People around the world, and the younger generation in particular, have used social media in recent years to allow those they’re connected with unrestricted access into their everyday, personal lives. But even the seemingly most unhindered insight into a person’s daily routine doesn’t always offer the most in-depth vision into their true feelings and motivations. That intimate exploration of how well friends really know each other, particularly with the public persona people often create on social media, is explored in first-time feature film writer-director Jesse Zwick’s new drama, About Alex.
About Alex, which recently had its world premiere at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, follows a group of estranged college friends as they gather in a country home in the wake of the title character’s (Ritter) attempted suicide. The group sought out to help their friend after he alerted them of his intentions by posting a suicide note on Twitter. Even though Alex has been experiencing severe emotional distress, his friends still have trouble pushing their own problems to focus on his dilemma.
The tension between the friends grows even further as many of the characters have had romantic relationships together in the past. Josh (Greenfield) and Sarah (Aubrey Plaza) are entangled in a destructive sexual relationship, even though he also secretly pines for Ben’s (Nate Parker) long-time girlfriend, Siri (Maggie Grace). Siri has secrets of her own though, as she and Alex may be secretly in love with each other. Making things even more complicated is the fact that Isaac (Max Minghella) and Kate (Jane Levy) are set to start a potentially serious relationship, even though he and Sarah may be concealing a long-dormant affection for each other.
Jason Ritter and Max Greenfield recently took some time to sit down with us in New York City for a roundtable interview to talk about filming About Alex. Among other things, the actors discussed how having friends in similar emotional distress like Alex made the story seem even more authentic, how social media has its advantages but also makes people ponder how much of their lives should be made public, how the writer-director aimed to make the drama completely unique from the similarly-themed The Big Chill, and much more.
Check out the full interview below, and enjoy!
A lot of people are comparing this film to The Big Chill because of its similarities. What do you think this generation will take away from About Alex?
Max Greenfield: I think this generation is different. But more so, I think Jesse, who wrote the script, made a story that was similar but personal to him. The characters are people that he knew and experienced. I think more than the technology, it’s different because it’s his story. That’s what makes it unique and a different film than The Big Chill. I think it would be a scarier movie, or a scarier move, if he said, “I want to make The Big Chill, but let’s just add cell phones.”
Jason, your character dresses up to commit suicide. How was that experience?
Jason Ritter: Yes, that was a really interesting day. Everyone was really quiet. I hadn’t slept for a couple of days at that point.
Was that intentional?
Jason Ritter: Yes, because I wanted to be exhausted and calm. It wasn’t a suicide in a fit of passion, it was a quiet, thought out, deliberate suicide, so he’s been thinking about it for a while. He dresses up in a suit and gets into the bathtub in all of his clothes. That was how it had been written and there was something about it that I really understood and liked. When you find out later what had led to it, and what he was thinking about at the time, it colors it a little bit differently. It was hard to shoot.
Was it hard transitioning out of that?
Jason Ritter: It almost felt like you’re turning the heat up on something, and then it starts to get hot, but as soon as it’s over you can jump out of it. I was with all of these friends and people that I loved so that day was over and we went back to everything being normal, but it was heavy.
Did you pull on any real life experiences?
Jason Ritter: I’ve had friends who have attempted suicide and luckily none of them have been successful. It’s really intense thing to think about how a human thinks that this is the best option for them.
One of the reasons why I wanted to do this movie is that I felt that it was so real. Max’s character is furious at my character and furious at himself. It sends everyone into a panic. There’s guilt and feelings of I should have seen this coming. There’s also this despair that you feel as a friend, and this feeling of failure.
I walk around knowing that if I was having a really hard time, I could call this person and this person, and they would be there for me. The idea that my friend didn’t feel like he could talk to me, or wasn’t even worth letting me even try to cheer him up, is a real rejection. Obviously it’s a very dark place and you don’t blame them, but it’s just this heartbreaking thing.
I had the lucky opportunity that a lot of people don’t have, which was to talk with him afterwards and get answers and tell him that I love him. I’ve also had friends who have had people close to them kill themselves, and they carry that around for the rest of their lives.
Max, like Jason mentioned, your character is the one that’s angry with his character, but there must be something more than that which is upsetting him.
Max Greenfield: Yes, there’s a myriad of different emotions going on. I think that more so than anything, there are so many things going on with him and the group, and so many things that are unsaid that’s now put together. If you throw this situation on top of it, the loss of control and the loss of understanding are more frustrating to him than anything. I play a guy who’s very educated, probably more educated than anyone ever needs to be. Yet he’s so uneducated emotionally that he can’t wrap his head around it, and it tortures him.
What do you feel the film is saying about where we’re headed in terms of connectivity and the evolution of communicating through social media?
Max Greenfield: I think it’s like anything. There are extraordinary positives and advantages to Facebook and social media, and things that genuinely do bring us together. With that comes the horrible negatives of it, but I don’t think social media is going anywhere. It’s not like, “Well we saw About Alex and we’re going to shut down Facebook! We feel like it’s not working!”
The film gives you an opportunity to think about what you’re really doing with social media. It also makes you think about how you’re presenting yourself, what you’re putting out there and what you’re using it for. It allows us to make a choice in how we will move forward.
Do you think people understand that depression often doesn’t allow people who commit suicide to ask for help?
Jason Ritter: Absolutely, and that’s the thing that you realize as a friend, that there are chemical elements. It’s a dark place for people who don’t experience depression to imagine, and that’s what makes it so hard for people to wrap their heads around. You have to realize that it’s not the person’s fault and it’s not about them rejecting you or thinking you’re not a good enough friend.
It’s really about them being consumed by a darkness that’s so endless to them, and it’s a very painful thing. We would like to believe that we can save people and change them. But at the end of the day, we can only really be held accountable for our own actions.
Max, you’re a regular on New Girl and now you’re in this great indie film. Is it hard to transition from one thing to the other, in terms of the speed of shooting?
Max Greenfield: I think everything is its own beast. I think every project has its own unique insanity, and I think that’s what’s really fun about it. We think, “What are we getting into now?”
Your character in About Alex is obviously not like Schmidt on New Girl, at least not to that degree.
Max Greenfield: No, but that’s what was fun about it. After you play a character like Schmidt for eight months out of a year for three years and then you get your hiatus, you’re just dying to do something that’s grounded. I’m so pleased.
Playing Schmidt must be so exhausting because he’s always so energized.
Max Greenfield: Yeah! It can get that way, and that’s why you look for something on hiatus where you look for something different. I wanted to play someone who was not so– well, he is kind of similar, but in a totally different way. It’s an interesting transition but in a totally rewarding way.
That concludes our interview, but we’d like to thank Jason Ritter and Max Greenfield for taking the time to speak with us. About Alex is still awaiting distribution, so be sure to check back here for more updates.