Zachary Quinto with Jon Hamm in 'Aardvark'

Tribeca 2017: Brian Shoaf and Zachary Quinto on “Aardvark”

Shoaf's debut feature also stars Jenny Slate, Jon Hamm, and Sheila Vand

Apr 28, 2017 Web Exclusive
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Emily Milburton (Jenny Slate) is a caring, compassionate social worker and her new therapy patient, Josh Norman (Zachary Quinto), has her very worried. He’s displayed increasingly erratic behavior, showing up to her home office unannounced and going off of his prescribed medications. Most troubling are his claims that he’s seen his estranged brother, well-known TV actor Craig Norman (Jon Hamm), around town in varying and bizarre disguises.

Her concerns grow when Craig does show up, but divulges that he's never made contact with his ill brother. Craig and Emily fall for one another, which makes her doctor-patient relationship with his sick brother that much more complicated.

Aardvark is the feature debut by director Brian Shoaf, who was trained as an actor before eventually stepping behind the camera. The film also stars Sheila Vand, and made its premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Filmmaker Brian Shoaf and producer-star Zachary Quinto stopped to talk with us about their experience making the movie.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: Where’d you get the idea for Aardvark?

Brian Shoaf: I think the concept is a little bit tied up in where I felt I was as a writer, in general. I wanted to write something I felt I didn’t need to be able to explain to everyone I met in two seconds. I was trying to write, you know, four quadrant, big set piece kind of screenplays. And then it’s like, who cares? So I thought I needed to write something like this. I think a lot of it was – well, I don’t want to say stream of consciousness, but I was working through ideas to see if they fit.

I thought it would be really fun if there was a single character in the story who could actually be many different people. I thought it was an interesting challenge to Josh [Zachary Quinto’s character] if it was his job to sort through those, and figure out who’s who … What happened was when I got writing and exploring, it grounded itself more and more and became less abstract, in a way. And so I think we were able to arrive at a place where it became a story that was just about brothers who have this relationship that is very complicated, and something that hopefully people can see themselves in and relate to outside of all these other trappings.

You never specifically diagnose Zachary’s character, so to say, but did you research mental illnesses while you were writing?

Shoaf: Yeah. The fact that we never say exactly what is wrong with Josh – that comes out of the research as much if we had said, “Okay, he’s schizophrenic, and this is what schizophrenic people do.” Something that I encountered very early on was that people are often, in fact, diagnosed with different conditions by different doctors who see different things in them. I think that these are diseases about which there is still a lot of controversy, and about which there’s still a lot of research being done. We’re still maybe emerging from an era of hyper-medication and this sort of, “Something’s wrong. Let’s deaden it.” People are now coming out and saying, “Maybe that’s not actually what’s wrong with me. Maybe I just am who I am, and I need to figure it out.”

I knew I didn’t want to do a sort of gritty, minute-to-minute account of the life of a schizophrenic person. I felt like this was a way to maybe hit on something that I hope is relatable and identifiable for people who have dealt with these conditions but at the same time leave the door open for a sort of mystery in the story, as far as what exactly it is that Josh is dealing with.

And Zach, what was attractive to you about this part?

Zachary Quinto: Well, a lot of what Brian just said, actually. I like that it drew the audience in when I first read it, when I was considering this project to get on board as a producer and [to play] Josh. I felt like it was a really unique perspective on these relationships and these characters, and I liked the kind of unreliability of Josh’s point of view. I liked that it didn’t give any hard and fast answers about who these people are, and whether or not these relationships are real.

I liked the tone of it. I liked that there was levity and there was heart and humor in it. It didn’t take itself entirely too seriously, yet it was dealing with serious issues. It felt unique, to me, as a script.

I’ve been a fan of Brian as an actor and a writer for a long time. We went to college together, and so we’ve known each other for years. I felt like it was a great opportunity for us to rally around someone who I’d like to amplify their voice. And so, it just felt like a good fit in a lot of different ways.

Can you tell me about casting Jenny Slate, Jon Hamm, and Sheila Vand?

Quinto: That’s one of my favorite aspects of producing, because I have a lot of relationships and I’m kind of able to bring them to bear. That was something where we were very fortunate on this film. Jenny was really the first person in this iteration of the film that we talked about and reached out to. I’m so grateful that she responded with such a thoughtful, kind, and considerate response to the script, and she came on board right away. That’s based on my friendship with Jenny, and it was the same thing with Jon. I just sent those guys the script. I said, “Hey, guys, I’m making this movie, and I’d love to have you along on this journey.” They both came with a lot of enthusiasm and preparation.

Sheila came through a process of auditioning and did beautiful work. So, we were really lucky. Our casting director, Bernard Telsey, who’s worked with us on a couple of films, did a fantastic job.

Brian, you were an actor before becoming a filmmaker. Did that affect your approach?

Shoaf: I think it absolutely does. When everything’s happening for the first time, it’s hard to know what your style is. It’s hard to say “I do this” or “I don’t do this” because I wanted to stay as open-minded as possible, and be ready for what each day would bring. But in retrospect, I think I was probably better-equipped to work with the actors than I would have been otherwise. I think it was a sort of relief to me when I got to go talk to the actors, because that was an area where I felt like I had something unique to contribute. A lot of the time from the purely technical perspective, I had a bit of a learning curve and was relying on the really awesome people who had agreed to work on the film. Everybody was so receptive and so open that it wasn’t like I didn’t get to have input, but with the actors I guess I felt maybe more comfortable. Which I think is important, because one thing that I learned is that if the director isn’t talking to the actors, then no one is. They’re sort of in the purview of the director more so than anyone else.

The actors in this film all had very distinct approaches, too. I don’t know if having trained as an actor and having been an actor helped me to recognize that more quickly. That could be something more specific. Zach and I trained in the same program and so I understood his vocabulary, but Jenny comes from a very, very different place. But, I felt like I could see how it was she wanted to approach this and would be most comfortable. And then Jon is a consummate pro. He can walk right in and go, “Where do you need me? What do you want me to do?” and then once he has that, he finds a lot of depth, but does it kind of more independently. And so, it was very interesting.

Is there something you hope viewers take away from your film about mental illness, or dealing with people in their lives who suffer through it?

Shoaf: I think that the best thing is to stop and acknowledge how difficult it is for people on both sides of that divide … You have to understand that neither side is going to behave perfectly and make the right decision every time. Once that enters your life, it’s there and it’s not going anywhere. You have to find a way to accept it and make the best of what is inarguably a very difficult situation. I think that’s true for the family members, and it’s true for the people suffering though these conditions.  

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Aardvark premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. 



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