‘Around the Bend’: comprehending an absent father
Conventional wisdom has it that writers embarking on their early works struggle to put a measure of distance between their own life and their fictional creation. The tendency for writers is to put their own life on the page before moving on to work that comes closer to pure imagination.Jordan Roberts spent nearly a decade on what would become his first screenplay to find its way onto the screen. But during those 10 years, Roberts was fighting not to create space between his autobiography and his script, but to eliminate it.”Around the Bend,” which Roberts wrote and directed, draws on his actual experience with an absent father who suddenly shows up to make an effort at being a parent. Roberts knew there was a rich vein of story, character and emotion there, and he wanted his script to reflect his actual experience. In his early attempts at putting his life on page, however, Roberts kept the material at arm’s length: the main character in the first draft was a South American woman, evidence, Roberts says, “of my unwillingness to get close to the actual emotions.””Why it took so long is, I was full of s–t,” said Roberts, who actually used all the letters in his scatological self-analysis. “The story I was trying to tell is a personal one, and I wanted no smugness or, at the other extreme, sentimentality. I wanted to be brave enough to open my guts and tell this story about masculine openness.
“And it took a long time to do that. I’ve been involved in projects that took 10 years to get to the screen. This one took 10 years to get to the page.”Roberts’ patience – and his persistence; the script from which he actually made “Around the Bend” was number 32 or thereabouts – paid off. For his directorial debut, and the first credited film script, Roberts was able to attract an A-list of talent. In his tale of the interplay of four generations of men in the Lair family, Michael Caine plays the ailing, eccentric patriarch, Henry; and Christopher Walken took the role of Henry’s long-absent criminal son, Turner. Josh Lucas, who has been featured in “Sweet Home Alabama” and “The Hulk,” was cast as Jason, the damaged third-generation Lair who serves as a single parent to 6-year-old Zach (played by Jonah Bobo). Roberts earned the Special Grand Prize of the Jury, and Walken took Best Actor honors, at the Montreal World Film Festival.Roberts says there is plenty of fiction in “Around the Bend.” Roberts, who grew up in Van Nuys and Chicago, probably didn’t have a grandfather with an obsession KFC fast-food chicken. But on an emotional level, and even in many of the particulars, the relationship between Jason and Turner is a reflection of Roberts and his father.”That’s all real,” Roberts said. “My dad was a drug addict and a thief and went in and out of jail. I didn’t know him. And then he showed up on the doorstep and tried to act like a person.”Over the 10 years of revising the script, Roberts’ aim was to find a positive emotional core to the story. That began to take shape after his father’s death, and Roberts’ subsequent realization that, more than hating his father, he actually craved better things from him. Roberts poured that hopefulness into the character of Henry, whose dying act is intended to pull the family together.
“My father wasn’t good at being a parent. But he tried, and that counts for something,” said Roberts, who has a 7-year-old son. “I wanted to focus on a story of whether a dishonorable person is worthy of honor.”Having Walken play that dishonorable person, Roberts considers a stroke of enormous good fortune. “The fabulous coup of getting Mr. Walken is you get this half-life memory of all these evil people he’s portrayed,” said Roberts.The structure of “Around the Bend” should seem familiar to audiences. The Lair men hit the road for a quirky, quixotic mission that eventually leads to family self-discovery and the unearthing of a buried past. Roberts has no problem with the echoes of cinema past. In fact, he welcomes comparisons to films like “Five Easy Pieces,” “Harold and Maude” and especially “Scarecrow,” a 1973 film starring Gene Hackman and Al Pacino as a pair of drifters. All are films which, he says, are more about observation than adventure and surprise.”It was always supposed to be a ’70s genre movie,” said Roberts. “So the revelation at the end was modest. It wasn’t about the pursuit of some dark secret. It’s about the response to that.”Roberts abandoned a failing career as a New York actor to become a writer. After some success writing for the stage, he headed for Los Angeles, where he has contributed to such scripts as “Road to Perdition” (another film, interestingly, about fathers and sons). Directing, though, is the direction in which he would like to continue heading.
Roberts said he loved the experience of directing “Around the Bend,” which has a limited U.S. opening Oct. 8. “I don’t belong in a room by myself,” he said. “This was a chance to finally collaborate, which I hadn’t done in 10 years. I can’t wait to do it again.”He won’t have to. Roberts is set to direct “Barnes,” from his own script about the volatile relationship between novelist James Michener and Philadelphia art collector Albert Barnes. Also in the works is “Bye Bye Brooklyn,” a comedy about a Jewish boy in 1940s Brooklyn who writes a series of letters to the third baseman for the New York Giants, which Roberts has written and is in talks to direct.”I’ve gone from the A-list of unproduced screenwriters in Hollywood to having two more projects I’m about to direct,” said Roberts. “I’m gleeful all the time.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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