A Real Pain stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin as cousins who travel to their grandmother’s native Poland to partake in a Holocaust tour. The film, which is screening in U.S. Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival, marks Eisenberg’s second time behind the camera on a feature.
Eisenberg, who is also in Park City with title Sasquatch Sunset, talked to The Hollywood Reporter about casting Culkin, filming at a concentration camp and his future directing aspirations, including his next gig that is already gearing up.
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What inspired A Real Pain?
I’ve always been interested in in Poland. My family comes from Poland. I was very close with my dad’s aunt who was born in 1912 and was in Poland until she was 9. She always told me stories about how she had this wonderful relationship with the Polish people. It was a little counter to things I had heard growing up about Polish-Jewish relations. I was really interested in exploring that in the first play I wrote [that] was called The Revisionist and starred Vanessa Redgrave, who was based on my cousin who survived the war. I had been thinking a lot about how it’s possible to reconcile feeling bad for yourself and your little problems when you come from, two generations back, global trauma. The other aspect was I really wanted to make a movie in Poland. [I thought] let me just write the exact thing I’d want to do, and it’s a tour to all the cities that I want to go to.
For your feature debut, you chose not to star. What made you want to co-star in your second directorial effort?
I never really think to write something for myself because I more frequently act in other people’s work. But when I feel like I can do it the best, then I do it. In this movie, I wanted to play Kieran’s role because that was the more showy, interesting role. But my producers and I thought that with the workload I have [as a director], it’d be too difficult to play a role that has to be so aloof and free-spirited. Kieran is so wonderful that I’m so glad that I didn’t.
How did Kieran Culkin join the movie?
My sister read 20 pages of my script, and she said that there’s only one person in the world that could play this part. I said, “Who?” And she said “Kieran Culkin.” She loves Succession, and I hadn’t seen it. So, I looked it up, and it immediately became clear that he’s just perfect for this because he can bring a sense of humor, as well as an intensity, that makes this character so unknowable.
What went into filming on location in a concentration camp?
It’s a very strange process. We were working with producers who had done a lot of productions that required concentration camps scenes. I had written the script for Majdanek [a concentration camp in Poland], because it’s right next to the town where my family’s from, but we were having trouble. It’s a sacred site, and the people that run it are these young, brilliant academics who have great reverence for history and the site. They don’t want it to be turned into a set of a Hollywood movie. We were looking at budgeting, and it was something like a million dollars to build something like [Majdanek], even for the simple scene that it is. We couldn’t obviously afford that. We opened up a dialogue with the people who run Majdanek, and we were able to explain that the script is written about Majdanek, specifically, and we are not trying to present it as Auschwitz in 1942, we’re trying to present it as Majdanek in 2022. The characters are respecting the place just the way regular tourists would.
Once they understood our intention and once I expressed to them that our filming was totally in accordance with their mission — which is for the current generation to understand what happened on these grounds — [they agreed]. We went back and forth with the script a few times just to get the exact wording right. We had several very sensitive, thoughtful meetings about getting every word right and getting the history correct. It turned into such an unbelievable relationship that we even used voiceover that was written by the young docent with whom we were working.
With two films done now, what are your future directing aspirations?
I already have my next movie, we’re already gearing up. It’s a musical. and we’re in the early stages. I would like to do one [film] a year if I’m allowed.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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