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Tribeca ’08: Tracey Hecht on “Life in Flight”

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05082008_lifeinflight1.jpgBy Stephen Saito

[For complete coverage of the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, check out IFC’s Tribeca page.]

There’s a moment late in “Life in Flight” when Will (Patrick Wilson) tells his young son, “I haven’t been paying a lot of attention lately.” It’s a difficult thing to admit for the harried husband and father, who spends most of the film kowtowing to his wife Kate (Amy Smart), who’d rather see him land a major commission for his architectural firm than have him attend their son’s biodiversity science fair. As Will finds out, such choices have left him with the life he might once have imagined for himself, but not one he wanted. Though he’s become a successful architect, the lines that have defined his life have become blurred, particularly when he meets Kate (Lynn Collins), a free-spirited designer. Writer/director Tracey Hecht knows something about those kinds of decisions, having recently broken away from a career in design to make her feature debut, which made its world premiere at Tribeca, and had time to talk about her own career path and why there’s something for everyone to take away from her first film.

How did “Life in Flight” come about? What was it about this particular story that appealed to you for your directorial debut?

To be honest, my day job was going through a boring stretch — as in really boring — so I started to get up early before work and write. I wrote the story for this film over three months and showed it to a friend who suggested I turn it into a script. Translating narrative into the discipline of a script format was a lot more work than I thought it’d be, but I love to write and the story plays with themes I think are prevalent in life today, so I enjoyed the process as well.

05082008_lifeinflight2.jpgYour director’s biography mentions that you were a founder of several small design businesses. Did that help you visualize things as a filmmaker? Also, the characters obviously come from that world, so did you want to write something relatable?

My husband teases me that I’m aesthetically cursed — that I art direct everything. It’s not that bad, but for me, writing is very visceral. As I writer, I have a clear sense of how the scene looks and feels, both in tone as well as look and styling. That’s something I probably do with all things — that sense of conceptualization on a broad scale. As for the characters being relatable, the themes in the film are very broad and universal — career, marriage, responsibility, family — I think you need real grounded characters to communicate those themes. I’m glad I was able to create them that way, but maybe more important is how well Patrick and the rest of the cast portrayed them as real and relatable.

You’ve mentioned before that you felt each of the main characters were a different facet of one person — could you elaborate on that idea and how that informed the story you were telling?

There’s this tendency in life and in movies to qualify and classify people — there are bad people, there are good people, there are nice people, there are mean people. I actually don’t believe that. I think we’re all capable of all those things, so when I wrote those four characters, I wanted to write the spectrum that we’re all capable of. I didn’t want there to be a bad guy and a good guy and I didn’t want there to be someone who was capable of greatness and someone who was capable of terrible failure. It was a real craft to try and create these four characters all dealing with similar themes, but because of where they were in their lives or different tools that they had, revealing their different capabilities around them. We all have the ability to be a Catherine and be afraid and not able to say something and we have the ability to be Josh [Will’s freewheeling friend, played by Zak Orth] and be totally free. And most of the time, most of us are Kate and Will, trying to figure it out in the middle.

05082008_lifeinflight3.jpgYou’ve said that this is a story about fear — while you were filming, do you think the fact that you were a first-time filmmaker added a resonance to that theme as you were making the film?

Ironically, once I was making the film, I felt pretty adept and comfortable. The fear for me was all the work leading up to getting the film made. You write this story and then you toss it out there to people in an industry that you know nothing about. That part was scary! But pre-production, principal photography, editing, etc., I had strong bearings and felt focused and good.

At Tribeca, the film received divergent reactions, which you cited when you said that even your husband has seen it a hundred times and likes different characters each time out. Was it your intention to get different reactions and how do you feel about the reception the film’s been getting?

It wasn’t the intention, per se, but I think it’s a byproduct of having that openness to ambiguity. Depending on your place — there was a woman who was in that Monday screening [at Tribeca] where she said, “I feel like Catherine and Catherine’s just such a bitch.” [laughs] It’s not intended to strike people differently at different times, but I think it does because I think that the emotional spots of those four characters are so representative of when you’re in a good place or a bad place that, depending on your mood, they can really speak to you differently. In all the screenings, even from people who’ve read the script and also seen the film, everyone’s reaction to the characters really evolves and changes. To me, I think that’s one of the more gratifying things about the film — it has the ability to transform itself depending who you are and what you’re going through in your life.

[Photos: “Life in Flight,” Plum Pictures, 2008]

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