“Timely Look”: Interview with Oliver Irving, director of How to Be

When Oliver Irving began writing How to Be in 2004, he couldn’t know that when the film finally premiered at Slamdance four years later, his timing would be so fortuitous. Irving’s first feature film follows Art, a 20something aspiring musician in the midst of a “quarter-life crisis.” Now, following the release of Twilight, the casting of Robert Pattinson as Art looks brilliant. Irving made the rounds on the festival circuit with sold-out screenings and a cache of audience awards (including an Honorable Mention at Slamdance, Best Feature at New Orleans, and Best Actor for Pattinson at the Strasbourg International Film Festival).

The film is also timely in its subject matter. In a season of too many arrested development male-bonding comedies, How to Be offers a version suffused with a wry charm. Picked up by IFC Films in February, the movie screened at the IFC Center in New York in April and premiered on IFC Festival Direct on 29 April.

The festival schedule for How to Be grew leading up to the IFC release, with more and more sold out shows.

I’ve been really touched by the strong positive response to this film. It has been amazing, the support we have had. That is why we took the bold step of booking our own cinemas, so we could tour around, screening the film and try to see as many people as possible. On April 14, there was a Los Angeles How to Be Tour Screening, with me and Joe [Hastings, who wrote the original score]. Then on April 17 we were joined by Mike Pearce [who plays Nikki] and Johnny White [Ronny] in Orlando. Then we all tour together to Chicago (April 22), Boston (April 23), finishing in New York at the IFC Center Friday and Saturday (April 24 and 25).

You’ve watched the film with multiple festival audiences. Has the reception changed from last winter to this?

When it first screened, it did have a really good response. What has changed is the numbers of people in the audience. Some people have seen it several times as well, so members of the audience are really starting to be familiar with the characters and even coining catchphrases in some instances, which is great. I love hearing the laughter during the film, I really do; it makes it all worth it.

How to Be sold out its first screening at the DC Independent Film Festival in March. Before the session began, the director of one of the accompanying short films made the joke that he was shocked so many people wanted to see his film. What do you think about droves of Robert Pattinson fangirls turning up at an independent film festival?

Every so often, someone will love the movie and not have even really heard of Rob and that is reaffirming. But then, often people will say, “I came because of Rob, but I loved this film in its own right.” I can tell from what they say that their response is really genuine, so I am just glad that Rob’s star factor has brought in potential audiences. We have found that actually one of the groups of people who responded favorably to the film turned out to be the same as those who might be fans of Rob — so it was the right audience to start with. I’m glad the film won the Grand Jury Honorable mention at Slamdance long before Rob’s stardom flared up. That eases my neuroticism somewhat.

The DCIFF program describes the movie as “a timely look at the increasingly growing phenomena of grown-up children living at home, frustrated creativity, and self-help.” Is that their take on it or yours?

It comes from our synopsis. But it is interesting to hear different people’s opinions as to what the film is really about. I love that everyone seems to take away a different particular element.

Most of the men in the film are endearing wrecks, while the two women, Art’s mother [Rebecca Pigeon] and his girlfriend Jessica [Alisa Arnah], are both pretty severe. Are you saying something about male identity as it pertains to this “living-at-home” thing?

Originally, Art’s mother was supposed to be much more of an endearing wreck herself, but the way it worked best with Rebecca was as much more of an ice queen. It was just the way it worked for her during the shooting. It’s a similar story with Jessica. We had to recast the part right at the last minute. Originally, our plan was to play her as a much warmer, sympathetic, caring character, but with the actress we had, a different performance came out. It was just one of those things, but perhaps it was my direction as well. It’s funny, though, that a lot of people don’t recognize it or they think it was entirely intentional to get you to feel more sympathetic towards Art. In a way, all of the film’s characters are laid bare, with their flaws exposed. We are encouraged to both laugh at them, but also to sympathize. Part of that is with their slightly one sided view of the world. I think the scene in the pub is a good depiction of that, too.

Art struggles throughout the film to communicate, but he is caught outside of the codified language of each of his relationships, especially with his parents. It’s comic, but it’s also painful. Yet in the end, by “having a go at it alone,” Art misses the explanations he sought so desperately. It’s sort of a simultaneously bleak and liberating outlook isn’t it, that the reasons we perceive ourselves as “messed up” are ultimately irrelevant?

Exactly. Art feels outside of it, not sure how to behave. The mood at the end is “So, what has all this struggle really been about?” Many hated this when they read the script.” They needed more of a classical story arc, but I stuck to this feeling that in that last act, mood was going to be most important element and not just action. Sometimes you feel very empty when you know you are actually going to change — a whole load of pre-conceived stuff will go out the window and that can be quite painful.

Can you say anything about your upcoming projects?

My next project contains two excellent — and warm — main female characters! It will be very different in some ways. It takes place in a scientific research facility, but I am starting to spot some of the same themes such as self-improvement and self-realization. It may have some of the quirkiness of How to Be. The story will explore empathy, communication, and relationships. It also seeks to look at the ethics of science. I have been particularly influenced by the theories of mind-blindness and the extreme-male brain, developed by Simon Baron-Cohen to help understand autism. When How to Be is released by IFC at the end of April, I hope to be able to spend more time in New York and to dedicate even more of my time to developing this project, which is great, because I am very excited about it!