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Wednesday, August 29, 2007
By David Lowery 

Winner of the 2007 "Best Film Not Playing At A Theater Near You" award at the Gotham Awards, Ronald Bronstein's Frownland has been a favorite of ours since we saw it at last year's SXSW. Now it will finally be in theaters as it's currently playing at the IFC Center in New York. Here's an interview we ran last summer with Bronstein by David Lowery.

Traveling on the festival circuit and spending days in darkened theaters, one grows accustomed to the ebb and flow of certain trends in independent film. Talkative, shakily digital twentysomething dramedies; sensitive tone poems; documentaries both edgy and lyrical. Then a film like Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland comes out of nowhere and reminds us why we go to festivals in the first place: to see things we’ve never seen before.

Frownland premiered at the SXSW Film Festival this past March, after which those who loved it and those who hated it found they had one thing in common: they couldn’t stop talking about it. In fact, the only thing more galvanizing than watching the film itself was hearing that it was awarded a Special Jury Prize. “That's kind of the beauty of SXSW,” notes festival programmer Matt Dentler. “A film like Frownland was not going to go unnoticed.”

The jury didn’t play it safe, but then again neither did Bronstein, who spent several years crafting a directorial debut that is at times almost unbearably abrasive – a grimy, manic masterpiece of black comedy that buries its humor beneath layers of egregious discomfort. Shot on 16mm and blown up to a feverishly grainy 35mm print, Frownland follows Keith, a stuttering door-to-door coupon salesman, as he negotiates the highs and lows of life on the fringes of New York City. The film begins as a kitchen-sink drama, narrows itself into a character study and then, through several structural permutations, gradually worms its way right into the unstable psyche of its protagonist. Keith, as played by Dore Mann, is a raw nerve of a human being, incapable of coherent communication, as exasperating as he is compelling.

Likewise, Frownland is one of the most confrontational and uncompromising visions to emerge from the American independent scene in recent memory. Since its bow in Austin, Bronstein has shown Frownland at the Maryland Film Festival, CineVegas and Harvard Independent Series, and was recently named one of Filmmaker’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film.” We spoke to Bronstein about the film just as he was finalizing the deal for French theatrical distribution (currently the film does not have U.S. distribution) – proving that Europe is still a far safer haven for challenging cinema than our own shores.

Filmmaker: You claim story credit on the film, but there’s no “written by” credit. Did you have a script?

Bronstein: I started by writing a pretty detailed script, which in hindsight was a big fat waste of my time. A pinheaded endeavor really. ’Cause the film, as you know, it didn’t actually come into being until it was cast. And from that point on I was grossly adjusting the scenes and the dialogue from day to day, depending on how the dynamics between the actors shifted and deepened during rehearsals. In general, I’m pretty disenchanted with the standard industry approach to scriptwriting. I mean, I do find it helpful in terms of mapping out a structure and overarching themes and stuff, but the act of sitting alone in your room and trying to nail on the page the sort of ineffable dimensionality of human inflection just seems so completely backwards to me. ’Cause as soon as you try and pass that set text through an actor’s mouth, ugh, it’s like knocking a square peg through a round hole. All the immediacy and emotionality gets lost. Like a dubbed voice. Maybe this approach can work if you’re making something grounded in heavy plotting, where the characters and the dialogue exist chiefly to move the narrative from A to B. But I want to work in the reverse. I want the progression of the story to form organically out of the characters themselves. So in my case, capturing realistic dialogue, and all of its roundabout clumsiness, is absolutely essential. I mean every person on the planet has their own singular relationship with syntax and grammar. And that relationship sort of calcifies over time in super complex ways. How can one brain possibly hope to simulate that insane level of detail over several distinct voices? For my purposes it’s much more effective to cast extremely interesting people and then rely on the freshness of their interpretations to generate dialogue. ‘Cause when you tap into someone’s natural speech rhythms, you not only capture nuanced inflection but you get all of the weird muscular gestures and unconscious facial tics that go along with it. And these kinds of elements are extremely important to me. They carry a work. So, yeah, in the end, I felt the term “screenwriter” wasn’t all that applicable. It suggests something absolute.

Filmmaker: What was the production of the film like? Again, judging from the credits, it looks like you had a tiny crew. The entire picture seems quite handmade.

Bronstein: Yeah, I wanted to make something that felt really intimate and it’s funny how a sort of crummy, slipshod aesthetic can do that. Sort of like the feeling you get from reading some hand-scrawled Xeroxed fanzine, where the sloppiness of the presentation becomes a kind of expressive asset to the work, rather than something you have to excuse. I don’t know. I mean if you run across a typo in The New York Times, it’s just flat-out distracting. It doesn’t bring you closer to the writer or the ideas or anything. It merely outs some birdbrain who didn’t do his job correctly. But in the case of something loudly handmade, an error can actually reel you in closer. It points to a total lack of pasteurization and makes a beeline between you and the person that created it. You get this feeling from Syd Barrett records and you get it from Robert Crumb comics and it’s something I want to give off in the work I make. But, yeesh, to actually answer your question, we were a small group of 6 or 7, cast and crew included. Petty quarrels, bad moods and various levels of insidious coaxing were common occurrences I guess, but that’s only because we lived together like a family for several years and everybody was super emotionally invested in the project, which is the only way I can imagine working really. The thought of surrounding myself with technicians who don’t personally identify with the work is sort of scary to me. I think it would constipate me creatively.

Filmmaker: Where did you meet Dore Mann? I assume that there is some level of acting there, but Keith is such a precise bundle of tics and neuroses that it’s easy to assume that’s just the way he is. It's an amazing performance.

Bronstein: Well, I first met Dore at a family funeral. He introduced himself to me as my cousin, which wasn’t quite true. We’re actually what’s called “cousins in common.” Which means his third cousin is cousins with my third cousin or something equally abstract. And yeah, it seems the first thing people want to know after seeing the movie is whether he’s like Keith in real life. Good grief! I mean, personally, I think that’s like the ultimate complement; to embody a role with such crude intensity that people just presume it’s not even acting. But understandably, given Keith’s sorry state of being, this is something that makes Dore a little self-conscious. ’Cause the creation of the role was a very personal thing for him. This process involved isolating and magnifying certain traits of his personality that fit the wretched scope of the project, and bleaching away others that didn’t. What resulted was a character that only he could play, but needless to say, he’s a lot more dynamic when not constrained by the role.

Filmmaker: During his climactic attempt to communicate with his friend Sandy, there are so many little bits and pieces of character information flying out of his mouth - it's as if an entire stream of consciousness portrait of his character is pouring out at once.

Bronstein: Yeah, he’s a complete maniac in it. The rehearsals for that particular scene involved making him prepare enough dialogue for like 10 scenes, then loading him up with a disgusting amount of caffeine, spinning him around, making him sprint down the block until he was dizzy and hyperventilating, and then sort of letting him go so that he was totally incapable of relaying this prepared information linearly or coherently. What came out was this berserk jumble of disparate sentiments that rendered him absolutely senseless. Hopefully though you’re left with the impression that were he to calm down and relax for a second he’d be able to elaborate on each and every word in a completely rational way. That what you’re hearing is not just random babble but rather the tip of some enormous iceberg. Personally, I think it’s his strongest moment in the whole movie.

Filmmaker: Can someone actually make a living in NYC distributing coupon packets?

Bronstein: Well, I don’t know. I mean it’s a ludicrously crummy job. But then again it was based on something Dore actually did for a living when he was younger so I guess it’s not all that unrealistic. There’s something in the nature of the reverse-commute - heading out to the island while the rest of the functioning working world is fighting their way into Manhattan - that struck me as being suitably backwards and maybe a little bit shameful too.

Filmmaker: Both the positive and negative notices for the film use many of the same adjectives – “unpleasant” probably being the most common. Did these responses to the film surprise you in any way, or did you initially set out to create a tough pill to swallow?

Bronstein: The film asks its audience to spend a lot time with a person they’d probably instantly write-off in real life, which I suppose could be viewed as a kind of punishment. But I think the “unpleasantness” in Frownland has more to do with its decided lack of orientation. Is Keith a victim or victimizer? Is the film inviting you to laugh at him? Look down on him? Sympathize with him? Well, it’s kept unclear. Or rather, it spastically jerks you in and out of these various viewpoints and makes it hard to settle on any one of them. Which can be frustrating. Especially when you consider how over-orienting most movies are. But it’s not like it was my intention to harass people here. I mean, I genuinely think there’s value in getting an audience to chew a person over and swallow them and regurgitate them and maybe chew them over some more before arriving at some kind of assessment. I don’t know.

Filmmaker: Incidentally, after seeing the film a second time, I was a bit surprised at my own vehemence of my initial reaction; it went down much more easily, and the humor was far more pronounced.

Bronstein: I’m glad you bring this up ’cause it’s a big part of the work for me and something we were super conscious of while making it. But maybe “funny” isn’t quite the right term. ’Cause it’s funny more in the way an extremely awkward or embarrassing situation can wind up making you laugh out loud at exactly the wrong moment. There’s an exquisite kind of comedy embedded in excruciating moments like this. Though maybe only in hindsight.

Filmmaker: On a related note, what are some of the best reactions you've had, both positive and negative?

Bronstein: Well, yikes, a fight nearly broke out after this one screening in Las Vegas. Some guy in the back of the theatre was booing throughout the closing credits. When they ended, this other guy stood up, turned to face the booer, and screamed, “You! You’re a fucking asshole!” I mean he really screamed. He was absolutely enraged. Red as a beet. Shaking. That’s when a third guy stood up and started defending the booer. The second guy turned on the third. Everyone was arguing. It was sort of a melee. Turns out that last guy was the attending critic for Variety and he wound up writing us a killer review. Which leads me to think that that kind of raw caustic energy is real good for the project. It forces people to quickly choose a position and defend it. I should probably start hiring shills to run up and punch me in the face after each screening.

Filmmaker: This is your debut film. How long did it take you to get it off the ground? And how did you put together financing for a film that's about as far from commercial as one might get?

Bronstein: Ugh. I stopped counting after the third year. But it just took so damn long to get the money together. First, my apartment burned down and I got a small insurance settlement. Then I weaseled my way into a well-paying copywriting job in Sweden, where I lived for a year. Once I had accumulated what I thought would be a suitable shooting budget, I instantly quit, came back to Brooklyn and started making the movie. That money was gone within three months and I spent the next year working six days a week as a projectionist, earning enough to shoot one scene every five weeks and rehearsing non-stop in between. Marc Raybin - who produced the movie - kicked in some money. And so did my family. But deep down I guess I didn’t feel like I’d earned the right to experiment with other people’s money. Thankfully, I don’t have that confidence problem anymore. Which is good ’cause I don’t have any money anymore either.

Filmmaker: Did you submit to many festivals prior to SXSW?

Bronstein: Hmmm. I can't remember exactly, but SXSW was one of the first I applied to, and the one I was most anxious to attend. So I got lucky. I didn’t even apply to Sundance. Mostly because I haven’t had a relationship with anything that's come out of Sundance in so long. I don't know. I think Matt Dentler really distinguishes himself from other big league programmers in that he's so totally committed to discovering and promoting totally under-the-radar projects, and he doesn’t care if there isn’t any cachet behind your name or critical consensus behind your work. I mean, it would be pretty easy to confuse the sort of disheveled quality of Frownland with flat-out ineptitude. Heh. He didn’t and I feel super indebted to him.

Filmmaker: The structure of the film is as precise as it is unpredictable. You follow Keith for approximately an hour, and then spin off into this tangent with his roommate Charles, who then leads back to him. There's a precedent in this, in that the characters of Laura and Sandy each have their own little moments to themselves, but in the extended sequence with Charles, you really subvert expectations about where the film is going. By temporarily removing Keith from the plot, you also set up his climax. Was this something that came about in the editing process, or was the film's structure premeditated?

Bronstein: Yeah, the idea of having this unwieldy narrative departure was premeditated, but like most everything else, it was revised in all sorts of ways while we were shooting. But in general, my goal with the structure was to find some kind of narrative framework that could incorporate the haphazard rhythms of Keith’s emotional life into a fluid network of events. I mean the guy is super unbalanced. All of his relationships are unbalanced. And so the structure of the film wound up being unbalanced too. Some characters exit the film prematurely without any fanfare whatsoever (like Laura). Others grossly outstay their welcome, to almost untenable degrees (like Charles). But in the end, it’s not really an ensemble piece at all and it wasn’t necessary that each character be weighed out equally. These digressions are more like little narrative pivots around Keith. They exist solely to offer new vantage points on the same subject. So even when he’s not onscreen, he’s still the focal point. And the narrative is still careening in accordance with his spastic neediness.

Filmmaker: The film was shot on 16mm, which is a rarity in and of itself these days, and it's being exhibited on a 35mm blow-up. Your MySpace profile name is Frownland16mm. Clearly, film is very important to you. Can you talk about what it represents to you, and why you’re so committed to it? And was the film ever transferred to digital medium throughout the filmmaking process – i.e. did you cut on flatbed?

Bronstein: Yeah, I cut the movie on my flatbed, which in 2007 sounds more like the over-rationalized conceit of a crazy person than any kind of sound methodology. I don’t know. This topic makes me upset. The way a molecule gets “upset.”

Filmmaker: There seems to be an immediate instinct to note that anything shot on 16mm with a zoom lens harkens back to a ’70s style of filmmaking, and I saw some press at the time of the premiere that bandied about names like Cassavetes; but Frownland is quite unlike anything I've ever seen before. Maybe early Mike Leigh films, but other than that, it's a strikingly original piece of work – something that's very rare in independent cinema. Would you actually cite any influences that might have affected you?

Bronstein: Mike Leigh is probably the single biggest influence on the work. And there’s a scene in Nuts in May [from the U.K. TV series Play for Today] that pretty much sets the bar for excruciating comedy. But I’m not really a cinephile and I don’t watch movies all that often. Let’s see. I love most of the kitchen-sink Brits - Tony Richardson, Alan Clarke, Lindsay Anderson. I love Frederick Wiseman. I love Robert Altman. And while I’ve no doubt absorbed a lot of their vocabulary, Frownland was whipped up in a pretty airtight vacuum I think.

Filmmaker: I talked to Charles Burnett about Killer Of Sheep not too long ago and he said that one of the things that freed him to make such a strong film was that he had no expectations for it, commercial or otherwise. He simply wanted to make it. Did you have any preconceived notions of what the film would be like, who it would be for, when you were making it? Did you make it for an audience?

Bronstein: Well, I certainly wasn’t c-c-c-careerist about it, that’s for sure. But I do secretly nurse this harebrained, solipsistic assumption that there are tons of other people just like me who are feeling disenfranchised from the current trends and looking for a return to more personal work.

Filmmaker: Any developments on a sophomore feature?

Bronstein: My wife Mary, who plays Laura in Frownland, has written this really abrasive script that she’s going to direct and act in this fall. And me and my friends are gonna shoot it. In the meanwhile, I’m sketching out ideas for my next feature. The working title is Tapioca Tundra and it focuses on this sort of bedraggled yippee collective’s attempts to bring this careening mess of a psychedelic play to life. Sounds horrible, eh? I know. So far it’s shaping up to be a lot angrier than Frownland, but also funnier too. We’ll see.

originally posted: August 29, 2007


# posted by Jason Guerrasio @ 8/29/2007 10:41:00 PM Comments (1)

Friday, August 24, 2007
By Nick Dawson 

September Dawn has been attracting controversy ever since it began shooting last year. The film, directed and co-written by Christopher Cain (Young Guns), tells the story of the events surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre when, on the morning of September 11, 1857, a wagon train of over 100 Westward-bound Christian settlers were brutally slain by Mormon militia. The incident has continued to be a historical talking point as the Mormons accused of the murders were disguised as Native Americans and have always denied any culpability in the matter. However a wealth of documentation backs up the claims against the Mormons, and Cain used this information as a background for a dramatic narrative about the massacre which features both real-life characters such as Brigham Young, here played by Terence Stamp, and composite creations like Mormon patriarch Jacob Samuelson (Jon Voight).

As is often the case with the films he appears in, Jon Voight's performance is arguably the highlight of September Dawn. Voight began his career as one of the most compelling leading men in Hollywood, and was propelled to instant star status with his Oscar-nominated turn as Joe Buck in John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy (1969). In the 1970s, Voight was famously cautious about which projects to take on, but despite him being far from prolific during this period, he gave unforgettable performances in Deliverance (1972), The Champ (1979) and Hal Ashby's Coming Home, for which Voight received the Best Actor Academy Award. In contrast with earlier in his career, for the past decade Voight has been working non-stop as he has transformed himself into a ubiquitous character actor, appearing both in Hollywood studio fare and lower profile, more personal projects. In 2001, he was once again Oscar-nominated for his role as TV sportscaster Howard Cosell in Michael Mann's biopic, Ali.

A few months ago, during a break from filming National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Voight came to New York to talk to Filmmaker about September Dawn and his thoughts looking back over an illustrious, and ongoing, career.


Voight: Now let me say this: you know me very well and we've talked before, so you can be free to ask me whatever you want.

Filmmaker: OK, great.

Voight: There are quotes you get along the beaten path, and some of them are real, some of them are not. Some of them are real but come from a time of a very specific viewpoint that changes. There are moments from the past that are just moments in response to a certain role or activity in one's life, and are marked by those things. So it's good to be able to be relaxed and thorough, and also be in a situation where you're not trying to sell something, whatever it is. You want to unburden yourself of all the other things, and get the real stuff.

Filmmaker: To start off with, how did you get involved with September Dawn, and what were your reasons for doing it?

Voight: Firstly, Chris Cain and I had had a friendly relationship. Whenever I was with him, I always felt he was a good fellow: we had a few laughs and I was intrigued by his personality. I saw and liked a couple of his movies. I liked his way of approaching things, very simple, clear. He's a no-nonsense kinda guy, with a nice sense of humor. I said at one point, “I think we should work together.” You don't think when you make that statement that anything would bring you together, but you're putting yourself out there. Then I got a call from Chris, saying “Jon, I want you to take a look at this.” I said, “OK,” so I took a look at the piece. It was very shocking, it was a page-turner — I couldn't really put it down. But the question at the end of it was, “Was this real?” Well, it's a very documented piece of history, a true event, so I looked it up on the web. I read a lot of things because I didn't want to be irresponsible here, I wanted to be sure I knew what I was talking about and that this piece was representative.

Filmmaker: Did the character you play actually exist?

Voight: He's an amalgam. The character is an interesting invention that allows you to see some of the history and the psychology that was involved in creating this massacre. So I thought it was a very good artistic invention. Another invention is the love story, which I think is important too because it allows us to care about the characters and see another perspective.

Filmmaker: How much did you personally contribute to the character? What did your research add to the part?

Voight: It was just a sense of confidence that what I was going to do was appropriate. You have to do research with films like this. Then, for me, it was finding that mark within the character, the insecurity and self-doubt of the character, the need for acceptance and importance – the weaknesses of his personality, and his ability because of those weaknesses to do the unthinkable. I think it's a portrait of the psychology of the Mormon people who were involved in this tragedy.

Filmmaker: A few years ago I interviewed Steve Burum, the D.P. on Mission: Impossible, who said you regularly had suggestions for Brian De Palma.

Voight: Nic [Cage] made a joke about this. I made a suggestion to Nic when we were shooting a scene [in National Treasure 2]. Nic is a very good actor, he's very smart at telling the story through the character. We don't say too much to each other, because we're very delicate about suggesting or asking things of each other, sometimes a little too delicate. We did a couple of takes, and it looked like we were going to take that, but there was a little moment that I thought he could correct. So I suggested it to Nic, and he immediately thought it was the right thing to do. Then he said to the crew, “Wait a minute, Jon Voight has a suggestion to make, which is of course a very unusual occurrence!” and everybody laughed. But the little laugh was interesting to me, because obviously they get the idea that I am making suggestions [laughs], and apparently everybody knows that it's my m.o. that I'll participate. My ego is not involved, my thought is, “Is there something that can be improved in this sequence?”

Filmmaker: So you're there to contribute.

Voight: Yeah, that's exactly right. I'm always working on the scene right until the last take, and may make an adjustment that, when I look back, I say, “Wow! Thank God I made that adjustment, because that was the whole answer.” When there's a discomfort, if you address it you can usually come up with something that will illuminate the scene. Sometime it's just a line that needs to be fixed. Recently it happened: I was working on a scene and I had a line to say that didn't quite fit. I kept chewing on it until the words just fell right; we're always working just to make the piece flow. It wasn't a big thing, but the moment allowed me to enter the doorway of the scene in a graceful and easy way. I keep chewing on things — I'm a worrier. I'll get an idea, and write it down in the middle of the night and then come back and give it a try and see if some part of it has a value.

Filmmaker: I remember when I saw Ali, I didn't recognize you when you were playing Howard Cosell. How do you transform yourself like that?

Voight: Well, I'm a character actor: Joe Buck [in Midnight Cowboy] was not me, of course, and yet the character has to be animated by you. Finally, it can't be acting — that's the thing. When people ask, “How do you act in a movie?”, I say “Just don't get caught acting.” Even if you have extreme characters, they have to come right down to being you, you have to be able to converse through that character until there is no difference. I had done Heat with Michael [Mann], and then he comes to Ali, and I thought he would b a good person to do that because of his almost documentary realism that he insists on, and his virility, which I thought would be good for this piece.

Filmmaker: What background knowledge did you have of the film?

Voight: Well, I knew Ali. I had a couple of wonderful experiences just meeting him, we kept in touch and I called his house just before the [George] Foreman fight in Zaire. I called, hoping to get his wife, Belinda, but he answered. I didn't want to speak to him before the fight, because I didn't want to give him any of my fear, because I was afraid for him. I said, “Mohammad, it's Jon Voight.” “Oh Jon, how you doing?” I said, “Good, good. So what about this fight?” I didn't want to say it, but it came out of my mouth. He said, “Well, I have to win it, don't I?” To me, it was an amazing statement. What that meant was, for so many reasons, not just for his career but for all the people who were counting on him, he felt the responsibility to fight. It was more than just a fight. He had to win this battle. By the way, Mohammad Ali never wanted to be called “the greatest” — he's much more humble than that. He's not a braggart, he's something else: a showman, who's playful, trying to do things with his personality. He's another thing.

Filmmaker: So how did you get the role of Howard Cosell?

Voight: Well, I didn't see anything for me to do in the film, but I was talking to Michael about the film in a spirit of artistic camaraderie. Then he called me and said, “What do you think about playing Howard Cosell?” I said, “Wow, that's interesting! Let me think about that one.” The first thing that came into my mind was that it was a very brave choice. It seemed quite far from my own personality, but because there was no fanfare about my playing that role, people went and saw the movie and then they got the role. So as a character actor who changed physically and psychologically with every role — which is what I've become known for — it didn't seem so crazy. When I read the script, the role was not in great depth, but I could see the structure of it. I had been interviewed by Howard Cosell when I was a young actor and I remembered the interview and his sensibilities vividly. He was capable of being hurt; he had some injuries that had left him vulnerable. And I had read his first book, and he was an advocate for many things and very admirable. He was a civil rights guy, and even used his legal training in defense of Ali. He and Ali had a great affection for each other, a genuine friendship, and they were both characters and they were both funny. They came alive when they were with each other: they looked forward to these little verbal battles and challenges, and they both grew in it. So I wanted to portray that aspect, and felt I had a reason to play the role. Then I knew I was as tall as Howard and I could use my height to my advantage, and the leanness of Howard. And I liked his pot belly and round shoulders and his way of talking. I thought it would be a fun character to play, so I said, “Let's go.” I knew there would be some people who would say it was bad casting, but that also tickled me.

Filmmaker: And you were then Oscar-nominated for that role, which was a great vindication.

Voight: An Oscar nomination is always to be appreciated. If you're fortunate enough to be one of those five, you should be grateful, and I was.

Filmmaker: During the seventies you were very cautious about taking on the right roles, and were not prolific then as a result.

Voight: Yes, I was very concerned that I do the right thing with my career, and I'm a worrier so I go through the process of going over and over things in my mind. But I know once I've made a decision, I'm fully committed. I do a lot of research, and really give myself over to the project.

Filmmaker: One of the films you did during that period was All-American Boy, which was supposed to be a big film for you but had a lot of problems.

Voight: Well, that was a tough one. We all worked hard on that. Charles [Eastman] was a first-time director, but he had a perfectionist mentality. It was not commercially successful, but still has very great literary qualities. I felt responsible, because it was a vehicle for me, and I felt bad that I couldn't pull it off.

Filmmaker: You felt it was your fault?

Voight: I feel responsible for every film I do, especially if I have the lead role. I want to do my best for me.

Filmmaker: How did you feel before you made Coming Home, for which you won an Oscar, because none of the films you did in the five-year period prior to that had really taken off?

Voight: Conrack and The Odessa File were the two films that were made in between Deliverance and Coming Home. They were both films that I cared about, and both by directors of some note, Marty Ritt and Ronnie Neame. Those films remain films that I care about now, they're responsible and decent films, good films. They have touched many hearts, so they have done their work, but Hollywood lives by the commercial value of the pieces. If you don't make money on the initial release, it becomes difficult to get your next piece made.

Filmmaker: What emotional or psychological effect did that lack of success have on you?

Voight: To go over this, it distorts. When I look over my career, I've been tremendously blessed and I don't want to dwell on the difficulties. You're always looking for that good piece and the expectations run very high always. In every film, there's something that I cared about, so that's a big thing to say. When I look back, I haven't done too badly, and I have nothing that I have to be ashamed of. They're all my children, and I like them all. Each one of them has a value, and the value that I perceived going into them still remains. And they still have an effect on people too. For instance, my daughter says Conrack is her favorite film of mine. That's an interesting thing that makes it valuable right there. And my mother loved that film.

Filmmaker: Which film are you most proud of?

Voight: I'd have to say the body of work is what I'm proud of. Each individual film that I've made, I can look back and see why I enlisted. I can't say one above the others, but if I had to choose one, I'd have to say Midnight Cowboy. First of all, it had very important themes, but the atmosphere of work was really focused on the piece, because of [the producer] Jerry Hellman, who protected the piece, because of John Schlesinger's energy. John was like Kazan was on A Streetcar Named Desire — he invested himself in the acting. And I had a great role and a great cast, you know, Dusty [Hoffman]. Dusty and I just hit this magic: we were both young actors who wanted to express ourselves to the detail of the work as we saw it. We were filled with enthusiasm for doing the work, and helping each other. It was a rare occurrence — we weren't in the commercial [mindset] at all, it was a time when we were protected from it. It was the first piece that I could identify with, but there are many others, and there still are that I really care about. I'm still goin'.


# posted by Nick Dawson @ 8/24/2007 12:22:00 PM Comments (1)

Monday, August 6, 2007
By Jeffrey Kunze 

Currently in its fifth year, Fast Track, a joint program of the Los Angeles Film Festival and Filmmaker magazine, was created to promote the careers of talented filmmakers over the course of a year, while spreading the word about their newest projects. The filmmakers chosen are alumni of the LAFF as well as alumni of Film Independent's Talent Development Programs: the Filmmaker Labs, Project: Involve, and the grants awarded at the Spirit Awards. Here are the Fast Track filmmakers of 2007 and their upcoming projects.

Robbie Pickering
You know you’re in for some trouble when your dutiful Christian wife discovers that you’ve been secretly donating to a local sperm bank. That’s the premise of Robbie Pickering’s feature film Natural Selection, which follows housewife Linda White as she breaks off from her idyllic yet reserved life in search of the “mulleted, foul-mouthed child” that her husband laid the seed for behind her back. In addition to directing, he also wrote the screenplay which was selected to take part in Film Independent’s 2006 Screenwriter’s Lab.

Pickering, one of only four students to graduate with thesis honors from USC’s Graduate Screenwriting Program in 2006, was prompted to write the story “about a year ago, [when] my stepfather became terminally ill and my mom, a Texan housewife, was suddenly faced with the prospect of being alone for the first time in her life. I had been wanting to write a story about the women I knew growing up in Houston for a long time, and my mom's fragile emotional state became the starting point for the movie,” he says, “…did I mention it's a comedy?”

Before going to USC, Pickering graduated from the Film Production Program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Art in 2003, where he was awarded a Lew Wasserman Screenwriting Award and a Warner Brothers Production Grant for what would become his critically acclaimed short film, Prom Night, “a raucous comedy about an awkward boy’s chaotic senior prom.”

Now in the midst of directing his first feature, which is being produced by Charlie Mason and Justin Moore-Lewy, whose company Perfect Weekend just produced Ferris Wheel starring Charlize Theron, Pickering reflects how “my short film and commercial work has helped me to hone my comedic voice and base the humor in my stories less on gimmicks and more on human need.”
Robbie Pickering: (917) 846-7291; robbiepickering@gmail.com

Mike Ott
Many artists have experienced times of creative discouragement and rejection, but the successful ones find a way to push through it. Serving as an example of this is writer-director Mike Ott, whose newest project about a 28-year-old actor on the verge of superstardom, yet still living with his parents on the outskirts of L.A., was born out of the same dilemma. “A Letter to Elise was originally inspired after a stage in my life when I was finding a number of my friends giving up on their creative careers and endeavors due to a lack of immediate success,” he says.

Rather than fall in line with the pack, Ott, who earned his MFA in Film and Video at the California Institute of the Arts, found strong comfort and inspiration in the career of legendary filmmaker John Cassavetes, a man who “reveled in so much success in the past, yet [he’s still] forced to prove himself as a director. I felt it really illustrated the journey of any artist, a series of ups and downs, successes and failures.”

While some may look at A Letter to Elise as a send-up of Hollywood ethics, Ott stresses that “the main character striving to become an actor is really a side note to the plot. The film in a way is more about the people who are trying to survive on the outskirts of Hollywood…the only thing it comments on in regards to Hollywood is people’s desire for instant success and fame, without willingness to struggle.”

Growing up himself on the outskirts of Los Angeles (Valencia, Calif.), a self-proclaimed “different world,” Ott clearly has a solid, firsthand understanding of his subject material. Helping him with his endeavor is co-writer and producer Jennifer Shahin, who worked with Ott on his previous feature Analog Days, which premiered at the 2006 Los Angeles Film Festival. In addition to being a filmmaker, Ott also finds the time to run his own record label, Sound Virus Records, releasing CDs and vinyl for unknown, yet promising, artists like himself.
Mike Ott: (661) 312-6569; soundvirus@aol.com

Joe Forte
With the raging Iraq War serving as a backdrop for his directorial debut, A Lifetime in Heat, Joe Forte paints a poignant picture of a day in the life of a suburban Detroit teenager who spends his last hours with his closest friends before being shipped away to fight for his country as a Marine.

The idea for the story arose spontaneously during a visit with his sister-in-law and 17-year-old nephew, whom the main character is partially based on. “I was down in their basement and realized their entire family history was stored down there – everything that made him who he is, yet also everything he was trying to get away from. That was the departure point and became the setting for the film. A kid trapped in a suburban basement, trying to get out.”

Producing A Lifetime in Heat is Gina Kwon (Me and You and Everyone We Know). Also to her credit, Kwon co-produced the enjoyably dark The Good Girl, starring Jennifer Aniston and Jake Gyllenhaal, and won Film Independent’s 2005 Bravo/American Express Producers Award. “Daring, smart and experienced” is how Forte concisely describes her.

Given Kwon’s success in producing small and meaningful films, Forte should feel comfortable that A Lifetime in Heat will be viewed on a humble scale compared to his recent gigs. “The last two films I’ve worked on have been large, studio movies, including Firewall, starring Harrison Ford, which I created and wrote. This is smaller and more intimate.” And as a result, instead of focusing on Hollywood standards, A Lifetime in Heat is justly concerned “about authenticity; the struggle between one’s deepest personal desires versus society’s expectations. It’s definitely a personal theme and hopefully a universal one.”
Joe Forte: joeforte@sbcglobal.net

Susan West
Susan West has a lot of experience producing. She’s collaborated with creative filmmakers such as Eleanor Coppola and Academy Award winner Jessica Yu and has covered just about every medium from film to television to documentary. Her most recent accomplishment was producing Yu’s latest film, Protagonist, which premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and will be released theatrically later this year.

Now West is taking on an elaborate period piece (she’s currently finalizing an agreement with a “very well regarded director”), appropriately entitled Elysian Fields, which is set during the birth of jazz in New Orleans. “I was so struck by how beautifully it was written, and how vivid it made New Orleans in this particular time and place I knew immediately I was committed, no matter what, to make this film happen,” West says. “Plus, since I had been working in documentaries, the fact that this story is based in actual events made it even more appealing to me.”

The story she is referring to is that of Countess Willie Piazza, a woman who tries to save her only home, which also happens to be a brothel, by challenging the tough political establishment of the city. “She enlists the help of two men – one the father of jazz, the other a lawyer and amateur in the new art of moving pictures, who counsels her to play America’s first race card.” Despite all the opportunities to take political stabs, West assures Elysian Fields is ultimately “about someone's right to live where they choose, which is of course an issue just as relevant today as then.”

The fact that she is working in New Orleans inevitability raises questions about the city’s current state. Her answer: “Jeffrey LaHoste (The Laramie Project), the script's author and a New Orleans native, and I started working together on the project at least 6 months prior to Katrina, so it was not born out a response to the disaster. However, since that time, the fragility of the city is so clear, and the sense that it could vanish has made us feel all the more urgently that this film must be made and very soon…plus, we are committed to bringing as much work as possible back in to the city.”
Susan West: slwest@aol.com

Silas Howard
Fatigued and practically penniless, Silas Howard was unsure of her future after completing By Hook or By Crook, her first feature film, co-directed by Harriet Dodge. Despite the film’s success in premiering at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and being released theatrically by Artistic License, the experience was just draining for Howard, “I thought I'd never want to make another film,” Howard says.

Things would soon change for Howard after coming across the interesting story of Billy Tipton, a jazz musician during the 1940s “who married several women, and who, at the end of his life, was discovered to have been born female. I struck not only by the world's perception of him but by how much I related personally to his story.” This would eventually become the basis for her next feature, Exactly Like You.

Howard was quickly drawn into the controversial subject, “Issues of gender are so complex and yet metaphorically have the potential to speak to everyone. To some extent we all create who we are in the world, embellish or hide things about ourselves, and perhaps many harbor a secret fear being found out and labeled a fraud. In the end the power of taking an audience from voyeur to sympathetic, co-conspirator is one the most exciting journeys a film can create. That goal was probably my strongest pull towards this story.”

Being a musician herself and touring eight years with her band, Tribe 8, nationally and internationally has certainly helped Howard keep a firm grasp on the lead character who “scores the world around him by translating sounds and interactions between people into music. Music has a way of reaching people’s visceral level, bypassing words and labels which can be so reductive. I love that Billy was a jazz musician, a man constantly improving on the spot — creating on the edge of nothing.”

Exactly Like You is produced by Effie T. Brown (Rocket Science). Currently Howard is writing an adaptation of a novel for production company East of Doheny that Allison Anders is scheduled to direct.
Silas Howard: silas898@aol.com

Amie Williams
Having lived and worked in rural Kenya, accomplished documentary filmmaker Amie Williams was more than qualified to write and direct her latest project, Jua Kali, about a young, soul-searching Kenyan girl named Grace living on the fringes of society with other AIDS orphans like herself. Williams was a teacher and health-communications consultant for non-profit organizations back in the 1980s, a time during which no one “could have predicted the devastation of the AIDS pandemic.”

Jua Kali, which translates to “Harsh Sun,” is actually based on an exemplary, real-life student Williams once taught there. “Grace's story has always haunted me, not so much because it’s about AIDS and Africa,” she says, “but because this girl's spirit was so remarkable, her absolute refusal to take the cards that life had dealt her...she was playing from another hand altogether.”

After her mother died, Grace went off to work for a wealthy family in Nairobi. Years later, Williams still felt a connection to the girl and began the process of tracking her down, which still continues today. “I never found her. But she lives on, I think in many young women today, faced with tough choices, and choosing life. This project is to put her face on the map, and simply listen to what Grace might have to say.”

Williams’s films have won numerous awards over the years including the International Documentary Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Media Grant, the SONY/Streisand Award for emerging female filmmakers, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Peace Grant.

Throughout her career documenting controversial films in a raw and authentic manner, films that concern “broader social/political issues grounded in small/personal stories”, Williams has mastered the ability to “let the story flow, however messy or non-linear, and to let the camera discover the ‘silences’ between people’s words, between what they wish for and what is.”
Amie Williams: amiedsg@sbcglobal.net; balmaidenfilms.com

Bill Oliver
The Obit Writer was inspired by a macabre fascination with obituaries. Obits are poignant, inspiring, and sometimes hilarious sketches of individuals who left a mark on the world, which is something we all aspire to in some way, consciously or unconsciously,” writer-director Bill Oliver says of his latest feature film, which follows the life of a NYC crime reporter who gets resentfully reassigned to writing obituaries and begins to investigate the murder of one of his subjects.

The idea for the story developed between Oliver and his writing partner, Peter Nickowitz, while conceiving a series of “what if” scenarios surrounding a person whose job is to write about the dead. “What if the obituary writer falls through the rabbit-hole of the obituary he is writing and becomes involved with the loved ones of the deceased person? What if the dead man were about his same age, which causes him to reflect on his own mortality? What if the dead man were murdered? What if the obit writer decides to investigate the murder?”

Oliver, who earned his MFA in directing at the American Film Institute, is not shy about revealing that both he and Nickowitz are strongly influenced by “the great noir and neo-noir films from the ’40s to the present, movies like Double Indemnity, The Naked City, The Dark Corner, In a Lonely Place, Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, and Croupier.” Many of Oliver’s other short films, especially Guilt, a story about “a son who is asked by his family to donate his heart to save his dying mother,” also creatively reflect these much-imitated, yet seldom-rivaled film classics.

Another similar theme present Oliver’s works is the complexity of family dynamics. The Obit Writer, which is being produced by Susan Stover (High Art, Laurel Canyon), is “also about family in the sense that the events of the story cause the main character, Cam, to reflect on his own lack of family and the terror of oblivion,” Oliver explains, “an obituary describes not only ‘what’ we have achieved but also ‘who,’ if anyone, we have loved.”
Bill Oliver: (323) 691-1279; swoliver@hotmail.com

Minh Nguyen-Vo
Living in a world that gets smaller every day due to technological advances in global communication, writer-director Minh Nguyen-Vo’s background experience makes him easily eligible to take on this subject in his latest film, Point of Reference, which traces the path of an elderly immigrant who relies on the accuracy of time and location devices in our society to discover his ultimate destiny in America.

Growing up in a small village in Vietnam, Nguyen-Vo spend much of his time in the region’s sole movie theater where he learned to escape the brutality of the war around him. Now with all that’s going on in the world today, Nguyen-Vo felt it was as important a time as ever to make this film. “I am fascinated with the speed that globalization, i.e. immigration, free trade and technology, is accelerating the change on national, ethnic and personal identity worldwide. The world suddenly becomes so small but the differences in cultures and religions that dictate human behaviors are still so wide [and] bring many misunderstandings, distrusts and eventually wars and terrorism.”

All of these ideas coincide within Point of Reference, which Nguyen-Vo refers to as his “reflection into the ways lives and goods cross national and ethnic borders in Southern California, particularly in relation to a multiethnic group of people living on the fringe of society. They are losing their points of reference in space and time and attempt to transcend these losses in their own ways.”

Nguyen-Vo spent time in France and the U.S. training in mathematics and physics before deciding to try filmmaking. Buffalo Boy, his acclaimed first feature film, became a worldwide hit, winning 11 international awards and the FIPRESCI Award for Best Film. Being produced by DViant Films, which is now handling a collection of feature films that are shot by foreign directors from inside the United States, Point of Reference should prove his strongest and most appropriately-timed films to date, as he assures his close proximity to issues of foreign relation grants him “the observation of life in different perspectives simultaneously.”
Nghiem-Minh Nguyen-Vo: (310) 293-4181; gsnapper@gmail.com

Jon Reiss
Director Jon Reiss admits that “since my own trip down the punk rock road, I have been obsessed with how subcultures provide a way for people to find out who they truly are.” This obsession began when he was young and has continued to captivate him, most recently influencing his latest project, Suck, a story about a quiet girl who finds herself drawn to a wild musician and on a greater level, the growing punk rock scene of ’70s San Francisco.

“I grew up in the stultifying suburbs of what was to become Silicon Valley, ¬ thoroughly alienated from my peers and the world around me,” Reiss says. While attending college, studying anarchist economics, he began working for, Target Video, a famous San Francisco studio which churned out early punk and hardcore bands such as Black Flag, Crucifix and Flipper, which sparked Reiss’s fascination enough to start documenting the local punk scene. “The experience changed my life completely, stopping my predestined career in academia and turning me into a guerilla filmmaker par excellence.”

But it wasn’t until a few years ago when screenwriter Ursula Holloman called him up out of the blue for research information on a script she was writing that Reiss finally had a creative outlet to focus his unique punk rock experiences into. “When Ursula told me the story, I knew that I had to be involved. It spoke of what punk rock meant for me and for so many of my friends at the time, a place to create a sense of family amongst misfits ¬and a place in which to transform as a person.”
Truly no stranger to counterculture, Reiss’s previous film was a feature length documentary entitled Bomb It that explored the worldwide popularity of graffiti and premiered recently at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival. His other films include Better Living Through Circuitry, which explores the rave culture in a crazed yet amusing manner and Cleopatra’s Second Husband, a probing, psychological drama. In addition, Reiss has also directed numerous groundbreaking music videos, including “Happiness in Slavery” by Nine Inch Nails, which won awards at the Chicago and San Francisco film festivals and was voted Top Ten by the Village Voice Critic’s Poll for Best Music Video.
Jon Reiss: cell - (310) 866-7210, home - (310) 471-7210; jon@jonreiss.com, jonreiss.com

Aldo Velasco
For Aldo Velasco, much of his newest film SuperMacho comes from his own actual experience working as a private investigator. “I’m not a tough guy at all. In fact, I’m kind of scrawny and not at all imposing. So as a P.I. I had to force myself to draw on an internal reserve of ‘machismo’ I scarcely knew existed, just like the main character of my film. Alex takes a job arresting shoplifters, and he finds to his astonishment that he takes a perverse pleasure in dominating others. The twists and turns of his transformation from geek to macho tough were based in part on my own work experience.”

Velasco, who was born in Guadalajara, Mexico but who lives in Los Angeles’ Echo Park, has a deep understanding of the Chicano culture and is adamant to not “rely on the stock types often found in commercial Latino films: the saintly maid, the kindly abuelita, or the hapless immigrant. The characters in SuperMacho are based on real Chicanos, some more likable than others, and none of them saints.”

Helping him out is producer Jasmine Jaisinghani who Velasco says has “single-handedly transformed it from a script in my hand to a viable film production. She’s tireless and persistent in a way a producer needs to be, and she’s also a great defender of the elements that make SuperMacho unique and powerful.” After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, Jaisinghani worked for Capitol Records in promotion as well as George Harrison’s label, Dark Horse Records. Having most recently produced The Good, the Bad and the Avon Lady, she is currently in the midst of producing a number of films as well as recording artists.

Velasco earned his MFA in Film Production from UCLA and has directed numerous short films, the most recent of which, Hinge, premiered at the 2007 South By Southwest Film Festival. “My previous works have been shorts, so by necessity SuperMacho is more story-based and less wantonly impressionistic. But it shares with all my works an unconventional blending of comedic and dramatic styles, and an unusual tone of absurdist-realism.”
Aldo Velasco: Aldopolis@yahoo.com


# posted by Jason Guerrasio @ 8/06/2007 03:53:00 PM Comments (0)

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