play matchmaker and introduce Jack to Lucy's single co-worker Connie (played by Amy Ryan), who has intimacy issues. Connie and Jack begin dating, and they tentatively become a couple. (Beth Cole was Connie in the “Jack Goes Boating” play.)

When Connie mentions to Jack that she would like to go boating with him in Central Park, Jack (who doesn’t know how to swim) decides to get swimming lessons from Clyde. Jack also plans to impress Connie by cooking for a dinner party held at Clyde and Lucy’s home. That dinner party serves as a catalyst for true feelings that are revealed, and it is a test of where each couple’s relationship is headed. At the 2013 First Time Fest in New York City (a film festival featuring movies from first-time filmmakers) Hoffman and Ryan did a Q&A following a screening of “Jack Goes Boating.” Here is what they said.

Can you talk about why you wanted “Jack Goes Boating” to be the first movie that you directed?

Hoffman: It was a play that I did with John Ortiz, who plays Clyde, at the LAByrinth Theater Company. I had directed a few plays at that point. This was first play that John and I acted in. I didn’t direct the play. Peter DuBois did. Amy was in a different play but joined us on the film later, which was really exciting.

The play did very well. It ran for three months, which is a long time for an off-Broadway gig. And then Peter Saraf at Big Beach approached us about making it into a film. We started thinking it about that way, and then John Ortiz approached me about directing the film, because I had been directing theater for about 10 years at that point, with LAByrinth often. So it was the next chronological step for me. I just didn’t know where I was going to take it. Directing was more and more in my head space. So I did say, “This is the one to do it.”

The play itself, I wish we had some shots of the play. It was very cinematic. We always said that when we were doing that there was something about it; the images were very strong. And we had we had to create the swimming and the boating on the stage.

What was it like to play these characters in the “Jack Goes Boating” movie?

Ryan: Whenever I had questions about Connie, [Philip Seymour Hoffman] just laughed at me pretty much. He said, “You’ll figure her out.” I think eventually what he meant was, “Don’t judge her.”

She’s looking for love, like the majority of us in this world, especially in New York City, and it’s hard. It might make you turn more inward than outward. You keep searching as you get older.

I actually found that [Philip Seymour Hoffman] gave a lot of freedom, is my answer. He’d say, “Well, because she is, because she does.” And that’s how these two characters are able to meet each other.

Hoffman: I think that’s right. It’s hard for us to admit that people like Jack and Connie are people we know. We kind of isolate them in the story, indirectly, and all of a sudden you see all the flaws.

We actually think people are much weirder than they’re actually would be in life. We’re in a story where we actually see everything, but we all know the Jacks and the Connies, or we’ve been Jack and Connie at certain times in our lives. And so that was important for us to play those parts.

I remember when I did the play itself, I really felt I wasn’t playing the part well yet. There was something about him that was too withdrawn.

In the film, I concentrated on him being more outward. He wanted to have the pleasure of life’s things, which is love in friendship, but he was sick and tired of being alone. He was sick and tired of being scared. But those things are legitimately scary. I think that they’re really great people, really sweet people.

Can you talk about your choice of intimate camera shots in “Jack Goes Boating”? There are a lot of close-ups of the actors, for instance.

Hoffman: Well, [cinematographer] Mott Hupfel, who shot it, I treated it like any other film: almost like a play. I learned that from the theater and I learned that Sidney Lumet. Amy and I both acted in a film with him, his last film [2007’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”].

And really, I still think it was so lucky that I got that opportunity. And the process was very thorough, very cinematic. It was about cinema, but it came from the theater, obviously.

So Mott, he thought that whole process with all of us. It gave Amy the opportunity to rehearse the script with us, because we’d all done it as a play, and it allowed us to refine the story that we had. I think it helped everybody.

But Mott was there, we did a lot of shooting while rehearsing. So when we were on the set, we were ahead of the game, in a way. We were still behind the game, but … we were all on the same page. We definitely didn’t show up any day and separate from each other. We all kind of knew the problem to solve.

There’s a lot of close-ups but there’s also a lot of looking at people from far away, as far as following people. There’s a lot of stuff like that. But whatever it is, it’s about you being inside of them somehow. The film is definitely about getting the viewer as close as possible. There’s not a lot of distance. I wanted it to be as comfortable and uncomfortable as possible.

Amy, since the theme of First Time Fest is about first-time filmmakers, you also worked with Ben Affleck on the first film he directed: 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone.” Was there anything that you noticed about first-time directors?

Ryan: There is a heightened level, especially since these aren’t just first-time directors; these are also notable actors. The world is watching, and they do it. I don’t know if Phil was thinking that. I wasn’t thinking that.

I was working with first-time directors who are also actors, and they have the capacity and know the language to work with the actors. Phil was unusual because he was also in the film, so he was jumping back and forth between playing Jack and looking back at the monitor. And that was quite a feat. I don’t know how anyone is able to do that.

Maybe we took a little long because we’d do a couple of takes. Ben [Affleck] is so much faster! [Hoffman laughs loudly.] But it was very fascinating to be in a scene with Phil, and he’d go check the results. I’d do it again. That was the beauty of it. You’re in the hot seat with the director but you know they’re going to look out for you.

Philip, can you comment on directing yourself as an actor?

Hoffman: In the beginning, it was a six-week shoot, a five-week shoot in the beginning. And then when I realized I was going to do both jobs, I didn’t want to act in it. I really tried hard to find someone [else]. I did at one point try to find somebody that I just thought was going to be brilliant, and I lost him …

It is time-consuming. I didn’t have to watch the monitor. When I wasn’t in the scene, I could watch eight takes in a row without looking at anything. And sometimes I didn’t look at it at all … or I’d just look at a couple of takes that I’d remember liking. I would be lost sometimes, because I’d be focused on so many other things, that if I was not acting in a scene, I was really struggling. And that was a really f*cking hard thing to do.

The writer would try to help me, but sometimes it would get so bad that I’d go back, and nobody would be there. I’d hang out with craft service. So yes, Amy and the other actors would have to deal with that sometimes. It was probably the big drawback for me. We made it work anyway, but I don’t think I’ll ever do that again. I didn’t like that part [of directing and acting in the same movie].

How open were you to getting notes and collaborations as a movie director?

Hoffman: For the directing part of it, I was. I wanted to learn as much about the camera work as possible. And for the acting, part, I needed a third eye. But I didn’t want to put the onus on me as an actor. We made it work.

What was the editing process like for you on “Jack Goes Boating”?

Hoffman: [“Jack Goes Boating” film editor/production designer] Brian Kates did that. That was the thing I was the furthest from. I had experienced directing actors, working with writers, even the camera work. It was something that I knew. I definitely knew how to use a camera to tell a story.

But the editing was an amazing experience, mind-blowing, so satisfying and so beautiful. It was probably one of the best parts of making a film: editing it, because I had to learn how to put me in it.

When I was editing the film, I was cutting around myself. It was awful. And one of my business partner said, “Don’t cut yourself out of the movie.” And she was like, “Ha ha.”

And I remember thinking, “I’m working on a film called ‘Jack Goes Boating,’ but there’s no Jack. I need to go back and put myself back in.” It wasn’t that dramatic, but there was an aspect of that that was happening.

Philip, how did you adapt a character from stage to film?

Hoffman: It had nothing to do with the cinema aspect of it. It’s kind of what I said earlier: What more can I learn? There’s more to do here. There’s something I didn’t like about my performance that I wanted to make better, so that was really what it was.

It was about trying to support [Jack] more, to advocate to make him stronger, to fight for him more. That really encouraged him to move forward, and that really is the story, so that helped me a lot. I did that with all the characters. I wanted it to mean more. Basically, I raised the stakes across the board.

So there were things that are different in the film, as opposed to the play, like the way the one of the couple’s story ends is much more brutal in the film than in the play, which I love in the film. I love that they don’t make it. In the play, you watch something die, but they still say, “We’re going do it anyway.”

And that really is the truth of it all. You watch around you, with your parents or friends, you watch relationships just … you know what I mean. And you still do it anyway. Things like that.

Has becoming a movie director changed how you approach acting?

Hoffman: Yeah. I see all the flaws of myself as an actor, so you spot it and say, “That’s what directors try to teach me.” It’s really amazing. It’s quite a humbling thing. And then it creates empathy for all the other actors.

But it also helps me challenge the other actors to do better, because I know that I can. I’m not going to pussyfoot around this actor. I’m actually going to say, “There’s something we have to get here. Let’s go. Let’s do it, because I know we can.”

I’ve been in the same spot. It kind of creates both things, which I think is the healthiest thing to have on set. I’ve been in a lot of environments as an actor where the director is scared to tell you that you’re not doing well or that you need to do better. I want to be with somebody who’s definitely wanting me to do better.

As an actor, what are some of the pitfalls that you want to avoid?

Ryan: I’m always skeptical of a director who accepts a level of mediocrity. “Oh that’s great. That’s amazing.” You hear those words for everything you do.

Here, [on “Jack Goes Boating,” Philip Seymour Hoffman] was like, “You’re full of it!” I signed on to this [movie] for a reason. In making art, you have to be great to tell the truth. You can have disagreements or maybe a falling out, but that’s what true intimacy is. You can still be friends at the end of it.

I’d rather have someone tell me something very harsh and not be mean about it, but brutally honest, because I’d rather not see the end result at a premiere where you’re hiding. I also feel like the body doesn’t lie. If I start getting a stomachache or my toes are crunching or sweating a bit, something’s wrong. It’s probably bullsh*t. So it’s getting to the level of Phil’s talking about: being challenged.

Hoffman: It’s always tricky because you don’t want to be the other actor doing that. I would have to be the other actor and step out and give the direction sometimes, because that wouldn’t be my impulse as an actor to do that. So I go over and come back away too. It’s also it’s nice that I’m still on your side. It’s nice to know you have someone on your side. You can disagree with me, but I need support in the fact that it’s not working.

The music choices on “Jack Goes Boating” seem very personal. Can you talk about those choices? And also, thank you for putting Bill Evans in your movie.

Hoffman: I knew that I didn’t want it to be influenced by reggae [Jack’s favorite music], because that’s purely a character. So I knew that the music had something to do with how I was feeling when I was watching it our going through the story. In my mind, for two years prior, if I ever heard anything, I’d write it down and find out what it was.

And then I got together with Sue Jacobs, the music supervisor, and she was an incredible source and knowing what I was thinking and feeling. She went out and found incredible new bands, and she introduced me to some bands. She knew who I was. She hit more than missed with me.

So I’d bring in these things in the editing room. I’d say, “Brian, this is awesome!” And he’d start editing it with the music. It was a wonderfully satisfying thing.

It was good to see how the editing of the story with the music could work or not work. So the music is always there. If it’s in the film, it’s because it worked. Nothing was superfluous. Nothing was added on. It was all to just be there and be a companion piece. It was a very satisfying thing.

Philip, you’ve worked in the past with some other actors who are directors. Did you learn anything from working them?

Hoffman: I think I was influenced by all the directors I’ve worked with, in one way or another, some more than others. Sidney Lumet and Paul Anderson and some other directors I worked with had more of an influence, but they all did. There’s no way they couldn’t.

You said you were influenced by Sidney Lumet’s rehearsal process. Can you talk about the rehearsal process for the “Jack Goes Boating” movie?

Hoffman: We rehearsed for two weeks. That’s how long the rehearsal process was. It was 12 days of rehearsal over two weeks, six hours a day. That’s a moderate rehearsal for a film.

Was there anything specific about being an actor that made you want to direct?

Hoffman: No. I started directing in the theater when I was 30. I’m 45 now, so I’ve been a director for a while. A film, I knew I would eventually direct because I liked directing so much in the theater and I acted so much in films. I knew eventually I wanted to tell a story [as a film director].

Directing has been something that’s been in my head since I’ve been in my 20s. So it’s definitely not a late thing. It’s something hit me early on as an actor. I like solving the problems of storytelling. I really enjoy it.

Can you talk about Jack and Connie’s awkward love scene in the bedroom?

Ryan: What do you want to know? He’s a very good kisser. It’s an intimate love scene, and because it comes from the heart, for them, it’s not just some big, raw, physical escapade.

To be that close and to open up your heart and put all your hopes and wants, a lot of that is [“Jack Goes Boating” playwright/screenwriter] Bob [Glaudini’s] writing. It really does just take you there. And to not judge her desires and fantasies the way she talks about them or as she imagines them to be. I don’t know. We just got in bed together.

Hoffman: It’s really hard stuff to do. Like I said earlier, I just wasn’t a good third eye on myself. And that’s the kind of day that you’re grateful that Amy is there. I’m grateful that Amy Ryan is playing the part on that day, because not only is she acting well, but she’s also a person who understands that the sensitivity of the day and that overall I had two jobs, two hats.

And that day could have gone really badly. And I remember thinking how grateful I was that it was Amy and not someone else — not because of how wonderful an actor she is but also understood something and allowed me to be the person I needed to be. And that’s not how it should be.

As a director, I’m the one who needs to be protecting the woman. And I couldn’t be that person so much when I was doing the scene as the actor. I wasn’t so good at that, so it was a very tricky day. And she did it brilliantly. That’s what I remember about that day. She is saying things and I’m saying things, like, “Is that’s what’s wrong?”

It needed the exact right person. It doesn’t mean their lives or going to be perfect, but that’s the perfect person to be together. When you meet somebody, are you going to do something about it? Because now is the time.

That person is saying, “I think I want to let you do something about it.” And that’s the moment when two people said, “OK, I think I will.” And so that was the scene. I was really grateful she was.

Philip, your performance in “The Master” was incredible. Can you briefly say something about that film?

Hoffman: What I said earlier about not judging [a character] is really important. That’s what it was. It was another opportunity to play. It was obviously based on someone like an L. Ron Hubbard, but also other types of characters. It was a work of fiction.

What was very satisfying was saying, “How can I get behind that person and fight for them?” You try to understand. I remember trying to see that this is somebody who actually had a great idea and was on to something …

That wonderful scene in the film, I remember reading it for the first time, that whole processing scene, he affects. It actually does take that character back in time. Something happens. It’s therapy at work.

And I remember thinking, “How can I not make this megalomania?” If you can look at it that way, hopefully the character will be as effective as it would be. He really thinks he’s on to something and that he’s going to help everyone.

Ryan: Did you guys rehearse [for “The Master”]?

Hoffman: Not like this! Paul [Thomas Anderson, writer/director of “The Master”] and I were just constantly talking about it over a bunch of months. I was reading the script, different versions of it, and we’d talk about it. We were talking about it for so long that you kind of dive in. You read through it roughly here and there, but it’s more about the conversation.

As a director, it’s like, “How do you start a conversation with an actor and keep it going through the end of the film?” That’s the best thing. If you’re constantly talking about the film or the character all the way through the end, you know that something is going on.

It’s when you stop because you don’t care anymore, which I’ve had [happen] … you know it’s a sh*tty movie. What’s great is if you’re nerdy about it all the time, you’re constantly talking about it all the time. That’s Paul, for sure.

For more info: "Jack Goes Boating" website

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