In the drama “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” Jason Sudeikis is an architect named Henry, who is grieving over the death of his pregnant wife, Penny (played by Jessica Biel, who is one of the film’s producers), when he forms an unlikely bond with a runaway named Millie (played by Maisie Williams) whom Penny had been acquainted with before her death. Over time, Millie begins to trust Henry, who decides to help Millie fulfill her dream to build a raft so she can sail away and start a new life. Filmed on location in New Orleans, “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” (directed and co-written by Bill Purple) had its world premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Here is what Sudeikis, Biel, Williams and Purple said during a roundtable with me and other journalists at the festival on the day of the movie’s premiere.
Can you talk about the origins of “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”?
Purple: I found the script, which was on the Black List, in 2008, and I immediately responded to it. I brought it to Jessica [Biel] and her producing partner, which happens to be my wife, Michelle.
Sudeikis: You didn’t have to go far.
Purple: I didn’t have to go far. But I definitely went around the wife and said, “Let’s go to Jessica.” We responded to it and said, “Let’s make this.” We had previously done a short film and were looking to do a feature. Immediately after that, my first thought was for Jason [Sudeikis] to play the lead role. We met and started that process.
[He says jokingly] Maisie was only 10 at the time, so we had to wait eight years. It was every independent film’s process of navigating the world of independent financing and financiers. These things take the time they take. So that’s how it started.
Given the heavy subject matter in the movie, can you talk about the tone that you wanted the actors to take and any input they had in how to portray their characters?
Purple: In the conversations we were having about the story and the characters, we were all on the same page about who these people were, what story we were trying to tell. Once you’re in that mode, for me, it’s about creating that comfortable atmosphere of trusting them and letting them find the character and come out. And hopefully, they have that trust in me to be the later arbiter of what’s the best performance. But I very much lean into their instincts because they’re better actors than I.
Sudeikis: It was also out of necessity in the amount of days it takes to get that alchemy to come together where everybody’s on the same page. I think it actually has to start sometimes with the page, unless the director or maybe one of the lead actors has such a specific voice or tone that all of their films operate under that you just sort of fall into line with that.
Like Wes Anderson, you can appreciate when you’re reading the script what it’s going to look like. But with this [“The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”], we were all just drawn to the story in a romantic way that it provided that tone that we all sort of found and this thing we could all agree on.
Jason, how did you first hear about “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”?
Sudeikis: The initial introduction was through the script itself. A letter had come from Jessica. That was in June 2009. I remember it very well. I was in a hotel in L.A. at the time for a short gig. And I would say it was a gig that would primarily help pay the bills. And this marvel showed up.
The initial thing was crying in reading the script and what Henry was going through and empathizing with that. And then it was flattery, like, “Wow, why did they think of me in this way?”
Purple: Shortly after that, we met at a hotel, and we got really drunk. We definitely had the script conversation. And I said, “All right, I’ll call you back when we have some money.” And that was eight years ago.
Sudeikis: We kept talking. We lost [financing for the movie], and then it would come back.
Purple: These take a layer of their own, even in the development process. So part of the process of getting it made was informing the story and vice versa. Jason growing and having his own child [in real life] informed all of that stuff.
Sudeikis: Absolutely. I would’ve been basing it on something totally different had it happened that summer. Emotionally, I would’ve been pulling from things that I wasn’t pulling from in being with the love of my life and having a child. Again, it all happens for a reason. That’s the perspective that I have to take.
Expectations can breed contempt, so if I had the expectation of when it was going to happen and who it was going to happen with and for how much money and how many days, you get used to, in live theater and television, of anything can happen at any moment, and you’ve got to ride the horse in the direction that it’s facing. I truly believe that and try to live that every day, because otherwise, I’d just have a lot of contempt. [He laughs.]
Given that you had budget cuts and schedule changes for “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” was it hard to stay true to the script because of those setbacks? And did those setbacks offer any kind of unique, creative opportunities?
Purple: The more I talk to other filmmakers, this is everybody’s experience. We had huge cutbacks right before we began filming. We were put in that position of, “All right, do we make creative changes, or do we just mush board?” Creatively, I said, “Let’s try to do the impossible.” And I think we all pulled it off.
Sudeikis: Not too dissimilar from the lead character, in a way. When you’re in a parallel of the process that’s happening in the movie …
Purple: Life reflects art.
Biel: It also lifted the energy of the set and the town, from my perspective because we had so little time, because we had so little money, because things were being shoved to the back of the plate because we were just trying to make sure that these guys were flying in, and we weren’t going to lose all of our cash.
Purple: I think we were all on the same page of like, “OK, this is the war, and we’re all in the foxhole.”
Biel: Underneath, the bubbling of the adrenaline and the excitement. You have a couple of takes, we have one day for this scene, and we have no other options. That gives you something else, somehow.
Williams: That was the main feel I got from everything. I wasn’t aware of [the financing issues] at all, because the only thing I got was that group of 15 people were there because they wanted to be there, and they wanted to make this movie, and they were really passionate about it. And I think once a film has gone through so many years of trying to get made, the people that stay on, the people that see it through to the end, are the ones who are really, really passionate about it. That’s all I got from it. These guys were so into the story, and you can only feed off that, really.
Sudeikis: I not only had an intellectual understanding of what was going on, but when we were down there, I didn’t feel [the producers’ financial pressure], so nicely done.
Biel: We were sweating.
Sudeikis: And the producing/acting award goes to …
Can you talk about Justin Timberlake (Jessica Biel’s husband) doing his first film score for “Devil in the Deep Blue Sea”?
Biel: We were just talking about that. We were trying to how he initially got interested.
Purple: As we were in the process of this getting made, he was a big fan of the script and loved the story and obviously was involved in us talking about it. He was like, “Yeah, I’d be interested in maybe doing the score for that,” sort of offhand years ago.
And then, we circled back and said, “So we’re making this movie. Were you serious?” And he jumped at it and said, “Yeah, I’d love to do it.” He did a spectacular job.
Like I said, as brilliant as a musician as he is, it was new for him, it was an experience, and those can all be scary, but I think in that scary place, you can get the most creative. When it’s like, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m going to dive head into it.” And I think that’s certainly what we got. I’m really proud of the work he did.
Jessica, how do you approach a scene when your character is seen as an apparition?
Biel: I treat it just if it were a regular thing. That’s the way I approached it. That’s the way I approach everything. It was really important to portray a bond between two people that was very much on a spiritual level, like a soul-buddy connection.
When [Penny] did die and disappeared from the real time of the movie, that was implanted in the audience’s brain, and that could drive the meeting between [Henry and Millie] and then could drive Henry’s grief and how he reacted to it all. I think those scenes need to be dealt with very preciously. We didn’t have a lot of time, obviously, and we didn’t have a lot of opportunities to make any big mistakes.
Maisie, your Millie character is in a lot of emotional pain. How did you tap into expressing that pain?
Williams: A lot of people assume that if you’re younger, you haven’t had big life experiences, which is true for the most part, but I think I’ve been through a lot to honestly portray the issues that Millie has had in her life. I think there’s always things you can draw on.
Everyone’s always been really mad or really sad — whether it’s about something ridiculous or not or something similar to what your character has gone through, you felt that emotion, you know what it feels like. Whether or not you can relate it back to something similar or not, you still know what it’s like, and it’s still something that you can remember again.
For more info: “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” website