Jake Hoffman’s first film was a small role in Rain Main, which he followed by playing a “Little League Player” in Hook. (More recently he appeared as Steve Madden in The Wolf of Wall Street.) But Hoffman is, first and foremost, a writer and director and attests that his early work was just him visiting his dad, Dustin, at work and having a fun time. Hoffman is making his feature debut as a director with Asthma, an indie movie that tackles the subject of addiction and the fine line between mental and physical ailments. Benedict Samuel stars as Gus, a troubled young man who lives on the edge of death and despair. Krysten Ritter co-stars as Ruby, a woman who cares for him but often finds herself wondering why.
We talked to Hoffman about what went in to making his first film, the multiple definitions of Asthma and fulfilling the dream of casting Iggy Pop. (Also: While this interview in no way gives away the ending, it does discuss some initial shocking moments of the film.)
I really like watching movies blind — not knowing anything about them beforehand — so that’s how I watched your movie. I have to say, based on the title alone, it was unexpected. I’m curious, what do you want people to think about this movie before going into it and how the title relates?
It’s a funny thing because nowadays people see movies and you know very much what you’re going to get when you go there. I always think it’s fun to see a movie blind. When there’s a movie I know I want to see I’ll do my best to try and not watch the trailer just to know as little as possible going in, I think it’s fun like that. As far as the title goes it sort of serves a literal and metaphorical purpose. But I guess the metaphorical one is more the reason why I named it that. I’m happy to tell you where I’m coming from with that but I also want to hear what you got from it because I’m more curious to hear what your take on it was. It’s always fun to hear what someone got from it rather than telling them what they’re supposed to get from it.
The part that struck me is when he is having an asthma attack and explains that something recently happened to his neck. So I was left wondering, is asthma actually new for him or was it really brought on by attempted suicide?
Oh, okay. You have to write spoiler alert if you include that. [Laughs]. But yeah, it’s not literally him having asthma but as a symptom of his failed suicide attempt, and I checked with a doctor — this is more about the literal answer, less about the metaphorical reasons — I checked with a doctor after I wrote it because I wrote more from imagination in that regard, and I guess the symptoms would be the same. Technically it would be strained trachea and not asthma, but I like the title Asthma better than Strained Trachea. I didn’t meant to interrupt you though. Before I tell you where I was coming from I want to let you continue.
Well, the whole time it seemed like Gus was committing suicide slowly in various ways. He disliked his life and had this desire of death. So he was struggling with his will to live and at the same time suffering from something that could potentially kill him, but involuntarily.
Yeah, and sometimes there’s a thin line between the two. Addiction is also an illness and it’s unclear why certain people are born with certain illnesses and other people aren’t. Some people can have a drink and that’s it. And some people have a drink and they become addicts. To me, that sort of randomness and why some people are plagued by the illness of addiction, is sort of random in the same way that people have asthma, people have other illnesses. Just making that parallel.
The question of why certain people are born with certain illnesses—if someone is born with asthma you don’t blame them for having asthma. But people look at addiction differently, so that’s bringing that into question. And then also, the idea that with asthma it’s hard to breathe so it’s hard to live. So the idea of, why is it harder for some people to live?
It is interesting how people usually get angry at addicts for being addicts but seldom do they…
You wouldn’t get angry at someone who’s asthmatic or wheezing. That’s exactly it.
Then you have that scene where Krysten Ritter’s character is yelling at him during an asthma attack.
[Laughs,] Yeah, that speaks to what we’re talking about but it’s also their rapport. She was yelling at him because she cared about him in a way. She’d tell him to stop smoking.
I’m curious about how you created this character Gus. Because we go from hating him, to feeling sorry for him, then rooting for him to get better. Is Gus inspired by anyone you know?
Well, first off, thank you because I think that push and pull about how you feel about him, that was what I intended, so glad that’s what you got. I think generally when there’s someone struggling with addiction, those close to them will have those same mixed feelings as far as love and frustration and understanding. The film’s not at all autobiographical but it is very personal. So Gus is not based on me in any way but speaks to — when I was in my late teens and early twenties I became friends with a group of great guys who, many years later, would become recovering addicts. At the time I was pretty naive to know the dangers and the potential consequences of the reckless behavior that was happening. In a lot of ways we live in a imperfect world and people have to grow up and learn. There are consequences in the world. And then, on the other hand, I do think there’s something beautiful about that naiveness when you’re living life without fear. It’s unfortunate that we can’t keep that because we live in an imperfect world.
There’s that turning point where some people transition out of a certain lifestyle, and then the ones who don’t are seen as the ones with a problem.
That’s a good point. I’ve thought about that too. When people are in their early twenties it’s hard to tell who had a problem because going out and getting wasted all the time sort of feels more age appropriate. I’m 34 now and I think every decade in your life you probably want to be acting a little bit different than you did the decade before.
Do you identify with addiction of any sort?
What do you mean? Am I a recovering addict? Is that what you’re asking?
Not a recovering addict. But just, how some people have empathy toward addicts because they might also be addicted to something, and it may not be the worst thing for them, necessarily. I’m wondering if you relate to that feeling.
Let’s just say that it’s a work of fiction. If I did I don’t know if I’d want to share it in an interview, no offense. [Laughs.]
Do you think about where your characters go after the movie’s over? Do you think about their future?
I do think about their future. In an earlier draft there was sort of an epilogue where I thought about where they were going to be a year later and then decided I rather leave it up to people’s imagination. But certainly a lot of thought goes into that. It’s interesting, when people watch movies, I think, even though we’re all watching the same movie that everyone’s watching it a little bit differently because one of the magical things about cinema is how the audience projects their own life into the story. I think that’s important and something I’ve noticed. That mechanism magnified a little bit with this story because we deal with addiction. And I find that a lot of people have a strong feeling one way or the other about addiction and it can change the way people watch the movie. Their minds are made up based on personal experiences as far as how they approach that illness.
You’re reminding me also of how the way we watch movies changes as we age. I don’t know if you did this but when I was young I denied the endings of certain movies if I didn’t agree with them and just made up my own ending. Have you ever felt that way when watching a movie, maybe as a kid?
I definitely do watch films from my childhood that I loved and some you still love and some of them worked better at the age you were at and now you’re like, what was I thinking? But as far as changing the ending as a kid, that’s not something I ever did. But sounds like you were a really cool kid. That’s an awesome game, that’s an inspiring idea.
How was casting for this and when you were writing did you have it in your mind of who you wanted to play the characters?
When I wrote the script I didn’t have any of the actors in mind. Although it was a work of fiction, I hear the voices of people I know in different parts, even if I’m writing something completely fictional I’m imagining how people I know would say certain things sometimes and sometimes it’s just completely fictional. I guess both times it’s completely fictional but you know what I mean. And then that’s one of my favorite parts of this whole process is when you cast it and you get to bring in an actor who both fulfills your vision of what it was supposed to be but then also can make it something new or surprise you in certain ways and take it to a further place than you imagined. Because every actor brings something of themselves and it grows from there. I’m proud of the cast and their performances.
Yeah, and you have Iggy Pop!
How badass is that? [Laughs.]
Yeah, I interviewed him a couple months ago. I didn’t know what to expect of him, but he was such a mensch.
That should be the headline of this article: “Iggy Pop Is a Mensch.” I like the way you put that. I’ll tell you, I had a mood board when I was in pre-production on the movie and had a lot of visual references and some character visual references. I was just walking down the street sometimes and I’d see somebody who looked like I might imagine the character might look and I’d ask if I could take a picture of them and then for some reason the visual reference for the guy in the Connecticut prison was Iggy Pop. But I never imagined it was going to be him actually playing the part. And then, eventually, I thought, okay, this is a one-in-a-million shot but I might as well try. And was just so excited when his agent gave him the script and he said he would read it and then when he said he would do it it was just like, oh my God, I can’t believe this would happen. And he was a great guy to work with and also really great in the movie.
You also have Dov [Tiefenbach] in this movie, an actor I really like. When he was younger he played one of my favorite characters — The Boy With The Purple Socks.
I’m glad you’re bringing up Dov because he’s such a good actor and so great in the movie. But I haven’t seen that yet, what’s the movie?
Harriet the Spy.
Oh, you’re talking about Harriet. I didn’t know that, I gotta check it out. Dov is actually one of my brother’s closest friends and when I was trying to figure out who to play the part that was actually my brother’s suggestion and I’m so glad my brother suggested him and that Dov did it because he’s great in it.
Watching the final movie, is there a scene you’d say is a favorite?
I think Benedict and Krysten’s last scene together, I don’t think that gives it away, was really moving. And a lot of the story is building to that scene and I was really grateful for the emotion they both brought to it. And really Benedict Samuel and Krysten Ritter are both such great actors but with Krysten that was proven a long time ago. Everyone knows she’s great and we were lucky to have her. And she certainly exceeded our expectations. But Benedict, he actually auditioned himself on tape from Australia and this is basically his first movie. He’s been doing mostly theater in Australia. I think he did a TV show there too. So when I saw the audition tape I knew he was going to be great for the part and a great actor but we took a chance there as far as going with someone less proven. And I’m really glad we did because he really captured the character in a really great way.
The first time they did the table read together was the first time they ever met and that was really just for me, because it’s an indie, it’s not for a studio or something, but that was really for people to meet and hear it out loud with the cast. And I could tell that the two of them had a cool chemistry and rapport. So I was like, awesome, thank God. That’s what we needed.
When you were young did you know you wanted to be a writer? Because you had played roles in such amazing films, did you know what side of movie making you wanted to be a part of?
As far as the roles from when I was a kid, I wasn’t really an actor as a kid. And I never would have imagined — this was the world before the Internet — so when I did extra work on some of my dad’s films that was just having fun and visiting dad at work. I never expected it to wind up on a professional resumé on the Internet because no one knew the Internet was going to exist. At least I didn’t. When I was a kid I really wanted to be a professional basketball player and play for the Knicks. I’d say that’s still my dream but I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon. When I was in high school and had some learning difference, so academics didn’t always come so easily to me, but I’d get my grades up with creative projects and videos and that was when I started to think about pursuing filmmaking, at least enough to apply to film school. It’s been a long time coming. It’s really exciting having this movie coming out in theaters. It’s the dream of every young filmmaker.
It’s nice too that you hold on to the other career aspiration.
It’s weird because I watch basketball all the time and a part of me still watches these incredible athletes and looks up to them, almost like they’re older than me. And them I’m like, hold on, that kid’s 19 and I’m 34-years-old. [Laughs.] It’s a funny thing.
Yeah. I have a similar thing — I know what I really want to be is a Motown recording artist. [Laughs.] I have to let that go.
[Laughs.] If you want to sing a little I would be ecstatic to hear.
Yeah? Oh my God. That would be crazy. I’ve been singing all morning.
Well, I look forward to listening to your Motown record.
(Asthma opens in L.A. at Sundance Cinemas on October 30th and is currently on demand nationwide.)