I met with Thomas Moffett, the writer of Shrink, to discuss self-medicating, Bob Dylan, and of course, his latest film.
Hi Thomas. Jung or Freud?
Jung. I’m afraid of Freud. Have you ever seen the movie Bad Timing? It’s from 1980 I think….If you’re afraid of Freud you’ll love this movie! Art Garfunkel plays a young Freudian practicing in Austria, he meets this woman and they have this messed up relationship. It’s directed by Nicolas Roeg, who made Don’t Look Now, which is beautiful but totally disturbing.
Do you have a shrink?
Tell me about your movie.
Kevin Spacey is a therapist in Los Angeles. He’s a best-selling author and has a largely celebrity clientele. When the film starts he’s not in very good shape. His wife has died and he’s not sleeping, self-medicating, losing his way, losing his faith in himself and his ability to help people, or even if it’s possible for people to really help each other. It’s that feeling of being at the end of one road and you can’t yet see where the next road starts. The film is sort of about finding the next road. That’s a variation on something Bob Dylan said, I can’t take credit for it, but it’s the way I think about a lot of things.
How involved were you on the set?
I was there every day, It was great. The director, Jonas Pate, and all of the actors were really collaborative. Kevin is such an incredible actor, as well as a writer and a director, so he understands the whole process of making a film so well. I learned more in the two months of working with him than I could’ve anywhere else, I think. Kevin also, very famously, has a theater background. He is the Artistic Director of the Old Vic in London and he really understands the importance of leading a group of people by example. I learned so much about storytelling and acting, about how actors work, from the whole experience. I want to direct my own scripts eventually.
What’s your favorite way to self medicate?
I drink a lot of coffee. Like a lot of coffee. My friend Pell practically had to have an intervention a few years back, but that was sort of half-assed because she ended up giving me a Nespresso machine during filming. My doctor flinched at the number of cups of coffee I told him I drank, so I’ve been trying to bring it down. (note: Thomas had two iced soy lattes during the interview.)
So you were drinking a lot of coffee while writing… What’s your writing process like? Are you one of those writers who has isolate themselves or do you need a lot of outside stimuli to get your mind going?
Well, I like being around people to glean details. Like that you have paint on your right arm. I’ll probably use that in something – the blue and white paint on Caris’s right arm. I love stuff like that. I like hearing little things people say, weird turns of phrase. A friend of mine jokes I’m always interviewing people when we go out. Like when you ask someone what their profession is and they say lawyer, they usually say it like they’re apologizing to you. But I get curious about stuff like that. What’s it like when you have to argue for a living. What’s your office like? Do you have a headset phone? That sort of thing.
Do you listen to music when you write?
Yeah. Always. I listen to music on repeat in the background.
To create a trance?
Funny. I do that too, in the studio. Who are you listening to?
I listen to a lot of Bob Dylan. The soundtrack he did to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. There’s something about that album that I really connect with when I’m working. It helps me to focus if they’re songs I’m familiar with, and ones I know will provoke a certain kind of mood from me. Lately I’ve been listening to Lou Reed in concert – the performance of the Berlin album that he did at St. Ann’s Warehouse. There are strings and synthesizers and his voice is incredible. I wrote a one-act play called She and Him listening to that album She and Him by Zooey Deschanel and M.Ward. The play is about a guy who takes all these pills and then calls for an ambulance. While he’s waiting for them to come, this girl that he really liked – and she liked him too but sort of strung him along for her own reasons –shows up, unexpectedly. But he doesn’t want her to know he took the pills and is like, trying to be a good host, and seems like he’s doing alright, but as the pills start kicking in and things slow down, he’s able to sort of finally tell her how he feels about everything. Then the last scene the doorbell rings, and the ambulance is there.
Thomas, you love tragedy.
I do, yeah, I guess.
In Shrink, there’s a definite theme of failure. Why are you so attracted to the failed man?
There’s an obvious darkness in failure, but it also opens the possibility of rebirth. I have a certain sympathy for the failed person because they’ve tried. There are so many people who stand on the sidelines and critique, but it takes bravery to actually try to accomplish something. And the failed person may not have made it, but I respect them for attempting. Kevin Spacey’s character in Shrink feels a sense of failure in that he feels like he failed his wife when she commits suicide, since he failed to see how sad and lost she was, and that feeling is more pronounced by the fact that he’s a psychiatrist..
But you’ve been so successful.
I don’t feel successful. I mean, I feel incredibly grateful for the way things have been going, don’t get me wrong. But there is a lot that I want to do and do better.
Do you remember when this idea to become a writer started to take shape?
In 8th grade I use to hang around this independent bookstore… I grew up in West Lafayette, Indiana which is a college town. This bookstore was like a window into other worlds. I imagine it’s a lot easier for kids today to do that. But I remember seeing a book on Spike Lee’s films and it got me interested in him, so I watched Do the Right Thing and that’s when I first got really excited about film and it also got me excited about New York. And I was watching a lot of Scorsese films…
So you decided then you would move to New York and be involved in film?
Kind of. The idea of New York got reinforced later with books like Fanny and Zooey…and also watching Scorsese’s “Life Lessons” from New York Stories. This huge loft in Soho with Nick Nolte playing the artist and these really amazing scenes of him painting…
I always find painting scenes in movies to be so cheesy.
No No, it’s not cheesy. Not in “Life Lessons.” You have to see it.
Did you have any kind of support system of the time for your budding interest?
Not creatively, no. I mean, my father and I used to watch a lot of old films together and talk about them. And we’d talk about history a lot and what makes people behave the way they do, which is obviously something that helps when you think about fiction. I’m still close with my best friends from back then. Two of them live in New York now actually. They had a great sense of humor that has definitely influenced my writing. And I’ve of course borrowed elements of friends for some of my characters. But in general, when you’re in Junior High school in Indiana in the early 90s, everyone is playing basketball and wearing Air Jordon t-shirts.
Did you play basketball?
No (laughs). I played tennis. I started meeting really interesting creative kids later in AP English…you know, the kind of girls who wear Pixies t-shirts and are reading Joyce Carol Oates. For the most part though I was kind of impressed by them from a distance and afraid to really talk to them.
And then you moved to New York.
Yeah, for NYU. And everything started happening. I worked at a literary magazine called The Paris Review which was run by George Plimpton. He was such a New York icon, such a sincere and enthusiastic person. His enthusiasm was infectious and working for him reaffirmed everything for me. I was a reader at the magazine my junior and senior years at college and then when I graduated I was George’s assistant and an editor there for three and a half years, until he died in 2003. I can’t even begin to describe the influence George had on me. I was really lucky to be there.
What are your upcoming projects?
I’m working on a lot of things. Liev Schreiber and I have this script we’ve been doing. I don’t know what will happen with it, but it’s a cool project. And I’ve been doing some work on a script with Sarah Silverman, who is amazing. And then I have a few scripts of my own that I’m working on. Like I said, I really want to direct one of them. And now I have this whole Caris has blue and white paint on her elbow situation to deal with….
Shrink is out now across the US and opens in Europe in the autumn.