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  And One More Thing
Filmmaker Jill Sprecher chats about fate, karma, and 13 Conversations.
By Pam Grady

  Filmmaker Jill Sprecher created a splash with her debut film, a wicked office comedy called Clockwatchers. More than a mere satire, the movie entranced temp workers past and present with its acute evocation of that particular stage of a modern Dante's hell.

It has been five years since that auspicious debut, but now Sprecher is back with 13 Conversations About One Thing. If in her first film drew on her work experience as a temporary office drone, this time she goes back to her college philosophy major. Collaborating with her sister, Karen, on the script (as she did with Clockwatchers), 13 Conversations uses a large cast of characters and a non-linear story structure to examine notions like happiness, karma, and fate.

There are four separate story threads of seemingly unconnected characters whose lives brush up against one another in unexpected ways: a smug lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) with a black-and-white approach to justice; an insurance claims adjuster (Alan Arkin) who is being eaten alive by envy; a beatific housekeeper (Clea Duvall) who believes that "amazing things happen"; and a college physics professor (John Turturro) and his wife (Amy Irving) whose marriage hits a rocky shoal in the wake of his mugging. This latter experience Sprecher knows something about, since 13 Conversations was partly inspired by her own horrific mugging several years ago.

Recently Sprecher was honored when the San Francisco International Film Festival chose 13 Conversations About One Thing as its opening-night film. We met the morning after the gala, red-carpet screening in her suite at the City's plush Hotel Monaco. If she was exhausted from the festivities of the night before, she didn't show it as we spoke on matters of fate, karma, and 13 Conversations.

Q: This was inspired by a couple of unfortunate incidences in your own life — a mugging and an incident on the subway when a stranger struck you.

Jill Sprecher: Yeah, and a lot of other smaller, autobiographical things that happened.

 

Q: When did you know that you wanted to make a film inspired by those events?

JS: Years later. Not at the time, because we found nothing positive. [Laughs] I think I only sort of realized years later that it was actually a good thing that I got hit in the head and had brain surgery [laughs], because, at the time, I couldn't see the … Clea Duvall's character is very autobiographical. When I first moved to New York, I was that person who only saw good things around me and then, of course, after getting mugged, I sort of changed my opinion of human beings.

Years later, now, when I look back on it, I think that whole episode, that period that I went through made me more assertive and I went for years and years just sort of being a doormat … and then, you know, my parents can't believe the person I've grown into. Not to say that I'm a huge bitch [laughs]. I know when they came up to the Toronto Film Festival when we showed there and I was on a panel, they couldn't believe it was the same person. Because, also, Toni Collette's character in Clockwatchers, that was me. I used to eat my lunch in the bathroom every day in high school, 'cause I didn't want to … I was too intimidated to eat in the cafeteria. [Laughs] So, I think I can see the good in [the mugging] now. It kind of got me out of my shell a little bit. But the time around that period was pretty negative.

Q: Have you come to believe that everything happens for a reason?

JS: I really believe that. Some people don't, but I strongly believe in that and I think that's sort of a notion that runs through our movie.

Q: The movie keeps coming back to the idea of karma and fate — was that always your intention?

JS: That was always part of the idea behind writing it and, also, it helped us in the way that it was told. I think we always had in mind sort of telling it out of sequence so that when certain stories butted up against each other, it was even more apparent, the idea of cause and effect, and, you know, actions having consequences, and even consequences beyond the ones we could see right away.

Q: I noticed in the press notes that you said that you and your sister started writing 13 Conversations from the end and worked backwards. But this isn't a straight narrative, it keeps doubling back on itself.

 

JS: I mean, in a way, we did. We first came up with the story around Alan Arkin's character, and then we thought of other stories that could kind of wrap around it, complement it. But we always had this end scene in mind and tried to — once we had our basic storylines figured out — figure out a way to get that ending, which is a very minimalist, mundane event and make it seem dramatic and fulfilling enough for an ending, because it is very small. So, we had to make sure, working backwards, that all the things lived to that moment.

Q: You have four main story threads and one thing that I noticed is that all four characters represent different social classes. Matthew McConaughey's character is the rich, trust-fund baby. John Turturro and Amy Irving are on the upper end of middle-class and Alan Arkin is on the lower end. Clea Duvall's character is working-class to poor. Was this deliberate on your part?

JS: I think we were unaware of it while we were writing it. I mean, we looked at the characters more as — not so much in terms of social class, but in terms of ideological mindsets. I mean, the common denominator in all of them is that they have a certain set of illusions about themselves and the world, and we throw an event at each of their lives that makes them question all their beliefs.

And, so, Matthew's character strongly represents social and legal — you know, right/wrong strong definitions, so we put him as a … but you're right, he is somebody who we thought it would be important that he have a more privileged background, so that these very ideas that he dealt with every day, right and wrong, on an ideological level, he never necessarily had to experience certain things himself. Then with John, his character strongly believes in science and proof and a system like that and we kind of tinker with it. Alan Arkin, I think, his character represents envy, jealousy, and, I don't know, it was important for us that he was somebody always at a level of struggling and never having achieved what he hoped to achieve. I think an envious person is somebody who always looks around at what everybody else has and they are always, therefore, trying to get the next … the brass ring. Clea's character, for us, we thought it was important in a story that examines happiness, it would be remiss if we didn't have part of our story center on fate, which is how a lot of people find contentment. And so her character is a little more spiritual than the others.

Q: Your casting — I know that you wanted Alan Arkin for that part. Why? He's great in the part, but his isn't a name I would normally associate with envy.

JS: He's so wonderful at portraying an Everyman and he's very subtle. The character he plays on the surface has very few redeeming qualities and he does something pretty awful and, yet, we wanted the character to be empathetic. I think with Alan Arkin, you can't help but like any character he plays. He brings a real humanity to it. He was able to bring some warmth and humor to a role that could have just been such a meanie.

 
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