When Thomas Jane, Mark Pellington, Rob Lowe, and Jeremy Piven made the junket rounds to promote their new film, I Melt With You, the conversation took an interesting turn. It quickly went from exchanging pleasantries to the exploration of what it means to be a man in America. It was fitting because for the actors to slip into character, and for Pellington to direct, they had to do some serious self-examination to translate the heady script. I Melt With You is no ordinary tale of four men on a vacation from their lives. It’s a bold look at topics that generally go unnoticed in mainstream film. The cast and director spoke openly about the brave screenplay and what drew them to it.

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For Mark Pellington, I Melt With You came out of nowhere. He revealed how the film was an unexpected but wanted labor of love.

Mark Pellington: My friend Glenn Porter wrote the script about four years ago and I was really getting frustrated by waiting for a movie to get green lit. It’s really frustrating getting movies made. I said, ‘How do I increase my odds of getting a movie made?’ The answer is, by doing something really cheap and doing something that was contained. I remembered the script. [Porter] came out and we spent about two weeks adjusting it. He had watched a French film called La Grand Bouffe about four men that eat themselves to death – a farse – and he was going through a divorce and a lot of issues [which became] the core issues of the film. Two weeks after we finished, CAA helped us out, and I met Tom [Jane] and Jeremy Piven, all these actors who all wanted to do it. We said, ‘OK,’ picked a start date and said, ‘Let’s go.’ We didn’t even have the money. I started bankrolling it and we went up to Big Sur to scout.

When it came to the setting, finding a house for the character’s ill-fated vacation was much like buying a real home.

MP: There’s tons of beautiful houses [in Big Sur]. That was a house for sale and you walked in and it was empty enough to be the kind of house that someone would rent out.

Thomas Jane: We actually had to get the house ready a few times for people to view it. So we had to clean all the sh*t out.

MP: [After filming] I had to spend $15,000.00 to fix that house up. It was trashed. (hinting to Jane) Mr. Cigars there.

When asked, Rob Lowe tried to keep the culprit’s identity hidden, but both he and Jeremy Piven spilled the beans.

Rob Lowe: He’s an actor who shall remain nameless but let’s just say he doesn’t wear shoes [again hinting at Jane].

Jeremy Piven: Shoeless Joe Jackson [laughing].

RL: He literally at one point, head-butted a chandelier and was bleeding profusely all over the set and we were just continuing to shoot. He’s the man. We can’t complete.

Despite the wild antics on and off screen, the film doesn’t try to hook viewers with drugs and partying.

TJ: This movie’s not for them. The movie’s not for everybody, that’s for damn sure. And also I think the movie is for people who are at a point in their life when they’re ready to ask hard questions about their own life. This movie will exist for those people for years to come. Just because you’re not ready to see the movie today, just wait til tomorrow. You’ll be ready at some point.

MP: It’s not a pro-drug movie. It’s these characters who remember their past and in your past you get together with your friends and part of it is you get back to that experience. Part of that experience is doing drugs and listening to music and getting f*cked up and telling inappropriate stories and dancing around a fire. It’s just part of that primal male camaraderie that is part of their joy. It is also part of their disillusionment and fragile bonds.

Adult men often have difficulties being intimate or sensitive. The characters in I Melt With You are close but still stunted in their ability to communicate. The cast and director were sympathetic to that plight.

TJ: For a lot of men, especially American men, we’re conditioned in a number of different ways. America’s a very youth-oriented culture where it’s appropriate to bond with other men in your 20s by doing drugs and getting f*cked up and listening to loud music and partying. That’s acceptable. But it’s not an acceptable way to bond when you’re older and yet we don’t have the tools as 40-year-old men. There’s no social guidepost to allow us to be able to experience some of the deeper questions and thoughts and insecurities about getting older. In this youth oriented culture, a man over 40 is a man alone.

JP: That’s basically what’s happening in this movie. It’s guys that are reliving their youth, and dumbing down all their senses so that they can’t feel. And then suddenly this turn of events happen and they have to face themselves and face each other. It’s shocking to all of them. My character in particular is so sidetracked. He’s so distracted with being the provider and being the man that it drives him to do all the wrong things and being immoral. In this particular weekend, he has to face his friends. All these feelings they have towards each other that have been laying dormant all these years are unleashed on each other. That’s what you live for as an actor, is to play those types of scenarios and stakes.

MP: [The four characters] get together every year to relive their youth. These are not guys that see each other every weekend. They’re trying to relive their youth. It’s pathetic. It’s sad. Anybody that’s 44-years-old that’s still doing blow is an idiot. They’re endangering themselves. They are numbing themselves because of the very thing they can’t confront within themselves. When I rewrote [the script] with Glenn I said, ‘This is a horror film.’ It’s an allegory about male failure, greed, shame, addiction, [and] the shadow side.

Unlike their characters, this cast of actors have embraced their forties head-on.

RL: While I related to the characters in the film, I’ve never felt more on top of my game than I have in my forties. I wouldn’t trade my 40s for 20s for anything. We’ve reached the nexus of having learned enough and still having literally all of our power. Eventually that will shift. I think right now is the sweet spot for men and women.

The bond between the characters is extremely strong. In order to create that, the actors used their real-life friendships as models. 

TJ: [Jokes] Well, we all met for dinner. Mark got us all together. As an actor you bring to it your own personal experience. And the relationships that I have with my friends in real-life are so much richer than anything I can create in a couple of days with a couple other actors. So when I’m looking at Rob or Jeremy I’m seeing my friends. I’m seeing my peers. They are doing the same with me. They’re not seeing me, Thomas Jane. They’re seeing their peers.

MP: They were given a little back story and a little history that wasn’t in the script.

Much of the film consists of excessive drug consumption but off-camera, the actors kept it clean.

TJ: You know as an actor you don’t have to be a drug addict or have done a lot of drugs to play a guy who’s strung out on blow. I don’t have to have MS if I want to play a guy who’s got multiple sclerosis. You do the research what’s required and then you make that real for you. It’s part of the beauty of what we do. I liked it when all that was secret stuff. Movie making was meant to be magical. It was meant to be a magic trick. But now movies, TV shows, and magazines all want to expose the tricks, and for some reason that’s interesting to people. That’s a bummer.

At first glance, Lowe loved the film’s script and was attracted to its raw and provocative story.

RL: For me, we all read so many scripts, and to read something where you truly say, ‘Whoa I’ve never read anything like this before,’ is pretty extraordinary. I was actually kind of surprised that anyone was going to make it. I wanted to be a part of a movie that was going to be as provocative as this movie was. But it’s not provocative in the ways movies are today when they’re trying to be provocative, which is sexually provocative. This is dealing with what it’s really like to be a man. That was really, really interesting to me.

Watching I Melt With You is an exercise in patience, empathy, and some sadism. But at the same time, the dark tone breeds a positive message.  

JP: There’s a pretty easy way to not go down this particular slippery slope. And that’s to take inventory with yourself, loved ones, and family. For me, there’s something exhilarating about seeing a movie that’s true to itself. Knowing that you don’t have to live that life [of the four main characters], knowing that you didn’t, and that if something is done with passion and clarity, and hopefully at a high level, it’s inspiring. I’ve seen incredibly depressing movies that I was inspired by. It sounds pretentious but that’s art and it’s inspiring. Sure [the film] is really dark but you don’t have to live in that darkness because you were witness to it.

RL: To use a cliché, it can be seen as a cautionary tale. These are guys who didn’t do the work, didn’t do the self-assessment. They didn’t make the hard choices and this is what they have to show for it. You can only put off paying for so long. This is what happens in this world.

Despite the men’s avoidance of reality, Lowe claims the film doesn’t celebrate their immature behavior.  

RL: Being vaguely immature is indicative of the modern man because what was culturally accepted of modern men is now reviled. In the place of what men were for hundreds of years, all of a sudden fashion turned and it wasn’t fashionable to be that guy anymore. So what you’re left with are overgrown kids. You see that in this movie. Kids take the selfish way out. And there’s nothing more selfish than what these guys do. It’s not the kind of movie where you go, ‘Yah I would’ve done the same thing.’ It’s meant to provoke conversation.

With so much talent and an amazing story, it’s hard to believe that I Melt With You was produced on a shoe-string budget. It’s a fact that the cast enjoyed and somewhat revelled in.

RL: It’s funny. I always wanted to star in a music video. [laughs] That first half, I was like, ‘Damn we look cool.’… There was no money. We shared a room smaller than this.

JP: Yah, [to Rob Lowe], you were saying in another interview, ‘We came out of the makeup trailer,’ and I’m going, ‘There was no makeup trailer.’ There was no any kind of trailer. We were all huddled on the floor together and brought our own wardrobe and you work for $11 and that’s how this movie got made.

RL: With Mark Pellington, you knew going in it was going to be this mad, passionate, guerrilla intense filmmaking. And I think the movie represents that. That’s what it feels like. I had no surprise when I saw the movie. It’s exactly what I thought it would be. Exhilarating, maddening, depressing, all of these different things, where it kind of blows you over.

See I Melt With You in theaters December 9, 2011 or On Demand.