About The Production
"Life is random, but when you finish a puzzle you know you've made all the right
This wistful observation, spoken by one of the competitive jigsaw puzzlers at
the center of
Puzzle, articulates the subtle lure of puzzles in this quietly surprising
character drama. As
explained by PETER SARAF, one of the film's producers, "You think of jigsaw
something incredibly solitary and inward, something that pulls you into a
smaller world, but in
Puzzle, this very solitary activity actually opens up the world for our
Collectively, the filmmakers who bring us Puzzle have opened up the world for
many years with
beguiling stories and complex characters. Puzzle marks the directorial debut of
producer MARC TURTLETAUB, Saraf's partner in Big Beach Productions and also a
producer. Big Beach has produced such acclaimed and popular character-driven
films as Little
Miss Sunshine, Everything Is Illuminated, Away We Go, and Loving. Big Beach
producing Puzzle with Olive Productions' WREN ARTHUR (Submission, Final
Prairie Home Companion) and producer GUY STODEL (Be Kind Rewind, Bastille Day).
Screenwriter OREN MOVERMAN (who shares writing credit with POLLY MANN) adds
Puzzle to his list of distinguished script credits, which include The Dinner,
Time Out of Mind,
Love & Mercy, and The Messenger.
Puzzle is adapted from the Argentine film Rompecabezas (Spanish for puzzle),
NATALIA SMIRNOFF's debut film set in Buenos Aires. Producer Stodel, a former
executive, had long experience identifying foreign films that could click with
audiences; he was charmed by the idea of jigsaw puzzles as an unlikely
instrument of self-discovery,
and saw in Rompecabezas a strong candidate for an English-language adaptation.
"The film's sensibility was very Argentinian, but it had a universal story about
woman who's been underestimated and taken for granted by her family," Stodel
discovers she has this talent for jigsaw puzzling and secretly enters a
competition with a man she
meets through an ad. The puzzles are the catalyst for figuring out her life and
making choices. That's something anybody can identify with."
After acquiring adaptation rights, Stodel teamed up with producer Wren Arthur,
who recalls: "I
fell in love with this character, with her vulnerability and her courage in
trying to figure out who
she was in a roomful of men who weren't really interested in knowing her. It was
a very specific
way to show a woman waking up and reckoning with her life. It's small but it's
hers and it's real.
I'd never done an adaptation before and thought it was a really exciting
In late 2013, Arthur and Stodel began developing the screenplay with Moverman,
Arthur had worked on several projects.
Moverman, who grew up in Israel, was intrigued by the story's heroine, a product
immigrant culture where women tend to husband, home and children, and men are
unchallenged heads of households. "I liked the idea of a woman who finds a way
out of a world
that keeps her very limited when she has all this potential," remarks Moverman.
"And I related to
it from a personal perspective, from the world I grew up in. I thought it was a
opportunity to write a leading female character who has a real voice and
choices that are first and foremost right for her, and not just for the people
in her environment."
Big Beach had actively been seeking a directing project for founding partner
when Moverman's script crossed their door. As Turtletaub recalls, "The story
resonated for me
on a personal level because I grew up in New Jersey with a mother who doted on
and son and didn't really get to live the life that she would have liked in New
York," he explains.
"I wasn't looking for something that connected me to my mother's own story, but
it did do that. I
also love stories about people finding their authentic selves and becoming free.
It's rare to find
one with a female at the center who is past the age of forty, and it's rarer
still to find it in a
screenplay as beautiful as Oren's."
Turtletaub and Moverman were particularly mindful of giving the characters the
full measure of
their humanity and avoiding stereotypes. "We didn't want Agnes to be this
housewife or someone who is mundane or without interests," says Turtletaub. "So,
reveals all these little gems about her as it progresses." Likewise, "We didn't
want her husband
to be a cliched browbeater; instead, we see this big guy who's just unaware.
dimensional characters starts with the writing, really-and Oren is a brilliant
Puzzle introduces Agnes, played with still-waters-run-deep eloquence by KELLY
MACDONALD (T2 Trainspotting, Boardwalk Empire, Goodbye Christopher Robin) on the
afternoon of a birthday party in her home. She moves virtually unnoticed among
quietly serving platters of food and cleaning up messes (although, as we
discover, it's her own
birthday). She's a believer in order and routine: running the household and
tending to husband
and sons as she tended to her widowed father before them; volunteering at
dinner for the family. A birthday gift of an iPhone bewilders her-she's firmly
in the analog
world-but a gift of a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle absorbs her with unexpected
"She's just sort of there in body," says Macdonald, who was intrigued by the
Agnes. "She was married and had children very, very young, probably straight out
school. Her life has been almost pre-ordained. Her character arc was very
appealing in that she
eventually, in her own way, finds herself." Agnes secretly thinks of herself as
her mind silently whirs away beneath her placid exterior, and her flair with
puzzles shifts this
clamped-down part of her persona into gear.
"It was important to us that Agnes not be drawn as a depressed or melancholic
comments Turtletaub. "She is living the life she knows. And then as she
discovers this unique
talent that she has, a door is opened on a world that she didn't know existed."
(Indeed, who knew
that competition jigsaw puzzling is a subculture?)
As Big Beach's Saraf relates: "Kelly McDonald is somebody we've admired for a
time. Whether it's in a comedy or in a drama, in a period piece or a
contemporary piece, she
blows you away. She always brings a sense of true empathy and pathos, and you
can't help but
identify with and fall in love with the characters that she draws. It was such a
day when we got the call that she'd read the script and wanted to be Agnes. We
a more perfect person to play Agnes."
With Macdonald on board, the filmmakers turned their attention to casting the
film's male roles.
As they began creating a list of potential candidates with casting director AVY
Peter Saraf had a flash of inspiration and suggested acclaimed Indian actor
(Life of Pi, Jurassic Park) for the part of Robert, the wealthy puzzle master
Agnes's talent-which outshines his own-treats her without condescension, and
sees her beauty
and strength with fresh eyes. "Irrfan is one of those actors who immediately
draws you in and
you can't take your eyes off him," says Saraf. "I thought about the scene where
Agnes goes to
meet the man who placed the personal ad for a puzzle partner. Wouldn't it be
Irrfan Khan opens the door?"
As it happened, after a number of Bollywood studio films, Khan had been hoping
to find a
smaller, more personal movie. He found it was an irresistible offer. "I was in
love with the script
and its language," he affirms. "Marc sent me his short film, which I loved.
There were great
producers behind it. And Kelly is an extraordinary actor whom I've admired for
combination of factors was very promising and I thought it would be great fun to
do this simple,
Khan found much to explore in Robert, who is at a low point in his life when he
His wife has abruptly left him and he has given up on his career as an inventor,
certain that his
breakthrough discovery is all he will ever be able to achieve. "Robert has
closed his doors to
everybody but he's looking for something to engage him emotionally," Khan
reflects. "I think
that when Agnes comes to his house, he's not ready for a relationship at all.
But he is drawn to
her personality. There's some distinct quality about her, which is very
spontaneous. She has an
intelligence and perceptiveness about the world. When they meet, she is in her
shell, he is in his
shell. Somehow, together, those shells are broken. It's a very sweet love
Turtletaub was delighted with Khan's approach to his character. "Irrfan brings
lightness to Robert, and there's no way you can predict something like that,"
remarks. "There's a famous old director who said, 'Every time I cast an actor,
it's like a little
death,' because the director had an idea how that role should be played. To me,
it's just the
opposite, it's a birth. Every time that we cast one of our actors, it felt like,
'Oh that's a way of
interpreting that character that I never envisioned.' And that was particularly
true of Irrfan. He's
tremendous. And the chemistry between him and Kelly was wonderful."
If Robert falls in love with the unexpected side of Agnes's character, her
husband values her
solid, reliable predictability above all else. Louie, played by DAVID DENMAN, is
auto mechanic whose conception of family is the one he grew up with: the husband
the breadwinner, head of the family and sole decision maker; the wife stays home
and tends to
her husband, children and household.
Comments Denman, "Louie has very strong ideas about what everyone's role in the
should be, and that's worked all right for him for twenty years. He's a good
guy, but there's a lot
he doesn't understand about his wife, a lot he doesn't understand about his
kids. When Agnes
begins standing up for herself and challenging his ideas, it shakes the
foundation of everything
that he's known, everything that they've had and been through. Initially, he's
very defensive and
confused; it doesn't make sense to him. But then he has to regroup and reassess
the situation and
we see him begin to make changes. To portray that journey was exciting to me."
Turtletaub notes that the character of Louie presented certain challenges as a
man who loves his
wife but has also failed to see her fully. "Because he loves Agnes, Louie tries
to change. And as
much as we see his weaknesses, we begin to see a different Louie. David had to
skirt that line of
being unlikeable and very likeable. That's very difficult to do and he did it
Rounding out Agnes' immediate family are BUBBA WEILER as Ziggy and AUSTIN ABRAMS
as Gabe, her sons. Weiler notes that Ziggy has always appreciated and connected
to his mother.
He is heartened by her burgeoning independence. "I think Agnes is Ziggy's best
comments. "They are so in tune with each other and they can read each other's
feelings in a way
that the rest of the family just doesn't. When Ziggy sees Agnes becoming more
coming into herself, it inspires him to do the same thing."
Younger brother Gabe is portrayed as a bit spoiled and cocky-not only does he
fail to lift a
finger around the house, but he expects his mom to prepare a special diet for
his vegan Buddhist
girlfriend at the family dinner table. Still, Abrams found his likeable side:
"Gabe is trying to get
outside of the family, and his girlfriend is helping him open up to new ways of
thinking. Gabe is
aware that his mom is very sheltered and giving her the iPhone is his way of
encouraging her to
do that for herself." (Go Gabe-but no mocking mom's digital illiteracy.)
Puzzle's location shooting, over approximately six weeks in the spring of 2017,
filmed the family
scenes first in Yonkers and then moved into the Manhattan townhouse that serves
posh but strangely hollow habitat. Agnes and her family live in the house where
she grew up
with her father; it hasn't changed in forty-odd years. Robert's mansion is home
to a well-traveled,
wealthy and idiosyncratic individual who is very much alone. Turtletaub sought
distinguish between the two locations through cinematography, lighting and
Describing the strategies employed by director of photography Chris Norr,
"Since much of the action is interior in both places, it becomes a little tricky
individualized looks, but through the way he handled lighting and camera, Chris
different feel between New York and Bridgeport. It's palpable but also subtle.
For example, in
terms of lighting in Bridgeport we used smoke machines to create a sense that
this house has
been here forever, unchanged, and that this family has been frozen in time. You
get the sense in
the beginning of the movie that you're in a different era. When we moved to New
inside the house it was brighter and we tried to accentuate the light
Production designer Roshelle Berliner introduced strong and sometimes surprising
the sets. "Roshelle gave a clear, unexpected feeling about that house,"
"She put up this metallic, reflective wallpaper, which was great for camera. But
it also created an
interesting backdrop for Agnes. So, in the first scene, Agnes could stand
against a wall in a dress
that was similarly patterned and almost get lost. For Robert's house, we took
out most of the
furniture that was in the location to create a sense that it was kind of empty
in his life at that
point, with his wife being gone. We just let the architecture of the house speak
for the isolation
of this man."
Costume designer Mirren Gordon-Crozier created a wardrobe for Agnes that subtly
her emotional journey. At the birthday party that opens the film, Agnes wears a
dress with a print
and silhouette reminiscent of the 1950s; as the film progresses, we see Agnes in
are more colorful and contemporary.
Before they began production, Turtletaub arranged various social events with
Denman, Weiler and Abrams. The actors and the director took a cooking class
together and went
out for meals. Rather than have rehearsals, Turtletaub wanted them all to be
able to talk about the
film, characters and scenes while getting to know each other in comfortable
made a difference, says Denman. "It would have been so much harder to meet
everyone for the
first time on the set. It'd be like 'Say hello to each other ... okay, now become
a family!' Marc
was smart enough to put those situations in place for us to spend time together
and get to know
each other in an organic way. And we all got along really well, immediately."
The actors took advantage of the outdoor space in Yonkers. To Macdonald's
delight, they found
lawn chairs at the location, which they'd set up in the front and gardens. "We
were in heaven
with those chairs. In director's chairs, you've got to sit upright way up high.
I'm quite short so I
have to climb up a step to get into one. With a lawn chair, it's much more
sociable," she laughs.
"When we were done, I waved my family goodbye and went off to Manhattan to do my
As singular as Agnes is, her story speaks to something universal. Says Saraf, "I
think that idea of
following your heart, of following your passion, and allowing yourself to be
happy is something
that will resonate with people."
Says Macdonald, "Everybody's got their special gift, I believe. And not
everybody is fortunate
enough to find it or to recognize as a gift. Because it's a simple thing, jigsaw
puzzling, it's not
like the theory of everything or something that's going to change the world. But
changes a few lives in the time that we see her in the film. She changes
everybody in her life and
changes her life."
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