By Jonathan Marlow
A few years ago, Film Threat founder Chris Gore published a resourceful little tome entitled the Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide. Hidden in its pages was a bit of a bombshell. The Cinequest Film Festival was named one of the ten best film festivals in the world. Considered a lark at the time (particular when comparing the event to Toronto, Sundance and so forth), Cinequest has always noted this "accomplishment" with a straight face. Regardless, the festival launches its fifteenth year in and around San Jose with a particularly adventurous slate, taking more chances that the better-known nine would ever attempt.
As you thumb through the pages of its program, you'll notice a significant number of films by first-timers. Where the larger festivals tend to largely champion established filmmakers, Cinequest has always sided with the mavericks. To that end, in an evening to honor actor Jon Polito, the festival opted to premiere an independently produced feature rather than merely present a program of clips from his earlier films. That film, Charlie the Ox, was shot for a modest amount of money, with a sizeable cast and an unreasonable number of locations. Former RES Magazine editor Scott Smith used his considerable experience in the film business to realize the dream of aspiring filmmakers everywhere. He marshalled his script from page to screen, presenting it this weekend to a sold out audience at the San Jose Repertory Theatre.
Tell me a little about this movie you made...
Well, we made...
That's right. I guess that I was involved in it.
It's a safecracker movie. It really was born out of my frustration to get films made. I wanted to make a movie that talked about how desperate it can seem when you're getting a little older and still dreaming of hitting that big jackpot. So when I wrote Charlie the Ox, I wrote it with this idea in mind. I wanted to create a fable about what it's like to want something so badly and spend your whole life going after it, not getting the respect from your family and friends for that pursuit. And ultimately seeing it through and having it pay off in whatever small means that might be.
How long did it take for you to write the script?
Well, I thought about the script for a long time. I kind of mulled it over in my mind for a six-month period and would work out little scenes in the bathroom and things like that. When I actually sat down to write it, it came very quickly. I say I wrote it in eight days. I kind of hate to do it to other filmmakers out there because it puts a lot of pressure on people to write their screenplays very quickly. It came out quickly on the page, but it was incubating for an awful long time in my mind.
Your intention all along was to take genre conventions and find a way to turn them inside out?
Yeah, my intention was to create something that was smart and had thematic resonance for people, but was sugarcoated in a pill that they could swallow. The best way to do that is to create a very friendly genre film. Something that everybody's kind of comfortable with and has an easy time watching and then the messaging slips in a somewhat subversive way.
Did winning an award at Sundance make it easier to put the financing together?
I remember winning the award at Sundance in 2002 [for the short film Carny Tales] thinking, "Well, this is just going to push me over the edge," because I was already like a lemming. I was on the top of the cliff, so I was willing to jump.
So winning encouraged you?
Yeah, they encouraged me with the award. I also knew that the Sundance thing would give me a little bit of street cred. Get me a little attention in Hollywood circles if I wanted to shop a script around and try to get known actors to attach themselves to it . It did open doors. When we gave the script to Jon Polito, I think we established some kind of credibility and...
...and he liked the script.
And he liked the script, which made all the difference in the world. If you remember, we were in a car and he called us on the phone and, in real-time, he read the script in about 90 minutes. He called us and said, "I enjoyed the writing very much. I think the part is well constructed so I'm going to call my agent and tell him to make it happen." Having a star pull the project through from that side helps because you can't really push through all the agents and all the managers. You need to have the actors take an interest and want to do it from their own passion.
Polito is an example of a perfectly cast part, given his role in the film and what he does with it.
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