I have often reminded you that some of the best films come from the theatre. And although it’s been awhile since our last stage to screen incarnations, the drought is now over with the delightful, introspective and even voyeuristic character study, PETER AND VANDY. Written and directed by playwright Jay DiPietro, who makes his film directorial debut here, PETER AND VANDY is an adaptation of DiPietro’s 2002 smash hit of the same name. Critically and publicly acclaimed, including a Drama Desk nomination for Best Play, DiPietro’s journey started with one scene about a man and a woman, a scene with characters so compelling that even a friend told him he should "keep writing about these characters." Immediately, DiPietro knew what he had to do; continue with the story only do it with a twist - tell it completely out of sequence, a tact which only serves to make the characters more interesting, more relatable, more connectable, more real and so much more a couple, particularly when fighting over the method with which to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich - one knife or two.
Peter is a struggling architect. Vandy is a successful art dealer. Both having an eye for life and the world (although clearly opposites in every other respect), it’s not surprising they have eyes for each other, however it takes Vandy more than hot second to realize Peter is one hot catch. Perhaps it was the fact he hit on her in the dead of winter while she was trying to daintily eat her lunch on a park bench a la Miss Manners while he was brown bagging it and looking more like a serial killer at that moment that caused her some pause. But knowing that beneath layers of grime and grit often lies a masterpiece, Vandy takes a second and is more than smitten by what she sees.
Layering montages, we bounce back and forth with Peter and Vandy as they go through the rigors of life. Celebrating the good, the bad, the ugly, the toothpaste fights, the romantic dinners, the take-out/eat-in conundrums, my friends/your friends, toilet seat up or down, the love, the joy, the tears, the fears, the laughter, the significant insignificance of rote and routine, the honesty of a relationship and what really goes on. Little things of day-to-day living that seem of little importance and that we take for granted, are all showcased in this intimate portrait, showing the power that the most seemingly mundane acts have in the grand scheme of a relationship. And somewhere along the way, all the days and nights run together and you don’t know where it began or where it will end, but that it is what it is.
Jason Ritter and Jess Weixler are two of my favorite "new generation" actors, as well as two of my favorite people. Both already extremely accomplished, Weixler dazzling us with her performance as Dawn in the Sundance hit (and one of my faves) "Teeth", and Ritter with his chameleonic works in "Happy Endings", as Jeb Bush in "W" and then my favorite performance of his, that as bad boy Mick in "The Education of Charlie Banks", the latter a performance where Ritter just blew me out of the water with his intensity and magnetism, together they are unstoppable. They are electrifying. Neither of these actors is a flash in the pan and with their performances here as Peter and Vandy, respectively, they cohesively bring new levels of maturity and depth not only to their characters but to themselves as actors.
Because of the very nature of the story structure centering on Peter and Vandy 98% of the time, chemistry between the leads is crucial, relying heavily on a confidence and trust between Ritter and Weixler. Surprisingly, they only met two days before shooting began. Weixler gives full credit to DiPietro "for having thought that this would work. We took time to trust each other and get to know each other and share that psychological intimate space." Expounding on, as if finishing Weixler’s thought and sentence, Ritter opines "We both knew the movie wouldn’t work if we didn’t work so we let all of our walls down that we usually use to protect ourselves. Within the first week we were sharing a lot of the most intense things of our life. When you start to get to know the part of someone that they hide from the rest of the world, all of a sudden you are looking at them in a different way than in looking at someone you just met or someone you at trying to pretend you have chemistry with. In movies, so many times they just make sure that both people are supremely attractive and supremely charming and hope they crackle. For us it was more paring all of that down and trusting each other. Once we ‘sussed’ each other out and found out we re trustworthy, we could really dive full force into it."
According to Ritter, "Jay came to Jess first" about this project. Getting the role was a fantasy moment for Weixler. "I loved his script. It felt so true to life. So honest. I was late for something. It was raining. I was running for a cab and I lost my shoe and Jay picked up my shoe and he put my shoe on before my cab came . It was very cinematic. Then he went to Los Angeles to find his Peter that was the right match for me. Jay thought that Jason would be him."
Immediately, Ritter "connected to Peter’s uncertainty. His level of confidence in the world feels about right to me. That’s as real as it can get for me. Often I’ll read a script and it will be someone who is so confident and can just go into a room and everyone loves him and is not scared of anything, [but here] I finally connected with all the things that make him nervous and make him angry and make him feel self-conscious. It all struck me as really true." And in a moment of true confessions, like Peter, "I also apologize for myself more than I should. There’s a lot of Jason in Peter."
I first met Jess Weixler for the release of "Teeth". At that time, she told me she almost didn’t take the role of Dawn in they film because of the number of "sex scenes" (which are actually quite entertaining people as the film is about a woman whose vagina has teeth - yes, let your imaginations run wild). Needless to say, I had to call her on that because with PETER AND VANDY, she and Ritter have some of the most physically and emotionally intimate scenes that explode with genuine passion and love. According to Weixler, "What’s funny is that the sex scenes in ‘Teeth’ are not sexy at all while these are extremely so. Maybe I did get my feet wet before just for this. I’m over my fear of sex scenes." One of the things that really stands out with Weixler’s Vandy is her constant observation. A character that is very methodical, very detailed, somewhat OCD, Weixler takes it to a higher psychological level as the camera constantly catches her "studying" Ritter’s Peter. Be it over a newspapers, raising eyes above a book, watching him while he sleeps, there is a nuanced studiousness that is enlightening and intriguing, making the film as much as character study between the characters as it is with the audience.
Beyond DiPietro’s witty dialogue which Ritter and Weixler deliver with affable ease and the unique delivery pattern and patter of a long time couple, key to PETER AND VANDY is the honesty with which the story is told, the characters are presented. Interestingly, DiPietro shows development of the characters and the relationship, nothing it stagnant, yet everything feels like it will eventually remain the same - comfortable like an old pair of shoes. A very non-linear story on film, DiPietro elected to shoot the film linear, in chronological order. As told by Weixler, "We shot the first scene where we first meet, on the first day. Then, aside from the outdoor stuff, we shot in order. We were getting to know each other as the characters were getting to know each other." However, given the non-linear editing, the film is left open to interpretation by each of us as to what becomes of Peter and Vandy. For me, they are the perfect couple. For you, they may be something different. You wonder after leaving the theatre what becomes of them.
A three week shoot, by the end of the second week, Wiexler and Ritter "had such a grip on each other that we could really get mad at each other and feel that we had the right to." (Hence the extreme realism in a fight over one knife or two when making PB&J.) Obviously linear formatting worked as scenes between the couple fighting are beyond "the bickering Bickersons." They really put some depth behind the rage. For Ritter, "That was what so great about the script. You see these people falling in love and that’s something that we’ve seen in films before, but then you get to see them at their ugliest and their most blasse. You see their entire character. You don’t just see them in one chapter of their life. You see a portrait. And because it’s a portrait and not just one chapter you almost are able to see their past and their future." This portrait is then intensified with DiPietro’s orchestrated non-linear editing, brilliantly executed by none other than one of the master editor behind "The Cove", Geoffrey Richman. Life is an amalgamation, a melding.
Central to the dynamic of PETER AND VANDY is the cinematography of Frank DeMarco which celebrates the production design of Lucio Seixas, particularly with the bulk of scenes occurring in Vandy’s well appointed and decorated apartment. Using light and color to their best advantage, each set is treated as if a painting from one of the great Masters. The multitextural design of the apartment mirrors the emotional palette of its inhabitants, as does the costume color palette which varies with emotion and time. Adding to the emotional honesty of the film is the soundtrack which is an eclectic blend of "indie" tracks from groups like The National, Animal Collective, Frightened Rabbit and Menomena.
It’s the little things in life that mean the most, cost the least, but can wreck total havoc on you, even if it’s just making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Celebrate the little things and the honesty of love and life with PETER AND VANDY.
Peter - Jason Ritter
Vandy - Jess Weixler
Written and directed by Jay DiPietro.