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Sundance 2011: 'The Lie' looks at life's little truths -- and consequences

January 23, 2011 | 10:00 am


Premiering on Saturday as part of the Sundance Film Festival's low-budget NEXT section, "The Lie" is the feature directing debut of Joshua Leonard, a long-time Park City regular as an actor in films such as "Humpday," "The Blair Witch Project" and this year's "Higher Ground." 

In his adaptation of a T. Coraghessan Boyle short story originally published in the New Yorker, Lonnie and Clover (played by Leonard and Jess Weixler) are a couple grappling with finding themselves with the responsibilities of a newborn infant and soul-crushing jobs, as the lives they once envisioned for themselves slip away like an ocean sunset.

One day, simply unable to face another day at work, Lonnie tells his boss that the baby has died. Needless to say, complications ensue.

The film has a very specific tone, something of a sad comedy in which the situations are at once outsized and played down, with a touch of realism to keep things relatable even as a viewer may dive for the comfort of thinking, "Well, I would never do that."

Leonard was at first reluctant to act in the film he was directing as well as co-writing with Jeff Feurzeig, Weixler and Marc Webber, another actor in the film. (Though not fully scripted, with moments of improvisation within the dialogue, the story structure was completely planned out.) Eventually, Leonard came to realize that on a low-budget feature with a shooting schedule of barely two weeks he was going to need someone he could really push hard.

"I think casting myself in the movie, because we shot so fast and so close to the bone, there was something very utilitarian about it," Leonard said in a recent interview in Los Angeles alongside Weixler just prior to Sundance. "I knew I'd be able to get the tone that I wanted in that character with myself on that kind of schedule, where I didn't have enough confidence in my skills as a director to get somebody else there."

While the film is designed to show Lonnie and Clover in moments good and bad, they are both meant to remain essentially sympathetic. In many ways the villain of the film is simply life itself, the ongoing expectations and disappointments that build and recede and the ever-elusive goals of contentment and happiness. Leonard knew it would be a juggling act to not over-explain his characters while giving an audience enough information to grab onto.

"One of the scenes we removed, funny enough, was the exposition scene," said Leonard. "There used to be a scene where it's a fight between the two of us that gives Lonnie full justification, but it was also kind of boring."

"It justified both of us," added Weixler. "It let us off too easily."

"It made it about specific things," said Leonard, "where I feel what happens in real life when you get backed into a corner is you can't pinpoint the problem. Things just aren't going the way you planned or hoped and you can't comfortably assimilate or figure out how to be happy in that context."

He added: "I am so fallible and I have made so many mistakes in my own life that were inadvertent and done in a panic. I read the story and saw this massive mistake that Lonnie makes as something I very well could have seen myself doing on a bad day."

-- Mark Olsen

Photo: Joshua Leonard in a scene from 'The Lie.' Credit: Sundance Film Festival

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