Profiling the SFFS/KRF Filmmaking Grant Finalists (Part 2)

Daniel Grove

Following on from the Bay Area Boom article about the San Francisco Film Society’s Filmmaker360 program, we are profiling the 13 finalists for the SFFS’s Kenneth Rainin Foundation Filmmaking grant. The winners of this award will be announced on December 8.

DANIEL GROVE AND REZA SIXO SAFAI, A BETTER PLACE THAN THIS

Synopsis: A happy-go-lucky prison guard, Para Dastur has a charismatic demeanor that hides a very grim truth: he is Singapore Changi Prison’s resident hangman. Not just an anonymous executioner, Dastur takes it upon himself to console the condemned and help them come to terms with fate, shepherding them until he utters the final words they will hear: “I am going to send you to a better place than this.” But when Sophie, a young Australian, is placed on death row, Dastur becomes enamored of her childlike spirit, and she threatens to upset the delicate balance of his moral convictions.

Bio: Daniel Grove (writer/director) graduated from University of Southern California’s Masters program, where he received the Panavision Young Filmmaker Award, the Kodak Award and the King Foundation Fund. His script for A Better Place Than This is also in contention for the 2013 Sundance Screenwriters Lab. Currently, he is adapting Hell’s Prisoner, a modern day Midnight Express, as well as helming The Loner, an arthouse crime thriller, with indie producer Seth Caplan and Reza Sixo Safai to star. Daniel has written for such publications as Dazed & ConfusedYEN, Vice and Arena. He also has a BA in Philosophy and Journalism from the University of Sydney.

After Reza Sixo Safai (producer/lead talent) co-starred in the 2011 Sundance Audience Winner Circumstance, the Huffington Post declared, “[Reza] deserves to be a frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor.” Since his short film The Mario Valdez Story took home second place at Cannes, he has been a mainstay in the U.S. indie film scene as both an actor and a producer. Look for him in Alex Holdridge’s upcoming Meet Me In Montenegro; Bob Makes a Film; the Elijah Wood–produced Iranian vampire/western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night; and The Loner, a crime/thriller helmed again by Grove, with Seth Caplan producing.

What was your inspiration for this story?
We were inspired after reading news accounts in Singapore and overseas about the former chief executioner of Changi Prison, a man named Darshan Singh, who between 1959 and 2004 was estimated to have hanged up to 1,000 condemned prisoners, each at the crack of dawn on any given Friday. We were taken aback by the way he would engage with the men and women on death row for weeks, months, sometimes even years before actually executing them. He would come to know their hopes, fears and dreams, and he took it upon himself to ensure they had come to terms with the consequences of their actions and had resigned themselves to fate. Darshan truly believed he was doing the universe’s bidding, even uttering on the gallows the ominous words, “I am going to send you to a better place than this.” In the United States, as it does elsewhere, capital punishment has a clinical nature. There’s a separation between the masked man who pushes the button and the man or woman whose life is exterminated. State organized murder tends to be extremely mechanical. And so politics aside, Darshan’s story is simply unique, for his attempt to bring a compassionate sense of humanity to an otherwise horrific and clinical process.

What do you see as the greatest challenges for filmmakers today?
Development. Funding for development is dearth. The industry is so risk-adverse, that it will only take on pre-packaged projects. And what’s easier to package than commercially-driven material? So good filmmakers are told, “We’re not going to take you seriously unless you can pitch commercial.” So rather than pitch challenging thought-provoking stories, filmmakers are finding themselves pitching loosely conceived high-concept tent poles. And when it clicks, these films get packaged and scheduled so fast that no one has time to spell check, let alone vet the actual script. Studios and production companies are more interested in filling a slate than nurturing material over time. Good work takes time, but the industry is loath to wait.

If you could change one thing about the film industry, what would it be?
Marketing rules everything now. We recently heard a prominent film executive say, “Every production decision is a marketing decision.” The sad truth now is that every development decision is a marketing decision. For one, the industry is so over-reliant on pre-existing material because of fan base and marketability, but at the same time the prospect of star power will push mediocre scripts into pre-production, and great scripts get sidelined. I highly doubt the plays of Shakespeare, Goethe, Chekhov and the like were written with audience quadrants and focus groups in mind. That’s not to say we’re naïve and don’t understand that there is a necessary business side to this “business,” but today there’s too much emphasis on the business and not enough on the actual art. Filmmaking should be as much about creation and exploration as it is distribution. But today, marketing drives content. The market is king.

 

DESTIN CRETTON, SHORT TERM 12

Synopsis: Short Term 12 is an acutely observed portrait of a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers. Told with immediacy, uncanny accuracy and almost no sentimentality, this is a story both of the teens who live at the home and of the staff members who care for them.

Bio: Destin Daniel Cretton’s fourth short film, Short Term 12, won the Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009. He wrote a feature screenplay from the same subject matter and with the same title, for which he won a Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2010. Destin’s feature film directorial debut, I Am Not a Hipster, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012.

What was your inspiration for this story?
Just after graduating from college, I worked at a residential group home for at-risk teenagers. It was one of the most terrifying and fulfilling experiences of my life. This story was inspired by the time I spent at that place.

What do you see as the greatest challenges for filmmakers today?
I can’t speak for all filmmakers, but my biggest challenge has always been finding the right people to work with on a project. I feel extremely lucky to have found such an amazing group of kind-hearted, talented friends to make this movie with. With a project of this size, no one’s working on it for the money, so it’s nice to be doing it with people you love and respect.

If you could change one thing about the film industry, what would it be?
I’d kick out all the mean people.

 

GERARD MCMURRAY, RIDERS

Synopsis: “The Riders come out at midnight” and “Riders ride” are words that 23-year-old police rookie T. Pender hears from Officer Frank Vazquez. Known as the “Choker,” Vazquez is a veteran field-training officer who teaches rookies to be “real” cops. While most in the Oakland Police Department brass regard Vasquez as one of the department’s finest patrolmen, his stellar reputation belies a more sinister side to his questionable police tactics. Behind the veil of secrecy that covers the inner workings of the OPD, “Choker” leads a gang of ruthless cops that terrorize a troubled community in late 1990s West Oakland, CA.

Bio: Born and raised in New Orleans’s 7th ward, Gerard McMurray has been a filmmaker since 2002 while a student at Howard University in Washington, DC. Gerard was awarded the 2011 Directors Guild of America Student Filmmaker Award for his short film Battle Buddy, which has screened at numerous film festivals, including the San Diego Black Film Festival, Women’s International Film Festival, and the USC Newport Beach Film Showcase. He earned an MFA from the USC School of Cinematic Arts in May 2011, worked as associate producer on the indie film Fruitvale and is seeking to direct his first feature film.

What was your inspiration for this story?
I was always a fan of gritty, urban dramas that told tales of the streets from a realistic view. During my years growing up in inner city New Orleans, I often saw police brutality. I heard tales of people being framed by the cops, and worse. As I got older, I began to realize that these were not just stories. It all came home for me when I became the victim of police brutality. In the hood, people distrust the police, they are scared of the police, and the code of the streets is “Never talk to the police.” I was inspired to tell the story of the West Oakland Riders as a gritty tale about inner-city cops that were more in line with the type of police that were in my neighborhood. I want to tell a story that shines a light on what goes on in the inner city, and tells why there is this inherent distrust of the police amongst the citizens of most inner-city neighborhoods. Being harassed by the police is a rite of passage for black males in this country.

What do you see as the greatest challenges for filmmakers today?
I would say the greatest challenge for filmmakers today is being able to maintain your voice. Hollywood is a money-driven business, and so there is always the temptation to make a more commercially viable film in order to secure some financing. However, staying true to yourself, your voice, and your vision for the film is paramount in making good films. People can see your passion through your storytelling. So, being able to maintain your vision, despite what other people are saying about it is a testament to your level of commitment to making your film unique, and true to your original vision. That’s why I think it is so important that there are organizations like the San Francisco Film Society that allow filmmakers to have the freedom to express their artistic vision.

If you could change one thing about the film industry, what would it be?
If I could change one thing about the film industry, I would make it more diverse. I feel that right now, the films that are being released are not necessarily representative of the changing face of American filmmakers. There are so many different and interesting stories that should be told, from a wide range of cultures and perspectives. I think that the industry should start telling stories from other vantage points that still share common themes. For instance, all people can relate to wanting to protect their family, but different people tell different and unique stories about protecting their family.

 

JONAH MARKOWITZ, START AT THE END

Synopsis: Start at The End explores the similarities between the family we are born into and the one we create. The story begins with an accident that results in a happily childless gay couple becoming caretakers of their teenage niece and nephew. As grief catapults all four onto seemingly individual paths of despair and discovery, the inherent bond of family turns these journeys into a shared one. The film explores the struggle of a couple whose desire to provide love and support for the children that have been entrusted to them has no connection to the emulation of a mainstream lifestyle.

Bio: Markowitz’s independent feature Shelter was released theatrically by Regent Entertainment in 2008. Shelter won the HBO Award for Outstanding First Feature, the Scion Director’s Award and numerous audience awards worldwide. It was recently named “The Number 1 Gay Film of All Time” by AfterElton.com. Markowitz previously designed and art-directed on films including the Sundance Jury and Audience Award-winning Quinceañera, We Are Marshall, Rocky Balboa, The Help, Alphadog, A Lot Like Love, The House of Sand and Fog, and Blue Crush. His shorts I Left Me and Hung Up were both programmed at the American Cinematheque.

What was your inspiration for this story?
Marriage, commitment, family and parenting have become battle-cry words in the fight for gay civil rights and acceptance in America. A question long overlooked that I wanted to explore, however, is why gays seemingly need to assimilate to these traditionally hetero-biased concepts in order to gain this. Modern mainstream media purports to depict varied, interesting and accurate gay characters. But these characters tend to masquerade in classically heterosexual roles and mores—they get married, are monogamous, and inhabit opposing gender roles. It begs us to ask if we need to become as close to straight people as possible in order to have our gayness accepted. I started writing these characters because I wanted to depict a family being created with gay parents who were not willing to assimilate into traditional gender/family roles in order to discover within themselves the union, harmony, patience, respect and love it takes to form a family.

What do you see as the greatest challenges for filmmakers today?
There are always challenges that come up during the construction of a film, whether it is during the writing, filming, or post-processes. I approach these challenges through collaboration that almost always leads to unexpected, yet more exciting and unique results. These challenges become a part of the film itself, which is beautiful to watch, and figuring out these solutions with colleagues is one of my favorite parts of being a filmmaker. The greatest challenge for me, and the most frustrating period, is definitely fundraising. With all the amazing technology and talent constantly emerging, once you have the funds you need, there is almost no limit to what you can do. But waiting for funds to come through can be a very rough and isolating period for a writer/director, and as it becomes more and more difficult to do so, I’ve realized that it is equally important to develop a similarly collaborative approach to this challenge in order to find ways to be able to continue to express myself artistically.

If you could change one thing about the film industry, what would it be?
I have worked on location a lot in the last 10 years, and have been introduced to unique and wonderful people and places on these journeys. Tax credits are a wonderful way to help get a film financed, but they often pull many of us away from families and force us to create location-specific authenticity in locations we would not necessarily choose otherwise. I’d love to see more states use this model so that filmmakers from all over the country could film the stories important to them in their own environments—genuine locations that allow the community to be present in the process, and express a viewpoint others may not otherwise get to see.