Painless from director Jordan Horowitz is an emotional tale that uses the basic tenets of storytelling to craft a impactful movie. Painless features characters with strong chemistry, a surprisingly relatable tale, and an engaging premise. Recently, AiPT! spoke with Horowitz about his film.
AiPT!: How would you describe Painless?
On the surface it’s a psychological drama about a guy who’s searching for a cure for a rare condition that leaves him unable to feel physical pain, but what it’s really about is acceptance and the dangers of obsession. Henry feels like a complete outcast, and has convinced himself he can never have any sort of real life until he “fixes” himself. As a result, he’s locked himself off from everyone around him and hasn’t developed any meaningful relationships. The irony is if he can learn to accept himself for who he is and quit obsessing over this idea of being “normal,” which by the way none of us are, he can actually have a pretty good life.
AiPT!: What was the inspiration behind Painless?
Having lived in New York for many years I was always interested in writing a story about urban loneliness, which is a theme that tends to pop up a lot in my work. There’s a great line in the movie The Thin Red Line where someone asks Sean Penn’s character if he ever gets lonely, and his response is “Only around people.” That’s something that’s always stuck with me.
I remember being in a coffee shop and reading an article about these kids who couldn’t feel pain, and how difficult their lives were as a result. Pain is our first teacher. It teaches us how to protect ourselves and to avoid potential danger, and alerts us when something goes wrong. I immediately got this image in my head of an adult with this condition who’s learned to survive by being overly cautious and afraid of everything, and who’s become completely isolated and alone as a result. I basically thought of it as a story about the loneliest person I could imagine.
AiPT!: Painless is classic storytelling, with an obvious beginning, middle, and resolution. How long did it take to write it? It took a painstakingly long amount of time. I think I jinxed myself with the title because there was actually nothing painless about this film. The part that was the most challenging for me was getting all the science right. I don’t have any sort of science or medial background, but it was vital to me that everything in the film be completely accurate. We actually had a team of science and medical advisers helping throughout the entire process, including during the actual making of the film.
There was one very difficult time in particular where I had to put the script down for a while because we needed a big breakthrough for Henry to have, but there just wasn’t anything left for him to do that we hadn’t already used. Back then, if you researched his condition almost everything you saw would say it’s a cause of a mutation in the NTRK1 gene. I happened to do a Google search while I was in China making a documentary, and came across an article that theorized that while that might be true for many of the patients, perhaps there are some that have a mutation of the SCN9A gene instead, which is a different gene but which has very similar properties. I showed this to my science advisers and it ended up being the big Eureka moment we were all looking for, and happened to tie in perfectly to Andrews condition as well. What’s really interesting is that if you look it up now, almost every article out there says it’s a cause of the SCN9A gene, and there’s almost no mention of the NTRK1 gene at all.
AiPT!: Painless is not afraid to use medical terminology and still does an excellent job of keeping the audience in the loop without simplifying things. Were you afraid you might lose the audience?
I’d say the opposite is true. Nothing pulls me out of a movie more then when a film completely glosses over whatever it is the characters are actually meant to be doing. To me that’s one of the biggest signs of lazy writing. I feel like audiences today are so smart they demand that whatever that thing is that’s being discussed have as much basis in reality as possible. That’s what was so great about Star Trek: The Next Generation. They were dealing with all these hypothetical concepts, but they always had scientists researching them and making them sound as plausible as possible.
AiPT!: Henry Long is such an interesting character. His inability to feel physical pain seems to have affected his social skills. There are definitely some funny moments, but even then, it is sad to watch him. How difficult was it to write Henry?
I basically am Henry so I’d say it was pretty easy. It was all the other characters and storylines and science that was challenging. Don’t get me wrong, I do feel pain. I’m actually usually in quite a lot of it, but in many ways this story is very autobiographical. As a writer I often find myself isolated in small rooms for incredibly long amounts of time, completely obsessing about whatever it is I’m working on, and feeling like I’m missing out on all sorts of amazing opportunities and experiences that I have to say no to. Even though I love writing, it’s actually my least favorite part of the process of making movies because of how isolating it is.
AiPT!: Henry has a great character arc. Many movies nowadays rely on crazy plot twists or simply do not explain their character’s motivations. Why do you think this is?A lot of it I think has to deal with trying to appeal to too broad of a demographic. This was such a personal story to me, and I knew I’d be making it with basically no money, and that I might not get the chance to do another one, so I decided to just try and make a movie that I wanted to see. That’s pretty much the way I’ve always done it. Now that it’s done, hopefully others will want to watch it as well.
AiPT!: Dr. Steven Andrews has a great line in the movie about science fiction and science. Would it be fair to call Painless science fiction?
I prefer to think of it as science fact. To me science fiction deals with some sort of technology we don’t have, even if it’s not very far off. Everything Henry does in this film is based on real science, which is something we worked really hard, and that I’m really proud of.
AiPT!: The idea behind Painless could have easily been turned into a horror, comedy, or action movie. Why did you decide to go with an intimate character study?
To me it was always only ever going to be that type of movie. It goes back to that original image I had of Henry in the cafe. It’s funny though, whenever I tell people about the film the first thing they usually think is that it’s some kind of super-hero movie. I have to explain to them it’s an anti-super-hero movie. It’s about a guy who’s afraid of everything.
AiPT!: Painless has an almost documentary feel to it. We are following a man who is trying to better his life. Was this intentional?That’s ironic because I wrote it while I was making a documentary, but I never really thought of it along those lines. What was important to me was having the audience be completely invested in who Henry was why it was so important to him to succeed in what he was trying to achieve. That’s the reason I used voice over. He’s in almost every frame of the movie and I wanted the audience to feel like they were literally inside his head seeing the world like he does.
AiPT!: What upcoming projects do you have?
I’m currently writing a new script I’m really excited about. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to make it someday. I’m also playing around with an idea for a documentary and producing a couple of projects for some friends of mine.
Painless is currently available on DVD/VOD.