It’s often hard to try and discover new ways to make a romance film seem fresh and new. Wanting a more intimate setting for two people to get to know each other, Ann LeSchander wrote and directed The Park Bench. Emily (Nicole Hayden, 8 Simple Rules), a post-grad librarian-to-be is assigned to tutor Mateo (Walter Perez), a college student struggling to pass his English literature class. As they meet three times a week on the park bench, they two get to know each other more and more.
Ann LeSchander and Nicole Hayden took some time out to speak to me about The Park Bench, the intimate setting, the characters, and which books (since the film discusses a lot of literature) inspired them.
You can read the entire interview below and check out my review of the movie here!
For you, Ann, the idea of having an entire film set at a park bench is really unique. In a lot of ways it closely resembles an off-Broadway play setup. What was the idea behind your writing the script?
Ann: It’s funny that you mention the theater thing because a lot of people do ask me, or people watch and are like, “That’d make a great play,” or they ask if it was initially a play, but it wasn’t. To me, it was always a very cinematic idea that I had. Initially, the hope was that I could come up with a story that was doable and so I thought about this one location and I had hoped that two people getting to know each other and forced to come together and then sort of… not forced to reveal themselves, but through the act of studying literature, they can’t but reveal a little bit of themselves. And little by little, getting to know each other that way would be engaging and interesting. So that’s kind of how I came up with the idea.
Nicole, how did you become involved in the project and how did you prepare for your role?
Nicole: Well, I auditioned for it and we ended up having one first call and two call backs. I told Ann that I was tortured during the process because I loved it so much and I wanted to be Emily so badly. It was a little bit of a long process for me because I was so excited and kept waiting to hear. So I was just thrilled when I got the part. Preparing for it was so fun. I am not as smart as Emily in real life and so I had to go and read a lot of books and reread books that I read in high school and wasn’t paying attention to. Walter [Perez] used to make fun of me on set because my script was just covered in notes and drawings and phoenetic ways of saying things correctly. So it was a lot of prep, but I think it was all so worth it because getting to do all that prep just made the shooting process so fun. It was just a blast and a wonderful experience.
It looks like you and Walter bonded.
Nicole: We did, we did! We were just texting before we picked up the phone. I’m usually sending him dorky pictures and emojis and he’s writing back, “Wow, you’re a dork. Gosh you’re so dorky. So I guess our relationship has come true [laughs]. But Walter is just a wonderful person, not only actor. He’s just a really well-connected and thoughtful person and I love being around him and texting him [laughs].
Ann, the setting is so intimate in the film. And our views of the characters aren’t really influenced by anyone in the outside world. Talk to me a bit about this enclosed setting and did it offer any creative leeway or did it hinder it?
Ann: What I love the most is just two people talking [laughs]. I just really enjoy that… when you say intimate, that’s exactly right. That’s what I was hoping. I talked a little about this, but my editor and sound editor had both created this world outside of the bench through sound where it’s as if the park is filled with laughing children or dogs or whatever. So they had this whole sound design happening and both times I had to say no, that’s not what I want. Even if it’s not real, there’s something kind of hyper-real maybe about the film so that’s ok with me. What I really wanted was for this to be their corner of the world and I love that somehow they managed to find this spot that no one else intrudes upon. And I loved it. It’s a hindrance only in that it’s a challenge in the way you’re going to shoot it to make it interesting and the ways you’re going to vary it enough so that people won’t find it repetitive. That’s challenging. But in the way they relate to each other, that’s what I was exactly hoping for.
I liked the fact that they fall in love and they’re from different background and also different ethnic backgrounds, because you don’t see that very often in Hollywood. Were there certain things you wanted to avoid in making sure that you stayed true to who the characters were and not have them become stereotypes?
Ann: For my character Mateo, I really wanted him to be just a guy in college, basically. I really didn’t want to push this urban gang-banging role. That’s not the story I know. My daughter has been going to a Spanish immersion kindergarten and there’s a mandate there that 50% of the students have to be native Spanish speakers. So that means a lot of the students in her class are first generation children. So I met all these families, that was a lot of my homework, talking with them. And what I found was hard-working families raising children. That’s what it is. So that’s what I really hoped for for his character and I wanted that to be him. And for her [Emily] I didn’t want to go over the edge in any way. I didn’t want her to be some waspy princess from the upper crust, or whatever. I just wanted them to be two people who were different enough that when they meet they’re different. And that it takes time for them to get to know each other. And different enough that they have a reason to explain themselves to each other. But I didn’t want to push any kind of boundaries in that way. Just people that you would, that you would meet.
Nicole, you’ve guest-starred and been on a lot of TV shows. What was it like for you to come in and do a movie with a longer shooting time and what was that experience like for you?
Nicole: I would say that there’s something really special. I love doing TV, I love it! It’s great fun. I have two children, the schedule’s great and that kind of thing. There’s something really special about a film, especially like this because you kind of get to comfortably live in the world. We shot this for a week and we shot all day long, every day. You really feel like you’re living this story and this life. And it was really magical and one of the best weeks of work I’ve ever had in my career. I know that’s a testament to Ann, her writing and directing skills, how grateful she is on set. It was like being in another world and it was beautiful. Especially the one she created [laughs]. Just really, really beautiful.
The characters discuss a lot of books and a lot of these books are a part of central discussions that cause the characters to open up. What are both of your favorite books and how have they influenced you?
Ann: Golly. It’s so hard to pick! Who ever heard that before? Let’s see… I do have to say that one of my favorite books of all time really is The Great Gatsby. I really have just always loved it. I first read it in high school. I’ve read it and reread around fifteen times. It’s crazy, but it just hit me in a certain time. I always just talk about…. My other favorite writer really is Anne Tyler. I don’t know if you’re familiar with any of her books, The Accidental Tourist and her other books, Saint Maybe and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. She writes like I hope to write, which are characters that are over the wall, a little odd, but you feel like you could live next door to them, you know? They are people that can really exist in the world even thought they’re a little funny, a little quirky. And that’s always something I think has really sort of become my sensibility. Nicole? [laughs]
Nicole: Hmm… Fifty Shades of Grey. No, I’m totally kidding [laughs]. I think as a little bit of a bible for my life, I would say The Alchemist. I’ve read it maybe twelve times. I really love its emphasis on the journey and you really need to be, or I really need to be focused on the journey. Especially as an actor or any kind of artist there is a lot rejection and a lot of no’s. It’s a lot of heartbreak and I think that getting to really enjoy the heartbreak and enjoy this path that you’re on with no idea what the end route is, no idea what your next project is or what you’re going to experience. The excitement of that and kind of the purity of being just what it is is beautiful and I don’t think it’s ever been told better than The Alchemist and it’s an inspiring thing too. When you have those days where you’re like, “This journey is not going the way that I thought this journey was going to go!” I even have passages in it that are highlighted that I go to. I’ve written all over it. It’s just a kind of bible for my life and I’m forever grateful to follow Coelho.
The animated parts of the movie were a nice touch in terms of storytelling. Talk to me about how that came into play.
Ann: You know it’s like the film is about stories, right? They start discussing books and then little by little they start to reveal themselves a little through stories. I’d often put monologues in my films. It’s sort of part of what I’d always enjoyed and I’d always find it very cinematic when a character goes into a monologue in a film. I always really like it. I think it can have a heightened reality where the writing can be a bit more writer-ly, if you will. Or poetic. So as I started to think about the film, I started to think, “Well, what if they have a monologue. At one point they just go into a story. What if they had these moments where they’re telling something.” So I kind of thought about these moments in our lives that stick with us or would be revealing or something that would then come back later in the film. Like her necklace does or when he talks about Don Martín’s story. If I could manage to work it back in, then I could make it work. I thought it would be an opportunity also to get off the bench and the idea of mixed media. And here’s the opportunity where we can leave the bench and tell this story and let’s see it. And then I always thought the animation would be fun and some of the stories have a super eight kind of feel to them. So that’s sort of the idea. It was also the constraint of the budget. It worked in many ways. It was a way to make the film continue the storytelling, but I didn’t have to shoot it [laughs].