Matt Hoge went into the LA juvenile system to teach. An aspiring writer and filmmaker, he had no altruistic motives, he just needed to the pay the rent. To his surprise, the experience became a personal confrontation of where the distinction between good and evil lies. It’s the kind of postmodern conundrum that blankets our society in waves of media coverage and MTV videos. With his debut film, The United States of Leland, Hoge attempts to bring an audience on a similar journey. He introduces us to the world of Leland, a teenager who commits murder for reasons beyond anyone’s comprehension.
Scored by Jeremy Enigk (Sunny Day Real Estate, Fire Theft), The United States of Leland continuously dives into emotional intangibles: fear, desire, hate, love. As a result the multi-layered story offers a window into the heart of tragedy.
With the film opening in major theatres this week, Glide sat down with Matt Hoge and actress Jena Malone to discuss the movie, it’s music and it’s message.
How did you initially develop the idea for the film.
Matt: About the same time I started teaching [in the L.A. juvenile system], Columbine happened. I’m from Colorado so I had just this, fascination, with how that case was unraveling and how it was being written about, and covered in the media. [And] I was really privileged to see another side of Columbine, or those types of cases where you read about it in the paper, you know “Shocking Crime Committed by Teenage Youth.” Someone who’s like the “other” – ‘you crossed the line and aren’t like us.’ And I was seeing those monsters that you’re reading about in the paper and they weren’t [monsters] at all and it just had a real strong impact on me.
Were you trying to represent the “other?”
To me, I don’t see it as the other. I think it’s this fallacy that you can define a life based on one action. And these kids I was meeting, you know, a kid that I met had stabbed his mother 50 times, and that’s all he is now in the eyes of the system, and the eyes of everyone around him; that’s what he is. And there was so much more to him than that. The reality of it is, this kid, or any of these kids, trying to talk about why these things happened, they’ve blocked it out, they can’t get at it. They know that no matter what reasons they come up with it’s never going to equal justification for what they’ve done. They were young, they just weren’t ready. You’re not ready at 16 to deal with a lot of things and just a series of events happened that sort of lead to this thing, and now it’s defined their life entirely. And the reality is there’s a lot of commonality between them and myself that just – I was really lucky to have different circumstances growing up and that that’s really to me the distinction – that the line between good and bad isn’t this fixed thing in the sand. The truth is everyone’s bouncing back and forth and just hoping you don’t wind up over here at the wrong time. Everybody’s capable of anything, particularly when you’re 15 and you don’t have any perspective.
With such a delicate subject, how do you see this playing for a wider audience?
I guess I’m excited to get it out there and the best thing that could happen is that on one level, there are characters that engage people and hold them for a couple of hours. And my hope after that is these characters have stirred up ideas, and given a body and character to ideas that are otherwise kind of intangible. Just saying, “let’s get together and talk about morality” is kind of hard; but if you can enact it through a drama with characters then maybe you stir people up to ask questions that I think would be really beneficial to ask.
How would you respond to criticism that the story is too one-sided?
People who say I’m on the side of the criminals in this case… everything would turn if their son committed a crime like this, and it’s just a matter of that experience. To me, that’s the story that just isn’t told. There’s only so much time. I would have loved to have spent more time with these other characters, but I felt like the story that wasn’t being told was Leland’s story and it’s a harder one to tell and it’s one that I think you’re not going to find anywhere else. It was the one I felt closest to because of my experiences.
Looking back at the entire project start to finish, how was the experience working on your first feature film?
It was great. I got to work with really great people – really talented people who were also good people, and that’s not always the case. But I really lucked out. Really talented, inspiring people to be around. My goal is to try to keep those people close and stay away from the evil people that populate most of Hollywood.
After watching each character develop, which do you find yourself most related to?
I think when I was writing it – it was Pearl (Leland’s teacher, played by Don Cheadle); and when we were shooting it – it was Leland; and when we were cutting it – it was Albert (Leland’s father, played by Kevin Spacey). Because I think the people who – no one says anything negative about Leland, but a lot of people say, God Albert, what a terrible person. And I feel like – “wow, no, not at all” – I get where he’s coming from. They sort of form this triangle. They’re all, to some sort of degree, writers – that’s how they interact with the world which is, you know, close to me. And at sort of various levels of this idea of what’s more important, what do you value more, art or life? And the connections you have and the issues of exploitation. And with Albert, it’s just someone who has viewed the world from this third person point of view for so long, like he doesn’t know any other way. He doesn’t know how to get in there with the emotional stuff and get his hands dirty.
[Leland] was really, really personal to me. The first thing I did in writing the script was, I wrote a journal of Leland’s thoughts and would just build up 50 pages of how like he viewed the world and what he thought about, so obviously that was close to me. So I think that was the one I was most protective about, or worried about. And I think Ryan [Gosling] as an actor felt that too. I think we both just sort of felt like Leland is a little brother and we want to make sure people don’t say bad things about him and misunderstand him.
Jena, how did you relate to playing the role of Becky, Leland’s girlfriend?
JENA: This character, this cliché, this stereotype of a young teenage girl who does drugs has been explored in a lot of films recently and I think it’s something like this hot, sexy topic and it’s sort of appealing in a strange way. There’s a list of like five things – she has to have this hair, and listen to this music, and she has to look like this, and add a certain amount of profanity every other word and I think the thing that drew me to Becky was that she was none of these things.
When you first meet her she’s kind of awkward and she’s trying to figure out how to say things. And she wants to kind of connect, but she’s had some past problems that have held her back from connecting. And I think for a younger audience it’s going to be so important for people to see that stereotype broken down. In Becky’s case, you can see the disconnection between her and her sister and her family life and she’s not quite fitting in. With that disconnection there’s kind of a numbness that you want to feel something and you want to feel something so much you don’t care where you’re going to get that feeling from.
How does Becky relate to Leland?
I think she’s drawn to Leland’s inability to connect because she struggles with those same things. But she’s also a very vulnerable character and I think she’s manipulative without wanting to be manipulative. She knows there’s certain things that she needs and whether she knows it in her mind like, “everyday I need this or that” – it’s just physically and emotionally you’re drawn to people that you can draw things out of. And I think she knows that from Leland she can get what she needs – which is someone to tell her everything’s going to be okay, and someone to hold her hand and give her those sort of mushy, gushy like dating things. Where you just know you’re going to hold hands and it’s not going to draw you into that [drug] world that she was drawn into before because she sees the repercussions. She’s still trying to figure that out in her mind and she’s not scarred by that, but it was a lot to handle, it was a beautiful thing and she’s kind of continually being drawn back to that – but it’s also really dangerous.
What was your working relationship like with Ryan?
JENA: He’s wonderful, he inspired me everyday. I mean for me, it’s such a fearless performance in the sense that he’s changing things with his body and his voice and he’s going out on the limb not showing a lot and it’s kind of asking the audience to look at much more than you usually have to. Because a lot of things are kind of given in words and interactions between characters and this is the first main lead character that I know that didn’t really give. It was fun, it was like going to acting class everyday because he’s really dedicated and super-smart and I love it as much as he does. But he’s also really laid back and we had a lot of fun trying to discover things and add some humor into it and find that lovely balance between love that is awkward and playful, but also hurtful at the same time.
MARK: yeah, he’s a good bird. I first saw him in the Believer – his manager sent me a tape and I thought there’s no way – he plays a Jewish neo-Nazi and he’s younger playing older and he’s completely bulked up and has this menacing snarl – just the polar opposite of what I was looking for. And then I realized I was an idiot – anyone as talented as he is can do anything, and from the Believer to Leland it’s unrecognizable and he really worked so hard at using all the tools that an actor has to change who he was and found a voice that’s really different than his voice. Carry himself in a really different way, little things he does with his lip – change the facial expressions that he makes and what catches his attention – light is always catching his attention and all these things that are so much more then a bunch of quirks together. This was like a real guy. He is really – he is the real deal, a great guy and a wonderful actor.
How did you get Jeremy Enigk involved with the film?
I pestered him for a year until he said okay. He didn’t return any of my letters for like nine months. But I was persistent.
You used music as a tool both when you were writing and directing – how so?
I sent Jena a lot of Pixies. For Kevin [Spacey], it was a Joni Mitchell song [to try and get him to] cut through to a place when he kind of used to feel something. For Ryan – The Magnetic Fields and for me it was Sunny Day Real Estate and Jeremy Enigk’s solo album The Return of the Frog Queen – it created this beautiful melancholy sound. This sense that you could have something sad, but with this undercurrent of hope.