What is the meaning of life? Do you know? It is an age old question and the one that Jeremy Fink is trying to answer in the upcoming movie Jeremy Fink and The Meaning of Life. Based on Wendy Mass’s children’s novel, Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life is a fun family-friendly adventure movie written and directed by Tamar Halpern and featuring Academy Award® winner Mira Sorvino and Emmy Award® winner Joe Pantoliano.
The movie starts out with Jeremy Fink receiving a package in the mail. The box contains a mysterious box with the words “The Meaning of Life – for Jeremy Fink to open on his 13 birthday.” carved into the lid. The adventure ensues as Jeremy and his best friend Lizzie must search high and low through Manhattan, meeting some wacky characters along the way, to follow the clues that will lead them to find the four keys which will unlock the secrets of Jeremy’s box in time for his thirteenth birthday.
The movie has a wonderful cast, including Ryan Simpkins (Lizzie) and Maxwell Beer (Jeremy Fink) who seem to have a great connection and chemistry in their roles. Some of the other characters have such fun eccentric personalities that it makes you wonder what will happen next.
While at first, I thought the movie was starting out kind of slow, as the story unfolded it really drew me in. The story itself is a powerful one that everyone can resonate with. While it isn’t a sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat movie, it does make you sit back and really think about the message behind the story. What is the true meaning of your life? Do you take the time to recognize the meaning of your life? The people and things in it? This is a movie that can spark some interesting conversations with the family!
Q&A WITH TAMAR HALPERN, WRITER AND DIRECTOR
JEREMY FINK AND THE MEANING OF LIFE
[wptabs type="accordion" style="UI-smoothness" effect="fade"][wptabtitle] Why did you decide to make this film?[/wptabtitle][wptabcontent]When I read Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, I was deeply moved by the message, namely that each day is precious and it’s up to us to celebrate that gift. I love how beautifully and simply Wendy Mass (the author) illustrated the power we have to choose to be joyful, even in the face of great loss. To understand and appreciate how much love we have around us and the great possibilities each day holds, regardless of challenges and sorrow, is to understand the meaning of life! Through their adventures, Jeremy and Lizzy show us and remind us to have gratitude, and I knew it would be my great honor to bring that spirit to the screen. [/wptabcontent][/wptabs][wptabs type="accordion" style="UI-smoothness" effect="fade"][wptabtitle] What did it teach you about the meaning of life? Did it change your perspective in any way?[/wptabtitle][wptabcontent]The discovery for me was that the personal beliefs I hold deep in my heart can be shared with children without sounding preachy or pious. To deliver such a deep message in a light hearted, truthful and entertaining way was a learning experience for me about subtlety and the power of story. It showed me that sticking with my dreams as a filmmaker all these years was worth it because I was given the opportunity to tell such a beautiful story.
I’ve been making films since the mid-nineties, so it’s been a long road to get to this point. I raised my son during it all and he was often the subject of my films. There have been times I felt I should give up on my dreams of writing and directing, but I always comforted myself by focusing on what I was grateful for in my life– namely my son, my husband, my parents and my friends – and then I stopped worrying about my career. Then Jeremy Fink came my way, which perfectly echoed what I practiced – gratitude – and I found the lesson strikingly poignant.[/wptabcontent][/wptabs][wptabs type="accordion" style="UI-smoothness" effect="fade"][wptabtitle] This is a story about a boy who has lost his father and goes looking for a key in NYC, similar to a film currently in theaters. How is your film different?[/wptabtitle][wptabcontent]I’m so glad you asked! Both films are beautiful meditations about grief and loss as seen through the eyes of a young boy. One big difference with our film is that we don’t have 9/11 as a plot point, which puts the theme of loss in a more accessible, universal place without a historical reference. Our film is sort of timeless, as it feels like it could take place anytime in the last thirty years.
The other difference, which is huge, is Jeremy’s best friend Lizzy. The great question of Jeremy Fink is will Jeremy overcome his fears and sorrow to become a strong adult? His relationship with Lizzy plays a huge part in this as she pushes him to step up, to grow up, to face his fears regardless of consequences. When he hesitates, it threatens the very core of their friendship. Lizzy is ready to move from child to adult. She wants her best friend to make the move with her, but if he is unwilling, she may have to leave him. Of course, she doesn’t want to lose her best friend, so she tries everything she can to get him to move forward. The plot line of their relationship, which starts playful and childlike and grows into something deeper and more meaningful, highlights what Jeremy has at stake if he doesn’t grow up. What saves their relationship and gives us hope for Jeremy is when he learns to see past his own pain and recognize that other people are struggling too. Lizzy teaches him that having empathy for others, even when we struggle with our own pain, is the most beautiful gift we can give.
When Jeremy gives it, he takes a huge step toward becoming a man and the audience knows that after the credits roll, Jeremy and Lizzy will continue being best friends. That’s a huge difference between the two films. [/wptabcontent][/wptabs][wptabs type="accordion" style="UI-smoothness" effect="fade"][wptabtitle] What made you choose these specific actors?[/wptabtitle][wptabcontent]Maxwell Beer, who plays the title character, was an easy fit because he IS Jeremy Fink. Awkward and adorable, he embodied the role. Ryan Simpkins, who plays Lizzy, is a strong actor who could handle the sassy lines with ease as well as be open and vulnerable to help bring the film to a deeper level. During rehearsals, as we worked on the scene where Jeremy destroys the time machine, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Ryan delivered her lines. The same is true every time I see the film. Max and Ryan had incredible chemistry off screen as well and the proof is in the hilarious blooper reel on the DVD.
Mira Sorvino is an incredible actor to work with because she made beautiful suggestions that resulted in a page one rewrite of Elaine, Jeremy’s mother. Mira gave me the freedom to develop a mother-son relationship that was much more like my own relationship with my son. I love the scenes between Jeremy and Elaine and incidentally, my son wrote the music for the emotional last scene between Jeremy and his mom, where they talk about the Shel Silverstein book The Giving Tree.
Joe Pantoliano was a lot of fun to work with as he brought a whole layer of magic into Oswald and improvised some great lines that stayed in the film (“Have you ever read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now?”). A lot of his lines were improvised which was a credit to our editor, Maria Cataldo, who made those scenes really work. Michael Urie (Ugly Betty) was a perfect choice to play James, the mysterious limo driver who watches over the children and reveals all the secrets at the end. He’s a friend of mine as is Betsy Brandt (Breaking Bad), who plays Madame Zaleski, which is the only scene in the film that makes grown men laugh out loud! Betsy’s an extremely talented comedic actor who I’ve worked with many times. [/wptabcontent][/wptabs][wptabs type="accordion" style="UI-smoothness" effect="fade"][wptabtitle] Which is your favorite scene?[/wptabtitle][wptabcontent]On a dramatic level, the Coney Island scene where Jeremy apologizes to Lizzy for not understanding how hard it was for her when her mother left. That is the moment when all storylines come together – we see Jeremy will overcome his pain and be an adult and we see that Jeremy and Lizzy will continue having a friendship as they grow up. The acting is so sweet and honest and the music brings it all home when they hug. I knew when I wrote it that it would be the most important scene and the way it came out has made it one of my favorites.
I also love the scene between Jeremy and his mother (Mira Sorvino) when he tells her he needs her to treat him more like an adult, but he uses her trick of citing a favorite children’s book to make his point. I read The Giving Tree to my own son hundreds of times, so using it in this scene meant a lot to me. Mira and Max play it beautifully and it continues to build on the theme that Jeremy will grow up to be a well-rounded, good human being, just as his dad wanted – as we all want for our children. [/wptabcontent][/wptabs][wptabs type="accordion" style="UI-smoothness" effect="fade"][wptabtitle] Are there any behind-the-scenes experiences you can share?[/wptabtitle][wptabcontent]So many! Mabel, the knife-wielding socialite, was played by the famous Broadway actress Marian Seldes. It was a big deal having her in the film since she’s a New York icon. Marian is known for staying in character, so when she met Max and Ryan, she wrinkled her nose and said, “Children” in a tone usually reserved for rotten food. It was hilarious!
The first day of shooting we tackled the bus scene, which required Ryan Simpkins to be in that funny ‘breaking and entering’ outfit that included a fake pimple. During lunch, her pimple fell off her chin and into her soup.
We shot an alternate ending for the film, where after James gives Jeremy the envelope and says goodbye, he walks to the back seat of the limo and gets in. The car drives away and we are left to wonder if James was actually Oswald!
Everywhere we went, we found keys in the strangest places – glued to doors, on people’s shirts, on the ground, as jewelry. I guess once you’ve got keys on your mind, they seem to be everywhere.
The opening song for the film was written and sung by Edie Brickell. She read the script and loved it so much, she just sat down and wrote the perfect song.
The stop motion animation, done by Leila Fakouri at Madera Design, took five full days of shooting to complete plus two weeks of building all the sets and creating the images. By comparison, it took 22 days to film the entire movie.[/wptabcontent][/wptabs][wptabs type="accordion" style="UI-smoothness" effect="fade"][wptabtitle] What was it like shooting on the streets of NYC?[/wptabtitle][wptabcontent]Well, it was the hottest August on record, so you can imagine how sticky it was. Otherwise, it was a lot of fun being in iconic places like Central Park or the Museum of Natural history. The producers Ken and Caron Keller did an amazing job of securing locations usually only afforded by larger budgets. If you look very carefully in the scene when James drops Jeremy and Lizzy off in front of Mabel’s apartment building, you can see a woman filming the actors from her apartment window. For the most part, New Yorkers were very cool about us filming. When kids found out it was the film version of the book Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, that’s when crowds would gather! [/wptabcontent][/wptabs][wptabs type="accordion" style="UI-smoothness" effect="fade"][wptabtitle] Why do you think kids will like this film?[/wptabtitle][wptabcontent]Since the book has such a huge following (half a million copies sold on Amazon alone), there’s no doubt the film will have a following. For kids who haven’t read the book, I think they’ll be drawn in by the sweet, honest tone of the film, the comedic relationship between Jeremy and Lizzy, and the stop motion animation that represents Jeremy’s inner world. Some kids’ movies try to talk over kids’ heads and be snarky, or make adult-themed jokes. I wrote the script to be honest, like the book, but with a level of comedy that’s entertaining to kids and adults. Ultimately, we are rooting for Jeremy to grow up so he and Lizzy can stay friends, just like we hope to keep our childhood friends even though we all change. This film speaks to that very relevant topic for kids, along with the larger themes of grief and joy. I think the film is a really fun ride that has an incredible amount of heart, just like the book. [/wptabcontent][/wptabs][wptabs type="accordion" style="UI-smoothness" effect="fade"][wptabtitle] Why do you think parents will like the film?[/wptabtitle][wptabcontent]The values in this film are firm without being heavy handed and they relate to adults as well as to kids: enjoy life, have gratitude for those who love you, even if they’re not physically with you. View life as an adventure and be open hearted to good people. The surprises life can bring are here for us to revel in and learn from. We have the choice to embrace life fully and sometimes all of us – parents included – need to be reminded! ! [/wptabcontent][/wptabs][wptabs type="accordion" style="UI-smoothness" effect="fade"][wptabtitle] What do you hope viewers will take away from this?[/wptabtitle][wptabcontent]My dream is that moms and dads, grandparents, cousins, guardians and older siblings, will watch this film with the younger generation and at the end, hug one another. This film is a magical experience and my hope is people watch it with those they love to further strengthen the ties that bind them together. It is the most genuine expression of love I’ve made as a filmmaker and I hope it touches as many hearts as possible. One of the producers, Lauren Bullock, first acquired the rights to the book after two of her young nieces had their lives cut short in a car accident. This film is for them, for their memory, but just as much this film is a reminder to those of us who are here to choose life in the fullest sense of the term – to live it fully. [/wptabcontent][/wptabs][wptabs type="accordion" style="UI-smoothness" effect="fade"][wptabtitle] Do you have kids? What do you want them to take away from the film?[/wptabtitle][wptabcontent]My son, Jordan, is 24 now. I channeled our relationship when he was a pre-teen to write the scenes between Jeremy and his mom. The book was a great guide, but I also used my son’s relationship with his best friend Kelsey, a sassy blonde tomboy, for Jeremy and Lizzy. Jordan and Kelsey have known each other since they were one and they’re still best friends. Jordan wrote some of the music for Jeremy Fink, which is an incredibly beautiful experience to collaborate with your child. His music underscored scenes when Jeremy misses his father – specifically the hula hooping/bird flying animation, writing in his Observation Book scenes, as well as the music underneath Jeremy’s Dad’s voice when they open the box. He also wrote the music under the Giving Tree scene with his mother, which means the world to me. Since this film reflects my personal journey as a single mom and filmmaker – to be grateful for all I have, starting with the love of my child – I think Jordan sees the correlation between the film and that love. His music certainly tells me that.[/wptabcontent][/wptabs]
Besides the actual story, another part of the film that I really enjoyed was the soundtrack. I loved it so much I had to look it up and turns out that I can purchase the album, “The Not So Meaningful Songs in the Life of Jeremy Fink”, by Booka and The Flaming Geckos on Amazon. I thought that the eclectic mellow mix went so well with the film and added so much feeling to the story. The music goes especially well with the fun paper-cut-out-stop-animation-style (I have no idea what it’s really called) scenes that are shown during the opening credits and periodically throughout the film.
Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life is just a fun and entertaining family friendly film that everyone should enjoy. There is no swearing, nudity, questionable liens or anything else in the film so it’s suitable for all ages. the 88 minute film is rated PG and is set to be released on demand and on DVD by Phase 4 films on March 2, 2012. The DVD has some great special features that include cast interviews, deleted scenes, bloopers, limited edition embossed o-card with glitter spotting, and a downloadable audio reading by author Wendy Mass of the book’s first chapter.
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