The key [to magic] is to create an illusion that feels real. You’re buying into a world. When you sit down to watch a magic trick, you know you’re not in the presence of a wizard, right?
If you were to guess who wrote the indie drama Breathe In, you would not likely surmise that it was a pair of scripters who were still shy of 30 when they wrote it. The movie, which stars Guy Pearce as a middle-aged husband and father watching helplessly as the last threads of his life’s passion spool out beyond his reach, and Felicity Jones as the wise-beyond-her years houseguest who, despite herself, is bound to save him, thrums with keenly palpable middle-aged pain, winnowed aspiration and silent despair. Lest there be any doubt of the film’s gravity, its musical heartbeat is rare and fine classical stuff. Our protagonist is a music teacher and skilled cellist reaching one final time for a dream to win a coveted orchestra chair while his young student is a deeply gifted pianist, playing obscure, gorgeous Chopin pieces with stunning insight and skill. The film depicts with merciless vividness the silent hostilities and sublimated yearnings that can subsume a timeworn marriage, yet it also taps into the classically youthful angst of unrequited love.
The freshly minted 30-year-old Ben York Jones conjured the story of Breathe In from whole cloth along with co-writer/director Drake Doremus, with whom he created the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning tale of young trans-Atlantic love, Like Crazy. Jones spoke to the Writers Guild of America West website about the definition of a “mature drama,” the eloquence and power of not defining too much in a script, and why a good day is when you don’t check Facebook.
First of all, happy birthday. About a month ago you hit a big milestone, right?
Yeah, that’s right. I turned 30 in February, beginning of February.
And you felt good about it?
Yeah, I think… when I turned 27 I kind of made peace with the fact that I was just gonna keep getting older. And I was like, Well, I may as well be 30 right now. So I’ve been preparing for 30 for three years, so it wasn’t too jarring a moment.
So one of the questions with this film is, what are a couple of 30-year-old millennials doing writing such a mature drama?
Well, it’s interesting that it gets called a “mature drama.” I hear a lot of people refer to it as a mature film which I think it is in execution, but what’s interesting is the characters are actually behaving in very immature ways, that is to say, if they’re not immature, they’re allowing themselves to be for the duration of the film. So that has struck me when I’ve heard it referred to as a “mature film.”
Tell me about the origins of the story?
Well, right after Like Crazy had premiered at Sundance, Drake came to me with the seed of an idea. When he and I do collaborate, that’s typically how it goes ‘cause we know he’s gonna direct the film. At that point we were just calling it Unrequited Love Story. That’s really all we knew so the beginning was that prompt, like basically taking that term, unrequited love, and then pairing it with the term danger. The word danger is what really stuck with me, made me want to pursue it, especially in the wake of Like Crazy, which is a very kind of innocent film where people are misstepping, but it’s because they’re naïve, and we saw the opportunity to push things a little bit with this.
A tricky thing here seems to be making a married middle-aged father who has a dalliance with a young woman—even though they don’t actually consummate it—empathetic to the audience... How tricky was it to strike that right tone? It could have teetered either in the direction of Keith being un-sympathetic or the wife becoming an irredeemable shrew.
Well, it’s two-fold. One thing, obviously, is Amy Ryan’s character, Megan. From the beginning, I very much viewed her as, you know, something of a prison warden, [laughs] you know? That’s not to say the character isn’t dimensional ‘cause Amy brings so much to that character and is, of all the cast members, the most unrecognized. She’s unbelievable in that part. But the idea was to make her tough, to make her the kind of person that you don’t mess with, and you know if you do, she’ll take you down. And Amy’s able to bring that to the character in such a subtle way. So there was some amount of it on the page, but a lot of it has to do with Amy’s sensibility and how Drake directed her.
Why did you see it as narratively important that she be somebody “you don’t fuck with?”
This isn’t a strong argument in terms of story, but I find the character interesting and the character very sympathetic as well because here’s a person who’s living in one of the wealthiest areas in the United States [and] her husband’s a high school teacher. In her backstory she comes from money. She’s trying to keep this façade up. She’s trying to keep the presentation going by sending out these elaborate quarterly newsletters, by working at this, you know, fancy cookie jar collecting… which is this extremely expensive…
Yeah, a very quaint and very expensive hobby.
And that feeds into why she’s so threatened by Keith’s wild musical aspirations?
Exactly. Keith’s over in the corner, you know, dancing like a maniac basically inside, and he’s threatening to knock that façade down. For her to exist, she needs to keep him in line. That is part of her survival.
The title Breathe In, refers to a really pivotal moment in the film. In the scene, there’s this kind of authoritative, meditative guru moment for Sophie [Felicity Jones] with Keith. She’s telling him to breathe in, and she’s almost imbuing him with the strength of his own passion to go get the orchestra chair. It’s a great scene. Where did it come from and was it intended to be originally that Sophie was into meditation?
Anyone who’s suffered from anxiety has probably been told to imagine a candle an inch in front of their lips and to breathe in and breathe out without like blowing out the candle. It’s just something you can do when you’re nervous to gather yourself. It doesn’t go too much deeper as far as Sophie’s history except for maybe she relates to his sense of nervousness and it, it also, in a way, is kind of as close to a sex scene as we get.
That’s great—referencing or writing in meditation would limit and cheapen the scene. It’s just an abstract, breathing in. It’s like a sex act, in a way, a communion between them.
Sometimes when you define [something in a script], it loses all of its intrigue and its power. If she had said, “Sit down, we’re gonna do a meditative exercise,” we as an audience sit back and go, “Oh, okay, that’s what they’re gonna do” as opposed to allowing an audience and the characters to dig deeper and read further into this simple act.
That’s a really important writing point. When I heard the title of the film, I wondered if there was gonna be a meditation thing to the story? It was rewarding that you left that open, and it just was this unique moment.
I’m glad to hear that and, you know, interestingly, the movie was called Unrequited Love Story or Untitled Drake Doremus Film Project for ages and, and Breathe In didn’t actually stick until that scene had been shot.
So you were a magician? Is writing a form of legerdemain for you?
It’s funny you use that word. When I was younger I printed up cards that had my name and the word “legerdemain.” No one knew what it meant. Yes, I was really into magic when I was a kid but more the study of it than the performance. I was a very timid performer as a magician. But yeah, they’re both illusions, you know?
The key is to create an illusion that feels real. You’re buying into a world. When you sit down to watch a magic trick, you know you’re not in the presence of a wizard, right? That’s why I don’t get people who are so feverish to know how a magic trick works. That’s like the opposite of what I’m interested in. I want to be fooled. I want to buy into that world. I want to be taken there, and I have the same response when I sit down to watch a movie. Afterward, I could think about how they shot that. But during, movies are kind of magic tricks.
How, when, and where do you write? Give me an idea of your ritual, if you will.
I have a little home office that’s located under my house. My house is kind of on a hill so the office has a separate entrance. I try to stick to the ritual of getting up around seven. I go on like a half hour to an hour long walk, get my head together, eat a little breakfast and then go down to the office and treat it like a real job. I treat it with that amount of respect and, at this moment I have that luxury of space and a little bit of time. Maybe two or three days out of five this routine works and the other days it just gets all messed up.
How do you grapple with the technology distraction, whether it’s IMing or texting or social networking? How do you control yourself, or stay away from it while still keeping connected?
A good day is when you don’t check Facebook or Twitter because you’re lost in that world that you’re trying to create and the distraction has no power over you. But in general, you can do the obvious things like turn off your phone, turn off your email. It’s not a bad idea if you’re working on other projects to let collaborators know, “Hey, on this day, I may be unavailable for this amount of time,” [but] the real answer is when you’re in motion on a good day, that stuff isn’t a distraction.
© 2014 Writers Guild of America West