PIPER PERABO on 'FIRST SNOW' Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
March 22, 2007
In the fantastically atmospheric dramatic thriller First Snow, a salesman (Guy Pearce) becomes dangerously obsessed with his future when a seemingly credible fortune teller (J.K. Simmons) predicts imminent doom for him. Growing increasingly manic before the eyes of his girlfriend (Piper Perabo) and business partner (William Fichtner), he begins to re-examine his life as he wrestles with the possibility of a tragic, inescapable destiny.
Shot in New Mexico, First Snow is directed by Mark Fergus, who co-wrote the screenplay with Hawk Ostby. Together, the two have also penned Children of Men, Consequence, and the scripts for upcoming projects Iron Man and John Carter of Mars.
In this interview, Piper Perabo talks about the making of the movie in great detail--from the mindset of the characters, to collaborating with her colleagues, to shooting in the beauty of a natural and fortuitous snowfall. And as an interesting aside, she also tells us about her own brush with the paranormal.
MEDIA: You've been so busy filming these last few years. Where did First Snow fit into the scheme of things?
PIPER: This movie, First Snow, we wrapped two years to the day, tomorrow. So it's been a while. And it was funny, when I knew I was coming out here, I sat down and watched the film again. And it's funny to watch a film... [notices iPod on table] Ooo...I have one of those things! So I had another look at the film again, and it's funny [how] with a little time, you can see a project so differently.
How did your perception change?
Well, this is sort of mundane, but it was shocking to me anyway. When I saw it projected the other night, I had never seen it projected before. And New Mexico is so integral as a character in the film, and I wasn't really realizing the kind of influence that that had on me when I was making the movie--that it's sort of lonely and beautiful and crossroads and desolate. And there's all these kind of things that are there, present, especially when you see it projected, that really are sort of themes in the films. I mean, I know that's usually what you're trying to do, but it doesn't really ever hit me like that.
How would you say your First Snow character compares to previous roles?
It's pretty different. When you're playing a supporting female role, a lot of times you're literally a supportive character--you know, you're always like, "I believe in you!" and "We're going to fight this!" or "We're going to win this!" [laughs] Or you're falling for the lead guy--you think he's the greatest thing in the world and all his ideas make sense. And I've played those women before. And this character, because she's kind of on her way out, and she sort of thinks "enough is enough with this guy," I thought that was such an interesting place to start from. And I've certainly never played a character before who's got one foot out the door and ready to kind of like leave this guy. And it's a fun, fun place to start from.
Why do you think she has one foot out the door?
Because I think he won't let her into his life. Like I'm sure when she met him, it was all very like, "He's a salesman, and he's cool, and his hair's cool, and he's proud and cocky and thinks he's important." And that can sort of be attractive when you first meet somebody. But then when you're with them and kind of living at their house, and they're still kind of like, "Hey, babe, blah blah blah..." in the kitchen? You know what I mean? When it's just you [and] not some bar at midnight? Eventually it starts to feel like a wall that I think she can't get through.
How did you collaborate with Guy on that aspect of your characters' relationship?
It started right away, actually, talking about that idea. Because originally in the script, I was living in the house. I lived there with him. And when I got there, [writer/director] Mark Fergus was like, "No no no, you don't live here." And it sort of totally cemented for me that she's on her way out. And when I walked into the house, and it's "all his stuff." You know what I mean? It's like a guy's house, with like a leather chair. There's not even a couch so you can sit together. Like somebody's on the floor and somebody's in the chair. And it's like guitars, and old records, and a painting of a horse, and like...blah! There's nothing of her. It's like what she drinks isn't even in the bar. All her stuff's in a gym bag. It's so clear when you walk into that house for the first time, and we talked about that a lot. I don't even hang my stuff up in the closet, you know what I mean?
The casting of J.K. Simmons as the fortune teller is such a departure from someone you might typically expect to see in that role. What did you think of that move?
I think it's so genius. First of all, because I think he's a great actor, but also I think there's a certain corniness to like (and I think you can see this when they cast the fortune teller who's not real) "you have to be ethnic, and like from Eastern Europe, or American Indian." You know, go with this kind of cornball idea of like "people who know more than us." But I love that it's like a big white guy who could probably beat the crap out of Guy. You know what I mean? He has nothing to be afraid of. He has this sort of sadness, this sort of Cassandra complex, sadness about his gift for prophecy, and I think it's a really interesting casting choice. And also because the way that J.K. plays it with Guy, Guy can't really fight what he's saying, but he also can't really fight him. Like when J.K.'s like, "Good day," you can't sort of grab this guy and throw him around. Like he is actually a force of a person, and so I think it's really interesting, instead of like a Romanian woman in a turban who you could sort of like knock around and drag her under your car with you. [laughs] Like you can't really f*ck with this guy, and I think that sort of makes the message much more powerful, you know? I think that's really cool.
What would be your reaction if a fortune teller predicted imminent doom in your future?
I would probably freak out. Mark, the director, was saying once that Hawk, who's his writing partner, early on in his life, [was] told that he had a short lifeline. Like he had his palm read when he was really young, and the person said, "You have a really short lifeline." [laughs] And Hawk has never been able to let that go. And I can totally understand that! You know, it's just weird for people to tell you about yourself. And when they do, and it's that sort of right moment and it kind of clicks with you, you can't kind of get it out of your teeth, you know what I mean? It's sort of right there. I think I would sort of obsess about it, so I don't go to those people, because I wouldn't be able to let it go.
I don't think they're supposed to tell you bad news...
Well, I don't know what the sort of ethics are. I mean, I think if you're kind of like a bullsh*tter or whatever (like he goes to that second psychic who's obviously a hoax, and it's a money thing)...I'm sure those people don't tell you bad news. But if there are people who can see that stuff, I wonder what their sort of ethical rules are for that kind of thing? It'd be sort of interesting. And they certainly don't have a union.
If you knew you were going to die soon, what would you do differently?
I don't really think I would change anything. [laughs] [Guy] has these scenes at the end where he kind of gives people the money he owes them, or is nice to the guy at the bar, without saying like, "I'm going to go, I'll see you later" [and] making it all about himself--sort of straighten some things up. Which I think is very admirable. But I think if you ask someone that question and they're like, "Oh, I would go to Fiji" or "I would tell my wife I loved her"...You kind of might want to go do that right now. I think if you can answer that question and there are things that you answer with, you might want to go do them. I don't know what else you're spending your time doing.
Do you believe that everyone has a pre-ordained destiny, or that everyone makes their own future?
I think you make your own future. I mean, it's not really the message of the film, but that's what I think. I mean, I don't know about saying the future, but I think you're certainly the master of what happens to you.
Ever had a brush with the paranormal/supernatural?
Ummm...Yeah, although not in the sense of this film. I had a friend who had a house that he had just moved into, and I went and sat down outside, and I fell asleep. I had been shooting. It was here in the [Hollywood Hills]. And I sat down in this long pool chair. It was kind of a crappy old chair that had been left there by the last people. And I was so tired, and we had been on night shoots, and I just fell asleep. And he came out of the house and sat down at the foot of the chair, and I felt this chair [move]. And I thought he didn't say anything because he thought I was sleeping. And I was like, "Are you going to make some food or something?" And there wasn't anybody there. And he stuck his head out of the door a minute later, and he was like, "You want to come in?" And I told him what happened, and he said, "Oh, the reason why the house was for sale is there was a man who lived here who just died." And it still, like when I remember it, gives me the kind of...It didn't feel bad. I was just sure he sat down next to me. It was weird.
How did the environment of New Mexico fit in with the shooting of First Snow?
We shot the movie in 29 days, and so you're outside a lot and sort of participating in the cold, barren landscape. One way that New Mexico was participatory in the film was it snowed once. I mean, I think you can tell by the shots that it's not CGI, and that really is snow. And when I got to New Mexico and realized they didn't know if it was going to snow this year, and the sort of panic and like accumulating bags and bags of fake snow, like white corn flakes and fans and blankets and all this sh*t, I thought, "This is going to look like crap! What are we doing? We're making a movie about snow and it doesn't snow here? Oh my God, what the f*ck are we doing!" It sort of made me panic. [laughs] I mean, I don't know if you've ever been on a movie where they're doing fake snow, but it's horrible, and it doesn't melt, and it smells. It's horrible.
And you can't really breathe it...
No! And it like sticks in your hair and it doesn't melt like snow. And the movie's called "First Snow"! You know, I panicked. And then one night, we were shooting in the house and we were wrapping, and it started snowing. And they said, "We're going to get a good 6, 8 inches tonight, tonight, tonight!" And it was so exciting. And really, you could see the excitement and the sort of relief and the blessing of this snowfall. All of a sudden, it was this kind of energy of like, "We're going to need three more cameras!" and "We're scrapping all the work tomorrow and we're [doing] all the exteriors!"
So it really changed the production plans on the spot?
Completely. And just in the night, we were pulling more cars and extra cameramen so we could get all this stuff while it was fresh. Because to see Guy walk through fresh snow in a movie like this, and to see it falling, and to see space is getting covered by snow...It's everything for the feeling of the picture. And as you start rehearsing all these scenes that happen in the snow...It was just amazing. It was amazing and so exciting. [Mark] needs to stop writing weather movies, because you can't really count on it. [laughs] But it was great.
As a director, did Mark give you a lot of room to improvise?
You know, what was written is very much what the movie looks like...And when it's well written, you don't need as much latitude. [This] sort of speaks ill of improv, but improv is necessary in scripts that aren't really good because you're trying to sort of get around certain flaws and things like that. But when the script is really good, you don't need as much latitude because you want to do what's there. But I think what was useful with Mark is that because he's the writer and Hawk was there too, they have a lot of like "secret information" about things. You know, they know what's in your character's purse, and they know where you live, and they know who your friends are, and if you graduated high school. They know all this stuff because it was rattling around while they were writing it, and they had been discussing it for a year. You know, when you get a prop like a purse, it's empty, and the prop guys don't [put things in it]. [laughs] It would be cool if they did. But you can go to Mark and Hawk and be like, "What's in my bag?" It'll be like, "Oh, there's the smokes, and this and that, and this and that, and a dry cleaning ticket." And in that way, it's really fun to work with Mark because he kind of knows what's in the drawers in the kitchen. It's cool.
What's your impression of Guy as an actor?
He's good. I was afraid he was going to be crazy because the characters he makes are so intense and make such strained decisions. And they're so specific, and he's such a chameleon. I mean, from one thing to the next, he's very changeable. And those actors can sometimes be sort of crazy, which just can be a little difficult for me to work with crazy. I mean, I can do it, but I'd rather not. [laughs] And I was worried that he was going to be crazy. But I really like his work, so I feel like, "Okay, well, if he's crazy, I'll figure it out." But he was really easy to work with. He was really generous. He likes to talk a lot about what he's thinking about, even in the sort of nuances or angles he's coming at in the scene, or even a line. And that sort of lets you into his headspace so that you can sort of participate with him. And to me, that's really useful.
Was there a specific past role of his that you found particularly intense?
Well, the first time I had ever seen him was [in] Memento. Don't ask me how I missed L.A. Confidential, but I hadn't seen it. And it was unforgettable, that movie. I worked with Christopher Nolan, the director, last year, and it's for the same reason. Like that movie was so beautiful and interesting and hardcore and they were just like, "This is the story we want to tell, and f*ck it if you don't like these characters, and f*ck it if you don't think it's pretty enough." Like American films can be very sort of rosy, and like actually the lighting is like sort of yellow and pinkish. And this movie was kind of blue, and German, and angular. And I thought it was so unabashedly unapologetic about "we want to make this film this way" and so successful at it that I was sort of obsessed with Guy from that point on. And the tattoos and the sort of weird body and the cheekbones, and it's also like, "Who the f*ck is that guy?" He's sort of handsome, but sort of monstrous. And it's so interesting, that role. And then you see him in Confidential, and he's not at all that. Like Cate Blanchett...It's so hard to see how "that person" is also "that person." I love movies like that where you're like, "Who's playing so and so?" and you know them.
As a viewer, have you enjoyed any movies recently?
Have you seen The Host? I loved The Host, this new Korean film. I thought that was just a good old-fashion monster movie. I mean, maybe it was a little heady for a monster movie--it's not exactly Godzilla. But I thought it was sort of the perfect use of CGI, and I loved the kind of small group of characters within this sort of big [backdrop] of a city, and I loved the way it was shot, and I thought it was kind of great. And I saw Stranger than Fiction recently, and I thought that was kind of great, too. I don't know why it didn't get more attention. It's so beautiful and fun and literary. And Emma Thompson is so good. Did you see that? It's marvelous! When he calls her on the phone? I mean, who can do that? Why isn't she getting awards? I don't understand. She's such a genius!
Can you see your own monster flick The Cave in the same light in which you could watch The Host?
[coyly] No... [laughs] Oh, I don't think it's quite, or not even nearly, as good. I think it's really hard to make a really specific genre film, and I think it sort of takes a weird, uncompromising mind to believe "I want to make a monster movie." And also, the people in The Host...The leading man is like weirdly unattractive and not even that sort of sympathetic, and you sort of love him anyway. And I think they sort of make these offbeat choices that really make you fall for the characters, where in The Cave, we all have muscles and really nice hair.