One of the most exciting parts of MSPIFF 2015 are the regional premieres of various films, and this one has a personal connection to the city.
Produced by Jonathan Demme (director of Silence of the Lamb, Philadelphia, Beloved) and shot locally in St Paul, Charlie Griak’s atmospheric debut focuses on a vulnerable young man who falls into the trap of a cult-like group. Ryan is a recent college grad searching not only for a job but also for a meaning in life. When he comes across a self-help organization, simply known as The Center, with a charismatic leader, Ryan seems to have found what he has been looking for.
The Center is a tense and surreal portrait of the dangerous nature of groupthink.
I had the pleasure of interviewing The Center‘s lead actor Matt Cici last year when he premiered his feature film debut Lambent Fuse right here at MSPIFF. It’s awesome that he’s back in yet another regional premiere, albeit in a different role, as a lead actor this time instead of in the directing chair.
The Center‘s film director Charlie Griak is an accomplished visual artist who has been working professionally as a freelance illustrator, storyboard artist, and animator since 1998. He is the creator of the short animated film Fever, an eight-minute narrative made up of over 4000 of his hand drawn illustrations. It earned a screenings in The Palm Spring International Festival of Short Films, The Seattle International Film Festival and The Raindance Film Festival in London. THE CENTER is Griak’s live action directorial debut.
Today we have an interview with both Matt and Cici about the film, thanks to both for the wonderful opportunity!
Questions for Charlie:
1. How did you come up w/ the concept about a cult? Is there a personal connection or is it something else that inspire you to write about this cautionary tale?
I’ve always been fascinated by group dynamics— whether in a workplace, at a school, or even in a family — so I thought that a movie about a cult would be an interesting place to explore these ideas. Without realizing I was doing it, I’ve been researching the topic for years and years.
This research has led to a lot of great personal revelations. Maybe the biggest thing I take away from it — and I hope it comes through in the movie — is that almost any group can have cult-like aspects. Often our beliefs and value systems are given to us from the outside rather than decided upon from within. I think this a valuable concept to explore as an artist.
2. Based on the press release, this project took over six year to make, so what’s the biggest challenge to bring this film to life?
Whenever you are tackling a large creative project, you need to be flexible and open-minded enough to find creative solutions to the obstacles that inevitably arises. Coupled with that, filmmaking requires a strong discipline from the filmmaker to keep going when times are tough. So there is a great balancing act that an independent filmmaker needs to perform — between great flexibility and great tenacity. So for me, that was always the biggest challenge — finding the right balance between those two seemingly contradictory requirements.
3. Your background as a storyboard artist/animator, how does your experience in the business assist you in the filming process?
Working as a storyboard artist and animator really instilled in me the importance of planning. In animation, planning is especially important because the process itself is so laborious. Ideally, you don’t draw any extra “footage” in animation. You have the edit in mind, down to the exact frame, before you finalize a single image. Having spent years working that way, it felt very natural to extensively pre-visualize The Center in storyboards before shooting anything.
4. There is a shot of Ryan from below where he’s at a skyway looking out into the street – you use that shot several times in the film. Is there a significance to that scene in particular or you just like the aesthetic of the shot itself?
I’ve spent a lot of time working for various companies in downtown Minneapolis and found myself watching the activity of the city from the skyways whenever I needed to get away and think. It always felt like it was a unique place — somewhat separated from the action of the city, but also right in the middle of it.
So I put Ryan in the skyways at several times in the film because I felt the visual elements of the location expressed his inner state of mind. He is trapped behind glass, very close to the people he wants to connect with but also unable to reach them. The skyways felt like metaphor for his life. I like trying to find a realistic location (one that logically makes sense to the film’s story) that also visually expresses the inner world of the characters involved. Hopefully that came through in those shots.
5. Would you share what’s a day in the life is like during filming? Especially during the intense meetings with the group leader Vincent?
I was so excited to be on set that I would jump out of bed and rush to our location before I would even eat breakfast. I couldn’t wait to start filming each day. In fact, for the first day of shooting, I was so excited that I think I showed up over 5 hours early! It really was a dream come true to actually get to make a movie, so I tried to soak up every second of it.
Once the day would officially begin, things moved very quickly. We had a finite time to shoot at each location so we had our schedule figured out in 15 minutes increments and we decided early on that we would never go over a 12 hour day if at all possible. That might sound a little rigid or contrary to the creative process, but I believe that having such a solid structure actually gave our team a lot of confidence during the production. Being organized created a safe and dependable environment for everyone to be at their best — creative, spontaneous and also willing to be vulnerable.
We had two local producers, Annie and Judd Einan, who did an amazing job of organizing and managing the production. A lot of the cast and crew told me that it was the best set they had ever worked on, and I think Annie and Judd deserve a huge amount of credit for that. I had seen their short film ”Blindspot” and was thoroughly impressed by what they had created. I was very lucky that they were interested in producing The Center.
6. Lastly, how did Jonathan Demme come to be involved as executive producer?
I feel so incredibly lucky to have Jonathan Demme on board as the film’s executive producer. He is one of my personal heroes as both a filmmaker and as a person.
In 2010, I was fortunate enough to be selected by Jonathan and Curious Pictures in NY to create imagery for an animated feature film that they were developing. As the project was being developed, Jonathan would send me parts of the script and I would him send him illustrations and animations. We went back and forth in this way for several years and along the way he and I developed a great collaborative partnership and a great friendship.
In 2012, I asked Jonathan if I could share my rough-cut of “The Center” with him. He was very excited to watch the film and really liked what he saw. Soon after, he set up an artist residency for me in Pleasantville, NY at The Jacob Burns Film Center where he and I worked with JBFC Editor Thom O’Connor to create the final edit of film.
Question for either Matt or Charlie: What would you like the audience to come away from watching this film?
I hope the film generates a lot of discussion in the audience about cults, human behavior, belief systems and group dynamics. I think there is no bigger compliment than hearing that my film made someone “think”.
But beyond simply the topic, I hope that the audience walks away feeling that were able to connect with the film and its characters. Because ultimately I think that is why audiences see films and why filmmakers make films — to connect with one another.
Questions for Matt:
1. How did you get involved with the project? Did you know Charlie or any of the producers before this film?
The Center was my first experience with Charlie and the rest of the team. I knew of Annie Einan, one of our producers/actors, from when she had expressed interest in my film, Lambent Fuse, but we hadn’t worked together yet.
This is the first feature film I’ve worked on as an actor. Primarily, I work as a crew member on films: directing/writing/editing and crewing on other films in various roles from 1st Assistant Director (AD) to Location Manager.
I found out about The Center in a most perfect time in my life:
I had just driven eight hours straight from South Dakota after a somewhat exhausting feature film production, where I served as 1st AD. Right when I got home I opened my Mac, brought up Facebook, and saw a post from Annie Einan mentioning they were casting for a feature film. I thought to myself, I wasn’t really in the mood to crew something at that moment, so I read on.
The part of Ryan jumped out to me immediately. But, I kept reading since I wasn’t sure if it jumped out to me only because it was the lead role. There was something about the way he was described that intrigued me. He was inspiring and depressing at the same time. It just sounded like someone I could connect with at that time. So, I sent a headshot and my résumé with a note mentioning I’d like to crew if they felt that would be a better fit.
Before showing up I shaved my head because I had sported a mohawk for the film I did in South Dakota. We all did it as a fun, bonding thing. I was a bit nervous that my shaved head, not looking anything like my headshot, would not play in my favor at the audition, especially when they asked me to take off a beanie I had worn to cover it up. But, I think it’s safe to say it didn’t.
Less than a week later, I received a call back audition, and we worked hard from that point forward to create Ryan together. They challenged me in so many wonderful ways, and the team was one happy unit. It was awesome!
And to think, had I not driven home at that exact moment, had I not opened my computer at that exact moment, had I not gone to Facebook at that exact moment, I would have never found this film. I wasn’t actively looking for a role to play; it found me, and as cheesy as that sounds, I’m so happy it did.
2. How did you approach this role of Ryan with his vulnerability as well as that ‘seeker’ aspect of this character?
It was something I connected with immediately when reading the audition character description. I approached it as attributes that also lived inside me. I felt really close to Ryan at the time of shooting. He was disconnected from the world. I think we all have had that feeling or understand “not fitting in.” There was a point in each of our lives when we just want to know what to do next. “Who should we be?” Once you’ve worked that out, you’ll need to figure out how do become that person. Ryan is looking for those answers too.
With acting, you’re being analyzed on every breath and every twitch. Each one of them matters. In film, there cannot be a wasted frame. Those moments matter to the people watching, but they matter even more to the character you’re playing. You, as an actor, become vulnerable to everyone around you: the film crew, the other talent, and the audience who will eventually watch the film. As people, we attempt to put on our best faces, and with each character they are doing the same.
On top of being vulnerable, it’s hard for him to find support at work and at home. He had nobody to turn to. At the time, I was in between places, and had just come off an exhausting film shoot. I was premiering a near-rough cut of my feature film at a festival. So, there was a mixture of amazing and tough. Though, I did have people that supported me. To connect more with Ryan, I would start separating myself from society. I’d go for long runs and bike rides where I’d be stuck with only my thoughts. Whatever I was doing during the day, I would imagine myself as Ryan: isolated, lost, and lacking confidence. Personally, it made me appreciate those around me so much more, but it was also a feeling that I’ll never forget, and I worked hard to show that in the film.
3. How much does your experience as a filmmaker help you as an actor?
Oh, I feel it definitely shaped the way I approached this film, and it’s always helpful to cross-train in the field of cinema. I understood the production aspects, from script to screen, as I was in the final stages of editing my first feature film when we started working on The Center. It makes you look at a script with so much more care knowing how many long nights Charlie, Wendy, and his circle of support went through to craft it (a minimum of 2 years). To know they had been working on such detailed pre-production plans before I found out about the project made me appreciate and work diligently to perfect each moment they gave me. Charlie and his team put on one of the most wonderful productions one could wish to be a part of.
It helped during each take, knowing what to give for the director and audience, but also some range for the editor. They’re the ones who eventually craft the story into what it’s going to be. A story changes dramatically from thought to paper and paper to film before the editor sees the story unfold. Then, he/she once again retells the story.
I feel that I’ve become a better filmmaker by taking on several different roles.
4. What’s your favorite scene to shoot from this film? Do you prefer the more intense or quieter moment of a scene?
I am not sure if my answer would change for another film, but I think I enjoyed the quieter moments more. There was always somewhere to go inside Ryan’s head. He was thinking constantly, and it was a lot of fun diving into his life. He did a lot of writing too, and I remember worrying a bit about what exactly I would write about. For some reason though, I couldn’t stop my pencil. Ryan was a very interesting person to play.
Question for either Matt or Charlie: What would you like the audience to come away from watching this film?
There are so many personal stories and experiences that came from this film for us and for our viewers. I’ve had people stop me afterward and share their experiences of having a family member or friend involved in a self-help group, cult, or cult-like group and what that was like for them and how that affected their lives. We are people. We care. If The Center can bring hope to someone or educate another, then it’s more than we could have ever asked for. Film is effective because it’s universal. It’s an art of storytelling, something we’ve been doing forever as beings on this planet; we’ve just found different ways to do it. I hope we can all see a film and talk about it. I will be impressed by everything that comes from this and thankful for the many that look to share these nights with us.
For more info: check out The Center’s official website
Hope you enjoy the interview! What are your thoughts about The Center?