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Monday, September 29, 2014

From the Mouths of Filmmakers: Sean Dunne

Sean Dunne
(
April 24, 2013 - Source: Jemal Countess/Getty Images North America)
FROM THE MOUTHS OF FILMMAKERS:
SEAN DUNNE
By Sean Dunne and Joshua Handler

Recently I've been disturbed by the amount of people who don't seek out independent films, non-English-language films, and classics.  So, I asked some of the most exciting and original voices in modern cinema to submit responses to a few questions about why/if they think indies/non-English-language films/classics are important to view, and how those films have been influential on their careers.

The responses below are from Sean Dunne, best known for producing and directing Oxyana, winner of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival's Best New Documentary Director Award and Best Documentary Feature - Special Jury Mention.  Dunne was also nominated for an Emmy for his work on POV.

Do you feel that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and filmgoers to view independent and world cinema and why (if you don't feel it is important, please tell me why)?
For me, when I was an aspiring filmmaker, watching indie films became a way of life. I tried to watch everything, good, bad, and in between because each film increased my understanding. Traditional Hollywood films limit our scope of what’s possible - it all seems so big and unobtainable and unrelatable. It’s when I turned to world cinema and indies that I began to see the possibilities, even with small budgets, to do great things. Discovering these films continues to be a huge source of inspiration for my projects.
I can also easily indulge in the flipside of that argument which is to say that, for some, the influence of constantly consuming films rather than making them is detrimental to their ultimate creative goals. They get overwhelmed with the sheer amount of ideas that have already been explored in this form and that begins to create an overreliance on tried and true devices or, worse, might discourage someone from exploring filmmaking in the first place. This reminds me of something I heard Terrance McKenna speak about during a talk on creativity…
“We have to create culture, don't watch TV, don't read magazines, don't even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow. The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe, and if you're worrying about Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton or somebody else, then you are disempowered, you're giving it all away to icons, icons which are maintained by an electronic media so that you want to dress like X or have lips like Y. This is shit-brained, this kind of thinking. That is all cultural diversion, and what is real is you and your friends and your associations, your highs, your orgasms, your hopes, your plans, your fears. And we are told 'no', we're unimportant, we're peripheral. 'Get a degree, get a job, get a this, get a that.' And then you're a player, you don't want to even play in that game. You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that's being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.”
Do you believe that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and filmgoers to view films of the past and why (if you don't feel that it is important, please tell why)? 
I didn’t go to film school, no one would have me, so I did the next best thing which was to study film criticism and history. All of a sudden I was exposed to another way of thinking about film. I developed a more critical eye and a keen sense of what spoke to me about any given film. I was beginning to develop taste, and that’s enormously important for an aspiring filmmaker; know what you like and why you like it. So, by spending college studying the work of the greats, what I was really doing was learning another language…cinema. That changed everything for me.
How did viewing indies, classics, and/or films from around the world help/influence you when creating OXYANA? 
When preparing to make a film I try to keep a focused list of films I want to revisit throughout the process. Starting early in the process I like to have my producer, editor, DP, and myself watch films that hover around the same themes we’re exploring. For Oxyana, I remember being highly inspired by a screening of Harlan County, USA by Barbara Kopple, as it gave historical context to what we would be filming during Oxyana. My editor and I also consistently referenced Errol Morris’ first film, Vernon, Florida, while we were in post. For us, having these films that we’ve all seen in preparation for the making of ours helps establish a reference point that we can draw examples and inspiration from throughout the process.

What's one American indie (narrative or documentary) and one non-English-language film (narrative or documentary) that you would recommend film-lovers or young/aspiring filmmakers see?
There is no American indie voice quite like Ross McElwee. I highly recommend anything he has done, but for sake of this interview, I’d say start with his newest one, Photographic Memory. 

In terms of non-English language, Wong Kar-wai has always been a big influence on me. Again, all of his work is outstanding, but check out Happy Together.
From the Mouths of Filmmakers continues on Wednesday.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY Review

Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst in THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY, a Magnolia Pictures release.Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY
2014, 97 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some violence, language and smoking

Review by Joshua Handler

Hossein Amini's The Two Faces of January is a Hitchcockian thriller adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel that is worth seeing for Marcel Zyskind's evocative cinematography alone.  That isn't to say the film doesn't have other virtues - it has plenty - but the cinematography is so stunning that it overshadows everything else.  Two Faces stars Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, and Oscar Isaac and tells the story of an American tour guide who helps an American businessman and his wife get out of trouble while in Greece.  The guide's motivations are suspicious, which causes tension in the group.

As mentioned, Macel Zyskind's cinematography is the number one reason to see The Two Faces of January.  The cinematography gives the film an exotic, seductive feel, and nearly every shot is immaculately framed and colored.  Viewing The Two Faces of January is an immensely pleasurable experience because of the cinematography.

Mortensen, Dunst, and Isaac all give strong performances.  It's a shame that Kirsten Dunst hasn't appeared in many films recently because with Melancholia and this film, she's proven herself to be an incredibly smart, talented actress.

As much as I enjoyed The Two Faces of January and as well-developed as the characters were, I couldn't help but hope to have been more involved in the story.  That isn't to say that I wasn't curious to see what would happen next for a large portion of the film, it's simply that the story should've been more surprising.  The best Patricia Highsmith adaptation (that I've seen at least) is Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley (Purple Noon, an adaptation of the same novel, is also excellent) because it's unpredictable, unnerving, and full of narrative momentum.  January isn't completely lacking in momentum, but it's simply not completely compelling.

Overall, The Two Faces of January is a good film.  Its parts are stronger than the movie as a whole (a climactic chase sequence is particularly well-executed), but it is a well-acted, beautifully-shot piece of filmmaking that will entertain most who view it.

3/4

NYFF Review: '71

Jack O'Connell stars in ’71.Photo credit: Dean Rogers
'71
2014, 99 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Yann Demange's gritty, intense, violent '71 is an impressive debut feature about a young British soldier (Jack O'Connell - he is going to be the next big A-list star, watch) who is accidentally abandoned by his unit while trying to control a riot in Belfast during The Troubles.  From the minute '71 opens, it's a mad rush to the finish.

'71 is reminiscent of a Kathryn Bigelow war film, The Hurt Locker in particular.  There's no pretense in Demange's direction.  He directs with muscle and a sense of urgency, which makes this 43-year-old story feel new and relevant.  Tat Radcliffe's simultaneously harsh and beautiful cinematography adds to the sense of urgency.  A pulse-pounding chase sequence early in the film is a perfect showcase for his talents.

Jack O'Connell is quickly proving himself to be one of the most exciting and powerful young actors working today.  After his gut-wrenching, frightening performance in David Mackenzie's Starred Up and his casting as the lead in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, I knew that O'Connell would be the next big star.  He it both magnetic and humane, making him as watchable as they come.

Geoffrey Burke's intelligent screenplay does an admirable job at mixing action and drama.  While '71 is a thrilling action film through and through, it never sensationalizes the violence and shows its repercussions.  '71 shows the human cost of the clashes in Ireland and never downplays them.

Overall, '71 is an excellent film, one that I would happily return to when Roadside Attractions releases in theaters.  I predict '71 becomes a significant film a few years in the future for introducing audiences to Yann Demange.  He's already lightyears ahead of other first-time directors, and I cannot wait to see what he creates in the future.

3.5/4

Friday, September 26, 2014

GONE GIRL Review: NYFF Opening Night

Ben Affleck in GONE GIRL
Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox
GONE GIRL
NYFF Opening Night
2014, 145 minutes
Rated for a scene of bloody violence, some strong sexual content/nudity, and language

Review by Joshua Handler

I always look forward to a new David Fincher film.  His 20+ year career is filled with some of the most memorable and masterfully-executed films of modern times such as The Social Network, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Se7en, and the vastly underrated The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  When it was announced that Fincher's next project would be an adaptation of Gillian Flynn's bestselling novel, Gone Girl, it didn't seem to be much of a stretch, given that his last film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was also an adaptation of a bestselling mystery-thriller.  However, after seeing Fincher's Gone Girl, I can safely say that while it certainly is a mystery-thriller, it is, first and foremost, a savagely satirical, darkly comic film about our society's obsession with people's deeply personal tragedies and the way that the media sensationalizes the tragedies to the extent that they become like soap operas - pieces of entertainment.

Gone Girl tells the story of Nick Dunne, an ordinary man whose life gets tossed into a media circus when his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), disappears.  Nick becomes a suspect, but the question remains, did Nick kill his wife?  Gillian Flynn adapted her own novel for the screen and could very well gain an Oscar nomination for her sharp adaptation.  So much of this film's success can be attributed to Flynn's screenplay.  Every one of her characters is developed and her psychologically complex leads are among the most intriguing characters in recent memory.  Additionally, Flynn's plotting is incredibly tight and the way in which she uses this seemingly sordid tale to critique modern day culture is ingenious.  

Fincher and Flynn begin the Gone Girl as a traditional mystery melodrama before becoming something much more thought-provoking, disturbing, and bitterly funny.  The movie you begin viewing is not the same as the one you end with.  This will put many off, though I thought that was the most impressive aspect of the film.  If you think you're in for an ordinary mystery, you will be very surprised to find that Gone Girl is, first and foremost, a dark comedy.  And I mean dark.  Fincher and Flynn seem to take delight in the dementedness of Gone Girl's humor, and that made it a much more rewarding and surprising experience for me.  

While Flynn and Fincher have earned every piece of praise they have gotten, Gone Girl wouldn't be what it is without the cast.  Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike give career-best performances, with Pike standing out above the rest.  Affleck captures Nick in all of his complexity.  He has a quiet, yet compelling screen presence that he hasn't had in years.  However, Pike is on another level.  She's seductive, scary, and magnetic.  She commands every single minute that she's on-screen.  Pike is so brilliant that she even makes the many voice-overs riveting.  There's no praising her enough.  Tyler Perry is also surprisingly excellent as Nick's attorney and Carrie Coon is also powerful as Nick's sister, Margo.

As usual, Jeff Cronenweth's cinematography is murky and beautiful, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' score is unsettling and nasty, and Kirk Baxter's editing is precise.

Overall, Gone Girl is yet another worthy opener of the New York Film Festival.  While it may prove to be too unsavory for all audiences, Gone Girl will certainly please many and earn a number of awards come the end of the year.  I enjoyed myself immensely throughout the film's epic, yet crazily fast running time and would happily go back to immerse myself in its twisted world again.

4/4

An Interview with Matthew Bauckman and Jaret Belliveau

Jaret Belliveau (left) and Matthew Bauckman (right)January 19, 2014 - Source: Larry Busacca/Getty Images North America
AN INTERVIEW WITH 
MATTHEW BAUCKMAN 
AND JARET BELLIVEAU
By Joshua Handler

The following is an interview with Matthew Bauckman and Jaret Belliveau, co-directors of Fantastic Fest Best Picture (Documentary) and Slamdance Grand Jury Prize-winner Kung Fu Elliot:

How did you meet Elliot?
We first found out about Elliot after reading several local newspaper articles written about him and his partner, Linda Lum. In the articles, Elliot was promoting himself as an accomplished martial artist and award-winning filmmaker. When we watched the trailer for Elliot and Linda’s first movie They Killed My Cat, we were intrigued. We tracked down some of his films at a local video store and then contacted Elliot about making a film. He invited us down to the set of Blood Fight and filming began... 
Do you believe your presence influenced any of the events in the film preceding the climax?
In any documentary, the presence of filmmakers influences events to a certain degree but we were unaware of the argument which precipitated the final scene and had no intention of being part of the story.
How did you walk the line between portraying Elliot as an eccentric character and as a human being?
We did our best to choose moments which captured the complexity of Elliot. He is eccentric, but he's also a person struggling with the same issues as anyone else. We see him on set directing his films, but also at home, dealing (or not dealing) with issues in his relationship. 
What did you originally imagine this film to be and how is it similar/different from what it came out to be?
We initially thought this would be a Canadian version of the US documentary, American Movie. We thought we were dealing with a likeable underdog, obsessed with being a movie star, and an eccentric group of dreamers along for the ride. Instead, we ended up with a study of ambition and human frailty. 
Have Linda or any of the other subjects seen the film? What did they think?
Unfortunately, we're no longer in touch with Elliot or Linda, so we're not sure if they've seen the film, but Blair has seen it and we look forward to showing it to Blake and other people featured in the documentary.

From the Mouths of Filmmakers: Robert Ogden Barnum

Robert Ogden Barnum
FROM THE MOUTHS OF FILMMAKERS:
ROBERT OGDEN BARNUM
By Robert Ogden Barnum and Joshua Handler

Recently I've been disturbed by the amount of people who don't seek out independent films, non-English-language films, and classics.  So, I asked some of the most exciting and original voices in modern cinema to submit responses to a few questions about why/if they think indies/non-English-language films/classics are important to view, and how those films have been influential on their careers.

The responses below are from Robert Ogden Barnum, producer of Margin Call and executive producer of All is Lost, Lawless, Cold in July, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, among many others.  Barnum is the co-founder of Fortitude International and was previously an executive at Annapurna Pictures and Benaroya Pictures.  He is currently producing Miles Ahead, a Miles Davis biopic starring Don Cheadle.

Do you feel that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and filmgoers to view independent and world cinema and why?
I think it’s extremely important… world & independent cinema will expose you to stories told often from a different vantage point than the usual American/Hollywood films, and the four-quadrant appeal that they usually strive for.  They hopefully will cause you to think and experience, not just look to entertain you.  Not to mention, there are incredibly talented storytellers and craftsman operating outside of the mainstream.  
Do you feel that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and filmgoers to view films of the past and why?
Yes, absolutely... Just as we don’t ignore books from the past, films are equally timeless.  Whether it’s a film by John Ford, Capra, Hitchcock, Fellini, whoever… films from our past will provide you with a wealth of experience; seeing by whom & how modern filmmakers have been influenced, seeing various storylines that are familiar to us in modern films being framed and articulated in completely different cultural times and societal norms…and ultimately revealing how the human experience, the relationships we tell in story, are timeless.
How did viewing indies and films from around the world help/influence you when producing ALL IS LOST, MARGIN CALL, AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS, or any of your other films?
I’m not sure how much they helped, per se, at least consciously…but the influence of independent/world cinema is what I think drew me to these stories.  But as a tool - working with filmmaker like JC [Chandor], or John Hillcoat on LAWLESS, or recently with Paul Bettany on SHELTER, the amount of research these filmmakers will do, watching old films, foreign films…finding influence and yet creating entirely unique and original films - that is the power and importance of experiencing world cinema and films from our past.
What's one English-language indie (doc or narrative) and one non-English-language film (doc or narrative) that you would recommend that film-lovers or young/aspiring filmmakers see?
While probably not the most original of answers, I would say that IN THE BEDROOM is an absolutely essential film for any aspiring filmmaker to see.  Todd Field is a master, and beyond the brilliant performances and technical work, the emotional tension that is seething and yet restrained throughout that story makes for brilliant storytelling.  And Vittorio De Sica’s THE BICYCLE THIEF is a film that I think everyone should experience to understand the real beauty of story, and joy that can be found, even in tragedy.  I first saw the film when I was in the 8th grade, and I’d like to think it’s one of the reasons I wanted to be a part of making movies.
From the Mouths of Filmmakers continues on Monday.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What to See at NYFF


WHAT TO SEE AT 
THE 52nd NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL
By Joshua Handler

The 52nd New York Film Festival arrives on Friday and is bringing with it a slew of noteworthy films (and some not so noteworthy ones).  But I'm only here to tell you about the good ones.  The below are  only the best of the festival selections that I have seen.  I'll be featuring full reviews of all of these and more through October 11.  Here we go:

TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) - Of the dozen or so films I've seen that will be screening at the NYFF, Two Days, One Night is the best in ever way, and of the 150 or so 2014 releases I've seen, Two Days, One Night is one of the top five or so. The Dardennes have made another masterpiece with this film, which tells the story of a working class woman who must convince her coworkers to give up their bonuses in order for her to keep her job.  A masterclass in acting from Marion Cotillard combined with The Dardennes' humane view of working class life and compassion for their characters make this one unmissable.  Sundance Selects is releasing December 24 in the U.S.

WHIPLASH (Dir. Damien Chazelle) - Winner of the Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, Whiplash is an intense, beautifully-acted film about a drummer who strives for perfection and the teacher who tries to push him towards it at any cost.  Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons lead the cast with committed performances, and Damien Chazelle's screenplay and direction lulled me into its hypnotic rhythms.  Another one you can't miss. Sony Pictures Classics is releasing on October 10 in the U.S.

THE LOOK OF SILENCE (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer) - The Act of Killing is a hard act to follow, but somehow Joshua Oppenheimer managed to make another profound (and profoundly disturbing) documentary on the Indonesian genocide and its effects on the country today.  The Look of Silence tells the story of a man who confronts the men who killed his brother during the genocide.  That should sell you alone.  Drafthouse Films and Participant Media will release in the U.S. in summer 2015.

RED ARMY (Dir. Gabe Polsky) - Gabe Polsky's Red Army is a deceptively simple documentary about the Olympic-gold-medal-winning Soviet hockey team. The film tells their story from the 1970s-1990s.  It is riveting, moving, and will provide even non-sports lovers with something to love.  Sony Pictures Classics is releasing in January 2015 in the U.S.

STRAY DOG (Dir. Debra Granik) - Stray Dog, not to be confused with Tsai Ming-liang's Stray Dogs, is Debra Granik's first film since 2010's Best Picture-nominee Winter's Bone.  A loving, charming documentary portrait of Ron "Stray Dog" Hall, a Vietnam veteran who lives in rural Missouri, Stray Dog is a very good piece of storytelling that is immensely rewarding.  This film does not have U.S. distribution.



'71 (Dir. Yann Demange) - Yann Demange's feature debut, '71, tells the story of a British soldier who is abandoned by his unit in a Catholic neighborhood in Belfast during a riot.  The film is set during The Troubles.  Jack O'Connell is phenomenal, and Demange's direction is so confident that it looks like the work of a master like Kathryn Bigelow.  Intense, violent, and exciting.  Releasing through Roadside Attractions (date unannounced).



LISTEN UP PHILIP (Dir. Alex Ross Perry) - If you love Alex Ross Perry's uniquely acidic and sarcastic sense of humor, you'll love Listen Up Philip.  I love Perry's style and completely fell for this tale of a narcissistic, misanthropic author who begins to retreat deep into himself.  Jason Schwartzman plays the eponymous character and stars alongside Elizabeth Moss and Jonathan Pryce - all three give career-best performances.  Tribeca Film is releasing October 17 in the U.S.

From the Mouths of Filmmakers: Josh Boone

Josh Boone
FROM THE MOUTHS OF FILMMAKERS:
JOSH BOONE
By Josh Boone and Joshua Handler

Recently I've been disturbed by the amount of people who don't seek out independent films, non-English-language films, and classics.  So, I asked some of the most exciting and original voices in modern cinema to submit responses to a few questions about why/if they think indies/non-English-language films/classics are important to view, and how those films have been influential on their careers.

The responses below are from Josh Boone, best known for directing the enormously successful The Fault in Our Stars and Stuck in Love. He was recently hired to direct an adaptation of Stephen King's epic novel, The Stand.

Do you feel that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and filmgoers to view independent and world cinema and why?
I consider it hugely important for filmmakers to view all kinds of different films. I have used The Criterion Collection since I was a very young teenager - I used to buy them on laserdisc - to explore world cinema and discover different directors and their work. Some of my favorite films are foreign films, as are some of my favorite filmmakers. 
Kieslowski, Truffaut, Goddard, Antonioni, Kurosawa, etc. Indie films were also hugely influential. I was fourteen or fifteen when CLERKS. and RESERVOIR DOGS came out, and a local movie theater called the Naro where I'm in from in Virginia showed all the latest indie movies and I went and saw them all.
Do you feel that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and filmgoers to view films of the past and why?
I think it's of the utmost important that aspiring filmmakers watch everything they can. Go pick up Roger Ebert wonderful three-book series, THE GREAT MOVIES, and seek all those films out. That's a great place to start. When I was a teenager, I would go through director phases where I'd watch every film a director made chronologically and read everything I could about them. I believe all filmmakers should strive to be experts in their field and that means being familiar with what has come before and continuing to seek out films that inspire you that are being made today.
How did viewing indies and films from around the world help you when directing THE FAULT IN OUR STARS and STUCK IN LOVE?
I've been watching films obsessively as far back as I can remember. Every single film you watch, good or bad, is a building block of your filmmaking education. The ones you love that you watch over and over are the cornerstones.
What's one English-language indie and one non-English-language film that you would recommend that film-lovers or young/aspiring filmmakers see?
My favorite film is Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA.

I'll suggest three of my favorite foreign films: Ozu's TOKYO STORY, Kieslowski's THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE, and Godard's A WOMAN IS A WOMAN.

[A]nd as far as indie films...

SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE 
CLERKS.

RESERVOIR DOGS 
Cassavetes
From the Mouths of Filmmakers continues on Friday.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

An Interview with Anna Martemucci

Anna Martemucci
AN INTERVIEW WITH 
ANNA MARTEMUCCI
By Joshua Handler

Until a short while ago, Anna Martemucci was best known as an actress and writer.  Now, she has directed her first feature, Hollidaysburg, which is a very good film.  The film was produced through the new TV show, The Chair, which challenged two filmmakers to make their first feature films based off of the same screenplay. The show is now on Starz. The following is an email interview with Anna Martemucci:

How did you get involved in The Chair

Chris Moore saw our short film series, Periods Films, and our feature film, Breakup at a Wedding. Because of seeing those, he hired my husband, Victor Quinaz, and I as writers on a web series that he hired my brother-in-law, Philip Quinaz, to star in. It was fun! During production on that, the idea of my taking on The Chair project came up very organically. I was realizing at the time that I needed to kick it up a notch and pursue directing for real, and I was depressed at how daunting I knew the landscape to be for anybody, but especially for people who aren’t men. No offense to men (love ‘em). So I was sort of dragging my feet about it. And then Chris Moore appeared like a beautiful angel, bathed in light, and offered me this opportunity. I said yes after making him buy me roughly seven milkshakes at various diners around Los Angeles. It’s just how I do business.

You had the unusual situation of having an entire crew (and then nation) watching you direct your first feature. Did that affect the way in which you directed the film? 

Hmmm. In a way it did, I think, because I was hyper aware of every word I said and every action I took. The cameras forced me to be so intentional with how I presented myself and what I said about other people. In a way the biggest challenge was also the biggest blessing. This whole thing has, I think, expanded my view of the world. It’s made it more complex and sometimes scary, but ultimately enriching and thrilling. Life right now feels a little like being on a roller coaster all the time; sometimes it’s exhilarating, and sometimes it’s puke-in-your-crotch terrifying. 

Were you aware of how Shane Dawson would be approaching the material? If you did, did that affect your approach?

I viewed this experience as very much my own and my team’s, completely separate from Shane and his team’s. We never ran into each other during production. Which was great because if I had thought too much about being in a competition, I would have never been able to focus on the task at hand, which was getting Hollidaysburg in the can. So because of the time crunch the project put me under, I sort of forced myself to pretend that the competition didn’t exist so I could have the brain space to make Hollidaysburg. I conducted myself like I was going into production on a real independent film, because I was, and anyone who’s done that can tell you, it’s an all-consuming task, even more so when cameras are there capturing every moment. I didn’t even manage to familiarize myself with Shane’s work until after production on Hollidaysburg

Your cast is remarkably talented.  How did you find them?

I know right? I am constantly alarmed at their talent and charm and my luck at finding them. Our casting director Donna Belajac had everything to do with this process. Donna found us our two lead girls and Petroff and Katie Krake right away, and then Scott Karazewski proved a much tougher nut to crack. I’m so glad I held out because man did Tobin kill that role. And man do his eyebrows match Phil’s eyebrows. It was less than a week-and-a-half from when he got the job to when he shot his first scene. I ended up finding him through Facebook, at the recommendation of an actor friend. Toby had a website up as an actor, so it was easy to see that he fit some major criteria for the role, like looking like Phil and having improv experience.  I called the cell phone he had listed on the website at 9:30pm on a Sunday night to ask him to audition. 

In the supporting roles we had written roles for whoever we could from my favorite talent pool: the players of Periods Films. We brought in Brian Shoaf, Julie Ann Dulude, David Harrison, Chris Manley. As well as the voices of Shaina Feinberg and Giovanni P. Autran.  Many of those guys were also in Breakup at a Wedding, our first film which Victor directed. Victor and Phil’s mom also makes a voice cameo.  

Also, one of the goals of our script rewrite was to create a role for Phil. I’ve always loved Phil’s natural charm and ability as an actor, and I’ve watched him grow over the years, so it was incredibly satisfying to put him in the movie in a big way. The pie storyline in the film really happened to our stunt coordinator, Jason Schumacher, while he was in college in Wisconsin. I had to email with several of his roommates in order to secure the unofficial rights to that story. At one point I received a novelization of the story one of them had written about the event. That’s how good a story we all thought it was I guess, me and these guys from Wisconsin I haven’t even met.

Did you have any creative input in the screenplay? Did you change anything from Dan Schoffer’s original screenplay?

This is tricky to talk about as we have signed a NDA with the WGA. The show was also asked by the WGA to not cover this aspect... But I think I can at least say that yes, Victor, Philip, and I, who also wrote Breakup at a Wedding together, were hired to to do an (uncredited) rewrite. Another funny thing about being in this “contest”, from a writer’s perspective, was that Chris Moore’s only rule with the rewrite was that we keep the first names of all the main characters and the essential premise from How Soon Is Now (Dan’s original title) for the sake of clarity on The Chair. We know a number of people have been upset at the fact that we were even allowed to rewrite it at all, and the show is fuzzy with the actual details of the competition and our participation in the writing process. 

Is any of Hollidaysburg based off of your own life? It felt very personal.

Hollidaysburg is an incredibly personal film to Phil, Victor, and I. So personal I’ve been texting a lot with my best friend from high school, making sure that she’s not going to egg my house when she sees it! She is an awesome person, by the way, and totally cool with this (shout out). 

I made an effort during the writing process too, to keep it personal for all of us. I would say things like “Phil! Describe to me any physical altercations you had as a teenage boy!” and then we’d go off and Phil would write the Skittles scene between Petroff and Scott in the basement. Victor wrote Tori’s parents from some very close to home inspiration. Like I said, the pie storyline was lifted from a friend of mine who did our stunts, just because I thought it was funny and cinematic and knew it wasn’t too out there because much of it had actually happened.  I have sort of a philosophy that the funniest stuff is the truest stuff. So I’m always trying to mine the truth for the little nugs of comedy I believe it holds within it, even if those nugs might be embarrassing. I have this feeling in my gut that I go by...when my writing makes me a little bit uncomfortable that I’m writing it, that’s when I know it’s worthwhile. 

The writer John Updike was also a huge inspiration for this project. In reminiscing about the time when I was eighteen, I realized how deeply his early short stories had affected me. My senior year of high school, I was failing out because I was kind of a bad kid and never showed up, and to prove to a guidance counselor who pissed me off (and to myself) that I wasn’t a complete piece of shit, I took a fiction writing course at Penn State while I was still in high school. The first book we read was Pigeon Feathers by John Updike.  His stories about growing up in a small Pennsylvania town resonated with me so much at a time when I was 17, the age of the characters, growing up in a small Pennsylvania town. So it felt right to delve into my love of early Updike during this project. I went deep on it and had all the actors read the story “The Happiest I’ve Been” before production began. The story completely captures the feeling of coming home after being gone briefly at college. It captured the odd realization of the fact that you might not see these people, who had become so constant to you they were almost like furniture, ever again.  In a way, Hollidaysburg is an interpretation of the feeling in that Updike story: an attempt to capture its essence and then make it funny.  What I love is that “The Happiest I’ve Been” was published by the New Yorker in 1959 and yet it still rang so true for me in the early 2000’s. I find the timelessness of certain human experiences to be very life-affirming and potentially unifying.  It’s why I want to tell stories. It also might be why I’m obsessed with coming of age stories: because they let you know that you’re not alone. Somebody else went through it too! Everybody went through it.

Updike wrote a really beautiful letter to his grade school and high school classmates right before he died, saying thank you to them for all of the amazing characters they provided him and how much he loved them all. I plan to do the same on my deathbed. I cannot wait to be on my deathbed and thank everyone! Not until deathbed though. Everyone from State College Area High School in State College, PA, not until deathbed. :)

So in conclusion, ahem, Hollidaysburg most definitely ended up being a love letter to my personal high school experience and, I hope, to growing up in general. 

Hollidaysburg has some John Hughes in it, some Big Chill, with some other films mixed in. Were these indeed influences? What other films influenced Hollidaysburg?

They were! From John Hughes it was mostly The Breakfast Club & Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with a lot of the look of the film was inspired by Uncle Buck because Uncle Buck was a winter movie set in cozy interiors. Which is what I wanted to make. Other movies that I carried around with me as I made Hollidaysburg were Alexander Payne’s Election, David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls, Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys, and Ted Demme’s Beautiful Girls. And honestly, I also tried to carry with me the humor of Louis C.K., The Coen Brothers, and Wes Anderson. I think of all four of those guys as comedians. I love all that stuff so much I don’t know what to do with myself. It sort of felt like all of these directors were guiding me through the process, because my theory was that if I just kept alive in me what I loved about each of those movies during filming, no matter how stressed I was, the film would turn out okay. Each one of those directors informed Hollidaysburg tremendously.

Did the finished film turn out like you originally envisioned or is it dramatically different?

It’s so funny, it’s sort of like having a baby, making a film, at least I imagine it is. Because in the same way people say they have trouble reconciling that there was a time their kid didn’t exist once they’re there, I sort of feel that way about HollidaysburgIt’s here now, it’s what it is; it has arrived! Which is a pretty great feeling. 

The process of filmmaking for me, turned out to be very much about letting the film reveal itself to me and employing very talented people to help reveal it.  During production, the game for me was to stay extremely focused and efficient about what I wanted while remaining as loose with improv and on-the-fly-rewriting of scenes as my shooting schedule would allow. Then in post, the film revealed itself through trial and error in the edit room with Charlie Porter, with special guest stars Victor and Philip Quinaz. 

There are certain moments in Hollidaysburg that are completely unlike anything I imagined because we literally found them on the day. The 5 point turn that Tori does with her van as she leaves her and Scott’s first romantic encounter was something that popped up on the day as a funny idea to me, and Meena Singh and I were given roughly 3 minutes to execute that shot by my hard-ass assistant director, Siena Brown. Those two, along with many others, got this movie in the can for me in such a great way.

There are many other scenes in the movie that either have smatterings of improvisation or were completely improvised. The “Florida Men” scene in the car where Phil and Scott read Florida newspaper headlines to each other, Phil, Tobin and I worked out on the day. Phil had sent me the headlines, which were real, earlier, but we hadn’t had time to work them into a version of the screenplay. So we had a little writers’ meeting in the car while Meena set up, and came up with how the scene would go through talking it out with each other. 

There were a lot of scenes I knew were weak going into shooting, because we simply ran out of time on the screenplay. Philip, Victor and I did our pass on the story in about thirty days: the month of December...not a lot of time for a screenplay. If left to my own devices, I take about 4 months. If Victor is prodding me, we can get it done in 2 or 3. But one month while also dealing with pre-production was brutal. Pretty sure I ruined Quinaz Christmas because I kept trying to hold writing meetings during dinner. 

All that being said, having what I considered to be a weak script going into production turned out to be a blessing, because it freed me up from any preciousness I usually would have about my own writing. And it made me hyper aware of the fact that if the movie had any chance of working, I had to lean on improvisation. 

Victor, Phil, and I have been playing with filmed improv for the last few years with Periods Films, so we had developed a working style and way of shooting improv and telling stories with it that I was able to adapt to work for Hollidaysburg. We played all the lines kind of loose and let a lot of improvisation in, although the screenplay we wrote is very much alive in the movie. The actors I’d worked with before knew the drill, and the actors who were new to us seemed to love this open, collaborative way of working. 

Because of this approach, Scott and Heather’s last scene together at the diner with the chicken soup turned out to be unrecognizable from our script and largely improvised by Tobin and Claire. The scene where Scott goes to Tori’s door and she rejects him, I threw out right before we shot because I didn’t like it any more, and again, Phil, Toby, Rachel and I stood in the cold on a porch in Mt. Lebanon, and worked out what the hell Scott was going to tell this girl Tori when she opened the door. 

I held the film in my mind and sort of rewrote it as we went, and it was exhilarating. I live for that kind of collaboration and spontaneity with other human beings. It’s just the most fun thing in the entire world. It’s magic.

Did you view The Chair? If so, what was that experience like? What did you learn from watching yourself direct?

I’ve seen episodes 1 through 9. The tenth episode is still being cut. I learned a tremendous amount about myself during this experience and I continue to! It’s all a process. I got on the phone with my oldest brother after a good review yesterday and he said, “You know you’re the only one who ever doubted you,” and I burst into tears. One, that definitely isn’t true brother, but two, I just feel so lucky that I got to make a movie with people who were so damn good at what they do. Everyone involved in Hollidaysburg was a true professional, and I’m so proud of the team, and grateful that I was able to find the right talent that could make this vision happen in such a short time, willing to work in frigid environments for so very little money. I’m so lucky and it was all a blast.

What’s next?

Periods Films’ third feature film, PERIODS., comes out this November from Oscilloscope.  PERIODS. is a film in the vein of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life or Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part I, in which we take the viewer through the history of the world with docu-commentary by God himself (real name “Tim”). We hope you like it! 

Monday, September 22, 2014

From the Mouths of Filmmakers: Alexandre Moors

Alexandre Moors
FROM THE MOUTHS OF FILMMAKERS:
ALEXANDRE MOORS
By Alexandre Moors and Joshua Handler

Recently I've been disturbed by the amount of people who don't seek out independent films, non-English-language films, and classics.  So, I asked some of the most exciting and original voices in modern cinema to submit responses to a few questions about why/if they think indies/non-English-language films/classics are important to view, and how those films have been influential on their careers.

The responses below are from Alexandre Moors, producer/director of the acclaimed Blue Caprice (Sundance, Opening Night New Directors/New Films 2013, Independent Spirit Award-nominee for Best First Feature).

Do you feel that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and filmgoers to view independent and world cinema and why (if you don't feel it is important, please tell me why)?
It is a bit like asking an aspiring cook if he should ever taste a dish besides McDonald's. 
Do you believe that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and filmgoers to view films of the past and why (if you don't feel that it is important, please tell why)?  
One of my favorite films is Come and See, a 1985 Russian film by Elim Klimov about a child soldier lost during World War Two. Rumor has it that Steven Spielberg screened the film to his crew prior to filming Saving Private Ryan. Indeed the photography and editing of Spielberg's film show clear influences from Klimov's. This is to say that even blockbusters are not created in a vacuum. I do not know of any successful filmmaker who is ignorant of film history, both foreign and domestic. 
How did viewing indies and films from around the world help you when directing BLUE CAPRICE? 
Perhaps the biggest influence on Blue Caprice was In Cold Blood, Richard Brooks' 1967 black-and-white film based on the true crime book by Truman Capote. Because of this film, we knew that telling the story of the Beltway Snipers from the point of view of the criminals was a viable option.
From the Mouths of Filmmakers continues on Wednesday.