Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Two directors, one crazy film series

O'Brien and Zwigoff talk about their differing styles

Express Staff Writer

Directors John O'Brien (pictured) and Terry Zwigoff set up residency in the valley for a week in which they'll dissect the art of filmmaking. Photo by Jack Rowell

When the Sun Valley Center for the Arts' "Outside the Loop" film series opens Thursday, it will bring together two very different independent film directors.

Vermont native John O'Brien is the guy who shoots at home, à la Woody Allen. He works on less-than-stellar editing equipment, with few funds, and without a script, letting his actors, many of them amateurs, improvise.

Terry Zwigoff was born in Wisconsin and started his career in 1978 after discovering a rare blues recording by a string blues musician, Howard Armstrong. The documentary titled "Louie Bluie" was released in 1986. Critic Roger Ebert is a huge fan of the film, as were other notable critics. After his second award-winning documentary, "Crumb," Zwigoff caught the attention of Hollywood and is now based in San Francisco.

O'Brien is working on a new environmental film featuring teenagers, "The Green Movie," while Zwigoff just completed the comedy "Art School Confidential."

O'Brien is like his Vermont in that he's down to earth, humble, liberal and a bit edgy. His sunny films belie the cynical eye behind them. Cuddly and eccentric though they may seem, his characters are honest, curmudgeonly and flawed. They come to this on their own since he doesn't script. He just sets up scenes.

"Documentarians have a far better idea of what their movie is about than I do," he laughed. "'The Green Movie' is going to be, if possible, even more freewheeling than my other movies."

What's it about?

"The future and everything. It's a comedy about the environment but not as something that can be compartmentalized. Its tentacles are in everything, or vice versa. It's a meta-cinema thing, breaking the fourth wall, interviews, students, experts, dramatic scenes of student life, funny set-up scenes with great gag payoffs."

OK... but—

"There is a great freedom to experiment, and this is very accessible to teenagers who can process any amount of audio and visual stimulus."

How, one wonders, did Zwigoff and O'Brien end up on the same bill here in Sun Valley? Mostly it's due to Bex Wilkinson, who knows them both. Her film consulting business, Frida Productions, is one of the sponsors for the "Outside the Loop" series. As well, she's been working on implementing a film curriculum at The Community School for the past three years with Toni Whittington. She is also on the board of the Spiritual Film Festival.

"Yeah, she was the elbow," O'Brien said. "I did meet him once in L.A., though. (But) there is a lot more zeros after making certain movies. It'll be interesting to talk to Terry. He has a nice balance of working in and around Hollywood and staying independent. I don't know if I'd thrive in Hollywood. I've always worked for myself. I could use a producer or two but not a big boss who might say, 'Use Wilford Brimley,' rather than Fred Tuttle."

A retired dairy farmer and neighbor of O'Brien, Tuttle played himself in O'Brien's first film, "Man With A Plan." Afterwards he became a kind of regional hero, going so far as to run for Senate, as his "character" had done in the movie.

"It's that kind of humanity I want to keep in my films. Hollywood stars bring so much baggage. Unions, for example, weren't created to protect (Screen Actors Guild) actors on an independent movie," O'Brien said with a laugh.

"I tend to explore formal boundaries—what's fiction and what's reality. I have to go slowly and stay out of Hollywood. It might take me a year. Even the more films I make I still want to retain a certain messiness, a certain vibrancy that you don't see later on with (formerly independent) directors. Of course, I want my movies to look good, but I don't want to lose that, and the way I make movies they always will be that way."

The Sun Valley Center asked each of the directors for eight suggestions of films other than their own to screen. Eventually, "American Movie" was chosen from O'Brien's list, and from Zwigoff's, "City of Ghosts," directed by actor Matt Dillon.

Both movies, in theme and the business of getting them made, are in keeping with the forums the directors will facilitate on the business of independent filmmaking.

In addition, they are conducting residency activities at both The Community School and the Wood River High School. Zwigoff will screen "Ghost World" at the Sun Valley private school and discuss filmmaking and editing for the school's film class.

O'Brien will screen "Man With a Plan" at the WRHS and discuss his newest film with media and film students.

"I'm bringing a little trailer of 'The Green Movie.' I'll have something thought provoking and dialogue worthy," he said.

Meanwhile, after "Louie Bluie," Zwigoff subsequently co-wrote two screenplays with his friend, underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, with whom he'd played in a 1920s style music band, Cheap Suit Serenaders in which Zwigoff played cello. In Crumb's cartoons Zwigoff looks like a downtrodden professor of musicology. Wilkinson fondly calls him more "Woody Allen than Woody Allen."

Zwigoff was actually asked to direct a documentary on Allen several years ago.

"I hung out with him but ended up not doing it. No matter how outrageous, I have to be attracted to the material."

Though neither of the Crumb screenplays were ever made, Zwigoff did turn his lens onto his friend. The resulting documentary "Crumb" won best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994 and was the winner of several important critics' awards.

Refusing to go Hollywood, Zwigoff then came up with cult favorite "Ghost World" from an adaptation of cartoonist Daniel Clowes's graphic novel. A.O. Scott of the New York Times wrote in a review that it's "surely the best depiction of teenage eccentricity since 'Rushmore."

How does such eccentric taste find material one wonders?

"To me it's always a compromise artistically—what works for you but it also has to be seen," he said. "If no one sees the film you may as well show it in your living room."

His next foray into the fringes of Hollywood was "Bad Santa," which starred Billy Bob Thornton. Again, even A.O. Scott, who clearly likes Zwigoff's work, called it an "achingly funny and corrupt dark comedy."

In a way, Zwigoff is building his own regular collaborators, while keeping second-guessers at bay.

"People try to label me 'comic book director.' But it was coincidental that I was friends with Robert Crumb and Daniel Clowes. Lianne Halfon, the producer on 'Ghost World' I wanted to work with again. I really love that film. 'Bad Santa,' on some level was like channeling W.C. Fields. I was highly influenced by watching those old films."

His new film, scheduled to be released early this year, is "Art School Confidential," also written with Clowes and co-produced by Halfon. It takes a satirical look at the cult of celebrity in the art world. It features Max Minghella (the director Anthony Minghella's son), newcomer Sophia Myles, John Malkovich (a co-producer through his company Mr. Mudd) and the Oscar-winning actors Jim Broadbent and Anjelica Huston.

For more information on the series, call the Center at 726-9491.


"Outside the Loop" film schedule


When: Thursday, Jan 12, 7 p.m.

What: Documentaries "Louie Bluie," (not rated) and "Crumb" (rated R).

Post-film discussion with director Terry Zwigoff.

Where: Magic Lantern, Ketchum. Cost: $25


When: Friday, Jan. 13, 7 p.m.

What: "Man with a Plan" (rated PG).

Post-film discussion with director John O'Brien.

Where: The Mint, Hailey. Cost: $7.50


When: Saturday, Jan 14.

What: At noon, "American Movie," introduction by John O'Brien. At 2:30 p.m., "City of Ghosts," introduction by Terry Zwigoff. Both films are rated R.

Where: Magic Lantern, Ketchum.


What: "Bad Santa" (rated R) 7 p.m., introduction by Terry Zwigoff.

Where: The Mint, Hailey. Cost: $7.50


When: Sunday, Jan 15.

What: "Ghost World," noon, introduction by Terry Zwigoff (rated R). "Nosey Parker" 2 p.m., introduction by John O'Brien (rated PG).

Venue: Magic Lantern, Ketchum. Cost: $7.50


Directors' Schedule

· Thursday, Jan. 12—Opening night party with Terry Zwigoff and John O'Brien.

From 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, in Ketchum. Free


· Saturday, Jan. 14—"Personal Expression in the Age of Market Driven Film" A Directors Forum with Terry Zwigoff with Robert Hoffman and John O'Brien, hosted by Steve Bynum.

From 1:45 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., Magic Lantern Theatre, Ketchum. Free.


· Sunday, Jan. 15—"Politics and American Film." A Directors' Forum with Terry Zwigoff and John O'Brien, hosted by Steve Bynum.

At 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Sun Valley Center for the Arts, Ketchum. Free.

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