Jules Director Marc Turtletaub on Ben Kingsley, Aliens, and Independent Film


Marc Turtletaub has produced some of the best independent films over the last 25 years. He’s responsible for hits like Little Miss Sunshine, Safety Not Guaranteed, The Farewell, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Turtletaub steps behind the camera as a director for only the third time in Jules, a sci-fi comedy loaded with heart. Sir Ben Kingsley stars as Milton, an aging widower with dementia. A spaceship crashes into his backyard, and he discovers a diminutive injured alien by the smashed azaleas. Instead of being afraid and suspicious, Milton nurses the alien back to health.

He doesn’t keep it a secret. His elderly neighbors, the loving Sandy (Harriet Sansom Harris) and feisty Joyce (Jane Curtin), soon get involved. They name the alien Jules and try to help it find a way home.

The obvious first question to such a prolific and successful producer was why direct the film. Turtletaub says a “great screenplay” is “hard to find.” He wants a “meaningful story” with “something to say” that is “one of a kind.” Turtletaub extolls the virtues of his truly distinguished cast, joking that Oscar-winner Sir Ben Kingsley is “going to have a pretty good career.” Turtletaub does not believe in rehearsing. His actors are “consummate professionals” and “you get out of their way.” He continues that directors “get too much credit.”

Jules has a familiar look. Turtletaub takes his production design from classic science fiction like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Flash Gordon. He focuses on themes of companionship and empathy. Jules, who never speaks, is “the perfect listener” for lonely characters who need “a connection.” The film has a hilarious subplot regarding cats that honestly may offend some audiences in an easily triggered world. Turtletaub hopes that people see the humor as “wildly inventive and funny.”

Our wide-ranging interview touched on many fascinating topics. Turtletaub makes a direct plea to see Jules in a theater and “spread the word if you love the film.” Independent movies depend on “word of mouth.”

Milton’s Surprise Guest

Ben Kingsley and the alien in Jules
Bleecker Street

MovieWeb: You’ve had a prolific career as a producer, but this is only your third turn as a director. Why get behind the camera for Jules?

Marc Turtletaub: Whenever I read a screenplay — and they’re hard to find, these great ones — I look for something which is meaningful. It’s got something to say, but also has to be entertaining. Then most importantly, it’s got to be one of a kind. It’s got to be something I haven’t seen before. When I read the screenplay, there ain’t going to be two of these in the next five years. This is one of a kind.

MW: We become invisible to society the older we get. Milton, Sandy, and Joyce seem to be lonely. Do you agree that companionship is a primary theme of the film?

Marc Turtletaub: As we get older, we need even more. We need connection. We’ve all gone through COVID and the years of being separated. It just brought up for us how important it is to have face-to-face. Connection with people is so critical. The movie is really about the perfect listener, a four foot, 11 inch alien that listens better than anyone in our life could listen.

MW: Ben Kingsley is a chameleon. I never know what to expect. Milton has this look behind his eyes. He wants to formulate words without embarrassing himself, or maybe look foolish. Talk about getting that performance from Sir Ben.

Marc Turtletaub: I think we get too much credit as directors. I think this Kingsley guy is going to have a pretty good career (laughs). When you work with actors like Ben Kingsley, Harriet Sansom Harris, Jane Curtin, Zoey Winters, and Jade Quon, you work with consummate professionals. You get out of their way.

Marc Turtletaub: One of the things that I learned over time as a director is not to rehearse. Let them perform the way they have envisioned. There’s always an opportunity after one or two takes to try it a little bit differently. What you see in the movie is Sir Ben, and each of these actors, largely bringing to the set what they came with.

Related: Best Ben Kingsley Movies, Ranked

MW: When you first see Jules, there’s fear because you don’t understand what’s going on in Milton’s backyard. Talk about that transition from initial uncertainty to humor.

Marc Turtletaub: It’s ambiguous in the beginning. You’re not quite sure if we should be afraid. Our history of thinking about aliens is — they have long fingernails, and they’re coming for us. Preconceptions have to be undone, if you will. That’s a big part of it. Another part of it is, is this all in his imagination? I don’t know if that occurred to you. A number of people have said to me, is this all part of his dementia? Then Sandy comes, and sees Jules in that wonderful moment. This is a real alien sitting on his couch and eating apples.

MW: Jules looks like our common pop culture perception of aliens. Please discuss designing the character and the actress that portrays it.

Marc Turtletaub: Jade Quon is her name. Jade is a stunt actor and does stunt doubles for many movies. She’s a consummate professional. This is a unique role for her because now, she’s in the center of the movie.

Marc Turtletaub: I wanted it to feel like a classic 1950s or 60s movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Flash Gordon, or something from that era. So the ship is a classic science fiction ship, colored and shaped like we would have seen 70 years ago. The alien is a classic alien. The only difference is it’s a real person. It’s not a ball on a stick. When Sir Ben signed on to do the movie, he said, “Am I going to be acting opposite a stick and a ball?” No, you’re going to be acting opposite Jade Quon. That makes a difference, because there’s something to play off.

Jules Is the Perfect Listener

Jules 2023 movie cast
Bleecker Street

MW: Jules moves the entire storyline without saying anything. Talk about getting that physical performance. A lot of it is in the eyes. You get this feeling that it’s not threatening. It wants to help these people.

Marc Turtletaub: You’re absolutely right. It is in the eyes. That’s something you can only get from a real performer. I remember at least one, maybe two of the actors said to me, “I could get lost in her eyes.” That’s exactly what you want. You want them to get lost. Just like the audience can get lost watching this creature […] It allows the viewer to participate in the movie. There’s a great filmmaker who said, “I’m not interested in any movie in which the audience doesn’t participate in the creation.” That’s what Jules allows you to do.

MW: Was there any thought of having Jules speak?

Marc Turtletaub: No, it was baked into the screenplay. She’s a lank cipher. We get to interpret what’s being said. That’s what’s so beautiful about it. They can open up because she’s not responding. So as a result, these people get the perfect listener. They can reveal things that they have revealed to no one.

Related: Jules Review: Everyone Needs This Alien Bestie

MW: We live in a sensitive world. There’s triggers all over the place. The thing with cats, I laughed myself unto the floor. People love their cats. Do you think that will turn off some audiences?

Marc Turtletaub: I hope not. We can’t give it away. It’s all done with humor. The movie is wildly inventive and funny. Most people really love it for the humor. It’s obviously not serious. And yet, it’s about something serious. That’s the perfect combination. If you look back at movies, like Little Miss Sunshine, they’re ridiculously funny. But underneath, there’s a message of, “Do what you love and forget the rest. Don’t worry about the results.”

MW: This film comes out with the Pentagon releasing all of this classified information. UFO hearings are in the news. Do you believe aliens exist? And if so, do you think they’re anything like humans?

Marc Turtletaub: Well, I’m not an expert (laughs). But I do believe that there’s life out there. I can’t imagine that with this many billions and trillions of galaxies, that there’s no life forms out there. What they’re like, I have no idea. I would hope they’re like Jules.

Alien in the movie Jules with Ben Kingsley
Bleecker Street

MW: What is the best and worst day for you as director of Jules?

Marc Turtletaub: Can I be honest with you? I did not have a worst day. No one argued. This is an independent movie. People are in it for the right reason. They’re not there for a big payday. They’re not getting paid enormous amounts of money. They’re doing it because they love the story. They love the screenplay. There was a challenging scene or two, some of which I cut out of the movie.

Marc Turtletaub: You watch moments in the movie that you never anticipated. There were many of those. That’s why I don’t rehearse. Those great actors are going to do something I’m not expecting. I can just give you a perfect example. There’s a moment where Harriet Harris is on the couch. She first sees Jules and she’s completely flabbergasted. Milton’s just very matter of fact. He’s just sitting on the couch. It loves apples. It’s ridiculously funny. Every day there was something being brought by each of those actors that I wasn’t expecting. That makes it a great day.

MW: The hated ‘other’ and unknown seems to be always vilified in our divided times. Milton, Sandy, and Joyce accept and protect Jules. Is empathy an underlying theme?

Marc Turtletaub: Yes, absolutely, that’s spot on. There is somebody coming from another planet, not a creature with long fingernails coming to get us. There’s a line which is beautiful, Milton says, “He’s from a faraway planet. It would be far scarier for him to be here, than for us to be afraid of him.” I think that’s one of the points of the movie. There is a tolerance, defending, and a caring about this alien from some other place.

Tolerance and Compassion for the Unknown

MW: We’re having this interview during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike. You’ve supported creatives for the last 25 years. What can you say to the industry and our audience about the strike?

Marc Turtletaub: I wish I could give you the insight from being part of these negotiations or non-negotiations. These are real issues for the actors, and it impacts not just the actors. There’s going to be a screening in New York for the crew of the movie. They’re coming out to see this movie for the first time. They’re all impacted. The people that do the hair, make-up, prosthetics, artwork, the grips that move the dollies, the people that build the tracks the camera slides on, all of those folks are impacted by this strike. We forget about that. It’s not just the actors and writers. It’s everyone. It impacts everybody’s livelihood. These are big issues. AI, residuals, this is stuff that’s been looming out there for several years now. This is the time to address it.

Marc Turtletaub: I have one request. Please put the word out to any of your viewers who go to the movie. If you love Jules, please spread the word. We’re going to be in theaters all over the country starting this weekend. So if you see it, and you love it, spread the word, because these independent movies depend on word of mouth. Thank you.

Jules will have an August 11th theatrical release from Bleecker Street.

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