“[…]But about the Visit? What do you think about the Visit?”
“Certainly,” said Valentine, “Imagine a picnic—”
Noonan jumped. “What did you say?”
“A picnic. Imagine: a forest, a country road, a meadow. A car pulls off the road into the meadow and unloads young men, bottles, picnic baskets, girls, transistor radios, cameras…A fire is lit, tents are pitched, music is played. And in the morning they leave. The animals, the birds, and insects that were watching the whole night in horror crawl out of their shelters. And what do they see? An oil spill, a gasoline puddle, old spark plugs and oil filters strewn about…Scattered rags, burnt out bulbs, someone has dropped a monkey wrench. The wheels have tracked mud from some godforsaken swamp…and, of course, there are the remains of the campfire, apple cores, candy wrappers, tins, bottles, someone’s handkerchief, someone’s penknife, old ragged newspapers, coins wilted flowers from another meadow…”
“I get it,” said Noonan. “A roadside picnic.”
“Exactly. A picnic by the side of some space road. And you ask me whether they’ll come back.”
from Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Roadside Picnic. Translated by Olena Bormashenko. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2012.
Erika Bók (Ohlsdorfer’s daughter) in “The Turin Horse.” Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
Taking into account burn out, two young children, an interruption in the space where I watch movies at home, a new job, and any number of other factors, I haven’t watched as many movies this year as I have in years past. Of the 43 movies I have watched this year, which is more than 100 fewer than I had watched by this time last year, only 18 of them premiered in Chicago or otherwise qualify for my 2012 list (I am not counting House of Pleasures since it had a VoD release last year via SundanceNow (see forthcoming Best of 2011 list).
However, and this is not a list but rather an observation, 5 of the 18 new releases I have seen this year are easily just as good as mid-year top 5 titles from past years when I have had 30 or 50 movies to choose from, including, in alphabetical order only:
Deep Blue Sea, The (Terence Davies) Kid with a Bike, The (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne) Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson) Separation, A (Asghar Farhadi) Turin Horse, The (Bela Tarr)
Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress could easily be included.
[UPDATED January 30, 2015] I reviewed A Separation here here originally, but am now posting the full review below.
The Oscar nominated and Golden Globe winning A Separation by Iranian director and writer Asghar Farhadi is as likely to be parsed out in a philosophy of ethics classroom as it is to be enjoyed by general audiences.
The film opens at the court hearing of the eponymous break up of husband Nader and wife Simin where they are unable to finalize their divorce until they can agree on the custody of their 11-year-old daughter Termeh. When Simin moves out, Nader hires Razieh to look after his aging father who has Alzheimer’s. The family finds them themselves in a legal entanglement with Razieh and her husband Hodjat, who have a young daughter of their own, Somayeh, when Nader is accused of causing Razieh to miscarry.
While seemingly mundane and indeed never sensational, A Separation finds its strength in developing its characters and putting them in morally compromising situations that Kant himself never dreamed of. The film does an excellent job of showing us the parents through the point of view of their respective daughters. Hitherto the legal case, Termeh sees her father as a man of strict principles who instructs her to answer a question in school correctly even if the teacher will mark her down for it. The brilliant script by Farhadi shows Termeh’s subtle coming-of-age-by-way-of-disillusionment as she suspects her father of lying in the case. That Nader is lying or presenting a version of the facts is understandable to the adults when the focus of the investigation digresses from “You are charged with causing X” to “Did you know about Y?” Without any condescension the film shows the categorical imperative toward truth in an 11-year-old girl and the devastation of realizing a parental figure is fallible.
A Separation shows little interest in vilifying any of its characters, but rather shows them for what they are–normal people making bad decisions out of desperation.
ERIC ARIMA: What’s your background in filmmaking and how did you get interested?
JASON HULS: I went to Illinois State University and I actually started out as an English major with a Creative Writing minor. The only program ISU offered in the way of filmmaking was a Cinema Studies minor so I quickly transitioned over to that. It was more theory-based, a lot more reading and writing and studying the classics. There wasn’t a lot of production but luckily the instructor presiding over the program let me shape the courses and shoot some short films. So I was able to explore my interests through my minor and I think I spent a lot more time on those classes than I did my English classes. At the end of that program I picked up a second major and spent a year and half studying Anthropology and working on an ethnographic thesis. It wasn’t until I moved up to the Chicago area that I thought seriously about tackling a feature. I literally woke up one morning and realized I should write a script and that my friends and I already possessed the resources to see it through, so we shot a zombie movie called Late Afternoon of the Living Dead. That’s where it all started.
EA: You seem to be drawn to things that are produced?
JH: I like creating content…in multiple forms. I like making things. Early on it was writing. In my teens it was music and playing guitar. I think filmmaking, for me, is a natural combination of all the things that I like. Writing, photography, music. I feel like it was a natural direction.
EA: Tell me about your job at the university.
JH: I’m a video producer. I shoot and develop video content that supports a medical curriculum. I worked in college textbook publishing after college and when I was looking to transition into a new career field, Late Afternoon of the Living Dead was my reel. The university I’m at now used all the same camera and editing gear that I used on the movie so it was a big part of why I got the job.
EA: Is working in video production an advantage to a film school student?
JH: Sure. It helps keep you sharp. I’m used to working with deadlines, different departments and shifting priorities. That’s a great resume term, isn’t it?
EA: You’re also in film school. Tell me about the program.
JH: I’m in the MFA Digital Cinema program at DePaul University. I had been interested in film school for awhile. I toured DePaul and I liked the forward-thinking philosophy of the program so I went for it. A lot of people go for an MFA because they want to teach at the collegiate level. I just wanted the chance to spearhead a big production and come away with a calling card short. Also, honestly, I feel an MFA degree and a great project is a good way to show investors that you’re talented and that their money is safe with you.
EA: So in addition to your video producer day job, you’re also working on your MFA thesis film?
JH: Yeah. It’s a 25 page sci-fi film called Citizen in the Temple. Think 1984 meets Final Fantasy 7. There’s a lot of steampunk influence. It’s very heavy on production design and special effects, which were two challenges I looked forward to.
EA: Was there ever a time when you thought, “I’m just going to do it easy and make a buddy comedy”?
JH: [Laughs] Not so much. In my opinion, if you’re going to pursue a top-level degree, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you take the easy way out. My philosophy is that you should do the kind of thesis film that is representational of the kind of features you want to make. Then down the road when you’re pitching yourself as a filmmaker, you can say, “This is what I’m about. This is what I like,” and people will get it. Hopefully.
EA: A sci-fi movie seems like it would require more resources than other genres. Are resources available through the school?
JH: There is a lot of equipment and facilities available to students. I think location is one of the strongest elements of Citizen in the Temple. We got amazing, amazing places to use, like one-of-a-kind type of locations. The production design guys were phenomenal. They worked insane hours to make some of the sets we needed.
EA: What was your experience like with crowd-funding?
JH: I’ll say it was a success but I wouldn’t say it was a raging success. It did get me a good amount of the budget but most of the big donations still came from people I knew and were closely tied to me or the project. I did get a lot of smaller donations from people who were acquaintances and a few from people I didn’t know. I used IndieGoGo. It’s a good platform. It’s a good way to organize your information. If you use it the right way, it presents a clear message to people who might want to invest. But ultimately the challenge is still how to market the project, how to get the word out.
EA: Can you tell me a about the story of Citizen of the Temple?
JH: The story takes place on a desert wasteland planet. There is a city-state run by a Big-Brother-shadowy-oppressive government that controls every aspect of the citizens’ lives. It’s the story of a man who is involved in an underground resistance movement who ultimately has to choose between his love and his rebellion.
EA: In the production stills on your website, there’s a very distinct look especially in the lighting and some of the sets, which you’ve discussed. Can you say a little about the look of the film?
JH: I think it has a more fantasy/sci-fi appeal. I wanted a lot of stone, medieval structures with the sci-fi technology worked into it. Most of the movie has a bulky, steampunk, retro type look. High technology does exist, but the way we’ve got it positioned is that it’s only enjoyed by a thin slice of the elite. The rest of the people in the city-state are left to scavenge and work with whatever they can find. This way you end up with an interesting blend of technology levels.
EA: It looks great. For your casting process, do you go through an agency, or are these other students?
JH: We did an open casting call. I held it at DePaul on the Loop campus. The lead, Jacob Alexander, and I have worked together on several different projects. When I was writing the script I knew he was the guy. Everyone else is the result of a reference or the casting call.
EA: Coming from film school, how much of your crew have worked with before? Are any of them students fulfilling requirements?
JH: No one in the crew is using this for a class but I know a lot of them from school. It’s probably about 70% / 30%, people I’ve worked with versus new people. It was great. It was a really tight crew.
EA: What do you look for when you put a crew together?
JH: First I go to the people I know, who I trust and who I’ve worked with before. Beyond that I usually go with recommendations from people I trust. So I reach out to new people based on those recommendations. So far, so good!
EA: What are you shooting this on?
JH: The Canon 7D.
EA: Is that at a digital SLR?
JH: Yep. It was a good move, too. The image is gorgeous. It’s really good in low light. It lent itself well to the weird places we shot…a lot of tight, dark places. I think it was the right tool for the right job.
EA: How much of the shoot was set versus practical?
JH: That’s a good question. About 50% location, 50% set.
EA: How much of location shooting was in Aurora?
JH: A little over a quarter of the script.
EA: How long is this movie going to be?
JH: About 25 minutes.
EA: And what do you plan to do with a 25 minute movie?
JH: We’re going to shoot for some of the bigger festivals. The goal is to invent a whole world here. I want to develop a series of stories and Citizen is actually the second one. The first is a film called The Drone. It’s in the same universe as Citizen and it debuted at the Cannes Short Film Corner last year. I’m also looking at developing a role-playing game based on the ideas in both movies. I’d like to take the movies and the game to conventions like Gen Con and set up a booth to promote the whole line. Hopefully through that process we’ll get a big enough fan base to make a case for a feature. It should be a lot of fun. The gamer population is a direct sample of the audience we’re going for.
As a cinephile in the (far) western suburbs of Chicago, I am always excited to hear about local films and their makers. So when I heard about a film that was poised to do for St. Charles what Lucas did for Glen Ellyn, I was interested.
On September 6, 2011 at a Starbucks in St. Charles, IL, I sat down with Nick Smith to discuss his up coming thriller Munger Road. The film opens at Classic Cinemas’ Charlestowne 18 on September 30; the first showing will be at 12:01 a.m. A week later on October 7, it will expand to other theatres in the Fox Valley area.
ERIC ARIMA: First of all, congratulations on starting and finishing a movie.
NICK SMITH: Thank you.
EA: So you grew up in St. Charles?
NS: Yes. I graduated from St. Charles North in 2003, and I went to middle school, elementary school, the whole 9 yards in district 303.
EA: How did that shape your interest in cinema or filmmaking?
NS: When I was in high school I actually got accepted into the engineering program at U of I, and I wanted to be a structural mechanical engineer, and I ended up…there was a class project in my English class and I decided to use a video camera to create a short movie and I enjoyed the experience so much and then the peoples’ reactions to that movie that it kind of got snow ball effect of that I make movies. I always liked watching movies but I never really had thought about making them before and it was such a positive experience that I decided that rather than going down to study engineering I’d study film at Columbia College and that’s what I did when I graduated. So it was probably a happy accident, I guess.
EA: What was the short film?
NS: It was about my family. The project was to take a risk doing something you normally wouldn’t do. And something I normally wouldn’t do is make something with a video camera. It turned out pretty good so it was a pretty neat experience.
EA: Do you mind if I ask what year that was?
NS: That was probably 2000 or 2001.
EA: So digital filmmaking was still fairly new?
NS: Oh man. I still feel like it was in its ethos, actually. I think, I’ll never forget trying to figure out, you know, how to hook up my camera to my computer and be able to edit digitally and do all this stuff, but I realized back then that there was this power that was kind of being harnessed that being able to manipulate things much easier than, you know, shooting a movie on 16mm and, you know, cutting it by hand and going through all that and what not. There was so much more options to be able to help tell your story with the advent of computers and digital technology. So I’ve always been a very big proponent of digital cinema. Munger Road is shot on the digital Red MX camera system, which was brand new last year actually. It had just come out. […] It’s interesting because the camera system that we did use for the movie was one of the main reasons why we decided we would be able to make the movie was that the technology was there for us to be able to shoot a movie that used very dark places and dark photography and still look very rich. And the same quality if you go and watch Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, anything.
EA: So your interest in in filmmaking came from making films rather than watching cinema?
NS: You know I enjoy a plethora of movies. Anything from Dumb and Dumber, to American Beauty, to Sideways, to Back to the Future. I don’t consider myself a huge film historian/buff. I do enjoy movies that most people generally enjoy. I always approach things from a filmmaking standpoint that I’m not trying to copy style or anything like that but trying to use influences and emotions that I see from different movies. My favorite movie still to this day is Jaws. As a for instance, Jaws had a lot of influence on the making of Munger Road just from a story standpoint and how we went about it and what not.
EA: [Can you say a little bit about your interest in the source material, Munger Road?]
NS: The thing I like about Munger Road is that it’s a very simple story that a lot of people can experience for themselves. It’s not in some remote desolate house that only a few select people can understand or appreciate. It has a little bit of phone tag history that is over 30 years old of people passing down this legend. I think for people like myself that lived around here, it’s something that is a little bit of escapism. In a sometimes mundane suburban life you can go to this place, and it’s very dark, very mysterious, very eerie. I know a lot of people go up there and…don’t cause trouble…but they perhaps do things that aren’t legal. But at the same time I think that it just shows that people still really enjoy a good ghost story. So that was the reason why I thought that Munger Roadcould be perhaps a good movie if you help tell what that ghost story is. Since there isn’t a concrete legend that this is exactly what happened on Munger Road, I thought well let’s take the simple aspects of the car, the hand prints, the baby powder, and everything, and maybe I could come up with something that helps explain what did in fact happen on Munger Road. So the movie you’re watching…you’re kind of coming to a better understanding of what happened out there. You know I took a few liberties with things creatively, but everything is really grounded in reality.
EA: How geographically cohesive is the movie?
NS: I took great liberties to make sure that everything was geographically correct. The movie takes place on Munger Road; we filmed on Munger Road. We filmed in St. Charles.
EA: [I just noticed on your comment board people, without having seen the movie, were claiming Munger Road for either Bartlett or Wayne.]
NS: I wish that people would read the description of the movie. The movie is about 4 teenagers from St. Charles that go out there. And of course because 4 teenagers go missing from a town usually the town’s police would get involved in that and that exactly what happens. I appreciate that people take ownership saying “This is Bartlett.” I think it’s funny that people continue to say that Munger Road is in Wayne, and I can tell anybody definitively that it is not in Wayne. The section of Munger Road that is haunted is in Bartlett, the absolute southern border of Bartlett.
EA: Is that why you have the Google map displayed on your website?
NS: Yeah. The other funny thing is that St. Charles is technically closer to Munger Road than downtown Bartlett. It’s one of those things where people from Elgin, Hanover Park, Streamwood, all these places we all went out there. It wasn’t just Bartlett kids or any specific group of people. I’m getting kind of a kick out of people taking ownership over it. I think it’s a good thing. I think they should feel strongly about it. Everything’s accurate. We did film out there. They’ll recognize Munger Road when they see it. They’ll also recognize all the places in St. Charles where we shot as well. What people have to understand is that this movie has a lot of influence from John Carpenter’s Halloween. So the cops in the story are acting very similar to the doctor character, Dr. Loomis in the original Halloween where he’s trying to find an escaped killer. So they’re in St. Charles doing the same as well. You’ve got to have some sort of backdrop to tell that half of the story, and it wasn’t going to be Wayne because there is no downtown Wayne and Bartlett I’m not really familiar with; I’m more familiar with St. Charles. So that’s kind of how that all came about.
EA: This looks like a pretty big movie. How did it get made?
NS: Two years ago, I wrote the script. The script came out so well, it was so well received, we were able to raise financing through it, being that we’re an independent company [Insomnia Productions] and this is an independent film. From there we moved into preproduction and started casting and hiring and location scouting and all that stuff. The thing that sets us off a little different than most independent movies is that you never get a chance to see them in theatres. And the reason you’ll be able to see Munger Road in theatres is because this movie came out so well that it got picked up by a major distribution company [Freestyle Releasing]. That was our plan all along. We knew we were going straight to theatres. We knew that we had something good. And that is what ended up happening. We did a test screening of the movie about a month ago up in Minnesota to get people’s opinion that had nothing to do with St. Charles, or Bartlett, or Munger Road or anything, just to see if they liked the movie. People went nuts. Screaming, laughing. It was pretty insane. We’re really excited for people down here to be able to see it. People are going to be able to enjoy it a lot more. They’re going to be able to say, “I know this place” or “I know that place” and what not. And that’s a good feeling. You watch Road to Perdition and you’ll watch the scene that was filmed in Geneva and you’re like “I feel very warm and fuzzy about watching it because I know exactly where that is; I’ve been there.” We as an independent movie company got extremely lucky in this entire process to get to this point, but it was also the script. It was a good story and people really got behind it.
EA: And you wrote it?
NS: I wrote it
EA: Did you form Insomnia Productions?
NS: I did. That’s my company. They’re the producing arm of Munger Road.
EA: How did you get your cast? I guess Bruce Davison is the biggest name? I noticed you have a lot of known actors.
NS: I think we have a lot of good people in the movie. Bruce Davison is obviously an academy award nominee. Everyone we had is just a fantastic actor. Trevor Morgan is really well-known for being in The Sixth Sense, and Jurassic Park 3, and The Patriot. Brooke Peoples, who is the lead in the movie, I always pictured that character, her character’s name is Jo, to be somebody that we kind of introduced to the world and not somebody we’ve seen before, and so I made a conscious decision to cast somebody that was relatively unknown. And Brooke is fantastic in the movie. We had a lot of interest from a lot of well-known actresses that wanted to be in it, but I always felt that we wanted that character to be fresh and somebody we can really get behind. And she just did a great job. We set out to hire really great actors to help us tell the story and not be distractions at the same time. I always said when we were casting this, “How much are you going to believe Nicolas Cage is the chief-of-police in St. Charles walking around this town?” Are you going to believe that? Yeah, I think Nicolas Cage is great, but again I think we were going for people who help embody the story more. When Bruce read the script for instance, he loved it so much that he took a lot of chances, including financial. I don’t know the way to word this but we just couldn’t afford what he would normally make on a movie and loved this project and loved this script so much that he just wanted to do it and he did do it and that was just kind of the story for this entire movie. People always ask me, “How did you get a movie made?” and I say, “You write a good script.” And people read that script and they’re like, “This is good.” It’s interesting that I do see a lot of people now telling me that people are talking about, “How could you make a movie about Munger Road possibly more than 15 minutes long?” If you go see the movie, you’ll see that there’s a lot more meat on the bone. That it’s a full-fledged story. That…I don’t want to give away the ending, but it’s definitely heading somewhere as well.
EA: What was behind the decision to keep it local?
NS: I had thought about calling the movie Munger Road and putting it somewhere else. I looked at a town in Wisconsin to do it because I was looking for an interesting place to tell the story. And then somebody just said to me, “Why wouldn’t you just make it in St. Charles?” And I thought about it, and I said “Sometimes the most simple ideas are the best.” St. Charles has got a lot of things going for it; one of which is that it has never been filmed before. It’s an interesting way to introduce this town. It’s got these great things; it’s got the river; it’s got great architecture from the 1920s like the Baker Hotel, the Arcada Theatre, the Municipal Center, all these things. And then it’s got the Scarecrow Fest that is a big plot point in the movie as well. The reason why it’s a big plot point goes back to that Jaws reference. The conflict in the movie Jaws isn’t so much that there’s a shark in the water; it’s the fact that there’s a shark in the water and you’re going to have all these people coming in to this small town for Fourth of July, this big thing. Munger Road is kind of similar. What would happen if four kids went missing the night before the Scarecrow Festival and you had all these people coming in to this big family thing? What would you do? That’s the kind of conflict going on. It’s got a lot of things going on in it. It’s a psychological thriller; it’s not a blood and guts horror movie. It’s an extremely scary movie, but it’s not rip-open-your-rib-cage, rip-your-heart-out.
[UPDATE: On September 25, 2011, I corrected the misspelling of Bruce Davison’s name.]
Brit Marling in ANOTHER EARTH Credits: Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures TM and (c) 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
What follows is an exercise in capsule writing, but before that I just wanted to add a quick complaint. The part that bothers me most about the movie is the problem of gravity. I am versed in neither physics nor astronomy, yet I am pretty sure that if a planet identical to Earth appeared within viewing distance of a consumer grade telescope, then the folks on either planet would start walking on air just before drowning in the rising tides.
Still, in spite of gravity, inconsistent lighting, and the fact that so many better movies on grief have been made, including one with William Mapother (In the Bedroom), I find myself rooting for this little film, maybe because this marks my first (and probably last) press screening, or maybe because I’m a sucker for these doppelgänger-type movies.
In Mike Cahill’s Another Earth the discovery of a planet identical to Earth in every way, including its inhabitants, offers the hope for a second chance. While the planet itself remains predominantly a spectral figure that is both haunting and full of possibilities, most of the story is terrestrially based in the lives of the two lead characters. Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) tries to make amends for a tragic incidence, for which she was responsible, by befriending the grieving victim, John Burroughs (William Mapother). Another Earth is strongest when it is exploring the relationship between guilt, grief, and forgiveness, and the choice to keep the science fiction elements to a minimum works to its advantage. However, the movie suffers from exposition based on awkward dialog and coincidental timing of radio and television broadcasts, and some scenes played for emotional impact don’t connect (in particular a hospital scene between Brit Marling and Kumar Pallana).
I realize that having only seen 33 titles that qualify there is little point in making a mid-year list (see my rules here; see below for list of eligible titles). But since I can’t resist, here is my favorite 10% of the films I’ve seen so far this year. I’m not breaking any new grounds with this one.
Worth noting: I count Meek’s Cutoff among the eligible, but I did have to leave the theatre about 40 minutes into the movie; I do hope to see it uninterrupted in full by the end of the year. Also, Road to Nowhere will not be eligible until August 5.
Top 10% (in alphabetical order)
Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami; 2010)
Tree of Life, The (Terrence Malick; 2011)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul; 2010)
Hadewijch (Bruno Dumont; 2009)
13 Assassins (Takashi Miike; 2010)
Adjustment Bureau, The (George Nofli; 2011)
Bad Teacher (Jake Kasdan; 2011)
Bridesmaids (Paul Feig; 2011)
Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami; 2010)
Company Men, The (John Wells; 2010)
Drive Angry 3D (Patrick Lussier; 2011)
Fast Five (Justin Lin; 2011)
Green Hornet, The (Michel Gondry; 2011)
Green Lantern (Martin Campbell; 2011)
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (Damien Chazelle; 2009)
Hadewijch (Bruno Dumont; 2009)
Hall Pass (Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly; 2011)
Hangover Part II, The (Todd Phillips; 2011)
Hanna (Joe Wright; 2011)
Limitless (Neil Burger; 2011)
Lincoln Lawyer, The (Brad Furman; 2011)
Lovers of Hate (Bryan Poysner; 2010)
Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt; 2010)
Mechanic, The (Simon West; 2011)
Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen; 2011)
No Strings Attached (Ivan Reitman; 2011)
Ong Bak 3 (Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai; 2010)
Rango (Gore Verbinski; 2011)
Rio (Carlos Saldanha; 2011)
Source Code (Duncan Jones; 2011)
Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder; 2011)
Super 8 (J.J. Abrams; 2011)
Thor (Kenneth Branagh; 2011)
Transformers: The Dark of the Moon (Michael Bay; 2011)
Tree of Life, The (Terrence Malick; 2011)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul; 2010)
Unknown (Jaume Collet-Serra; 2011)
X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn; 2011)
Steve Gates: You’re in way to deep on this one, man.
Mitchell Haven: In my dreams, maybe.
In Road to Nowhere (based on a script from Steven Gaydos), Monte Hellman weaves together three separate storylines including the making of a film, the film that is being made, and the mystery on which the movie that is being made is based. The intercutting of the of stories sets up a chiasmatic exchange of influence between the work and the work-within-the-work in a way that does not so much as break the fourth wall, like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (also with Shannyn Sossamon), but rather questions whether or not there ever was a wall there to begin with. Road to Nowhere is a master class in film theory that covers both how films are made and how they are consumed.
A double suicide in Bryson County, North Carolina involving a local politician and a Cuban refugee ends up costing the state $100 million. Shortly thereafter director Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) is making a film based on the event as reported on Natalie Post’s (Dominique Swain) blog. The film production begins to unravel when the director becomes involved with the unknown actress, Laurel Graham (Shannyn Sossamon), stirring up jealousy and in-fighting among the cast and crew. Matters are not helped when the film’s regional consultant, and former insurance investigator, Bruno Brotherton (Waylon Payne), begins to suspect the actress Laurel Graham of being involved in the actual scandal.
Those familiar with the oeuvre of Monte Hellman will quickly recognize themes of artifice versus reality, fact versus fiction. Most famously, Two-Lane Blacktop ends with a dissolve that simulates nitrate burning up in the projector—a jarring “kick” (to borrow from the language of Inception) out of the movie. In the same film, Warren Oates’ character rehearses his fictions as if facts can be changed as easily as a sweater. In China 9, Liberty 37, the pulp novelist played by Sam Peckinpah refers to his books as, “The lies they [i.e., “the people back east”] need…we all need.” Or, consider Oberlus, in Iguana, concerned with how his legacy is being recorded by the diarist. Twenty-one years later, Monte Hellman continues to show an interest in the same themes, albeit now in the digital age of DSLR HD cameras, laptop computer displays replacing film running through a projector, and internet bloggers succeeding dime novelists as purveyors of information with a “fuck the facts” ethos.
Road to Nowhere bears some resemblance to Kiarostami’s recent masterpiece Certified Copy, which mounts an apologetics of the copy in the original–copy dualism when William Shimmell’s character argues, “[T]he copy itself has worth, in that it leads us to the original.” By using art and life as stand-ins in the same dualism, the legitimacy of the very dualism itself comes into question. Hellman’s film shows how select originary facts lead to the making of film that in turn leads back to perhaps a clearer understanding of the facts, which are now mediated by the filmic copy. These three narrative topoi are often made indistinguishable from one another. For example, little noticeable effort is made to distinguish between scenes from the film-within-the-film and the scenes on which the film-within-the-film is based. Occasionally the film transitions from one narrative to the other in a single take as in the seventh shot in the opening scene that slowly zooms in on a computer screen playing a movie also titled Road to Nowhere showing a woman sitting on a bed drying her recently polished toe nails. Eventually the zoom fills our screen with the screen within making us complicit with the characters watching the film-within-the-film (this technique was previously used by Hellman in his 2006 short “Stanley’s Girlfriend”).
From this point on the film becomes a matrix a self-reference. The opening credits let us know that we are about to watch a film called Road to Nowhere directed by Mitchell Haven and written by Steve Gates; the initials of the characters and the title of their movie suggests a film à clef. Indeed the fictional director’s involvement with the unknown actress Laurel Graham who plays a character who maybe commits suicide has loose real-life correlative in Hellman’s amorous involvement with Laurie Bird (Two-Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter), to whom the film is dedicated, who ended her own life in 1979. Although other attributes in Laurel Graham’s backstory, like when she explains, “They saw me in some stupid horror movie that I did that I never thought would get seen anywhere,” suggest the actress Laura Harring (Mulholland Dr.), who was a lead in Hellman’s last directorial feature, Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! (also written by Steven Gaydos).
In spite of the extratextual similarities, Road to Nowhere remains a film à clef without a key locked inside an elliptical labyrinth of self-reference. To wax Derridean, there is no outside-film and there is no outside of the film, just a road that magnificently leads…well, you know.