Josh Radnor (of TV's How I Met Your Mother) has transitioned from a role as an actor to that of a director, and his latest film Liberal Arts, starring himself, Elizabeth Olsen, Allison Janney, and Richard Jenkins, examines life after college. It's his writing and directing follow-up to the Sundance Film Festival award-winning Happythankyoumoreplease, and we recently caught up with him to discuss his creative process, his thoughts on reading, and working with Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney. Liberal Arts has been gradually expanding its theatrical release since September 14th and will likely soon be coming to a theater near you (if it hasn't already arrived at one).
Check out the full interview below.
First I want to ask you a few questions about the writing process. This is the second movie that you’ve written, correct?
I was wondering how you decided to go from in front of the camera to behind it, was that a natural progression? Something you’d always expected to do.
No, actually, no, it wasn’t. I wrote my first movie Happythankyoumoreplease to be in it, I was more interested in writing a movie. The directing, I was totally fine with someone else directing it, and my agent and my producer Jesse Hara, who’s a very dear friend of mine, got very excited about the idea me directing it and thought that I’d be the best person to kind of protect the tone of the script—which was a very particular tone. So, I directed my first movie and just fell in love with it. I was not in any way thinking I’d love it the way I did. It just kind of came about accidentally, my directing.
When you start in on a new project, is it something that just kind of flows out of your everyday life, or is it something that you have to sit down and think about, ‘I’m gonna start a new project, right now’?
I can’t really think my way into a project, you know, I can’t sit down and say like “Hmm, let’s think of the next movie right now.” It’s more, I have to have my antenna up for inspiration, whether it’s something I see or overhear or kind of a sharp memory that comes back to me and the kernel of a story might be there. A lot of times I’ll start writing and thinking, ‘This could be a great idea,’ and I’ll start but the enthusiasm window will shut down or it just feels like it’s not really flowing. I can always tell when an idea is working because I’m both enjoying the writing and I keep writing, very simply. It somehow has an urgency to it and wants to be completed as a project.
Is there anybody you’d cite as a significant influence when you write a film? Are there any screenwriters whose voice you try to imitate or that you respect and admire?
Yeah, there’s a ton, but I don’t really…I’m trying to create and hone my own style, so I think when you start off writing you’re probably both consciously and unconsciously imitating, and that’s totally fine. I think I learned a lot about writing dialogue from Phillip Roth, I used to read back in college, and right after college I read a lot of Phillip Roth and he’s a real master with dialogue. Other filmmakers have influenced me that are- I like films that are, that feel modern they feel like they’re kind of tackling the world today or when they were made. And they have some feeling of relevance to the viewer. I can watch westerns or sci-fi movies, but I don’t feel drawn, at this point, to create and tell a story from that perspective. I’m interested in what life feels like and looks like at this particular moment. Cameron Crowe has a great quote that I think about a lot, he says his movies are about ‘the battered idealist in a cynical world’ and I feel like I’m dealing with a bit of that because my movies are kind of defiantly un-cynical but my protagonists are also pretty battered but they’re trying to hold on to their openness. That quotes kind of a nice guiding inspiration for me.
About [Liberal Arts], it was filmed at your alma mater Kenyon College, so how much of this is based on your own biography. Not the falling in love portion but the transition into adulthood after college.
Well, it’s not a biographical movie or autobiographical. I mean, an autobiographical movie would be a guy who’s on a TV show goes back to his college to show a movie he made and has a really nice time. You know, there’s no story there. So I started to think about a guy who’d never really gotten over college and was kind of saturated and nostalgic for the place and was kind of burying his head in books and not connecting with the world in a vital way. I had a lot of nostalgia for college, but I went to NYU to the grad acting program at Tisch right after, so I spent three years in New York right after school. When I got out of school at 25, I definitely felt a wanting to crawl back into the womb of academia, but by the time I was 27 or 28 I was over it and kind of adapted. But I kind of transposed some of those feelings onto Jesse, and Jesse’s 35 so it seems he never really made that transition.
The book-loving community figures largely into this movie and I was wondering if you thought there was anything important to be gained from reading novels in an age when the internet has largely taken over as our primary media input?
Yeah, I think book-lovers need to mount a spirited defense of reading, reading in the long-form and perhaps in the non-electronic form, written down in printed pages. I read books now on my iPad and I love it and I find my reading’s increased since I started reading on my iPad. I kinda do half and half now. I love books, and books have altered me in significant ways and there’s a spirited argument at the center of Liberal Arts about the purpose of reading. Why we read books. Do we read books just to nourish us? That books are kind of good for us like vegetables or something. Or do we, is it okay to read junk food, or to read things just because it tastes good going down? I’m of two minds about that. I mean, I think Zibby, she’s on the side of reading something because you like it and I think she wins the argument. Jesse is revealed to be a bit of a snob in that regard. I think any conversation about reading is worth having, especially since it seems to be an endangered species.
You had the opportunity to work with a really wonderful cast. I was wondering what it was like to work with people like Allison Janney and Richard Jenkins. How much direction do these vets really need? Can you talk a little bit about your experience directing these highly lauded film veterans?
Richard did a small part in my first movie, and it was actually the first day of shooting, so my first day as a film director I was directing Oscar-nominee Richard Jenkins which was not, um, un-terrifying. But he was completely lovely and I liked working with him so much that I wrote this role for him. So we had a bit of experience working together—not much—and you know, he’s one of the great actors around, really I don’t think anybody would dispute that. He’s not prideful, so if you ask him for an adjustment he’ll do it. The great thing about him is that if you give him 4 or 5 takes you basically have everything you want in those different takes. He’s really playful, so he tries lots of different things. He often, if you’re ready to move on, he’ll say “Give me one more, give me one more” and you do, and surely enough the take you end up using is his “one more”.
Allison Janney is also one of the great actors working today. I’d never seen her play a role like this, but when her name came up there was this feeling, I think, that that’s who will play this part. And she’s also a graduate of Kenyon College which is just this fun side story, so she was happy to come back to the school and film. The thing we talked about mostly was, I told her not to be afraid of the grandiosity of the woman and to really lean into the diction. She was someone who had a theatrical quality to her and I wanted her to not be afraid to really go there in a kind of big way. Which she did, brilliantly. I’d describe working with Allison Janney as like playing a Stradivarius: it’s like you know the melody, but it sounds way better coming out of her than it would some other violin.
It was definitely one of my favorite moments, right after the coital scene, when she takes out the cigarette and kicks Jesse out of her bedroom.
It was one of those interesting conflicts of the movie that I thought was very funny and worked very well.
Is there anything you think people should take away from this movie? An over-arching theme.
I always think that’s not something for me to say, that’s more of a thing for people who go to see the movie. One of the things I’ve noticed from going to a lot of screenings of the movie, and one of the things I’m really pleased about is that it feels like no matter where you are in your life, there’s something in this movie that you can relate to. There’s people nearing retirement who are dealing with that, there’s college students who wish they were older or not there, there’s 35-year-olds confused about where they should be. It seems to have a wide appeal in terms of demographic, so if you think ‘Well, that’s a movie for college people’, that’s not actually the case. One of the things I’ve learned by watching the movie is that this isn’t a movie about being in college, this is a movie about being out of college.