Wednesday, July 1, 2015

TFF: Paz Fábrega Talks About Her Erotic "Viaje"

Playing at Festival

TFF: Paz Fábrega Talks About Her Erotic Viaje

(from Sag Harbor Express Online June 1, 2015)
osted on 01 June 2015
Kattia Gonzàlez and Fernando Bolaños.
Kattia Gonzàlez and Fernando Bolaños.
By Danny Peary
Viaje fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.  The second feature by the gifted Costa Rican writer-director Paz Fábrega played at the recent Tribeca Film Festival, and if there were an award given for Most Erotic Narrative Feature, it would have won in a landslide.
Kattia Gonzàlez and Fernando Bolaños.
Kattia Gonzàlez and Fernando Bolaños.
TFF associate programmer Mallory Lance wrote: “After meeting at a party, Luciana [Kattia Gonzàlez, who has the beauty and personality to be an international star] and Pedro [Fernando Bolaños, handsome and personable as well] spark up a spontaneous rendezvous.  Eschewing the fraudulent nature of traditional relationships, the pair embarks on a spur of the moment journey that takes them to the forest [where Pedro has a three-weeks assignment at a remote biological station].  As they explore the beauty in the nature that surrounds them, they camp out under the stars, go on hikes, indulge in the passions of their encounter, and discuss their personal beliefs surrounding love, obligations, and attraction.”  After numerous delays, Luciana and Pedro, a marvelous screen couple, finally have sex before the infrequent bus will arrive to take her back to the city.  She misses the bus.  Fábrega (Agua Fria de Mar) made the black-and-white Viaje three years ago, but the death of her closest friend caused her to lose enthusiasm for the project, particularly because she thought it was so personal that critics would be indifferent toward it.  Gonzàlez, who co-produced with Fábrega, pushed her to get it off the shelf and submit it to festivals, leading to its being accepted by the TFF for its world premiere and, surprisingly to her, terrific reviews.  She says her film was intended to be “a thin cry in defense of fun and spontaneity.” After three years, she backs her theme even more, saying, “It is more important now to do things to make us feel alive.”
Paz Fábrega.
Paz Fábrega.
I had this conversation with the fun and spontaneous Fábrega during the festival.
Danny Peary: It was a long time between films.
Paz Fábrega: One of the reasons that I finally made Viaje was my bad experience on my first feature.  I really wanted to try to make films in a way I could enjoy because   shooting my first film had been such a nightmare. When I seeAgua Fria de Mar now, there are things that I really like, but I can never distance myself from what I was going through when I was shooting them. I’ll see a shot and remember that I was almost in tears when we were doing that because this person was in a fight with that person, all that kind of stuff.  Everybody thinks it’s natural for producers and directors to yell at each other, but I’m not okay with that and if that’s going to be my life, I’m not sure it’s worth it.  So I wanted to make a film that didn’t carry so much conflict for me. I really wanted to feel okay the whole way through. I needed to try that, and making Viaje proved to me that it’s possible to make a film on my own terms.
DP: Viaje is essentially a two-character movie so for you to enjoy making it I’d think you had to have a really good relationship with your two leads, Kattia González and Fernando Bolaños.
PF: Kattia auditioned for my first film.  She wasn’t right for the role, but I really liked her and wanted to work with her after that. She reminded me that I asked her to be in a short that we didn’t make.   After we made Viaje, she got into filmmaking and has directed her first film. Fernando I’ve known since we were in kindergarten together. And when we were 15 and in high school, we were in a theater group together. Then he went away and I went to London Film School [getting her Master's in 2006].  He saw my first film and wrote to me that he really liked it.  So when I was ready to make this film I called Fernando and Kattia and said, “I want to do this project, but I can’t even tell you what it is.  Are you up for it?”  And they were up for whatever the hell I wanted to do. It was “Yes, we’ll do anything. We’re in your hands.” And it was such a privilege to work with actors like that.  I think that’s the way it should be: “We love what you do, it doesn’t matter what it’s about, we know it’s going to be done in a certain way and we want to be part of it.”  The three of us really got along.
DP:  No arguments at all?
PF: I don’t think there were, no.  Any conflict?  Not really. There were times when we were shooting when it got a little bit difficult, and someone would say, “I don’t want oatmeal again!” We camped out in this national park, there were seven of us. The two actors and the crew, which was four people, and me. And we all slept in one big tent. And I cooked every meal. Each day we’d get up, have breakfast, go and shoot, take some sandwiches along, and in the evening all sit around together. It was really fun. That’s the way I would love to shoot always.  We spent two weekends in San Jose and nine days up at the volcano, and then we did one reshoot that was like 24 hours long and another that was just one scene that took only a couple of hours.
DP: In the rehearsal process what were the things you talked about?
PF: We rehearsed maybe six times before we started shooting. A lot of the rehearsals were really just lunches–we’d go out together and talk about various things. We talked about our relationships, including how we felt at certain moments.  What were the defining moments of the relationships?  At what point did we decide we had to get out of this, or when did we decide this other thing was important? We talked a lot about our experiences and shared stuff like that.
DP: You made this film three years ago. Was it important that you made it when you were that age, rather than now or even later?
PF: Yes, because it was very much about something that was going on in my life and the actors’, too, at that time. We wanted to make a movie about what we were going through. We wanted to talk about our love lives and a lot of things we couldn’t really name.
DP: Considering how gorgeous Costa Rica is, why did you choose to film in black & white?
PF: Costa Rica’s landscapes are so beautiful but when we were doing location photography we saw that the forest was too green on color film.  There was the danger of my film looking like a nature documentary or a tourist brochure. I thought black-and-white was more the aesthetic I wanted to show the landscape and nature in a different way.
DP: You filmed in the Rincón de la Viaje Volcanic National Park. You’ve filmed in Costa Rican national parks before.
PF: It’s hard not to want to shoot in nature in Costa Rica. You think that maybe you should just set your film in the city to make it easier, but it’s hard to stay away from these amazing places.  You can just keep going to places that you want to shoot because they’re beautiful.
DP: I was thinking of Tarzan and Jane living alone in the jungle.  Are you making a thematic link between people and nature?
PF: That is important in my life, I think nature isn’t just a setting but interacts with our emotions very much.  I’ve always felt that way, maybe just from growing up in a place where nature is so exuberant.  I do feel nature changes things. You go to a place that’s one way and it just changes how you feel, it gets inside you.
DP: As with Picnic at Hanging Rock, there’s a sensuality in your images of nature. Did you know that your images of the forest, water, and the tunnel were going to come across as erotic and sensual on film?
PF: Yeah, definitely. There are images that just say so much. And you don’t even feel them, they’re just there. Tunnels for me are really important.
DP: The films you list as your biggest influences in your press notes–Five Easy Pieces, Muholland Drive, A Separation, Boyhood, Badlands and others–don’t remind me of your film at all.
PF: I think the biggest influence is Mike Leigh, just because of his way of approaching a subject and working with actors on scenes, and giving yourself freedom to search out the things that are going to make the film really strong.
DP: I would never think of Mike Leigh in regard to Viaje, although you both seem to crunch people within the frame.
PF: Yeah. I like to get close. I think that’s it, I just really like to observe.
DP: There’s also a lot of touching in his movies, too.  Although only you explore the theme of characters communicating through sex.
PF: I think that’s very important in this film.
DP: You mention Richard Linklater’s Boyhood as an inspiration, but I would have thought Before Sunrise.  He has his two young strangers talking for a long time and though there is an undercurrent of sex in their chatter they don’t become physical until late in the movie.  You delay the sex in your movie, too, but Luciana and Pedro are physical immediately, even kissing a few seconds after they meet at the costume party.
PF: Before Sunrise is very much about conversations and I understand that because I don’t particularly like sex scenes in films.  And I don’t feel super confident doing them properly because it’s hard with actors to get really interested in it. It’s really daunting.
That opening scene was in my house.  I thought it was funny because they’re so drunk that he tries to kiss her out of nowhere, and she’s like, “No,” but then “Maybe,” and she goes to him.
DP: our film strikes a chord because it is strangers having a sexual interlude.
PF: People have asked me, why don’t they have sex in the first forty-eight hours?
DP: Because you didn’t want them to!  It could have happened in the bathroom at the party or in the taxi or in his house before she decides to go with him to the forest.
PF: I put it off because I wanted them to have sex the first time in the park right before she knows she is about to leave.  That’s why it happens. She knows she’s going to go away right after on the bus, so it’s okay for it to happen.
DP: Kattia is in a committed relationship, but we and Pedro don’t learn this until later in the film.
PF: Exactly, after they have sex.  She thought it was okay to have sex because she would leave right after and they wouldn’t have to deal with it, but when she gets left behind by the bus it gets awkward.  It sort of puts things in a different place. The second time they have sex is completely different from the first time. They know they feel things for each other and that it’s going to…
DP: Is hurt the right word?
PF: Maybe.  It was important to me to they have a particular sex, a hurried-up sex. They know it’s going to be painful for them after.
DP: Do you want viewers to think they’re a perfect couple?
PF: No, I don’t think so.
DP: I think that they are.  But you think they aren’t perfectly matched and it’s not just that it’s the wrong time and place for them to make it last?
PF: I think they’re perfect for each other for what they’re doing, but I don’t know how they would be in a different circumstance.
DP: Do you think they have such intensity in their relationship that they’d burn out as a couple if they spent any more time together?
PF: It could be. They would have to try it out, and I think one of the reasons they don’t actually is that she doesn’t know if that’s going to work.
DP: My interpretation is that she does realize they’re the perfect couple, and she runs away from that because it’s too scary.
PF: I think that’s an okay interpretation. Sometimes you meet someone who is amazing, and it makes you want to just turn around and leave.  Maybe because you think it’s not going to be amazing any longer, or maybe because you’re worried that it is going to be amazing always. I don’t know what it is.
DP: I won’t say what Luciana costume wears to the party because she won’t even explain it to Pedro, but I think it’s an important choice because it signifies she doesn’t want to grow up.
PF: Kattia’s 29, and Pedro’s around that age, and they  want to hold on to a lot of the things they feel they have to give up in order to grow up. They want to be playful and they still feel that childlike part is very much alive in them.  And that’s not a bad thing. I don’t think adults acting like children is often portrayed in a positive light.  That’s weird, because I think the world would be better if adults were more like kids. We go around buying stuff like crazy, and we need so much security and all these things, but what actually makes us happy and brings us joy are still the same things as when we were kids—or the adult versions.  When you were a kid, you ran into other kids at the playground and right away you were friends. That’s the kind of thing we need now for us to be happier as grown-ups. We don’t need the house or the car or all this other stuff. We need to be more present for and more open to and more playful with each other.   So it upsets me that so often childlike behavior in grown-ups is portrayed as irresponsible or out of place.
DP: Your movie makes the argument that casual sex is fine.
PF: It is, yeah.
DP: When you made this film as a defense of fun and spontaneity, were you thinking that people aren’t going to agree with you?
PF: No, I didn’t think of that because casual sex is almost like a given today.
DP: Not as a theme in serious movies.
PF: I noticed that later. It’s kind of like, it’s never okay.  It’s something you do but you should feel bad about it, and you should try to stop that.  But I don’t see any real problem with it.  I think because it’s seen as a bad thing, we don’t talk that much about how casual sex can be okay. It is a form of human interaction that has always existed and is totally natural.  It is important to talk about, it’s important to be generous and to be kind and to be present.
DP: What’s interesting about your movie is that Kattia laughs and jokes for half the movie, and then she doesn’t after they have sex.  So does she feel guilty about having sex with Pedro when she has kept her other relationship a secret?
PF: Maybe a little bit guilty, yeah. But more than anything, conflicted—because if she starts to feel attached to Pedro then she has to make a hard decision she doesn’t want to make. She gets more serious, but she wants to leave before it gets too serious for her. Because he didn’t have all the information, he gets a little bit more hurt, I think.
DP: What was the biggest challenge about making this film?
PF: Finishing it. I put it away for a long time, and during that time I honestly didn’t know if I would ever finish it. I mean, I think during most of the time I didn’t think I was going to be able to. But Kattia said, “We should send it to festivals.” It was hard not having a post-production team.   I don’t mind during pre-production and shooting to organize a lot of stuff myself. But it is really hard, being in charge of all organizing and coordinating that comes afterward. The sound was done in Chile and the color correction was done in Mexico, but then it didn’t work and we had to redo it in Costa Rica.  I would have given anything just to have a good editor and a post-production coordinator.
DP: How has being at the Tribeca Film Festival been for you?
PF: It was really unexpected. I was really excited because my sales agent said, we’re going to do the international premiere either in TriBeCa or Beijing. I was like, “Wow, I really hope it can be in New York City.”  And it’s funny, because the last time I saw my best friend who passed away was here in New York. We had an amazing weekend together, and then she was ill in China.  It’s a city that I love and I lived here for a few years when I was younger, and it has all those good memories of the last time I spent together with my best friend.  So when the film got in here, I was so, so, so happy. It was really meaningful to me, particularly since it’s her birthday tomorrow.  And the response has been amazing.   I really wasn’t expecting that at all, because Viaje is such a small, personal film.  I’m really proud of it, but I wasn’t expecting much to happen around it, and it has turned out that people really like it, so it’s been fantastic.
DP: So are you reenergized as filmmaker?
PF: I think so. I’m really looking forward to making more movies!

TFF: David Darg Shows That Ebola Was No Match for "Body Team 12"

Playing at Festival

David Darg Shows That Ebola Was No Match for Body Team 12

(from Sag Harbor Express Online June 4, 2015)

Body Team 12 takes away the bodies of people killed by Ebola
Body Team 12 takes away the bodies of people killed by Ebola
By Danny Peary
One of the most powerful films I saw at the recent Tribeca Film Festival was only 13 minutes long.  In fact, Body
Olivia Wilde, Bryn Mooser, and David Darg on the Today Show.
Olivia Wilde, Bryn Mooser, and David Darg on the Today Show.
Team 12, which was directed, written, coproduced and filmed by the award-winning David Darg and executive produced by actress Olivia Wilde, was selected Best Documentary Short at the festival. It allows us the unique opportunity to follow a team of brave and dedicated individuals who had one of the most dangerous and gruesome jobs in the world: collecting and disposing of bodies from the streets of Monrovia, Liberia at the height of the Ebola epidemic and preventing its spread throughout the country and the world.  Darg’s spotlight is on the unassuming female worker on the team, Garmai Sumo, a heroine you won’t forget.  The filmmaker was right there with her, also wearing one of those familiar yellow suits and masks but carrying his trusty camera–and earning our admiration as well.  Darg, who has been a first responder  and frontline contributor for Reuters, the BBC and CNN at numerous trouble spots around the world for the last decade, and who with Bryn Mooser cofounded RYOT, the first breaking news site that connects every story to an action, had just returned from Nepal when I had the following conversation with him.
Garmai Sumo.
Garmai Sumo.
Danny Peary: I’ve read that over the last couple of years you’ve been to the Philippines, the Arctic, Nigeria, Iraq, Liberia, Nepal, and other trouble spots.  Where do you live?
David Darg: In Virginia, but RYOT’s head office is in L.A.  I was born in Virginia, but I’ve lived in other countries and spent most of my life living in England. My family still lives in England.  Most of my work is outside of this country, so for the last decade I’ve been living abroad, in Africa, and Haiti, where I was there for two and half a years. I moved back to the States about two years ago, and L.A. is where we’ve been working with RYOT full-time.  We have a staff of about thirty.
DP: You have gone into disaster areas for years as a first responder. Have you always had a camera with you?
DD: I have, yeah. I have a sort of interesting career that’s a mixture of aid work and journalism.  I have a passion for both.   I always go into a trouble spot as an aid worker and then become a journalist, too.  So when Ebola hit my entry into Liberia was through working with non-profit organizations.  I had a camera with me because I was first and foremost there to capture the news as it emerged, and those stories helped with the fund-raising efforts by the non-profits. I’m always on the hunt for a really good story that might work for us as a film, and in Monrovia I met these incredible characters who worked on teams that took away dead bodies so the disease didn’t spread.  I felt really compelled to tell their story at that point.
Garmai Sumo tries to convince people to let her take away the dead bodies of their relatives.
Garmai Sumo tries to convince people to let her take away the dead bodies of their relatives.
DP: Because you went into Liberia as a first-responder, you got amazing access to the front-lines to film the fight against Ebola.  Were there other first-responders with cameras, perhaps people you hung out with who were also making documentaries, or were you basically alone?
DD: In Liberia, I was alone. It was interesting because even in the aid community there was lot of reluctance of people wanting to go in because of the risks involved.
DP: When the spread of Ebola in West Africa dominated the news here in America, all of us wanted to stay away from it, but there you were going toward it.
DD: Yeah, yeah.  I had spent lots of time in Liberia.  My first trip there was in 2006, and because of my experience there and because of the need for aid, I wanted to be there to tell the story and do what I could to help with the relief effort. I really understood the threat of Ebola and thought that I could take care of myself and avoid getting sick.
DP: In your Director’s Statement, you say this was the most dangerous situation you’ve ever been in.
DD: Potentially, yes.  I said that. It’s not the most dangerous situation I’ve been in personally, but it’s the most dangerous film I’ve made.   Making this film required me to be in very risky situations.
DP:  Nobody here in America really knew how dangerous it was, which was why everybody was so frightened.  We didn’t know if those spacemen suits were good enough.   Did you have to have a conversation with yourself, to steel yourself and make you go in, or did just having a camera make you feel you could do it?
DD: I did need to have that conversation with myself.   I couldn’t even tell my wife, because she’d only allow me to go to Liberia with the provision that I would stay as safe as possible.  She’s used to my getting into pretty crazy situations, but because of the nature of what it would take to make my film, I didn’t want to tell her what I was doing. So she actually had no idea I’d made this film until she saw one of the final cuts, and when she did see it, she was mad at me.
DP: Then it’s a good thing that it’s a good film.  Did she know where you were?
DD: She knew I was in Liberia working with the relief effort, but she had no idea I was coming that close to dying and dead people. I sort of told her I wouldn’t be. To be honest, as an aid worker I thought I’d be working in the background and helping with logistics and things like that. I never expected to be face to face with dead Ebola victims and that type of thing. Just to keep my wife sane and for her to continue to allow me to make the film, I kept what I was doing quiet from her.
DP: I’m sure you didn’t go to Liberia already saying, “I’m going to make a 13-minute short.”  When did you decide to do it?
DD: The film was made over the course of four trips to Liberia last year.  It was really over the course of the second and third trips that the bulk of the film was made. Like you said, I didn’t go there on the first trip thinking, “Let’s make a doc,” and even on the second trip, when I landed in Liberia, I was there as an aid worker and to tell stories about the relief efforts, fundraising, and other general things.  I followed the media closely and I was seeing film of people in yellow suits with masks, but I wasn’t being told their stories.  People were thinking that these have got to be totally crazy, but I was so inspired by these young Liberians who were willing to risk it all to save their country.  Who was underneath the yellow suits, masks and blue aprons?  It wasn’t until my second trip that I discovered Garmai Sumo, the main character in the film.  I met this incredible human being who had a family herself and didn’t have to do the job of collecting dead bodies, but she risked her life for her country and for all of us.  It was that inspiring story I was witnessing, about Garmai and her body team, that I felt compelled to tell.
DP: The first responders at Ground Zero in New York city after 9/11 were never told fully of the risks. Were all those people in the suits aware of how dangerous it was, or did they go in thinking that if they wore a suit and mask they were going to be safe?
DD: Initially they assumed that the suits would protect them. But then they became aware that people wearing the suits had started to die around them. I don’t know what kept them going at that point other than sheer bravery. History is defined by brave people who are willing to sacrifice everything, and that’s what I saw in these relief workers.  They were surrounded by death, sorrow, and the most horrific things you’ve ever seen, yet they were willing to face it..
DP: You made your film about Body Team 12.  How many body teams were there?
DD: In the city of Monrovia there were 12 teams, so they were the 12th. Typically teams were 5 to 6 people, and it was a requirement to have one be a female because of their ability to comfort women and children better, and to comfort the men on the team and pull the team together. It’s an interesting policy that they have to have a woman on each team, but Liberia has a history of strong women and was in fact the first African nation to have a woman president.
DP: Part of Garmai’s appeal is that she comes across as an ordinary person yet does extraordinary things, which is the definition of a hero.  Did you watch her for a while when you were an aid worker and introduce yourself?
DD: I met her through the aid effort I was part of, trying to get some liquid chlorine to the teams because they used it to spray everything.  So I got it from Red Cross headquarters in Monrovia. I wanted to go out and see these teams working, and when I did I became fascinated by this woman on the 12th team.  Garmai was so dynamic that after my first day with the team, I asked if I could embed with it and focus on her in particular.
DP: Were they okay with having the cameras? Especially during confrontations with family members who didn’t want them to take away the corpses and break tradition?
DD: They were. I was certainly not the first to embed with them, but I was the first filmmaker to do it. They had lots of journalists come along who were there for the day and then were gone.  Those journalists were the ones who would tell the stories of the people wearing the masks and the yellow suits.  As a filmmaker I wanted to dig deeper and tell the stories of these masked heroes.  And as I embedded with them, they opened up and trusted me a lot more and started to talk to me a lot more, and I really felt that eventually they treated me as part of the team.  Especially because I was wearing the same suits they did and blended in for some of those scenes. Everything was so chaotic and the team was so focused on the task at hand that it was almost impossible for me to be a distraction in all of that grief and misery.  They were happy to have me along, I think.
DP: Did you show them dailies, or were there no dailies?
DD: There weren’t dailies, no, but we did have a really great screening of the film on my last trip a couple months ago. They really loved the film and it was a special time,
DP: I’m sure the whole experience was a blur to them, and all of a sudden there it was on film. Do you agree with that?
DD: Absolutely, yeah. As far as they were concerned I was going to do the same as all the other journalists–do a story, then see you later. So I think they were really impressed that a much deeper story was being told, I think they really appreciated that, because they want to be appreciated and respected for what they accomplished.
DP: It’s touching when Garmai says at the end of the short that the people in the body teams want to be remembered for helping their country, for saving their country. Did she actually say that on the last day you filmed or earlier?
DD: It wasn’t the last day I filmed.  I did a series of interviews with her, and it was over the course of one of those interviews that she said that.  I was probing, asking her why she did it. I was really trying to get to the root of why someone would sacrifice everything.
DP: And also deal with so much grief.  In fact, how did you handle just standing there passively and watching families refuse to let the body team take away the bodies of loved ones?  It was probably the law there that they had to let the bodies be taken away and burned, but some resisted vigorously. That must have been unbelievable.
DD: In one section of the film, we were actually chased away by an angry family member who was threatening the team with a knife, and we had to run through these alleys to get away. It’s always tough. Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot of experience with that type of the situation.  Because of the work I do I’ve been exposed to so much grief, but it never gets easier.
DP: You’ve worked with Olivia Wilde on previous shorts, and you again approached her to be the executive producer on this film.  Is she the perfect partner for you on these projects?
DD: This is the fourth film we’ve worked on with Olivia, and she’s an incredible partner. She’s a great filmmaker herself, and she really has been a great contributor in the post-production process, bouncing ideas off of us, giving us notes, and suggesting cuts.  Also she obviously helps elevate the film once it’s complete, getting us a much wider audience because of her reach.  That’s really spectacular for us, so we just love having Olivia on all our projects.
DP: I watched you, Olivia Wilde, and your producing partner Bryn Mooser being interviewed on Today, and you talked about the orphans in Liberia.  Are you still paying attention to the orphans there?
DD: Yes, that’s an on-going project, and that’s a beautiful part of Garmai’s story.  Now that she no longer works on the body team, she’s running a program caring for these orphans. It’s especially meaningful because she was there at the moment of sorrow when these kids’ dead parents were carried away, and now she’s there to help the children heal.  It’s really helping her heal as well after all the horrors she experienced.
DP: Did you ask her to take on this role?
DD: I actually made it happen for her, through a non-profit that wanted to take care of the orphans. Because of her story and the access she has to the orphans, I connected her with the non-profit.  It was a match made in heaven because she knew where all the children were and had the heart to help them.  Most of these kids were absorbed into extended families and it has been a burden on these families because they’re extremely poor and probably have their own children. So the program is providing food and school scholarships for the orphans, so they’re no longer a burden to the extended families. And so they’re not vulnerable.  Without this program many of them wouldn’t have been able to go to school or get enough nutrition.  And it’s an on-going thing and we’ll see how long we can keep it going.  Garmai’s looking at this as a career now, really digging in to make sure these children are cared for. There’s actually a video of her in her new role with a lot of these children.
DP: Is there a charity that people can contribute to?
DD: The Ebola Orphan Project.  You can find it online.
DP: How can people see your movie, because it’s not easy to see shorts?
DD: Unfortunately that’s still to be determined, but we are playing at several festivals–Seattle, AFI Docs in DC, the Rhode Island Film Festival, and several other festivals are coming up. We’re still working on the distribution plan but we should know that very shortly.
DP: Is there a website for us to go to so we can keep up with your film?
DD: Yes, go to
DP: You’ve been to Tribeca Film Festival four different times,  which I would imagine is the all-time record.  What have you had there?
DD: We started with a film called Sun City Picture House, out of Haiti, and then Baseball in the Time of Cholera was also out of Haiti. After that we did a film called The Rider and the Storm in New York, out of Hurricane Sandy.
DP: At this year’s festival, you won the award for Best Documentary Short.  I’m sure that was very gratifying for you.
DD: It was very exciting for us. Fourth time lucky, I guess! Of all the films we’ve made Body Team 12 is the most meaningful to me because it’s a tribute to Garmai and the other workers, so to be given recognition is wonderful.  That’s only going to raise the potential it has to tell the story to many more people.
DP: After Liberia, you were in Nepal following the earthquake.
DD: Yes, I was there before the second quake.  It was crazy, I got home from Tribeca on a Friday, and the quake happened on Saturday–so I had no time to breathe and was on a flight to Nepal.  It was tragic what happened there.  It’s a huge disaster and ongoing, so I’m going back there in a couple of weeks. And who knows, there could be another film project that emerges from that, because we’re already seeing incredible stories, inspiring stories, stories of tragedy.
DP: Is there anything people here don’t know about the Nepal disaster, a story we’re not hearing about?
DD: The thing that I’m most concerned about is that as tragic as this disaster was, it might be the calm before the storm.  Because monsoon season is about to start, we’re racing to reach a lot of these communities in the mountains that are cut off.  And if we don’t get to them now, we’re not going to get to them for months, and the monsoon could create more landslides, more disease.  The rains could bring a much bigger disaster than the earthquake was in the first place. And I don’t think there’s anyone telling that story yet. I’m scared that it will be a story in the next few months.
DP: You have said that Body Team 12 is probably the best of your films. Do you think you are you becoming a better filmmaker as you experience more and make more films?
DD: I really feel like with every film I mature a little bit more.  I learn more how to make things better, and the technology is improving as we go along.  Body Team 12 was shot on a new camera.  We used a GoPro, a stabilized camera that’s tiny and enabled me to shoot really incredible stuff in really tight and difficult spaces.  We’re constantly trying to develop and pioneer things and learn from previous films how we may have told the story better.  And that’s really exciting to me.
DP: I’m sure you were thrilled when Liberia was recently declared Ebola free.
DD: I was thrilled because these guys in the film played a really big part in making it possible. If this is really it and Ebola doesn’t come back in Liberia, I think we’re really going to use this film for them, to get them acknowledged for their work.  They won, you know, so it’s a success story.

TFF: Diane Bell About Mending a "Bleeding Heart"

Playing at Festival

TFF: Diane Bell About Mending a Bleeding Heart 

(from Sag Harbor Express Online May 25, 2015)

Zosia Mamet as Shiva in BLEEDIN HEART  Photographer: Aaron Epstein
Zosia Mamet. 
By Danny Peary
After I attended a screening of Diane Bell’s Bleeding Heart at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, the festival worker in charge of the ticket line told us that everyone leaving the theater was talking excitedly about the film, a great sign that it has commercial potential.  I think they were so pleased with the Scottish-born writer-director’s second feature because in addition to it being an exceptionally-acted character study—of not just one but two young women in turmoil–it was one of the few modern-day narratives at the festival that delivered suspense, tension, and thrills.
Zosia Mamet and Jessica Biel.
Zosia Mamet and Jessica Biel.
TFF programmer Cara Cusumano wrote this synopsis: “Reserved yoga instructor May (Jessica Biel) lives a peaceful, clean-living life with her boyfriend (Edi Gathegi).  Her carefully maintained equilibrium is thrown out of balance by the arrival of her long-lost biological sister Shiva (Zosia Mamet), a street-smart yet naïve young woman caught working the streets and trapped in an abusive relationship [with her creepy pimp boyfriend, played by Joe Anderson].  May feels compelled to rescue the hapless Shiva but as she takes steps to pull Shiva back from the edge she finds herself increasingly drawn out of her sedate world and deeper into Shiva’s chaotic one.”
Diane Bell.
Diane Bell.
Bell wrote in her Director’s Statement: “I consciously wanted to make a movie that celebrated strength in women and in sisterhood.  Where a woman doesn’t need a man to rescue her, just a sister.  Where a woman is willing to sacrifice everything to help another woman, because it’s the right thing to do.” Cast against type, the talented twosome of Biel and Mamet is reason enough to see Bleeding Heart, but I was equally drawn to the movie by Bell, who has an interesting background.  Having grown up in Japan, Australia and Germany, she earned a Master’s in Mental Philosophy from Edinburgh University and opened the first Ashtanga Yoga studio in Barcelona before optioning her first solo screenplay and settling in Los Angeles.  Her debut film, Obselidia, was a festival favorite and won several awards.  Her second film was originally called Shiva and May, but was retitled Bleeding Heart some time before it made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.  That is when I did the following interview with the engaging and animated filmmaker.
Danny Peary: When I first read that your movie is about a woman trying to connect to a younger sister who lives with a bullying, macho character I thought it sounded a little like A Streetcar Named Desire.
Diane Bell: I had never thought about that.  It definitely has that sort of swaggering masculinity and a male character who is a bit of a brute.  So, yeah, it’s not far off.
DP: The two females are May, a yoga instructor played by Jessica Biel, and Shiva, a prostitute played by Zosia Mamet.  Is it true that the inspiration for their stories came from your own history?
DB: Yes. I taught yoga for many years in social welfare centers, and a couple of women I remember very well were sex workers, prostitutes. The idea of writing something about that was in the back of my mind for quite a long time, germinating.  Then I had a baby and took off time from my normal work. But I always write, so I was writing while look after my newborn son, and I started writing the script that became Bleeding Heart just for me, and I started writing from my own life experiences about these two women coming together and going on this journey together.
DP: In a previous interview you said that you wanted to write a script in which women talk to each other because that’s so rare in films.  You could have made them just friends, so did you feel there was something even more to explore if they were sisters?
DB: That’s part of it. In fact, in the very first draft of this, they were just friends. I pitched the idea to Greg Ammon, one of the producers when I’d only written about twenty pages of the script, and he immediately said, “I want to work on this, I love this idea.” And I think it was actually Greg who said, “What if they were sisters?”  At first I said, “Oh, no, this is really about how all women are sisters.   But then I realized that their being sisters brought something extra to their relationship, especially in that they could have had the same sad lives if they hadn’t been separated as kids.  If not for the luck of circumstances, May, a yoga teacher with the perfect life, could have become a prostitute too if she had landed in the foster care system. They’re blood sisters but May was adopted as a baby and her sister Shiva was not.  Their mother kept Shiva, but then their mother died and Shiva was put into the foster care system and had a rough time, and finally ended up with a pimp boyfriend.
DP: And May and Shiva didn’t stay in touch with each other.
DB: No. May tracked her down and they’re meeting as adults for the first time. They are biological sisters, but they haven’t grown up together and they don’t know each other. One got lucky and had supportive parents and affluence and privilege, and one was in the foster-care system, and didn’t have support and didn’t have much love. Something I noticed when I taught these ladies, is that none of them came from good, supportive, loving backgrounds. I never met a single woman living that lifestyle who’d had that privilege.
DP: And that lifestyle includes enduring violence?
DB: I still am genuinely shocked by the level of violence with which these women live. We think, “It’s okay, this is life,” but it’s happening in our so-called civilized cities.
DP: So was it your intention to get across what most sex workers experience?
DB: I feel very cautious about making generalizations.  There are so many different women and so many different stories, and this is just one, this is one representation. I’m totally aware that there are many permutations of sex workers, many women who are empowered by their choice to be a sex worker and who feel that it’s a good choice for them. Shiva is a like a lot of the women I met who don’t think of themselves as victims, by the way. She’s street-smart and sassy and thinks what she’s doing is fine and “it’s what I have to do. No one enjoys what they do, but this is my life.” She feels like her boyfriend loves her and it’s their fate to be together and she can’t imagine leaving him–just as he won’t let her leave.
DP: Even though he abuses her and lets clients abuse her.
DB: A lot of those women have partners who know what they’re doing. The abuse comes both from the partner and from clients. And there’s an element of both going on with Shiva.
DP: Shiva never gets help…
DB: Yes, that’s a big difference between the two women.
DP: May obviously wants to help her sister leave her situation, and that’s the thrust of the movie. But what does she get from Shiva?
DB: She becomes a real human being. The name Shiva comes from Indian mythology.  Shiva was the god who gave yoga and meditation to man, and was also the god of destruction—and from the god Shiva came the idea in the film that you have destroy everything in order to create something new.  So there’s something positive to the destruction.  Shiva essentially destroys May’s life, but it’s kind of like she destroys everything that’s false so that May is freed in a different way.
DP: Has Shiva been destroying everybody’s life her whole life?
DB: It’s something that’s brought up by her boyfriend. There’s a little bit of time in the film where you question Shiva and her motives for befriending May.  So there is an underlying tension about that. She’s a little bit of a femme fatale, in a sense. Are there ulterior motives to what she’s doing?
DP: So as a viewer, do we have to work with the characters?
DB: As you go along you will question what their motives are. May has sort of an arrogance to her when she first approaches Shiva—“My life is perfect, and I can help you, and I can give you money and I can do this and that because everything’s amazing for me.”  But then she completely unravels and she’s the one that’s helped more, in a certain sense. I have to say that the film is a little crazy, too. There’s definitely a thriller element to it, too. Last night at the premiere screening, I was amazed because it was the first time I’d seen it with an audience like that, and people were gasping and saying, “Oh, no!” There are quite a few thrills and spills along their journey and humor–it’s more than just a character drama.
DP: Talk about casting Jessica Biel.
DB: When Jessica was first suggested to me for the part of May, I thought, “She’s this beautiful, glamorous woman and I don’t know if she can do this.”  Because I needed someone who could be believable as a yoga teacher, who wouldn’t wear make-up and would come across as real, that kind of thing.  When I talked to Jessica, the first thing she said to me was, “I read the script, I understand this character. Everybody thinks my life is perfect, and it’s not, I’m a human being, and to me what this movie is about is this woman thinks her life is perfect and from the outside it us, but she’s a human being with problems and needs to take this journey.” And the minute she said that, I said, “She’s May.” I think she brings so much to the role. She was so committed to the process. She’s a trooper.  She was in every scene of this film, working 12 hours a day every day, giving her 100%, A-game all the time.  And she was so much fun and always had time to joke with the crew and keep everyone’s spirits up, even at 4 a.m.! She was amazing and I can’t speak highly enough about her.
DP: What about casting Zosia Mamet?
DB: She was suggested to me by my casting director, and I just went, “No! I know her from Girls and I know she’s David Mamet’s daughter, and there’s no way she can do this and play this street-smart, tough girl. No way.” I was in Los Angeles casting, and Zosia taped an audition in New York and sent it to us. And I watched it just so I could say I watched it.  The second I started to watch it, I said, “She’s the one!” She just had the character down. Zosia’s this really intuitive actress who gives you so much subtext with looks and glances and twitches and things, and the result is so rich.  I felt like I was watching a movie when I was watching the audition, even though it was shot against a white wall. I was absolutely entranced, like when watching a nuanced performance in a Robert Altman film.
DP: I realized about the third or fourth year of Girls, that there’s much more to her than being a fast talker.
DB: You sort of assume the character and the actor are one. And Zosia’s nothing like that character on Girls, and certainly in this film she couldn’t be more different.  She’s really good.
DP: Did you audition Jessica and Zosia together to see if they had chemistry?
DB: No.  We just had a leap of faith.  We felt we couldn’t cast the two parts simultaneously.  We wanted to cast May first and then someone who’d be believable as her sister.  So we cast Jessica and then found our Shiva, Zosia.  The same with May and Shiva’s boyfriends played by Edi Gathegi and Joe Anderson, who had to fit with the two actresses.  It was like a jigsaw puzzle. Somehow I felt that Jessica and Zosia would be great together. The first day they met, you just knew.  They hit their roles running. I saw that they have phenomenal chemistry, which was absolutely essential because the movie is in a way about these two women falling in love with each other.  Jessica and Zosia are now great friends. They’re hilarious together.
DP: Did you want them to know more about their characters than you did?
DB: Absolutely. By the time we started shooting, they had to know more about the characters; that was essential. And that’s why I insisted on having time with them before we started shooting to rehearse, so we could go through everything and I could encourage them to ask questions.  By the time we ended that process and we actually start filming it, they understood the reason for every scene in the film and why they were saying what they were saying.  To me, that part of the process is like magic, and it’s not just the actors but it’s across the board in filmmaking, with also your DP and production designer and everyone bringing you such great ideas you never would have thought of yourself.
DP: After the rehearsals, how long did it take to shoot?
DB: Nineteen days, short, in Los Angeles.  Fortunately, we had a lot of time in pre-production to prepare and I had worked with a lot of my amazing crew on my first film, Obselidia, because there were always seven pages you have to get through each day.   Also the film has some set-ups with guns and action, so there were some elaborate things to do. But the shoot went terrifically well. I met Jessica for lunch a couple of months afterwards, and she said it was the most fun she ever had on a shoot, and that it was the least stressed shoot she’d ever been on.  I felt, “Oh, my god, I did my job fine then.” Because I was waking up at 7 in the morning, and in my head, I’m going, “Are we going to be able to do this? We’re never going to make it!” I just never showed that worry to my cast and crew during those nineteen days.
DP: So how is it having Bleeding Heart’s world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival?
DB: I live in Los Angeles, and I came to New York a few years ago because I received a Sloan grant by the Tribeca Film Institute, and thought that having a film play here would be a dream come true. And it is. It is fantastic.

TFF: A Devoted Father Rescues His Innocent Son from Prison in the Shocking Documentary Dream/Killer

Playing at Festival

TFF: A Devoted Father Rescues His Innocent Son from Prison in the Shocking Documentary Dream/Killer

(from Sag Harbor Express Online May 22, 2015)

Ryan Ferguson, when imprisoned for murder.
Ryan Ferguson, when imprisoned for murder.
By Danny Peary
Dream/Killer fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.  For now, Andrew Jenks’s fascinating and disturbing documentary about our faulty justice system is playing on the festival circuit.  Thirty-year-old Ryan Ferguson was one of the nicest people I met at the recent Tribeca Film Festival.  After I interviewed him and his father, Bill, Ryan and I ran into each other a few minutes later and we chatted about basketball and life in Florida.  He was polite, cheerful, and so easy to hang out with, that I was almost tempted to take him up on his offer to play hoops with him and his dad sometime. Our conversation was like any other I’d have with a cool, respectful, and likable thirty-year-old sports fan.  In fact, I momentarily forgot that not long before, as the movie details, Ryan spent nearly ten years in a Missouri prison on a trumped-up murder charge, and that if his amateur-detective father hadn’t devoted his life to finding evidence to help celebrated Chicago lawyer Kathleen Zellner overturn the conviction, Ryan would be in prison for another thirty years.   What I still find amazing, a month after meeting Ryan and doing the following interview with him and the remarkable Bill Ferguson, is that he seems stable rather than tortured that he was deprived of a third of his life, and that he bears no ill feelings toward the witnesses who were manipulated into lying about him in court, including his friend, Chuck Erickson.  Still in prison because of his coerced confession, Erickson said on the stand that he remembered how he and Ryan murdered Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt—but more likely it was something he dreamed.   Any anger Ryan and Bill have is reserved for then-D.A. Kevin Crane who, with help from a few deceitful police officers, framed Ryan in order to get a conviction in the high-profile case and be in line for a judgeship.  If Bill is the hero of his movie, then certainly Crane is the villain.
Ryan Ferguson and his father, Bill Ferguson.
Ryan Ferguson and his father, Bill Ferguson.
Danny Peary: You two received a standing ovation at the world premiere of Dream/Killer here at the Tribeca Film Festival.  Why do you think people were so moved by your story?
Bill Ferguson: I think the movie resonated with the audience. They could see that Ryan had been badly ill-treated and that the judicial system in Ryan’s case was exposed as being corrupt.  Ryan, I think what really resonated was our connection and fight together, that you and Mom and I and our family said that what happened to you was unacceptable and that we were going to change this and get you justice. We were going to do the right thing and fight together—that to me was the most important thing. That’s what’s so meaningful to me, and I think that’s a beautiful thing you don’t see that very often. Unfortunately a lot of family members aren’t there for one another, and I don’t know how people get through this life without their families because I certainly couldn’t.
DP: Ryan, at the screening,  how hard was it for you to watch this movie?
Ryan Ferguson: It was pretty difficult, specifically watching the trial. That was the worst week of my life.  I really didn’t think there would be a trial, because I still believed in the legal system.  I was sure they would just look at the facts and say, “This guy’s innocent, there’s no case, let him go.”  But then I end up in trial, and it’s like I was in a fishbowl, and these people are looking at me like I am some kind of creep, a shark, you know. And I’m this completely normal person sitting there and if I had lunch with anyone on the jury and it would have been fine, but they were all looking at me with this disgust. And every camera was on and people are trying to take away your life. To go back and watch that was the hardest part.  It brought up so many emotions.
DP: As a viewer, it was heartbreaking to see titles come up on the screen saying you had been in prison two years, five years…then nine years.  Bill, you lived those years one long day at a time, always giving Ryan encouragement.  But when you were alone, did you have lots of moments of despair, or were you really exactly the way you portrayed yourself to him?
BF: I think that is the case.  What energized me was that I kept finding new evidence, new police reports, new information, new research.  Then I would go to the prison and I would share that with Ryan and we would plan what was going to happen the next week, where I was going to go, who I was going to interview, what I’d discover at the crime scene.  So our new strategy kept us going.
DP: But it took almost ten years.
BF: That’s true, there’d be periods of time that not much would be going on. I’d be waiting to hear back from some people or whatever.  Still I don’t think I ever reached a low point.
RF: I don’t think we ever allowed each other to get to a very low point.  We had very frustrating days when we were very upset, and we’d start getting low, but then we stopped.   What’s really interesting–and there’s no way to convey how important this was– is that my father came to the prison every week and my mother came every week and we spent a tremendous amount of time together, so we felt like we had a fight, we had some control, and we could continue our research and find more facts and prove my innocence.  And any time we didn’t have anything to discuss about the case, we would make sure we were in a good place mentally, by talking about doing good things and growing together.
DP: If you had a terrible, terrible, day, would you tell your parents?
RF: Absolutely.   There were certain things I wouldn’t bring up, because there’s no need for them to fear for my safety unnecessarily–if something bad happens it happens. But yeah, most things I would definitely discuss because I knew that they could deal with it, and I knew that if I didn’t talk to them about it, I probably wouldn’t be able to deal with it. Thankfully I had that with my family. I don’t know how prisoners make it without their families. I’m very impressed with the guys in prison who have no family support and are still sane. Because without my mom and dad I would have given up.
DP: You say in the film that you were able to get along with even the toughest prisoners because you were a good basketball player.
RF: That’s right.  It broke down barriers.  My father and I used to play basketball and when I’d play he was there with me, in every bounce of the ball  We still play together–you should play with us!
DP: What percentage of the other prisoners that you met said they were innocent?
RF: It wasn’t a high percentage, actually.  It was less that I would have suspected. I met thousands of guys in there, and maybe a hundred said they were innocent. And a lot of guys that I became close with, especially in higher-level camps, admitted to the crimes that got them imprisoned but had difficulty dealing with the fact that they had done the crimes and how they had ruined their lives. They were always trying to better themselves. They took responsibility, they wanted to grow and get past it, and were looking forward to going out into real life and doing productive things.
DP: Ryan says he believed in the justice system before he was arrested in 2001.  Did you?
BF: Not completely.  I’m a curious person and I consider myself an amateur, armchair historian.  I’ve always been interested in the justice system and read a lot about it, and I always knew that it was imperfect.  I knew about all these cases when innocent people were found guilty.  So when this happened to Ryan, I was not surprised.  And I knew we had to take action immediately.
DP: Do you believe that Kevin Crane, the D.A. who built the false case against you, thought you were innocent and didn’t care?
RF: Exactly.
BF: Here’s what happened with Crane. Whenever the detectives arrested Ryan and Chuck for murder, they told Crane that they had their fingerprints, although they did not.  They said they had blood to match Ryan and Chuck’s, which was untrue, and they said they had the car spotted at the scene.
DP: So it was one lie after another.
BF: It was all assumptions. And they said, “We have eye witnesses.”  So to Crane it seemed like a slum-dunk, they’re definitely guilty.  But then, as it went through the process, they started making discoveries that made it harder to prosecute.  For instance, they found out that their eye witnesses, until they manipulated them, could not identify Ryan.  Also, the fingerprints didn’t match, the DNA did not match, so there was no evidence to convict them. Crane was at the point that he’d either drop the case or go forward. He had this decision to make, and he decided to go forward, and that’s when he started coercing Jerry [a convicted child molester] to lie. That’s when he started creating false police reports in order to make Chuck [who had suffered a blackout at the time of the murder] confess that he and Ryan committed the murder.
DP: Obviously Crane had experience railroading people into jail by creating false evidence and bringing in bullied or manipulated eye witnesses to lie.
RF: Just another day at the office.
BF: He’s good at what he does. He’s very good.
DP: And now he has been rewarded with a judgeship.  Could you have done anything different at the original trial besides hiring a better lawyer?
BF: Well, that would have been helpful right off the bat if we had done that.
RF: But there’s no way we could have known that he wasn’t a good lawyer.
BF: We’ve had people in similar situations contact us and we tell them that the key to your solving the case is to get hold of the discovery.  If it goes to trial, you’ve got to get the trial transcript.  Then you’ve got to take that information and dissect it, and make a timeline and timeframe, and then you put it all that together. Then you’ll see who the witnesses are and who you need to follow up with. You ask: What part of the story doesn’t make sense?   What’s missing?  If you do that, all the information will percolate to the top and you can start to solve the case.
DP: We are told that in our justice system there is “the presumption of innocence.”  But it’s interesting that the reality is: you’re innocent until you’re arrested.
BF: That’s right. I haven’t heard that before.
RF: Me, either.  It’s true.
BF: I like that. Unfortunately.
DP: And how do you prove you’re innocent once you’ve been found guilty?
RF: They don’t want to hear it.  Any witness that is for your side is not credible. Any witness for the state is incredibly credible.
DP: And they get the worst witnesses.
RF: Right, and they’re supposedly credible.  But a little old lady, she’s not credible?  She had a bad day or something like that?
DP: You had the one reliable female eye witness who would have said on the stand if asked, “That’s not him.”  But your bad lawyer was afraid to ask her if you were the person she saw.  Do you think her not being able to identify you would have been enough to get you off, looking back?
RF: I think that when the detectives chose to falsify the police reports and convinced Chuck to lie on the stand, that was when it ended. The case was over at that point, it didn’t matter what anybody else said at that point. Because they had Chuck believing he committed a crime and had him pointing a finger at me for being his accomplice—and the jury just couldn’t see beyond that.
BF: What people really don’t realize is that once you’ve been arrested and interrogated, they’re not interested in justice any more, they’re only interested in what’s going to support the prosecution in getting a conviction.  There was a person that would have been a better suspect, but since they’d already arrested Ryan and Chuck, they decided not to pursue him.  They went in the other direction.
DP: Ryan, you forgive Chuck?
RF: I do. Chuck and Jerry were lied to, threatened, and manipulated by the authorities.  When they testified against me, they had a lot to gain—literally less jail time and their own freedom at some point.   And then when they chose to come forward, because of their consciences, and admit that they lied, they knew they might be subjecting themselves to thirty years in prison for perjury. There’s nothing more powerful than that.
DP: Did you always forgive him? Or did it take a lot of time?
RF: I’m very pragmatic, so once Chuck admitted that he had lied on the stand, I forgave him, because I knew that ultimately the authorities were responsible for my going to prison–not Chuck or Jerry. They are victims as well, both of them.
DP: After your release, you ended up moving from Missouri to Florida.
RF: Yeah, it’s unfortunate that I can’t live in Columbia and I can’t live with my father.  I love that town and a lot of the people in it, but I could never be comfortable there, again.
DP: But why Florida, which also has a dreadful judicial system?
RF: I have family in Florida, so that’s why I’m there.
DP: Andrew Jenks, the director of Dream/Killer and I talked about the burden he had those times when he spoke to you while you were in prison.  He didn’t want to give you too high expectations in regard to his film.  Were you thinking, this documentary is going to get me the attention I need to get me out of jail?  Or had you been in prison for so long and suffered enough setbacks that you didn’t have high expectations on anything?
RF: The latter. You already know. You have it down perfectly. There’s that level. No highs, no lows. To survive, that’s where you have to end up being, and that’s where I was. After ten years. And so I had no expectations of it helping me get out of prison. Hopefully, now the movie will provide an opportunity to spread awareness about my case and other cases, so we can change the legal system.  It helps me and it helps others, that’s it.
DP: Bill, are you doing more work for others like you did for your son?
BF: I am and it’s amazing.  I do think I have a knack for this.  I’m working on about three cases now, and I’ve got ten other people calling me but I have to tell them that I just don’t have the time.  They think I can solve the their cases immediately, but of course it takes time.  And I actually have a real job.  One case  Ryan and I worked on it together and appeared with the gentleman in court.  And he’s free now.
DP: What is it like being at the TriBeCa Film Festival, weird or great?
RF: It has been pretty amazing to me. I love New York, I love the people, I love education, and I feel like people at TriBeCa are passionate about life and want to learn more and grow more.  I love being in this kind of environment.
BF:  It’s been part of a door opening and more and more regular people being able to see that there are problems with the justice system.

Horstmann and Harvie Bring Bodyslam Home to Play at SIFF

Playing at Festivals

Horstmann and Harvie Bring Bodyslam Home to Play at SIFF

(from Sag Harbor Express Online May 18, 2015)

By Danny Peary
Bodyslam: Revenge of the Banana fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.  But after its successful world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, it has moved to the west coast.  In fact, this Thursday at 9:30 p.m., John Paul Horstmann and Ryan Harvie’s uplifting, sweet-spirited wrestling documentary is playing at the very cool Seattle International Film Festival, with post-screening surprises promised.

Paul, The Banana (in background) and Lucas, The Second Banana.
Paul, The Banana (in background) and Lucas, The Second Banana.
I urge every Seattle movie fan–wrestling expertise is not required!–to attend the screening at the Cinema Egyptian because it is actually set in Seattle.  The directors found their story and its intriguing cast of social misfits at the Re-bar, a gay-friendly club on Howell Street, where once a month this intrepid and talented troupe of performers with outlandish monikers and wild costumes put on a raucous show that  mixes wild, over-the-top wrestling with burlesque, parody, soap opera, and even political satire–if you want to see “Senator John McCain” manhandled by Ronald McFondle, this is where to go!  In the documentary, Ronald McFondle, played by Josh Black, and Eddie Van Glam, played by Bill Bates, are the two Seattle Semi-Pro Wrestlers the directors focus on, in and out of costume.  The other main figure is Paul Richards, who wrestles as The Banana, until he is exiled for not making an effort to become part of the very tight SSP wrestling family–becoming instead an outcast among outcasts.  A woman scorned is nothing compared to a Banana out for revenge, and the spiteful Paul cleverly uses the law to shut down the SSP.  And the movie moves from the ring to the Capitol.  I saw Bodyslam at the TFF out of curiosity and it turned out to be a nice surprise, not at all what I expected and one of my favorite documentaries at the festival. Going in, I figured I’d cheer the wrestling onscreen, but I ended up sincerely rooting for the fascinating underdog characters in the movie in regard to their personal problems and for the SSP to come back from extinction.  Also, I was thankful to the directors for bringing an entirely new subculture to the screen. Who knew?  So of course, I was delighted to be able to have this conversation with Horstmann, Harvie, Black, and Bates.  The wrestlers even let me try on their championship belt!
John Paul Horstmann, Josh Black/Ronald McFondle, Bill Bates/Eddie Van Glam and Ryan Harvie.
John Paul Horstmann, Josh Black/Ronald McFondle, Bill Bates/Eddie Van Glam and Ryan Harvie.
Danny Peary: Ryan and John, in your Directors Statement, you say that for your film to work it “had to be funny as hell.”  For me, it’s the poignancy of your film that comes across more than the hilarity.  There is humor but it comes from your characters, who are funny but are just as often serious.  So I’m wondering if you still tell people first thing that this is a funny movie.
John Paul Horstmann: That Directors Statement was written a while ago, before we realized Bodyslam would turn out to be a much more serious film than we expected it be. It really surprised us that once we started cutting the scenes together, we kept finding these poignant moments and we exploded them and we explored them and found more heart than in the jokes.  So you hit on something. I always think that in humor there’s a lot of pain and consequence, and I really like the juxtaposition of the two.
Ryan Harvie: Yeah, I think this movie is funny-serious.  It’s about family, and family is always funny.
DP: Tell me about the tone of the movie.  How did you structure it so you always keep it bit humorous even when the characters are talking about sad things?
JPH: We used humor as a hook, and we placed all the interesting stuff underneath it.
RH: No one wants to be depressed for eighty minutes, so we  structured the film so that there is always something else going on when it’s too serious.  For example, when Paul is telling a sad story, you’re seeing on the screen the wrestling he watched as a child and there’s a feeling of nostalgia and happiness.  So while you’re getting some sad information and learning about all these people, you’re not depressed for the whole movie.
JPH: You get inside the person, then you understand him, then you develop great empathy, and then you feel a lot better than you would if he were just to look into the camera and deliver a long speech about how he was once abused or something else like that.
DP: Ryan, I read that the origin of your documentary is that you were told about the wrestling show in Seattle by a college friend who wrestles in it as the Second Banana.  Where were you at the time?
RH: I was in Los Angeles and my friend Lucas and I met up for drinks when he came down from Seattle for a video game conference. He started telling me about this wrestling show he was in, saying “I dress like a banana and other guys dress in zany costumes and there’s all this crazy stuff.”  And I was enthralled. It seemed amazing so I told John Paul about it and we both became obsessed with the idea.  So we went up to Seattle, where we’d never been, and started shooting, and from watching the wrestling show, meeting these guys, and seeing their dynamics behind the stage, we realized, “There’s something here, something beyond these wrestling characters.”
DP: Bill, or Eddie Van Glam, when you guys found out that Ryan and John were making a movie about you, did you say, “Why are they doing this?” Or were you saying, “This is a really good idea!”?
Bill Bates: When they first approached us, we didn’t quite know what to make of it.  They were saying, “We want to tell your story.” And we were like, “Cool, if that happens, great!  If anything we’ll have footage of our shows.”
DP: At the beginning, was the idea for you to tell your stories or just for them to see the show you put on?
Josh Black: I think at first they came to the show just to check it out.  They’d heard about our shows and what we do, and they just wanted to see it for themselves and get a feel for it and see what we were about.  The story kind of evolved after the fact.
DP: Do these shows take place at a gay club?
JB: They take place at the Re-bar, and in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was very much a gay club.  They still have gay dance nights and house nights, and they have the Dina Martina Drag Show, and a lot of theater.
DP: Are any of the performers in the drag shows also wrestlers?
JB: No, I don’t think any of the drag people have ever wrestled, but Ronald McFondle does a lot of drag shows. McFondle’s “mother” is Jackie Hell, who is a local drag queen, and she has come out to the ring with me a couple of times to be McFondle’s manager.
DP: How many SSP wrestlers are there?
BB: Right now it’s about 22 guys.
DP: Who writes the scripts for the shows?
JB: It’s not one person who writes all the scripts.  Everyone gets to tell their own little stories, and one person—which was me for a long time—must oversee those stories and make sure everything fits. It’s a three-ring circus, and you want comedy and violence and physicality, and technical wrestling.  Also you need to make sure everyone’s doing their own things, but you want to make sure you’re not doing the same things all night long.
DP: Are the storylines like soap operas, as they are in the WWE?
JB: The most ridiculous soap operas ever.
DP: Does the audience care who wins?
JB: I’ve been champion a few times but I lose a lot, too.  The audience understands we’re telling stories that last six months to a year, so match by match they’re not too much concerned with who wins, because they know we’re telling this story.  When it comes to the final match of the feud between characters, then you have them invested in the outcome.
BB: We have season finales…
JB:  We have shows once a month.  People come back, they come early and grab front-row seats and load up on beer cans.
DP: Which they used to throw at the wrestlers.
BB: A lot of people bring their friends, and once they’ve seen it, they tell their friends.  This past Saturday we were standing room only.
DP: Did you guys have a mission statement when you started out?
JB: Not really.  We started in 2003, with us wrestling for fun between girls at burlesque shows.  It all grew so organically. And then all of a sudden we’re selling out the Re-bar every month.
DP: Are you becoming better wrestlers as the years go by?
JB: Yeah. Well, when we started we didn’t have a lot of physicality, and it was really goofy and theatrical. There was a lot of rolling around and slap-fights, like The Three Stooges. We now have a ring, and we’re a lot of closer to actual wrestlers than when we started.
DP: Are you curious about how you’d do in the ring with professionals?
JB: I’ve done some indie stuff, some more traditional wrestling.  It’s not an aspiration for me to wrestle professionally for a living, but it’s a fun thing to do once in a while.
DP: I grew up watching wrestling. Did you guys?
JB: When I was a kid, wrestling was on Saturday mornings, and my grandpa and I would fight about it all the time, because he was an NWA guy who loved Ric Flair and I loved “Macho Man” Randy Savage, who was in the WWF.  He hated the pageantry and he still thought it was real and believed NWA was more raw and realer.  All that WWF stuff he couldn’t stand–he thought the wrestlers were clowns–so we argued about it all day long.
DP: Did you know wrestling was fake as a kid?
JB: My mom was at the screening the other night, and she told me that when I was 8, I used to just scream at her when she told me it was fake. I didn’t believe it for a second.  By the time I was a teen I obviously knew.
DP: What about you, Bill? You’re not a huge guy but growing up did you have aspirations to be a wrestler?
BB:  I originally did. I found out about wrestling when I was 9 years old, I saw a magazine with Papa Shango on the cover, and it was so amazing because it was like a real live-action comic book and there were these over-the-top characters, and they were real–I could touch them physically if I went to the show. So I fell in love with the theatrics of it and the storylines, and then as I got older I appreciated the athleticism and the drama that it provided. I remember being a junior in high school, and thinking, “You know, I could actually pursue this. If I go to the gym and start eating right and look into it, I could actually do it.” My family did everything in their power to make sure I didn’t do it.  My mother died when I was 22 and I had lost my family by then so I just dove straight into work because that’s all I had and I had only me to take care of.  Then when I was 25, a friend said, “Hey, there’s this wrestling show I heard about.  I’m not a wrestling fan but I know you are so do you want to go?”  “Yeah!  If there’s live wrestling in Seattle, I want to experience this!”
DP: Ryan, after you met the SSP wrestlers, did you think that 100% of these men had troubled lives before they found this home and makeshift family?
RH: Some guys did and some guys didn’t.
DP: I am not asking insultingly, but was anyone completely together?
RH: The Second Banana had a troubled history, and so did some other guys, but the way the organization is, with its open-door policy that lets everyone in, if you’re looking for a family, then you have found the place to have it.
JPH: A lot of the guys say they don’t have anybody else, except for the other wrestlers.
JB: A lot of the wrestlers are people like me. I didn’t have a horrible past, I just wanted to get out of North Dakota because it was too small for me.  All my family is back there and when I moved out here I was all by myself. A lot of us are just transplants from the Midwest who didn’t have anyone in Seattle. And we found each other.
DP: Ryan, do you see the bonding theme, the brotherhood among the wrestlers, as being the main thrust of your film?
RH: It comes across in their shows and hopefully in our footage that they love each other beyond anything else, and that I think is a really beautiful thing.
DP: The wrestlers in the movie have become a family, but do any still have strong connections to their own families?
BB: My dad is my best friend, I love my father, but there’s no way in hell I’m moving to Atlanta. He finally came to a show and he saw what I built and what I have with these guys.  My dad’s actually in the movie, in the front row at a show. He had a blast, and he “got it”—finally when he saw the show and he met everybody, he was like, “OK, I’m not going to ask you to move to Atlanta, because I get it.” Because he knows I love him with all my heart.
DP: Was he impressed by how athletic you are?
BB: Yes and no, because I had always tried my hand at various sports.  I just didn’t really keep to one sport to see how good I could be.  I was like, “I tried it, so it’s time to move on.” But I always loved wrestling, so for him to see me wrestle for the first time was very special.  He he finally got to see me live my dream.
DP: In the Directors’ Statement, you say, “Basically this film is about truth in even the most ridiculous moments.”  Please elaborate.
JPH:  As we also say in our statement, there is beauty even in the most ugly or ridiculous moments and the most banal situations can have deeply interesting subtexts.  Even though we may chuckle at our characters’ eccentricities, we can also identify with their situations.
RH: The truth always comes through. When someone totally believes in what they are doing, whether it’s jumping off a ladder or rubbing clown paint on themselves, that is who they are and it’s their true self that shines through in this film. What I found is that these characters live such interesting lives and are so compelling that you can identify with their situations and feelings even if you don’t dress up like a clown and bodyslam people. There are universal concepts that everyone experiences.

DP: The story takes a really weird turn when Paul, the original Banana, is let go and gets his revenge by alerting the authorities about minor code infractions at the wrestling shows.  The result is your show is shut down and the wrestling stops.  Josh, after testifying before a surprisingly sympathetic legislative panel, is SSP wrestling functioning in the same way as before at the Re-bar?
JB: Well, if we don’t charge for admission or require a cover charge, we are allowed to do the show.  So right now we’re doing that and basically paying out of pocket.  But I’m working with the Department of Licensing, and we’re co-authoring a bill to change the laws that need to be changed, hopefully by 2016.
DP: You have always been billed as semi-pros, so were you getting paid before the shutdown?
JB: Before we were shut down we had a cover charge.  Mainly it would be to pay the bar tab for all of us to drink after the show, and to promote the show with handbills and posters.  Also it paid for making costumes.
RH: You guys didn’t take a salary.  You put your money back into it.
JB:  None of us ever walked away with cash. We do a lot of charity stuff, too.
BB: Donations to homeless shelters.  If we have anything extra.
DP: Let’s talk about Paul, The Banana. He was a really quiet guy yet John Paul and Ryan you were able to befriend him enough so that he was honest with you in the film.
RH: We had to earn his trust.  He opened up as a villain just not so emotionally.
JPH: It took almost two years before he opened up. One day, he was on the steps of his house, where you see him in the film, and he just randomly started talking.
DP: Was most of that interview in which he spoke about mother filmed in one day?
JPH: We were interviewing him for a whole day, asking about his house, and then he came out onto the steps, and we turned the camera around.
RH: He’d been rebuilding the house by himself, and we said, “Just show us what you’ve been doing,” and then he started talking about how his mother died on the front porch that he was repairing. It was like a valve opened up and we were very happy he felt comfortable and honest with us.
DP: When watching the movie, Josh, were you hearing Paul’s story for the first time?
JB: Yeah.  I had no idea about his past and his mother and all that. He really never said anything much to us except for hello and yes and no, and often he just nodded his head. He never opened up to us.  He tried to hang out with us but he’d come to the bar and stand awkwardly to the side. We tried to pull conversation out of him, but he just never opened up with us. I think it’s because he didn’t like that we drink and whatever. So when trying to get him to open up to us when we were all at a bar, we had no idea that drinking bothered him so much. And that was probably a big barrier to him getting closer to us.
BB: It really felt like he was always passing judgment on us.
JB: I’m the type who if I’m busting your balls is saying, “I like you.” But I think he took a lot of the in-jest, busting balls things I said as Josh being an asshole.
BB: I wasn’t the nicest guy back in the day, either.
DP: Ryan, if the wrestlers admit that they blew it with this guy, what do you think Paul’s reaction would be if they asked him to return to the show?
RH: I actually don’t know what Paul would say. I think he would love to wrestle again, but the thing I’ve learned about wrestling is that it’s about trust, and when that trust is broken, it’s hard to rebuild that back.  He would have to rebuild that trust.
BB: Wrestling is about trusting your opponent to protect you and about protecting each other.  And without that trust, you don’t know if someone is going to get hurt…
DP: Is the anger you have toward Paul too much ever to overcome?
JB:  I haven’t seen him since he walked out of that last show, but on a personal level I’d love to shake his hand and bury the hatchet. I don’t want to hold hate and grudges. As far as being back in the show, what stands in the way is the trust issue and not knowing if someone could be hurt.  I don’t think I could ever let him back in to perform, but I’d love to be OK with him.
BB: If he ever wanted to come to a show– like Josh, I’d love to just bury the hatchet, shake hands, and apologize for anything I ever said to him.
DP: Would you want an apology from him, too?
BB: Yeah, I think he definitely owes us one, too.
DP: If you watch westerns or war movies, it’s usually about an outsider coming in and eventually learning how to conform to the group. The rare exception is when the group conforms to the guy. Looking back, did you give Paul what he needed, or was he a hopeless case?
JB: We gave him a million opportunities to talk to us, he just doesn’t talk. Communication is key in any relationship but there was no communication with him. He thought I was bullshitting about taking the banana suit off him.  I loved what he was doing as a heel, and with his wrestling, but it just didn’t work with that Banana suit on.  If we just gave him cheap shades, a vest, and the blazer, he could have acted the way he wanted to as the Banana and he would have been an awesome heel.  But the character of the Banana wasn’t supposed to be a heel.  Paul wouldn’t listen to us about this, so we had to tell him to leave.
RH: For me, this movie is all about family, and a guy who’s looking for a family, Paul, who finds a family and doesn’t know what to do once he has that family.
DP: So he blows his opportunity and loses his family.  Poor guy.