Jill Sprecher: As brave as they come

She was mugged and owes thousands of dollars, but Jill Sprecher still got 13 Conversations to the screen, she tells Roger Clarke
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The Independent Culture

Here's a useful tip for struggling film-makers: get your leading man to save someone's life during the world premiere. It does help if the leading man happens to be Matthew McConaughey. The film was Jill Sprecher's 13 Conversations About One Thing, the location the Toronto Film Festival. Sprecher is in Los Angeles telling me all about it. "It was 10 minutes before the film ended, where John Turturro's character is berating one of his students as to why they want to become a doctor," she says. "Suddenly up pops someone in the audience and shouts, 'Is there a doctor in the house?' I thought it was a heckler. Turns out a woman had fainted and Matthew had run over and given her mouth-to-mouth!" She needn't have worried about people not seeing the end: the resulting publicity ensured a sale to Sony Classics. Thirty-six hours later, 11 September happened.

Of the many films to have had their releases damaged by the attack on the twin towers, 13 Conversations is the last to limp on to UK screens. It's a complex, deeply sensitive and intelligent film, but it does dwell on two dark and apparently random acts of violence. McConaughey plays the yuppie banker involved in a hit and run in New York. Clea Duvall plays the happy-go-lucky woman he nearly kills. Turturro is an embittered, misanthropic academic whose marriage breaks down after he is mugged and he undergoes a change of personality.

Sprecher is one half of a team that has been dubbed "the Coen sisters"; sister Karen writes and Jill directs. She has a Wisconsin twang similar to the one heard inFargo, and which is apparently a very amusing hick accent to your average American. After a provincial early life, she escaped to New York where, after a spell in film school, she became involved in the production of two classic New York movies - the trippy Liquid Sky in 1982 and the gay rights saga Stonewall in 1995.

So why is this talented New York director now living in LA? The answer has everything to do with 13 Conversations and the enormous personal debt she built up while making the movie. This is no Darren Aronofsky/ Kevin Smith story about making your movies on your credit cards and then becoming famous. Six years on, Sprecher still owes $150,000 on her plastic. It seems you can direct movies with Toni Collette and Lisa Kudrow (Clockwatchers) and McConaughey - but that doesn't mean you won't end up penniless.

Amazingly, Sprecher doesn't feel her story is especially unusual. "I think it's the norm, outside the Hollywood system," she says with a laugh. But the production history is terrible, I say. The idea of 13 Conversations came directly out of Sprecher being brutally mugged twice and nearly brain damaged. The day before shooting started she lost important financing and had to sign away nearly all her rights, despite the best efforts of producer and REM front man Michael Stipe. Sprecher never got paid for directing it. The budget kept getting cut during production, with her cinematographer Dick Pope (Vera Drake) having to do the job with a handful of set lights.

Just after she sold the film one of her close friends died in the 11 September attacks, and she felt guilty she hadn't invited him to Toronto, thereby saving his life. Distribution of the film was affected by 11 September. Having gone to LA to edit it, Sprecher couldn't actually afford to move back to New York. If ever a film has laboured under a curse, it has to be 13 Conversations.

She's still surprised, though, when people think 13 Conversations is a dark film. "We thought it was upbeat." She laughs wildly. "It gets the reaction according to the viewer's own outlook - if you're pessimistic you see it as gloomy. After Matthew saw the tape he called and said: 'I have the biggest grin on my face!' And I thought that's just perfect. He's one of the most optimistic people I know."

And on that final note of optimism, this one half of the "Coen sisters" volunteers she's writing that most Coen-like of movies, a crime caper, for John Malkovich's The Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Finally, perhaps, an end to the years of penury, if it is a little eccentric as a career move. "I don't think I'm eccentric at all," she counters, slightly shocked. "I mean, look who's running the country."

'13 Conversations About One Thing' is on limited release