Interview with “Measure of a Man” director Jim Loach and actress Liana Liberato
On Sunday, April 15, 2018, the Phoenix Film Festival screened the U.S. premiere of director Jim Loach’s “Measure of a Man”! Adapted from Robert Lipsyte’s novel “One Fat Summer”, this comedy/drama centers around an overweight teen, Bobby Marks (Blake Cooper), and his struggle with bullies in 1976. This coming-of-age movie stars Cooper, Liana Liberato, Judy Greer, Luke Wilson, and Donald Sutherland.
Just before the April screening, Jim Loach and Liana Liberato (who plays Bobby’s older sister, Michelle) sat down with the Phoenix Film Festival, and we enjoyed a terrific conversation about Bobby’s journey, Michelle’s relationship with her brother, the groovy 70s soundtrack, and much more!
“Measure of a Man” arrives in theatres on Friday, May 11.
PFF: Bobby is overweight and self-conscious about his appearance. In Lipsyte’s book, Bobby loses weight during his summer journey, but not in the movie.
Now, Bobby could begin addressing his self-esteem issues by improving his physical appearance, but at the end of the day – regardless of his weight – he probably needs to be comfortable with himself as a person first. His core. Was that your thought process with Bobby’s story arc?
JL: I think that’s 100 percent right. That’s why we didn’t want him to become magically thin by the end of the film, because I think that would be completely wrong. All the characters, like Michelle and Bobby, are suffering in a way, finding out who they are and becoming aware and conscious of themselves.
It would be really wrong if we did a film where (Bobby) ends up thin, and then he’s happy. He (first) has to be comfortable within himself.
PFF: A good portion of Bobby’s support system is not available to him during this particular summer. His dad (Wilson) is working a lot, and his best friend, Joanie (Danielle Rose Russell), left her parents’ summer cottage to go back home. Michelle, however, is there and living with Bobby. She seems to empathize with his plight, but was she more focused on herself?
LL: Michelle gages the fact that their mom (Greer) was very doting over Bobby. I feel that Michelle (was thinking), “Kid, you can do it. Just buck up. You got it. If you need me, I’m here for you no matter what. We’ll help each other out when we need to, but you can do this on your own.”
I feel that hopefully, in a way, Bobby will appreciate (her approach). (When planning the film,) we talked about how Bobby’s age is a crucial time for a boy. Michelle is 16 or 17 years old, and that’s a crucial time for her too. I think that Michelle is in her own world, figuring out herself and her stuff as well. (So,) I think it’s an equal balance.
PFF: This movie is also about secrets. A lot of the characters have secrets, but did Michelle have any that were not shown in the film, but you thought about when studying the character?
LL: Yes, this was Michelle’s first experimentation with the opposite sex, (as she starts seeing Pete Marino (Luke Benward)). Also, Michelle’s mom became quite the feminist and decided to take her life back. Even though our characters – as mother and daughter - butt heads, Michelle is trying to take control of her own life too, which comes with a fair share of secrets and choices.
PFF: Dr. Kahn (Sutherland) put Bobby to work over the summer, and the experience helped the young man learn responsibility. Did you have a Dr. Kahn in your life?
LL: My dad. He was like a friend to me and still is. He’s just so honest, and any mistake that I made, he would say, “Hey, let’s talk about it. What’s going on?”
His first (approach during a teaching moment) was never discipline or punishment. It was just about listening.
PFF: Lipsyte’s book was set in the 1950s, but the screenplay – written by David Scearce - was updated to the 1970s. In an interview, Lipsyte talked about the changes to his book and said that the 70s had “better music.”
The soundtrack really resonated with me, and many times, the music just popped off the screen. One example was “Sunshine” by Jonathan Edwards, and some of the lyrics are: “He tells me, ‘I’d better get in line.’ Can’t hear what he’s saying. When I grow up, I’m going to make it mine. These ain’t dues I’ve been paying.”
I think this is about Bobby’s relationship with Dr. Kahn. Is Dr. Kahn - basically - the conduit who helps him grow up?
JL: We tried to (construct their relationship) in such a way that it wasn’t necessarily a conscious thing. We didn’t think that Dr. Kahn saw (Bobby) as an opportunity to have a grand hand (in sorting) this kid out. We just thought (their relationship) was more serendipitous, (and) their paths just crossed in that moment. That particular moment in that summer, they both give each other something, but in an unconscious or barely conscious way. Bobby (also) helps Dr. Kahn come to terms with something, and certainly, Dr. Kahn has sage advice – if nothing else - for Bobby. We thought that (we would rely) on serendipity.
PFF: Lipsyte said, “Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of mail about the book and some of it comes from 6-foot girls in Iowa who say they know how Bobby feels.”
PFF: Yes, exactly! Even though Bobby is a teenage boy, do you believe that his story is universal and why?
JL: Obviously, (that universal quality) will be there. Everyone remembers bullies at school. Frankly, we are surrounded by bullies now, and they are in great positions of great power. I think everybody who knows that feeling - who are willing to get their lives back - (can relate to Bobby’s story).
LL: I agree. I think the beauty behind this film is that it appeals to all walks of life, whether you are a parent, a teenage girl, a preteen boy, or a bully who harbors a lot of anger. It shines a light on everyone’s situation and what they are going through.
I think it’s amazing that there is a such a diversity of people who connect to the book and hopefully the movie will too.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.