The Cake Eaters, screening this week at Facets Cinematheque, is a quirky, small town drama that explores the lives of two interconnected families as they confront old ghosts and discover love in the face of devastating loss. Written by Jayce Bartok and directed by Mary Stuart Masterson, The Cake Eaters stars Kristen Stewart (from the hit film Twilight), Bruce Dern, and Elizabeth Ashley.
Susan Doll spoke with scriptwriter Jayce Bartok about the film, its production and much more, exclusive to Facets Features.
Who Is Jayce Bartok?
After appearing in numerous films and television shows as an actor, most notably Richard Linklater’s Suburbia, John Frankenheimer’s Andersonville, Tom McCarthy’s The Station Agent, and Georgia Lee’s Red Doors, Jayce Bartok was inspired to write and direct Stricken, a short film starring former Disney star and Baby Boomer favorite Hayley Mills. Eager to embark on a larger project, he produced and directed with wife Tiffany Bartok, Altered By Elvis, an award-winning, feature-length documentary about lives permanently changed, for better or worse, by the King of Rock ‘n Roll. The Cake Eaters is Bartok’s deeply personal feature screenplay debut. It premiered at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival and has since won several jury and audience awards at film festivals all over the world. Bartok’s latest screenplays, Livingston Avenue, Tiny Dancer (dir. Jackson Gay), and Dream Country (dir. Will Geiger), adapted from the best-selling novel by Luanne Rice, are currently in development. Bartok is also stepping into the role of director with his recent screenplay, Red River, a dark thriller set in Wisconsin.
Bartok’s wife, Tiffany, helps out with finding funding and with producing chores. After receiving her BFA in Theater from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Tiffany Bartok moved to NYC and worked as a makeup artist on various film productions. Inspired to make a film, she embarked on her first directing venture, Altered By Elvis, which won Best Documentary at the 2006 California Independent Film Festival. She co-founded Vinyl Foote Productions based in Brooklyn, which is dedicated to producing independent content. She recently directed the short film Little Pumpkin, which is currently playing at film festivals all over the world, including SXSW ‘09. She is Head of Development at Vinyl Foote Productions whose slate of upcoming films includes projects with directors Melissa Joan Hart and Will Geiger.
Interview with Jayce Bartok
Facets: As an actor, what prompted you to start writing screenplays? And, does being an actor make it easier to shop scripts to potential producers?
Jayce Bartok (JB): I was always interested in writing, loved great authors like Flannery O’Conner, William Faulkner, and John Cheever. But it was my mom, LeAnn Bartok – a painter, sculptor, and filmmaker – who always said I should write a script. I had just gone through a really painful period after the loss of my mom, and decided I wanted to finally fulfill her suggestion that I write. So I started sketching out these characters on a yellow legal pad. I wrote the first draft in Word!
Being an actor, I have made a lot of friends with some amazingly talented people on the creative side and it’s helped me understand what parts would appeal to actors. I think my background helped because talent was receptive to the roles.
On the producer front, I think there were some producers that knew my work as actor, but overall, I did encounter the “no unsolicited manuscripts” at first. So being an actor didn’t really help. But I just passionately believed in the story and these characters, and persisted.
Facets: The Cake Eaters is your first screenplay for a feature film. What were the difficulties of the first-time scriptwriter?
JB: Well, on the business side, it’s really hard to get your work read. My wife, Tiffany (who I produce with), did crazy things. We chased after Christopher Walken at a Q&A, accosted Kyra Sedgewick in a bathroom. You have to try everything. My friend, Frank Whaley, said I could say he was directing so I could get agents to read it.
Once the script got optioned for the first time and the script went into its first development phase, it was easier to get known companies to read it. But they all read it, and were like, “We really like this. But it’s the kind of script we would have produced when we were first starting out….thanks.”
On the creative front, I learned so much about rewriting. I had no idea there would be SO much. I think I was really protective of the written word and turn of phrase at first. I thought I was a playwright! I had no idea scriptwriting is all about rewriting and the word is expendable. Boy, did I learn that the hard way.
Facets: How did you get this produced? And how did Mary Stuart Masterson get involved? Being an actor, were you looking for an actor to direct? What are the advantages of an actor directing?
JB: The Cake Eaters got produced in a very roundabout way. The script got optioned after I did a staged reading in LA. I came back to NYC, and a new company decided to take a chance on it. We tried for a year and a half to raise the money but never could. It was very frustrating watching the project get so close then fall apart.
Then, I got a call out of the blue from an old acquaintance saying she and a friend were starting a production company, and they were looking for a small indie film to produce, and they had money behind their company. Miraculously, the company, 57th and Irving, optioned the script! Then we needed a director.
My agent, David Lewis, is also Mary Stuart’s agent so he suggested I send the script to her. I always admired her acting work and thought she would be the right fit for this small-town story. I also loved the idea of an actor directing this very actor-centric piece. I knew that an actor/director would be able to draw out amazing performances.
At first, Mary Stuart thought we were offering her a part in the film because of a miscommunication. But then, once she knew we wanted her to direct, the project came together quickly.
Facets: Why this subject matter? What does this subject mean to you?
JB: My mom was confined to a wheelchair for the last few years of her life, and when I started to write, I was interested in a character that was trapped physically but emotionally had this raging desire to live. I didn’t want to write something strictly autobiographical so I started writing about a teenager, Georgia, who is suffering from a neurological disorder but desperately wants to find love before her situation gets worse.
I stumbled upon FA – Friedreich’s Ataxia – at the NY Public Library of all places. It was similar to the ataxia-like symptoms my mom suffered from, but I never heard of it. I thought the condition seemed mysterious, deserved attention, and wouldn’t come with any preconceived notions.
The rest of the characters grew out of my experiences growing up in Pennsylvania. The two families appeared that were interconnected, and these three love stories woven between them started to define themselves. It was a lot of story at first and hard to focus.
In general, I was trying to write something about loss, suffering, and love. The title The Cake Eaters hinges upon this. Over the course of a few days, this group of misfits that don’t have love find their “cake” – at last, they get something. The term “cake eaters” is one I grew up with in Pennsylvania. It means those who have their lives mapped out for them, they live in the big house on the hill, are destined to grow up and be lawyers and doctors…The Cake Eaters.
Facets: What did the actors bring to your characters that you didn’t know was there when you wrote them, especially veterans Elizabeth Ashley and Bruce Dern?
JB: Bruce Dern is amazing! Bruce doesn’t rehearse. It was so exciting and daunting working with him not only as a writer, but then as an actor. He adds so much amazing stuff. He is electric.
I remember the first day of shooting – it’s the bar scene in the film where the three men get together and have a beer – there was this pause in the scene. My character, Guy, was working through some things and Bruce’s character, Easy, just reached across the table and grabbed my hand. “It’s okay,”he says. It was this amazing unscripted moment. I got all emotional.
Elizabeth Ashley as well. I’ve always admired her work. She has that wonderful voice. She is from the theater and the opposite of Bruce, loves to rehearse and to know what she is doing. So it was interesting to watch the two of them work. They met somewhere in the middle. They have amazing chemistry.
Facets: What do you think of the current state of the film industry, especially big studio films vs. the indies?
JB: The film industry is in a state of major flux right now. It’s sad to see the major studios shuttering their indie arms, but at the same time, I think it’s empowering filmmakers and producers to self-distribute their films….taking the destiny of their projects into their own hands again to take them to the audience, like traveling road shows without the interference or apathy of the studios. We are doing this with The Cake Eaters.
After premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival and playing over 60 film festivals, we still didn’t have distribution but knew we had a film that audiences loved. Then with Kristen Stewart’s massive success in Twilight, we had the opportunity to put the film out and decided to do it ourselves. It’s very exciting to see the film finally get out there, and also to see how we will fair in the marketplace doing it ourselves.
The Cake Eaters runs Friday, March 13 – Thursday, March 19 at Facets Cinematheque. Visit the Cinematheque online for tickets, additional info and more.