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Good Neighbors: Bringing Humor Back to Noir

Setting his latest film in 1995 allowed Jacob Tierney to avoid cell phones and the DNA-spoiled world of CSI. And then he turned up the black comedy.

Good Neighbors
Scott Speedman, Emily Hampshire, Jay Baruchel / courtesy Magnolia Pictures


With so many action movies and shoot-em-ups and 3D extravaganzas on the cinematic landscape, it’s nice to find some respite with a good old-fashioned noir, one focused on characters in one charismatic location. That’s what you’ll find in Jacob Tierney’s latest, Good Neighbors.


Based on Québécoise author Chrystine Brouillet’s first novel Chère Voisine, Good Neighbors centers on a character-filled apartment building in the Notre Dame de Grace neighborhood of Montreal, where a serial killer has been terrorizing local women. As the film opens, two of the building’s residents—Spencer (Scott Speedman), a young widower in wheelchair, and Louise (Emily Hampshire), a waitress devoted to her cats—meet their new neighbor, Victor (Jay Baruchel), an eager to please schoolteacher. As their at-times-awkward friendship develops, tensions mount, secrets and jealousies rear their ugly heads, and Louise’s cats become as imperiled as the neighborhood’s young women. To give away more would be a crime; suffice it to say, there are delightful jolts around every ominous corner.


Tierney is a friend of Tribeca, as his previous film The Trotsky played at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, and was subsequently distributed by Tribeca Film. (Interestingly, The Trotsky also featured Baruchel and Hampshire.) It was a pleasure to catch up with Tierney recently, and find out what prompted him to bring humor back to the noir genre.


Good Neighbors
Director Jacob Tierney, Producer Kevin Tierney / courtesy Magnolia Pictures

Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story?

Jacob Tierney: It was the book, truthfully. It was a book that I read in high school, and I just loved it. Actually, when I was 17, it was the first script I ever tried writing. I always loved noir and black comedies, so there was just something about it that appealed to me right away. I’ve never been able to shake that book.


Tribeca: Was it a really popular book in Canada?


Jacob Tierney: No, no. Well, I mean she’s a very well-known writer in Quebec—she’s a French writer—but this was her first book, so by the time I read it, it was already 15 years old, and it was given to me by a teacher.


Tribeca: Is this your first film adaptation? And can you talk about your book-to-screenplay adaptation process? How similar is it to the book? I understand you made a few slight changes…


Jacob Tierney: Spencer’s name is Roland in the book; that’s the most significant change I made. I hated the name Roland.


But my first film was based on Oliver Twist—pretty loosely, though—so I guess this is kind of my second adaptation. I wrote this script super quickly. It was a book that I’d lived with for years and years and years and knew super well. But books are not movies; they move at a different pace, and the way information is doled out is completely different.


Good Neighbors
Scott Speedman / courtesy Magnolia Pictures


I remember at one point, being halfway through the script, and being like, “I feel like I’ve written myself into a corner here.” I went back to the book to read it again, and I realized it was no longer helpful to me. I’d done things in a different order than she’d done them, like the way that information gets revealed [in the book]—through interior monologue, etc.—none of which, obviously, I’d used. So it’s really about thinking through the plot, and thankfully, her plot was very well structured; I knew the events that had to happen.


And then I really wrote it for these three actors, so hearing their voices kind of guided me through the rest of it.


Tribeca: In the book, is it told in first-person from each person’s perspective?


Jacob Tierney: It’s kind of a wandering, omniscient narrator—you go into everybody’s brain; you get to hear everyone’s thoughts.


Tribeca: So that’s helpful?


Jacob Tierney: It’s also not helpful, in terms of what I’m doing: just because she thought something in page 5, doesn’t mean I can put it in page 5 in my script. It actually belonged on page 40… I think the most natural transition for film are short stories, because then you get to expand instead of contract. At a certain point, you can’t be [too] attached to the book, but yet the goal is to keep the spirit alive, especially when it’s a book that you love, which was the case for me.


Tribeca: You changed the location and the timeframe?


Jacob Tierney: Yeah, it was set in the early 80s in Quebec City, and I moved it to the mid-90s in Montreal. Partly because I don’t know Quebec City that well… But the reason that I set it in that neighborhood in Montreal—Notre Dame de Grace—was because Quebec City is so much smaller: if there was a serial killer in Quebec City, it would scare the whole city. But if there was a serial killer in Montreal, it kind of wouldn’t; it would depend where he was. So if you put in a neighborhood… I wanted Montreal to feel small in that way. I also wanted every street to feel abandoned, to feel as isolated and cold as possible.


Good Neighbors
Jay Baruchel / courtesy Magnolia Pictures


Tribeca: Not knowing anything about Canada, NDG felt like its own town to me.


Jacob Tierney: Which is perfect. Because it might as well be, you know? I feel like New York is so neighborhoody…


Tribeca: So as if there was a serial killer in my small neighborhood of Brooklyn…


Jacob Tierney: Exactly.


Tribeca: You also set it in a time before DNA was everywhere, and before cell phones.


Jacob Tierney: I could never write CSI; I don’t know how they do that. I feel like you would need a bio-engineering degree to write stuff like that. I also feel like that kind of information is the death of noir—it’s no fun when there is too much information available. And yeah, part of the attraction of 1995 was that I didn’t have to deal with cell phones, Facebook, etc. It’s too easy to find information about people now; I like it when you have to learn about people from what they tell you.


Tribeca: Who are some of your influences as a director?


Jacob Tierney: In terms of noir, there’s no doubt that it’s Hitchcock. I watched a lot of Hitchcock as a kid, and I loved those movies. And what I loved best about them was that they were funny, they made me laugh. Hitchcock is so mean-spirited, and his humor is so black. And contemporary? The movie that I can recall making me feel like noir was alive again was Shallow Grave. What a movie, which I loved loved loved when it came out. I think I saw that in the theaters like 4 times. I could not get a bigger kick out of that movie.


Good Neighbors
Emily Hampshire / courtesy Magnolia Pictures


I think at a certain point, humor was sucked out of noirs, and they became thrillers. The kind of psychosexual, misogynistic thrillers in the 80s—women went from being glamorous and awesome in those movies to being crazy, batshit villainesses. What I liked about this book and the idea of it was that I could do something really different with women in noir. What always appealed to me about the story was Louise. She’s such an interesting character, and you don’t see women playing that role—of the protagonist—and forcing the two men in the story to react to what she’s doing, as opposed to the other way around. That’s what I thought was the opportunity to do something different here.


Tribeca: Can you talk about finding that apartment building? I understand you didn’t really film in the real apartments within the building, but it feels like you did.


Jacob Tierney: Basically, that apartment was casting. I needed that apartment building to do a lot of things. We always knew we would build the interiors, but we knew they had to match the exteriors—windows, I knew I needed two fire escapes on the outside, in the front—there were very particular things I knew I needed. And also, 70% of the movie is in that apartment building. So finding that apt was amazing, and it was just down the street from where Jay lived, and I knew it would make him so happy to be able to go home for lunch, like an elementary school student. [laughs]


Tribeca: The apartment definitely does feel like a lead character—it reminded me of Rosemary’s Baby, or Single White Female.


Jacob Tierney: Anytime you are setting a movie so specifically in one place—I mean, it’s ultimately a chamber piece: 3 people in 3 apartments—that’s going to be so crucial. Almost as crucial, to be fair, as shooting the interiors in a studio, because real apartments are so small—it limits so much of the way you could film them. I really needed to fly walls away, and I like shooting in long lenses.


Good Neighbors
Scott Speedman, Jay Baruchel / courtesy Magnolia Pictures


Tribeca: Will you ever work with cats again?


Jacob Tierney: [laughs] Maybe. Maybe… I don’t know how many times I have to learn this lesson, but a buddy of mine and I went to a film festival years ago, and we watched 20 Truffaut movies in 4 days. We saw an afternoon double bill of The Man Who Loved Women, and Day for Night, and The Man Who Loved Women begins with this cat sequence. And then Day for Night begins with a director trying to get a cat to do fucking anything. My buddy called me after he saw Good Neighbors and said, “Did that not make an impact? What were you thinking?” So maybe, like Truffaut, I’ll make a joke out of a cat movie sometime… Let’s just say I do not imagine I will be so animal-focused in the future.


Tribeca: Can you talk about the rest of your cast? When I saw [indie auteur] Xavier Dolan’s name, I was like whoa! What’s the artistic scene like in Montreal? You know all these people.


Jacob Tierney: Yeah, we are all friends. I met Xavier at the Toronto Film Festival, when he had his first film there and I was there with The Trotsky. He had told me one day, “I love acting, and no one ever wants to cast me.” So I was like, I’ll see if he wants to do this, and he was super happy to do it.


Montreal is full of cool people. Especially in a film like this that’s very focused on the 4 main characters, for the smaller roles, I always just call people and say, “You want to do 2 days on my movie? Luckily, I live in a city where people are game, and they want to have fun, and they are happy to help each other out.


Good Neighbors is now playing. Find tickets.


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