In Features, Issues

IN FOCUS
Mary Glucksman profiles six new feature films in production.

CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES

Charlotte Sometimes. PHOTO: ROB HUMPHREYS@VISIONBOX PICTURES

While Justin Lee’s Better Luck Tomorrow was provoking heated Sundance debate over its portrayal of Asian-American teens, director Eric Byler was in an L.A. editing room finishing a feature that tackles a different aspect of Asian identity. Byler’s feature Charlotte Sometimes tells its tale of cultural assimilation by focusing on its characters’ quests for sexual satisfaction. Michael Idemoto, a director himself (Sunsets), plays the lead character whose desires are circumscribed by his ethnic identity. "He finds himself at the bottom of a sexual hierarchy he didn’t create," comments the L.A.-based Byler. "Whether you’re Korean or Japanese or Chinese, the experience of being ‘other’ in a place where there’s an exoticism attached to your looks is complicated."

Though Charlotte is his first feature, Byler has lurked on the fringes of the film industry since his 1994 Wesleyan thesis film, Kenji’s Faith, was nominated for a student Academy Award and sold to AtomFilms. "I moved to L.A. to write a jackpot screenplay, but I started to become more interested in art films," he says. "I wanted to see Asian Americans portrayed [on screen] without having to kick someone." The result was Charlotte, which bounced around partially financed for four years before finding post-production coin at Visionbox, the L.A. production company launched two years ago by indie producer and former Samuel Goldwyn executive John Manulis.

Charlotte was shot last spring in L.A. Also in the cast are Eugenia Yuan, Matt Westmore and Guthrie Theater member Jacqueline Kim. Byler’s next film, Kealoha, is about an overweight native Hawaiian teenage girl struggling to define herself in an Anglo-majority island high school.

Contact: John Manulis at john@visionboxmedia.com

 

ISLAND ELECTRIC

SCREEN GRAB FROM ISLAND ELETRIC.

Steve Bilich was nursing a cold in his Greenwich Village apartment on September 11 when he awoke to a cacophony of church bells ringing out of sync. Grabbing his camera – a 1920 handcranked Cine-Kodak –Bilich ran south and soon, along with Terry Coyote Murphy, shot the footage that became Native American in Manhattan, an ominous seven-minute black-and-white piece that captures Murphy shouting warnings about the vibrations of man and nature as the World Trade Center burns in the background.

Native American premiered in the Frontier Shorts program at Sundance, and Bilich plans to incorporate it in Island Electric, an experimental feature he has been working on for two years. The new film unfolds with a drug courier from Amsterdam who waits out a DEA sting by experimenting with an antique camera he finds on route. Picturing an "alternate universe" Manhattan in which children are transformed into cherubs, street musicians into druids, the homeless into fallen angels and a Native American trail scout who journeys down an old trail now called Broadway, Island Electric, says Bilich, "is like a dream with three stories [set within] New York’s past, present and future."

This isn’t the first time Bilich has tried to tell this sort of multi-part tale. His debut feature, Ruta Wakening (Slamdance ’96), followed six couples through downtown Austin under a full moon, mixing plenty of magical elements with its Texas earth. Bilich, who is also an actor, is self-financing Island, but he did get 20,000 feet of free film from a Kodak representative, Steve Garfinkel, with whom he bonded over their shared love of old cameras.

Contact: Steve Bilich at stevebilich@hotmail.com

 

PIGGIE

Piggie. PHOTO: RUFUS STANDEFER

American Film Institute graduate Alison Bagnall had several feature scripts in a drawer by the time Vincent Gallo invited her to collaborate on writing Buffalo 66 in 1997. During the writing of that script, she met a young actress, Savannah Haske (Third Watch), who improvised some material that made its way into Christina Ricci’s character. "The day [Vincent and I] finished writing Buffalo 66, I called up [Haske] to see if she wanted to write a film with me," Bagnall says. Haske agreed and wound up playing the lead in Piggie, a drama about a troubled girl and her obsessive crush on a drifter and compulsive thief, played by Dean Wareham, the lead singer of Luna.

"I was interested in the powerful nature of immature and inappropriate love and how single-minded young girls can be in pursuing it," comments Bagnall. "The effects of such all-consuming emotion on someone who’s already mentally un-stable can be electric."

Bagnall, who shot six short films between doing production work in Europe and attending AFI as a directing fellow, shot most of Piggie on DV but punctuated the film with five 35mm "impressionistic character portraits." Also in the cast is John C. Reilly (Boogie Nights, The Anniversary Party), whose wife, Alison Dickey, produced. Dickey was at Sundance with How to Make the Cruelest Month the year Buffalo 66 screened and says the praise Gallo heaped on Bagnall in a Q&A resonated when Piggie landed on her desk. "Sometimes you read a script and it’s great but the movie you make turns out to be a different thing," she says. "There’s a tone that I really responded to in Piggie and the challenge in making the film was to capture that."

Contact: Alison Dickey at alisondpix@aol.com or Alison Bagnall at abagnall@attglobal.net

 

PAGANS

Spin the Bottle director Jamie Yerkes says he got the idea for Pagans, his new feature, during an otherworldly solar eclipse in England a few summers ago. The film is a spooky comedy about a fictional rock band, the Pagans, that retreats to Woodstock, N.Y,. for a weekend of healing a year after the lead singer’s suicide. The musicians hold a seance to call up her spirit, not really expecting anything. That’s when people start dying.

"People tell me it’s a cross between Ten Little Indians and Velvet Goldmine," says Yerkes, who wrote the script with novelist and Spin the Bottle collaborator Amy Sohn. Yerkes, a New York University M.F.A. film graduate who made a living as a cinematographer and editor before joining the film school faculty at Long Island University, shot the microbudget Pagans himself on black-and-white DV. "The two major problems with video are the depth perception – the way the focus falls off – and the color rendition," he says. "When you suck the color out it’s more difficult to tell the difference between video and film and you get kind of a gritty urban feel."

Pagans was shot in Woodstock, New York City and Vermont last winter. Lunachicks front woman Theo Kogan is the dead singer, seen in flashbacks, and the other Pagans are played by Dwight Ewell (Punks), Jen Albano (200 Cigarettes), Annie Parisse (off-Broadway’s Monster) and Clowns for Progress’s Jeff Cohen, who is also supplying their music. Yerkes used ’60s refugees local to Woodstock as background extras and says one hopeful auditioned with the part he’d played in Milos Forman’s Hair. He plans a Blair Witch approach to pre-publicizing the film with fake press releases about band members murdered in a Woodstock recording studio. Meanwhile, Yerkes is starting his own film school with two- and four-week programs to be taught by a faculty including Sohn, producer Gill Holland (executive producer on Spin and Pagans) and d.p. Enrique Chediak.

Contact: Jamie Yerkes at jamie@manhattanfilmschool.com

 

THE PINK HOUSE

"Woody Allen does Animal House" is how co-directors Tessa Blake and Ian Williams describe The Pink House, their pungent comedy about five left-leaning college housemates and the conservative sorority next door. Containing a ’20s-set prologue and 10 animated sequences, the film, says co-director and writer Williams, "is as intense, philosophical, independent and weird as the people I lived with in the house the film is based on."

Blake and Williams met as undergraduates at UNC’s Chapel Hill campus. By the time they reconnected several years after graduation she had launched a film career with her documentary Five Wives, Three Secretaries and Me, and he had parlayed his cultural studies screed, 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail, into Hollywood interest. Williams also worked as a trailer editor, cutting clips for films like Sleepy Hollow. "It was incredible preparation for directing," he says. "You distill a movie to its absolute vertebrae."

The live-action portion of The Pink House was shot in Chapel Hill last summer on 16mm (the prologue) and DV with the Sony DSR 500. With a rough cut nearly ready by February 2002, the directors focused on the animated sequences and a final chunk of financing. Pink House stars Heather Matarazzo as the evil sorority queen and Zack Ward (Titus), Matt Dawson (Climax), Omar Scroogins (Law and Order), model Natane Boudreau and Spanish ingenue Pilar Punzano as the housemates.

Contact: Tessa Blake at tevblake@aol.com

 

KILL THE POOR

Director Alan Taylor (Palookaville) reconstructs early-’80s downtown New York and its community of immigrants, artists and drug dealers in Kill the Poor, a long-in-the-works adaptation of Joel Rose’s East Village novel.

The film is the latest from InDigEnt, the producer of two no-budget DV Sundance hits, Rebecca Miller’s Grand-Prize-winning Personal Velocity and InDigEnt founder Gary Winick’s Miramax-lottery-prize-winning Tadpole.

"We jump around in time over three years, which gives the film an unusual energy," says Taylor, describing the filming. "Because it’s an InDigEnt film, you shoot like a crazy person, in our case 14 days, and post in a conventional length of time. That [combination] really suited the style we were after." David Krumholtz (Slums of Beverly Hills) and Clara Bellar (A.I.) star in the film as a disaffected young couple dealing with the birth of their first child.

Taylor’s been trying to make Kill the Poor since 1991, when his New York University thesis short, That Burning Question, attracted producers Ruth Charny (Love Liza) and Lianne Halfon (Ghost World). He and Rose soon teamed on a screenplay that went to the Sundance labs. "[Rose] was too close to the book," says Taylor. "I ran up against a wall trying to turn a story with very little traditional plot structure into a three-act screenplay." The draft he shot this fall came from a new screenwriter, Daniel Handler, who’s got his own cult following as author of the wickedly dark Lemony Snickets kids’ novels.

Waiting 10 years to make Poor gave Taylor some tools that didn’t exist in 1991, specifically four of the digital anamorphic lenses Lars Von Trier built for Dancer in the Dark. "The epic aspect ratio [2:35] is more suited to [films] like Napoleon," he says. "But I loved what it did in small spaces." The real challenge in production designing Poor was finding locations where the war zone atmosphere of the film’s milieu was still tangible. "We looked at Downtown 81 – that movie’s like an archaeological find," says Taylor. "It was hard to find areas nasty enough to double as the Lower East Side of 1982."

Contact: Ruth Charny at ruthcha@aol.com

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