Marcelena Mayhorn's blog
Writer/director Ron Nyswaner recently debuted his first documentary feature film at SXSW last week. She's The Best Thing In It follows famous Broadway and television actress Mary Louise Wilson as she teaches a character acting class to a group of college students in New Orleans. I had the chance to sit down with both of them to discuss acting, the filmmaking process, and what it means to live the life of an artist.
Slackerwood: Ron, you're known for these intense narrative stories (a la Philadelphia, The Painted Veil). What drew you to Mary Louise's story and, furthermore, made you decide to do it as a documentary?
Ron Nyswaner: One of the reasons is I could control every aspect of it. I've made my living for many years as a feature film writer and, unlike a playwright, the screenwriter does not often have full creative control. I was able to work with a team that helped me shoot, but a lot of times I was behind the camera, I was getting the footage. And I was ultimately the financier -- those were all my reasons for making it a doc. And Mary Louise and I have a great relationship, we both admire each other's work, and I just thought it would be great fun to work on this together.
The Duplass brothers break the mold as far as family filmmaker teams go. They seem to have a knack for stories that are zany, yet peppered with flecks of true humanity. Even as producers, no two of their projects seem to be like one another. It therefore was no surprise (to me, at least) that they were part of the team behind writer/director J. Davis's premiere narrative feature film, Manson Family Vacation.
Jay Duplass takes the acting lead in this film as Nick, an anally neurotic lawyer who lives a structured life with his wife and son. When his off-the-wall adopted brother Conrad (Linas Phillips) passes through town on his way to a mysterious new job, Nick gives in to Conrad's plea of spending some quality time together. But Conrad's idea of brotherly bonding isn't quite normal: he wants to visit all of the landmarks and sites of the Charles Manson murders.
Driven by Conrad's urgent desire to start his new job with a group of "environmental activists" in the desert, the two find themselves thrown into a journey that forces them to acknowledge their estranged childhood. When Conrad's connection to Manson becomes deeper than expected, it challenges Nick to finally be the brother Conrad always sought in him, causing the story to take an unpredictable turn. (Like I said: zany with flecks of humanity.)
Writer/director Ron Nyswaner once talked to me about how he thought he was considered a "niche writer" in Hollywood. In an interview at the 2013 Austin Film Festival, Nyswaner says, "If you know a story about someone who's been beaten to death with a baseball bat because he was dating a transgender woman, call me. I do those things [stories] really well."
I prepared myself for that same grit when I watched Nyswaner's film She's The Best Thing In It, and was pleased to see that same kind of intensity manifested in a different way.
This film is Nyswaner's directorial debut as a documentary filmmaker. It follows award-winning actress Mary Louise Wilson as she embarks on teaching a college acting class in her hometown of New Orleans. Now in her 70s, Wilson is seen by some as a "has been." Photos and film clips take us through her history of stardom in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but wear off upon present day.
When I think of Hannah Fidell's style as a filmmaker, I'm reminded of something that Peter Bogdanovich once told a class I took in film school. He said that he believed that films should tell a story in the simplest way. To achieve this, you shouldn't let your audience feel like they're watching something on a screen, but instead be transported to the moments your characters are encountering as if you're right there next to them. This was my constant thought while watching Fidell's latest movie, 6 Years.
The SXSW veteran premiered her second feature this past weekend, just two years after the debut of her critically-acclaimed film A Teacher. Having seen A Teacher back in 2013, I was eager to find out how this latest piece would grab me. A first feature is a great mountain to climb, but a second feature is a different kind of beast. It's when filmmakers start to show their trends, their consistencies and what makes them stand out as storytellers.
The story focuses on the crumbling relationship between college students Dan (Ben Rosenfield) and Mel (Taissa Farmiga). Set in our hometown of Austin, Dan and Mel have a perfectly content relationship until some big life changes start to shift their world views. It feels like a story that's happened to most of us: trying to deal with the plans you make versus the plans life initially has in store for you. It's heartbreaking yet satisfactory to see this kind of story told so well on screen.
As I said in the opening line of my SXSW 2014 dispatch, "The life of a wristbandit can be a lonely one." I'd like to amend that by saying that although it's lonely, it's still just as fun, and often unexpectedly more eventful than a badge. There are obvious differences, of course, but I enjoyed myself immensely while donning a wristband last year. I got to see films, go to some great parties, and made some new friends along the way. With all of that, I would like to share some information that I feel is pertinent to the "wristbandito."
SXSW Film Wristbands are $90 (tax included) and will be sold at Waterloo Records, The Marchesa Theatre, Violet Crown Cinema, Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, Alamo Ritz and Alamo Slaughter Lane. As a wristband holder, you will be admitted into any SXSW film venue once all badgeholders (Platinum, Gold and Film) have been let into the theater. This is, of course, if space permits.
Below are a few pointers/tips/thoughts that I took away from my adventures. You might think that some of these points are a bit repetitive, but I promise they will be helpful to you when you're trying to navigate the festival.
- Try to pick up your wristband on Thursday. Last year there was some confusion about where I could get my wristband, but it turns out you CAN pick it up a day early at the Austin Convention Center on March 12 from 9 am - 7 pm at the Vimeo Theater box office outside Exhibit Hall 2. If you can't make it then, try to get to one of the listed venues way before the first film shows.
It's hard to begin to review a film like Still Alice. I was warned that this movie might be considered a modern horror film, as it depicts the life of one woman with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Although the film doesn't shed any positive light on getting older, it does take a deeper look at the importance of memory and family.
Alice (Julianne Moore) has just celebrated her 50th birthday surrounded by a loving husband (Alec Baldwin) and three grown children. She thrives on both her family and teaching at Columbia University, reknowned for her work in linguistics and communication. Life seems on track until she begins to forget words and people's names rather suddenly. A trip to the doctor reveals a rare form of familial Alzheimer's Disease and a life of slow but sure decay for Alice.
Still Alice is painful to watch; not because the film is poorly done, but because it's so truthful all the way through. Alice's decline in memory and basic functioning evokes a real fear in its audience, especially when you realize it's capable of happening to you or someone you know. Perhaps the saddest truth is watching Alice's frustration at her everyday loss, little by little. Her character is most relatable in the way that she tries so hard to cling to her memories, as many of us often do as we age.
No other actor could have played this role like Moore. Others could have portrayed it, but Moore brings a depth to Alice that is both hopeful and heartbreaking. A pleasant surprise is the complex relationship Alice has with her youngest daughter Lydia, played by Kristen Stewart. The role sheds a new light on Stewart, one of a larger acting scale not previously seen. It's perhaps the first role I've actually enjoyed her in.
The best bit of hope the story provides is learning to live in the moment. In a heartfelt speech midway through the film, Alice explains that although having this disease is a struggle, she must learn to live with her loss. What a difference it makes, she explains, to learn to be present in a single moment. That speech, that thought, echoed in my head long after the credits rolled.
A new year, a new you and a new Slackerwood! I took a break from this article for a while, but now I'm back and ready to bring you recommendations of films you might have overlooked.
In looking through my Netflix history, I discovered that 2014 was a big TV year for me. It seems like the website stepped its game up this past year, cranking out the latest season of current shows faster than before. (Except for Downton Abbey -- get on it, Netflix!) Here are a few television shows that came across my radar these past few months.
Twin Peaks -- When I learned writer/director David Lynch was creating a new season for the now 25-year-old show, I saw this as the sign to bring it up from the bottom of the list. FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is sent to the town of Twin Peaks to investigate the mysterious death of a teenage girl. His journey along the way takes him through a slew of oddball characters, creepy places and out-of-this-world situations. Although a little confusing towards the end, the story leaves you wanting more. I'm excited to see what Lynch will bring back in the new season! Available on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Instant and Hulu Plus.
Although working at this year's Austin Film Festival had many great perks, one of the not-so-great parts was missing out on some of the highly-anticipated marquee films. This is why I jumped at the chance to see The Imitation Game, though I now see that maybe I didn't need to jump so quickly.
It's clear that Benedict Cumberbatch (famously known for his role on Sherlock) carries this film -- not just because the story focuses on his role as Alan Turing, but because his performance stands out amongst all of his famous castmates, including Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode and Charles Dance.
That said, it seems that Cumberbatch's snarky demeanor as Sherlock Holmes is what got him cast in this role. The Imitation Game seems a fitting title because his performance is not unlike the role he's portrayed for the last three seasons on Sherlock. If you're unfamiliar with the show, then perhaps you will not notice this similarity; being a big fan myself, it stood out almost instantly. In fact, most of the cast seemed to be cookie-cutter replicas of characters they have played before: stale, expired and certainly not fresh.
The story is strong, yet it doesn't know which theme it relies on. Focusing on Turing's famous crack of the Enigma coding machine during WWII, the film stays on course -- until it takes a few pit stops to reflect on Turing's struggle with homosexuality. Although it's a powerful performance, I felt confused on what emotion to resonate with throughout. It seems as if the filmmakers were taking on some sort of studio note to try and make Turing more sympathetic. Although it does achieve this, it feels forced.
It surprises me that The Imitation Game is making its debut on Christmas Day. Perhaps a marketing team felt that Cumberbatch and Knightly would draw in ticket sales, but the film itself doesn't have that grandiose feel most holiday releases have. It does seem that this role will probably draw some Oscar buzz for Cumberbatch -- it already seems to have drawn an 8.4 rating out of a scale of 10 on IMDb. Maybe I'm just a holiday release Scrooge; maybe a box-office Christmas miracle will happen after all.
Ready, Set, Fund is a column about crowdfunding and fundraising endeavors related to Austin and Texas independent film projects.
'Tis the season for love, joy, and helping your friends get their films funded. With the holidays fast approaching, most of us have Christmas shopping and decorating on our mind. We're bringing you this month's "Ready, Set, Fund" with the hope that you'll spread a little extra holiday cheer, perhaps to some filmmakers in need of that extra $5 to meet their fundraising goal. Here are a few that are finishing up in the month of December...
Leslie is a project that's now been going on for almost ten years. Following the infamous Albert Leslie Cochran (known to veteran Austinites as just "Leslie"), the movie is described as an independent documentary that tells the untold story of Leslie and how his bizarre approach to activism catapulted him into becoming an unlikely civic symbol in Austin, Texas. Filmmakers Tracy Frazier and Ruby C. Martin are seeking funds to now complete the project all the way through post-production; their deadline is December 21. You can see more about the film in the video below:
Take the theory of relativity, theories about space and time, and quantum physics; combine them with intense emotions and exploration of relationships, both personal and familial; write a 169-page screenplay about it all, then bring said screenplay to life. While this task sounds like something way over my film-school brain, Christopher Nolan makes it seem easy as cake with his latest movie, Interstellar.
I've watched many a film buff get into heated debates about Nolan's work. There are those who argue his work is flashy, dazzling you with inexplicable knowledge and plot while melting your eyeballs with IMAX cinematography. On the other hand, there are those who argue his work is brilliant, each camera move and plot point an intricate dance filled with depth and emotion. I tend to fall into the middle of this arguement.
The basic premise is this: Cooper (played by Texas favorite, Matthew McConaughey) is a former-engineer-turned-farmer living with his young daugher Murphy and teenage son Tom. We understand right away that Earth is in trouble: All its resources have been utilized and the world is running out of time to find food and water. By some happenstance of the universe, Cooper finds his way over to a secret NASA location, learning about a secret mission to find another planet for humans to live on ... and of course, Cooper is the only man to pilot said ship to save the human race.
While there is no doubt that Nolan's work is (inter)stellar, it can definitely be cumbersome. I found myself losing focus toward the middle of Interstellar, unsure of what the end result of this 169-minute saga would be. Thankfully, the story reeled back around and left for a compelling (and quite thought-provoking) third act.
One of the few downsides to the movie was the scientific jargon thrown around between characters. Poor line delivery made me wonder (in just a few instances) what the final theory actually was. This film also features a fun game of "Guess how many Hollywood celebs you can spot in space!"