Interview: Director Eric Stoltz Talks All About Helming Feature ‘Class Rank’ – Plus Acting Career Interview Bonus!

Many movie fans know artist Eric Stoltz from his myriad of layered acting roles on the big and small screen, but over the last few year the talented thespian has put his skills to work behind the camera.  Working as a director on hit shows like Glee, Private Practice and Nashville and also finding time to make some standout shorts, Stoltz has carved a name for himself as an adept director. His latest outing sees Stoltz tackling a full-length feature film called Class Rank, a quirky, funny and sweet story about two high school outsiders who find more than they bargain for when they decide to join forces to overtake the local school board.  The film has a killer cast (leads Skyler Gisondo and Olivia Holt are pitch perfect – plus some Bruce Dern action!), a whimsical style and also features rare music and a classical score that really elevates the piece.  I was so excited to highlight and share what is a fantastic early feature film for Stoltz (don’t believe us – it just recently won the Grand Jury Best US Narrative Feature at the illustrious Gasparilla International Film Festival in Tampa Bay, Florida!) that I jumped at the chance to dissect the flick more.  But of course being full a full-on movie geek I had to dig deep into some of his past pictures too, so what follows is some thoughtful chatter all about the charismatic Class Rank, plus a bonus career interview that can now be scratched off my bucket list.  Actor, director, producer and all around talented guy – welcome the awesome…


You’ve helmed quite a few TV shows – what stood out to you about Class Rank that made you want to direct it as a feature film?

Eric Stoltz: Well, it came to me as a feature film script, so the form had already been chosen.  But what stood out to me was the quality of the script – the smart loving kids and the world they live in.  I adored them and wanted to spend some time with them.

You’ve got some wonderful style visual wise that has a quirky and almost whimsical nature (especially in the editing!) – having been at this for so long both in front and behind the camera who would you say were some of your intentional and unintentional influences?

ES: Honestly, I had storyboarded it with a slightly different visual style, but I encountered a few limitations on set that forced my hand into a more Wes Anderson feel, particularly his wonderful film, Rushmore.

The music – which ranges from the perfect opening song by Doris Day Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps to a more classical music score – has a distinctive old school feel that adds another character layer – how did you go about choosing it?

ES: Doris Day came to me as I was imagining the opening sequence.  In the script the story begins in the boardroom, but I wanted to show the town during the credits, with a song that expressed some of the feelings of the film – and that song fit perfectly.  Our score was done by Brian Byrne, who has written music for me on other films and shorts as well, he’s a wonderful Irish composer who has access to an actual symphony no less – nothing is computer programmed!

The students in the film put on a musical adaptation of a famous flick – since it’s never actually seen what do you think a musical adaptation of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket would look like?

ES: Full Musical Jacket!  In the script, it was a musical based on The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brian, but I thought that might be a bit too Rushmore – as well as not being a joke our audience would appreciate as much.  Also Matthew Modine is a pal of mine and the image of him singing and dancing in boot camp made me laugh.

Love the astute yet engaging quality of Skyler Gisondo’s Bernard – how did you and he construct the character to keep him relatable?

ES: He was written as a borderline genius and Skyler played him pitch-perfect.  If anything, I had to pare some of it back so that he wouldn’t put anyone off with his ‘big brain’.

There’s a hidden Where’s Waldo funny background gimmick involving kissing couple throughout various scenes in the film – on purpose?

ES: Oh, our kissing couples are absolutely intentional. I wanted to show that these two kids – who essentially live in their minds – are surrounded by passion that they are clearly not in touch with, or even aware of…yet!

Past work – when you made Fast Times At Ridgemont High did you have any idea the film would not only become so popular but have so much cinematic staying power in terms of being iconic?

ES: Goodness no.  That was my first film – all I was thinking was how lucky I was and how much I loved everyone I was working with. The end result never occurred to me.

When I think of the movie Mask two things hit home right from the get go – the music and the makeup.  Can you talk a bit about the songs in the film (especially Rocky’s affinity for Bob Seger’s Katmandu!) by the likes of Steely Dan, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney, plus what it was like to put on, act and live inside such intense facial makeup?

ES: The music was a big issue, in that Peter Bogdanovich had cut the film using only Bruce Springsteen, but there was an issue with Universal Pictures. I’m not sure how exactly it all went down, but I do know that years later they released a ‘directors cut’ of the film using the Springsteen, which is a terrific version to see. Putting on the makeup was hellish – four hours to apply, 45 minutes to remove, every day. Luckily my makeup man was Zoltan Elek, who won an Academy Award for it.  He’s a Hungarian master magician and wonderful storyteller, which made the time float by.  Most mornings Cher would come in early and we’d talk over the scenes while I was ‘in the chair’, as they called it.  Acting in the make up was difficult as well; I didn’t have the use of my face so much as my body and voice, which was limiting and tricky.

Two-part question for Some Kind of Wonderful – first a big shout out to the intense, realistic and utterly unforgettable kiss between you and Mary Stuart Masterson’s character during the whole practice scene in the film.  (I hate when a kiss looks and feels fake!)  Seeing that the terrific kiss between Class Rank couple Skyler Gisondo and Olivia Holt was as effective what would you say makes for a memorable on-screen kiss?

ES: I think the most important element for a good kissing scene is chemistry – just as in real life.

Second part – out of all the wonderful relationships Keith has in the film (casual one with Masterson’s Watts, antagonistic one with Maddie Corman’s sister Laura and even brewing one with father John Ashton) my favorite was the unusual pairing with Elias Koteas’s tough guy Duncan.  Can you talk about working with Elias and where that relationship fell in terms of growth for the two characters?

ES: I’m fairly certain that Elias came on board with maybe one or two lines, but he was so inventive and lovely that his role grew each week.  We all adored him, and he added a wonderful element to the film – he became a sort of malevolent Jiminy Cricket in the story, helping the lead guy toughen up a bit.

How did all the gory make up effects for The Fly II compare to the previous stuff in Mask and did it help or hinder in terms of your preparation as an actor?

ES: It was much easier in a way – only the second act of the film required that makeup – but it did take six hours a day, so there I was again, restricted.

In The Waterdance you played a person dealing with paralysis from the neck down – what were some of the challenges in not being able to use your body while creating a character?

ES: You know, I never realized till I considered these questions how many roles I’ve played that were so physically challenging…at least in The Waterdance I got to use my face and my arms.  That’s one of my favorite films to have been a part of.

The iconic needle plunging scene in Pulp Fiction – was it as tense as it appears in the finished film?

ES: Not at all, we had a wonderful time making that picture.  We had a few weeks to rehearse it before we started shooting, and we’d all go to dinner and hang out as well.  Just a lovely time – there was a lot of laughter on that set.

What makes Killing Zoe such a wild ride is how discombobulating both the film and the events that happen to your lead character are – what was that film like to shoot?

ES: It was a delight from start to finish – I loved every minute of it, we all had a blast.

You worked early on with Noah Baumbach on both Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy – what was your impression of him as a writer/director back then?

ES: He was a lovely, kind, gentle talented fellow.

Did the fact that six different writers penned various scenes in Sleep With Me pose any new challenges for you as an actor?

ES: It didn’t really, because that was the conceit – six writers taking the same relationships through different stages.  It helped that all the writers were pals with each other and we also had some rehearsal time with that film as well.

Having met on Fast Times and then worked on The Wild Life, Say Anything…, Singles and Jerry Maguire can you describe how Cameron Crowe’s directing style changed and evolved from film to film?

ES: He just gets better and better. He started out with such a deep understanding and love of his characters and with each film he became more technically daring and adept.  I think he’s a modern treasure.

2 Days in the Valley was early in the career of lovely and lethal Charlize Theron – any feeling back then that she would go on to have such a stellar career?

ES: I adored her.  We used to play cards in her room, in between setups.  As usual, I was blissfully unaware of what fate had in store for her, but I’m very pleased that she’s so successful.

What’s next for you?

ES: I’m the producing director of the TV show Madam Secretary, which we hope to continue doing for as long as people are interested in watching a wonderful fantasy about the US Government!


Class Rank has been acquired by Cinedigm for North American Distribution and is set for a May 11, 2018 release so go and check it out!


I'm a passionate and opinionated film critic/movie journalist with over 20 years of experience in writing about film - now exclusively for WhySoBlu.com. Previous sites include nine years at Starpulse.com where I created Forgotten Friday Flick back in 2011, before that as Senior Entertainment Editor for The213.net and 213 Magazine, as well as a staff writer for JoBlo.com. My other love is doing cool events for the regular guy with my company Flicks For Fans alongside my friend, partner and Joblo.com writer James "Jimmy O" Oster. Check us out at www.Facebook.com/FlicksForFans.

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