Interview: Quid Pro Quo director Carlos Brooks
Thu, 12 Jun 2008 10:09:50
The Latin phrase quid pro quo refers to equal exchange, usually in a legal context. In director Carlos Brooks’ new movie of the same name, however, the repercussions of this tit for tat agreement concern not property or tangible goods, but psychological reciprocation. Quid Pro Quo the film follows paraplegic hero Isaac Knot (Nick Stahl), a reporter for public radio investigating a community of "wannabes," able-bodied persons who long to be disabled. In his sleuthing Isaac encounters Fiona (Vera Farmiga), a seductress who herself fantasizes of life in a wheelchair.
The film marries allusions to Hitchcock with an exploration of a mysterious subculture while investigating Isaac and Fiona’s emotional plight. Their unconventional romance, and the film as a whole, is unusual and twisted, but tender, too. Outlandish as its premise may seem, it is ultimately a grounded story about the quest to be an "authentic" individual. Brooks spoke to ARTISTdirect about his first feature-length project, discovering wannabe culture, and writing a modern day detective story.
Why did you choose to make Isaac, your main character, paraplegic? Was there a reason you chose this particular disability?
You know, it’s funny. When I first got the idea [for this film], I was playing with the idea of somebody who might have agoraphobia. I didn’t look at it in terms of disability, I looked at it in terms of something that would be a limitation, a non-negotiable limitation, [and] he would get a talisman or something that would help him get over that limitation. So the initial idea was somebody that was a shut in, an agoraphobic, who got a pair of headphones and began in a sort of a Rear Window kind of way to get involved in a story that he could listen to outside his [apartment], and he would be compelled to go out. That didn’t go so far for me, but if you take that model, you sort of see what I did. Making him paraplegic goes hand in hand with walking and moving about. And then the shoes seemed to me an interesting kind of talisman. The initial idea was that in return for this gift, this thing that helped him overcome his limitation, he would have to help the person who injured him in the first place, and there would be this quid pro quo kind of relationship. That really led to a lot of bad drafts. [Laughs] A lot of it really didn’t work.
How did the writing process go for you?
If you start with just what I told you, you can see that it would tend to get a little golden-hued. “Oh, you injured me.” I’m not interested in the victim thing on the surface of it. It just didn’t go anywhere. It was very frustrating. I did maybe 12 outlines, but that’s part of the process. You have to sort of suck at it for a while. It’s what you have to do, and it’s painful, really excruciating, but I finally threw it away and relieved myself of it. Then about a month later I thought, maybe I’m making the assumption that I’m more comfortable with the culture of disability than I really am, and maybe this is more about that than I really thought it was. So I started Googling words that I thought would get me into that culture in a deeper way.
You mention the impairment, but it’s not the imperative. On a larger level, it seems about the human want for community.
That’s right. When I discovered that these people really exist, these “wannabes,” I was very moved that they must live in an anonymous kind of torment. Say what you will about whether they should or shouldn’t feel this way. They feel that way. I hope this comes through in the movie, that my intention [in] telling the story wasn’t just to be creepy, or, “Isn’t this a provocative topic,” or, “Won’t this really disturb you”—none of that. What you said is more true, that the imperative wasn’t to be that. The imperative wasn’t even to talk about disability. I think one of the things the film does right, by the way, and Nick Stahl does really well, is that he doesn’t play the disability. He doesn’t make you think of his disability. You just quickly relate to the character as another person. His condition doesn’t really come into it. Then you start to get into the more universal elements of it, being a victim and the appeal [of that]. What is it about playing the role of the victim that we all find some comfort in at one time or another? Either as individuals or groups, or even as a whole nation? At once it sort of relieves us of responsibility while at the same time entitles us to some sort of compensation. Responsibility for what? Compensation how? Those things are the variables, but it’s true, universally. It might even apply just in terms of an argument you’re having with your boyfriend, or your wife, or whoever. If you can suddenly play the victim, you might feel more secure in the role. I found it to be this weird thing, and it’s often true, where this is such a specific topic and such a specific pathology, and yet the more specific it gets, the more universal the elements apply to everybody.
Making it a mystery makes it more accessible for the audience, because we’re discovering things as Isaac is discovering things, not only about the community, but also, he becomes more self-reflective in the process.
Absolutely, that’s the design of both the screenplay, and even moreso how I edited. What I found about the movie is that we have to stay in his point of view. As he discovers it, we discover it. Really and truly what I always wanted to do and what I’m really proud of with this movie is that I finally wrote what I wanted, [which] was a detective story in the classic vein, where the detective realizes he’s been investigating himself.
Did you find it difficult to get made because of the [fantastic] subject material?
On the studio level, that would have been true, yes. But the truth is, we were approached very early by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s company 2929. They approached us very early in our process. We weren’t out very many months. We hadn’t done much and they came to us, and I think it was because of the originality of the material. They thought it was very intriguing. We got very lucky. On the independent level, I think there’s a lot of companies that will make original stuff. If they think it’s worthy, they’ll do it. If we had taken this to the studios, I would still be out there. I wouldn’t be talking.
Earlier you mentioned Rear Window, which I’m curious about, because the film has drawn comparisons to Hitchcock.
It’s the Rosetta Stone of comparisons.
Were those references that you were conscious of while you were writing, a general aesthetic you were trying to capture?
All that stuff I [must have] absorbed unconsciously. In the writing, I’m never consciously trying to do anything. I’m trying to, in fact, defeat my consciousness when I’m writing because it only gets in the way. The good stuff always comes when I’m not thinking of it. It just sort of comes out. I was happily surprised with the material I had after I wrote it. I started to look at it, like the thing with the detective. That’s something I consciously set out to do. I was just trying to figure out who this guy really is and what happens to him. But I studied Hitchcock; that was my thing at USC. I was immersed in that. They always talk about Hitchcock as a thriller master, but in truth he was character master, among some other things he did so well.
How did you stumble across this subculture?
[It] was eight years ago that I actually wrote the script. It was a writing sample for me for a few years, then we started getting approached by directors who wanted to do it, and that’s when I decided I would do it. About eight years ago, I was kind of getting nowhere with my first idea, then started Googling words, and then I found these newsgroups. Who out there at two in the morning [would be] Googling [certain words] but these “wannabes”? That’s how I found them. I kind of vectored in on them. I’ve never met anybody who had Body Dysmorphic Disorder—that’s what it’s really called, I guess. I just kind of lurked, and I was fascinated by the tone of their writing. They knew they sounded quote, unquote “crazy.” It’s entirely different talking about something we think is crazy without knowing you’re crazy. They were incredibly self-aware, painfully self-aware and wanted acceptance despite what they were saying. They were saying things to each other like, “Is Ginger Jake real? Would that work? Is that true?” The answer’s “yes,” by the way, it is real. The whole epidemic of people drinking Ginger Jake in the South to get around Prohibition in the ‘30s, and as a consequence—unintended—there was an epidemic of paralysis. Wannabes have read about this and they think, “Hey, maybe that might do it.”
In the research, did you find that your role as a writer and as a researcher paralleled Isaac’s path in the film, where there was a reticence for people to talk about this?
Absolutely, and that’s another one that no one’s ever said to me before you just now, and I didn’t even think about that. But that’s absolutely right, it parallels what I did.
I can only imagine that as a writer it would be a discovery process. You had to excavate the layers not only of this guy’s psychoses, but also the practicalities of bringing this story to fruition.
I didn’t know how it was going to end. He was actually, himself, a wannabe, a deep down profound wannabe. But that’s what I meant by the detective realizing he’s ultimately investigating himself. I didn’t know that. It was a discovery process as I went along. It’s sort of scary. You don’t really know if you’re going to get to the destination that you need to get to to finish it.
In [Isaac] investigating himself and discovering himself, there was a line in the film that really stuck with me. Something along the lines of, “It’s important to be as authentic a person as possible.” Do you think that Isaac and Fiona are searching for authenticity? They also seem to be grasping toward things that are inauthentic. Maybe that’s the wrong way to describe it.
Maybe not. Is there an objective standard for authenticity? I remember reading in article in, like, People magazine. I was standing in line at the grocery store, and Jodie Foster [had] said, “It’s important to be an authentic person.” That was her imperative, and that line popped out at me, that Jodie Foster thought it was very important to be an authentic person. [Laughs] And it made me think, “What does it mean to be an authentic person if you’re Jodie Foster?” I didn’t think it was good or bad, I didn’t judge it one way or the other, I just thought it was a really intriguing thing to say. I think that, and I guess you sort of said it, I think it’s personal to the characters. What is authentic by their own definition?
And what are their motivations for doing what they’re doing?
Yeah, and if they stop wanting to be authentic, the story then stops. It’s an interesting question to look at what makes a story, what moves it forward, what keeps it clicking forward from scene to scene. I think that touches on one of the secret ingredients of that particular story, which is this need to be authentic, the pursuit, and really it [goes back to] Isaac. You think that’s the way that the twist and the mystery works. You think it’s [about] Fiona, it’s all about investigation. What makes this woman want to be authentic in that way? Why is that authentic? But in fact, it’s Isaac—and I talked to Nick about this during the whole shoot—relentless on some subconscious level because he is desperate. to find his authentic self. That’s why I left the shoe thing in there. I mean, the shoe thing was really taking a chance, and I think for some people it may still not work. They might think, “Well, that’s just a crazy shoe thing.” It had to be there in order for me to make him a wannabe. It was a way for me to dramatize his own pathology. It wasn’t about magic shoes, you know?
In working with Nick, was there a lot of physical preparation that you had to do with him or that he did on his own?
He did it on his own. I gave him the wheelchair and I said, “Here’s Manhattan. Go hit the sidewalk!” [Laughs] And he had a consultant in L.A. that helped him and worked with him a bit on the chair named Mitch Longley, who’s also an actor.
Thanks for talking with us! I think the film is really fascinating.
Thank you for your insight. You’ve given me more food for thought!