Landing Stars with a Script

Landing Stars with a Script

Jordan Roberts talks about the personal roots of ‘Around the Bend’

Jordan Roberts and Christopher Walken sat side-by-side in front of a screen in the Loew’s at 19th Street and Broadway where a startlingly good new film called “Around the Bend” had just been shown to a preview audience.

Roberts wrote and directed it and Walken plays the figure in the center of it—a suddenly reappearing bad father—and director and actor fielded questions about how it was made. Every so often, the Q&A broke off as the whole theater shook for 20 or 30 seconds with a huge underground roaring.

Finally, after this had happened four or five times, Roberts lost his cool. “What is that?” he exclaimed. Walken gave him—and the people in the seats—a cryptic smile. “Welcome to New York,” he said to Roberts. “That’s the subway.” Then, to the audience: “He’s from California. Out there they hear that, they think it’s an earthquake.”

What gave the tiny jesting admonition a little extra twist is that in playing Turner Lair, the bad father of “Around the Bend,” Walken is—superbly, sharply, hauntingly—bringing back from the grave certain asocial elements of Jordan Roberts’s own real father. Which was just the way Roberts, the real-life, son wrote it.

“Around the Bend” is as refreshingly anti-Hollywood, and as hard not to keep thinking about, as a slap in the face.

It’s about four generations of fathers and sons—a quirky archaeologist grandfather in his 60s or 70s (Michael Caine, brilliant of course); that man’s enigmatic long-missing 50-ish son (Walken); his preoccupied, scarred-by-abusive-dad, 30-ish son (Josh Lucas); and that son’s irresistible six-year-old (the extraordinary Jonah Bobo.).

The grandfather sets everything in motion by dying and leaving behind a will of scraps and pieces of paper and crumpled fried chicken wrappers that add up to a sort of inverse treasure hunt of where to scatter his ashes. The movie then becomes a road movie, with Walken, Lucas, and young Bobo in a battered van pursuing clues all across the parched, landscape of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Twenty-four hours after that 19th Street preview and Walken’s crack about Californians, amiable, curly-haired Jordan Roberts—who prefers not to reveal his years “in this ridiculously ageist culture,” but it can’t be so very many—said he wasn’t as much a non-New Yorker as Walken suggested.

“I met my wife here in New York 15 years ago,” Roberts said. “We were Off-Broadway actors. You know, I don’t think they used to build movie theaters over subways. I thought maybe it was a sound effect for some movie next door.”

He acknowledged that the Walken character, Turner Lair, is based in some important respects on the writer-director’s own father. “I don’t want to say his name. I haven’t done that yet.”

Did he in fact knock you around?

“Mmm-hmm. Definitely. Physical violence against my brother and myself.”

He said the father left a wife and two sons when Jordan was 3, and after that “would be around for a while and then disappear. He was kind of a con man and a filmmaker—a disastrously unsuccessful filmmaker who would raise money by shooting somebody else’s film in a week so he could make his own film…”

Sort of an Orson Welles?

“No—but not dissimilar. He was slightly more successful dealing drugs to the rock-’n’-roll bands with which he traveled.”

Roberts started writing this script eight years ago—or, rather, started it as a play in which the absent father shows up to see his daughter in Central America.

“My brother died of a heroin overdose 20 years ago. My father died a little under two years ago. Shortly before he died he seemed to be trying to make a connection. When he died, I rewrote the film once again. That’s why I credit him as Off-planet Producer.

“So I rewrote it, and people started saying ‘Yes.’ Mark Gill, the president of Warner Independent Pictures, loved the script and put up the money. We went into production within six months of my father’s death.”

The film was shot last winter, in and around Albuquerque.

Archaeology plays an important part in the movie. “I always knew I wanted the older man [the Michael Caine role] to be an archaeologist. Someone who loves digging up old shit”—a line that screenwriter Roberts put into the mouth of the Christopher Walken character. Of course digging up old shit is what this whole movie is about.

Roberts got Walken and Michael Caine simply by sending the script to the agent the two men share.

Michael Caine’s remarks about the film are in its press kit:

“What I look for now, to make my life interesting and because I’ve been acting for a long while, are characters who are as far away from me as possible, and Henry [the grandfather] is that. I like to come out of a different box every time. It not only keeps the audience amused, it keeps me amused. It makes me want to get up in the morning.”

You might say that landing Sir Michael was a stroke of luck…

“Yes, I should say so.”

Josh Lucas, who plays Walken’s son and the six-year-old’s father, does good work in a somewhat thankless, colorless part. As for Jonah Bobo, the six-year-old, he is—well—something. “We auditioned maybe 50 kids, and saw a lot more on tape. Jonah’s been reading since he was 2 1/2. He’s a genius. Literally.”

Roberts’ own son is seven, and was six at the time the film was made.

“Jonah’s father works in software. His mother is a physical therapist and personal trainer. Wonderful, wonderful people. What makes Jonah so fascinating is that he’s grounded.”

Roberts said that his own mother loves “Around the Bend.” She is longtime “General Hospital” actress Bobbi Jacobson. His Danish-born wife (echoed in the film by Glenne Headley) is a painter and former actress, Marianne Larsen.

Roberts has been writing scripts for some years now.

“Most of them don’t get made. Also been rewriting other people’s scripts.”

He did some uncredited work on “Road to Perdition,” that tough-as-nails Paul Newman picture.

“Its script is by David Self, a wonderful writer.”

Roberts is now at work on a script that links Albert Barnes, progenitor of the incredible, private Barnes Collection of modern painting, outside Philadelphia, to novelist James Michener, who, Roberts said, “was stalked and harassed by Barnes for many years after he’d gained entrance to that museum disguised as a coal miner.”

The only daddies in that story are Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Braque, Picasso, Matisse and company, and their ashes aren’t scattered over Albuquerque.

I’d like to see Michael Caine as Cezanne and Christopher Walken as Picasso. Wouldn’t you?

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