Interview: Courtney Hunt on Courting Drama with “The Whole Truth”
by Stephen Saito
On the "Frozen River" writer/director's diverting new legal thriller.
One of Courtney Hunt’s favorite things about filmmaking is watching all the pieces coalesce into a cohesive whole.
“I love working with actors and it makes me so happy [where] this thing happens where the crew forms like a family,” says Hunt. “I just love that relationship and that everybody’s contribution leads to the final product, so it’s incredibly satisfying to see everybody come together and see the synergy that goes on.”
To watch one of Hunt’s films is to know this since they operate like clockwork, if only the second hand begins to speed up as if to quicken the pulse and make you nervous. After making the Melissa Leo-Misty Upham smuggling nail biter “Frozen River” in 2008, it’s been too long since the director’s work last graced movie screens, honing her chops instead on the intervening years on such TV shows as “In Treatment” and “Law and Order: SVU.” Yet the wait has resulted in “The Whole Truth,” a potboiler perfectly suited to Hunt’s skill set, starring Keanu Reeves as a lawyer charged with representing Mike, the son (Gabriel Basso) of a family friend (Renée Zellweger) who stands accused of murdering his wealthy father (Jim Belushi), but when his client refuses to speak, it gives Reeves’ Ramsey a dual challenge in the courtroom of convincing the jury that what appears to be an open-and-shut case is not and why it’s in Mike’s best interests to speak up.
Hunt deftly moves inside and out of the New Orleans courthouse where the trial takes place, finding intrigue in every corner, and no doubt the the film’s authenticity comes from Hunt’s own legal experience, attending law school before segueing to Columbia Film School and occasionally assisting her husband, a litigator, with parsing through court transcripts. But her skills as a filmmaker are what take center stage in “The Whole Truth,” shrewdly revealing the different agendas of the characters that have as much bearing on the case as the actual facts of it, creating a sense of seeing something new even when something is replayed. With fiery performances from Reeves, Zellweger, Belushi and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who sits in as a bit of an outsider as Ramsey’s second chair, “The Whole Truth” is constantly diverting in any number of ways and shortly before its release, Hunt spoke about how she was able to create such energy out of evidentiary hearings, recomposing the film after a version with Daniel Craig set in Salem fell apart, and literally taking a different angle to the legal thriller.
As a fan of your first film, what took so long to make your second? Were you waiting for the right thing to come along?
I have a period piece that I’ve written that takes place in 1904 that is quite expensive and meanwhile, I was directing for “In Treatment” and “Law and Order,” so the idea was to just keep on directing, even if it’s in another format until you get the film you want to do. This came along, and when I couldn’t quite do mine, I thought this is ready and people were behind it, so I got on that train and I’m glad I did. But I have three other projects that are coming — you’ll be very tired of me in three years.
That’s exciting to hear. Was your legal background part of your interest in this?
It was the beginning and end of my interest in it because I sat trials as Janelle [Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character does in the film] in second seats [for my husband’s cases] and I’ve had this bird’s eye view without the absolute power and the responsibility that he has. I’ve watched him suffer being responsible for someone’s life and the incredible burden of that and the nervousness and the anxiety. In a way, it was like getting to say to him I see that, so I absolutely loved it. I also absolutely loved that everything that happens in that script could happen. It’s not like you jump off the believability bridge. When I got to the end of the script, I could imagine that all happening. It probably has. So that was interesting to me.
Was it also interesting working from someone else’s script as a director?
It really was and I liked the script from the very beginning. It went through some transitions and I actually went back to its original form because I think that to overexplain this script is to do a disservice. The actions of the characters show who they are, so I didn’t want it made more watered-down.
There was actually another incarnation of the film that was said to have fallen apart at the last minute, starring Daniel Craig and set in Massachusetts. Since you bring so much Southern flavor to this now it’s in New Orleans, when that version of the film went down, was there a radical reconception of this?
It was, and one of those happy accidents. It went the way it was supposed to go and I had no idea that that’s the way it was going to go, but I grew up in and around New Orleans. I’m not from there, but it’s a place I knew as a child, going every Christmas, and much more than Salem [where the film was initially set]. So for me, it was like really? This could be completely different because there’s a smallness to the story — it’s a family drama and people in the community that know it, so it played better in a more parochial community. That’s what New Orleans is. It’s small.
Did you shoot in a real courthouse there?
It had been a courthouse and my production designer Mara LaPere-Schloop really rebuilt the courtroom based on other courtrooms that we visited in New Orleans. The whole crew hung out in New Orleans courtrooms – like the whole of us would go and the judge would talk to us in chambers, but all of this was going in our production designer’s mind. She built a beautiful courtroom.
You shoot it so dynamically as well.
Well, I have a wonderful cinematographer named Jules O’Loughlin. We used “Chinatown” as a model and we looked at “The Verdict” and talked about keeping the courtroom alive, and never doing the TV shot. When I did “SVU,” there were about 10 shots [we could do since] we had a lot to cover quickly. Here, we could cover it any way we wanted to and to keep it new. Jules was very instrumental in that, making it feel like a roving suspicion, so we needed to change and shift and transform those shots.
You also get a lot of great reaction shots, which I would suspect you couldn’t always get as the action was unfolding. Was there a key to getting that kind of performance if your actors didn’t have something to react off of?
Renee particularly could do this and it was very important that everybody knew exact moment we were talking about and find that moment. And they did. It’s also interesting to me the dramas that are going on in the courtroom at any given moment. You go to a real trial and you see the mother of the defendant or the mother of the victim, it’s heartbreaking. They’re just sitting there in the audience, and Keanu and I had been to a couple murder trials in preparation for the role, and [when] we were sitting behind the mom of the defendant, you can’t make [up] that kind of drama. It just breaks your heart. So I wanted to have that sense of what’s said on the stand is landing in the audience. We’re seeing that there’s all these nonverbal relationships and connections going on all over the courtroom, which keeps it more interesting.
There’s a great moment as well where you see Loretta (Renee Zellweger) pull Ramsey (Keanu Reeves) to the side, just outside the courthouse, where you use the negative space of the scene to say so much about the relationship.
There’s a lot that goes on in the hallway of a courtroom. You’re always having people have little sidebars and little tet-a-tets and sometimes what’s said is unbelievably huge, like “Will you take the deal?” And tell your son to go to jail for the next 30 years. These are heavy-duty conversations and they’re always going on, so there is definitely [a sense of people telling each other], “you go away for this one…” and “you come here…” so for me, that was as natural as a trial. What’s going on in the hallway is as interesting as what’s going on in the courtroom and I feel like in that scene, that’s a mother who could not wait to get into the hall. She was like, “You’ve got to tell me now what’s going on” and I really felt that desperation coming from her. She doesn’t even get him outside.
How did you structure the shoot? I imagine the court and the murder were separate shoots, so did one come before the other to help with performances?
We tried to as much as we could. We did start by shooting the actual murder, [since] that does in fact happen at the beginning and it was hard to shoot the murder and the scenes with Renee [Zellweger] and Jim Belushi. [Chronologically] that was tricky, but with a good crew, they really will help and facilitate the actors having the most beneficial [schedule].
Given how tricky this film is as a narrative with all its tangents, was it interesting to piece together in the editing room?
Yes, it was a very deliberate edit and my editor [Kate Williams], who cut “Frozen River” as well, and I really worked through it. A lot of the flashbacks were built into the script, so there was limited rearrangement of the furniture, but there were some cases where we shifted things. Still, the editing comes as close as probably anything I’ll ever do to the script I started with.
With “Frozen River,” I remember you said you had a central image that everything grew out of. Was that the case here? Perhaps that very first scene you see?
With this one, there was such a story there, but these flashbacks to the house [owned by Jim Belushi’s character Boone], I kept seeing this McMansion and what was really going on in this house and what a mess it was, [with the feeling of] knowing what’s going on in a dysfunctional home and not really knowing what to do about it. The person’s rich, so you can’t really say anything and at a certain money level, morality’s like a wink and a nod, so it was really about my sense of morality that drove this one.