‘Rocket Science’: Truth, but embellished

[16 August 2007]

By Steven Rea

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

There’s an element of autobiography in most directors’ first movies, and Jeffrey Blitz’s absurdist coming-of-age tale, “Rocket Science,” is no exception.

Set in Blitz’s home state, New Jersey? Check.

The main character joins his high school debate team, just like Blitz did? Yup.

And this kid, Hal Hefner - played by an ingratiating young Canadian, Reece Thompson - is beset with a serious stutter, the same speech affliction that Blitz, throughout his life, has struggled with.

True enough.

“Yeah, I stuttered, and I joined my debate team,” confirms Blitz, who hastens to add that another key plot thread in “Rocket Science” is fiction: “I wasn’t so lucky as to be lured onto the team by an attractive girl,” he confesses. “I just joined out of a desire to prove to myself that I could actually do this thing that nobody thought I could do.”

A stammering teen going out for the debate team - it sounds like a bad joke. But Blitz, whose 2002 spelling bee documentary, “Spellbound,” was an art-house hit and an Oscar nominee, has turned it into a great little gem.

“Unlike Hal, I stuck with it,” says Blitz of his adolescent triumphs on the debate circuit. “The first year, I was very rocky and could barely speak at all, and then I got increasingly fluent, until my senior year when I was a force to be reckoned with on the New Jersey speech circuit.”

In person, Blitz - who lives in Los Angeles - speaks eloquently, wittily. But he cautions that, even today, he’s a mess on the phone, on radio and TV. The son of a pediatrician (his mom) and a research psychologist, Blitz grew up in Ridgewood, N.J., an upper-middle-class enclave close to New York City. But he’s set “Rocket Science” - which also stars Anna Kendrick, Vincent Piazza and Lisbeth Bartlett - in central Jersey. At a certain point in the smart, engaging movie, the hero, Hal, embarks on a journey of self-discovery - all the way to the bustling metropolis of Trenton.

“People have asked me why I didn’t just set it where I grew up,” Blitz says. “And I think there’s something more right for comedy to have the town be in the orbit of Trenton, instead of Manhattan. It’s like having a black hole instead of a sun at the center of your solar system.”

Although “Rocket Science” is set in New Jersey - and features the quintessential Jersey tunes of Clem Snide front man Eef Barzelay - truth be told, the movie was shot in and around Baltimore.

“We did get a tax rebate from Maryland, which was terrific, and helpful,” Blitz says. “But the real reason why we landed there in the first place is because of how restrictive the child labor laws are in New Jersey. Our lead kid is in every single scene, and he was 16 years old when we shot. In New Jersey, that means we would have had 6 or 8 hours a day with him, and that was it, which would have made the shoot longer and more expensive. ...

“In Maryland, they have child labor laws that are like China, essentially, so we could work him deep into the night,” he jokes. “As long as his mom signed off on it, we were OK.”

Blitz, 37, was not one of those peewee Spielbergs wielding a Super-8 in his parents’ backyard. In fact, he didn’t start taking movies seriously until he was an undergrad at college, at Johns Hopkins.

“Coming out of the debate world that I had just been in in high school, I thought I was going to go into law,” he explains. “Then when I got to school, I discovered that I hated law, and that what I really loved was storytelling.”

So Blitz got his B.A., and then an M.F.A., in Johns Hopkins’ creative writing program, studying with John Barth, J.M. Coetzee and Grace Paley. At the same time, he began taking film classes, learning about Hitchcock, Kubrick.

And then it was off to Los Angeles, and the film program at USC. After turning in his thesis work (“a very screwy, dark movie about a principal having an affair with one of his students,” and boasting a cameo from George Segal), Blitz went to work for the Writers Guild of America. His job: researching the secret screenplay histories of writers blacklisted in the 1950s.

And then he began work on “Spellbound.”

Blitz has also made money doing TV commercials - for clients such as John Hancock, McDonald’s, Yahoo. Jo Willems, the Belgian cinematographer who brings a dark-ish, real-life look to “Rocket Science,” shot most of Blitz’s ads.

Blitz hasn’t made a commercial for years now, and probably won’t again. Apart from his early high school days, the hardest time he’s had with his stuttering came when he was in advertising.

“Right before `Spellbound’ came out, I was doing a lot of commercial work,” he recalls. “And doing conference calls is the most important part of getting a job. But suddenly I became very self-conscious of my speech on the phone, and it got terrible.

“It all fell apart on me. Whatever the unconscious mechanism was that I had adopted to speak fluently, I lost, and I couldn’t get it back. And it was horrible to be on these conference calls, trying to get work, and not being able to speak. Or trying to assure people that when you see me in person, I’ll be fine.

“I couldn’t be myself, and it was painful.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/rocket-science-truth-but-embellished/