‘Puzzle’ director Turtletaub talks female-centric film, collaborating genders

Argentinian writer and director Natalia Smirnoff’s film Rompecabezas (aka The Puzzle) is being reassembled for American audiences thanks to the writing partnership of Polly Mann and Oren Moverman (Love & Mercy).  Academy-Award-nominated director and producer Marc Turtletaub (Loving, Little Miss Sunshine) takes the director’s chair for this film as he deeply connected with this female-centric, character-driven piece. It all boils down to his own relationship and understanding of his mother’s role and love and an acknowledgment of the need for collaboration to truly tell this story in the most authentic way possible.

I recently sat down with Turtletaub to talk about the making of this film and why he, as a male, felt compelled to tell the story. His genuine and open demeanor about his life is reflected in this film about Agnes (Kelly Macdonald), a housewife and mother of two teens who has a reawakening of self and a discovering of independence. Turtletaub demonstrates an exquisite example of understanding and collaboration between the genders.

Pamela Powell (PP):  With the seemingly countless films you’ve produced, this is only your second film to direct.  Why this particular screenplay?

MT:  Well, the first thing, Pam, is that I got an amazing screenplay and it is rare for us.  I’ve been producing for about 15 years, it’s rare to find a screenplay which is so fully formed and when you read it you say, ‘Oh, I can picture that on the screen.’  This is one that was sent to me and I read it and I said, ‘I need to make this movie.’ I knew I wanted to direct this one; it was personal for me.

PP:  What part of this story resonated with you personally?

MT:  What resonated with me was the character of Agnes. Agnes is a woman who she doesn’t know what she’s missing, but her life is limited and we see little intimations of what she might be. My own mother was that way. She raised me. She doted on her only son. She doted on her husband in suburban NJ… so when I read the screenplay I went, ‘I know that woman. I was raised by that woman.’

PP:  Did your mother ever get a chance to take her own journey?

MT:  [Shaking his head and looking down] Not that journey. I think that there are many women that don’t, many people, but especially women who don’t have the opportunity or don’t take the opportunity to see themselves distinctly from their relationships and unfortunately my mom didn’t have that opportunity. That’s not to say they had sad lives, but there was more for them.

PP:  The film was originally created by Natalia Smirnoff from Argentina, right?

MT: Natalia, who came to the set, made the movie in 2010 in Argentina. I didn’t watch it.  I intentionally didn’t watch it until I finished editing [this version].

PP: Telling a woman’s story as a male director has to have its challenges, but you’re able to so articulately express this point of view.

MT:  I had a female editor and she was a good balance for me. I wanted a female editor because it’s a movie about a woman. I could tell the story as best as I could, but I also knew I needed that balance in the room. [I didn’t want to] diminish [Agnes’] role as a wife or a mother and that’s really important to me, but I wanted to define her in other ways than her relationships … in the editing room you’re always adjusting the story.  Always. … had a brilliant editor Catherine Haight and that helped tremendously.

PP:  The emotions are certainly there in Puzzle and one scene in particular brings me to tears just thinking about. It’s Ziggy and Agnes talking about his self-worth and his perceived external life pressures.  

Irrfan Khan and Kelly Macdonald in Puzzle

MT:  For me, too! I have two boys [and] when I saw Bubba, Bubba Weiler, he doesn’t look like a Bubba, but when I saw Bubba…and when he was reading for us, it was me and two of our producers in the room, and when he did that scene, I turned around and all three of us were crying. [Chuckles] I loved the relationship of mother and son throughout the movie. There are three scenes that they have together. Each one is, for me, powerful.

PP: What do you feel the message is of this film?

MT: I like to leave people free. .. For me, it’s just a story of someone finding their authentic voice and I guess the answer is it can happen at any age.

PP:  That’s a favorite line in the film for me. “It’s never too late for firsts.”

Puzzle opens in New York on July 27 (Chicago release slated for August 3). Women’s stories are being told and this remake reminds us that no matter where we live in the world, we are connected with the same issues. Turtletaub recognized this and with collaboration, he tells one of the most eloquent and evocative female-centric stories of the year.

© Pamela Powell (7/23/18) FF2 Media

Photo: Kelly Macdonald as Agnes in Puzzle

Photo credit: Olive ProductionsRosto

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New York native film critic and film critic Pamela Powell now resides near Chicago, interviewing screenwriters and directors of big blockbusters and independent gems as an Associate for FF2 Media. With a graduate degree from Northwestern in Speech-Language Pathology, she has tailored her writing, observational, and evaluative skills to encompass all aspects of film. With a focus on women in film, Pamela also gravitates toward films that are eye-opening, educational, and entertaining with the hopes of making this world a better place. 
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