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An Exclusive Q&A with “Liberal Arts” Filmmaker Josh Radnor

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Elizabeth Olsen and Josh Radnor in “Liberal Arts.”

By Christine Spines

Actor-writer-director, Josh Radnor, whose wistful ode to love, neurosis, and early-onset midlife crisis, Liberal Arts screened (to standing ovations) in the Premieres section of the Sundance Film Festival, opens in theaters across the country on Friday, September 14. The film stars Radnor as an aimless (possibly depressed, definitely developmentally arrested) 30-something who returns to his alma mater to give a speech and falls for a vivacious, seriously age-inappropriate undergrad (Elizabeth Olsen). Calling from the O2 shortly after the film’s bow, Radnor offered the following glimpse inside his Sundance Film Festival: London experience.


SUNDANCE: There’s something so quintessentially American about the type of college nostalgia Liberal Arts evokes. How did audiences in London respond?

JOSH RADNOR: The screening went really, really well. I spoke to a Cambridge graduate today who said she went through the same thing. So maybe it’s more universal than we realize.

What were the biggest differences between the way Park City and London audiences responded?

There were certain commonalities. Certain people get really obsessive in wanting to know what books I’m referring to in the script. And tonight there was actually a Kenyon student in the audience which was funny. She had a funny anecdote about the frozen-in-time nature of some of these campuses and how it was to go back and shoot there after being a student there. But there were no unanswerable curve balls.

What were your expectations coming into Sundance London?

Basically you’re just going on your own instinct and praying your taste lines up with other people’s taste. It feels like an act of great strength and bravery to use that as your guiding system. This film also speaks to some universal concerns. You have characters who, each in their own way, are rejecting where they are. There’s the older one and there’s the younger one and all of them come to some sort of more settled quality in their life — a more accepting space. So I think that’s the type of thing that really lands on people. Also there’s not a lot of films made for book lovers. Maybe that’s an under represented demographic.

What are some of the books that were your touchstones in writing Liberal Arts? Why did you decide not to name-check the books your characters discuss in the film?

One of the reason I didn’t name the books in the movie is because you say a certain book and then someone might think, ‘oh I hated that book’ or ‘oh I didn’t like that book.’ But if you don’t say what the books are, people can bring their own favorites to it and use their imagination. It’s like a Hirshfeld drawing: It’s a line and you can kind of fill in the rest with your imagination.

But some of the books are directly lifted from my experience. The book that they talk about is Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I just didn’t want to mention it for a number of reasons, mainly because it kind of clangs in my ear when [filmmakers] want you to know “This is what that book is.” I kind of felt better about it being something they could speak shorthand about with great fondness. They refer to the fact that the author killed himself and the cover is not the exact cover of the book, but it’s close enough to the paperback cover that people who knew the book would recognize it.

The other book that Jesse had to read in any bookstore — for me that book is The Hours by Michael Cunningham. There’s something really stunning about the last three pages to me. I was so moved by them that for years, when I was in a bookstore, I would just pick up different versions of that book and read the ending. That’s what I had in mind, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what Jesse was reading.

Books have clearly had a huge impact on your filmmaking. Has music been a similar source of inspiration?

British Romantic poetry or something like that. I was fortunate in having had one of the best Keats scholars in the world while I was at Kenyon, so I felt like I was getting the secret code of how to read those poems. And classical music is a little like that in that it requires a little initiation.

But while I was writing Liberal Arts, I was listening to a lot of classical music. So I decided to make it a plot point in the same way those old poems in those old books are some of the sturdy pillars of a liberal arts education, that music is analogous to that. It’s also very romantic and it alters my consciousness in a really pleasant way, and I wanted Jesse to have some sort of expansive experience with that music.

My first film was scored by one of my favorite singer-songwriters, a good friend of mine whose name is Jaymay. It was great to collaborate with her and work in that way with a living artist. Sometimes I will hear a song and it will inspire a scene. I see music as a collaborator in many ways.

What tracks made their way into your creative process on this film?

Once I decided to use classical music as a plot point, I got a playlist together of things that were moving me. Like, there’s that Cosi Fan Tutte piece that she thinks will make everyone feel attractive. That came from one day when I had my headphones on and everyone looked beautiful suddenly. The Wagner Overture Tannhauser and Beethoven’s Symponie Pastorale I really, really love. There’s two Vivaldi pieces; there’s Beethoven Emperor Concerto. It was fun to think of what would be on the CD.

Both your movies are the work of a pure Romantic with a capital “R.” Beethoven is clearly in your blood.

Definitely. I just got all Karajan’s Nine Symphonies by the Berlin Philharmonic. I’m really dorking out on that right now.

Are you planning on seeing any music while you’re at Sundance: London?

Oh yeah. I’m planning on seeing the Wainwrights and seeing Tricky tomorrow night. I’m really keen on doing that.

What’s the most indelible Sundance: London experience you’ve had so far?

We were all at the U.S. ambassador’s residence last night. That was definitely a surreal Festival moment. It’s much more intimate feeling. It’s definitely not as chaotic as Park City. Few things are.

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