Saturday, September 19, 2009
Sometimes people ask me how I went from living in Los Angeles, writing a studio film like 40 Days & 40 Nights, to living in Minneapolis, directing an independent comedy like nobody. It’s a fair question but it seems there’s a subtext here, too. Many people think independent film is a step down from the studio system. And I’m sure it is — for some people.
But let’s go back. 40 Days & 40 Nights is about a guy who gives up sex for lent and then meets the perfect girl. The short version of how it was made goes something like this: we pitched it to every studio in town. After nine “no’s,” the tenth place, the last place, said “yes.” (Note that this is not a storyteller’s embellishment; this is 100% true.) I turned in the first draft a few months later. They liked it and essentially the film was greenlit right then. We were filming 13 months after we sold the pitch. The film was released a year-and-a-half later. Internationally the picture went on to make just under $100 million in theaters. Those aren’t Transformer numbers, but they’re very solid, especially for a comedy that cost less than a fifth of that to make.
At the time I believed the film was made because of the script. However, in retrospect I believe it was made because of a confluence of a 20 completely random stars aligning. This included an influx of money at the studio from a new partnership; their recent films had been hits; young comedies like mine were connecting at the time; a few bankable actors in the age range wanted to play the lead; the executive(s) happened to like (or at least think it was commercial) the concept/script; and that the producer was hungry enough that when he hit road blocks, he found other ways to keep moving forward. I can go on, but hope this is enough to illustrate my point: the film was made because of 20 things that had nothing to do with the script.
I did not know this at the time. How could I? I was twenty-eight. I had been in Hollywood five years. Aside from the handful of people I had met since I got there, I didn’t know anyone in the industry. I simply assumed the studio system would always find a way to make something good and commercial. In short, I didn’t know any better.
I spent the next few years entrenched in the system, took writing assignments, spent a year working exclusively with Ridley Scott. The following year Anthony Minghella offered me a script over breakfast. (The studio killed the deal because they didn’t believe in the project). It was fun. I made some money. I learned from people much smarter and more experienced than me. Life was good. There was just one small problem.
None of these scripts were getting made into films.
A couple close calls, but no greenlight. I figured this was because I was writing their ideas instead of mine. I stopped taking assignments, withdrew from the system, and took a year to write what I still believe is the best thing I’ve ever done. The Quiet Type is a story about a small-town mute who falls in love with a New York City chatterbox. This is a romantic comedy wherein the lead character is mute. I wrote it on spec even though at the time I probably could have sold it as a pitch. I did this because I felt like a pitch was mostly about presentation wherein a script is all about substance. The project sold the first hour it was on the market. To this day, even people who don’t like me begrudgingly respect me for that unproduced script and nothing else.
I spent a year writing it. I spent another year rewriting it, addressing the notes of my studio executive. We made it better. Two years into it we were finally ready to go to actors. Now, four years later, they were finally going to make my second picture.
And then it happened.
My studio executive took a job across town. My script was assigned to someone else. I sometimes imagine this guy familiarizing himself with the new slate of projects. Having just finished the something about reptiles on a commercial flight, he picks up my script. After five pages he thinks, What the hell? The protagonist doesn’t talk? He flips through to page 30, 50, 70, 100. He’s looking for one thing — the lead character’s name in the middle of the page followed by some dialogue, any dialogue, maybe just one word. But he doesn’t find it because it’s not there. He wonders to himself? Are you kidding me? What the hell am I supposed to do with this?
It’s not his fault. This stuff is completely subjective. What you like is what you like. I liked it; he didn’t. But that’s the whole problem. It’s no one’s fault.
Some version of this sad story has happened to thousands of screenwriters before me and I’m sure hundreds since. But that’s when it hit me — I wasn’t writing movies; I was writing screenplays.
While that’s a perfectly fine way to make a living and support a family, it’s kind of a silly thing to dedicate your life to. I got into this business to make people laugh, feel, and think. When I say “people” I’m not talking about a couple of movie executives, agents, and producers, you know, the ten people who read scripts. I’m talking about real people. Regular people. Actual people. You know… people.
I had to at least try to get back to making movies.
It was now 2007. Six years without a film and the horizon was looking bleaker everyday. Hollywood was changing. Studios now had to answer to parent companies. Development money shrunk. Slates of films being produced were slashed in half or, in some cases, by two-thirds. And those films, the vast majority emphasized marketing potential over material. In other words, most weren’t even trying to be good films; they simply wanted to be commercial. On a personal level, this meant the films the studios were making were no longer films I wanted to see. This blew my mind because I never thought of myself as an art house guy. I love John Hughes, John Landis, and Blake Edwards. It’s not that I grew up with these guys. I want to be these guys. I want to affect audiences the same way they affect me. But if the studio system suddenly didn’t have a seat for them at the table, was there really a place left for me?
Meanwhile, in 2003 I had co-written this script called nobody with Ryan Miller, lead singer of the band Guster. It’s a comedy about an artist looking for inspiration. It was intentionally smaller in concept, scope, and ambition, conceived and executed for a first time director — me. I feel like a lot of first timers fail because they try to bite off too much their first time out of the gates. I wanted keep the world relatively contained and give myself a shot of actually pulling this off.
Early on a few name actors were interested, but not anyone I loved. Of course signing up the flavor of the week was tempting, (hey, instant financing!) but I made a promise to myself that I would keep to the end: try to make a picture I would want to see.
I also figured finding a leading man was a little like finding a house. You know it when you see it. Four short years later I found my house doing a one-man show in New York City. I went back three times that week and, after convincing this unknown named Sam Rosen I was not a stalker, got him to read the script and accept the lead role.
Problem is, Hollywood not only didn’t want to finance a small picture with this guy, they didn’t even want to meet him. Thus, I went looking for independent financing. The script was set in Minneapolis. Coincidentally, Sam Rosen, the lead, and Josh Hartnett, the executive producer, were also from the Twin Cities. I started pounding the pavement there. I flew back and forth from Los Angeles to Minneapolis every other month, meeting with people, hat in hand. They were interested but after a few close calls I saw what was holding them back. A little part of them was afraid I was going to take their money and move to a tropical island. If I could convince these potential investors that I was trustworthy, that my only plans with their money was to make this movie, that I was one of them, then I felt they would jump in.
In the fall of 2007 I threw everything I owned in storage and moved to Minneapolis. We were fully financed within six months. Roughly ninety percent of that money is private equity from the twin cities.
We completed principal photography in July, 2008. We are just now gearing up for a world premiere here in Minneapolis and, hopefully, at the very least, a local theatrical run. Truth is we haven’t had much luck with festivals. At first this was hard to swallow and even comprehend until I showed it to a group of my filmmaker friends, people with a ton of festival experience and success, and they all said more or less the same thing: You made a film for high school and college kids which is not the demographic the festivals want.
In other words, this isn’t art; it’s entertainment. Thing is — that’s exactly what we set out to do. Is it perfect, a classic, the best picture ever made? No, no, and yes. Okay. Maybe I overstate that last part because I’m all too aware of its shortcomings. A few mistakes are a function of time and budget, but the vast majority are one-hundred percent my fault. Some jokes don’t land. The camera isn’t always in the right place. And in one particularly painful moment, the staging is reminiscent of elementary school theater. I can go on but won’t because I choose to take solace in that old saying about how no one starts directing their third picture.
Plus, there are a lot of things that actually work in here: there are a bunch of great laughs; the relationships elicit real emotion; and one or two moments might actually be great. Oh, and my leading man kills it. But most importantly to me, for this film’s demographic (ages 14-22), this is a journey that adds up emotionally to much more than the sum of its parts.
I made a film that I want to see.
In the end, I feel the exact same way about this film as I did about 40 Days & 40 Nights. I’m incredibly proud of this thing. Truly. But if this is the last film I ever make I will have fallen short.
There’s still so much more to do.
nobody will have its world premiere October 1, 2009 at Minneapolis's State Theater, with tickets available through Ticketmaster, and will open October 2 at Minneapolis's Kerasotes Block E. For more info on these and other upcoming screenings, visit the nobody website.
(Photos: top, Perez with actress Helena Mattsson; middle, poster; below, Perez on the set.)
Labels: Web Exclusives
Thursday, September 3, 2009
In A Dog Year, the feature film directed by George LaVoo from Jon Katz's memoir, Jeff Bridges plays Katz, a midlife crisis-stricken writer who, impulsively and in an act of near-deliberate emotional self-destruction, adopts a rambunctious and unsocialized border collie, flying him cross country to his family's split-level home and their two other dogs. And while Lavoo's movie has its share of Beethoven-esque moments as the collie sprints down suburban streets or mischievously jumps rides on passing automobiles, the film is less about canine hijinks and more about the complex and unexpected emotional roles that dogs play in our lives. Bridges brings his customary outsized warmth to the character, but there's also a damaged and emotionally occluded aspect to Katz that the actor tugs away at. Depicting Katz's problems through his understated notice of the absence of his wife and daughter, LaVoo has made a film that will appeal to dog lovers while also prompting thought about the ways in which we all mediate our place in the world.
A Dog Year is the directorial debut of LaVoo, who is well known in the independent community for writing and producing Real Women Have Curves and producing Getting to Know You. Produced by HBO Films, it's also the last film from the shingle's independent division headed by Maud Nadler and responsible for movies like American Splendor and Maria Full of Grace. A Dog Year premieres tonight on the channel and will replay several times this month. I spoke to LaVoo by phone several days before his broadcast premiere.
Filmmaker: Do you have or did you ever have a dog?
LaVoo: I did have a dog growing up. I love dogs. Now, I live in New York City in a fifth floor walkup and I have a cat. Making the movie was my way of spending a lot of time with dogs.
Filmmaker: How did you come across Jon Katz’s book?
LaVoo: I had met Jon Kat online because I had been interested in another of his books, and while we were corresponding he said,” I have this new book…” He let me option it before it was published.
Filmmaker: And what was it about this material, aside from wanting to spend time with dogs, that interested you?
LaVoo: What drew me to the story is my fascination with the whole “dog experience.” My father’s generation would get a dog from the pound, a rescue dog, and then would keep the dog outside all night. Now there are dog behavioralists. Dogs have play dates. Dogs have become a key emotional link in our lives. That’s probably because we as a society have become more lonely and isolated from ourselves, and that’s a theme that I saw in Jon’s book.
Filmmaker: What happened after you optioned the book?
LaVoo: I took it to HBO, and they said, “Let’s try and get an actor on board.” That’s what HBO calls their “flashing green light.” I’ve always admired Jeff Bridges because he seems like the kind of actor who is never afraid to expose any part of himself. He’s always so fully human. We got the script to him, and that was a long process. Jeff is not someone who makes a decision quickly, and, of course, he shouldn’t. He said he was interested and wanted to meet, and we wound up sitting down in New York for a six-hour dinner at the Four Seasons. The restaurant closed down around us and because it was Jeff some people on the staff stayed. It was an incredible conversation. He asked a million questions of me personally, of the character, of how we would approach things. He talked about his experiences with his wife and talked about his memory of dogs when he was a kid. His father had gotten him a border collie when he was young. At the end he said, “Sounds good, but I’m not saying ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” We talked or corresponded for three more months before he said, “I’m ready.”
Filmmaker: Watching your film I realized the particular challenges you faced in directing the dog. Not only did the dog have to do the action specified by the script, but the dog also had to act. The dog’s expressions, behavior, and energy level were all quite important.
LaVoo: I was really excited by that challenge, I knew this film was going to involve a lot more than just actors and a camera. In terms of working with a dog – I did the research, talked to other directors, and I learned from them that making a movie with a dog as a lead is like making a special effects or stunt movie. I researched dog trainers and found an incredible dog trainer, Mathilde de Cagny, who had a whole team of people. She came on board before Jeff was cast. We started casting dogs before any of the actors, and that process was like an all-state casting call. We searched on the internet, and made lots of calls. She traveled to South Carolina and to Minnesota to meet dogs. She looked at dogs who are not trained movie dogs because there were so few trained dogs that were specifically right for our part. We just had to go out and find young dogs that had the right kind of sensibility and personality.
Filmmaker: How many dogs were used in the movie?
LaVoo: We cast one lead dog, Ryder, and then around him we cast six other dogs who looked as close to him as we could possibly get. For the movie, we had the dogs dyed so their color markings would match, and the dogs that had different eye colors got dog contact lenses.
Filmmaker: And were different dogs used for scenes with different emotional temperatures?
LaVoo: This movie is the story of a dog who goes through an emotional journey, and I paid careful attention to mapping out the steps of that journey. One of the dogs we was more skittish and nervous, but he exuded what we needed in the beginning of the movie which was a damaged dog.
Filmmaker: What has happened to the dogs after the movie?
LaVoo: What’s interesting about the dog training world, the trainers become so attached to the dogs, and now these dogs are going to be taken care of for the rest of their lives by the trainers. Our lead dog has been in a couple of new movies, some big Hollywood movies. But even if the dogs aren’t in another movie, the trainers keep them.
Filmmaker: I would have imagined that the dog and Jeff would have spent time bonding, but with seven dogs playing the one role, I guess that wasn’t the case.
LaVoo: My first idea was that Jaff and the dog would spend a lot of time together so they would have this personal rapport, but because of the technicalities of how you have to make a movie with dogs, [that didn’t happen]. But Jeff did spend some time with each dog. He said to me, “I’ve done so many kinds of movie, I’m always looking for a new challenge. And I have never had to be real and honest [in scenes] next to a dog with trainers off screen yelling commands and throwing treats.”
Filmmaker: I was struck by the elliptical portrait of Katz’s relationship with his family. We know he has a wife and daughter, but they are off screen. And while we know from the answering machine messages from his wife that things seem off between them, we’re not told much more. Obviously, all of this relates to Katz’s decision to adopt the dog. How did you approach balancing the story of Katz and his dog with the backstory of his relationship with his family?
LaVoo: In the book Jon Katz talked in just a few sentences about the relationship with his wife and family. But one thing that I observed that was happening in his life was that he leaves society and moves with the dog to the countryside, to an isolated spot in upstate New York. How does that effect his relationship with his wife? Well, he makes her an office and said she’s going to love it up here. As the movie developed I wanted to be very careful about how I handled this [aspect of Katz’s story]. I wanted to explore that relationship between Jon and his wife, so in the movie we go a little bit farther and show that it’s a marriage that’s in trouble. Here’s a guy who is most real when he is with his dog. He’s a guy who can’t even talk to his wife — he calls on a payphone and he basically hangs up on her. Part of what interested me about the story is that Jon is irresponsible, he is acting from his gut, he is angry and disconnected. He does an irresponsible thing by bringing another dog into his household. He does it with a good heart — it is an abused dog — but also because he is in such an isolated and mixed-up place in his life.
Filmmaker: What’s Katz’s situation now?
LaVoo: After we finished the movie, Jon had gotten a divorce. Now he has a new woman in his life and he is very happy. It was a very amicable split [with his ex-wife] but it was still painful. Jon looked at the movie and said, “You understood me better than I knew myself. This is true and honst, but it’s difficult for me to show my daughter this movie.”
Filmmaker: What about the film and literature about dogs? Were you inspired by any works in particular?
LaVoo: Well, Umberto D. It’s a really emotional and beautiful movie. And I did a lot of research about dogs and literature. There is one quote from Samuel Butler, the 19th century British novelist: ““The great pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself too.” I think that sums up why I loved the process of making the movie.
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