Philip Seymour Hoffman spends much of his time onscreen in God’s Pocket, John Slattery’s directorial debut, racing around a blue-collar South Philly neighborhood with slabs of meat — and a corpse. The film, which Slattery and Alex Metcalf adapted from a 1983 Pete Dexter novel, and which just sold to IFC, opens with Hoffman’s character, Mickey Scarpato, a crook and barfly who’s just trying to do right by his family, attending a funeral with his wife (played by Slattery’s Mad Men co-star Christina Hendricks). The deceased is clearly her son, Leon (Caleb Landry Jones). Someone punches the funeral director. How did we get here? We go back in time to Leon’s “accidental” death on a construction site, happening as Mickey steals a truck full of meat he hopes to sell off with the help of a florist-crook played by John Turturro. But when he can’t sell enough meat or win enough at the tracks to pay for the funeral, Mickey finds himself stuck with Leon’s corpse and trying to hide it from his wife, who’s coping in her own self-destructive way. Jada Yuan spoke to Slattery, Hoffman, and Hendricks about dead bodies, pratfalls, and whether Christina Hendricks and Philip Seymour Hoffman having a love scene constitutes Joan cheating on Roger.
I know how Christina knows John, but how did you get involved, Philip?
Hoffman: We lived in the same neighborhood and we’d see each other around — I’d see John at shows and stuff — and every time we saw each other, we’d stop and talk. But then this script came along and I read it and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I read that thing about five times.
Slattery: We kept scheduling meetings and you would be working and we kept missing each other. Once we sat down — being that we know each other, I think he’s going to let me down easy … I walked out of that meeting and I was like, “Wow, that was not the meeting I thought I was going to have with you. I thought you were going to say, ‘I wish I could but I’m too busy.’”
Hoffman: I couldn’t shake it.
What was it about the script that you couldn’t shake?
Hoffman: I found it extraordinarily moving. It’s just tragic: This is somebody who’s trying so desperately to make something work while everyone else knows it’s never going to work. And he’s the one guy who doesn’t know it. That killed me. That’s what I couldn’t shake.
Hendricks: These are people who have been living in a home together and waking up in the same bed together every day and just passing each other by and somehow not ever knowing what each other needs. He doesn’t ever know what [Ginny] needs and she never knows how to tell him. They’re just rotating around one another, getting it wrong. It is heartbreaking.
And at what point, John, did you decide to cast Christina?
Slattery: I was literally directing an episode of the TV show and looking at her on the monitor and bing! Because I had been writing it for a long time and I literally was looking at a close-up of her going, Holy Shit! Of course. So I asked her and she said yes.
Did you immediately want to work with John as a director?
Hendricks: Yeah! Of course. I said, “You want to just do videos in the backyard or whatever? I’ll come over and whatever you want to do, I’ll do it. Absolutely.”
What have you learned from directing the Mad Men episodes that you’ve applied here?
Slattery: Pretty much everything. I hadn’t directed anything prior to that. You sort of exercise your visual imagination. How do I see this? And writing the script: How do you take out all of those things where you’re telling somebody something and instead show them something and how do you communicate the emotions? Whatever I learned, I learned directing those shows, where the material is so great — I mean, you make your mistakes and you learn how to make decisions under pressure and you learn how to have faith that you’ll get through the day and you learn how to, most importantly, I would say, allow the people whom you’ve hired to do their job.
What was the hardest part about making that transition to a feature?
Slattery: Well, this is a ground-up exercise. Mad Men, you get the script, they tell you pretty much, “This is why we wrote it like this. This is how we’d like to see it. Go shoot it.” You shoot it; you put your own fingerprint on it as much as you can. You give it back and they do with it what they’re going to do ‘cause it’s their show. This, you’ve gotta build the whole thing from the ground up, up until you get all the collaborators together and you let them do their thing. So it’s creatively more satisfying in that way and it can also be more daunting that way.
Is it easier for you guys to work with an actor who’s a director — someone who is in your field?
Hendricks: I’ve obviously had a relationship with John for so long that he knows me so well. He knows exactly how to talk to me and to answer the questions that I have. There’s all sorts of directors. Some don’t like to talk to actors as much and are more technical. And John, because he is an actor, knows when you’re like, “But why?” He knows what I’m asking.
Hoffman: I think as an actor you’ve got to kind of eventually say, “I’ve got to be me.” That’s always the sign to me of a director that I’m going to trust, is when that moment comes. You survive the moment of like, [deep breathing] “This is hard. I’m vulnerable.” You do, 95 percent of the time. I rarely finish a film and don’t have an innate love for the director that’s been built up. You survive these things together that are very intimate — and crazy — in front of people. You don’t realize what you’ve exposed in a way. And you survive it. It creates a certain kind of respect and admiration. That happened with John for sure.
Christina, did you feel like having sex scenes with Phil was like Joanie cheating on Roger in some way?
Hendricks: No. I didn’t. No. [Keeps laughing.]
Hoffman: I didn’t even think about that. That was a little bit, yeah, voyeuristic.
You sleep with two men in the movie! You have another affair!
Hendricks: John can’t watch that scene.
Slattery: I’m going to watch this from the truck.
Phil, how much actual handling of meat did you have to do?
Hoffman: Not a lot, actually, at all. It was never really meat. It was those big fake slabs.
Slattery: They made sound effects on them that when he touches, when he slaps them — Wow, it actually sounds like meat.
And you didn’t have to drag an actual body or anything?
Hoffman: No, that was the actor [Caleb Landry Jones]. He really put up with a lot of crap with that. I swear to God. He was a mensch about that stuff.
Slattery: He was a pretty amazing dead body, that guy. He was an amazing live body, but that’s not easy being sort of convincing — [Philip] dragged him around. He’s a big guy, like six-foot-one. He had to drag him around in the rain. That was not easy.
Hoffman: How he falls like that [stiff as a board, from a standing position], I mean, it’s pretty ballsy. He just lets himself go, man.
Slattery: Twice! When he falls; when he gets hit on the head; when he gets killed. I’ve seen it 5,000 times.
Hoffman: That fall is pretty great, man. His legs go out from under him. He’s like, Oop.
Are you going to be practicing your falls?
Hendricks: I know I’ll never be as good as that guy.
Hoffman: I just know it’s not easy. In all seriousness, when I watched that, I was like, Wow, that was really good.
You have a fall while running after your meat truck.
Hoffman: Yeah, but I did some serious planting for that fall.
Slattery: That’s an amazing digger in the street you take.
Hoffman: I remember during the fall I had butt-pads.
Slattery: That was a brutal day, man. That whole running, falling sequence was one day and it was 100-plus [degrees] and he’s in jackets and pants, running over and over again down the middle of the street in Yonkers.
Hoffman and Hendricks: [In unison.] So hot.
Slattery: We were in these not-glamorous locations — gas stations, funeral homes, and most of them abandoned, old, real funeral homes. It was not cushy.
How long did you spend writing this?
Slattery: Years — I don’t know — three years. I didn’t really have a production setup or a deadline hanging over my head. I was just working as an actor sitting in a trailer and I thought, Well, I’ll just keep chipping away at this — and I hadn’t directed the television show ever.
What was the experience of watching it in an audience here for you?
Hoffman: I had a rare enjoyable experience. I really haven’t watched a film I’ve been in with an audience in over a decade, at least.
Why has it been over a decade?
Hoffman: You get self-conscious. It’s you up there. You’re sitting there. There’s a part of me that wants people to enjoy it and if I’m in the audience, I can be distracting. I really can. I’ll be like, “Ah, fuck!” [Everyone laughs.] It happens! You get all of a sudden incredibly private and you’re like, [sighs deeply]. This time I felt safe — I don’t know why. I felt really safe watching it.