Here is what he had to say:
IAR: To begin with, Standing Up is a real departure for you and is much different than your previous movies. Was there an adjustment that you had to make as a filmmaker to direct a family film?
D.J. Caruso: Yes. The exception I guess was in it being a truly independent movie and getting ready to shoot in eighteen days. It was something that I really loved and embraced from a technical standpoint. Growing up and watching movies like The 400 Blows, Lucas and My Life As A Dog, they were always these great sort of coming of age stories of outsiders and I always thought that I wanted to make one of those. For me it was like reaching deep into my filmmaker’s soul so I could make a movie like that, which always touched me. It was fun and different in that nobody gave me any notes. I basically got a couple million bucks, and went up there and shot in 18 days, over three six day weeks and it was liberating working with child actors. It was fun and sort of a great challenge as a filmmaker. But it was really fun because it’s kind of like going to the gym and just working out with your camera. We shot it on film and I operated one of the cameras so it’s kind of really connecting back to filmmaking in a really simple, beautiful form. I found it really liberating as opposed to just the pressures of having a $50 million dollar movie or a $70 million movie because you have so many more pressures just from a business standpoint, so I felt like this was more pure.
I really liked the films that you just referenced and I have to say that Standing Up also reminded me a bit of Stand By Me. Was that a film that inspired you to make this movie as well?
Caruso: Oh definitely. I didn’t mean to leave that one out because I do love that movie so much.
What was it that really attracted you to this story in particular and was it difficult adapting the novel it is based on into a screenplay?
Caruso: I think what attracted me was one of those things where I don’t want to say that Howie and I are very similar, but I love the fact that I’ve always had a view as a filmmaker. I’ve always felt like I’ve just been on the outside and never like in the middle of what the pulse was. I was very athletic, but I wasn’t a kid to hang out with the jocks. I wasn’t the kid who hung out with the rockers or stoners. I kind of floated around and I always felt like I was in an observational mode and always felt like a little bit like the outsider. One of the things I’ve always had was sort of, I don’t want to say a guilty feeling when other kids were being cruel, but I always felt like I was sometimes sitting back, being quiet and observing than maybe not doing something at all. I’ve always felt a kinship with the victim. I always felt like if I could make a film, and when I read this, it felt like this would be a chance to sort of celebrate the beautiful qualities that these two kids have inside of them, even though they might not fit in with the norm and not seem like they’re the coolest kids. But every person has something that’s unique and special, something you can celebrate. I felt like, having children now and having gone through some of the traumas with them of childhood and what they’re going through, it really was a great way for me to celebrate that it’s okay to be different. Hopefully if someone is a bully and they see this movie they would understand that everyone has something about them that makes them special. I think this is kind of cool about the movie. The characters in this movie kind of find their own footing and celebrate who they are. That was always something I was attracted too.
I imagine casting the roles of Howie and Grace were pivotal to making the movie work, can you talk about discovering Chandler Canterbury and Annalise Basso for this project?
Caruso: It was difficult because as you know it’s tough to find quality younger actors. Either they’re really kind of robotic and they’ve done a guest spot on a TV show, or they can try to be funny, but when they’re getting into more soulful performances it gets a little bit more difficult. I was looking for old souls. Chandler had sent a tape in from Texas and I had seen a bunch of kids for Howie. He just sent a tape in and I kind of watched that tape and I was like, wow, there’s something really deep going on inside of him. I sent back some notes and talked to him on Skype. He did some more performances and I was like great, I think I found the guy. Then with Annalise, we saw a bunch of different girls and everyone has different qualities, but to me she was just sort of an old soul. She was an eleven or twelve-year-old girl who’s almost beyond that in her intelligence and her mentality, yet still had that innocence within her. I felt like together they were a really great combination. The book brought up issues of her becoming a woman and it sort of dealt slightly more with the sexuality, I should say in an innocent way. However, I wanted to make sure this was a family film because I feel as a father myself, there are not a lot of good family films. Over the years I started to think about how there are not any really smart family films that kind of challenge you in a way. All of them have kind of nice messages but some times outside of Pixar movies I find myself feeling like they’re a little bit shallow. This felt like it would be a way to use these two children and be able to make a good family film.
For along time I’ve felt that Val Kilmer was a very underrated and misunderstood actor, and I know that you worked with him before on The Salton Sea. Can you talk about your experience working with Kilmer, and casting him in this slightly darker role that ends up being a bit of a red herring in the film?
Caruso: It’s interesting because Val is always misunderstood in a way and he’s one of those actors that are dangerous because you don’t know what he’s thinking. You don’t know what he’s going to do and I felt like Hofstadder was one of those characters that actually was trying to do the right thing, but he was just so off kilter that the way he tried to do the right thing would feel creepy and scary. For me it was a representation of, okay, you might be an eleven or twelve-year-old kid who thinks he or she can run away and thinks it can be great out there and that they can do it forever. As you know, in the movie Howie even has that fantasy that he shares with her, but the real world is dangerous. It can get very ugly. Even though there’s a kind of innocence to what’s happening Hofstadder represents the danger that’s out there in the real world, and as you start to get older and you start to explore. I felt like Val would be perfect in that. He just had a little window and we basically shot his stuff in a day and a half. It was great to reconnect and work with him and hopefully we can do it again soon because I think he’s one of those treasures that were misunderstood. Before I had worked with him I felt he had gone through some trials and tribulations on set that gave him a bad reputation, but I’ve only had great experiences with him.
There’s been a lot of talk in the media over the last few years about bullying and hazing, and obviously this film deals with those subjects quite well. Were those subjects that you were interested in dealing with cinematically, and how did you approach handling them in the appropriate way?
Caruso: I’ve been attracted to the novel for over 15 years and I’ve seen different incarnations. It was interesting to me that as I was working on this it was sort of happening, that psych-based feeling of bullying has been coming to the forefront. I think with the cyber bullying and all this other stuff, and some great work from the Lady Gaga foundation and all that, it’s just in the consciousness of everybody. I think it wasn’t made with the intent of saying like, okay, great let’s capitalize on this. It’s so funny because it’s a story, and I kept it that way, that’s set in the 80’s. So you’re talking about a story that’s set in the early to mid-80’s that’s still really relevant today. I think a lot of what we hear and see in the media about bullying is the horrific effects of what happens to the kids that are bullied and how horrible and awful it is. It’s nauseating, it’s sickening, and it’s something we shouldn’t tolerate, but this film celebrates the victory of these two people who find each other and how they overcome being different. It’s a celebration of who they are. It’s not so much about the victims that you ultimately feel sorry for. I felt like that was kind of a different way to look at it because some of these stories on the Internet, when I see them I can’t really read them because they break my heart.
Are you still attached to direct the adaption of the popular comic book Preacher?
Caruso: I’m still attached to Preacher and we’re wrestling with Sony because I got another movie at Sony called Invertigo, which is a big action film we’re trying to get going this summer. So Preacher got put on the back burner, but we’re still involved with Preacher and hopefully we’ll have some good news on that soon. John August wrote a great script. I think it’s one of those features that has to kind of go through the studio system if it’s going to be made for a certain price. So we’re kind of revisiting a way to approach making the movie in the right way.
In that case, is Invertigo your next film?
Caruso: I believe Invertigo will be my next film. It’s getting very close. In order to do the movie for the right budget, and to make it economic and still make the kind of movie I want it to be, we need the studio to back us. If you asked me in a week I would know more for sure, but I would probably say it’s going to be in the next couple of films.
Finally, your last film I Am Number Four was based on a very popular series of novels called Lorien Legacies. Has there been any discussion of making a sequel to the film and adapting the next book – The Power of Six?
Caruso: It’s come up before because we did decent numbers here in the states, but we didn’t do great, but really internationally the movie did well and it has this huge following so I get that question a lot. The Power of Six, which is the second book and would feature Number Six a little bit more, we’ve talked about it, but nothing’s really jumpstarted. There’s been some talk in the past couple of months about trying to do something because there is this audience appetite out there and even on my Twitter account it’s crazy. Most of the people on Twitter that contact me from all over the world ask, “Where’s the next movie?” I think DreamWorks is getting those too so it’ll be interesting. I don’t know if I’d be involved, but I know they’re talking about it.