Silas Howard's Sundance hit portrays a Brooklyn couple who suspect their young child is transgendered.
Identifying what makes a child special is often identifying what makes a child different, and in Silas Howard's moving drama A Kid Like Jake, the blurry lines between uniqueness and outcast are brought to the forefront.
Greg (Jim Parsons) and Alex (Claire Danes) play the parents of Jake (Leo James Davis), a four-year-old boy who will soon be going to a private or magnet school for elementary school education. That's what his parents hope for, at least: with their local Brooklyn public school rezoned and their new one overcrowded, the parents find it necessary to look into private schools for Jake that can offer more individual attention. To say these institutions cost an-arm-and-a-leg would be an understatement.
As the parents work on a "Why is your child special?" essay that could potentially provide a scholarship for the financially-strapped family, they both begin to fully realize the extent of Jake's uniqueness. Jake loves playing with his Disney princess toys and dressing in skirts, and no one would label him as "boyish." His parents appear to accept this, but in questioning their perception of his gender-nonconforming interests, perhaps they're conflicted by it as well. The film never shies from its depiction of the accepting of something foreign to you.
As the film opens in theatres this week, No Film School spoke with director Silas Howard (known for directing on Amazon's Transparent) about adapting the stage play, shooting New York exteriors on a limited budget, and the deliberate choices he made to incorporate his title character into the story.
No Film School: A Kid Like Jake is adapted from a 2013 play by Daniel Pearle that was produced by Lincoln Center. Pearle also wrote the screenplay adaptation for this production. Were you familiar with the play before coming onto this project? What kind of conversations did you have with Daniel about adapting it for the screen?
Silas Howard: That's a perfect question because I didn't know of the play until Jim Parsons' company, That's Wonderful, reached out to me. At that point, Jim was attached to produce and star with Claire Danes, who came to the project through Double Nickel (one of our other producing partners), and so Daniel had already written the first adaptation. However, he wanted to finish the screenplay with whomever the director was going to be, knowing things could or would change depending on that choice.
It was great when I came on, with incredible talent attached and such a beautiful script, but I did make a list of things I thought I'd want to change to make the right fit. They were all on board with those and Daniel and I then took to spending months phone-calling and texting. I remember walking around my neighborhood and talking to him as we talked through a small moment in the story. We didn't make huge changes but we did fill out some moments with the mother character, Catherine. We had the luxury of working together for a couple of months before we were financed and it was really a great collaboration.
"I certainly didn't want it to feel like a play, and yet I didn't want to shy away from the play's strengths, which were these powerful, long dialogue scenes."
NFS: As a filmmaker, were you constantly looking for ways to "open up the text?" To go heavy on exteriors for a source material that may not have had any?
Howard: I certainly didn't want it to feel like a play, and yet I didn't want to shy away from the play's strengths, which were these powerful, long dialogue scenes. They had such an arc to them, and that was something I wanted to preserve. I wanted to "lean in," especially with Greg's character and the scenes he has with Sandra (played by Amy Landecker). It's just those three scenes that take place in a very small therapy room, and so when it came to thinking up a visual strategy, it was an exercise in limitations. "How can we film this?" "Let's show the progression."
And so we did. However much of that reads to the viewer, I'm not sure, but we certainly were aware of it, and my cinematographer, Steven Calitri, and I spent weeks on it. Any amount of time that we gave him we would think through and design shots, thinking of the claustrophobia of home-versus-the-hecticness-of New-York-City, which always pushes up against your doors. We were looking for any visual opportunity to highlight that, even though it's a very interior story by design, for sure.
NFS: Given your work on Transparent and now A Kid Like Jake, you often choose stories about a family coming to terms with and accepting a loved one's transition. What is it about that way into the story that draws you in?
Howard: Well, before I came onto Transparent, I had been working in indie film. My first film, By Hook or by Crook, was at Sundance in 2002. The characters were trans (or gender nonconforming) and the story was about chosen family. I think I'm obsessed with family of some kind and the friendships and relationships that get us through things (or that potentially undo us and then get us through things).
Transparent was an amazing opportunity and a big breakthrough moment for me, getting to direct television and work with that cast, even in somewhat of its later stage. Transparent is about this Jewish American family and so much of the conversation was around that.
I typically wouldn't have the gender-expansive character so removed from the narrative, but because this film is about a four-year-old who's actually fine in society and it's his parents that are, out of fear, starting to shape the feelings their child is about to have, [it was a choice]. For that reason, it made sense to intentionally flip the camera to the world around Jake, so that we see him not in the traditional way of him carrying the movie. It's not really about Jake.
It's interesting that Transparent is about one character at a much later stage of life, and this film is about one very early on. I work with LGBT youth who are houseless due to being disowned by their family. I feel it's still a struggle and, with compassion, we can work towards looking at the messiness and ways as early on as possible to support our youth and the ways they can survive. That would be such a great thing. I liked the way the script did that in a very messy, un "message" way of prescribing how we can do that. I think it's hard to do the right thing, especially as the closer in we are, the more complicated it gets.
"The plan was to see Jake a lot at the beginning of the story and then 'lose Jake' as his parents do."
NFS: Even in scenes in which Jake is physically placed in, we hardly see him. How did you come to this decision and how did you visualize how these scenarios would play out?
Howard: It was such an interesting strategy because, you know, for a play, unseen characters serve as a strategy that's employed often. In a film, it's not at all. The thing I didn't want was for it to be was this sort of dystopian version where we just see Jake's back and never see his face. It's just not that kind of movie. I knew that I wanted to see Jake and see him organically; I wanted to feel the presence of Jake.
One of the things we did to bring him into the script a bit more was bring brought back his voice. They had played with seeing Jake/not seeing Jake, hearing Jake/not hearing Jake, and I pulled more for seeing and definitely hearing his voice and presence.
We filmed more of him than we planned to use and actually did do a pickup day to add even more. The plan was to see Jake a lot at the beginning of the story and then "lose Jake" as his parents do. It was interesting finding the magic amount that would still frustrate the audience (without frustrating them too much). You want to frustrate them without taking them out of it. The frustration is intentional, and I feel like we achieved the right amount, for our purposes, in that Jake is there, but if you don't do traditional close-ups or conversations, people feel like they don't really see the character.
It's a different cinematic language, and it was important to not let the audience make their own decision about Jake's gender by looking at Jake. It also felt important for this story and for the age of this child for it to not be about that.
NFS: The exteriors presented to us at the start of the film appear to resemble Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and of course, given the nature of the story, I started wondering about the sociological implications this has. How did you work on finding locations that would equally serve as a piece of characterization as it does a mere setting?
Howard: Even with an incredibly star-studded, award-winning cast, we were still an independently made union film, and so our budget was pretty tight. Everyone came on for scale and joined for the same reason: they wanted to join in on this conversation. But yes, we had a number of limitations in terms of our exteriors and piecing together where we could shoot, but I definitely felt like it was a Brooklyn story and so a lot of it is dealt and revolves around Brooklyn.
One of our producers from Burn Later Productions was born and raised in New York and she was really great identifying what felt "New York." I've known the city for a long time but [I wanted to] be aware of how we were showing New York and what it was in New York that we were showing.
That early establishing shot came about as an exercise of limitation. We only had access to certain rooftops and the one we used was the friend's of one of our producers, generous enough to let us up there at 4:30 in-the-morning and wait for the sun to come up. I didn't want it to be Park Slope exactly, as I didn't want Greg and Alex to be quite at "that level." It was more like a part of Brooklyn, some part of Brooklyn, as it's certainly insanely expensive to live anywhere in New York.
NFS: As the film was mostly shot in the warmer months of the year, there's an orange glow throughout, a really strong orange visual tone that spreads memories of spring throughout the story. Did you speak with your cinematographer about creating a visual identity for the story?
Howard: We did, and more of our visual strategies were centered around specific shots we designed for specific scenes, a lot of which we ended up using. It was interesting because even in scenes where I wanted to let the actors just go [with it], I first had a run-through of the blocking they might do.
For example, there's the big fight scene between Greg and Alex. The audience may go, "Well, it's scripted" that he goes to that front door, etc., but I specifically wanted a house with that long hall and that also had a kitchen on the other side so that we wouldn't have to split frame. There was a lot of things that, due to shot-listing ahead of time, I knew I wanted to find in whatever locations we chose.
The decision on a color palette came late, but the seasons in the film are, for the most part, summer and fall, and so that kind of glowiness tone made the movie more hopeful to me. The film has a lot of harshness in the places people encounter in certain moments, but to me, it was like, "Oh, that actually leads them to the next thing they need to do." I felt like that palette makes sense for us in terms of the vibe of the story.
"Because we didn't have an understanding of film language, we were making up a kind of new one."
NFS: You mentioned having your first film at Sundance 16 years ago, and of course, earlier this year you returned to the festival with A Kid Like Jake. How has working in independent film changed for you over the past decade-and-a-half now? Has the process become easier or are there new complications that arise?
Howard: Well, I've been at Sundance with other projects, including a short documentary and a VR Project selected for their New Frontier program, and then my second microbudget feature Sunset Stories, was at SXSW. Between A Kid Like Jake and my first film, however, it's interesting because they're entirely different.
I was in my first film with my best friend, and we co-wrote it and co-directed it. We had never made a film before and were ahead of the times in depicting gender non-conforming characters. People just weren't talking about that. We wanted to show a friendship that was influenced by movies like Midnight Cowboy or Dog Day Afternoon, beautiful outsider stories. Because we didn't have an understanding of film language, we were making up a kind of new one. I think Sundance responded to that (which was really amazing), but it wasn't like that was going to lead me to any kind of studio career. I don't know that I'm necessarily I'm gunning for studio films necessarily. I just want to tell honest and interesting stories that I connect to.
While A Kid Like Jake is an entirely different film, it has similar themes of transforming trauma and the power of loss. Most of the budget went up onto the screen and everyone gave up their time. In a way, even with this huge cast, there was the same kind of intimacy on set and everyone was in it together.
Sundance's support is huge, providing a big boom to any film. Because our story is an intimate one—it's not a big action film—being at that festival gave us the ability to get eyes on the screen to see it.
NFS: Do you still find yourself rushing to finish post-production work to submit the film right before the deadline?
Howard: Oh yeah, but that's the best deadline to try and rush for. The time where you're waiting for the [Novemeber acceptance] phone call...that's brutal.
NFS: It can make for a great Thanksgiving holiday weekend though.
Howard: Or a terrible one! [laughs]. I've had both!