When you think of teen comedies and coming-of-age stories, classics like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Risky Business might come to mind, but there haven’t been many recent films that are held in the same regard. Charlie Bartlett, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival might change that. It has been picked up by MGM and is slated for a summer release. The film has been characterized as a teen comedy that is funny, smart and warm and has been likened to Harold and Maude. It stars Anton Yelchin (Charlie Bartlett) as an awkward high school student who has been kicked out of his prep school for making fake IDs. He now has to fit into his local public school and it’s probably the last chance. Charlie masters the system and soars to popularity by first counseling his peers – as the school “therapist” – and then by selling them the drugs that his psychiatrist prescribes for him. Through the course of the film, Charlie learns that this isn’t always the right path to solve problems and that while trying to help others he had better help himself. The cast also includes Robert Downey, Jr. as the disenchanted principal, Hope Davis as Charlie’s mom and Kat Dennings – Charlie’s girlfriend, who also happens to be the principal’s daughter.
What also makes Charlie Bartlett unusual is that the story is brought to life by director Jon Poll, who has spent the last two decades as an editor on such hits as Meet the Fockers, Austin Powers in Goldmember, Meet the Parents and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me to name a few. Although Poll has produced and directed second unit, this is the first time he’s helmed such a large and visible project. As Poll’s first big film, I was curious what steps he took to get this project made. Jon explained, “I had worked on twenty films as an editor, one as a co-producer and second unit director [Meet the Fockers] and one as an executive producer [40 Year Old Virgin]. I felt like I was ready to direct a film and spent a year looking for the right script. Jay Roach – for whom I’d edited five films – gave me Gustin Nash’s Charlie Bartlett script to read. I laughed out loud and was moved when I read it and knew this one was right, so Jay, David Permut, Barron Kidd and I brought it to the studios. Everyone thought we were nuts, trying to make a teen comedy that involved drugs, so needless to say we received a lot of rejections. We finally connected with Bill Horberg at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment who also believed in this script. Usually they partner with another company or studio to produce a film, but because of the subject matter, they became the sole production company, since no one else would touch it. It was hard work to get to this point, but I wanted to make a well-crafted, entertaining film that was smart and still had an edge to it.”
From Editor To Director
Many editors dream of directing one day, but never take the plunge, so I wondered if Jon had always been a “frustrated director” during his years in the cutting room. Jon laughed at my comment and responded, “No, I was never a frustrated director. I was actually quite happy! I’ve always viewed myself as a filmmaker, whether I worked as an editor or on second unit or as a producer. I knew I wanted to direct when I was in school at USC. I’ve always enjoyed editing and now the right time came along for me to make the move into directing. I feel that I am a better director now than I would have been at 25 because of that and I made a better movie as a result.” And how was it directing a cast with such notables as Robert Downey, Jr.? “At first I was terrified of the thought of directing Downey,” Poll explained. “He’s an Oscar-caliber actor, and of course, because of his own struggles, the irony of having him play this role wasn’t lost on anyone, including himself. Fortunately, I found that not only was he very giving and totally together as an actor and a person, but that he completely embraced the concept of the movie. As an editor I’ve spent twenty years in dark cutting rooms talking to actors on the screen who couldn’t hear me. You are always wishing for something slightly different in the next take, but have no control over that. Now I’m lucky to actually be able to talk to them and ask for what I want!”
When it came to editing Charlie Bartlett, Jon Poll tapped friend and fellow editor Alan Baumgarten. Both had worked in a team that also included Lee Haxall to edit Meet The Fockers. “On Meet The Fockers, my time was split into thirds with cutting, being on stage and working second unit. It took three editors to finish that film and I was happy to share credit with Alan and Lee.” Poll continued, “Alan is a friend and we’ve worked together over the years so I was happy to bring him on board. Even though I’m an editor myself, I think it’s better to have other editors challenge the way you see the film. I often hear of directors who have successfully edited their own projects, but you have to wonder how might that film have been different with another editor on the project. It brings a different perspective and is the smartest way to make movies, so I was never tempted to just edit it myself. We had a small editorial team that also included Catherine Haight [first assistant editor] and Andy Jurgensen [post production coordinator] in addition to Alan. Catherine also cut some of the scenes for us and Andy started as our post production assistant and moved up to post production coordinator. He’s a sharp, young guy and having him on board saved us the cost of a full-blown post production supervisor.”
Keeping The Schedule
The post production phase followed a typical feature film schedule. Editing started out in Toronto during filming and moved to Los Angeles after the wrap. The editor’s cut was finished about two weeks after principal photography was completed and then Poll and Baumgarten took ten weeks to finish the director’s cut. The story stuck to the original script, but a plot device involving video interviews throughout the film, including the open and close, was dropped early on. After two successful “friends and family” screenings Sidney Kimmel Entertainment let Poll add two more days of photography for a new open and close. The first screened version was about an hour and fifty minutes in length, but through the usual tightening that occurs as a film is massaged into its final version, the finished length became one hour and thirty-seven minutes. Post was completed in April of this year with an audio mix at Warner Brothers at the hands of re-recording mixers Doug Hemphill and Ron Bartlett.
Charlie Bartlett’s $12 million budget might seem like a lot of money, but it’s a tight squeeze for an indie film at this level. Film stock is one example. Poll pointed out, “I’m glad to say I came in under budget and on schedule. We shot 500,000 feet of film. They had originally budgeted only 250,000 and I was told ‘you’re an editor, so you’ll only shoot what you need’. Of course, being an editor, I wanted to make sure I covered all the options. We filmed for 38 days and 18 to 20 of these were with two cameras. I approached everything as a trade off for things that would put more value up on the screen. For example, the negative was transferred to standard definition videotape and we didn’t use any HD or filmed dailies. I did print a few takes. This is routine just to make sure the look is right, but after that, all of our dailies were on video for the rest of the shooting days. The friends and family screenings were done as standard definition projection from a high-res Avid output. All straight out of the Avid, including our audio mix. I didn’t want to waste time and money by having the audio department create a temp mix just for screenings.”
This philosophy carried over to the finish as well. “We did a traditional film finish with cut negative and color-timed prints instead of a digital intermediate. Doing a DI would have cost me too much money. The cheapest DI on a feature from scanned negative in Los Angeles is going to cost at least $125,000. In our case, cutting the negative and running prints will look just as good. From a technical standpoint, this is a performance-driven film without the type of content that would benefit from a DI. There are only about fifty to sixty effects shots that are invisible effects, like locked off split screens, and these don’t cost very much.”
As we wrapped the interview I asked Poll for any advice he might offer newcomers to the business. Jon recommended, “Always work harder than anyone else. Always care more than anyone else. Go with your gut. I’ve always had an assistant editor working with me and I always let them cut some scenes. I always show them what I do so they understand the thought process. The technology will change. We’ve moved from film to nonlinear editing and that’s been a huge difference, but the choices you make have to be what’s best for the film and not driven by the technology.”
Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)