Interview: Director Jonathan Parker Reveals Art Behind ‘(Untitled)’

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CHICAGO – One of the great overlooked films of 2009 was the slyly titled “(Untitled).” Jonathan Parker, the writer/director of the film, fashions a sharp yet human tale about the world of art galleries and the next-big-thing. The (Untitled) DVD and Blu-Ray is being released on September 21st, 2010.

(Untitled) is a take-off on the ubiquitous name that artists give their works when mere descriptive words are not enough. The film features Adam Goldberg, Eton Bailey and Marley Shelton as an unusual triangle of artists and art representatives. Shelton plays gallery owner Madeleine, whose life’s purpose is to find the next cutting-edge artist. Goldberg and Bailey play brothers, one a successful hotel lobby artist, the other a struggling composer of atonal symphonies. Their interplay is the basis for commentary about the eternal question of ‘What is Art?’

Adam Goldberg and Marley Shelton Get Direction from Jonathan Parker in ‘(Untitled)’
Adam Goldberg and Marley Shelton Get Direction from Jonathan Parker in ‘(Untitled)’
Photo credit: Parker Film Company/Samuel Goldwyn Films

The brilliant writer (with Catherine DiNapoli) and director of the film, Jonathan Parker, was interviewed via phone by on the occasion of the Blu-Ray/DVD release, and offered insight to issues driving his excellent work of cinematic art. First I have to ask you what was the inspiration for this masterful and circumstantial narrative? What in the atmosphere spurred you and Catherine DiNapoli to write the screenplay?

Jonathan Parker: It was partly autobiographical on my part, having been a player in the new music world for many years. I was musician from the time I was 15 years old until I was 25, so I played all the gigs that Adam plays in the movie. The guy who composed the score, David Lang, who won a Pulitzer Prize the year before, he was somebody I performed for in his compositions in college. There is a lot of personal stuff on that side of it.

I have been involved in the contemporary art world through a number of sources, my mother is an artist and art collector. My son got very interested in art and just graduated NYU with an art degree. It was actually his following of contemporary art the spurred my interest, and I was trying to contrast the prospects of the musician with the prospect of the artist. They are decidedly different. With music, you don’t end up making things you can sell for a little or a lot.

HC: One of the challenges of any independent film is budget. Who was the business catalyst that got the financing going that led to the film and how were you able to provide the right setting on that smaller budget?

JP: That is the budget I’m accustomed to working with, and the thing that is frustrating about budgets is not production values, but in the time and number of days you have to shoot the movie. That is where the constraints can be frustrating. This film was financed by equity, tax credits and business partners that I have in another venture. It was a combination of things.

HC: It seems that all of the characters have a complete journey in this film, even some of the minor ones. How particular were you in both the screenplay and direction in making sure that all the actors were on board with taking that journey?

JP: You do tend to want to give your characters, even those appearing in only a half dozen scenes, something to play with, a real part that has an arc. I really learned that by writing music. If you compose a piece of music for a quartet of instruments, and then you actually have to go out and write each part by hand, you realize that one person might have nothing interesting to do for a whole section in the piece.

Sometimes you can lose sight as a writer, after having written a whole script, that following through from every single player’s point of view, it can remind you that a character doesn’t have as much to do. We paid a lot of attention to that. There are really three lead characters, and their journeys intersect, so it is a little bit of a unusual screenplay, it’s not exactly your standard hero’s journey.

HC: In my second viewing of the film I was particularly impressed with the coiled desperation of Eion Bailey’s characterization of Josh. What did he do that really impressed you for that vital representative character? Do you think the character found peace in Nantucket?

JP: It is the kind of end piece that all of us face – what if, and if only? Eion did an amazing job, and he was a last minute replacement, coming aboard five days before production. I was even happier with him than who we had before. What Eion did so effectively was actually to totally commit and play the part tragically. With comedy you are better off when everyone is playing it like tragedy.

HC: While skewering the art world, your film at the same time treated it with the deference of real life. What was key to developing that essential balance?

JP: I wanted to make sure that all of the artists we were making fun of, that there work actually had integrity within their own goals. We tried very hard to give the artworks themselves a defensibility to being completely ridiculous. Creative representatives of an artist works that not only would you be surprised to see in a Chelsea gallery or other cities, you would actually think it was the best show you’ve seen that day.

HC: Art Direction was an overriding element in a film like this. How closely did you work with your team of excellent designers and who was the key person that made sure the truth was in the gallery shows and Ray Barko’s studio?

JP: I would have to say that the ultimate truth rested with me, since I was the only person to be totally aware of what we were doing there with the contemporary art. The two main contributors, both 20 years old, were Kyle Ng, who already was into taxidermy and steered the character Ray’s art into that direction. Kyle actually made the pieces but they were designed by my son Sam. Sam also came up with the other parody pieces, such as the ‘No You Shut Up’ painting and the dildoes on the heads of the mannequins. So it was those two young guys that handled all the artwork.

HC: Your ending was perfect, reminding me of the best of ‘Woody Allen’ ending, the bittersweetness of it. Did you know your ending as you started the script or did you let the process determine it?

JP: We knew the ending, without knowing what the last specific shot would be. Certainly we knew the ending, because often when you’re writing you start with the ending and work backward. It’s basically poses the argument, what becomes more important, mass appeal on a forgettable level or moving one person supremely?

Adam Goldberg as Adrian in ‘(Untitled)’
Adam Goldberg as Adrian in ‘(Untitled)’
Photo credit: Parker Film Company/Samuel Goldwyn Films

HC: Speaking of Woody Allen, the New York City setting in Untitled is less familiar and more claustrophobic than usual screen portrayals of the city. What were you after in that scenic approach?

JP: I guess I’m not sure that I was totally after that. Again with time constraints, often you need to put exterior scenes nearby to where you happen to be filming an interior. So when something is being changed on the interior set you can run down to the street and shoot an exterior. I have a place in the Village, so that area ended up being the source of many locations.

HC: The atonal symphony work was brilliantly authentic. What background in that arena did you do research on to get the right ‘tone’ for Adrian’s character and the way he approached it?

JP: That was really the composer David Lang contribution. David was more than guy I called on to do the score, because they are playing live on camera. Originally I looked him up because we had worked together in college, and asked him if I could use some of his prerecorded material. Then he said I want to do all the music in the movie.

We had Adam (Goldberg) and Lucy (Punch) come to the recording sessions and watch how David and his group was performing the music, so they would know what it looked like when they played it. But then originally when we tried to get Adam to do this concert scene, I thought we would do it to playback like we do all music scenes. But that only lasted about five seconds, because it became apparent that it was ridiculous to do that music to playback, because it is so unpredictable. So we had Adam just play live, and we ended up using a lot of that in the actual recording for that work.

HC: The world of any artistic communication, as you proved with Untitled, can be both objective and subjective. What part of the pursuit of your cinema art, do you find to be most satisfying in both the process of object and subject?

JP: The writing is always where it begins for me and writing cinematically is not always what people think. We are always trying to tell stories as visually as possible. The writing is where the totally blue sky-type original ideas are going to come from, and everything after that is an interpretation of the written idea.

The writing process is the most satisfying, and then right after that is being able to set this environment, which is really important to me, because the environment is a huge character in the film. Just dreaming up a world and and the combination of putting the characters in that environment is an exciting process.

HC: Finally, what is next for you? What subject matter has caught your attention and might lead to another great film?

JP: I’ve been working very hard on a project that is set in the California Gold Rush of 1849. The birth of San Francisco in a totally unusual looking film. I believe it will be one of a kind.

HC: I’m very proud to be an advocate of your cinema and congratulations on (Untitled).

JP: Thanks so much for the support, I really appreciate it. It’s a tough racket and anything that is helpful is very appreciated.

“(Untitled)” releases on Blu-Ray and DVD September 21st, 2010. Featuring Adam Goldberg, Marley Shelton, Eion Bailey and Vinnie Jones, written by Jonathan Parker and Catherine DiNapoli and directed by Jonathan Parker. Rated “R.” Click here for the HollywoodChicago interview with Adam Goldberg of Untitled. Click here for the HollywoodChicago review of Untitled. Click here for the HollywoodChicago Top Ten of 2009, featuring (Untitled) as number one. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2010 Patrick McDonald,

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