UCLA film school grad Justin Lerner talks to Elbert Wyche about his SXSW debut and second directorial effort The Automatic Hate, which receives its world premiere on March 15.

The film stars Joseph Cross and Adelaide Clemens as estranged cousins who set out to uncover the secret that tore their family apart while also resisting the temptation brewing in their newfound connection. Richard Schiff and Ricky Jay also star.

Lerner talks about working with risqué subject matter, his writing process and his reaction to getting into SXSW. WME Global handles world sales.

What made you decide that this was a subject matter that you wanted to tackle and did you approach this film with the thought that the subject matter might be a bit controversial or poorly received?
It’s a direct agenda of mine to push an audience into an uncomfortable place. It’s not to be sensational; it’s more towards pushing the boundaries of what an audience can take in a challenging way that I think is ultimately a good thing. The answer is yes, I did consciously know that there would be maybe – controversy is the wrong word – I like the word ‘challenging.’ I like to challenge an audience. I really like to investigate and explore taboo relationships and relationships that aren’t seen everyday. Whether it’s going to be controversial or upsetting… I can’t control an audience’s emotional reaction to a movie, but I do know that I am definitely trying to present the audience with something they haven’t seen before. I’m curious if anyone is going to be upset. It should make for an interesting Q&A after the screening.

How did you tackle writing the script and what was it like working with your co-writer Katharine O’Brien?
The beginning started with Katharine and I after work at the Weinstein Company where we were interning. Going out to a meal and literally just talking through every scene, not even writing anything down. Starting with a boy-meets-girl, with a little asterisk at the bottom [saying] ‘girl is boy’s estranged first cousin who he’s never met’ and then taking it from there. Katharine is brilliant with structure and is always helicoptering over the story from very high up to make sure each moment in the story led to the next chunk of the puzzle that needed to be filled in.

I tended to be more of the secretary in getting everything down on paper after we’d spoken about it. Where she was really good at the bigger picture, I tended to be more enthusiastic about being the boots on the ground that would actually write the first draft of the actual scenes and dialogue. We always rewrote each other’s things a million times to the point where it’s all a big mix of both of us.

How did you get Adelaide Clemens and Joseph Cross as your leads?
We were putting people on tape quite late in the process and [Joseph Cross] came in per the suggestion of our casting director. I had seen him in a lot of stuff and he read and then we met for lunch. I told him he was going to have to do some morally questionable things and he can’t be hung up on being a good guy. I told him he didn’t need to worry about being a good guy.  He’s the only actor we approached that totally got that. 

We were having trouble casting the role of Alexis because it’s a very dynamic role. She’s like an overgrown child. She’s destructive and awful, but also very vulnerable and charming. On the second or third day of watching tapes I was sitting in my living room watching [Adelaide Clemens’] audition tape. I looked over to Katharine O’Brien and we both couldn’t speak. It was by far the only time I watched an audition tape and thought, ‘This could be cut right into the movie.’ It was that good. She is the most exciting and brilliant actress I’ve ever worked with.

How did you find out you were selected by SXSW?
I got an email from Janet Pierson [SXSW’s head of film]. We sent the film in pretty early and she wrote me saying she loved it, but I didn’t hear from her for several months and then in January I got an email saying, ‘We are excited to invite you.’ I think SXSW is the perfect place for this movie. Not only have I never been to the festival before, I’ve never been to Texas. 

What’s next for you?
Girlfriend, my first feature film, explored a strange and unique relationship between a man with Down syndrome and a single mother and The Automatic Hate goes into a similar territory: two first cousins having an attraction. I am in a way writing an informal trilogy of taboo relationship films. I am writing something now about a similarly controversial relationship between two people. The movies that I see and think about later are those where I’m not sure exactly how to feel about what I saw. If everything is too normal or straightforward, people forget it.