On my office wall is an index card with a quote from the great John Boorman: “If I don’t know what a film is about, I go on to make it.” I knew Cake was about navigating loss, but somehow I didn’t connect it to my own experiences of loss until embarrassingly late in the game. Naturally, my therapist had a field day.
When I start in on a project, I try to answer the question of what a film is about by creating a slew of materials — mood books, vision statements, CDs, clip reels. These materials are generally more evocative than literal, collected images or sounds or songs that inspire ideas about tone, theme, character, design. I then use these materials when I’m sitting down with potential cast and crew, so everyone can see — or better yet, feel — the story I want to tell.
When my life and producing partner Ben Barnz (so no, he’s not my brother) first sent the script of Cake out to talent agents, the response was dreamily rabid. In the midst of our fantasy-casting, we heard Jennifer Aniston wanted to throw her hat in the ring. I liked the idea; it was unexpected. If it worked, it could be like what Mary Tyler Moore pulled off so stunningly in Ordinary People.
When Jen and I sat down for the first time, I took her through my mood book, which included some incredibly raw, nightmarish images of women in pain. I looked her in the eye and asked if she was really 100 percent, unquestionably jump-off-a-cliff ready to go there. Without blinking, she said “yes.”
When we finished looking through the book, we somehow knew what the film was about — and at the same time, we were ready to learn what the film was about.