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IN FOCUS: LOVE IS A BATTLEFIELD
Profiles of six new independent films in production.

BY MARY GLUCKSMAN

EVEN NOW

Even Now

“The movie is a meditation on death and memory,” says Greg Watkins (A Sign From God) about Even Now, a Mini DV feature he made with his Stanford University humanities students this summer. Inspired by a classroom screening of My Dinner With Andre, a lecture on the closing scene of The Brothers Karamazov and Chris Marker’s La Jetée, the conversation-driven film follows a group of Stanford seniors on a day trip to memorialize a dead classmate.

Watkins studied social theory as a Stanford undergrad and got an MFA in film from UCLA, where in 1991 he co-directed his first feature, A Little Stiff, with frequent collaborator Caveh Zahedi. Both Stiff and God starred Zahedi in re-creations of his recent past. “It feels like I’ve fallen into a reality-based approach,” remarks Watkins. He says Even Now is “a snapshot of a college generation as well as an exploration of death, memory and higher learning. The ultimate drama in the movie is the tension between the education that might come from facing the death of their friend and the formal, professionalizing education [that the students] are just completing.”

The students in the film are real Stanford seniors who moved in together for six weeks of workshopping before a 12-day August shoot at spots like San Francisco’s Exploratorium and Palace of Fine Arts, and at a beach down the coast. Watkins estimates he can complete the film for the $100,000 he raised from executive producer Richard Clark and, after spring pickups of a pivotal campus event, expects to have a finished film in June.

Contact: Greg Watkins: gwatkins@stanford.edu

 

THE GUATEMALAN HANDSHAKE

Guatemalan Handshake. PHOTO: COURTNEY KOESTLER.

“My idea was if I get to do one feature, do something that hasn’t been done before,” says The Guatemalan Handshake director Todd Rohal. The 35mm anamorphic project recounts the strange history of a 10-year-old girl responding to an adult friend’s disappearance that goes largely unremarked by the rest of the community, including his family and pregnant girlfriend. “It’s a cartoonish reality where we keep tossing you curveballs,” says Rohal. “It’s colorful and quirky, bizarre yet familiar in a surreal sense, and it plays off a range of emotions from depression to joy.”

Rohal graduated Ohio University Film School in 1999 with three short films to his credit, including Hamptons prizewinner and Student Academy Award–nominee Single Spaced. He now does TV production and DVD design for Washington, D.C., shop Brainbox and got The American Astronaut’s Cory McAbee to co-star in Handshake after producing elements of the film’s DVD. Also appearing is Palace singer-songwriter Will Oldham, whom Rohal sent the script to on a whim.

Handshake shot out of Harrisburg, Pa., for a month this summer with Richie Sherman as d.p. “I’m trying to place Kentucky Fried Movie in the middle of Days of Heaven, so you have absurdist situations in the middle of beautiful rolling farmland. There’s an amusement park next to a demolition derby, and Three Mile Island is nearby — we needed all three locations,” says the director. Rohal supplemented the no-budget production by reserving his camera package a year before the shoot and getting a supply house to stockpile short ends.

Contact: Todd Rohal: todd@ghandshake.com, www.ghandshake.com

 

LOVING ANNABELLE

“An affair between a teacher and student is still pretty controversial and rarely addressed on film,” says writer-director Katherine Brooks about Loving Annabelle. The story of a Catholic boarding school teacher who falls in love with a rebel new girl is loosely based on the 1931 German classic Maedchen in Uniform. “[That film] made me wonder why it’s so taboo for an adult to experience a relationship with a 17-year-old,” she says. “I wanted to explore the human side of an adult drawn to a relationship with a minor and to get people to see what the two struggle against to be together. In my experience, when it comes to love, you can’t dictate what package it comes in.”

Brooks, 28, grew up near New Orleans and headed for Hollywood to pursue a film career at 17. “I had $240 in my pocket and I wanted to tell stories but I had no idea how,” she says. She got her first break directing MTV’s The Osbournes and has since directed multiple seasons of The Real World and Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica. “Reality TV has taught me a lot about moving fast creatively and being a team leader for your crew,” she says. Brooks also co-created and starred in the online lesbian soap opera The Complex, and her award-winning shorts include Dear Emily and Finding Kate.

The 35mm Annabelle will shoot for five weeks in April in L.A. and Santa Barbara’s Zaka Lake with Cynthia Pusheck (CSI: Miami, 3 Days of Rain) as d.p. The seven-figure production is financed through a pair of wealthy investors looking for an avenue into film. Taryn Manning (8 Mile) is attached as Annabelle, and Academy Award–nominee Sondra Locke plays the headmistress.

Contact: Katherine Brooks: evolutionseeker@aol.com

 

WATERBORNE

Waterborne

“It has the tone of a disaster film and the heart of a character drama. I want to grab you from the beginning, shake you up and never let you go until the end,” says writer-director Ben Rekhi about his feature debut, Waterborne, a thriller about three L.A. subcultures colliding after a terrorist attack on the city’s water supply. The film follows a college student and his slacker cousin, a Sikh convenience store owner struggling to balance a traditional Punjabi mom and an American girlfriend, and a gung-ho National Guardsman in three separate storylines over 72 hours. “It’s a film that explores how our society responds to terrorist attacks and the ensuing state of tension and anxiety,” says Rekhi. “[It deals with] issues like racial discrimination, the role of the military and how the bonds of a relationship can be questioned when you’re thrown into a state of emergency.”

Rekhi, 25, grew up in California and made his first featurette at 17. He studied film at NYU and directed, produced or shot numerous shorts and music videos before producing classmate Adam Bhala Lough’s 2002 graffiti drama Bomb the System. He says his big break was a camera internship under d.p. Roger Deakins on O Brother, Where Art Thou? which led to Brother star George Clooney hiring him to shoot making-of footage on Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. The Brother set was also where Rekhi met eventual Waterborne producers Smriti Mundhra, who co-produced Bomb, and Taylor Phillips.

Made for a six-figure budget raised through private equity, the 24P Waterborne was shot in L.A. in August with Bomb d.p. Ben Kutchins as cinematographer. “The story lent itself to digital because I wanted it to feel real and claustrophobic,” says Rekhi. “Getting clearance to shoot a dam or an aqueduct during an elevated alert was tricky and we had to steal a couple of locations, but that’s the nature of guerrilla filmmaking.” Waterborne’s ensemble cast includes Christopher Masterson (Malcolm in the Middle), Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite), Ajay Naidu (Office Space), Mageina Tovah (Spider-Man 2), Jake Muxworthy (I Heart Huckabees), Lindsay Pryce (90210) and Indian star Shabana Azmi (Fire).

Contact: Ben Rekhi: ben@dropsentertainment.com, www.thenextattack.com

 

WEDDING PHOTO

Wedding Photo

“I like big films and historical storytelling, but for me this film is about memory and having a sense of heritage,” says Ali Selim about his first feature, Wedding Photo. The bittersweet film unfolds mostly in flashback as a woman, Inge, recalls from her deathbed her 1920 arrival in an insular Minnesota farming community as a Norwegian mail order bride. But when she’s revealed to actually be a German refugee, her nationality throws up obstacles just as love blossoms. The triangle formed by Inge (Stay’s Elizabeth Reaser), would-be groom Olaf (Ladder 49’s Tim Guinee) and best friend Frandsen (Alan Cumming) forms the heart of the film. Selim adapted the screenplay from a short story he optioned 10 years ago and added Cumming’s part after they met and became friends.

Selim grew up in the Minneapolis area and estimates he’s made 800 commercials. “Commercials were a way to get to know cameras and d.p.’s while I wrote 25 scripts,” he says. His first fiction effort was a 40-minute version of the Ethan Canin short story “Emperor of the Air,” which won several fest awards in ’96. He’s making Wedding with “about $1 million” in all-Minnesota private equity raised by executive producers Tom Lieberman and Ed Driscoll, and credits IFP/Minneapolis with connecting him with producers Gill Holland and Lillian LaSalle (Loggerheads). Cumming is also a producer.

The 35mm Photo shot on the border of Minnesota and South Dakota for four weeks in October with David Tumblety (Red Betsy) as d.p. “We’re going for a Kodachrome look covered and edited like a Hollywood film — it’s Lawrence of Arabia on a Pieces of April budget,” says Selim. Also in Wedding are Ned Beatty (Deliverance), John Heard (My Tiny Universe), Alex Kingston (ER) and Lois Smith (P.S.)

Contact: Ali Selim: aliselim@mac.com, www.builtbybeautiful.com

 

WRESTLING

wrestling

“I’m a huge fan of ’80s and ’90s teen movies and programs like Dawson’s Creek, but there was always something missing for me — the characters were archetypes, and I never really related to them,” says Jeremy O’Keefe about his first feature, wrestling, a coming-of-age tale about teens in the summer between high school and college. “I wanted to take the storytelling techniques established in grittier films like Larry Clark’s and make a really simple story about the people I grew up with.” O’Keefe ultimately describes his film as “somewhere between Kids and Can’t Hardly Wait.”

Protagonist Jake is struggling to get past his mother’s death when his best friend’s hookup with a mutual lifelong girl pal prompts him to romance a new girl whose boyfriend was recently killed. “Real suburban kids are way more complex than their celluloid counterparts,” says O’Keefe. “Children and teenagers experience emotions at incredibly heightened levels — they love like they’ve never loved before and they hurt like they’ve never hurt before.”

O’Keefe graduated from the dramatic arts program at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2002 and has since soaked up experience working development and production gigs, interning for Miramax and teaching acting in St. Croix, where his mother grew up. The Mini DV wrestling shot for 14 days in August in Wilmington, Del., O’Keefe’s hometown, with doc director Tim O’Hara (1) as d.p. “We shot it to look like a homemade documentary of these kids’ lives,” says O’Keefe, who used his parents’ Christmas card list to solicit investments for the bare-bones production. Most of the cast are new to the screen; Mark Welling, younger brother of Smallville star Tom Welling, debuts as Jake, and veteran Jeff Conaway (Taxi) plays his dad. Also in the cast are Melissa Claire Egan and Lauren Schneider. Next for O’Keefe are an original script for a Caribbean-set drama and a TV adaptation of his brother Matt O’Keefe’s novel You Think You Hear.

Contact: Jeremy O’Keefe: jeremy@wrestlingthemovie.com, www.wrestlingthemovie.com

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