MICHAEL PALMIERI AND DONAL MOSHER.
Michael Palmieri & Donal Mosher
There have been several recent documentary films about dysfunctional working-class families dealing with issues ranging from co-dependency, abuse and the fraying of family ties to the decades-long collapse of the American dream. But there's something special about Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher's feature doc October Country. It's a visually seductive, conceptually concise yearlong portrait of director Mosher's own upstate New York extended family, a portrait that imbues these tough and oftentimes sad figures with a haunted poetry. Filming one year from Halloween to Halloween, Palmieri and Mosher use the theme of ghosts and hauntings to give their film an almost otherworldly dimension, suspending its subjects in a netherworld between the present and the past while probing the motivations behind family members' failed decision-making.
Mosher is the son who escaped his home and family, which includes his PTSD-afflicted father, his estranged Wiccan aunt, and a sister whose boyfriends all wind up as absentee fathers. But while Mosher physically left the town, his family remained with him as subjects of his photography and non-fiction writing. Palmieri, whose background is in music videos (The New Pornographers, the Foo Fighters, The Strokes) and commercials, came across Mosher's photos one day in a San Francisco gallery. Later, they connected. Says Palmieri, "We met in a drag club and within 10 minutes we bonded over the photographer Helen Levitt and couldn't stop talking about photography and film. We fell in love and now we're a couple." Mosher said he never thought about making a movie about his family "until I saw the way Mike captures images."
Continues Palmieri, "We learned how good a match we were as a filmmaking team. A director usually gets the final say, and I had never been in a situation where you share that challenge with somebody else. It's definitely improved me as a filmmaker. He has a background in film theory and photography, and mine is more as a traditional filmmaker. It's hard to explain — sometimes I can show what I can't put into words with a bunch of images while he can articulate a feeling through constructive logic that I can't do."
Of the actual process of shooting October Country, which won the Grand Jury prize at Silverdocs this year, and interacting with his family, Mosher says, "We did it carefully at first. I had been photographing them for quite a while, so the camera in their daily life was not that troubling. They opened up immediately for Mike. They weren't afraid to talk about any subject because I was there, but because Mike was there, they had to explain it to him, which was good because it was like explaining it to an audience." Next, the Portland-based duo is preparing a documentary, Lab Rats, that, says Palmieri, is "about human guinea pigs, people who do drug testing for a living. It explores the problems inherent in for-profit motive for medicine." — S.M.
PAOLA MENDOZA. PHOTO BY RICHARD KOEK.
To say Paola Mendoza, 29, had a trying childhood would be an understatement. After her family moved to Los Angeles from Colombia when she was 2, her father left, leaving Paola, her older brother and her mother to fend for themselves. Fast-forward to her early teens: Mendoza started gangbanging in L.A. until her mother intervened and put her on a plane back to Colombia to stay with her aunt. "I had a lot of anger issues because of my father," she says. "But going to Colombia completely changed my life; it exposed me to things most people living in a 10-block radius in the U.S. would never see."
Promising her mother she would return to attend college, just a year later Mendoza came back to L.A. for her senior year of high school and discovered acting, which gave her a way to channel her anger and frustration. She enrolled at UCLA to study theater and then moved to New York to attend Sarah Lawrence College, where she received her master's. Soon after she collaborated with fellow UCLA alum Michael Skolnik on the 2005 Slamdance Grand Jury and Audience Award winning ensemble film, On the Outs. In a riveting performance, Mendoza starred as Marisol, a young girl in juvenile prison struggling to keep her child. In addition to acting, Mendoza was given the chance to voice her creative input during story development, on the set and in the edit room. "That year-and-a-half was my film school," she says. "That's how film became a part of my life." Mendoza next co-directed the documentary Autumn's Eyes, had a powerful supporting role in the '07 Sundance Grand Prize winner Sangre de mi Sangre (a.k.a. Padre Nuestro), and now has brought to the screen a riveting and emotional story based on her own life.
Mendoza co-directs Entre nos with Autumn's Eyes editor Gloria La Morte. She stars as an immigrant mother abandoned by her husband who struggles to feed her two children as they live on the streets and collect cans for money. "I've never been in therapy but the three years making the film has been the closest thing," she says. "I haven't spoken to my father in 10 years but [after] writing this I began to understand — not agree — but to understand why he did what he did."
Receiving strong reviews for her acting and directing when Entre nos premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year (the film also received an honorable mention from the jury), one of Mendoza's biggest thrills has been the Colombian reaction. "The premiere [at Tribeca] sold out in 15 minutes and lo and behold it was the Colombian community," she says. "They thanked me for not having drugs or violence in the movie because that's all we're thought of. This is my small gift to my country." — J.G.
Contact: Lillian LaSalle at Sweet 180: (212) 541-4443
DESTIN DANIEL CRETTON. PHOTO BY RYAN FERNANDEZ.
Destin Daniel Cretton
After he graduated from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, Destin Daniel Cretton says he had a hard time finding a job. "One of the jobs I could get was working in a residential facility for at-risk teenagers," Cretton explains. "I worked there for about a year full-time and a year on call. It was a huge life-changing experience for me. It helped me to grow up a lot." When Cretton then enrolled in film school at San Diego State University, his memories of the stories and people at the facility inspired his thesis film, Short Term 12, which has been racking up awards on the festival circuit, including the Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Short Term 12 is the story of a counselor at a residential facility for teens who have suffered child abuse or neglect. Played by Brad William Henke (Sherrybaby, Choke), the counselor seems almost as troubled as the youths, with the pregnancy of his girlfriend and his own uncertainties in life weighing on him. Made on a $3,500 budget, the film portrays the facility as an odd little ecosystem, where individual eccentricities are both policed and indulged, and where unexpected interactions can prove as therapeutic as regimented counseling. Henke's excellent, as is the actress who plays Jade, a particularly difficult resident. Says Cretton, "Henke read the script and immediately connected with it because he had recently adopted his 16-year-old daughter from a facility like the one we were portraying. He had his daughter, Phoenix, come in and read for one of the background roles, and she blew us away." Cretton rewrote the role of Jade for Phoenix, and the girl acts for the first time with her adoptive father. "The emotion was powerful on set because she was dealing with real stuff. She and Brad loved the experience. I think they saw it as a positive kind of therapy."
The Hawaii-born Cretton, 30, directed three shorts and a feature doc with a partner, Lowell Frank, before branching out on his own with Short Term 12. "I'd never done a dialogue-driven piece set in the real world, and I'd never worked with SAG actors before," he says. "Everything before was very composed and almost meticulously preplanned. But for this film, we mainly used available light, we had very little setup time and we shot everything handheld. It was a freeing experience."
Next Cretton plans to follow the model of films like Half Nelson and Raising Victor Vargas by making a feature based in the world of Short Term 12. "We're just going to make it however we can, whether we get the money or not. Part of me feels like the most responsible thing to do is make movies as cheaply as possible, but that's the only way I know how to do it anyway." — S.M.
MORGAN JON FOX. PHOTO BY DECLAN DEELY.
Morgan Jon Fox
Memphis-based Morgan Jon Fox is still getting comfortable with the label of being the voice of the YouTube generation. Since premiering his third feature, OMG/HaHaHa at NewFest in New York City last June, his low-tech improvised/Web cam/quasi-documentary hybrid of a group of gay, straight and transgender Memphis teens has struck a chord with young festivalgoers as well as critics. The film has taken home Best Feature awards at both the Memphis Indie Fest as well as the Chicago LGBT Film Fest. "I did not think this was a film that anybody would like, to be honest with you," says Fox, 30. "I thought it would be something that the people involved and people that I had inside jokes with would get. It would be something to watch at parties."
A film-school dropout, Fox began making short digital films in 2000. He made his first feature, Blue Citrus Hearts, from a script he wrote in college as a way to come out to his family. Another feature, Away (A)wake, followed, but it didn't find much notice outside of Memphis. OMG (then titled Hearts*Strings) was shot in 2006 as a culmination of the themes he explored with his previous works — teens, new media and sexual awakenings — and it was shot with friends and family in front of and behind the camera.
Feeling the film was missing something, Fox shelved OMG for a year. Then he met a teenager, Jake Casey, who had built a following with a series of video blogs on his MySpace page. He asked Casey to star in OMG, and the two began making video blogs together, which Fox would integrate into a new cut of the film. "The film just became more playful after that," he says. "I changed the title and felt differently about the project." Memphis Indie jury member Elvis Mitchell wrote about the film, "It feels like something that really is the next step — a film that could play just as well on a laptop or a cell phone as in a theater. Moviemakers have been reaching to capture that for several years now, and this achieves that feeling."
Recently Fox has found a fan in fellow Memphis filmmaker Craig Brewer. The Hustle & Flow director (and 25 New Faces alum) asked Fox to be his a.d. on his Memphis-shot MTV series $5 Cover, and now Fox is developing a series with Brewer focusing on high school life in Memphis. He's also in post on This Is What Love in Action Looks Like, a documentary about a Memphis teen who sparked a local protest movement when he wrote on his blog about his parents' decision to send him to Love in Action, a Fundamentalist Christian program that tries to turn gay kids straight.
OMG/HaHaHa will be available on DVD through Water Bearer Films in September. — J.G.
PURCHASE BROS. PHOTO BY NORMAN WONG.
The Purchase Brothers
Toronto-based brothers David and Ian Purchase began making movies when they were kids. "We were those guys who picked up cameras at 7 years old to make ridiculous little comedies and action shorts," says David. Ian says that a few years later when he was 13, "We wanted to shoot things like muzzle flashes but we didn't have thousands of dollars for gun wranglers. So I started learning a 3-D program and we started integrating digital gun flashes." "We're self-taught," David laughs. "I have an old copy of 3-Ds Max and one of those really fat tutorial books."
Now David, 25, and Ian, 23, have made a proper splash in the film world by leveraging their self-taught, DIY sensibility into three short pieces that are perfect film and advertising calling cards. The most noteworthy of these pieces is a short fan film, the first of a planned series, set in the world of the Half-Life video game. Entitled Escape From City 17, it captures perfectly the violent futuristic battles between humans and Combine that define the PC and console shooter. The imagery in the guerilla production combined the Purchase's 3-D skills with the software-developer kit released by the game's publisher, Valve. Equally impressive is the film's budget, which consisted of in-kind services and $500 in cash.
When Escape From City 17 went live, Half-Life fans crashed the brothers' server and viewed the film more than 2.7 million times on YouTube, traffic partly stoked by Valve, who had seen the spec short several months earlier and unofficially sanctioned it, even promoting it through their online distribution system. Also live on the Purchases's site (purchasebrothers.com) were two other shorts: spec ads for Apple's iPod and Coke, the latter featuring Coke cans as giant dirigibles floating over a city. The work got the attention of big-league agents and managers, and the brothers signed to CAA and Anonymous Content in addition to their Toronto ad rep, Sons and Daughters.
While the Purchases are being sent studio feature material, they are busy finishing "a secret project." Says David, "It uses similar techniques but it's not sci-fi. It's being made super low-budget, and it should be ready to go by February." And then there's the second episode of the Half-Life series and, after that, the future, which the Purchases have already begun to map. "Eventually we see interactive experiences becoming the central form of entertainment. You'll eventually be able to hook up to a computer through a neural interface, an advanced Wi-Fi system, that will stimulate part of your brain. The whole world will change in a big way." Adds Ian, "I think movies will always have a big place, but how we ingest them is going to change so much." — S.M.
Contact: Stuart Manashil and Dan Aloni at CAA: (424) 288-2000; Bard Dorros at Anonymous Content: (310) 558-3667