Thursday, September 6, 2012

1994-The Wonder Year:The Ones That Got Away - Pt. 2 - "Welcome to the Dollhouse"

"Yo, Weiner, you better get ready, because at 3 o'clock today, I'm going to rape you."
-Brandon, Welcome to the Dollhouse

I can't swear that the line above was exactly as it appeared in the movie, Welcome to the Dollhouse, when I received a script to consider, then entitled Middle Child, in 1994. I remember there being a reference to meeting  by a tree, but, in any case, it was not the mere appearance of the word rape that caught my attention.

Other scripts, both theater and film, had dealt with the subject of rape, but rape was not the subject of this script. In fact, what caught my attention was not the threat of rape, but rather that, in the context of the story, it was not a threat at all, but more akin to a date with the hot guy at school, and a date that Dawn Weiner, the 7th grader to whom it was directed, was actually hopefully anticipating.

Coming of age stories are grist for the mill of films in general, especially indie films. One wondering about the insanity that is our business would also wonder if anyone who made a film actually had a happy adolescence, but I guess all those people went on to become CPAs, or something akin.

So many things made this script stand apart. First, this unattractive, unpopular girl is the victim of the type of emotional abuse both at home and at school that she makes Carrie look like a head cheerleader. Any attempt to deflect this abuse is only made worse by the fact that her older brother is almost, if not more, unpopular than she is.

I was being considered as line producer because I had a mutual friend with one of the producers (at the time), Jason Kliot. I had the reputation of being able to do a lot with a little, and producers Kliot and Joana Vincente had a similar reputation with their company, Open City Films. Ironically, I firmly believe that this would be reason why I did not get the job.

I had made good movies, mediocre movies, and, well, a few clunkers.  What I had not worked on was a movie that was a critical success on a big scale, even for the burgeoning indie movement. 

To put it in context, it seemed like the time of miracles.  All around me, I saw films with minuscule budgets and sometimes razor-thin plots succeed on what seemed like nothing more than an edgy "feeling". Brothers McMullen, Clerks, and El Mariachi were all examples of this.

My resume was starting to get long, and it was getting to that point where I started to think, "What am I doing with my life?" I was starting to feel like Jack Lemmon (or later, the actor his spirit invaded, Kevin Spacey) in all those mid-life crisis movies (which seemed to last forever, from about The Fortune Cookie to Save the Tiger).

It goes beyond the feeling that life is slipping by, that the hourglass on your masculine prowess (and, with it, your physique) is getting bottom heavy.  You are in a field where people make their mark in their twenties, and you are already past the age where you can be a wunderkind.  

What ever happened to those heady high school and college days, when you were often "the smartest guy in the room" (or, at least you felt that way).

It was with this unhealthy attitude that I approached my interview with Jason, Joanne, and Todd Solendz. 

A line producer needs to be a take-charge guy, and I'd learned to turn interviews around, to take charge of the interview by coming in prepared with how I was going to navigate this ship, asking more questions of them than they did of me. 

This often worked very well, giving the exact impression I wanted - "Wow, this dude knows what he's doing.  We better hire him"

If it were the right approach, it was the wrong room.

First, although I only met Todd this and one or two other times, anyone who has met him knows that it is unlikely that that are the smartest guy in a room with him.  Todd has all those things you expect in a great artist - both book knowledge and a keen insight into the human condition, a perfect compliment of head and heart, and certainly a very agile mind.

Jason graduated summa cum laude from Amherst, and was a Fellow at Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris; Joana had  Masters Degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of Portugal.

Beyond that academic prowess, all three were veterans of the film wars.  Todd had survived an unhappy fling with studio films with his first feature, Fear, Anxiety and Depression. Jason and Joana were two of the real pioneers of not only getting creative small budget indies made, but distributed with Open City.

To take the other side of that old poker maxim from Rounders, if you look around the room and everybody there can be the smartest guy in the room, well, you, are the "other guy".

I started by expressing how much I admired the script, which was not the least bit flattery. I had never read anything like it. It was clear that the writer and force behind the script had a great intellect, but also that this man who was only two years younger than me clearly had an ear for the cruel language of middle-schoolers in a way that seems familiar all these years later, but was rarely if ever seen in any film at the time.

When they got around to what I thought would be the difficulties of the logistics of the script, I mentioned the two that struck me; where would they find a school that would let us shoot there if they read the script, and where would they find a girl the right age who had the self-confidence during her own puberty to handle the image-shattering action and dialogue of the script.

The answer to the latter clearly came in a remarkable actress, Heather Matarazzo, who later has made public her own personal struggle in school with the lack of acceptance of her sexual feelings for other girls.  Clearly, this, and naturally strong character, had toughened her for anything the script offered.

More importantly, she saw, as Todd did, Dawn's strength and confidence and pride in being different.

My background in Dramatic Literature and love of structure usually makes me pretty good at understanding both the spine and themes of a script, but missing this was only one of my misinterpretations.  Upon meeting Todd, I immediately assumed that he "was" the character of the older brother, the "king of the nerds." 

Gender had confused me here, and I missed the obvious; that much as Tennessee Williams is Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, Todd is Dawn. He is not the victim older brother, but the fighter "middle child".

The school location did turn out to be a problem, but the line producer who eventually was hired, Priscilla Guastavino, was a tough lady who I would later work with on a few projects. She got it done.

There was one area that I turned out to be correct, and that was in questioning Jason and Joana's suggestion that it be shot on 16mm to save money. My work with JR and on other projects had convinced me that the cost-saving measure many used at that time - shooting on 16mm and then getting it blown-up to 35mm if it got sold - was a bad choice, one that seemed to invite failure.

I had a good deal of success shooting 35mm using resold raw stock, which has to be differentiated from the even cheaper "short ends" method.  I would only use stock that was still sealed and resold back to a broker that I knew, not those that were repackaged from full loads. I had a very reliable broker, and had never had one frame of bad footage  (a fear many producers had with even resold).

I made an argument for not shooting 16mm, and though I turned out to be correct, and the film was shot on 35mm, I could see in the eyes of Joana and Jason that if I hadn't failed the interview before, I had certainly lost them here.

Other producers ultimately came aboard; with them, a bigger budget and shooting on 35mm.

As a postscript, a few weeks later, Todd called me, asking for a reference for Van, the AD I had worked with on The Rook and the ill-fated Corman film. Of course, I gave him a glowing reference; of course, he didn't get the gig either.

Of all the projects that slipped through my fingers, I most regret not working on this ground-breaking film with a great indie pioneer in Todd Solendz.


sandra tyler said...

wow. I love blogs that are different; that might actually introduce me to a world I don't know about. Interesting! Glad I found you via one of the FB groups....

JB Bruno said...

Thank you Sandra. The world of lower budget indie film in the 90s from behind the scenes isn't covered in a lot of places. Feel free to take a look around at posts from some other projects.