SPRECHER, JILL - THIN ICE
After shooting Thin Ice … on thin ice & snow …. director and co-writer Jill Sprecher vows never to write snow into a screenplay again.
Q: You directed and co-wrote the film. What was the inspiration?
We wanted to explore the notion of lying. My sister (co-writer Karen Sprecher) and I are generally pretty open and trusting, and as a result we’ve been fooled by people a few too many times. It’s interesting, the lengths that some folks will go to, to get what they want, especially in such a competitive society. We envisioned Thin Ice as a moral tale, about a character whose “mistruths” would take on a life of their own. Since it was fiction, we could make sure his actions would have consequences, and he would get his comeuppance.
The other inspiration for the story is our dad; I have childhood memories of him late at night, shovelling the driveway before I went to bed. When I woke up in the morning, he’d be out there shovelling again.
Q: Clockwatchers (1997) was very much based on your personal experiences, and Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001) was inspired by your love of New York City. What made you decide to do a caper, and did you draw inspiration from any classic crime stories?
We drew inspiration from any and all types of crime. My sister and I are fascinated by it; the majority of what we watch on TV are true crime shows, like The First 48 (2004- Present) and Lock Up: Raw (2008). We were trying to come up with the perfect crime, and we wanted it to be low-tech, using various components of the Midwestern terrain. Our Mum is always sending us clippings of strange Wisconsin crimes. Bad weather does things to people, apparently. When we started writing I happened to be reading a book of short stories by Karel Capek. One of them was about a murdered man whose body was spirited out of his shop wrapped in a Turkish rug. I thought that was a nice detail.
Q: The script has a mix of darker undertones and comedy. How important was it for you to include humour in the story and its characters?
The story is narrated by a character who knows how to spin things, thus it is in the tradition of the tall tale, where humour is always an element. We saw a lot of fun and irony in the way our protagonist would be the architect of his own demise. The fact that he’s too cheap to give his secretary a raise and instead gives her more responsibility is one of the things that turns out to bite him in the end.
Q: It’s been ten years since your last movie, Thirteen Conversations. What made you take such a long break in between projects?
After finishing each film, I swore to myself, “I will never go through that again!” I’m sure that’s a common reaction among independent filmmakers. It’s a grueling experience. Of course, after a while the feeling disappears, and inevitably you start to think, “Now what?”
Q: This is the third feature film collaboration with your sister Karen. How do you divide writing duties, and what’s your working relationship like on set?
There’s nothing formal about how we do things. We’re both procrastinators. We don’t have a routine, or specific work hours. The downside of that is that we’re never fully off-duty. We think about a script for a long time; it’s always on our minds. We write things down on little note cards, then eventually start shifting to bigger pieces of paper. When we get to that point I do the typing, because I’m faster. Other than that, the duties are shared evenly. On this script, we were constantly rewriting throughout production, adapting what was on the page to the reality of what was available to us. In the original script, for example, we had a scene set on a tropical beach, and a shot of a dog running in from the distant horizon, like Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Well, that didn’t happen! Instead we ended up with a shot of a dog wheeled through a train station on a luggage cart. During filming, Karen is an extra pair of eyes for me. She’s always making sure I don’t deviate too much from the original intention. I consider her a co-director, but the thought of that terrifies her. She likes to have the option of hiding if something goes wrong.
Q: Tell us about the casting process. This marks, in fact, your second collaboration with Alan Arkin. Did you always have specific actors in mind?
We wrote Alan’s part specifically for him. He stuck with it for years. Every once in a while he would call with an idea about his character; and it was always a great one, and kept us going. Alan was instrumental in getting the movie made, making phone calls on our behalf. He helped us get the script to Greg Kinnear, who we thought would be perfect for the part of Mickey. As an actor, Greg has incredible range; he can go from hilarious to devastating within seconds. The character he plays has to do a lot of negative things, but we knew that an audience would always empathise with Greg, because he is inherently charming and likeable; he’s just a lovely person.
This is also our second collaboration with Bob Balaban, who has been a long-time friend and mentor to us. Bob is originally from Chicago, where the violin shop is set; we loved the idea of him as the luthier. Bob flew to Minneapolis on three separate occasions to do the part- we owe him, big time. Michelle Arthur was also in Clockwatchers; we’ve known her for years and wrote the role of Karla for her. Lea Thompson, who I am a fan of, turned out to be a neighbour of mine. We met courtesy of her cat, who sometimes wanders through my yard. Lea is adorable; coincidentally, she grew up very near to where we shot the film. My sister and I met Billy Crudup years ago in New York and have always wanted to work with him. He is so talented, and funny, and smart. The other actors we were fortunate to be introduced to by our great casting directors. We couldn’t have asked for a better group.
Q: Did you encourage your cast to improvise in certain scenes or did they pretty much stick to what was written on the page?
I like to encourage the actors to make a role their own. Before we started shooting, Alan came up with the idea of Gorvy having an accent, which was brilliant. During production, we spent time with the cast members rewriting the dialogue to suit them, but they were always free to change the words in the moment if they so chose. The script is really just a blueprint. I am amazed at what actors can do with a simple sentence on a page, like “Randy smashes his ice cream cone on the dashboard.” While filming the scene, Billy kept hammering the cone again and again, giving it a kind of violence and oddity that was better than anything we could’ve thought up. In another scene, Mickey goes to visit his estranged wife at her place of work. Instead of sitting down across from her desk, as we had imagined, Greg plopped right down in her chair – perfectly capturing the character’s sense of entitlement. All of the actors were very brave in trying different things, really going to the extremes of their characters, which was a great gift.
Q: How did you decide on a violin as the object of affection?
We wanted an item of value whose worth wouldn’t be apparent to a layman. Rare instruments exist in a kind of arcane, exotic world, which is a nice counterpoint to the mundane universe that our characters inhabit. There are a lot of interesting tales about violins being discovered in farmhouses, or stolen after concerts, or somehow ending up in dumpsters. One of the world’s finest collections of violins was found in the home of a reclusive millionaire after his death, hidden under his bed. You can’t make these things up!
Q: As with Clockwatchers and Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, there are some beautiful shots in Thin Ice. When you write a screenplay are you and Karen thinking "visually" or do you come up with such images collaboratively on the set?
We try to write a lot of detail into the script, like the bumper sticker that says “Have An Ice Day,” which Mickey notices on the worst day of his life. One of my favourite shots in the movie is the truck on the middle of the frozen lake. The ice fisherman next to it is actually our production designer, Jeff Schoen. The lake was supposed to be cordoned off in order to preserve some pristine snow for our day of shooting, but when we arrived the snow had been torn up, thanks to dozens of snowmobiles. Jeff gamely drove his truck onto the ice to help explain away the tracks. I love the colour palette and aesthetic he created for the film, with bleak exteriors and cluttered interiors. Some photos my dad took of his office were used as an inspiration for Mickey’s workplace; the art department really nailed it. Our costume designer, Tere Duncan, was also a big contributor to the look of the movie. There is nobody better at lighting and framing than cinematographer Dick Pope. He can make anything visually stunning. Early on, we decided to shoot the movie in widescreen to take advantage of the flat, horizontal landscapes that I associate with the Midwest.
Q: What were the biggest challenges of making the film?
Time is always a challenge. Add winter to that, and it’s twice as difficult. The days are short and the light goes quickly. The weather never cooperated, for example the sun would burst through while we were trying to film a storm, or things would freeze up when it was supposed to look like springtime. I think it’s safe to say we will never write snow into a plot again!
Q: Are there any great stories or anecdotes from the set that you can share?
One of my favourite moments in the movie is the high-angle wide shot of Mickey and Randy as they arrive at the lake at night. It was absolutely freezing outside. Originally, I was going to cut the shot once the actors got down the embankment, so they could get warm while we set up a separate shot of them dragging the sled out onto the lake. But Greg and Billy offered to keep going, allowing us to get the action in a continuous take. I was up on a hill next to the camera, watching these small figures against a vast expanse, tromping through snow in their thin shoes and coats. After what must’ve seemed to them like an eternity, I heard Greg’s voice through my headphones, shivering, but excited. “This must look really good, because she hasn’t yelled cut yet!”
Published July 4, 2013
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Mickey Prohaska (Greg Kinnear) is an insurance salesman living and working in frozen Wisconsin. His career has hit the skids, he’s struggling to make ends meet, and his divorce from his wife Jo Ann (Lea Thompson) has shaken his confidence. Dangerously at the end of his rope, Mickey learns that an elderly client, Gorvy (Alan Arkin), has a valuable violin in his possession and is not aware that it’s worth $25,000. Mickey begins hatching a scheme to get the violin away from Gorvy and into the hands of a violin dealer, but his plan gets more complicated at every turn and eventually goes from difficult to dangerous.
Available on DVD from July 4, 2013