Joshua Leonard on The Lie, Directing Himself and His Decade-Plus at Sundance

joshua_leonard_thelie500.jpgSome contemporary filmmakers just have a charmed life when it comes to Sundance. Winter's Bone director Debra Granik comes to mind. The Duplass brothers are up there. And let's definitely not forget Joshua Leonard, the actor-director whose 13-year relationship with the festival continues this week with his feature helming debut The Lie.

Based on a short story by T. Coraghessan Boyle, The Lie follows 30-something Lonnie along the downslope of his dead-end editing job and through the emotional desert of his marriage to fading flower-girl Clover (Jess Weixler). Dedicated idealists and new parents as well, Lonnie and Clover struggle against the expectations of advancing age. But between selling out to the corporate workplace and clinging to rock-and-roll daydreams, both succumb to an inertia shattered one day by Lonnie's ill-advised impulse to lie his way out of work.

Handsomely shot and exquisitely acted, The Lie marks the latest Park City milestone for a 35-year-old who's attended Sundance as a photographer (for Black Book wayyyy back in 1998), an actor (breaking through in The Blair Witch Project and eventually appearing in Humpday and this year's Higher Ground), a filmmaker (the 2005 short film The Youth in Us), and principally -- to hear him tell it -- as a fan. Movieline caught up with Leonard to talk over The Lie and get a sense of where he stands ahead of Sundance 2011.

So congratulations on The Lie! What led to this as your feature directorial debut?

Oh, God. Its tender, middle-of-the-road heart? [Laughs] I'm totally joking. It all started with T.C.'s story. I am a guy who doesn't have ideas too very often, so when I do, I stick to them like a dog with a bone. I read that story and just immediately knew that not only did I want to see a movie made out of that story, but I wanted to be the one to help facilitate it. It just really... I don't know. It was just one of those things that spoke to me specifically, one of those things that spoke to me generationally. It was a story that addressed realy big issues without being too touchy-feely or didactic or giving you a third-life-crisis analysis/bludgeoning. It was very funny, it was very heartfelt. And I felt like I knew the people in it. It all started from there.

How long ago did you read it?

I guess in making-a-movie terms, not that long ago. Maybe less than two years ago?

What did you see eating this guy that compelled you to not only direct but play the role?

I often wonder whether I'm just masking my own vanity with this answer, but in general I don't think it's a great idea to direct yourself. If somebody else had come to me with the proposal of them acting and directing this piece, I would have told them it was asinine and steered them away as quickly as I could. But look: I did know we were going to have to make it on a pretty tight schedule and on a pretty modest budget. And I think if you read the piece, it's pretty clear that you have to hit a pretty specific tone or it doesn't work. If it veers too far to the comedic, you kind of lose complete empathy for the character. And if it veers too far to the dramatic, people feel like they're being preached to, and it loses its entertainment value. So there was really a balance that we had to strike, and to some extent, it was almost the utilitarian decision I could have made, casting myself in it. I felt like being in that position, I knew in my head and my heart where I wanted to hit, and maybe had less confidence in steering another actor to that that place than just stepping in and doing it myself.

What exactly do you think is happening with Lonnie? You just mentioned the third-life crisis; there are some work and marriage issues...

I think he's going through what most people go through when they hit a certain age, which is that moment of reckoning where you realize where you intended to go and where you wound up are two completely different places. And you're kind of standing at this precipice, and you've got a choice to make: You can either rail against that and try to untrench yourself from the decisions you've made -- that put you in a position you don't like -- or you can accept it. I think Lonnie is really at that crossroads where he's not willing to accept it, but he also has absolutely no clue how to change it.

Without giving anything away, I'll be interested in people's reactions to Lonnie and Clover's climactic decision -- they're kind of inspirational, but kind of... crazy? How did you view it?

Maybe a little bit of both? At the end of the day I did not consider the ending of my movie to be the point where these two characters have made the most responsible life choices. I think that there's something... [Pauses] I knew I didn't want to have a hopeless ending, so I think the feeling that we were really attempting to kind of imbue into the end of this film is that sometimes our lives aren't as galvanized into a single track as we assume they are. So at the end of the movie, these guys make a different decision. That doesn't mean that the different decision is going to be right or any better, or that they won't wind up back in the same spot. But through a chain of both mishaps and self-analysis where they acknowledge that what they've been doing is not working. Theire idea of going back to this past dream of who they wanted to be? I don't know if that actually works. Most of the time it doesn't. But: You've got two characters who felt kind of tethered to the life they've chosen, and at least at the end of the story they've acknowledged there's another option.

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