Tag Archives: Indie Film

Interview: Jason Fisher Writer-Director-Producer

Making movies isn’t for the easily discouraged. Ask Jason Fisher who is about 250 drafts into a feature film script that he’s been revising and revising for the past 20 years.

The screenplay was inspired by a colleague (who I’ll call “Jamal”) with whom Fisher worked at Pizza Hut at Cincinnati. They had a cordial relationship on the job, which organically developed into a friendship. One day Jamal told Fisher that one day he would reveal what brought him to Cincinnati. At the time Fisher thought it would be something along the lines of a bad break up.

Jamal’s confession was a bombshell, and one that immediately got Fisher’s creative wheels spinning. He told Fisher that he grew up in an impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood and got involved in the drug ring transporting drugs from Brooklyn to Ohio. One day, he got busted, though comparatively speaking, he got lucky. “Had they caught me like 24 hours before, I wouldn’t be speaking to you today, because I had way more [drugs]. I took the first plea bargain they offered [which was 2 years in prison].”

Fisher’s script approaches this subject from the point of view of “an average middle man…who isn’t making millions of dollars…how [most] likely if you stay in it long enough, eventually, it’s going to be your turn to get caught.”

Although Fisher has always loved films and filmmaking, it wasn’t always the dream goal. He initially pursued what he thought was a more realistic career in college, sports management. It didn’t stick. This would be the case with most of his majors. In the midst of his indecisiveness, he met a woman involved with local theater who thought he had acting potential and invited him to audition for upcoming productions.

He didn’t click with the material. “I had this one audition” he remembered “I was playing a waiter who was a male, or not a male… or androgynous? It was some sort of comedy.” Unsurprisingly, he didn’t get the part. “I believe I was not yet confident enough as an actor, nor mature enough to handle the material, but today I think producing a project like that would be hilarious” he added.

“I was living in a house with a lot of friends and whining about the plays which were either the classics or this off the wall stuff. They said, ‘you have a lot of good ideas. Why don’t you start writing.’”

He took their advice. Early on, he knew he wanted to write for films, not theatre. Like all aspiring filmmakers, Fisher did trek out to LA, though he didn’t stay long. He realized that not only were industry jobs competitive, but all jobs were highly competitive. This made paying the rent a real problem.

Next stop, Vegas. Not knowing anybody, he figured he try to connect with fellow writers via Craig’s List. The response rate was high, and he eventually formed a writers group, which remains a tight knit community. When Fisher was ready to take the plunge into making a movie, a cinematographer of note reached out to him and offered to shoot it.

A.K.A The Surgeon, a 25 minute action short was initially conceived as a modest low-budget one or two day shoot. While filming, Fisher decided to rev up the scale- increasing the budget, the shoot time to 20 days (over a year and a half), and 18 locations. He is grateful that he had “the courage and stubbornness” to go the “mini feature” route because it was a closer simulation to the logistics and budgeting of making a feature.

Although Fisher made a lot of contacts and projects in Vegas, he eventually gravitated towards Georgia because its East Coast culture and weather was more similar his home state of Ohio. Naturally I asked if he was optimistic about Georgia’s ability to sustain itself as a filming hub. He is.

What about the fact that most of the people down to the caterers are transplants from New York and LA and that very few people working on sets are Georgia residents? Fisher admits that is a problem and that most of the people attached in his upcoming projects are non-Georgians (though he does have a few locals in the Atlanta and Athens area on his team).

He plans to include Georgians on the action, including the possibility of shooting films in Athens and Atlanta. But “the thing is I need to get a cast and crew that have some sort of track record to go with mine – mine’s not strong enough by itself.” Fisher is working very hard to up his street cred. A script he co-wrote was a semifinalist at the well-known Slamdance screenplay competition. Another was optioned by Paramount. He has involved himself with several projects in various capacities. The scale of the projects vary too from the micro budget art movie Crossing Flowers Motel to a higher budget, popcorn action flick Bounty Hunter (which has had nibbles from fairly famous actors).

Producing is a natural fit for Fisher who has been a manager at various companies for several years. He is no stranger to the hectic duties of coordinating with loads of admin, overseeing lots of different departments and ensuring maximum cost effective productivity. One of his most arduous, but rewarding stints was at a sheet metal manufacturing firm. “Each quarter (three months) was the equivalent of a feature” Fisher remembers.

At one point Fisher’s company bosses were frantic about fulfilling a large order with a looming deadline and a relatively small operation. Fisher found the solution by delving into the frugal filmie side of his brain. Instead of overtime, he proposed staggering shifts where half the workers would take a break while the other half continued working so that parts continually moved throughout the day. During his tenure there, the company’s revenue went from $5 million to $15 million.

Fisher has seen several of his friends and colleagues take indefinite hiatuses or leave the film scene altogether. Why hasn’t he given up too? “I love it too much.” He pauses briefly. “While I’ve run into frustrations, I continue to go at it because I keep thinking, OK, I trained myself all these years to get from one mountain range to another one and another one and all I can see in the horizon is more mountain ranges.” He adds, “What if I’m really close? And I think I am.”

UPDATE 31 AUG 2017. An earlier edition of the article stated the sheet metal company’s profit’s went from $5 to $15 million. Those figures were actually the revenue.

Review Short Film: Here Lies Joe (2016)

One of the most common complaints about Hollywood films is how predictable and formulaic they are. In the 90s, film festivals like Sundance were in their zenith when they provided a platform for writer/directors such as Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, and Jim Jarmusch, who delivered films that brazenly asserted an edgy, idiosyncratic style, often mixing the irreverent with the absurd.

Over the years, Sundance and indie films in general have lost their cachet as many of the films that come out of the festivals have arguably become as formulaic as blockbuster flicks, yet often without the slick efficiency. One of the stalest forms of American indie movies is the emo rom-com between suicidal depressives.

The new short film Here Lies Joe checks most of the boxes of the aforementioned genre: washed out color palette, slow mumbly alternative soundtrack, gratuitous long takes that are supposed to signify how bare the protagonist’s life is, and forced snarky-cutesy banter between a man and woman.

Writer-director-cinematographer-editor, etc. Mark Battle has some flair for morose comedic awkwardness as evidenced in the suicide anonymous group meeting scene (buoyed by an amusing performance by Mary Hronicek as an emotional wreck).

Joe loses momentum when it hinges on a meandering series of awkward scenes between the titular character (Dean Temple), a former professor? living in his car, and Z (Andi Morrow), an intellectual and brash, but self-destructive woman.

There are hints that Temple and Morrow, are sensitive performers, but they are constrained by the overly self-conscious archetypal nature of their characters.

Morrow is better at asserting the abrasive elements of her character than the more vulnerable side, which as written feels more obligatory than organic. If the character of Z is overly snarky, Joe is on the wrong side of understated; underdeveloped. While protagonists in many films overexplain themselves, we never conclusively know anything about Joe (the scraps of evidence of his past are never tied in to the story, alas), and therefore have very little connection with him.

What Joe lacks in originality, it makes up for in overall competency, which puts it way ahead of most low-budget small crew short films in the festival circuit.

Review: In a World/Enough Said (2013)

Two Rom Coms: Half a Gem

Courtesy of circlecinema.com

   Courtesy of circlecinema.com

Courtesy of perezhilton.com

Courtesy of perezhilton.com

In a World/Enough Said Review

By Adam Tawfik

Judging by a majority of the romantic comedies that are churned out, the businessmen who create these vehicles seem to think that women, to whom they target their cynically sentimental drivel, have the collective IQ of a gumdrop. More insidiously, this genre has a tendency to espouse an evil ideology where characters (particularly the female ones) are reduced to their love lives and being romantic objects, and they perpetrate the status quo where men are in authority and women and children are subordinates, doing it in such a cutesy manner to cover up the sweeten the cyanide.

Unlike most years where romantic comedies pollute the cinemas in the early season and the summer, they have largely been abandoned this year by the major studios, with more hyper masculine action packed pelt-‘em-ups in their place.

Interestingly this autumn indie female directors and writers have coopted the genre as a way to provide a more insightful character study of a female protagonist. While the results are not as crass as their mainstream counterpoints, out of a sampling of two recent films, In a World and Enough Said, the final results are decidedly mixed. Let’s get the negativity out of the way.

Courtesy of blogs.indiewire.com

Courtesy of blogs.indiewire.com

It’s not unreasonable that many creative people in front of and behind the camera would come on board with Lake Bell’s most recent project, In a World. World, which Bell wrote, directed, and starred in, has an intelligent thesis about the sexism in the oft forgotten voiceover-world and how women’s voices in that profession are either very girly or sultry.

I must confess that I was excited to see this film after hearing Bell’s amusing and insightful NPR interview, but honestly she pretty much lifted her talking points from the final scene in the film. Unfortunately, there’s 90 minutes of mostly humdrum inaction before that moment. Bell, instead of being a triple threat, ends up being uninspired on three counts.

Courtesy of digitalshortbread.com

Courtesy of digitalshortbread.com

Her screenplay never achieves a consistent tone, swinging from moments of uncontrollably broad humor to chunks of pseudo-naturalistic awkwardness, neither of which comes off with precision. Subsequently, there’s a gaping discrepancy between characterizations and performances. Fred Melamen as Bell’s jealous and unsupportive father, Ken Marino as a narcissistic misogynous voice actor, and Stephanie Allynne as an obnoxiously idiotic receptionist are cloying caricatures while Michaela Watkins as Bell’s uptight and disciplined sister and Dimitri Martin as a socially awkward recording producer enamored with Bell’s character are cookie-cutter indie comedy archetypes.

There is sentimentality that feels more in place with a 1943 film than one in 2013. At one point, when Rob Corddry (delivering one of the few good performances), as Watkins’ mild-mannered and patient husband, discovers a romantic recording of his wife and an Irish guest at her hotel, we learn that it’s not as bad as it sounds. As if this isn’t annoying enough, this plotline has the annoying resolution of an audio recording of Watkins expressing her love for Corddry courtesy of the chirpy do-gooder Bell.

Courtesy of krellabs.blogspot.com

Courtesy of krellabs.blogspot.com

The single worst moment is when Melamen, who viciously undermines his daughters for most of the film, has a very public change of heart after a pep talk from his chirpy and much younger girlfriend (Alexandra Holden). This is also the point where we see she may act like a bimbo for 90 minutes but isn’t actually a bimbo, in one of the film’s many crude attempts to try to show us that we shouldn’t judge people by the way they look and speak.

Lake Bell, who has provided solid support in various films and TV shows, is too wise and grounded to make the flighty and quirky aspects of her character believable. Ultimately, she doesn’t have enough dynamism to carry the film.

Geena Davis, making a rare recent screen appearance, shows us what real star quality is in about a minute of screen time. Portraying a video game executive with a feminist agenda, Davis shows how her character is a cynical hard-ass about getting her larger message out there, providing a nuance that most of the film lacks.  I can only recommend World for those that indiscriminately feed off of feel-good fare.

Courtesy of blogs.commercialappeal

Courtesy of blogs.commercialappeal

If you can stomach a small dose of genuine pathos in exchange for a higher quality film, then check out Enough Said. Written and directed by indie favorite Nicole Holofcener, Said follows the life of Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a middle-aged divorced masseuse whose monotonous life is interrupted by her daughter (Tracey Fairaway) leaving home to go to college and the meeting of two important people, her future best friend and client, an affluent and influential poet, Marianne (Holofcener muse Catherine Keener) and Albert (James Gandolfini), the first man to win her heart in a long time.

Said does not make a good first impression as the earlier passages have a sitcomish construction, sort of a third-rate copycat of The New Adventures of Old Christine or Seinfeld, with the punch lines or comic timing not as sharp. Stay with it as the film hits its stride in a big way when it establishes its unconventional triangle and how Eva eventually figures out that the ex about whom Marianne incessantly complains is actually Albert and how she slowly becomes more and more like Marianne in her relationship with him. The funny and sometimes strange romance between Albert and Eva is wonderful to watch as Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini have great screen chemistry.

Courtesy of latimes.com

Courtesy of latimes.com

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, an iconic TV comidienne who’s made supporting performances in lackluster films, is impressive in her first film lead. She brings some of her neurotic and abrasive qualities of her sitcom persona, but also proves herself to be a compelling dramatic performer and convincingly shows vulnerability the final act where she tries to repair the damaged relationship with Albert and how she forms an inappropriate relationship with her daughter’s best friend (Tavi Gevinson). She makes for an emotionally flawed, but highly empathetic if not always likeable, character.

Apparently James Gandolfini, best known for his intensely dramatic work, had trepidation about taking on a romantic lead. Onscreen he seems completely at ease with the film’s lightly comic tone, bringing a kindness and gentleness interspersed with a droll delivery of some of the film’s funniest lines. In many ways he is the film’s heart as his character is unpretentious and comfortable with himself.

Courtesy of cinemaviewfinder.com

Courtesy of cinemaviewfinder.com

Marianne’s lack of nuance hurts the comedy triangle. It’s hard to figure out why Eva is so awed by Marianne. Supposedly, she’s chic and sophisticated, but her costumes are frumpy, the dress she wore at the party looked like a beige potato sack and her hair is a mousy brown and unkempt. Her house is supposedly superior to Eva’s and allegedly slobby Albert’s; while perhaps a bit more colorful, all the sets had a certain sanitation and classiness. Keener, with an unsettlingly hoarse voice, is transparently a shrew, and had she had some dimension like Albert and Eva, it would have elevated the triangle and given Eva more motivation to go against Albert.

A few of the other supporting characters never really gel. Other than in scenes where they take Eva to the party or where they act as a counterweight to Eva’s belittlement of Albert on their double date, Eva’s friends Sarah (Toni Collette) and Will (Ben Falcone), a married couple who incessantly bicker, are mostly irritatingly superfluous intrusions.

Marcelo Zarvos’ overblown score is the single most abrasive element. It never fits in with the quiet low-key charm of the overall film and it often arrives at the most inopportune moments, inadvertently undermining the quirkiness of many of the scenes and giving it a glibness that isn’t on the screen.

Courtesy of zimbio.com

Courtesy of zimbio.com

Holofcener, who has written and directed feature films for nearly twenty years, has carved out a sizable niche for herself. Yet Enough Said is the first work of hers that I’ve seen. Maybe because she is close to the age of her protagonists’ accounts for the authenticity she brings to the story. Admittedly, I never took the time to catch her other films as they always struck me as pedestrian looking, but I suppose I’ll Netflix some of them now.

Review: Blue Jasmine (2013)

Cate the Great

Courtesy of impawards.com

Courtesy of impawards.com

Blue Jasmine Review

By Adam Tawfik

The film industry hails Woody Allen as something of a god even if much of his iconic status is residual from accomplishments including Manhattan, Sleeper, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, and especially the most definitively Allen-esque Annie Hall.

In these films, the writer-director (and sometimes leading man) cultivated a unique brand of urbane humor that borrowed the frenetic, silly pace and hyper-neurotic characters of the silent-era and screwball comedies, updating them with franker sexuality and more emotional baggage.

Courtesy of pitch.com

Courtesy of pitch.com

Although the energetic Allen consistently produces films featuring eclectic ensembles of celebrities and character actors, few of his efforts of the last twenty years equal those of his artistic zenith (roughly the 1970s to mid-1980s). Around the same time Allen married his adopted Vietnamese daughter his films largely tended towards an endless droning of shrill and whiny characters, and an unconvincing coupling of an older man (often portrayed by Allen or an Allen surrogate) and an inappropriately younger woman (usually Scarlett Johansson, unfortunately).

Amidst the heap of subpar films, Allen occasionally produces a worthwhile venture. Blue Jasmine, his latest release, not only finds him returning to good form, but ranks amongst one of the strongest films in his entire oeuvre.

Courtesy of pastemagazine.com

Courtesy of pastemagazine.com

Jasmine, a biting satire and bleak drama, delves into the misfortune of a recent widow (Cate Blanchett) whose husband’s (Alec Baldwin) Ponzi scheme (and eventual arrest and suicide) leaves her broke and addled, forcing her to flee from her NYC penthouse to her working class sister Ginger’s (Sally Hawkins) small San Francisco apartment, where she wreaks havoc on everybody’s life while self-imploding in her narcissism and delusion.

The power in Allen’s screenplay is in its amusing but unflinchingly adult treatment of its characters. The film provides a strong framework to elicit sympathy for Jasmine, a woman over forty who has to support herself after years being provided for during her marriage and learn the most basic life skills such as learning to operate a computer in order to get a college degree for interior design. At the same time, the strong emphasis on her many flaws tempers any sympathy felt for her.

From the very beginning from the way Jasmine babbles nonstop to the passenger next to her on the plane about her recent misfortunes, we know she’s going to be unsympathetic. Jasmine makes her contentious relationship with Ginger worse by her snobbery and condescension towards her sister (whom she feels is an underachiever) and her gruff boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and his friends. A great deal of the humor and the gravitas comes from Jasmine’s inability to rise from being a flat character, but what makes it interesting is that it has dramatic repercussions as the world around her changes.

Courtesy of voraciousfilmgoer.blogspot.com

Courtesy of voraciousfilmgoer.blogspot.com

This by no means suggests that Cate Blanchett gives a one-note performance. In fact, the magnificent Blanchett is by far the film’s largest asset. It’s been too long since she’s had a strong protagonist role and she’s one of those actresses whose supernatural talent can almost singlehandedly carry a film, like here (or sometimes, as in the case of Elizabeth: The Golden Age, her dynamic presence is the only reason to watch).

Jasmine has tapped into new depths of Blanchett’s range. Blanchett, who often has an androgynous quality (that makes her the perfect choice to play people like Galadriel or Bob Dylan), plays her first ultra-feminine character since Notes on a Scandal. In her hands Jasmine comes across like a more cynical and savvy Mad Men-era wife.

More remarkably, Jasmine gives Blanchett an opportunity to introduce her great skills as a comedian, imbuing the film’s tone with her droll readings. Where many actresses would probably approach the histrionic character with overly-theatrical ballyhoo, Blanchett’s understatement heightens the humor of her character and the situation. Blanchett shows the craziness in her face, progressively turning more troll-like. She also conveys haughtiness through her expression, having great capsule moments; the total register of disgust on her face when Chili’s friend wants to date her is hilarious.

Courtesy of unsungfilms.com

Courtesy of unsungfilms.com

Sally Hawkins as the other major character is the perfect foil for Blanchett’s staidness. It’s Ginger who is the dynamic character and film’s heart, as she convincingly portrays an unsuspecting basically happy-go-lucky woman in spite of the adversity in her life and the only one who gives Jasmine any compassion; it’s funny and heartbreaking when she has a brief falling out with Cannavale because she buys into Jasmine’s notion that she’s an underachiever, and embarks in an ill-fated fling with a seemingly sweet and respectable man (Louis CK).

Cannavale convincingly shifts between Chili’s charismatic gregariousness, volatility, and insecurity, often within seconds. Scenes between him, Hawkins, and Blanchett explore the tension and differences between them with comedy and drama shifted between; for example when Chili finds out about Ginger’s fling, there are some genuinely frightening moments, such as when Cannavale unhinges the phone off the wall in his character’s drunken rage; but Blanchett’s nasty one-liner comments offset that with humor.

Courtesy of thelmagazine.com

Courtesy of thelmagazine.com

The film’s only flaw is the New York flashback passages which are mostly ineffectual because the country club characters don’t develop past the point of window dressing and the scenes aren’t well integrated into the film. The biggest missed opportunity is in the major underdevelopment of the husband, leaving Alec Baldwin, who just got off a stint of 30 Rock where for seven years he made an unscrupulous executive imminently compelling and hilarious, nothing to do but give a stiff and bland performance.

Some of this undefined disparity between the two cities in the script is rectified by the strong technical crew. Set designers Kris Boxell and Regina Graves deserve praise for providing some of the more memorable scenery in an Allen film, providing an interesting contrast between the stuffiness of upper crust NYC with lots of whites and creams while painting an eclectic San Francisco with an array of soft pinks, greens, and yellows.

Courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

Courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

Suzy Benzinger’s assemblage of breathtakingly gorgeous and chic outfits heightens the personification of Jasmine as a decadently rich ice princess flaunting her upper echelon status. The deep red cocktail dress at Jasmine’s birthday party in particular is a standout, doing wonders for Blanchett’s ivory skin.

It’s interesting to read that at a little over $31 million Jasmine is Allen’s most commercially successful film; considering his longevity, he’s still a niche director. As one woman in the audience loudly exclaimed as she left the theater, “I’ve never liked that Woody Allen.” Even if you’re not an Allen fan, you should still check out Jasmine for Cate Blanchett.