The Siegel Column

Taking the Bait: An Interview with Jailbait director Brett C. Leonard

JailbaitThe riveting and intense new movie Jailbait is also theater-bait for Off-Broadway playgoers who know and admire the work of folks associated with the celebrated Labyrinth Theatre Company. Though he was not a member of Labyrinth when he wrote and directed Jailbait, Brett C. Leonard unwittingly cast one of its two leads with the company’s premier playwright, Stephen Adly Guirgis. He also eventually directed a play he wrote that also starred Guirgis. Finally, hell, Leonard joined up.

Here’s a film about a power struggle between two prisoners struggling to survive in a world where life is reduced to its bare basics. It is essentially a two person show (the other lead is played by Michael Pitt) with a couple of smaller secondary roles both portrayed by theater actors, Laila Robins and David Zayas (the latter from Labyrinth, as well). Believe us when we tell you that the film is unflinching in its raw humanity. The director, Mr. Leonard, was also unflinching in his honesty when we talked with him about his movie…

Q: How did you come to cast Stephen Adly Guirgis in the film?

A: I wrote this back in 1994-5, but it was on a shelf. I had walked away from a couple of deals. But when I moved to New York six years ago I wanted to introduce my work to the New York theater community. A woman I knew was willing to set up a [five performance] reading of one of my pieces. I chose Jailbait. One of the people who auditioned for the reading was Stephen. At that point, I hadn’t seen any of his work either as an actor or a playwright. I didn’t know who he was. He auditioned and knocked me out. So we called him back for a second audition and eventually cast him.

Q: When did you find out that you had cast as one of your two leading actors New York’s hottest up-and-coming playwright?

A: Shortly after casting him, Jesus Hopped The A Train was moving to Off-Broadway. Stephen invited me to see it as the Classic Stage Company. I was absolutely blown away.

Q: When did you start meeting other people from Labyrinth?

A: During the five night presentation of Jailbait a lot of Labyrinth people came to see Stephen in the play. I kept wondering, ‘Who are these people?’

Q: Was Phillip Seymour Hoffman among those that came to see the play?

A: He came by and was very encouraging. He invited me to come to Labyrinth.

Q: And you did?

A: On September 11, 2001 I was invited to the Labyrinth Summer Intensive session as an invited guest writer. I left Port Authority on a bus about twenty minutes before the World Trade Center was attacked. It was an emotional day to be first embraced by the Labyrinth Theatre Company – and I’ve been a part of the Company ever since.

Q: You’re a playwright as a well as a filmmaker. Your New York theatrical success, Guinea Pig Solo, a production at The Public that was critically acclaimed, also has its connections to the Labyrinth Company.

A: Guinea Pig Solo was happening at The Public at the same time as the first festival premier of Jailbait. Stephen Adly Guirgis was in both; the play and the movie.

Q: You’ve heard this before, but the movie seems like it could just as readily be a play as a film.

A: When we were filming, there was lots of talk about doing it on stage at some point. There might be a time when we’d do a stage production. It’s very easy to adapt to the stage. You wouldn’t have to change a word of the script. It could certainly be a compelling evening of live theater.

Q: And the Lab connection continued?

A: During the editing process of the film, I had a number of assorted Lab members come in and watch various cuts of the film. I sought out their advice and suggestions throughout the process. While this is not officially a Labyrinth film, there were certainly a lot of fellow artists from Lab who helped me along the way. Phillip Seymour Hoffman was one of the Lab people who came during the editing process who saw an early cut of the film and he gave me some terrific notes and suggestions. So did John Patrick Shanley who is also a member of Lab. [Leonard paused for added emphasis] Shanley came in during a rainy night when our Avid system broke down. We were delayed by an hour. He walked up five flights and waited to give his help, encouragement and support. It’s a very inspiring collective of artists. The sheer work ethic and artistic achievement that this collective brings is inspiring and invaluable to my growth as an artist.

Q: Other than talking to us, how else will you support this film?

A: On Friday August 4 and Saturday August 5, I will be attending the early evening screenings at the Village East theater and there will be a Q & A with the audience.

On August 6th I depart to Vermont for the Labyrinth Summer Intensive where my new play – North of Mason-Dixon will be work-shopped with director Mark Wing-Davy and such Lab actors as Ron Cephus Jones, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Chris Chalk, Trevor Long and Sam Rockwell. The show will be produced in London in 2007 for its world premiere with an All American/Lab cast and then transfer back to NY later in 2007.

Q: Has that information about North of Mason-Dixon been officially announced yet?

A: No. As a matter of fact, this is the first announcement. You’ve got the scoop.

And with that we rushed off to get this published as fast as we could.

Barbara and Scott Siegel