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Looking Back: Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater Director Gabe Klinger on the Six-Year Journey to a New Feature

Gabe Klinger, James Benning and Rick Linklater

Gabe Klinger previously wrote at Filmmaker about the making of his Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (2013), which is now available on the Criterion Channel. Here, he recounts the last nine years of what he describes as “his sometimes uneasy path as a feature filmmaker” and discusses his latest project. — Editor 

It’s approaching a decade since I shared some anecdotes in these pages about directing my debut feature, Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater. Conceived with support from Ciné+ — a French pay TV channel where one of our producers, André S. Labarthe, had a pipeline deal — the project only needed to run 53 minutes for the broadcast slot. I ended up with a 70-minute “extended cut” that got into Venice and won a Best Film Lion in the festival’s inaugural Documentary on Cinema competition.

Arriving at the Venice airport the morning after the closing ceremony, security flagged my award as it came out of the X-ray machine. I opened the handsome case that it was stored in and displayed the shiny object to airport staff, who immediately burst into applause: “Bravo!” Did they do this for all the winners? After a layover, I was back in Chicago, my hometown, where Double Play had been set to show that very night in the big house at the Music Box Theatre. My family and all my friends were there. Even my mom’s buddies from her aqua aerobics class came to check it out, this niche thing I had made with $60,000 that was only supposed to live on French cable.

Six months had elapsed since I first approached Benning and Linklater about the shoot. I think they were as stunned as I was about Venice and the acclaim given the humble origins of the project and how quickly our skillful team managed to piece together the finished product. Linklater wrote me (I’m sharing here with his permission):

“It’s both a blessing and a potential curse to get a big award like this first time out of the gate! Please file it away in a healthy, grateful place. Like reviews, it doesn’t really mean much, but can maybe be helpful in getting the next one made or this one seen a little more widely.”

Commenting on my Facebook post announcing the prize, Benning was more economical: 

“shit, now i’m going to have to watch this… congratulations”

In that same Facebook thread were nice missives from a few other directors I admired. Could I now flatter myself and call them peers? This filmmaker title had sort of come out of nowhere. Up until that moment, people knew me as a part-time film studies teacher, freelance writer, and programmer. Touring Double Play after Venice, everyone asked me the same thing: “What’s your next project?” At first I didn’t have an answer. When, at the end of 2013, I began to announce that I had a fiction piece in the works, the response from the industry was uniform: “But you’re a documentary filmmaker.” I am? I barely made one and I’d already been pigeonholed.

The festival road proved long. Most showings weren’t as warm as the Venice premiere. At one American film festival, my film was paired with a promotional short for an airport outlet mall. The five people in attendance were affiliated with the owners of the mall, and all except two promptly left before my film started. When the screening ended, I looked back at the Q&A moderator who was soundly asleep. I did the Q&A all by myself while the moderator loudly snored in his chair.

At the Viennale — where moderators do a better job — Benning showed up to the local Double Play premiere and loved the film. We ended up traveling to several cities together: Sydney, Montreal, Bradford, and Toronto for a one-off event at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Benning and I were unlikely road buddies — he in his early 70s, me in my early 30s — and after a year, he had had enough. Real life and ongoing projects beckoned him. At the Sydney Opera House, Benning mentioned how he’d like to create a film there but mournfully added that the likelihood of making the long trip to Australia again at his age was doubtful. It occurred to me that I should get on with my own filmmaking journey at some point.

(Linklater was somewhat scarce during our Double Play run, but he had good reasons: he was enjoying two of his biggest successes with Before Midnight and Boyhood, homeschooling his daughters, helping his mother cope with cancer treatments, and getting his domestic life back in order after a fire devastated his home in Bastrop, Texas.)

Summer 2014. When I got back to the States from Sydney, Double Play opened theatrically in New York at Anthology Film Archives, where I was also able to collaborate with the programmers on a retrospective sampling of under-seen Benning and Linklater films. It was a grand but also somewhat melancholy time. Earlier that year, in February, I had received something like a green light from a funder for my fiction project based on a 26-page treatment I wrote and the fact that Anton Yelchin and Jim Jarmusch were now formally attached as lead actor and executive producer, respectively.

Things were looking up, but the funder expected a real movie script, which I hadn’t written. The idea for the project was experimental, mixing different film formats to cover shifting timelines in the two main characters’ lives. The scenes would be improvised based on a few themes and temporal concepts, loosely inspired by similar concepts in both Benning and Linklater’s films. But the money wouldn’t come without the script. My friend Larry Gross, an experienced screenwriter, took my treatment and wrote 50 pages for me in conventional script format, which I complemented with another 30 pages or so to be able to submit to the funder. Unfortunately, he wasn’t crazy about what we gave him, and his sizable financial commitment to the project evaporated overnight. My debut movie was opening in New York while my next project was falling apart.

Anton and I used the downtime to write a treatment for another project, a Tinder-era comedy, that never found its wings. Going back to the other project, Jarmusch introduced me to someone at a big agency, who sent the script Larry and I authored to a dozen potential producers. One of them bit and invited us for overcooked burgers at his compound in Los Angeles. He had notes on the script, most of which we weren’t very enthusiastic about, but we kept an open-mind and asked him to do the same. The location we had in place for the film was Porto, Portugal, where my Double Play producer Rodrigo Areias managed to round up $100,000 in soft money subsidies from the local government to shoot there. (The script, originally set in Athens, Greece, was adapted for the new location after the DP and I returned from scouting in November.) The Los Angeles producer would secure the remainder of the film’s budget from private equity and by signing on a U.S. sales company that agreed to put up a small-ish minimum guarantee against future profits. The rough total, if memory serves, was $600,000, or ten times the budget of Double Play. The working title I didn’t much like: Porto, mon amour.

The shoot alternated joy and utter, utter misery. Joy because I loved every minute of working with our local crew and the actors. Misery because the frigid rain never ceased, the budget was tight, and the Los Angeles producer, who had flown in, didn’t like that the final shooting script lacked his suggestions. He increasingly second-guessed our every move in the form of demanding absurd amounts of coverage. In addition, he was giving the actors notes behind my back, and on a quiet afternoon he found me at the production office alone and threatened me that “very bad things would happen” if I didn’t heed his creative demands. One day, he called me to his hotel room door where I could hear him inside vomiting his brains out. He accused me of poisoning his lunch. I informed Rodrigo that we needed him off of our set. Enough was enough. Rodrigo and I jokingly discussed paying an actor to impersonate a police officer to scare him out of town. 

Apart from dreaming up mob tactics, the only serious option we envisioned to save our movie was buying out his share of the equity, and we had ten days to do this before renegotiation or potential litigation. Every minute that our cameras weren’t rolling, I desperately made pleas to other funders to come in and take the Los Angeles producer out of the picture. It was a nightmare version of Truffaut’s Day for Night. Ten days went by and no substitute funding arrived. And then the shit hit the fan.

As we went into post, I realized I’d probably lose my shirt if I didn’t make the appropriate maneuvers to remedy the situation (the agreement I idiotically entered into put up my own personal funds as a guarantee). The agents in Hollywood sided with the Los Angeles producer and literally cackled on the phone when I told them I wanted to maintain final cut. The footage we had was tough to work with: circumstances had made it so we had some amazing stuff and we also had really shitty stuff that would have likely been improved if extenuating circumstances hadn’t forced us to rush (I learned that I needed to develop better survival instincts). The Los Angeles producer wanted everything, every last scene that we shot in the final cut (“I paid for it!”). He even commissioned an alternate assembly of the film that everyone agreed destroyed the creative integrity of our vision.

In the end, we won. I got my cut, legal settlements were reached, festival acceptance letters arrived, and a great, Warsaw-based sales agent boarded the film. And then… the worst happened, making everything, every single grievance, seem very small in comparison, and all these hard-won victories far more bitter than sweet: Anton Viktorovich Yelchin died on June 19, 2016. Without him, whichever way the film landed, the journey ahead would be grim.

Porto, as it was retitled, went on to have a traditional festival trajectory, winning a few prizes and getting released in 40 markets, including long, successful runs in places like Japan, Hungary, the Netherlands and Mexico. It was distributed on 50 screens in Germany, had highway billboards in Portugal, and opened at the now-defunct Sunshine Cinemas in New York on November 17, 2017, where it did decent enough business to get held over a second week. 

I am highlighting the good, but there were also rejections from programmers and bad reviews. On the Anglocentric Tomatometer, the film’s lousy score surely hurt our U.S. distributor Kino Lorber’s chances of making a profit (though I think their sale to Netflix covered most if not all of their initial investment in the film). Overall, my experience releasing Porto was more positive than negative. Still, I was shattered that none of it, not even the negative, could be shared with Anton. He would have made our low points lighter and helped bring us back down to reality from the high moments. As I repeated in our Q&A’s, Anton was the wisest, most grounded person on our set. Being out there in the release orbit on my own proved very disorienting, very lonely. Once or twice, I made poor choices that I can only blame myself for, arguing with a few of the film’s negative reviewers. Four years earlier, Linklater wrote me the following, which I’m still internalizing (also shared with his permission): 

“I’d strongly suggest never engaging with a critic or someone who has written negatively about you or your film. I made that mistake once early on. As you know, they have a tough job, particularly at festivals where they are sleep-deprived and over-worked. Leave out the possibility that the same writer can come to realize they overshot the mark with your film and take that into consideration in the future. Pointing out to them what an idiot they are will likely just earn you 10 years of bad reviews and a pissy attitude. In fact, if you ever encounter them, be above the pettiness of how what they wrote affected you and just try to engage with a fellow film lover. Don’t give them the power, because in the long term, they really don’t have any, at least no one person does. Just try to always respect the profession and know the best of them see it as a calling.”

Returning to Chicago after nearly two years of hitting the pavement for Porto, I felt disconnected. I had gotten a first narrative film out of my system and traveled around the world and back presenting it. As rewarding as this was, I found myself empty and aimless in my homecoming. Was there something in Chicago, some topic, that I could engage in that would help me expand my understanding of the city I had spent most of my life in? Wherever I went, I was compelled to keep asking myself this. Coming from a privileged bubble, I felt that I could use the connections I had acquired on my first two films to try to collaborate with someone whose experience of the city was radically different from my own.

In the summer of 2018, I found myself drawn to areas on the city’s South Side where the murder rates were rising. Through friends who were involved in social justice movements, I began working with a young woman named Dreyana Grooms, who had been wrongly accused of first-degree murder at the age of sixteen. When we encountered each other, Dreyana had just spent three years in jail awaiting trial and was found not guilty. Nine months later, she was about to go back inside on a gun possession charge. Working with her on a script about her life helped ensure her movement outside of the justice system, an outcome which already felt like an accomplishment to both of us (Dreyana has referred to our script as a “hood trophy”). But the process of taking this work and converting it into a movie posed an entirely different set of challenges. The first draft of our script was not met with immediate acclaim from anyone in our inside circle. We needed to work harder, go deeper.

In the meantime, word came through that French-Swedish director Mia Hansen-Løve had written a part with me in my mind in her new, Sweden-set feature, Bergman Island, which had already been partially shot the summer Dreyana and I started working together. For financial reasons, Mia’s producers were hesitant to hire me and asked her to find someone comparable in Belgium, Sweden, or France, which were the coproduction countries paying the bills. After lengthy talks, the producers buckled under pressure from Mia and bought the round-trip Chicago flight, much to my surprise. The part of the film’s story that involved my character — an American film scholar — took place on the “Bergman Safari,” an academic/tourist bus trip to various Ingmar Bergman film locations on the island of Fårö. Mia and I constructed the American as a send-up of the kind of obsessive cinephile men both of us had encountered at film festivals over the years. Some of the dialogue in Mia’s script was taken verbatim from things she had overheard on the real Safari years earlier. To play the part, I resisted going fully parodic, something I could see lined up with Mia’s naturalistic tendencies. Having once flown close to the obsessive sun of cinephilia myself, I didn’t want to strip this man of identifiable human qualities.

For all the effort and money put into it, the character amounted to fancy background adornment. I did have a minor function, though: making Tim Roth’s character, a British filmmaker attending the Safari, extremely uncomfortable. This happened to be a walk in the park once I discovered Roth was a total jerk. The Meantime and Pulp Fiction actor liked to make sure everyone knew he was off-limits and on a superior plane. Without going into too many details, I’ll say that he made the experience of the shoot deeply unpleasant. Leaving my hotel room one morning, I saw a crew member with tears streaming down her face. When I asked what had happened, she replied: “Tim Roth.”

After two days on set, the thrill of being in front of Denis Lenoir’s lens started to wear off and the reality of a problematic shoot with an actor’s frail ego at its center hit. Mia was struggling to make magic happen between Vicky Krieps and Roth, and that uphill battle was poisoning the atmosphere for all of us in the extended cast. How could I be happy if my director was so out of sorts? The loneliness that someone like Mia experiences on a film shoot was familiar and helped put some of my lingering internal conflicts surrounding Porto into perspective. While on break from the shoot, I departed Fårö for nearby Visby, a place unfamiliar to me except in Bergman’s The Touch (1971). What a revelation! A Viking town with some of the most astounding church ruins I have ever seen, bright wild roses blossoming everywhere, and a fully preserved medieval grid plan, it provided a stimulating visual contrast to Fårö’s emptiness.

Back in Chicago, I learned Dreyana Grooms — as we’ve titled the film (for now!) — was selected for Rotterdam’s coproduction market, CineMart, and through our producer in France was a finalist for the prestigious Aide Aux Cinémas du Monde fund. The latest script drafts seemed to be working, and as a result of Rotterdam, a handful of art-film-minded funders, sales agents, and distributors were now interested in the project. But there were and still are road blocks. One high-profile equity person in Chicago told us he worried the film would reinforce negative impressions about working class African-Americans on Chicago’s South Side, while another potential funder said that he was hesitant to take the project on because, while stories centered on Black communities and characters were something people paid attention to in 2021, there was no guarantee that these films would find an audience two or three years from now.

Agents and producers made a few absurd talent suggestions — Chicagoan John Cusack was pitched as Dreyana’s Latino lawyer — and some production companies came on to try to inflate our budget in order to take hefty sums for themselves, a fairly common practice that didn’t seem right for this project. An Oscar-nominated producer told us we needed to work harder to make our script “universal,” and the manager of a hip-hop artist/network TV star said he would close our financing gap if we agreed to reserve a part of the budget to pay his client $100,000  — um, to do what, exactly? Another manager I briefly worked with called the script “well-written but difficult” before summarily dropping me from his client roster (“Try making a horror movie” were some of his parting words) and yet another manager who set up studio meetings for the project advised me against bringing Dreyana along. “She’s not a businesswoman,” he told me. And I’m a businessman?

Last summer we came incredibly close to shooting Dreyana, but circumstances related to COVID and financing made it difficult. Dreyana and I went back to the drawing board, dusted ourselves off, and are now getting ready to shoot Summer 2022. Leaving shorts and commission-based work aside, it will be the first time I’m back on a film set (as director) in six years — subtracting two horrible COVID years, that’s only four years, right? In any case, it’s not exactly how I pictured any of this would go. Receiving the news that Criterion were interested Double Play for their channel, it made me proud, like a book I had written was receiving a beautiful and pristine paperback edition for the next generation of cinephiles. It got me to look back. When I made Double Play, the whole process took six months. We were in the black from day one. Producers happy, subjects happy, festival invitations flooding in… It left me starry-eyed for a minute. I remember confidently telling a filmmaker friend with 20 years on the art-house circuit under her belt that I was setting my sights on making one film per year, a la Soderbergh. How naive I must have sounded to her! Nine tumultuous years have come and gone and I’m keeping the vocation.

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