Jack C. Newell, the program director of the Harold Ramis Film School, spoke with Solzy at the Movies about the upcoming film, Monuments.
The film is about a college professor, Ted (David Sullivan), whose world is crushed when his wife, Laura (Marguerite Moreau) suddenly passes away. This takes him on a road trip from Colorado to Chicago where he hopes to scatter her ashes at the Field Museum. Throughout the journey, Ted sees visions of Laura but is also followed by her family.
Monuments stars David Sullivan, Marguerite Moreau, Javier Muñoz, Paulina Olszynki, Shunori Ramanathan, David Pasquesi, and Joel Murray. Row House Films will open the film in theaters and virtual cinemas on June 4, 2021. 1091 Pictures will release the film digitally in August.
What was the genesis behind the screenplay for Monuments?
Jack C. Newell: A couple of different things. One was when I was younger, in high school and early in college, my mom and brother both passed away sort of quickly in quick succession. Obviously that was a life-defining tragedy, I guess, that happened to me and I’d always been struggling with how to deal with it. And so then, fast-forward to—I’m married now and my wife’s mother is a writer. She has a short story that she wrote about a guy whose wife passes away. In the short story, he scatters her ashes in a museum. She knew I was making films and she’s like, I wrote a story, you want to read it? I was like, I’ll read the story. I read it and I really connected with it because I like how, in the shorts, this guy was trying to figure out how to process the loss of someone he cares very much about. And so, those two things meshed right there and the film that we generated out of it is not really my experience specifically nor is it actually even the short story. It’s some combination of both about a guy—the basic story of him stealing the ashes and trying to scatter them in a museum is the sort of structure I got from my mother-in-law’s story. But the content of the film is my own trying to find a way to talk about how do we deal with saying goodbye to people. How do we deal with grief? How do we talk about moving on?
An adventure-comedy isn’t the first genre I think of when it comes to grief.
Jack C. Newell: No, it’s not. I think that that is well said. Part of this is like, how do you express yourself as an artist. I see myself as a comedic filmmaker and this is just how I view the world. I don’t know if you choose to be someone who’s in comedy. I think that it’s sort of how you see things and it’s my unique view on the world. I think, also, for those who have dealt with it, it wasn’t an acute loss like I’ve had or for anyone honestly coming out of this COVID experience. We’ve all had to say goodbye to well, hopefully not loved ones but just who we used to be or the society we used to live in and that’s good and bad. What I’m trying to get at is that it’s not linear and it’s certainly not what most movies would tell you, which is that it’s just a straight, horrible tragedy, constantly drama sort of thing. I think it’s far more complex than that. It is an action-comedy but it also had real moments of catharsis, drama, and all of that. And action.
What were you going for with the puppet show sequence?
Jack C. Newell: The film is structured in a way where you’re sort of playing catch up. It’s almost like a mystery like why is Ted doing what he’s doing and sequence from a storytelling point is really to try to get out some of the mythology almost of what’s driving Ted and also then to raise the stakes on why he’s doing what he wants to do.
I don’t want to be a guy whose gonna quote Orson Welles but I feel like I can to you and you’ll be nice to me about it when you write about it. But he said when making Citizen Kane that it’s like, with film, you want—I’m completely butchering what his quote was. But essentially, this idea was you want to try and find all the different ways in which you can engage an audience. Dialogue is one of the ways. Music is one of the ways. Blocking is one of the ways. The project has all of these different ways in which we’re trying to tell a story, and puppetry is another storytelling device and a shadow play comes down to shadows and light because film in the end is really just shadows and light.. When I wrote the film and came up with this idea of a sort of sequence where he’s envisioning this, there’s a lot of ideas about how could that happen. When we found an abandoned movie theater, it was, Oh, this is a great idea is to find a way to get from the fire, make the leap that the shadows are appearing on the screen and do something that’s truly, I guess, cinematic that I haven’t seen and done before.
How did the cast come together?
Jack C. Newell: You write the movie, you get a casting director, and then you start going out the cast. David, I’d known since Primer, which was a big movie for me when it came out right after film school. I can’t remember the exact year it came out anymore. I’ve always really liked his work. Marguerite as well—she was in Wet Hot American Summer and obviously, The Mighty Ducks when we were kids. Javier—I hadn’t seen him in Hamilton—obviously, I’m familiar with Hamilton—but I ended up seeing a tape that they had because he was on some television show. And when I saw him—because when you do the casting process, they’re like, Hey, we have this guy. Who’s this person? Who’s this person? Javier had just gotten off Hamilton on Broadway and was getting into film for the first time. He had done some TV stuff and I thought as soon as I soon as saw that clip, I was like, this is the guy. I was sort of coming at it from loving all these actors and their work and getting a chance to work with them. We filled out the rest of the cast with just amazing Chicago-based actors.
You can never go wrong with David Pasquesi or Joel Murray
Jack C. Newell: I know. I’ve done a bunch of movies with them now and they’re really great to work with. They always deliver. They’re excellent.
Were there any films in particular that inspired the look?
Jack C. Newell: There’s some real specific references, which you probably maybe picked up on—Indiana Jones being the most overt one with how it’s set up and styled. The opening is a pretty strict homage to Yojimbo. It’s just that our guy instead of walking in the frame like a hero like Yojimbo, does, our guy pops in a frame like a loser, basically, trying to find a way to play with it. There’s that and this and more throughout the film that are sort of specific references. I think going for a vibe or a feel of film from the 60s and 70s, basically before Star Wars did everything it did. But these sort of films of that group of American filmmakers in terms of shot size shot selection, using wide pieces. Westerns were a big influence for us.
What was the most challenging part of the production?
Jack C. Newell: If I said all of it, you would be like, “You need to be more specific,” I’m assuming. It’s an independent film for not a lot of money. This is not a very large budget film. We shot for 30 days and we shot across country. If you’ve seen the film, in terms of scope, it’s very ambitious. I mean, it is truly a road trip movie and we really did drive across the country while filming and that is just hard. The scope and the ambition of the project to pull off on this budget size was really probably the hardest thing.
When it came to filming inside the Field Museum, how quickly were they on board given what happens?
Jack C. Newell: I have a friend, Michelle, who works at the Field Museum and since she’s also a big supporter and very supportive of my film work, seeing my films and all that stuff. I was like, Hey, I’ve got a film and I love for it to—and she’s like “Come and check it out.” We met the team there and they’re like, We love it. I was like, here’s what the movie is about and they’re like, That’s fine. I was like, I don’t know if they really understood what I said, like what they said yes too quickly. I followed up and asked for more documentation and the whole time, I was expecting them to be like, Oh, wait, we just re-read this and it’s like, He wants to do what now?!?
But no, the whole time, they were just like, This is great. Museums are a very sacred place to people. They said, obviously, they don’t want to condone people scattering their loved one’s ashes at their place but they were also sort of underneath—they’re like, you’d be surprised what people do in museums. Not in a gross way but people have real connections with the space. They got it and they knew it was a story and we’re making a movie. In the end, technically, if you’ve seen the film—obviously, don’t say it to someone who hasn’t seen the film—he doesn’t actually do it so maybe we got away a technicality there.
I was thinking more of Howl falling down the stairs.
Jack C. Newell: Oh, sure. Yeah, no, I think they didn’t have problem with it. They were really cool. We came in like, This is a story we want to tell. They never had a spot where they were saying like, you can’t do that for these reasons. They were like, “This seems great. We love that you thought of a museum and you staged some of your film here.” They were very open to the whole thing.
It’s hard to film in museums just because it’s literally priceless stuff that you’re moving camera gear and staging lights around. They were very cool about it, which is very fortunate. I mean, we’re sure we could have figured out another way to film it but it adds a lot of production value in a neat spot. I personally have a lot of really fond memories as a kid going to the Field Museum.
Chicago has a growing film scene. What do you love about making films in the city?
Jack C. Newell: I think it’s because we’re not in LA or New York, I think we’re really able to make truly independent cinema here. I think that people in Chicago still love movies. Sometimes, you shoot in some of these other towns and people have gotten so jaded to the process that it just becomes sort of a chore but everyone still loves Chicago here, it feels like. That’s really great and the energy is usually really good around it. You have people here who are, whether it’s our actors that we were talking earlier, who are amazing and who are probably undervalued as talent because they had made a decision to be in Chicago. That’s sort of true at large and I think Chicago is always underestimated in terms of what we’re doing here. With that, the advantage being that we can do our thing here and mostly, people won’t get in our way. I think that’s what I like about it but it’s always the people and great crews, good actors, beautiful locations. We shot a road trip movie here without going so far out of Chicago and were able to get a lot of different looks from the space. There’s a lot of reasons.
The film has played a number of film festivals. What has the reception been like and have you had a chance to watch it with an audience?
Jack C. Newell: I have had a chance to watch with a small audience a couple of times. When I make films, I like to do a lot of test screenings and so I’ll watch the film in a theater with as many people as I can find and watch it with them sort of throughout the entire process. Of course, it’s exactly what you’re asking. I did watch it before everything shut down with an audience and then once during it with a theater that was open. It’s good.
This theatrical run that we’re doing here, a couple of them are in person and a good number of them are virtual. The film is made for the big screen, essentially. I’m not saying you can’t watch it on your TV at home but the way in which the framing, the scope, the scale, the music, and the sort of epic-like quality to it, we really always saw it for the big screen. I think that is something that we’re really excited about happening. It’s also because it’s a comedy, I think, better in groups because you can get people laughing together. Sometimes, comedy, when watched alone, is about the saddest thing that can ever happen. No one watches a comedy by themselves. I guess there are probably sadder things. But it’s great because people can watch it.
When we’ve watched it with audiences, it’s great because it’s doing what you want it to do. They laugh when you want them to laugh and the moments when—part of it’s a movie like this getting permission to laugh. Sometimes in movies that are tonally not a Marvel movie, I guess, people don’t know, Is it okay if I laugh here? I think part of it is in a group setting, you have the opportunity to just sort of lean into like, Oh, yeah, this is funny. Oh, this is sad now. And really feel those emotions and go on that ride, which I think is something that we can we can do.