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Calling Card

by Sonny Bunch | May 7, 2008
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“I’ll go ahead and be a cliché here as a libertarian and quote Ayn Rand,” Chandler Tuttle warned midway through our first interview, “‘Art is a selective recreation of reality reflecting the artist’s metaphysical value judgments.’” In every subsequent conversation I’d have with the aspiring filmmaker, that passage from The Romantic Manifesto popped up. The repetition wasn’t the crutch of a lazy mind, nor was it a function of an interview subject showing discipline and staying on message. Rather, that quote represents a concrete belief – an idea that drives him to create a final product he considers true to himself and his conscience.

The topic of discussion when the Rand quote dropped was Tuttle’s current project, an adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut short story, “Harrison Bergeron.” Sitting at a dinner table in the Moving Picture Institute’s West Hollywood office, Tuttle was explaining how the project came to be and why MPI was interested in bringing his vision to the screen.

If I can indulge in a cliché myself for a moment, like most great stories, this one started with a girl. “I was dating a girl, and she was really into Kurt Vonnegut … so I went out and, thinking myself clever, got a selection of short stories.” Luckily for him, the collection he picked up was Welcome to Monkey House, and the second story was a four-page, 2,300-word doozy by the name of “Harrison Bergeron.”

For the uninitiated, “Harrison Bergeron” is set in a frightening world of mediocrity and uniformity which Vonnegut describes without wasting a word in the opening paragraph:

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

The exception to that equality is the story’s namesake, Harrison Bergeron. An Adonis of a man, Bergeron is too brilliant to be cowed by the state, and too dangerous to be allowed to live. The short story, a stark condemnation of the totalitarian implications of the Left’s drive for social equality, has long been a favorite of the Right; National Review reprinted it in 1965, and John J. Miller, a writer for the magazine, recently recommended it in a piece on conservative science fiction.

For similar reasons, it struck a chord with the powers that be at MPI, a fledgling production and distribution company that is spending more than $100,000 – a rounding error for a big Hollywood studio, but a significant portion of MPI’s annual budget, which totals less than $2 million – to film Tuttle’s 25-minute adaptation.

* * * * *

The Moving Picture Institute was launched in 2005 by Thor Halvorssen. A native of Venezuela, Halvorssen belongs to the country’s upper crust; his secondary education took place at premier European boarding schools, and he holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Blindingly smart – he graduated from Penn with two majors, a minor, and a master’s degree in just four years – Halvorssen is also a tireless worker. After a stint as director of the Collegiate Network, a subsidiary of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute that sponsors right-leaning newspapers and magazines at colleges across the country, Halvorssen created the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. A nonprofit dedicated to exposing the hypocrisy of college campuses – namely their suppression of speech they disapprove of in the name of political correctness – FIRE remains the most important organization dedicated to freedom of speech this side of the ACLU. Having proven himself in the nonprofit arena, Halvorssen picked up part-time consulting work. With the exorbitant fees he commanded, he was able to work part time and shuttle back and forth between New York City and Hollywood, all the while planning his next big project: the Moving Picture Institute.

“MPI was born out of the concept that maybe what we need is to create a community of people [in the film industry] and encourage them,” Halvorssen explains. “Finding and acculturating and promoting individuals who have a certain commitment to ideals of what I view as the ideals of American freedom. The concept that one should affirm life…That life is a good thing…Great stories are what I’m interested in. Great stories.”

That MPI prizes great stories is obvious when perusing the group’s roster of projects. Consider The Singing Revolution, a documentary about the Estonian fight against Soviet domination as the Cold War was drawing to a close – an evocative portrait of the power a shared culture can have in uniting a country against its oppressors. The Singing Revolution opened in NYC to a rave review from the New York Times, which compared the film to Casablanca, and its engagement was extended due to overwhelming audience demand.

Freedom’s Fury is another film MPI was involved with; it concerns the bloody 1956 clash between the Hungarian and Soviet water polo squads, and the inspiration that the match provided to Hungarian citizens as Russian tanks were rolling through the streets of Budapest, brutally crushing a revolt. Freedom’s Fury topped the Hungarian box office for six weeks in 2006 – no small feat in a country whose box office is dominated by the likes of Spider-Man, the Harry Potter series, and other big franchises that top sales in the United States.

Closer to home is Indoctrinate U, a documentary directed by Evan Coyne Maloney on the evils of political correctness and anti-American sentiment in the U.S.’s institutions of higher learning. Currently on a tour of American campuses, the film stopped off at Duke University to great reception – no surprise considering the recent imbroglio surrounding the school’s embattled lacrosse team. “It was so energizing,” Halvorssen said. “It was outstanding, it was great. The students stayed for two hours for question and answer. Usually it’s like 15, 20 minutes, then people walk out. They sat through the entire credits, and then they clapped again at the end of the credits!”

College students aren’t the only ones in the thrall of Indoctrinate U; Hollywood heavyweight Jon Voight has taken a shine to the flick as well. “Enjoy is not the word,” Voight raved when I asked him about documentary. “They seem to have forgotten 9/11 pretty quickly,” Voight said of the college students and administrators in the film who fight tooth and nail to get ROTC units kicked off campus. “America has faced many criticisms over the past five years, and this pains me deeply. Everyone seems to forget that we are not conquerors of nations, we are liberators.” As great as the film is, Voight, Halvorssen, and the multitudes of students who dig its take on the perils of the American education might never have seen it without the efforts of Chandler Tuttle.

After graduating from New York University’s film school, Tuttle took a job at Focus Features – the small studio responsible for Brokeback Mountain, Lost in Translation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and other indie-minded fare – and was soon introduced to Halvorssen. While the pair discussed how to get Tuttle’s adaptation of “Harrison Bergeron” off the ground, an opportunity for Tuttle to prove his mettle popped up. The raw footage for Indoctrinate U was good, but as assembled, the film had hit a roadblock. “What I said to him is that the reason you’re having difficulty getting feedback and making progress here is because it really hasn’t gotten a critical mass,” Tuttle told me he explained to Maloney, Halvorssen, and the film’s other producers. “What you’re showing people isn’t really a movie.” So Tuttle took a week’s vacation, “went back to the source, and just really rebuilt the film from the ground up. … They gave me carte blanche.” When Tuttle emerged from his editing bay, he brought with him something that actually looked like a movie – a product that could be tinkered with and perfected before it was released. Indoctrinate U premiered before a packed house at the Kennedy Center as the centerpiece of the American Film Renaissance film festival, and the audience reaction was as ecstatic there as it was at Duke.

* * * * *

Shortly after completing his work on Indoctrinate U, Tuttle was made an MPI fellow, allowing him to quit his job at Focus Features and concentrate full time on both his film and various odd jobs for MPI. Tuttle’s background in the world of graphic design – before going to film school, he ran a small business with his brother and an artist by the name of Tony Tharae – as well as the world of film made him especially valuable to MPI. In addition to his work on Indoctrinate U, Tuttle aided in the creation of Free Market Cure (a series of short films created as a response to Michael Moore’s Sicko), and helped design one-sheets – the full-sized movie posters that hang in theaters and outside of screenings – for films under the MPI label. As far as talent incubation goes, Tuttle is arguably MPI’s most important asset.

But he’s not the only one. MPI has set up a number of budding talents with internships, grants, and other assistance in order to create an entire network of young filmmakers with a vision similar to its own. Russel Taylor is one such talent, working on a film with David Zucker through an internship with MPI. Zucker is the father of the modern spoof flick; he wrote, produced, and directed Airplane! and The Naked Gun. Taylor says it was a great experience. “Essentially, my responsibility was to type the script as they were talking, and they started respecting my own ability to write as well. It kind of became almost like a partnership between everyone – putting out jokes, putting out story ideas.”

Jared Lapidus is another young talent MPI is cultivating. Also granted a fellowship, Lapidus used his time and funding to create The Libel Tourist, a short movie based on the plight of Rachel Ehrenfeld. “She’s basically this woman who wrote a book about the Saudis financing terror, and they took her to court in England because it’s easier to win libel cases over there,” Lapidus said. His film has received a fair amount of attention, enough that people are now sending checks to MPI solely to support his future projects.

But Harrison Bergeron is by far MPI’s most ambitious project to date. Sporting a six-figure price tag, the film is easily the priciest production in the outfit’s history, though in the grand scheme of things, it’s still a miniscule amount of money. (The average studio feature runs about $65 million these days.) To a layman like myself, an expenditure this large is something of a head-scratcher. A short film, after all, will be seen by next to no one in the general public. Outside of the film festival circuit, shorts are basically never seen. Theaters don’t show them, nor do television networks.

Neither Tuttle nor Halvorssen dispute that notion, but they argue that widespread exposure isn’t really the point. For Tuttle and everyone else involved, the idea is to create this film as something of a showcase, a business card to send industry moguls as a demonstration of the skills he and his crew bring to the table. “This film is unique among shorts,” Tuttle said, “in that it was a genuine, legitimate showcase for pretty much everyone involved. I mean, it showcases the music, the production design, the dancing, the cinematography, the acting, and then, even on top of all that, it’s such a logistically challenging film to put together that it’s a showcase even for the people on the producing side … the managerial and project managing people that make it all happen.”

In that sense, then, this short film is about more than just shining a spotlight on MPI’s brightest young star. It serves to shine a spotlight on every MPI talent involved in the production. Halvorssen is serving as producer; if he can pull off the logistical nightmare of shooting a low-budget short on a tight schedule, he shows executives all over town what might be possible with some actual money at his disposal. Taylor worked on the film in the role of assistant director, which, as Tuttle explained to me, was no small task. “We were short staffed and we knew that going into it,” he told me when I asked him what it was like dealing with dozens of extras for the first time in his career. “Typically there is a position of assistant director, and then there is a second assistant director, and then there’s what’s called second second assistant director … point being, the larger the movie is, and the more extras you have, the more assistant directors you add. And we couldn’t do that, so we only had one.” Taylor was that one, and he did the job of four men about as well as could be expected.

From my vantage point, Taylor did an impressive job of wrangling extras. Controlling dozens of wannabe movie stars all mugging for the camera and unintentionally disrupting the shoot is no easy task. Especially when they’re asked to generate some murmuring crowd noise and decide to start dropping F bombs. Taylor put a stop to that rather quickly, but he did more than herd cats.

“Russel was fantastic,” Chandler told me after the shoot. “Everyone had to wear multiple hats and Russel was able to not only fulfill his duties as assistant director, but also to pitch in on a number of producing capacities, essentially production management type stuff that typically he wouldn’t have to do….So he was a huge asset to the production to be sure.” And Tuttle’s old business partner Tony Tharae came on board to help create the costumes and props, a key element of the film that will receive a great deal of scrutiny from higher-ups looking for a good prop man.

The film will surely be a spotlight for its acting talent as well. James Cosmo, a hulking Scot you may remember from his father-figure roles in Braveheart, Trainspotting, and Highlander, was on set one of the days I was there. Scoping things out and getting acquainted with some of the cast members, Cosmo wasn’t scheduled to shoot until several weekends later. He showed up out of simple enthusiasm for the project. “This sort of work is very fulfilling. The level of commitment from everyone, from the cast all the way through, is very heartening,” he said, adding that on his end “there’s a wish to make something of value – something of worth. Intellectually it’s a bit diminishing to work on nothing but big-budget type films all the time. It’s important to work on something worthwhile.” When I asked the veteran actor what attracted him to the picture in the first place, he gave most of the credit to Tuttle and his script.

Not every actor on the set had quite as much experience. An unknown young man by the name of Armie Hammer took on the role of Harrison Bergeron. “I came across the script by accident,” he said, but was sold on the project before he even read the first page. “I read the story in 10th grade, and I remember the day I read it, and it was just the most visceral story, and it was so, so alive, that story, that when I read it, it just stuck with me. So when I saw this script come by, my agent’s reaction was, ‘We don’t really know what the deal with this is, but this script came.’ And my response was, ‘I don’t care who’s doing this, if they’re shooting in Mexico for $100, I don’t care. I’m doing this project.’”

Hammer blew away both the director and producer in his audition. “He’s got it all,” Tuttle says. “He’s extremely talented from a performance standpoint, he’s a great actor, and he’s also got the looks and all that to be a movie star. But it’s the intangible quality that he has that really seals the deal. … That added quality that’s so critical is something that you see in someone like [Marlon] Brando.” It’s probably a little early to compare him to the Godfather, but Hammer is soon to be identified with another iconic figure: Variety and other sources report that he has been cast as Batman in a Justice League adaptation currently embroiled in a long development process at Warner Brothers.

* * * * *

Principal photography is done. So is the music, composed by Lee Brooks, performed by the Kronos String Quartet – who’ve provided scores for the Darren Aronofsky films Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, among others – and recorded at the famed Skywalker Ranch in San Francisco. Editing continues, and there might be a name change. Wearing his producer hat, Halvorssen explained that “Harrison Bergeron” is tough to spell and not terribly evocative of what the movie is about; he and his colleagues are kicking around something like “2081” for the title – giving the uninitiated some notion that the film is set in a dystopian future while not turning off fans of the original property. Preserving a property’s name shouldn’t be a producer’s first goal, claims Halvorssen: You think “people are not going to go to [the new Batman film] because it’s called The Dark Knight? No. They’re not going to not go to Batman. We’re going to get the Vonnegut fans anyway.”

Of course, worries about the title could prove meaningless if the filmmakers can’t find an outlet for it to be seen – a persistent difficulty for anyone hawking a short film. As the movie nears completion, the question inevitably arises: Where does it go from here?

Tuttle insists that it’s not important to get hung up on how many people see the movie. “This is a showpiece” for studio executives, he told me. “It’s all well and good that we’ve made this really cool film that reflects my worldview, and I think has great themes, and we’re going to do everything we can to get people out there and get people to see it. But it’s a short film. Only so many people are going to see it.”

Halvorssen is a little more optimistic. In his view, the movie is more than just an example of what Tuttle and his cohorts can accomplish. “We were hoping that the film could be sent to Cannes,” he told me, “but unfortunately the Cannes Film Festival changed its rules and now only films 15 minutes or less qualify for their short film competition.…Venice could be great; Toronto has a problem….All short films that can be submitted must be Canadian films. So it looks like it’s going to be Sundance.” That means a submission date of 2009, but Halvorssen doesn’t mind. “As people keep learning about this industry,” he pointed out, “things take time.”

Time, and a lot of luck. Last year, 5,107 short films were submitted to the Sundance Film Festival. Only 83 were selected to screen – fewer than 2 percent. The payoffs are great, however. Consider the story of Wes Anderson. His debut feature, Bottle Rocket, began its life as a Sundance short; without that short, and the subsequent feature it inspired, Anderson might not have gone on to direct Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, or any of the other films for which he’s become so well known.

In the end, Tuttle and Halvorssen are pursuing a time-honored, but often difficult, path for aspiring Hollywood hands. Successful short films put filmmakers’ names in circulation – and, with the right combination of luck and self-promotion, get their work seen by the right people. As Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian’s film critic explained on his blog, “short films get shown in their hundreds and thousands at festivals” and “serve as that most yearned-for of things, a ‘calling card’ for their entry into the profession. But despite the fact that they are often brilliant, they don’t show up on the culture radar.”

In the end, Harrison Bergeron will likely share the same fate. Short of a concerted effort on your part to seek out the film when it hits the festival circuit some time next year, you’ll never see it. This isn’t your fault, or the fault of its creators. It’s simply the way it is. But if you start seeing names like Chandler Tuttle, Russel Taylor, or Tony Tharae popping up when the credits roll at your local multiplex, remember where they got their first break.

–Sonny Bunch is an assistant editor at The Weekly Standard and a Doublethink Online blogger.

(This piece appears in the Spring 2008 issue of Doublethink. Still from Harrison Bergeron courtesy the Moving Picture Institute.)

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