Documentaries call to 'Spellbound' director Jeffrey Blitz, but agents keep calling him back

Posted: August 17, 2007

"Rocket Science" and "Spellbound" director Jeffrey Blitz would like to keep switching from documentary to drama, but he can't.

"My agents aren't crazy about it, because you make a lot more money in fiction film," said Blitz, who also has directed several episodes of TV's "The Office."

Blitz is best known for the brilliant spelling-bee doc "Spellbound." His first drama is "Rocket Science," the funny story of Hal Hefner, a smart, shy, New Jersey boy who attempts to overcome his speech impediment by joining the debate team.

Blitz learned to overcome his own stutter while attending high school in Bergen County, N.J. (yes, he was on the debate team), so the movie has small touches of autobiography.

Most of it is pure fiction, though, including the location.

"We moved it from North Jersey to Trenton, because I felt there was just something funnier about having Hal's satellite community orbiting around Trenton, instead of New York City," Blitz said. "The idea of Trenton being the big city just seemed like a funnier detail, more specific."

But in no way condescending. The movie is very un-Todd Solondz ("Happiness," "Welcome to the Dollhouse") in its fondness for its suburban New Jersey setting.

"That probably reflects the fact that I had a terrific upbringing in the suburbs. I met all sorts of really interesting people there, and I wanted to create a portrait of the place that was a bit more realistic in that way," Blitz said.

"Rocket Science" has a strange, offbeat tone, one that has already drawn comparisons to the work of Wes Anderson ("Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums"), which makes Blitz cringe just a bit.

"I appreciate his films," he said, "but when I look at them, I see the work of a guy who's very good at making these little snow globes, vivid and specialized little worlds, and he's very good at making every detail inside the globe just so. To me, though, those worlds have very little emotional resonance."

Blitz was inspired by the work of Hal Ashby, the 1970s auteur whose offbeat, often funny work included "Shampoo," "Being There," and "Harold and Maude."

Blitz also takes a professional cue from filmmakers like Michael Winterbottom, Paul Greengrass and Michael Apted, men who switch fluidly back and forth from documentary to fiction.

His next film is a documentary, as yet untitled, about the complications in the lives of people who win big at the lottery. This film, he said, will have none of the abiding optimism of "Spellbound" and "Rocket Science."

"There's some really dark stuff in there," he said. "They all undergo this amazing shift in their sense of identity that they're not counting on. All the things that shaped their identiy are removed from them in one day. They win, and all of a sudden the job they had, the neighborhood they lived in, often their whole lives, is gone. The sense they have of putting in hours and earning their money is gone. Instead, life is full of unpredictable, random things. Their spouses treat them differently, their friends treat them differently. The fantasy is that 'I'll get myself out of debt, and I'll drive a really nice car, but I'll keep the life that I have now.' That's often not what happens." *

See Gary Thompson's review of "Rocket Science" on Page 49.

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