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How Kieran Culkin and Jesse Eisenberg argued and grieved their journey through ‘real pain’

When he got to shoot his new movie Real pain, Jesse Eisenberg realized that he and his teammate, Kieran Culkin, it didn’t work quite the same. Eisenberg was embarking on his second feature film as a director and the first in which he would also star; Culkin starred in his first role since concluding the four-season run on HBO Sequence, fresh on this creative level. Eisenberg spent months working on the shot list for their extensive Polish shoot with a cinematographer Michal Dymek (EO). He precisely planned the marks and blocking of each scene. Much of it ended up being scrapped. «Kieran is an unusual actor—he works really, really well as a spontaneous actor,» says Eisenberg.

«On Sequence we did the whole scene maybe seven or eight times and then that was it. It was set at 12 and take 40-something. I’m like, ‘What is that?'» Culkin adds with a laugh. “I felt like I was just making a fuss out of nothing. He put me in the left seat and I was like, ‘Why did you choose that for me?’ I was just being annoying.’

Listening to Culkin and Eisenberg helps explain their exceptionally prickly chemistry Real pain, which premieres at Sundance on Saturday. The pair deliver some of their most distinctive and funniest performances on screen as cousins ​​at very different stages of their lives who travel to Poland together to honor their late grandmother. They join a tour that allows them to bicker and reminisce about the trip—with an audience of fellow tourists in tow—while confronting their own intergenerational trauma, visiting the Majdanek concentration camp and later their grandmother’s house.

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The origins of the screenplay are threefold: a short story that Eisenberg published and tried to adapt about two boys who drift apart while on vacation in Mongolia; a play he wrote following his own impressive visit to Poland; and an online ad he came across that seemed to tie it all together: «Auschwitz Lunch Tours.»

Eisenberg in the Majdanek concentration camp, taken by his wife Anna Stroutová during their trip to Poland.

«It’s just a strange irony of being an upper-middle-class American Jew in the suburbs traveling to Auschwitz and still needing to have some creature comforts that you’ve come to expect while traveling,» says Eisenberg. «I thought it was such a fascinating, ironic, dramatic and also profound juxtaposition between trying to explore the horrors of your family history and being able to sit first class on a train and stay at the Radisson.»

This is a tricky tonal balance that Eisenberg strikes Real pain, although the production went and shot in places of deep horror. «My main goal was to make a non-secular film against the backdrop of the Holocaust,» says Eisenberg. “I don’t like the glorifying tone of these stories about touchy subjects – it turns me on creatively, not because I think they’re doing anything wrong. It’s just not my taste.» So we have Eisenberg’s David, living the yuppie life in New York City, clashing with Culkin’s Benji, a kind of drifter whose wit masks immense sadness. Their dynamic rings true and cleverly anchors the film’s larger questions about suffering, guilt and luxury.

Many of these deeper emotional components come from Eisenberg’s own experience in Poland, factoring in his family and cultural history. The film could be shot in the country thanks to the work of the producer Ali Herting, whose association with the team stands Zone of interest brought them to the Polish company Extreme Emotions. “The house that my family fled from in 1938—we actually had cameras in it for this beautiful shot of the two main characters leaving this small town,” says Eisenberg.

Then there is the matter of the tour experience, which is disturbingly familiar to anyone who has traveled abroad in this kind of organized temporary social circle. Jennifer Grey plays one of the people on the city tour with Benji and David White lotus‘with Will Sharpe plays their guide. «You’re experiencing these big things on a personal level, and then you’re also sharing this kind of special social dynamic with new people who are outsiders,» Eisenberg says. Sharpe actually went a bit by the method of playing tour guide, learning the ins and outs of the places his character represented. «There’s a lot of improvisation on his part, and people would ask him questions — and he’d actually have an answer, which was very impressive,» says Culkin. “It felt like we were on tour.



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