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Five Questions with Think of Me Director Bryan Wizemann

Bryan Wizemann’s recommended Think of Me, which boasts an amazing performance by Lauren Ambrose, is tomorrow night’s opening feature for the Rooftop Films 2012 season. The following interview was originally published on the eve of its Toronto Film Festival premiere.

One of the more sobering and even painful short films of recent years is Bryan Wizemann’s Film Makes Us Happy. In the 12-minute documentary, Wizemann argues with his wife about his obsession with filmmaking, with her challenging him to give up on his dreams in order to focus on his family — including his new baby. Wizemann’s synopsis simply states, “Film Makes Us Happy documents the last fight my wife and I will ever have about making films.”

I have no idea the aftermath of that film on Wizemann’s family life, but I am happy to report that the writer/director is successfully making films. Think of Me is his debut, the story of a single mom in Las Vegas fighting to stay above water while raising a child in our no-growth economy. It stars Lauren Ambrose, and, as Wizemann relays below, is inspired by elements of his own childhood. We talked about class, poverty, drugs, and the light in Las Vegas.

Filmmaker: What was important to you about the way Las Vegas was depicted in your film? I’m thinking of everything from the way the film represents a particular community that lives there as well as its landscapes, buildings, etc?

Wizemann: I grew up in Las Vegas, so many of the locations in the script were inspired by locations I wanted to film. It’s intentionally not an aesthetic that involves the strip, because that’s not really the experience of those who live there. Some of the great things you do get are slot machines in the 7 Eleven’s, strip clubs, large patches of desert, gun stores, casino diners, and the Freemont street motels. It was always a fight to keep this set in Las Vegas, given that Nevada has no tax incentives for film. Even though this project was years in development and I had to make many sacrifices to bring it together, I wouldn’t give that up. And I think what you get by filming in the place where it was envisioned isn’t always easy to articulate, some would say it’s the light, some the energy, but regardless, I don’t think the film would have worked anywhere else.

Filmmaker: Think of Me deals fairly explicitly with the poverty and how it shapes people’s day to day lives. How did the theme of poverty shape the actual details of your narrative? How did you try to make this theme dramatically interesting?

Wizemann: I feel that working class poverty, especially in a single parent home, is a constant pressure that informs every decision you make. So often in film it’s treated as another character trait, like oh, this person has red hair, drives a Buick, and is broke. My experience is much different. Poverty is inescapable, options are constantly being closed off, and it’s hard to navigate even just a few steps ahead. I would tell my actors that it was like always being rushed, that feeling of never quite knowing if you’ll make rent or pay the credit card bill. You could argue that poverty, or the pressure that it brings, is the actual antagonist in this film.

Filmmaker: What elements of your own experience growing up in Las Vegas are in this film, and did you allow Lauren access to any elements of your own past for the purpose of shaping her performance?

Wizemann: When I sat down to write this film I set out to write a work of fiction. Only in finishing it did I realize how much of my early adolescence found its way in. I don’t want to go into specifics, but I can tell you about half the scenes touch on something my brother and I lived through after my father left. Some small things, like digging change out of the mall fountain for a hot dog, some less small.

As far as letting Lauren in, I had no trouble being very open about what came from life and what didn’t. I think there were scenes where that was good information to have and scenes where it wasn’t necessary. I didn’t want her to feel like she needed to live up to some preconceived notion of her character, and tried to give her as much freedom as I could. I wish I could take more credit for Lauren’s performance, but she was very intimate with the script and essentially showed up to set with her characterization. She only needed very discreet direction on the day. I think in the end the script had more to do with shaping her portrayal than I did as a director.

Filmmaker: Is the mother’s drug use in the film a reflection or perhaps product of her social-economic environment? A character flaw? Neither? Talk about how her drug use affects her character.

Wizemann: I feel that class, more than, say, race or religion, is often a stronger predictor of one’s friends and surroundings. In my experience, when you live in a community where money is scarce and stresses are high, recreational drug use feels very commonplace. I’m neither condoning nor criticizing this, it’s just something that was always around when I grew up. I’d be dating a girl whose mother worked the night shift as a cocktail waitress, and did a little meth to make it through. No one thought much of it. For others it was simply an escape. If you buy what I was talking about before, how poverty is this constant nagging pressure, it makes perfect sense to me that occasional drug use becomes part of that equation. Because if you’re going to escape, if you need to tune out because things are just too overwhelming with no help in sight and you don’t know how you’re going to feed your kid the next day, what else is there?

Filmmaker: What was your biggest challenge in telling this story?

Wizemann: That it was a very personal film.

Film Makes Us Happy from bryan wizemann on Vimeo.

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