SxSW 2015 Interview: THE AUTOMATIC HATE director Justin Lerner

By Jason Whyte
Posted 03/12/15 20:06:36

"THE AUTOMATIC HATE is a mystery film about two sides of a broken family. A Boston chef in his 30s meets a beautiful, odd young woman in her early 20s, who turns out to be his estranged first cousin. He travels to her Upstate, NY farm, posing as her boyfriend, so that he can secretly meet his uncle and aunt. As the pair slowly uncovers the shocking secret that caused the 30-year rift between their dads, the cousins wrestle with a growing attraction to each other. It's a story about unearthing a hidden family grudge, and two young people trying not to let a rivalry from a previous generation get passed down to them. It examines questions about human morality, faithfulness, desire, and taboo." Director Justin Lerner on THE AUTOMATIC HATE which screens at the 2015 South By Southwest Film Festival.

Is this your first SxSW/Austin experience and are you going to attend your screenings?

Yes, this is my first time at SXSW and first time in Austin and first time in Texas! I will be at all three of my screenings, as will my lead actors and several members of my crew!

Tell me a bit about your background and how you became a filmmaker.

I was born in State College, Pennsylvania to two developmental psychology professors. My dad is Jewish and my mom is Catholic and so they compromised by sending me to Quaker School. I next lived in Michigan, then Boston, and then I went to Cornell University, studied theater and film, and really discovered cinema there...particularly, Bergman, Kieslowski, Antonioni, Bresson, and Tarkovsky, the latter of which was the subject of my very long-winded Honors Thesis.

After college I moved to Spain, just to travel a bit before going back to school. I returned to get my MFA at UCLA Film School, where I made a short film called THE REPLACEMENT CHILD, which premiered at Telluride Film Festival. A year after I finished at UCLA I directed my first feature film, GIRLFRIEND, which premiered at Toronto Film Festival in 2010. THE AUTOMATIC HATE is my second feature film.

How did your movie come together as a director and what was the process of getting it made?

When my first feature GIRLFRIEND won a 2011 Gotham Award, it created this small window in which people were re-watching it a year or so after our premiere at TIFF. One of the producers who watched the film was Alix Madigan of Anonymous Content (producer of WINTERS BONE). She loved it and met with me. She told me she had also read the script for THE AUTOMATIC HATE wanted to produce it, which of course was a total thrill and surprise. We worked on raising the money and putting the cast together for the next year, before bringing on Lacey Leavitt, who produced it with Alix, and we shot in Upstate NY in beautiful place in Mt. Vision called "Aunt Karen's Farm", which we found thanks to my childhood best friend.

What was your biggest challenge with THE AUTOMATIC HATE?

In any film with such delicate, sensitive subject matter, the biggest challenge is getting people a quick glimpse of how it's all going to look and feel in the end. This is such an important task when getting people comfortable whether the financiers, actors, or creative heads and with a film that has provocative subject matter. It is not so much about overcoming this challenge, as it is just working around it, going past making them comfortable with it, getting them excited by it. It's important to put in time to find the right collaborators, ones who are not scared of envelope-pushing material, who trust in your vision enough to know that the trickiest of scenes are going to be handled artfully and executed well.

If you had to pick a single favorite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

On the second day of filming we shot our first real scene with Adelaide Clemens, our lead actress, who plays Alexis in the film. She had hidden it from me until the first take of the first scene we shot, but I came to find out that in the preparations for the role, she had been building her own strange, funny, sexy, eccentric version of the character. She did what was on the page, of course, but she added this brilliant extension of the character; one that was completely her own between the lines of the script. When I watched Adelaide on my little monitor, I knew every word she was going to say, but I had no idea what to expect at any given point, on any given day. It was confusing and terrifying and thrilling all at once.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? How much caffeine?

When things get hard, I think about all the time I have put into trying to do this. I have been working towards becoming a filmmaker since I was fourteen.

I think about my grandmother, who was a very talented painter and artist, but she never had the opportunity to pursue it as a career. She died on the first day of our sound mix for this film. The movie is dedicated to her, and I even use some of her artwork in the film, but it kills me that she will never get to see it.

I think about the sacrifices I have made with my time, relationships, finances, life-experiences, family and friendships, all in the name of spending more time on my film-making. I use this to keep myself working hard, so all of this is not for nothing. That, and my ever-present addiction to espresso. I'm drinking it all the time, from when I wake up until just before going to sleep.

For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side of the film and your cinematographer.

Quyen Tran is my cinematographer and my big sister in Los Angeles. We met twelve years ago, on our first day of film school at UCLA. She has shot everything I have ever done, I was at her wedding, and our families spend time together. And even though we bicker like siblings, we have grown up together and have a deep and strong mutual respect. We are both very competitive and don't like to lose, so it's great going into battle with her. When we're on set together, we make each other better at our jobs.

We filmed on the Arri Alexa, mostly for financial reasons, but also because the Alexa is the camera that most closely approximates the look, feel and thought-process of shooting on film.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW and in Austin?

I'm most looking forward to seeing an audience's reaction to two specific scenes in the film, and the questions and conversation that may result from those scenes.

After the film screens at South By Southwest, where is the film going to show next? Anywhere you would like it to screen? Any dream theaters?

As of now we are not confirmed for our next festival screening, though we are in contact with a handful of places in Europe. I would love to screen somewhere in Australia, given that Adelaide Clemens is a Sydney native and I think she is just so good in this film; it would be fun for us to share the film and her performance with her home country.

As for dream theaters, somewhere in Spain or Latin America. I have never been able to do a Q&A in Spanish, and I am fluent! Tengo muchisimas ganas de estrenar la peli en un pais donde se habla espanol.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being generally disruptive during a screening of your film?

Depends on whether I had something to throw or not, and how far away they're sitting.

There are a lot of up and coming filmmakers both at SxSW and reading our site. What would you want to tell them if they are aspiring to become a filmmaker?;

Make a film about something that hurts, and then end it with a question, not an answer.

And finally, what is the single, greatest movie that you have ever seen?

I watch Antonioni's THE PASSENGER once a year. It gets better each time I watch it.

Be sure to follow THE AUTOMATIC HATE online on Twitter at @AutoHateMovie and on Facebook at You can also follow Justin at @justinlerner!

We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview in our 40+ filmmaker interview series. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2015 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 13-21. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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