Following The Better Angels and Age Out, A.J. Edwards’ third feature, First Love, is both a tender tale of blossoming romance and a nuanced depiction of the pride and human frailties that can disrupt a decades-long bond. The writer-director, who got his start working with Terrence Malick on The Tree of Life, The New World, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song, displays an immense amount of grace in this recession-era portrait of family and romance.
Led by Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Diane Kruger, Jeffrey Donovan, and Sydney Park, the film will now get a release beginning this Friday and I was pleased to chat with him about returning to the coming-of-age story in a new angle, his depiction of class, being inspired by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Sidney Lumet, and more.
The Film Stage: Your last film was a coming-of-age story of sorts. And this one obviously takes a different angle to the mold, with a more romantic angle. What was your fascination in returning to this realm in a different way?
A.J. Edwards: Friday’s Child, or Age Out as it’s now called, is a coming-of-age story about a boy that’s completely rootless without family, aging out of foster care, and then enters into crime. And this one is the complete inverse: of a young man in, like, a nuclear family setting and with loving parents. And it’s less about him trying to break out and define himself through whatever means necessary like the last film. He comes to define himself through his relations to others, specifically this romance with this young woman that he meets. That’s what decides and changes his future, rather than the misfortune that Richie in the last film faces.
This juxtaposition of not only first love, but love later in life that is tested over decades resonates quite strongly. Can you talk about weaving these two perspectives in the film and any challenges to getting that balance right?
Yeah, I thought of the film as kind of first love, last love. One story is high school sweethearts, and then the other one is high school sweethearts 20 years into their marriage, the parents of the main lovers that we’re following. And I thought that dichotomy is what really makes the story worth telling and interesting, as opposed to just being a teen drama. Oddly, I thought about The Godfather Part II. That movie is intercut in two different time periods, father and son at the same age. This movie is intercutting father and son, but of course in the same moment in the same week.
It wasn’t a crazy challenge in the edit, but we did find that the sequences ended up kind of barber-poling or double-helixing even more than I had anticipated, intertwining themselves almost more like a Magnolia-lite or mini-Magnolia. We would go back and look at some scenes from that sometimes and other kinds of ensemble films to figure out those important exit and entry points of when you leave an anecdote and come back and how to compare and contrast them in a way that justifies you kind of putting them next to each other, which I loved. It ended up being much more editorially fun than I thought it was going to be.
There’s a very nuanced depiction of class and the idea of living beyond your means due to some sort of pride. I’m specifically thinking of the dinner table scene with the relative. Can you talk about what inspired this theme?
There have been recession films before, where they seem to be more about brokers, Wall Street bigwigs. I hadn’t really seen a kind of Grapes of Wrath for the recession about the people that it affected. This was at the time that I wrote it, long ago. Now there are other films that are very noteworthy that that have tackled the fallout. That scene that you mentioned with the relative at the table, I like to. And he says things like, “You’re living beyond your means.” And there are other accusations hurled at the father throughout the story that seem to point a finger as to why he’s suffering this misfortune. And those were put in there not necessarily because they’re true, but for the audience to decide as to why this is happening.
Do you suffer this kind of misfortune because of something that you did wrong? Which is a kind of archaic way of looking at it. Or is it just pure chance? Or is it something that seemingly as a tragedy now that’s going to lead you toward a greater destiny? And this is the kind of growing pains of that. So the father is criticized by his own family, by the recruiter. There are other people in the film, and I was hoping that those wouldn’t land as true criticisms, but rather things that you have to sort of figure out for yourself when you are going through that as well. Is it true what the world is saying to me? Is this why this is happening or is it that they too don’t even understand and I have to solve it for myself?
Without spoiling it, I really love the unexpected nature of the ending. You think the story’s going to go one way, then there’s a bit of a time jump and lovely note to end on. How did that come into play?
That was always the ending in the script. The editor, Alec Styborski, cinematographer Jeff Bierman, and I wanted the movie to kind of open up and become airer and not be as definite in terms of what it is saying or what it’s suggesting for the future of the characters. And one unlikely source of inspiration that we turned to Apichatpong. Since the father sort of goes on this hike and time starts to feel a little looser in the way that we’re intercutting, like you said, there’s an ellipses there. The way that Apichatpong’s films stretch time and characters can almost recess into the background, and the background comes to the foreground, it creates this very strange but welcome dissonance filmically that not many other filmmakers achieve. Again, we didn’t achieve that––that was just what we were inspired by and having fun with. That’s where the ending came from.
Nice. I feel like Mia Hansen-Løve plays around with time in a way I love to.
Sure. Have you seen her new one?
Bergman Island, yes, but not One Fine Morning yet. Have you seen Memoria yet?
Yes! I saw that IFC Center and it was great, a packed house. And people responded to the film physically or verbally, as if it was like a concert and you could feel the excitement and the boredom and back and forth and I really liked it. Did you?
Oh, yeah. I love it. I saw it at the New York Film Festival. It was great, not knowing literally anything and just the shock of the last half of it is amazing.
Yeah, for sure.
Last time we talked was right before the pandemic. How did that affect your production schedule? And have your viewing habits changed since then?
Half the film was cast and ready to go before COVID and then things changed. And I wanted to make it in Texas and then, for certain reasons, we had to make it in Los Angeles. So things changed, with having to move the shoot then filling out the rest of the cast, but I’m still very pleased with it. It was sort of fun to shoot it in Los Angeles in the way that it was very alien to me. I’m not familiar very much with LA, so I didn’t know the things not to do, which just makes the film different. And some people have laughed and said it’s like Eyes Wide Shut, and that you couldn’t get in the car and the next scene be in this location in 30 minutes. That would take 2 hours or whatever. That’s not realistic because I didn’t know the geography. I don’t really care about replicating L.A realistically. So one minute they are in Malibu and then the next they’re in the valley, and it’s acting like it’s easy and all that. So the location changed in that way.
Then my viewing habits have not changed. I have gone to the theater a little less, but that’s just because of having children. We tend to go play sports more than go to the movies now. Yeah, I watched Carlos last night. That’s the most recent thing I saw. I’d never seen that [Olivier] Assayas film.
Oh, nice. Yeah, I just started watching his Irma Vep series, which is great. Wrapping up: when it comes to the coming-of-age kind of structure, there’s a lot of things that can feel familiar, but you find a lot of grace notes and nuance to what a kind of film like this can be. Did you draw any influences from this genre?
It’s funny that you ask that because I woke up this morning and my wife said, “You’re just going to talk about Running on Empty during the interviews, aren’t you?” And I hadn’t even mentioned it to her. It cracked me up, but in terms of the most important film that is the foundation for this one in my life, it’s definitely [Sidney] Lumet’s Running on Empty. I remember [Akira] Kurosawa put out a list of his favorite films one time, and he can only put one per director. So, you know, [Michelangelo] Antonioni couldn’t have ten or something. And so the film that he chose of Lumet’s is Running on Empty, which unlikely because I don’t think it’s well-known. And definitely when people talk about Lumet, it’s not amongst the first five that are discussed, but I always think it’s it’s just always stayed with me.
And that film being a parent story, a story of a young man, the romance that he finds, and even the score to that film inspired it. And then Jeff, the cinematographer, he would send me clips at night of the cinematography of that and how simple the setups were, which I had never noticed. The photography of the film is so humble. I just don’t even pay attention to it, which is a great thing. But Jeff noticing how much is achieved in the masters, and he really only uses a close-up or some kind of cover for just punctuation emotionally at the end. And so he would just send me these clips and we would try to not imitate them, but learn from them in their simplicity—especially since my previous two films have more camera movement and I’m more undisciplined. Jeff was helpful in trying to keep things more concentrated with this film.
That’s great inspiration. I had never seen that movie before, and I just watched it for the first time a few months ago when it got added to the Criterion Channel. It’s so good, so heartbreaking at the end.
Yeah, I agree.
First Love opens in theaters and on VOD on Friday, June 17.