Henry Poole is done with life. Dealt one blow too many, he lives in solitude, drowning his sorrows in vodka and Krispy Kremes, waiting for death to come. But the caring characters around him—with names like Hope and Dawn and Patience—keep crashing his pity party. So does a stain on his house, a stain that looks a lot like the face of Jesus.
That's the storyline in Henry Poole Is Here, a sweet, quirky and uplifting film opening this week.
That's also, in some ways, the storyline for director Mark Pellington, who suddenly lost his wife four years ago to complications from a ruptured spleen. Pellington (The Mothman Prophecies and music videos for Bruce Springsteen, U2, Pearl Jam, and more) was 42 at the time—and left alone with a 2½-year-old daughter, Isabella. There were days when Pellington wanted to end it all, but Isabella and others who loved him gave him the hope to carry on.
Today, Pellington describes himself as "a changed man." He'll never get over losing his wife at such a young age (she was 42), but says he's graduated from darkness into light—and he wants that to show in his filmmaking. Thus he's doing more positive—and "less nihilistic," he says—music videos and movies, particularly U23D (which he co-directed) and now Henry Poole, based on a script by Albert Torres and starring Luke Wilson. The film, made in 30 days for a modest $7 million, "is a small movie with big ambitions thematically," says Pellington.
We recently chatted with the director about Henry Poole and his own rocky journey.
The film includes themes of hope and redemption in the wake of despair and depression. That's almost your life story, isn't it?
Mark Pellington: I read the script before my wife passed away, and I thought it was charming and funny. But when you go through an event like that, where it really shakes up your beliefs, you're both angry and questioning about all things. So when you decide to reenter the world of work—which has always been a spiritual thing for me, because work and life and art and creation are all kind of the same—you're a different person.
And when you do a movie, it's always a really meaningful task because you invest so much of your soul into it. So when I reread the script, I just thought it spoke to the range of emotions that I wanted to throw into in the making of a movie, as opposed to something nihilistic or really, really dark. I just felt that there was a lot in the script [for a good movie]. The core story was the same as the original script, but we added a lot in the finished film—some ironic, quirky shadings to show the heart and soul of the relationship between the characters who were all experiencing loss in one way, shape or form. That's what interested me, and that's what I could connect to. But in no way is it my story. It's Albert's script and Albert's story. Yet I was able to, as a person and a filmmaker, gravitate toward it because of the characters and Henry's journey.
Albert's original screenplay was called Stain, and in the film, Henry claims that the apparition is just that. So, is it an apparition, or a stain?
Pellington: On one level it is a stain, and on another, it is an appearance. To Esperanza [Henry's Catholic neighbor], it appears to her as the face of Jesus, and to Henry it only appears to just be a water stain. But what was it really? A miracle or a mistake? That's really left up to the audience. That's true of any work of art, or any piece of music—everybody brings their own life experience to it, and with that, their own sense of faith, belief, spirituality, religious inclinations. Everybody brings their own perspective to it.
I'm not Catholic, and I wasn't about to invest my own spiritual or religious beliefs into it. I was telling the story and depicting the characters with just as much honesty and truth as I could. Some people are going to say it's a dogmatic, Catholic film. But that's their opinion. It's art, and any time you get into religion or politics, you're never going to please everyone. We're just trying to tell the story.
So it would be a mistake to call this a religious movie?
Pellington: I think so. But I do think it's a spiritual film. For me, it's about gratitude. It's about the gift of life. It's about the inexorable results—whether you believe in God or not—of the fact that our life path is not always in our control. Things happen, both good and bad, that you can't control, but what you can do is take the moment and take your breath and appreciate that, because it's very precious.
I believe that life is a gift because I got to the point in my despair where I questioned it. My desire to be with someone that I lost at times was greater than my desire to be here. And when you go to that darkest place and come out—at least for me—your profound appreciation for life and its beauty is changed. I can only feel that way because I went through that experience; others who haven't, can't. But you don't have to go through horrible loss like I went through to appreciate the gift of life.
As for religion … When I went through my loss, I garnered strength from Islam, Buddhist books, everywhere. I searched everywhere for light and perspective and anything to hold onto to help me understand. And I found it everywhere. I found it in the daily-ness of life. I found it in my daughter. I found it in reading. I found it in poetry. And I found it in time marching forward and saying, "Wow, if I can get stronger …" The process of making the film was an incredibly healing process.
I would think that making U23D was part of that process as well?
Pellington: Yeah. I've made about eight music videos since my wife passed, and they've all been very healing. Like The Fray, "How to Save a Life." I'm going to do another one for them, and it's totally finding God and being angry at God and being okay with being angry at God. They're great guys. [Editor's note: The Fray's band members are devout Christians.]
Anyway, the opportunity to do the U2 thing was amazing. To be there and feel the incredible emotional power of their music and just the energy and spirit of 80,000 people—at that moment I said, "Music and art and humanity, that's what life is about." I cherish the gift that Bono and the band gave me, the opportunity to experience that, because it definitely helped pull me out and just continue to move forward.
When you were in your darkest days, did you ever shake your fist at God?
Pellington: Sure. I was raised as an Episcopal. When my daughter was 3½, I wanted to get her baptized. I went to my local church and talked with the reverend. I asked, "What's God's perspective about the death of my wife—or any death, really?" I was expecting an answer like, "Well, it's their time, and God loves all of his children and welcomes them all to eternal life." But that's not what she said. She said, "God is angry at the loss of every life." It was really interesting, because she had humanized God. I remember being taken slightly aback.
But even now, four years later, I still wonder, Why does anything happen? I've seen too many other tragedies and other incredibly beautiful things happen, and I realize that's what it's all about. It's the life and death and collision of both, and both are a natural part of our experience on this planet. That's nothing really about the movie, just my own personal perspective.
How would you describe your own spiritual journey?
Pellington: I went to an all-boys' private school [St. Paul's] where we had chapel twice a week, went to church every Sunday, and I was in the choir. I'd think that strong foundation would change my life experience, influence my perspective. But there were times when I would question it. When my father got sick with Alzheimer's when I was about 26, I really did some deeper exploration of death and the acceptance of death. I remember reading Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and going, Okay, let me really understand what death is. And it's not until lose someone that you love that you confront these issues. I was always pretty solid in my value system—the foundation of my emotional, moral, and ethical house, if you will.
Another gift that was given to me through this experience was the gift of sobriety. Maybe that wouldn't have happened if my wife hadn't passed. With the sobriety, then that clarity and understanding and appreciation for life unfold, and all of a sudden you just realize, All right, I'm 46, and this is where I am. And I look at the calendar ahead of me and hope that three weeks, six months, five years from now, I'm here to appreciate both the good times and the bad times.
How has your daughter helped you in the healing process?
Pellington: Oh, my god. The way children see the world, it's profound. You're their protector, and yet, in a way, their innocence and way of seeing the world makes you look at every experience differently. That was a great joy for me. She had development issues—not neurological but some physical things—but she was resilient and strong. Seeing her determination fueled me, and my determination fueled her. And I think we just kind of rose out of a very dark place and became two whole people. And she still has challenges with it and so do I. Grief never leaves; it just changes. You never get over it. But I feel lucky now that I had a wonderful woman who taught me about love for eleven years. There's a lot of people who go through life and never have that.
What was your wife's name?
Speaking of names, names play a significant role in this movie, starting with Patience at the grocery store?
Pellington: And Hope as a neighbor. [The character's name is Esperanza, Spanish for "hope."] And Light.
Pellington: Dawn, the next-door neighbor that Henry kind of falls for.
Ah. I was going to ask if "Dawn" represents a new day?
Pellington: Yes, I think so. After I read the script I said to Albert, "You might get nailed by the critics for the specificity of those names." But he was resolute and said that was the design, it being kind of a fable.
What about Henry? Does "Poole" represent water?
Pellington: No, I don't think so. But there's water imagery in the film, representing a yearning to go back to childhood, the big thematic of the ocean and womb. I'm a Pisces, and water is an extremely protective, nurturing, healing kind of thematic image. But it had nothing to do with the character's name.
When Henry has the water balloon fight with Dawn and her little daughter Millie, he gets drenched and basically gives up the fight and says, "I surrender." Sure seemed like a baptism …
Pellington: Yeah, for sure. Unconsciously yes, but on an archetypical design level. I kind of designed the film with a sequence by sequence manifesto—Hope knocks on Henry's door, Hope persists, Henry pushes Hope away, Hope is unrelenting. That's all in Albert's architecture of the script, and I design everything metaphorically and abstractly on the content of the script, and then design the sequences around their emotional intentions.
What do you want people to take away from Henry Poole?
Pellington: I want them to say, "That made me feel good and positive and hopeful." I want them to realize that there are films that can be small yet make them feel less alone in the world. I think that's a big thing. The poet Rita Dove once said that poetry can make people feel less alone and disconnected from the world. If this film can help in that respect, that would be great.
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