How Jesse Eisenberg Turned an Audible Book into a 16mm First Feature

'When You Finish Saving the World'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
After decades acting for auteurs, Eisenberg learned a few things about directing.

The 2022 Sundance Film Festival opened last week with When You Finish Saving the World. In the coveted spot of opening night film, it did not disappoint.

Starring Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard, it’s not exactly the film you’d expect of any first-time filmmaker.

The acting is mesmerizing, the story damn-well told, and the whole thing was shot on 16mm film. It happens to be Jesse Eisenberg’s first time directing a feature.

And it all started with an Audible book! (Eisenberg penned it, and Finn Wolfhard voiced it.)

No Film School was at the film’s premiere on opening night to watch the film and find out more about Eisenberg’s process in making it. Here are our takeaways on what he had to say.

Let the Story Dictate the Format

Eisenberg’s iconic acting has graced many a memorable film, from The Social Network to The Squid and the Whale. Why was this project Eisenberg’s first time in the directing role? Not because he really wanted to finally direct a movie himself, but because the story demanded it.

“I’ve only written plays prior to this,” Eisenberg said during the Q&A at the premiere. “After the Audible book, I was thinking about what would work best for my next play. I was thinking about a domestic violence shelter, and how it has this localized impact in contrast with a modern strange phenomenon of internet fame, with a wide but shallow impact… Eventually, I realized it would work best for film.”

Sure, it sounds like a lot of work to create an audiobook before adapting it into a feature film, but maybe places like Audible are good script sources for filmmakers? Something to think about.

Know When to Cast Yourself, and When to Not

Eisenberg knows how to act. Why not create a part for himself?

“It became clear everyone who came on set was an increasing risk, because of COVID,” Eisenberg said. “And every person required two weeks of testing. So I thought: what could I do to have less people?”

Like all production shooting in the pandemic, the simpler, the better.

“Plus it was nice to get my bearings without having to look at the profile of my face,” he said.

Pinch Yourself, But Don’t Let Nerves Get in the Way

When Eisenberg was asked what it was like to direct, he acknowledged that the best thing going for him as a director was to have everyone else on the team focused on their roles. That made it easier for him.

“It felt like it was incredibly fortunate to have the resources I had,” he said. “Producers like Emma and Dave, and the two most wonderful actors, Julianne and Finn. I had the two most important elements [on a production] doing their own thing.”

When You Finish Saving the World was produced by the brand new production company Fruit Tree that was started by Emma Stone and Dave McCary under a two-year first-look deal with A24. So you're looking at pretty much the dream-team for a new filmmaker.

“I felt fortunate, pinching myself everyday.”

Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Moving from Sound-Based to Visual Language

Because the film was adapted on an audiobook, how was it adapted for film? Did the sound drive the visuals? These were a few questions from audience members for Eisenberg.

“A little,” started Eisenberg. “Emma and Dave wanted to make a company to make films on film. We are filming on 16mm. I thought, it would be wonderful to have that mirror the score; with a homemade look. We had that with the songs, the sounds like hearing the fingers sliding on the guitar.

Look Inward—Your Internal Conflicts Might Be a Universal Story

Eisenberg explained that his mother-in-law has worked at a women’s shelter for over 30 years, and he had spent more time there during the pandemic. For him, being in this shelter space, helping women whose lives have been upended by domestic violence, brought out a constant struggle in his mind.

How does one work in a meaningful, important space in real life, while still being a part of the Hollywood machine?

“The movie was in some ways born of my inner conflict of the work that I do and mainstream entertainment,” he said. “Being so exposed to the work that’s done in these [women’s shelters]—the immediate need in social service. The movie is kind of born of that: the conflict between art and social activism. These characters are in some ways reflective of the fight that I’m struggling with in my own mind.”

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