Tuesday, April 8, 2008
Good things come in small packages
Local film fest to screen shorts; one by, featuring guys from HBO’s ‘The Wire’
By David Tell, Messenger editor
In reality, it’s graduated from the “Almost Famous” to the “Kinda Famous Film Festival.” It’s the event that in previous years took the form of a 48-hour short film challenge, in which local teams stepped up and conceived, wrote, filmed and burned to disk movies of less than 10 minutes’ duration—all in literally two days.
It’s been fun, and the hoopla has brought some profile and credibility to the festival and its founder and organizer, Jae Staats of the Willo neighborhood. But, despite the inspired move of bringing a writing professor and short film diva to Phoenix College in advance of the ’06 festival, to conduct a workshop and hopefully raise the average quality of the submissions, results remained somewhat uneven. The best films tended to be pretty good, and admittedly, the poorer-type efforts of the first year or two fell off and the bulk of the submissions hovered around “funny,” “interesting” and “watchable.” (Some, barely.)
This year, pros and semi-pros have made the films, and they’re pretty awesome—including an hour-long feature by Ben Busch and colleagues from HBO’s “The Wire.” View our comments on Busch's film on IMDb.com here, and all our comments on films on the site here. Following, read an interview with Busch by The Midtown Messenger:
The MM-A3F interview: ‘The Wire’s’ Ben Busch
Editor’s note: After several e-mails and some phone tag, we finally caught up with Benjamin Busch for a stimulating interview while he was at the laundromat folding clothes with his 3-year-old daughter. Busch lives in Reed City, Mich., near Big Rapids, itself somewhere near Grand Rapids—a city we know fairly well. Our condolences to all, vis-à-vis the climate (economic and otherwise) … Busch will be in Phoenix at the A3F for the screening of a film he made; actor Dom Lombardozzi (“Herc” on “The Wire,” “Dom” in “Entourage,” and “Vincent” in Busch’s film “Sympathetic Details”) may be with him.
MM: We have our theories why many directors start out doing horror films or mockumentaries. What made you choose an assassin film for your first writer-director project?
BB: Ryan Sands, my partner in crime, wanted to do that kind of film, wanted to play that particular role. So we wrote it around that idea, but I wanted to take the genre in a completely different direction. I wanted character to drive the action movie, so I was very particular in how I designed and edited it. I was thinking of Frank Reynolds’ “In the Bedroom,” which is a very slow film. I wanted to take what would easily be a fast-action film, slow it down to that speed, focus on things that mattered. Shoot-em-up is easy; what’s hard is drama and pause. It has a more European feeling as a film.
MM: Reading your director’s statement about the film, I felt vindicated in my long belief that many if not most directors approach films as a very conscious craft, in which the details and full box of the tools of expression in film are intentionally used to convey a subtext, an articulable idea, etc., beyond the topmost narrative level of the film—though also serving it, of course. When I first saw Jean-Jacques Beneix’s “Diva,” and I had this theory of Gorodish’s Zen-philosophical subtext of “stopping the wave” contrasted with the diva’s own kind of Zen-like refusal to let her performances be recorded (NOT stopping the [sine or sound] wave)—each coming at being “in the moment” in different way—my friends said, “Yeah, that’s logical, but we doubt it was all intentional.” I said, “You’re an idiot if you think it wasn’t.” [In his director’s statement and in e-mails, Busch had elaborated on his use of color, movement, vegetation, a significant photograph, overall environment, and other elements in weaving and conveying themes underlying the story in his film.]
BB: I can’t speak for many directors, although I’ve worked with a number of them. Not all are in tune with this kind of Gestalt filmmaking. I’m very interested in how sound and music go into it. I’m a photographer, so I frame a picture and then populate it. You’re stuck with the rectangle, so the rectangle itself becomes very important to me, the movement of the camera. With little money, it’s difficult with camerawork to do as much as you would like. I love to keep the camera moving; it sets a certain mood, if there’s motion which you use either for or against the characters. In “Sympathetic Details,” in the first scene, I’m just holding till we leave the first room. I storyboard very carefully. I had 12 days to shoot the whole film, so you have to know what you’re going for. There can’t be surprises. I wanted kind of claustrophobic interiors, up to the pigeon scene. I knew it was going to end in force, I wanted to have that symbolism throughout the film—you constantly see vegetation. Everywhere, somewhere, some place, there is encroachment of vegetation. It’s everywhere, just like people are. I moved all the plants in the hotel to make a corridor of black trees. Outside, you see a whole forest behind glass; inside you see an interior of vegetation.
MM: We’re thinking of other assassin-themed films: There’s “Grosse Pointe Blank,” “The Matador.” You mentioned you could watch Morgan Freeman read a phone book for an hour, so “Nurse Betty,” and the recent DVD release “The Contract” (with John Cusack), as well as “Lucky Number Slevin,” in which he plays a hitman or menacing mob guy, occur to us. We think of Jane Campion’s use of a specific color palette in “In the Cut” as paralleling your deliberate use of visual elements in your film. Speaking of “Slevin,” Bruce Willis’ banal speech to Lucy Liu’s hapless boyfriend before he kills him reminds us of Dom Lombardozzi’s (“Vincent’s”) monologue at the beginning of your film. Was that possibly an intentional reference?
BB: I did see that movie ... I don’t actually remember Bruce Willis in it that much, or that speech. It’s hard to say what rubs off on you, there are so many artists all rubbing off on each other. I was at war for two years. In the process we’ve moved a lot; in the past five years I’ve seen hardly any movies.
Films that have influenced me the most? “Blade Runner” has continued to blow my mind. I like the idea that it travels with, something about the existential message in that one. That movie has really been influential on me over the years. Although, I’m pretty small-scale. “The Professional” has also been an influence.
MM: How did you finance your project?
BB: We financed it ourselves, which means we’re in as much trouble as we can be! There’s that famous rule of the business, “Don’t do anything with your own money; use other people’s money.” As filmmakers, we promptly found that rule and broke it.
The actors did it for me, which was humbling. The crew came for cut rates. I begged the union for mercy, they were all people from “The Wire”; they were willing to do it for much less—all 12-hour days, pretty remarkable. They had such-and-such days to shoot an hour-and-a-half film.
MM: The film as submitted to A3F is about an hour; I assume you cut it?
BB: Yeah. I said, “I can’t knock more than a half hour off it.” I personally feel the scalpel marks on the script, we miss a few important moments to me. It’s hard to say how the audience will perceive it in its cut form; they’ll never know what the things are they’re not seeing.
MM: And, I assume, at an hour, it’s less marketable?
BB: Yeah, and anything less than an hour has no market at all. An hour can live on cable. There might be some love in the cable market for the film, especially with “The Wire” in its last season, getting attention again. I hoped to generate a little bit of buzz by submitting it to A3F. I’d like to get enough money to add the other half hour back in, reshoot and re-edit it, let it live a bigger life.
MM: Would it be disloyal of you to possibly agree with me that the hype around “The Wire” might be a little excessive? I love a lot of the original stuff on HBO, but I’ve only seen a few episodes of “The Wire.” However, I’m thinking of “Homicide: Life on the Street,” also about Baltimore and with “The Wire” writer David Simon contributing; “NYPD Blue,” to some extent; and “Hill Street Blues”—which I didn’t even glom onto till after its first couple years. Don’t they stand somewhat even with “The Wire?”
BB: I would disagree. The first three seasons of “The Sopranos” was brilliant, then it lost its way, except for maybe the last season or so. “The Wire” has never fallen down. But nobody watches it, it’s too smart for people. America’s gotten dumb over the last few years. It’s written like a novel; it’s not like episodic TV, which answers all the questions for you by the end of the hour, is kind of trite. You don’t just pick up a book and read a few pages and complain “I don’t know what’s going on.” It’s one of those great artistic travesties: “The Wire” has never gotten an Emmy. America is incapable of seeing itself; it has a complicated soul, it’s empire in decline. “The Wire,” its Baltimore, is kind of how we go out.
The language is also hard to follow, it’s really city language. [Playwright] Tony Kushner has said it’s like reading Shakespeare, “The Wire” is like a Shakespearean modern drama. The language is beautiful, but it’s hard to know what’s going on with it. It uses the slang of the time and place.
[Busch played Internet serial killer “Luke Ryland” on “Homicide: Life on the Street” for two episodes in 1999.]
MM: What led you to submit your film to the A3F?
BB: I think if you’re lucky the audience finds you. That’s why you do a lot of film festivals, they’re out there with the idea of getting filmmakers to talk to filmmakers. LA is kind of a veneer of something else. Festivals like Almost Famous are interested in what you did, why you did it, why is it important to the art of filmmaking.
I’ve had who knows how many conversations with journalists about my art shows—I have two traveling out there. It’s about the history of photography. One out of 25 understood anything about what I was talking about.
You’re our first interview about “Sympathetic Details.” It’s great to talk to someone who has a great grasp of the issues in film. In doing a hitman drama, I really am talking to the existential nature of life—the fact that nature is indifferent to us.
What I’m happiest about is that it was chosen to be viewed and it’s going to be seen. I’m not expecting it to pick up distribution just because it’s on the screen. I’m just happy that people like you are interested in it.
In an e-mail, Busch listed people from “The Wire,” etc., who appear in his film:
Ryan Sands is there with me in the back of the police readout room [in the first episode of the final season of “The Wire”]. Seth Gilliam is the police lieutenant who has to quiet us all down—he plays “Raymond” in our film in the pigeon room shootout. I cast him specifically because of his intensity and gift for projecting emotion. “Detective Lester Freamon” in the episode is reassigned as Major Crimes is disbanded and he plays “Carson” in our film, Clarke Peters. Clarke is television’s answer to Morgan Freeman. A magnificent performance. Domenick Lombardozzi, “Herc” on “The Wire,” in the bar scene with me and Seth, plays “Vincent” so brilliantly in the opening scene of our film. I rewrote that scene the most and it is one of my favorite scenes in film. I just play his bound and gagged partner. Can’t even get a line in my own film. John Doman, “Phillips” in our film, plays “Deputy Ops Rawls” on “The Wire” and gets to air some compassion after playing such a hard case for 5 years on the show. Jim True-Frost, “Prez” on “The Wire”, plays “Rogers” in our film. He dies by the tree at the top of the field with such wonderful disgust. I enjoyed casting him to play against his usual timid vulnerability. Edwina Findley played a doomed member of Omar’s crew on “The Wire” a few seasons ago and I brought her back from the dead to be killed again in the pigeon scene. Thuliso Dingwall plays one of the corner boys on “The Wire” and he did a brief, silent, and excellent job playing the pivotal collateral casualty in the pigeon scene that affects “Jonathan” too much and begins the end.
I cast all of them as I wrote the film and populated the rest with friends. The sniper, “Agent Money,” is Wayne McClam who was my team leader during my second combat tour in Iraq with the Marines. We called him “Money Gunny” until he was promoted from Gunnery Sergeant to Master Sergeant (a rank also known as “Top” for short) and then we called him “Top Dollar” so I named him “Agent Money” in the film credits. Somewhat of an inside joke if there ever was one. “Carson’s associate” is played by Daniel Silver who was my college roommate. Only Ken Arnold, who plays “Agent Chase,” and Marisol Chacin, “Lena,” were actually cast through auditions. Marisol gets to have the most fun. I would like to see then get some awards for their work. They donated their performances to me for this film and I am humbled by my debt to them.
In addition to his burgeoning film and TV resume and fine record of military service, Busch is also the son of the late novelist Frederick Busch. —David Tell