It’s been ages since I’ve got time to write a review, but I knew I had to write one for this after I saw it last weekend.
I’ve mentioned PILGRIMAGE all the way back in January 2016. It’s been a long time coming but I’m glad I got to see it on the big screen (though it’s a shame it’s only playing in a single theatre in Twin Cities suburbs with odd screen times!)
In 13th century Ireland, a group of monks must escort a sacred relic across an Irish landscape fraught with peril.
The premise is simple, but it’s packs a punch in terms of its thought-provoking story and the unrelenting violence these monks face along the journey. It opens with a horrific stoning of Saint Matthias, the apostle chosen to replace Judas Iscariot following his betrayal. The barren landscape of Ireland, an island on the edge of the world is striking… there’s otherworldly feel to this raw, beautifully-shot film that immediately grabs your attention.
I saw this film mainly for the French actor Stanley Weber who plays a Cistercian priest, Brother Geraldus, and boy did he make quite an entrance. He came to the monastery and soon the monks are on a pilgrimage to escort a holy relic all the way to Rome. Naturally there’s tension mounting between the monks themselves, each have their own views of the significance of this relic.
Pilgrimage explores the themes of what faith means to people. It’s not a deep study of the subject, but it certainly makes a compelling case about religious fanaticism and that radical ‘faith’ can ultimately lead to radical consequences. The film is more of an ensemble cast comprised of four main characters, Tom Holland as Brother Diarmuid (the novice), Stanley Weber as the Cisterian, Jon Bernthal (the mute with a violent past) and Richard Armitage (Norman knight Raymond). I’d say Bernthal is perhaps the most fascinating of the four, simply because of his charismatic, wordless performance that makes you wonder throughout just exactly who this man is. He’s loyal to a fault to the monks but you know he’s a ruthless and dangerous man. It’s a physical role but that demands a quiet menace which Bernthal pulls off with aplomb.
Acting-wise, Holland, Bernthal and Weber are the most memorable to me. Armitage is good but I feel like he’s basically reprising his role as Guy of Gisborne in BBC Robin Hood, though his French is rather impressive. Interesting that Holland and Bernthal are now part of the lucrative Marvel Cinematic Universe (as Spiderman and Punisher respectively), but they’re both such talented actors that I hope they’ll continue to seek out smaller work such as this one that stretch their acting ability. Weber might not be a household name yet despite being cast in season 2 of Outlander, but he’s certainly got the charisma and acting chops of a leading man.
The film is quite violent, especially the attack in the woods that left practically everyone slashed, chopped and bludgeoned to death. There’s also a torture scene involving a Medieval torture device that sure made me wince. The action didn’t let up until the very end, set in a desolate beach that really takes your breath away. It’s so refreshing to see something unique that doesn’t fit the Hollywood mold. This is one of those rare films that’s not based on any literary works but is an original script by Jamie Hannigan. I love that director Brendan Muldowney also uses many languages in the film, Gaelic, French, Latin, English. I also appreciate that the film is shot on location, you can practically feel the misty air and cold breeze as you’re watching the film, which adds to the intense, gritty and bloody realism of the film.
If this is playing near you, I urge you to see it on the big screen. We need to support original films like this one as it’s becoming even more of a rarity. Made with a shoestring budget yet generates a big impact, I certainly don’t mind seeing this again on Bluray. I so agree with Keith’s review that big budgets aren’t essential to good moviemaking… and this film is definitely a testament of that.
Have you seen ‘PILGRIMAGE’? Well, what did you think?
When I first heard about Dragonfly about a year and a half ago, I was immediately intrigued by the fact that it’s a female-led feature and that it’s filmed in the Twin Cities. This is a debut feature for both Maribeth Romslo and Cara Green Epstein (who also wrote AND acted in the film).
I was thrilled that I got the chance to visit the set in early Fall of 2014, at the Public Functionary art gallery in Northeast Minneapolis. It was my first time visiting a film set in Minnesota, so it was so exciting to see the creative minds hard at work making their dreams a reality. Amidst their hectic schedule, both of them greeted me warmly and I had a chat with Cara during filming break.
Fast forward a year and a half later, Dragonfly is one of the indie films that will make its regional premiere at 2016 Minneapolis/St. Paul Film Festival (MSPIFF). It’s one of the films in competition in the Minnesota Made Narrative Feature category.
The story of Dragonfly is about homecoming and healing for a Midwestern family divided by divorce and illness.
Struggling artist Anna Larsen’s mother has never understood her. When her mom is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, Anna returns home to help but brings years of family baggage with her. As she unpacks her past, Anna rediscovers a mysterious mailbox from her childhood and embarks on a search to solve its mystery. What she learns along the way may just be the key to rekindling her own magic.
Check out the trailer below:
Unfortunately, my conversation with Cara that I taped got corrupted somehow, but the three creators of the film were gracious enough to still grant me an interview via email.
Q: What’s the inspiration for the story of Dragonfly?
Cara: We were interested in exploring the ideas of magic and discovery – how each of us can create magic in our own lives and in the lives of those around us, as well as how much there is to discover about ourselves and those around us. The idea that each of us has our own truth, and that truth is not absolute. In Dragonfly, we are exploring a moment in time when perspective changes profoundly for several characters and each of them is suddenly made aware that their truth is not the only truth and they are able to see each other more clearly and with greater generosity and care.
Q: How long did it take all of you from conception to finally getting the project off the ground?
Cara: I posted on FB on November 17, 2013 that I wanted to film something. Maribeth replied a few minutes later that she “knew a girl who could help. ;)” and I asked Mim about a month later if she wanted to produce this short film I was going to write and act in, so that was late 2013. I actually started writing the script in February 2014 and we finished the entire film on November 5, 2015.
Q: I know Cara, you reside in Chicago whilst Mim and Maribeth lives here in town, but what’s the reason behind filming the movie in the Twin Cities?
Cara: Making a movie takes a village and this is where our village is. It’s where Mim and I grew up and it’s where Maribeth is raising her family and where Mim has always lived. Many of the most important people in our lives live here and we knew (hoped) that they would support us in this endeavor. That said, the generosity and support that we have received, and continue to receive from the MN community has blown us away. The Minnesota arts and production community is brimming with talent. There is no doubt about that. But other cities in the country also have people with talent and skills. However, in Minnesota, the extremely talented and skilled arts, film, and commercial community is also exceedingly dedicated, supportive, adventurous, generous, and kind. It is an absolute joy to work here. From pre production through post, Minnesota lived up to the hype and proved itself to be the nicest state in the country to make a film.
Maribeth:Making our film in Minnesota totally spoiled us. It will be hard to make a film elsewhere after the positive experience we had making Dragonfly in Minnesota. At every step and on every level, Minnesota proved itself to be the nicest place ever to make a film.
We received incredible support from the Minnesota Film Board and the Snowbate Program. We were energized by the everyday kindness and excitement of our locations and supportive community. We were blown away by our 528 donors who made the film possible on Kickstarter. Our film was possible because of the open arms and support we found at every turn in Minnesota.
Mim: Working as an advertising broadcast producer in the Twin Cities I have such a respect for the amazing talent in film that we have locally. It was extremely important to us to tap into this fantastic film community and give the opportunity for many people to work on a feature film.
In addition to majority of the cast and crew of Dragonfly being from MN, the soundtrack exclusively showcases MN artists and bands like Cloud Cult, Caroline Smith, John Hermanson and The Ericksons. This film was really a love letter to Minnesota.
Q: Cara, I know you are a writer, actress and director, as some would say you’re a triple threat. Which of the three do you enjoy most and which you find most challenging? I reckon all of you had to wear multiple hats while filming?
Cara: I’m glad that I wore all three hats on this film because I learned SO MUCH. That said, I wouldn’t do it again because I would want to be able to focus more specifically on each role. I could not have co-directed this film without our director Maribeth. I learned so much about how the camera moves and how to frame a shot and how to use a camera to tell the story from her.
I think that acting is so FUN, especially when you’re not also the writer and a director and a producer ;). I had a great time acting and it was so fun to share the screen with incredible talents like Jennifer Blagen, Terry Hempleman, Matt Biedel, and of course, David Greene. But it was also really challenging to put the blinders on and just focus on being Anna when I was so aware of everything else that was going on in production at the same time.
I’d have to say that my favorite part was and is the writing. I loved creating a world and making up characters and breathing life into them. I really loved telling this story.
Maribeth: Independent film is like pushing a boulder up a hill. It’s making the impossible somehow possible. With no time, and with very little money. Given the crazy challenge of it all, wearing many hats is vital. Everyone from the director to a newbie production assistant all have to make smart and quick decisions to keep the production moving forward.
I’d be curious to know how many texts have been sent between Cara, Mim and myself over the last 2 years. I’m sure the number is staggering. One favorite that I’ll always remember is in the thick of production on the film, Mim texted a photo of the cover of the Dr. Seuss book The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. It perfectly captured what making an indie film is. Wearing all the hats to get that boulder up the hill.
Q: Tell us one of the most memorable experiences making this film.
Cara: Oh, there are so many! The last day that we shot with a full crew was the day that you came to set at Public Functionary. That night, at like 1am, we had this hilarious – well, now it’s hilarious but at the time it was incredibly frustrating moment – where we had multiple opinions about how to shoot a small piece of the scene. The shot should have taken 20 minutes, tops, and instead it took like an hour and twenty.
At one point, Maribeth actually stamped her foot in frustration, which, for Maribeth, is like screaming “F*&$!” at the top of your lungs, but she would never do that on set. But then we went back inside and shot this great little improv scene at the bar and then we were done. And I will always remember looking at Mim and Maribeth in disbelief and falling into a group hug with them and just whispering “We did it. I can’t believe we did it. Can you believe we did it?”
Of course, at the time, we didn’t realize that it would be another 13 months before the film was finished. But that was just a completely magical moment. We had taken on this insane challenge, and we had killed it with the help of an absolutely incredible cast and crew.
Maribeth:So hard to pick one, there are so many from production. Shooting at sunrise at the bottom of Minnehaha Falls, a 18 hour day at an art gallery with 40 extras, constantly “holding for plane” because our main location was in a busy flight path to MSP Airport.
But I think the most memorable experience of the whole process was the private screening of the newly finished film that we hosted in November at Riverview Theater. We rented the theater to share the film with our Dragonfly community (cast, crew, family and production supporters) before we shared it with film festivals and the world. Because making an indie film really takes a village, this meant we filled every spot in the 700-seat theater. It was such a beautiful celebration of all of the creative collaboration and hard work, to experience viewing the film for the first time on a big screen with our community.
Mim:There’s so many but let me tell you about one of the earlier experiences. Originally I came on board to this project thinking this was going to be a short film. We’d shoot a few weekends and we’d be done in a matter of months. Little did I know right? After the first round of creative concepting we realized the story we were telling was much more robust than a short film would allow. And I’ll never forget driving home with Cara, looking out in front of us, and she says blankly “Well…it looks like we’re making a feature” and I said with a gulp “I guess so.” It was so clear that this project had just gotten astronomically bigger in one afternoon but also that this was a daunting adventure that we were ready to embark on. It was the start of everything.
Q: Given that the gender disparity in Hollywood is such a hot topic these days, would you comment a bit about your own experience as a female filmmaker working on your feature debut?
Cara: It’s totally normal to me. I mean, it’s my debut feature so this is what I know. What I will say is that we created a really lovely community of people who care about each other, celebrate each other, and have continued to work together. I’m probably the most proud of that, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that we are community builders and care takers. The relationships on screen and off are important to us. It was also really important to us that everyone – every single person who worked on the film – felt valued. I don’t know how much of that had to do with our being women, or the fact that 50% of our cast and crew were women, but I do think that when different types of people work together, we are all better for it.
I will also say that I was shocked to discover just how bad the numbers are for women in Hollywood and the amount of sexism that exists there. It’s crazy and I’m glad that we were able to create a reality where that was not the case. And to prove that you can make a kick ass film in the process.
Maribeth:I have 4 brothers, so I’m not one to be uncomfortable in settings where I’m the only girl. But I’ve found as a filmmaker it happens so often. I once went to a lighting workshop where in a room of 100 filmmakers, I was one of 3 women. And while I’m happy to hang with the guys, it’s an issue because of perspective. More specifically the lack of diversity in the perspectives of storytellers.
I look forward to the day when things become more balanced and I’m just a “filmmaker”, not a “female filmmaker”. But that’s not possible right now, because only 7% of top Hollywood films are directed by women. And that means that the conversation must continue so we can all work together towards more equality and diversity in the perspectives in our storytellers.
Because the stories we tell and experience shape us.
Mim:It was shocking to us when we realized just how rare it was to see women working in Hollywood. As we worked to build Dragonfly’s cast and crew we so often looked for the best person for the job…who more than 50% of the time ended up being a woman. Cara, Maribeth and myself didn’t look to find other women to work on this necessarily…we looked for the best person for the job.
Dragonfly was built on bringing people into our village and making them feel like this experience was worth their while. We asked everyone coming on board what they wanted to get out of this experience and then we did what we could to give them that opportunity. That, I believe, created an atmosphere where people gave an enormous part of themselves to the project. We really felt like family in the end. Women have a lot of stories to tell and are just as creative, innovative and driven as their male counterparts. That was proven to me time and again throughout the making of Dragonfly.
It’s safe to assume that James Franco loves literary adaptations. The Adderall Diaries is based on a memoir of the same name by Stephen Elliot. Franco played Stephen, a writer who seems to be at the height of his career. His agent constantly calls him about various book deals and options. There’s even a new romance in the air, as he met a pretty reporter from the Times (Amber Heard) during a high-profile murder trial. Yet he’s still haunted by the ghost of his traumatic past, especially his *monster* dad who through a series of flashbacks seems like a beligerent and abusive father Neil who made his childhood a living hell. During a reading of his memoir, Neil suddenly turned up and confronted his son just as Stephen was reading from his memoir that he was deceased.
Needless to say, Stephen’s life went on a downward spiral as the book deals quickly dried up. He descended into self-destructive behavior with substance abuse (with Adderall tablets being his drug of choice) and BDSM sessions with prostitutes, all the while his daddy-issues overwhelmed him to the point that he alieniated everyone close to him. It’s hard to tell fact from fiction in a blur of drug-induced haze Stephen constantly puts himself under. Therein lies the crux of the story: what is really fact and what is a product of his imagination? The film asks the question of what it means to tell the truth, and how we often choose to see things our own way. In the case of Stephen, all his life he incessantly sees himself as the *victim.*
There are a lot going on in this film, but the father/son relationship is central to the story. There’s a facet of crime drama in the murder trial subplot, but it’s always seen through Stephen’s eyes and how those events bring out elements from his own past. I don’t always get what is going on in a particular scene, but the film’s pace and script remains engaging and some of the cryptic moments intrigue instead of frustrate me. Perhaps the fact that writer/diretor Pamela Romanowsky studied behavioral psychology at Macalester College in MN made her the right person to adapt this book.
The performances are ace all around. James Franco delivered a convincing performance as someone who’s totally lost and full of anger. Stephen isn’t exactly a likable character, yet there’s a layered vulnerability and real angst that made me sympathize with him. The always reliable Ed Harris is phenomenal here as Stephen’s estranged dad, the scenes between the two of them are the most intense and emotional parts of the film. The rest of the supporting cast, Amber Heard, Cynthia Nixon, Jim Parrack and Christian Slater are solid as well.
This is a confident directorial debut from Romanowsky. There are quite a few flashback scenes in the film and at times they serve as scenes from the character’s memories. So it’s crucial that the transition isn’t jarring or become too hard to follow. I never felt lost watching the story and that’s a testament to a deft direction. Not only did the story translate well cinematically, she also brought out excellent performances from her actors.
I’m thrilled that Pamela’s next project will be writing and directing Chuck Palahniuk‘s novel Rant: The Oral Biography of Buster Casey. Based on this article, the novel is set in a dystopian future and involves people competing in a secret game of demolition derby, all while the world becomes an even worse place as time passes. James Franco is set to play the title role once again, it definitely sounds intriguing and I can’t wait to see what Pamela will do with that project.
I had the privilege of chatting with director Pamela Romanowsky about making the film, working with James Franco & Ed Harris, and the challenges being a female filmmaker in Hollywood.
Q: How did you come on board this project?
I read The Adderall Diaries for the first time as a casual reader. It was in the window at my neighborhood bookstore in Brooklyn (which is where James signs books in the opening scene of the film), and I finished it in a couple days. It really stuck with me, in particular his insights and admissions about how we edit our memories to fit a personal narrative. Some months later in Detroit, James and I were working together on The Color of Time, a multi-director adaptation of CK Williams’ brilliant poetry collection TAR. My vignette is an adaptation of the poem “Tar” and it’s also about how memory affects our experience of the present. James asked me if I would be interested in adapting a book he’d optioned called The Adderall Diaries. Of course I jumped at the opportunity.
Q: What was the challenges of adapting a novel/memoir into a screenplay?
It’s a different set of challenges for each project. In this case, it was figuring out how to translate the book’s foundational themes and ideas into cinematic language. The form and style of the book is very different from a movie- It’s about moments and impressions more than it is a traditional story with a plot and character arcs. The quote that opens the movie is one I had pinned up on my writing board, which I think is the beating heart and central idea of the book.
Stephen says, “We understand the world by how we retrieve memories. Re-order information into stories to justify how we feel.” I’m deeply moved by that thought, both the truthfulness of it and his willingness to expose it in himself. We all know memory is an emotionally charged and unreliable thing, and that’s easy to point out as a concept, even easier to point out in another person who has a different version of our story, but few of us have the balls to point to it in ourselves.
The central conflict in the movie is that Stephen and his father Neil have organized the facts of what happened between them into very different stories. Each man has cast himself as the victim, and so he needs the other to admit some culpability so he can be right. In the movie, it takes all these other satellite characters orbiting Stephen (his girlfriend, his best friend, his muse and his editor) to get into conflict with him at the same time, before it finally clicks that if everyone edits their memory to validate an emotional position, he’s doing it, too.
It took me two years to get from first draft to the first day on set, and I was re-writing the whole way. The biggest leaps and best insights came out of the work I did with the Sundance Institute, where I was a fellow at the screenwriting, directing and sound/music labs. My experiences there changed not only how I approached this project, but how I approach my job and my voice as a writer and director in general. Michelle Satter, founding director of the feature film program, and Robert Redford, who needs no introduction, were two of my most helpful and primary advocates throughout, reading scripts, watching cuts, and opening doors.
Q: Which do you enjoy most, writing or directing?
Directing. I didn’t know what the job meant until I was in it, and I feel really lucky to have stumbled upon my dream job. It’s the intersection of all of my interests, joys and skills, and it’s never ever the same thing twice. It keeps me constantly on my toes and learning, working with brilliant people. It’s about adjusting, trying to zero in on the thing you want from different approaches (I always think of a GPS saying “re-calculating” over and over again). I love the great leap of faith into intimacy everyone has to take, especially between actors and directors. You expose a lot of yourself working scenes out, whether you talk about it overtly or not. How do you lie? How do you flirt or chase respect? How do you experience regret or sex or losing your temper or ignoring the elephant in the room? It’s all in there, and you get to know and respect each other in really deep ways.
There’s deep beauty and satisfaction in writing, too, but for me it’s much less pleasurable than directing.
Q: You had worked with James Franco before when you did ‘The Color of Time’ while at NYU. How did the rest of the cast come on board this project?
I met James in grad school at NYU where we both did the MFA film program. He’s always felt like a kindred spirit and we became friends right away, but we hadn’t worked together until The Color of Time. We got to bond in a deeper way as collaborators on that film and even more so on Adderall, and he’s become one of my closest and most treasured friends. He’s magnetic and inspiring, and works harder and more passionately than anyone.
Ed Harris was my mentor at the Sundance Director’s lab, which felt like some kind of crazy hand-of-god fate, because I’d written the part for him without ever knowing I’d get the chance to meet him or tell him so. He was advising me the day I shot the workshop version of Stephen and Neil’s climactic scene (with the fantastic actors Luke Kirby and Dennis Boutsikaris), and at one point Ed asked if he could jump in to offer a suggestion. He hugged Luke and then tossed him over the hood of a car, and I just stood there breathlessly, seeing the character I’d imagined for so long come vividly to life. Ed is electric and that’s so exciting to be around.
Jim Parrack (Roger) is one of James’ oldest friends in real life. Their rapport, in all its competitive, loving, intense glory, is very real. My favorite scene to shoot with them was the boxing scene, because they’re trained boxers and they both learned with the great Macka Foley, who was on set, too. That day was all-in and so intense.
Amber Heard (Lana), Christian Slater (Hans), Cynthia Nixon (Jen) and Timothee Chalamet (Teenage Stephen) all came through my friend Danie Streisand, a phenomenal talent agent who I call the secret casting director of this movie. She cared about and got the project like nobody else, and with each of those actors, it was the most obvious match in the world from the moment I got to meet with them. Each actor brings something different to set, and it’s fascinating to watch how those energies intersect and change each other.
Q: Tell me what it’s like working with Franco and Ed Harris, both of whom are committed and versatile actors working today.
Joan Darling, my acting teacher at the Sundance labs, says that a great actor is like a high speed train- even the smallest adjustment at the beginning of a scene will take you in a very different direction by the end. James and Ed are certainly high-speed trains, and it was an absolute honor and joy to work with them. They’re game to experiment, they commit entirely, they’re emotionally rigorous and they’re fiercely allergic to bullshit. Watching how they communicated and reacted to each other within the scenes was stunning. It’s worth noting that Ed and James are both directors as well- They’re smart and generous people by nature, but I think they were particularly attuned to and patient with what I needed technically and camera-wise because they’re clocking my coverage and know to advocate for that last setup we don’t really have time for but will need in the editing room. And they’re both veterans. What they’ve seen on set and in the industry, as actors and directors, is precious insight for a young director to have.
Q: Given that the gender disparity in Hollywood is such a hot topic these days, would you comment a bit about your own experience as a female filmmaker working on your feature debut?
I’m glad that gender disparity in Hollywood is a hot topic. It should be. Four percent of the top one hundred box office films are directed by women. FOUR. Many years, that number has been lower, and the numbers are similar for people of color and other minorities. How can an industry that represents and creates culture not be affected and made toxic by that obvious, shameful degree of discrimination?
The thing is, the difference between my experience as a first time indie filmmaker and a women embarking on a career in Hollywood will be very different. I’m here talking to you, so obviously I’m one of the women who made a debut feature. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but not because I’m a woman. I had the support and respect of everyone I worked with.
After this, my experience will likely change. Women who make good indie first features don’t get asked to make big studio movies like Spiderman or Jurassic Park. But men do get to take that massive leap. The same number of women and men attend prestigious film schools and write good, vetted screenplays. The first hurdle comes with financing and thus making that first feature. Only 25% of American directors at Sundance are women, skewed heavily toward documentaries. But 25% is a hell of a lot more than 4%. The real obstacle for female directors isn’t making the first indie feature, it’s the opportunity to launch from there into Hollywood. And that’s a very old and carefully guarded obstacle to move. I’m still gonna do my damndest to get there, obviously.
I always love stories of redemption and I think a smaller film can often tell such stories in a more sincere, heartfelt way. A Year and Change is a slice-of-life film of a divorcee named Owen who after a failed marriage is a bit lost and drifting aimlessly through life. After falling off the roof at a New Year’s Eve house party, Owen decides that it’s time to make some wholesale changes in his life. In the course of one year, he tries to regain control of his life and in the process he finds new love again. Romance is a big part of the film but it’s not everything this film is about, it’s more about a man’s journey of overcoming the hurdles in his life that keeps him from making the most of his life.
I’ve never seen any film of Bryan Greenberg before and suddenly I saw two of his films where he played the lead. He’s definitely got the gentle charisma as a leading man, but I love the authentic way he portrays the role of Owen. A lot of actors might have the charisma, but not necessarily the sincere vulnerability that make a certain character sympathetic and relatable. The bittersweet romantic drama is a solid directorial debut from Stephen Suettinger. I like how he tells Owen’s story in an understated way and nary of grating over-sentimentality. The film also deals with dark subjects but without resorting to being overly gloom and doom.
The film has a terrific supporting cast: Claire Van Der Boom, T.R. Knight, Jamie Chung, Jamie Hector and Marshall Allman. Interesting that he’s shared some scenes with Jamie again whom he co-starred in It’s Another Tomorrow in Hong Kong. The script is engaging and the pacing is just right, plus it’s got a pretty cool soundtrack that fits the tone and mood of the story.
I’m glad to hear that the public will be able to see this soon! Vision Films will release the film across North America on DVD and VOD this Thanksgiving November 24th 2015.
Check out the trailer:
TCFF Screening Time(s): 10/27/2015 (8:15 PM)
I had the privilege of chatting with director Stephen Suettinger about making the film, so thanks so much Steve for the wonderful and entertaining insights!
Q. How did you come to collaborate with Emily Ting? Did you work together before this project?
A couple of years ago, Emily produced one of Jim Beggarly’s scripts called ‘The Kitchen’ which also happened to star Bryan Greenberg. So when Bryan attached to AYAC, I went straight to Emily to see if she’d be interested in coming on board to produce. Thankfully she joined the project or else we may never have gotten the movie made!
Q. I’m always interested in films about second chances in life or starting over, how did you and/or Jim Beggarly come up with the story? I think this is the first time I come across a film with a vending machine owner as the protagonist.
Jim sent me the original script back in 2006. Yes, it took 9 years (!) to finally get it to the screen. To put that in perspective, I’ve had 4 kids since I first read the original draft of Jim’s script which used to be called ‘Dear Jen.’ After reading it back then, I fell in love with the characters. They reminded me of people I knew growing up in Maryland (Jim also grew up here). I was a big fan of Owen being a vending machine owner because there’s this natural paradox of him being in a position to help people (even if just to satisfy their hunger) and yet it’s this very solitary kind of job. He’s often alone, even within a crowd of people.
I knew I loved the characters, but I didn’t find my way ‘in’ to the story until after my Mom passed away in 2011. They say that when a parent dies, you take one step into the grave with them. Luckily I have a supportive family that made sure that I didn’t spiral into depression. AYAC’s lead character Owen, I realized, didn’t have that kind of support system. So after the many tragedies that he’s lived through (the loss of his parents, the dissolution of his marriage), he’s just kind of ‘stuck’. It became clear to me that AYAC should be a story about Owen surrounding himself with a surrogate family. So that’s the direction that we ultimately took with the story.
Q. You’ve worked as an AD as well as in Special Effects (for Avatar, wow!!), how did you get into the film industry?
My first job in the industry was as an Editor’s PA on the movie ‘Contact.’ I helped set up the editing bays and a screening room in Washington DC when the crew came here to shoot on location. One of the perks of the job was that I got to watch dailies with the director (Robert Zemeckis), the actors, the DP, the editors, and the Producers. It was my first time ‘seeing behind the curtain’ of a movie, and I was instantly hooked. From there I worked as a PA on a bunch of movies that came through the DC/Baltimore area before working as a Production Coordinator for the Discovery Channel.
I directed my first short called ‘Writing Wrongs’ and it was a great experience – but I learned quickly that I didn’t know some of the basic fundamentals of filmmaking. So I went back to grad school at USC’s School of the Cinematic Arts and tried to learn a bit about every discipline involved in the craft of filmmaking. Upon graduating, I reached out to my friends from ‘Contact’ and got a job on Robert Zemeckis’s new motion capture movie ‘Beowulf.’ My job was basically to take Bob Z’s notes and to help out the script supervisor. From there, I moved onto ‘Avatar’ where I was taking James Cameron’s notes and was also on the 3D implementation team for a couple of years. But my dream was always to direct this little script that a playwright from NYC had sent me in 2006 – and after 3 weeks of shooting in December 2013, we finally got it in the can. And now here we are.
Q. How did you come to cast Bryan Greenberg? Would you share about the casting process?
At the premiere of ‘The Kitchen,’ my understanding is that Bryan asked Jim what else he was working on. Jim called me and asked if he could give the script to Bryan. I’ve long been a fan of Bryan’s work so of course I said “please do!” Bryan read it on the plane back to LA, and loved it. I flew out to meet with him shortly after that and we hit it off. He happened to be friends with some of the people I had in mind for the other roles, so it worked out perfectly. Bryan is such a wonderful guy that people really wanted to work with him, so once he came on board, casting moved forward quickly.
Q. You shot your film on location in Montgomery County, MD, which was your hometown. I saw that you shot it during Autumn, my favorite season. What’s been the best moments as well as challenges of making your first feature?
It’s hard to shoot a movie that takes place over an entire year on a very limited budget and a three week production schedule. In order to make Maryland look like any season (but pre-dominantly Fall/Winter since the bulk of the movie takes place in these months), we knew that we’d either have to shoot in December or March. To be honest, we got incredibly lucky with the weather. There’s a saying in Maryland that if you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes. There were days when it snowed 6+ inches, which was perfect for the winter scenes, and there were days where it was 60 degrees outside which was perfect for the Spring/Summer scenes. Incredibly, the weather cooperated with us for the most part. Of course there were several occasions where I had to re-write a scene to take place indoors when it was supposed to be an exterior scene, on the night before shooting it – but that happens all the time with low budget independent film-making.
We went to great lengths to shoot during the hiatuses of the big shows that film in Maryland (House of Cards and Veep) so that we could hire some of their crewmembers. We’re very fortunate to have experienced industry professionals as well as vendors (rental houses, post facilities, sound facilities, etc) in the area who are always willing to lend a hand to local filmmakers.
Since I knew we’d be shooting in Maryland, I tailored the script to take place in some of the locations that I knew and loved. But that can be both a blessing and a curse. One of the biggest lessons I learned along the way is that I should try very hard not to shoot in my own house (displacing my family of 5 – including 3 young kids at the time), my in-law’s house, my father’s house, my sister’s house, etc… They were very supportive and we wouldn’t have been able to make the movie without their generosity, but filming in your loved one’s houses brings a whole other set of worries to the table.
Autumn is my favorite season too! It was one of the things I missed most about the East coast while living in LA. …
Thanks again Emily and Stephen for chatting w/ me yesterday!
Proxy begins with Esther Woodhouse (Alexia Rasmussen), who is nine months pregnant, at an ultrasound appointment, talking to a technician (Shayla Hardy). Rasmussen’s stunningly removed vocal and facial affect tells us that Esther is, at the very least, depressed. Co-writer/director ZachParker’s decisions are just as unsettling. For instance, Esther’s pregnancy belly is shaped oddly; the sonogram never looks like a fully formed baby; the technician’s conversation is bizarre; and so forth. Everything about the opening scene tells us that something is wrong, foreshadowing the next development, when someone with skinny legs and a red sweatshirt brutally attacks Esther. The mother survives, but the baby does not, and so begins a series of off-putting conversations, culminating in Esther meeting Melanie Michaels (Alexa Havins) at a support group. The two women form a friendship, but their relationship is complicated by a variety of factors, including, but not limited to, Patrick (Joe Swanberg), Anika (Kristina Klebe), Peyton (Xavier Parker) and Melanie’s own mental instability.
In the early going, Proxy is atmospherically mind-bending, featuring considerable tension that causes confusion without frustration. It helps that the two featured characters, and the actors who play them, are compelling. Esther and Melanie are disturbed but still interesting, especially Esther, whose mental illness we do not understand until it’s too late.
Throughout, Parker’s artistic decisions—including a slow-motion sequence and an odd fantasy in the picture’s climax—build tension. Rasmussen’s entrancing performance helps just as much. In her hands, Esther might be a psychopath, a broken victim or something in between.
Unfortunately, Proxy does not sustain such quality, largely because many of the twists make Melanie less believable, but mostly because Patrick and Anika are not as interesting as Esther and her new friend. Swanberg plays Patrick with, more or less, a single facial expression, one that makes a would-be complex character decidedly one-note. As such, whenever Proxy focuses on him, it suffers. Ditto that for Anika, though for different reasons. Klebe’s performance is fine, but the character she plays is poorly written, so poorly that Anika is archetypal, unexplained and unbelievable.
Parker and Donner’s portrayal of women doesn’t help either. The three primary females are, to varying degrees, insane, and the minor characters are either insensitive or weak. Would I call Proxy sexist? Probably not, but, at the least, I can understand why some (including Slant magazine) have. And, whether or not the film is biased, such characterization means we never genuinely empathize with any of these characters. In turn, we never feel Proxy’s would be emotion (I am aware that Slant’s review makes this point, as well).
For all of that, Proxy remains interesting enough to warrant a tepid recommendation, if only because, it does successfully buy our interest. We want to know what will happen next.
What with simple focus on a small acting class, The Animal Project is not the most complex movie at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, but it is nonetheless a solid, character-driven dramedy.
In centering her Canadian film on Leo (Aaron Poole), a father, widower and acting teacher, writer/director Ingrid Veninger wisely chooses a complex and likable protagonist. Leo contends with considerable baggage, not the least of which is a positive but strained relationship with his eighteen-year-old son, Sam (Jacob Switzer), and muddled interaction with one of his students, Saul (Joey Klein). Eventually, Leo devises a plan to challenge his students by having them dress up in costumes and walk around town, offering free hugs to people they meet.
That is, more or less, the extent of The Animal Project’s plot, which is why it proves meritorious that Veninger develops some interesting characters. Leo, Sam and Saul are all multidimensional. Even better, Leo and Sam’s father-son relationship forms a terrific emotional core, one that produces several moments of intense feeling, both when the two argue and when they reconcile.
The relationship between Leo and Saul, however, is less skillfully written. Though Leo probably is not gay, the two men share odd, underexplored sexual tension. Even by the end of the movie, we do not fully understand how these two men relate, or why they do so. Perhaps that is why The Animal Project is best when it focuses on Sam or Leo.
Or maybe it’s because the rest of the acting class characters are all undeveloped. Of them, Pippa (Jessica Greco) is the best, but that’s mostly because she’s intimately connected to both Leo and Sam. Ray (Emmanuel Kabongo) is worst. Alice (Hannah Cheesman), Jason (Jonathon Sousa), and Mira (Sarena Parmar) fall somewhere in the middle. In the end, even Pippa is underwritten, which means none of the secondary characters resonate, and The Animal Project stumbles every time it focuses on one of them, which it does semi-frequently. The film probably would have been better if it had been less ensemble and placed greater priority on Leo, Sam and Saul.
Still, The Animal Project is far from bad in its current form. With several laugh-out-loud funny moments and terrific acting performances all around (especially from Poole, Switzer, Klein and Greco), itis entertaining and occasionally moving. Not to mention worth viewing.
3 out of 5 reels
What do you think of these two films? Intriguing enough for you?
I almost lost my opportunity to see this movie on the big screen. I was invited to a screening by TCFF a few weeks ago but I couldn’t make it as I wasn’t feeling well. But thankfully, I was able to make it to this press screening and boy, am I glad I did!
This film definitely reminds me of Stand By Me which I saw ages ago. Two best friends Joe & Patrick desperately trying to escape their families and they spend their Summer building a house in the woods and living off the land. The third guy Biaggio, ended up joining them as Joe ‘didn’t know how to get rid of him’ ahah.
I immediately connected with the characters, especially Joe (Nick Robinson) who lives with his overbearing widower dad Frank (the hilarious Nick Offerman). His BFF Patrick (Gabriel Basso) also live with his insufferable parents (Megan Mullally is a hoot as his overprotective mom – oh btw, I just learned today that she & Offerman are real-life married couple!). Both parents are harmless really, but I could see why their um, parenting style drive the kids away from home. And one night after Joe got lost in the woods after a party, with an oddball schoolmate Biaggio in tow, found just the perfect place to escape to.
This movie is billed as a comedy and it’s certainly has some laugh-out-loud moments, but it’s surprisingly heartfelt as well. For all of us who are young at heart, this film is quite relatable and also brings back memories of our youth. The scenes of the three teens trying to survive in the woods and wanting to prove that they’re capable ‘men’ not boys are both moving and funny.
I’m glad to see an indie film that paints an earnest picture of teens and the struggles of adolescence without resorting to something sinister or somber. I mean, there are dark moments but by no means bleak. It’s also not overtly sexual, which is very refreshing for a teen film (though it is rated R for the foul language). Even the romance storyline is handled quite well here. It’s not frivolous or gratuitous and fits well with the coming-of-age theme of the story.
This is director Jordan Vogt-Roberts‘ feature film debut as he did mostly TV work, but I hope he does more movies in the future. This is one of the funniest and refreshingly honest films I’ve seen, boasted by engaging performances and beautiful cinematography that makes you want to book your next vacation camping in the woods!! [If you know me at all, that’s saying a lot as I’m not even an outdoor person]
I love movies with memorable characters, and this film is chock full of them. The younger actors are wonderful, they don’t seem as if they’re acting at all, which is impressive in its own right. I’m especially impressed with 18-year-old Nick Robinson as Joe, and this is also his debut feature film! He’s quite a natural on screen, and you could say he’s the protagonist of the film.
Moises Arias as the quirky Biaggio is a hoot and practically stole every scene he’s in! Those who watch Park & Recreation no doubts would be entertained by Nick Offerman and his deadpan comedic style. His scene with the delivery guy about some large wontons had me in stitches!
I can’t recommend this enough, folks. I hope you get a chance to see this one the big screen or at the very least give it a rent. It’d likely end up in my top 10 of 2013. It’d make an excellent diversion to the big blockbuster Summer movies hitting theaters in the next few months. Great script, performances, scenery and soundtrack — it’s got all the ingredients to make an entertaining film. But mostly, watch it for the funny and engaging story of friendship and family.
This film was nominated for this year’s Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. I’d think it might even deserve to win more awards!
Anybody else’s seen this yet? What do you think of this film?
Two of the films I was impressed with at MSPfest happen to be directed by women. One was Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which is as far away from this one in terms of tone and subject matter, but I’d highly recommend both. I like the fact that this one is a comedy, it’s quite rare to see a well-written comedies these days that don’t contain overly foul language and/or crude sexual/bathroom humor. Thankfully, this debut film from Lake Bell contains neither, but it definitely delivers the laughs and then some.
In A World (2012)
An underachieving vocal coach is motivated by her father, the king of movie-trailer voice-overs, to pursue her aspirations of becoming a voiceover star. Amidst pride, sexism and family dysfunction, she sets out to change the voice of a generation.
As someone who watch at least half a dozen movie trailers a week, the premise definitely appeals to me. In fact, earlier today I saw a trailer of Inescapable that pretty much had this cheesy VO narration that tells you the plot of the story. The protagonist of this movie, Carol (Lake Bell), lives under the shadow of her voice-over star dad Sam Solomon (Fred Melamed). After being kicked out of her dad’s house to accommodate for his new young wife — which Carol refers to as his groupie — she has to pack her bags and live with her sister.
As a vocal coach, Carol often has to coach certain celebrities when they have to adopt a certainly adopt a certain accent, but voicing a trailer is still pretty much an elite boys club. An opportunity suddenly presents itself when a big studio is looking for a voice over for a quadrilogy blockbuster sci-fi franchise and with the help of her friend Louis (Demetri Martin), she just might have a chance to break into the glass ceiling of that industry. The whole VO competition involving her dad and another VO star Gustav, an eccentric douche bag who takes a shine on Carol, provide most of the laughs. Ken Marino is a hoot as Gustav, a familiar face though I can’t quite put my finger on what movies I’ve seen him in. There’s also a comical side plot about Carol’s sister marital infidelity involving a seductive hunk in the form of Irish hunk Jason O’Mara. Seriously who could resist him with his natural Irish brogue 😉
This is the first time I’ve seen Lake Bell, though I’ve heard of her before this movie. She not only star in this but also wrote and directed her debut film, and I must say I’m impressed! She’s got excellent comic timing and a knack for accents, and the story is surprisingly engaging and downright hilarious. The tall and svelte Bell could make a living as a model but she really made herself to look very plain here as a perpetually-disheveled tomboy whose ‘signature look’ is a denim overall. But she’s instantly likable and she surround herself with equally affable and amusing characters.
It was fun to see cameos from Geena Davis, Eva Longoria and Cameron Diaz as well, the scene of Longoria struggling to say just one simple line with a British accent had me in stitches! This movie premiered in Sundance a few months ago and I hope it’ll get some decent distribution in the coming months. I’m glad I got to see this comedic gem, and it’s one I actually don’t mind seeing again.