“Life is random, but when you finish a puzzle you know you’ve made all the right choices.”
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 puzzling as 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 heroine.”
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 longtime producer MARC TURTLETAUB, Saraf’s partner in Big Beach Productions and also a Puzzle 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 collaborates on producing Puzzle with Olive Productions’ WREN ARTHUR (Submission, Final Portrait, A 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), writer/director NATALIA SMIRNOFF’s debut film set in Buenos Aires. Producer Stodel, a former acquisitions executive, had long experience identifying foreign films that could click with American 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 a middle-aged woman who's been underestimated and taken for granted by her family,” Stodel explains. “She 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 relationships 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 opportunity.”
In late 2013, Arthur and Stodel began developing the screenplay with Moverman, with whom Arthur had worked on several projects.
Moverman, who grew up in Israel, was intrigued by the story’s heroine, a product of traditional immigrant culture where women tend to husband, home and children, and men are the 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 wonderful opportunity to write a leading female character who has a real voice and ultimately makes 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 Marc Turtletaub 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 her husband 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 browbeaten housewife or someone who is mundane or without interests,” says Turtletaub. “So, the film reveals all these little gems about her as it progresses.” Likewise, “We didn’t want her husband to be a clichéd browbeater; instead, we see this big guy who’s just unaware. Creating fully dimensional characters starts with the writing, really—and Oren is a brilliant writer.”
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 her guests, 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 church; cooking 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 delight.
“She’s just sort of there in body,” says Macdonald, who was intrigued by the self-effacing Agnes. “She was married and had children very, very young, probably straight out of high 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 a mathematician; 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 character,” 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 really long 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 wonderful, exciting day when we got the call that she'd read the script and wanted to be Agnes. We couldn’t imagine 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 KAUFMAN, Peter Saraf had a flash of inspiration and suggested acclaimed Indian actor IRRFAN KHAN (Life of Pi, Jurassic Park) for the part of Robert, the wealthy puzzle master who recognizes 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 extraordinary if 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 years. The combination of factors was very promising and I thought it would be great fun to do this simple, beautiful movie.”
Khan found much to explore in Robert, who is at a low point in his life when he meets Agnes. 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 story.”
Turtletaub was delighted with Khan’s approach to his character. “Irrfan brings an unexpected lightness to Robert, and there’s no way you can predict something like that,” the director 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 a hard-working auto mechanic whose conception of family is the one he grew up with: the husband is 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 family 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 beautifully.”
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 friend,” he 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 confident and 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 as Robert’s 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 to distinguish between the two locations through cinematography, lighting and production design.
Describing the strategies employed by director of photography Chris Norr, Turtletaub recalls: “Since much of the action is interior in both places, it becomes a little tricky to create individualized looks, but through the way he handled lighting and camera, Chris achieved a 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 York City, inside the house it was brighter and we tried to accentuate the light differently.”
Production designer Roshelle Berliner introduced strong and sometimes surprising elements to the sets. “Roshelle gave a clear, unexpected feeling about that house,” Turtletaub comments. “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 tracks with 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 separates that are more colorful and contemporary.
Before they began production, Turtletaub arranged various social events with Macdonald, 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 circumstances. It 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 scenes with Irrfan.”
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 Agnes certainly changes a few lives in the time that we see her in the film. She changes everybody in her life and changes her life.”