When I see Kevin Asch, director of the neo-Gatsby film “Affluenza,” approaching the Empire Diner on 10th Ave, the same one where the famous pie scene in “Men in Black” was filmed, I’m relieved to notice that he looks as nervous as I do. During our conversation, I’ll come to realize that he has a passion for discussing film that exceeds nearly any writer, director, or scholar I’ve ever met, and he seems genuinely grateful to have someone interested in his opinion.
Seated at a table outside, we both agree that our time would be better spent indoors as it was beginning to rain. When inside, we greet each other a little more formally, and a waitress ushers us to the same booth where Will Smith had sat many times before over the last decade and a half. Shedding a jacket and fedora that he wore coming in, Kevin begins to talk about his hair as he orders a salmon plate, referencing his newest film, “Affluenza,” and his sudden need to change things up.
“I needed it,” he says, “especially after the reviews.” I look at him with a little bit of surprise. I knew that “Affluenza” had been one of the most critically maligned films of 2014, and I knew that his participation in the interview hinged on the fact that I was one of the few writers who honestly liked it, but I had no idea he was so aware of it. “I think it’s an easy target. With the subject matter and the ambitiousness of the film or its connectivity to Gatsby,” he says, referencing the many references to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel that are sprinkled throughout.
However, Asch doesn’t seem bitter about the reviews, as many directors would be. Instead, he takes the reviews with a grain of salt, saying, “the only thing that bothered me about getting any negative criticism was that they might frame the conversation or they might feed viewers the perspective that this isn’t something that’s worth their time or that isn’t more than teenage, sophomoric entertainment. And….that’s disappointing.” Having seen, and presumably grasped, the film with an enthusiasm for its content, it’s easy to see exactly why Asch is so disappointed.
“Affluenza” is, for all intents and purposes, a good, even important, film that plays out like a far more tragic season of the CW’s “Gossip Girl,” although Asch insists, “to relate [Affluenza] to, like, a ‘Gossip Girl’ is sort of silly to me. I don’t know. It wasn’t much of an influence.” The film stars Ben Rosenfield (Fisher), Nicola Peltz (Kate), and Gregg Sulkin (Dylan) as a group of wealthy teenagers in Great Neck, Long Island, who are faced with an abrupt adulthood in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, one that cost many people their lives both financially and domestically.
One of the most striking things about “Affluenza” is its visual style, one that seems distinctly different yet similar to the one displayed in Asch’s previous film, “Holy Rollers.” In response to that claim, he says, “Yeah, I mean it’s subtle, but the movie is very open and vast and lush as opposed to “Holy Rollers” which was very claustrophobic and cold and gritty. I wanted to do sort of an opposite aesthetic with this and really show this pocket of New York and this life of leisure mixed with not seeing the consequences of that kind of life. The immorality in that life of leisure and these kids that try to act like adults and these parents that are just overgrown kids, and then the grandparent who’s gone. Everyone’s left with these pillars they believed in and grew up in that have crumbled and the houses feel like a house of cards. They feel like glass houses at that point that are being shattered. And when you see Dylan from outside the pool [at the end of the film], I wanted it to be where you were like in the snow globe.”
A Great Neck native, Asch is obviously passionate about the content of “Affluenza,” and seems ready to defend its honor whenever possible. “I’m a lot like both Dylan and Fisher [the film’s two male leads] at that time. Life might have felt like everything was great and perfect for me but I was not able to connect with a lot of people. I was lonely and my family was coming apart and the pressures of that community and that world were things that I didn’t really fit into.” When I ask whether or not his parents were around to guide him through adolescence, he tells me, “They were and they weren’t. I was living with my dad, living with my mom, moving around a lot. My mom remarried a successful guy on Wall Street. My dad always struggled with that idea of next-door money,” giving me the impression that the film’s negative reviews may hurt a little more than he initially let on.
“My mom remarried a successful
guy on Wall Street. My
dad always struggled with
that idea of next-door money”
My suspicions are confirmed when Asch tells me, “I’m second, third, generation in that community. Nobody lives there anymore and hasn’t for many years.” When I ask him why, he tells me, “Well, it changed a lot. You know, the thing about Great Neck and my parents, and my grandparents, and the thing about ‘Holy Rollers,’ if you kind of take it back. The Jews of ‘Holy Rollers,’ they were looking to recreate the Old World when they moved to Brooklyn, in those communities and not embrace the American Dream and turn a blind eye to it. While the Jews of Great Neck, my grandparents, they moved there to really embrace the lawns and the white picket fences and the houses and the swimming pools and, you know, that American Dream. I lived a very reformed, maybe conservative, Jewish life. But more really an American life. And this was pre-World War II, post-World War II. Pre-World War II was like the Gatsby era there, in the 20s, and that’s what [F. Scott Fitzgerald] was writing about when he experienced it. And those were also a lot of Jews he was writing about and it was one of the first communities that allowed Jews to come live in the early 20th century.
“Then, post-World War II it became a very suburban community, and my parents grew up in that and they were the Boomer generation. They grew up very much having the keys to the kingdom. They got the cars and they had the opportunity to work for the companies and the careers that were afforded to them by my grandparents’ generation and follow in their footsteps. For the most part all grew up and had children in that community. That was the end of that run, when my generation came. Nobody else lives in Great Neck. A lot of that had to do with the American family, and the economy, and these beliefs, and what the system was that built a community like Great Neck, and why these families were there had crumbled in many ways. But, in many ways, other people have managed to hold onto it. But, as a community, and as a society, things changed.
“I really wanted to capture that, that generational gap, which is something we do in ‘Holy Rollers,’ too, but from the Old World perspective. You know, how do you keep the Hassids ultra-orthodox in their beliefs in a world that is continually being modernized? Do you turn a blind eye to that or do you embrace it and find a way to keep the conversation going? Now, there’s some sects that might, some sects that won’t. Similar to the world of the 1%’ers, Long Islanders, and suburbanites who have believed in these institutions and believed in these pillars of wealth and success. I’ve had to hold onto it in ways that they probably never imagined for the most part. People like Phil and Bunny and Kate and their family, in the world of Great Neck they’re, like, upper middle class. They’re the people that got hit in a big way in 2008, because they’re not the ones who’ve got golden parachutes. They’re the ones that really bought into that and lived on debt in a huge way. They were living off the success of their parents. All that changed around 2008 and we’re still living in the wake of it, while the people like Roger Reese’s character, they eat their own, they somehow hold onto it. They get those golden parachutes.”
“Do you feel like Great Neck fell apart as a result of the recession?” I ask.
“I feel like Great Neck changed past the 1987 crash. And then in the early 90s there was a recession, and I think that was the end to a lot of what Great Neck was and the sort of Boomer 80s and 70s, and the openness of the 60s era. I think it’s a microcosm of America, the suburban world of America. Looking into that one bubble, that community. What happened was that in the late 80s and early 90s it became a majority Persian community and a Persian-Jewish community, which happened really quickly and by the 90s it was the majority. They probably moved there for the same reasons that the Reform Jews and my grandparents and their children moved there, you know. A beautiful-looking community. They had their own institutions and beliefs and that’s what that community is now.
“But it’s just repeating, it’s just different culture. I mean, you look at the people in Great Neck and you look at what they wanted and you look at the people of ‘Holy Rollers’ and the idea of getting married, having a family, doing things, keeping afloat. Being a man, you know. Questioning your father and believing in other people like your uncle or your next-door neighbor or your boss and how there’s something about the simple values in your own home that you need to recognize and honor. So both movies have a similar kind of trajectory and questions and one more dealing with the money and the other dealing with the idea of religion.”
“And is that a huge part of who you are? Religion, I mean.”
“No, religion isn’t. Spirituality is.”
“How do you define the two?”
“Yeah, I don’t know. Antonio, religion’s a big part of his life. He’s not Jewish, he’s part of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, he’s LDS Mormon. But it’s something he was born into, you know, he never chose it, but he’s devout, albeit liberal in his artistic pursuits. But it works for him. For me, movies have been like religion in the way that they make me feel and they show me about life and the way that I’m able to work within a community and be accepted by a community. Being in a dark theater is like being in a synagogue for me. You know, I am Jewish, I’m reform Jewish and I maybe go to the high holidays and do things like that if I’m with my mother. If I’m not, I really don’t. I don’t know, spirituality is a way of life, I feel. To live as a spiritual person. I believe in things, you know. I believe in hope. I don’t know how much I believe in organized religion for me, though. But I see how, when it’s very positive, it’s great for people.”
The film plays very true to the lives of these young, self-destructive socialites, depicting them as the guarded, irony-laden beings that they are. The only reason Ben’s character is even accepted by Kate’s friends in the first place is because of his connection to a great drug dealer in New York who provides him with the best weed in town. When asked about Asch’s own connection to the characters, he expands on his earlier comment about having a personality that resembles the film’s two main characters. “When I was putting this together with Antonio [Macia, Kevin’s writing partner] I was trying to tap into that same angst that I was going through at that time in that community. And that confusion, and it’s very much represented through those two characters. Three weeks into shooting, they asked me, Ben and Gregg, who plays Dylan, ‘so are we playing two halves of you?’ From all the direction that was very specific out of my own life.”
Asch continues, referencing a therapist who influenced him in his teen years, but soon assumes a more reflective tone when talking about Dylan, saying, almost to himself, “He’s somebody who’s multi-faceted but is really a shell of somebody. He’s somebody who feels like his world is already lost and sunk. And there was this girl in this time of his life that was not so long ago where he felt happy. And he’s just trying to hold on to that, but it’s something that’s not real, and I relate to that. It’s something that you fantasize, you make it real. You glorify it.” Taking long pauses with each sentence, he ends by saying, “You’re reaching for something that is so destructive when you’re at your bottom. It’s a security blanket, but it’s a security blanket that’ll kill you,” referencing Dylan’s death at the end of the film.
We transition into the topic of film criticism in general, briefly touching upon “Affluenza’s” poor reviews for the first time since the beginning of the interview, and I say, at the risk of invalidating myself, that there are far too many unnecessary opinions in the realm of criticism, and that the hivemind has really begun to take over in a serious way. Asch agrees, saying, “There were some reviews where the review was, like, good, and then you have this one line in it, that’s like, ‘but the movie was stupid,’ or, ‘I didn’t connect with it,’ or something that was just really arrogant.”
We begin talking about other films like “Boyhood,” and how the critical hivemind doesn’t necessarily give it the criticism it deserves. In our conversation’s riskiest move, I admit to him that I hated “12 Years a Slave” with every fiber of my being. He laughs, and says, “Yeah, you and Armond White,” but I recall that White was one of the few critics to love “Affluenza,” going so far as to put it on his list of the top 10 films of 2014. When I mention this to Asch, he says, “Yeah, I know! He was insanely complimentary comparing me to Paul Mazursky.” After mentioning Mazursky, Asch recalls a film that he had done with Robin Williams, whose passing had been announced the day before our conversation. After searching for a couple minutes on his phone and listing a couple of other Robin Williams films he was influenced by, we land on Terry Gilliam’s “The Fisher King,” and the writer’s connection to SVA, which is Asch’s alma mater.
I ask him about his experience there, and he mentions a teacher he had named Joe Paradise, who “really loved me as an actor.” Asch was invited to work in the prestigious Actor’s Studio, and says of his experience, “I never tried to become an actor, or anything, but it was incredibly influential as a director to go through that process and learn improv and sense memory.” I ask him if he think it’s helped him interact with actors on set, to which he says, “I imagine it has. I seem to get a good feedback from actors, that they enjoy working with me. I love the rehearsal process with them and all that really comes alive during that process. I act with them, you know? And then on-set once you establish that trust and that shorthand of what you kind of want to do with the character, you can throw things at them. They’ll have an idea and we’ll be able to expand on that really quickly and efficiently.” And it shows.
“It always shocks me how
much more difficult it
is than I imagine it to be.”
Another one of “Affluenza”’s strongest aspects is the performances from its relatively young cast, which is assembled by some of the most talented and popular names in young Hollywood, including Grant Gustin, who is currently playing the most recent incarnation of The Flash. I ask Asch how he went about attracting these A-list names, to which he said, “If somebody was going to watch ‘Affluenza’ to see Grant, who’s The Flash, or Nicola, or something else, or Ben Rosenfield, to see these kids grow. I mean, Nicola’s 19, you know, Grant is 24, Ben Rosenfield turned 22… today! Oh my God, that just reminded me,” he says before pulling out his phone to text Ben a birthday message. “Anyway! Yeah, what a great talent. And Gregg Sulkin, uh, just turned 22 a couple of months ago. So in saying that, imagine what’s gonna happen over the next 5 or 7 years with these kids’ careers? So that was part of my thinking process in casting,” he says.
“The challenge of making the right choice ultimately comes down on my shoulders, and it is hard. You would think it’s gonna be one of the best, easiest processes in the whole thing. It seems so gravy. But you make one wrong choice and you’re screwed! You’ve gotta create a very specific palette. And then some people fell out and some people fell in right before shooting because of scheduling. But it was important for me to find a lead actor who I never saw do a coming-of-age story like this before. My favorite coming-of-age films always have an actor in that position, and it’s a hard thing without doing a massive search. Unless you have the time for an open search, which I wish I did but I didn’t. Ben’s audition was perfect and he was doing his first professional job at the same time. This was when he was 17, I cast him, and I didn’t get to shoot the movie until a little over a year later. August 2012. So I cast him and Nicola that summer, a year before I got to shoot. And they stuck to the material and I held onto them. And then Gregg, Grant, and everyone else came on board when I was moving along to shoot in the summer of 2012.
“You just try to cast the best kids, man, I don’t know. It was scary, you know? It was like with Nicola there really didn’t seem to be anyone else that was appropriate for her part. To have her beauty and to have her ability at that young age is rare.” I mention Nicola’s first role in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender,” and we both agree that the film and her role were not suited to her abilities, with Asch coming to her defense by saying, “Yeah, I mean she was a twelve-year-old girl. She was adorable in it, and the boy was adorable, but the movie is stiff, you know? They’re acting on a stage, probably.”
“Yeah, and it’s nice to see her in, you know, a real movie,” I say to him.
“Thank you. Yeah, she deserves it, you know? She doesn’t complain….ever. She loves what she does. And I say that ‘cause, like, everyone complains. And they have a right to. We’re tired, and they have whatever it is that their issues are with process or the weaknesses with shooting a low-budget film. But Nicola was just like, [impersonating her] ‘What do you need?!’ It was just so great. And it was really wonderful to see her become a girl into a woman during the shooting. I just saw her, you know, approach the material from a very surfaced perspective. And then over the course of rehearsals, you really see her start opening up and start unraveling as an actress. Then when she came to set she didn’t retract back. And a lot of people do that when they’re inexperienced. She was fully engaged and really believed and was so alive and was just a pleasure to work with. And it was great for all the other cast members to have her. I mean, she had a lot of trust for me and Ben.”
Asch begins talking about the character, “She’s so sincere in her superficiality and her maliciousness. Nothing feels calculated from Kate’s perspective. But she’s completely a lost…girl. She’s broken. And Nicola understood that. Her and Gregg and Grant and Ben, they handled really heavy material at times, and they did it without isolating their, um, their core sense or their persona….their accessibility, as an actor, to the audience.” He continues by saying, “over the course of the story…you really get a sense of their three-dimensionality and the result of who they are from their parents and from the choices that they really haven’t made on their own.”
Talking about Nicola’s performance a little more, Asch mentions the film’s car crash scene, at which point I admit to him that I started laughing. He responds enthusiastically, saying, “You did? Good! People laugh at a lot of parts in the movie, which is intentional.” Asch mentions one particularly hilarious scene where Dylan proposes to Kate, but has his card declined in the midst of his misguided profession of love. “It’s just over the top but still grounded in their world. I’m not asking for the joke. So if you don’t laugh that’s fine. But if you’re laughing, that’s my favorite reaction.”
Switching gears, I start asking Asch about the Gatsby aspect of “Affluenza,” specifically how he used Fitzgerald’s novel as a framing device for his film. “I mean, I grew up in West Egg, you know? And I read it in high school when I was going through all of this.” At this point, I bring up what I think is the film’s greatest strength. I tell Asch that the Gatsby recreations work because the film almost seems like something that one of the characters in the film would direct after having read Gatsby and lived through the experiences seen in the movie. Asch grasps what I’m trying to say, even though it might come off like an insult to some directors. “Yeah. It’s odd for me when people write that this is just a literal adaptation. Because it’s completely not. It’s very inspired by it, I think that’s it. I held on to this idea from when I read it back then. I knew I wanted to tell this story. Originally, I thought about it as something that would be set in the 80s, just because it was around the ‘87 [financial] crash.
“But when I read this in high school I just….they read like teenagers to me, first of all. They’re very emotional, and they’re very incestuous. They’re all questioning one’s identity, and the kids around me in this community all felt like they were just, like, these kids trying to act like adults, you know? They’re all driving nice cars and they were in relationships or they were cheating in their relationships….and these people are so sophisticated but they’re just fucking children! They don’t have the ability to really succeed through life without the recognition of the birthing bubble. And not just from an economic sense, but from an innocence point, of like, ‘this will always be there.’ And if that’s your identity and that’s your connection….I’ve found it to be destructive. So, I saw all that in ‘Great Gatsby.’
“The thing about adapting a book, or even looking at a book….you have to look at the themes. You know, the social commentary within it. That’s the stuff that jumped out at me. It felt like a very lonely book. Other things that jumped out at me were, like, that Daisy and Nick and Gatsby all had an attraction to each other.” In “Affluenza,” similar themes are conjured, with Kate, Fisher, and Dylan all exhibiting a subtle but noticeable attraction to one another throughout the book. Asch and I bring this up a little bit, and he begins talking about Kate, saying, “She just wanted a connection. And he was the only person who really understood her. And it was like, she never had to have a sibling, and he’s kind of being like a brother in a way. He cares about her but he’s not trying to use her in any way. There’s not, like, a fascination or sexualization of her. But she feels like that’s the only thing she could do to keep people interested, including her cousin.
“I mean, Fisher’s a bit asexual. Pick your horses, the movie doesn’t scream it out, but his dad came out of the closet late, and certainly Fisher has questions about his identity. So when Dylan invites him on the boat and Dylan approaches him at the party, I mean, Dylan’s flirting with him!” Asch continues, saying, “And, you know [Kate and Fisher] wake up in bed together in the beginning, and then she’s, like, in her towel and he’s putting the necklace on her. I had a scene where he was in the shower and she walks in. I cut it out. She walks in to give him, like, a towel and then she just sorta stands there and looks at him. And he’s like, ‘Kate I’m in the shower,’ and she exits.”
“All that was alive to me in
the book. And I took it and
made my own invention out of it.”
When I ask him why he cut it, he says, “It felt like it took away from that last moment. It showed her vulnerability too early. I was giving away my hand…unnecessarily. It killed the tension a little bit, too. It took away from the moment when she was, like, in the towel and was on the couch with him.” He references Gatsby again by saying, “All that was alive to me in the book. And I took it and made my own invention out of it.”
“What is it about ‘Great Gatsby’ that everyone keeps talking about? They’re not talking about the romance. Why does the book still transcend? There’s other elements in it that relate to our world and our life that I feel created an opportunity to tell a coming-of-age story, around a very pinnacle time in America. And the world, ultimately. But really making it Fisher’s story. ‘The Great Gatsby’ is not Nick Carraway’s story. He’s talking about it. He’s very much detached from it all. And that was a challenge for [“Affluenza”]. But for me this is really Fisher’s. He’s in every moment. He’s in every story. He’s not just sitting back like a fly on the wall.”
Throughout our two hour conversation, “Affluenza” director Kevin Asch opened my eyes to a perspective on his film that I had never considered, while reinforcing the one that I did. His obvious passion for filmmaking and discussing film as a lifestyle was inspiring, especially when he acknowledged sitting in a movie theater as less of a hobby and more of a religious ritual akin to sitting in a church or synagogue. However, there was one point in our conversation where Asch seemed to define affluenza as a film and as a concept so completely, that I think it defines his pursuit while directing this film. “It’s more about identity,” he says. “It’s more about a take on the American Dream. And it’s about this sort of pursuit of wealth over happiness, and the destructive nature of that. It’s about believing in something that is long gone, and is just a metaphor. Not real. And about trying to recapture your past and hold on to something that is slowly….crumbling.”Continue Reading Issue #18