Jacob Tierney’s film career launched in 1993, at the age of thirteen, when he starred—alongside Joan Allen, Martha Plimpton and a young Jake Gyllenhaal—in the adolescent road trip comedy/drama Josh and S.A.M. For the next ten years, the Quebec-born actor was cast in relatively obscure independent films featuring legendary character actors, such as Neon Bible (produced by his father, Kevin Tierney, and starring Gena Rowlands) and Rainbow (directed by and starring Bob Hoskins). In 2003, he made his directing and writing debut with Twist, an adaptation of “Oliver Twist,” and its success in Canada granted Tierney the opportunity to shoot a higher-budget film: The Trotsky, released last year to acclaim and starring geeky heartthrob Jay Baruchel of Knocked Up fame.
For Good Neighbors (which comes out today), Tierney, once again at the directing helm, cast Baruchel and Trotsky co-star Emily Hampshire, as well as Scott Speedman (most known for the TV drama Felicity) as three ill-at-ease neighbors in a dimly-lit Montreal apartment building. Adapted from Chrystine Brouillet’s noirish 1982 story Chère Voisine, this black comedy concerns a serial killer on the loose, a war between an equally demented cat killer and cat enthusiast, and one of the more grotesque murder sequences of late. Screen Comment talked with Tierney about his favorite early acting experiences, his break into directing and his distaste for setting movies in our current Internet-dominated era.
Screen Comment: What was it like doing your first film Josh and S.A.M., working with Martha Plimpton and shooting in all the different road trip locations for the film?
Jacob Tierney: It was crazy. It was the first studio movie I ever did. At the time, I was young enough to not really know the difference between working with people like Joan Allen and—I mean, I was intimidated by her because I didn’t know who she was. I think I’d be more scared of working with some of those actors now. But I had a terrific time making that movie.
It was a bit “neither fish nor fowl.” There was a kind of serious movie there and I think that the studio wanted more of a comic thing. I don’t think that it ultimately worked. But it was an interesting hybrid. And it had a powerful producer, Marty Brest. At the time he was doing exactly what he wanted, he was kind of the godfather of that picture. He really protected the director, Billy Weber, and I think Billy got to make the movie he wanted to make, ultimately. And Castle Rock [Entertainment] was pretty friendly to filmmakers back in the day.
Did that movie easily lead to being cast in other independent films?
It easily led to getting a Hollywood agent. And then I had the opportunity to do movies like Neon Bible later, with my father. It certainly wasn’t a big ass hit. It didn’t get me a career or anything.
Did you want to follow a quirky independent film track from the get-go?
It was more that that was the way I got cast. When you’re a kid, you’re kind of going up for everything. And the people that responded to me tended to be indie weirdoes more than normal people. That definitely formed part of my sensibility.
Did you have a favorite movie experience?
Neon Bible, for sure. That was like film school for me. Gena Rowlands, Terence Davies[director] and Stephen Woolley [producer], that was an amazing experience. Gena showed me all of John Cassavetes’ movies, and we all lived together in a small town in Georgia. It was a pretty amazing summer for me.
How long did it take to develop Twist and how did you break into writing and directing?
I was always the kind of kid that wrote. I wrote Twist and I gave it to my manager and agent, and they both assumed I wanted to act in it. And I said, “No, I just want to direct it.” I made Twist when I was twenty-three. It was made for like sixty grand. Between me and my producer we called in every favor we possibly could. I talk to students now and they ask me how you make a first film, and I tell them “You just have to do it, man. No one’s gonna hand it to you, unless you’re a movie star.” In the world we live in you’ve gotta make a first film.
Was it relatively easy to get funding for it?
In Canada, we have a system called Telefilm, it’s a way to apply [for funding]. Luckily, because Twist did OK, it made me somebody that was encouraged to come back with a second film.
How long did it take to shoot Twist?
Do you generally prefer short shoots?
Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have more time. But I definitely believe you make the best of what you have. If someone tells me, “You can’t make a good movie in twenty days,” I say bullshit. Some of the best movies of all time were made for less than a million dollars in less than twenty days. Twist was designed to be shot quickly. A movie like The Trotsky, I knew that required way more money. Just the size of that cast alone and the number of locations, that speaks for itself.
What attracted you to Chere Voisine?
I always read a lot of mystery books and serial killer stuff. I read the book for the first time in high-school, but it stayed with me because of the role of Louise. What the woman does in that story is so different from what women do, in that genre. And also the black humor. I’m a big fan of classic noir, I’m a big Hitchcock fan, and all those movies are really funny. I’m also inspired by the contemporary versions of those movies, like Shallow Grave and The Talented Mr. Ripley. They’re actually really funny, as well.
Have you had a real-life experience with neighbors that creepy?
Not that creepy. I had a neighbor that used to steal shit out of my mailbox. He tried to cash my checks.
You’ve said you were thinking of Scott Speedman when you wrote the role of Spencer. How come?
When I think of Scott’s persona, I think of “Felicity” or the Underworld movies where he’s an earthy, good guy. And he’s trying to not be typecast. He’s a bad dude for sure from the beginning [of Good Neighbors].
The press notes say that all three of the characters have “dark secrets.” In comparison, Jay Baruchel’s character is the innocent one, though he does lie about being Louise’s fiance.
Yeah, he’s a compulsive liar. Whenever people tell me, “Aw, he’s so sweet in that movie,” I tell them, “Really? I don’t think you’d like that guy in real life.” Only a person like Louise could tolerate that.
Although she seems to loathe him a bit, from the get-go.
Well, she’s just not interested in people.
Which character do you identify with most?
My God, none of them…I hope! When you write parts, you get into the skin of all these people. Their decisions are rational from their point of view. I think Louise is strangely admirable in her selfishness. She does exactly what she wants to do. There’s a tempting fantasia that goes along with that. But in real life, the people that can do that are usually pretty fucked up. They genuinely don’t give a shit. And I don’t find that super admirable.
She does enjoy being desired, to some degree.
I think she wants to get what she wants. She’s happy to pretend to be his fiance if she gets [to keep] his cat.
Was the murder scene fun to shoot?
It can be really tough on the actors, but luckily they were both game and brave.
Is the original story set in wintry Montreal? Did it have the same apartment buildings with rickety fire escapes?
The book takes place in Quebec City. I moved it to Montreal. The fire escapes are in the book. That was part of what appealed to me, that the apartment building felt so Gothic. There’s so many classic noirs and thrillers that take place in confined spaces, whether it’s Rosemary’s Baby or Rear Window, where these locations become characters.
Were you going for a cat-like point of view with some of the camera shots, crawling down the hallway slowly?
In a space like that, with so many hallway scenes, you want to not shoot it the same way twice. The shoot was twenty-five days [long], so we did all the hallway shots in a row. I wanted them to look and feel different.
There’s a lot of fade-outs during the climactic scenes. Was that to throw people off, so that right when they’re ready to see something definitive it cuts out?
It was part of the dreamy atmosphere I wanted. It’s a bit of a nightmare. You’re in Louise’s consciousness.
Was it easy to draw a creepy performance out of someone like Jay Baruchel, who usually does play sweethearts?
I think they were all up for doing something different. I wrote it for these guys and I wanted them to feel totally comfortable in these skins.
Are you working with them in the near future?
They won’t be in my next film, but I’d love to keep working with them forever.
What’s next in the works?
I’m adapting a book by Doris Lessing called The Good Terrorist. It’s a drama set in Montreal during the October Crisis. She’s graciously allowed me move it from England in the early 1980s to Montreal in the early ’70s. Hopefully, I’ll make it next year.
So you really like setting films in the pre-internet time period?
I do, especially for a noir. You can know too much about people [on the Internet]. I’d rather learn about people from what they tell me.
(photo credits: David Julian Hirsh; Larry Busacca/Getty Images North America; Jacob Tierney (with DOP Guy Dufaux) on the set of Good Neighbours–courtesy of Alliance Vivafilm; Jag Gundu/Getty Images North America)