Thursday, July 26, 2012

SFF: "Think of Me" (Retitled "About Sunny") Review/ Bryan Wizemann Interview

     I'd like to start this, my first post since the Colorado theater shootings, by taking a moment to pause and remember. Remember those who lost their lives and those lives that were saved. Remember that there is a God and that He has a plan. It is when tragedy strikes and that plan is less evident that we must remember it all the more. Christopher Nolan said best what is in my and I'm sure all of our hearts, "I would not presume to know anything about the victims of the shooting, but that they were there last night to watch a movie. I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime. The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me." Take not for granted that it was not your "home" that was invaded that early Friday morning.

Think of Me * * * *

     Roger Ebert began his review for John Malkovich's Disgrace as follows,

"I awaited the closing scenes of 'Disgrace' with a special urgency, because the story had gripped me deeply but left me with no idea how it would end. None -- and I really cared. This is such a rare movie. Its characters are uncompromisingly themselves, flawed, [...] vulnerable. We feel we know them pretty well, but then they face a situation of such pain and moral ambiguity that they're forced to make impossible decisions. It's easy to ask them to do the right thing. But what is the right thing?"
      Ultimately, Disgrace didn't prove quite as unforgettable as this review had given me hope for. But I'll never forget being gripped by Roger's words as I initially read them: Roger, in all his cinematic knowledge and glory, didn't know where this film would go to arrive at its end.

      Undefined from the start, naturalistically circling the centrality of its plot, director and Sarasota Film Festival attendee Bryan Wizemann's Think of Me joins Disgrace as a film whose ending stimulates an urgency in its viewers. But where Disgrace inspired an urgency in Roger to know how it would conclude, Think of Me demands its viewers urgent interest from the start. As the film begins, every option seems available, but as the specificity of its characters' choices narrow the possibilities of what the film could develop into, the ever-dwindling options grow more and more bleak.

      Think of Me sneaks up on its audience. If a frog is dropped into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out -knowing the water was at a boil. But put a frog in a lukewarm, placid pan placed on top of a burner and slowly turn up the heat -the frog will boil, never knowing what snuck up on him. Bryan Wizemann doesn't start Think of Me at a boil, he never announces that he's created a masterpiece, but by slowly building to an eruptive boil (much in the same manner as recent thriller The Sound of My Voice), we as an audience arrive at its end stunned by the masterwork we've just sat witness to.

      The plot, best discovered rather than explained, draws inevitable comparisons to other morally ambiguous sagas like Gone Baby Gone or Tilda Swinton's Julia that question what the best choices are for children in volatile situations. Amy Ryan received an Oscar nomination for her unflinching portrait of an unfit mother in Gone Baby Gone and Tilda should have for her portrayal of a woman whose conniving thrusts a child upon her in Julia. Think of Me boasts another tour de force performance by Lauren Ambrose as its "unfit mother" Angela. Ambrose brings so much to her part though, creating a fully fleshed-out, three-dimensional character whose depth warrants a title less shallow than "unfit". She was already nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for her work here and would be fully deserving of an Oscar nomination as well.

      It is inarguable that Wizemann delivered the best out-of-competition film of the Sarasota Film Festival, a gritty and unnerving odyssey, a true masterpiece. Fortunately, I had the pleasure of meeting him and actress Penelope Ann Miller (of Best Picture winner The Artist) after the screening. It was there that Wizemann generously agreed to do an email interview with me regarding Think of Me, our interview is as follows:

Bryan Wizemann on set
     How did the story for Think of Me come to you? What caused you to want to bring it to the screen?

     The initial spark of the idea was loosely inspired by a small passage I read in The Shipping News, and also the news story of Susan Smith, which was happening around the same time I was reading the book. I wondered if one couldn't craft a story where you could organically explore what would bring someone to consider selling their young daughter, and perhaps see that from the mother's point of view. Though the film is fictional, many elements of my own adolescence, growing up in Vegas with no money by a single mother, found its way into the film. It ended up becoming a very personal project in the end, though I never really intended it to be in the beginning.

     Can you speak as to your screenwriting process and how a screenplay can begin to take on a life of its own? And how did you write a screenplay filled with such ambiguity without losing the "definites" of the story and succubing to gimmickry?

     I guess you always hope a script will start to "runaway with itself", which is definitely what happened here. Once the characters and the situation took shape, the script started demanding things that were different than what I had initially set out to do. I think once a script has an internal truth to it, and you can get out of the way of that truth, you'll be in good shape in the end.

     Lauren Ambrose gives an Oscar-worthy tour de force performance as Angela, how did you come to choose her for this part? Was there a particular film (or films) of hers that made you think she was right for the role?

     My casting director always pushed Lauren, saying simply that "she can do anything." I think ultimately she was right, and we were lucky that she responded to the script. I've known her from some of her work in New York theater, as well as the Six Feet Under series and Starting Out in the Evening. She had an edge to her that I knew would work well for the role, but it was more an intuitive feeling than anything else. I was also very happy to give her her first real adult lead role in a film.

Bryan and Lauren Ambrose on set
     We went through fairly normal channels to cast her, an agency sent us a list of folks they though would be right for the role, and she happened to be on it. We met in Brooklyn, and she instantly identified with the script, and was willing to take on a challenging, at times unflattering role. In the end she even helped find some production money to get the film made, which is why we gave her a producer credit for the film.

     Think of Me has a very unique tone, what films influenced you in your filmmaking process for it?

     I'm greatly influenced by the neo-realists of late, though I like to think of the film as encompassing a kind of lyrical realism. Films that had a definite influence on this film would be Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher and the Dardenne's La Promese, especially for how they approached the child's experience in the narrative, and Erick Zonca's Dreamlife of Angels, for its elements of theme and tone.

     Lastly, can you comment as to your thoughts on the state of American cinema today?

     I'm excited about American cinema, though for more difficult independent projects, especially dramatic ones, it's becoming harder to find equity. Because films can be made cheaper with each new digital advance, there's always a constant downward pressure on smaller films to become smaller still. As the dust settles with new outlets such as VOD and online streaming, I think independent films will be able to reach a wider audience and at the same time make their films viable economically, though ideally, the work shouldn't have to be judged by the money it makes.

Thanks again to Bryan Wizemann for all his time and for such a brilliant film. Check back in soon for all the latest! -Rodney

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