I interviewed director Joshua Lim around the time of the DVD release of his second feature The Seminarian during the spring of 2012. The article focused on the making of that movie. The now 34-year-old filmmaker came to the United States in 2001 from Singapore to study at USC. He's premiering his third feature Godless at the Rhode Island International Film Festival on Thursday, August 6. In addition to Lim, I was also able to discuss this new movie with its, two, leading actors, Craig Jordan and Michael E. Pitts.
Joshua Lim started writing the movie in 2010. It was tentatively titled A Death in the Family. It focused on two brothers whose parents die and how they deal with the sudden loss. Lim had gone through three or four drafts of this particular screenplay when he came up with the idea to join this story with another story still in its rough stages. That rough story was about a girl who contemplates suicide after losing her job and her prospects of a future.
As dour and depressing as a movie about sudden parental loss and possible suicide was, the writing of it happened during a marathon session kicked off while Lim was listening to a cheesy song called The Hardest Thing by former boy band 98 Degrees. Lim called it a rare moment of excitement, so much so that he kept the song on loop as a way of maintaining the environment that initially inspired him.
As the new title of this film suggests, there is a theme of atheism, both in the undercurrents and in the text. In fact, the older of the two brothers is a staunch atheist. Lim himself is Christian, and he admits that this is his first script where not just a main character but the movie itself in large part does not possess in the foreground his personal worldview. Lim walked a mile in an atheist's shoes, as it were, and he said he found it exhilarating.
Lim said the atheism came out of his thoughts about death. He wanted to ponder true finality. The idea of never seeing someone you love, like your parents, ever again. For most Christians, true finality doesn't exist. There's reunions for everyone in Heaven, but Lim wanted to take that away. He wanted to explore the tragedy of complete loss. The Malaysian filmmaker thinks love itself, or at least finding it is a bit of a miracle. This movie, he said, was his way of making a "tragic miracle."
Craig Jordan is the actor who plays the younger brother named Nate. Jordan is from Long Island, New York. His parents work in the school system. His mom is a teacher. His father is a guidance counselor. He has two older siblings, including an older brother whom he followed to Cornell University. Jordan admitted he shadowed his older brother.
He studied drama in high school, but he never saw it as a career. When I talked to Jordan by phone, he told me he did mock courtroom trials with his friends. He thought he might actually be a lawyer. He graduated from Cornell with a bachelor's degree in psychology, and apparently he wasn't satisfied. Jordan moved back home and continued to study acting. He did local theater and says he felt the most normal, the "most alive" when he was on stage.
He headed into the Big Apple for cattle calls or whatever open auditions he could find. Things changed when Jordan visited his friend in Los Angeles for the summer, a friend who had family connections in Hollywood. Jordan thought he might be a writer along side his friend. However, as Jordan was working as a waiter, paying the dues of trying to stay in L.A. and be a professional actor, his friend gave up on La La Land and returned to the east coast.
For a few years, Jordan struggled, and a lot of the struggle had to do with difficulties regarding representation. He says he's been burned with agents and managers. He was going to tons of auditions but not getting much work. Jordan pointed out that he learned that casting is a hierarchy that can be very tough to crack depending on so many things.
It wasn't through traditional methods but instead a casting website that he saw the breakdown for Lim's movie. When Jordan auditioned, he got a scene where the two brothers talk about the loss of their parents, but it wasn't until he got the full script, before the first callback, that he was hit with the full weight of what his character was handling, which is to say an unusual and unlikely, gay relationship.
There's more to it, which I won't spoil here. Jordan hinted though that if you've seen August: Osage County, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2013 during the time Lim was shooting Godless, then there's a clue to be found. But, once you see Godless, you'll understand why it's a very unusual and unlikely, same-sex connection.
Now, a lot of people would have been turned off by this material. Lim even said that being a low budget film, the field is narrow. Having gay characters limits that field even more, and having gay characters engage in this "unusual and unlikely" thing limits options even further. However, Jordan says he was gripped by the material and said he had never seen anything on this subject before. There was a boldness and bravery in that regard, but Jordan was also just as intrigued by the non-gay stuff like his character dealing with depression, stemming from the loss of his parents.
Lim said when he was casting the two brothers, a lot of it was making sure the two actors had somewhat of a resemblance and that they had the right kind of chemistry, a brotherly vibe. Several pairs of guys were considered. Lim said it came down to two, specific pairs. The pair he ultimately chose was Jordan who again plays Nate and the actor playing the older brother named Steven.
Michael E. Pitts is that actor. Pitts is from Washington, DC, but he recalls spending time in his family's second home near Fenwick, Delaware. Both his parents are lawyers. His mother is currently retired, but his father is still working. Like Jordan, Pitts has two older siblings, but while Pitts plays the older sibling to Jordan's character, in reality he's younger. Pitts was born in 1988.
He says deep down he always knew he wanted to be an actor, but it was always something in the back of his head, bred out of his love of movies. He had no idea what he would do even going into college. Pitts attended Juniata in central Pennsylvania. He transferred to Saint Mary's College outside San Francisco, haphazardly studying Communications.
By the end of his senior year, Pitts says he was "still out to sea" about what he would do with his life. His professor asked if he wanted to be a writer. He said he had always liked writing ever since being a child, and eventually his professor's insistence led Pitts to attend a year-long writing program at UCLA. He'd never been to L.A. before, but he packed up and drove cross-country from DC to California in October 2012 with the intention of living there permanently even after the program was over.
While at UCLA, Pitts wrote and acted in a short film. He worked as a bartender while continuing to put together screenplays and going out on auditions. When he went out for this movie, Pitts said he didn't feel good about what he did, but he had a bit more confidence after the first callback where he met Jordan.
Pitts said he's not a huge fan of talking to other actors during auditions, especially ones up for the same part, but he happened to bump into Jordan in the back area of the audition-studio in an attempt to get away from the other actors and have some alone time to prepare. Apparently, Jordan had the same idea.
One of Pitts' first impressions was that Jordan seemed like "he had his shit together." Jordan wasn't just sitting and waiting or joking around. He was on his own working to prepare, clearly dedicated to his craft. This was probably due to the fact that Jordan knew that if he landed the role, it would be his first lead in a feature.
As I pointed out in my previous article on Lim, the director had his "dogmas" or rules for how he wanted his set to operate. Those rules were a kind of precise checklist of things Lim needed in order to get what he wanted. Jordan had his own rules and checklist, and, given the atheist theme in this film, it's ironic that Jordan had what he called an "Acting Bible," which consisted of various reference materials, textbooks or just copious notes from which he drew and to which he would adhere. Jordan would later adopt nicknames from his co-stars like "Mr. Technical" and "Mr. Intense."
Jordan remembered having to do multiple takes on certain scenes and not getting feedback from Lim. It wasn't necessarily because he or any of the actors were doing anything wrong. It was part of Lim's dogmas not to engage the actors on certain things or not to respond to certain questions. Jordan recalls Lim simply saying over and over, "That was very, very good, but I want more." Lim would sometimes not give specific direction. Therefore, Jordan's acting bible probably served him well if not most of the time.
When I talked to Lim, he certainly recognized this. He didn't give Jordan a lot of feedback because he perhaps knew that Jordan didn't need it. Lim saw that the so called "Mr. Technical" or "Mr. Intense" did a lot of prep work like referring to his acting bible and had very little motivational questions, so giving Jordan feedback probably would have been adverse to his process.
Lim said that Pitts operated a little bit differently as an actor. Pitts required more face-to-face time and discussions. Lim still didn't give feedback in the traditional sense, but Lim said that Pitts needed to ease into every scene. When I asked Pitts about his process, he said he does a lot of preparation too, perhaps even the same amount as Jordan. Pitts said that he generated what could have been binders full of notes or long-winded, free writing that detailed his character's life and all the things that would help to inform him on set, but Pitts said he didn't dwell on it or he didn't hold onto it like a bible. Pitts instead compared it to waxing a car.
Jordan said that he in particular was very respectful of the director and the material as it was. Jordan even said he was most surprised how he never had a judgmental reaction to the controversial material, the characters and the situation therein. He saw his own character of Nate as just a guy who is losing everything around him and simply needs love.
I don't know if it was his first impression but Jordan said Pitts actually reminded him of his real-life brother, and like his fictional brother, Jordan's actual brother is an atheist. Pitts isn't as staunch an atheist as his character, but Pitts said religion and faith are things with which he wrestles. Pitts' character is patterned after Lim's own 36-year-old brother, Stephen Lim, who is a doctor just as "Steven" is studying to be.
Pitts said that he thought playing the character would be difficult or that it would take him to some difficult places. He said it was definitely intimidating and not just because of the gay sex scene, which he said was the most challenging scene to do. He said he grappled with whether or not he should even take the role. He had to talk it over with friends and people he trusted first for advice. Like Jordan, it would become Pitts' first lead in a feature and that can bring about certain pressures for a young actor.
Pitts said something to me by phone that I thought was interesting. It was in regard to a single scene, but, Pitts said it was "emotionally exhausting." He said he left one day feeling spent. In a statement for the film's press kit, Jordan said something similar. He said in regard to certain scenes that they were "draining" and "emotionally challenging" but in the best way possible for an actor.
Jordan added that his character's emotions are more on the surface, that Nate is child-like, more id. Jordan included that Nate is all heart, whereas Steven is more intellectual. Pitts agreed saying a "quintessential Steven moment" is a scene where he's sitting with Nate and being more rational and calm. Yet, Pitts said Steven could and did get swept up too. The "emotionally exhausting" scene in fact was one where Steven had to break down and cry. Jordan said though that there's a yin and yang relationship between the two normally where Nate is more the crier.
It's funny because Lim himself embodies this idea of yin and yang within himself. He's at times both. He can be very intellectual about certain things. He talks very keenly about how he decided to shoot the film. The mise-en-scene, the symmetry within the frame, the lighting of it and the length of the shot are things about which he can be so smart. Yet, at one point in his film, he injected an animated sequence about black-holes and specifically the black-hole in the center of the Hercules A galaxy. When I asked him about it, Lim had no intellectual explanation for why he wanted it. He said he simply felt as though he needed to go into outer space and back. It was just an instinctive feeling for him, which at the end of the day is something an artist like him just does.
Funny details shared include Pitts telling me that the Thanksgiving dinner seen in the film was an actual and full, Thanksgiving dinner prepared by the production designer Scott Lane. Lim shared that the same production designer decorated the set with thrown-out furniture he found in south Pasadena. Lim also told me Lane had the same kind of mustache as the actor who briefly appears in the film as Uncle Larry. Jefferson Rogers plays Steven's boyfriend, Ray, and Pitts shared that in addition to being sassy and sharp, the Texas-born Rogers has a great southern twang, as well as pretty, soft lips that make for better kisses.
Pitts ended our conversation relaying that he prefers going to IMAX theaters to see big spectacles like Interstellar and Mad Max: Fury Road, and he loves the Indiana Jones trilogy, but don't remind him that there's actually a fourth in that iconic, Harrison Ford series. Jordan said that he enjoys seeing big movies like Jurassic World at The Grove in L.A., but he's also equally excited to see smaller movies like Ricki and the Flash, which has pedigreed talent attached like Meryl Streep and Jonathan Demme.
Lim concluded that he wants to be authentic in terms of the form and content of his movies. He also aspires to be distinct and make creative choices not based on what others have done. He said he doesn't like to reference other art forms and if you come to see Godless, it will be a unique experience, and that you probably won't watch another film like it in life.