Friday, June 17, 2005

The Talent Given Us: Wagners Take Manhattan

Imagine if you will: You are a 40-something independent filmmaker striving to break out with your first feature film. You have $30,000 on hand, you have a crew of two (including yourself) and you have a 12-year-old script resurrected pretty much by accident. You have one shot to make it work. And you compound the pressure by casting your immediate family. In a road movie. For a month.

Are you deranged? No—you are Andrew Wagner.


A man, a van, a cabal: filmmaker Andrew Wagner (Photo: Backstage)

"Looking back on it, I know exactly how you feel," said Wagner, the do-it-yourself auteur behind the brilliant new comedy The Talent Given Us, opening today at the Angelika Film Center. "Those same feelings come up for me. But at the time, I was just so driven to make the film and just sort of blast open the door to my directing career, that it didn't take long for me to find that degree of separation one would need to direct his family and be a storyteller."

In Wagner's case, storytelling meant walking the lines between everything from fact and fiction to truth and consequences to Mom and Dad. The film chronicles his parents Judy and Allen, who realize after running into their son's former high school teachers on the Upper West Side that they have no idea where Andrew is or what he is doing. They know he is OK from frequent contact with their daughters Emily and Maggie, who live near him in Los Angeles. But no sooner do the sisters come to visit their parents in New York than Judy wildly insists on a detour away from the airport—3,000 miles away, in fact, all the way to Andrew's door in L.A.

In the end, Wagner rejoices in blurring those aforementioned lines—elevating what could have been an exploitive gimmick to the level of truly sublime filmmaking. Viewers are invited to parse the Wagners' authenticity in matters as grave as divorce, mortality and sexuality, the latter of which reflects with unflinching candor the ways aging can frustrate an otherwise happily married couple.

"The circumstance is completely fictional, but the inner life of the story is drawn very much from emotional and even historical truth," Wagner told The Reeler. He explained that he had sought characteristics that had "grown dormant," adding that persuading his family to work on the film was easy compared to the protracted period of self-discovery that followed.

But here is the thing: The movie is funny. Wagner's mother Judy kvetches and kvells in garrulous, impulsive bursts. His sisters Emily and Maggie prattle on with the benign narcissism of New York transplants who have achieved upward mobility in their L.A. acting careers. His cantankerous father Allen indulges all of them despite struggling with an unknown ailment that impedes his speech.

Where he could have capitalized on cartoonish extremes or stereotypes, Wagner instead divined his family members' instincts. The result is dialogue that snaps and overlaps naturally—and often hysterically. Much of the fun of viewing The Talent Given Us is the rush of not knowing where the family's natural tumult overrides Wagner's narrative.

"Andy gave us a lot of leeway," said Judy Wagner. "The script said certain things, but he would let us explore. So if I felt I was getting very involved, then I went further than the script in some places."

The idea came to Wagner in 1991, when he wrote part of a script about a mother who falls out of contact with her son. He was winding down his graduate work at the American Film Institute in L.A., where he had moved in 1987 to work on a screenplay for United Artists and his uncle, director Mark Rydell. The mother/son story sat in a drawer for more than a decade before Judy Wagner called to tell him that she had happened upon his old Collegiate High School coaches one day and couldn't tell them what Wagner was up to in California.

Once he heard about it, Wagner latched onto the coincidence and reworked the earlier story to a piece including his family, friends and even the coaches.

"Andy said, 'This is a great opportunity for you. We'll all be together as a family,'" said Judy Wagner. "Now, this is something that I liked, and that appealed to me. I'd finally be with my children, who have lived in California for a gazillion years. We'd all be together. That was one of the reasons I decided to make the film. I also wanted to help Andy, because I knew he had to make the film."


Allen Wagner joins wife Judy and daughter Emily in the age-old road-trip ritual of flat-tire changing (Photo: Daddy W Productions)

Wagner recruited actress Judy Dixon and actor/director Billy Wirth to round out his cast, emptied his wife's and his savings account and fashioned a completely independent production with himself shooting and directing. His only other crew member was Tommy Hines, who crouched in the Wagners' minivan recording sound. The team left New York in June 2003.

The 37-day shoot was a typically grueling indie endeavor. Wagner followed long days of driving with late-night set-ups in hotel rooms and poolsides. The van's interior cooked with the air conditioning shut off and the windows rolled up to achieve quiet. He filmed ceaselessly, collecting over 100 hours of footage that Wagner and editor Terri Breed spent nine months masterfully whittling down to 97 minutes. He gathered takes upon takes of scenes of flubbed lines and improvisations.

"My mother definitely had her nose in the script, memorizing her lines," Wagner said. "My father, I just wanted him to get close. I didn't want him to be self-conscious."

But to the extent Allen Wagner and his entire family were actually playing themselves, a certain level of self-consciousness could never be dodged. The most stunning example arrives early in the film, just before the Wagners leave New York for California. "Allen, I want you to fuck me," Judy says to her sleeping husband, who refused to shoot the scene and had to be filmed surreptitiously for Wagner to get the coverage.

Wagner says his father warmed a bit each day to the subject matter as the shoot progressed. "He said, 'You must be crazy to think that I'm going to shoot scenes of my bedroom life with your mother,'" Wagner explained. "And it's nothing he would ever say, but I think there is something moving to him to watch an honest and naked portrayal of his afflictions and his struggles and his journey at this point of his life, in service of a story about two older people reinventing themselves. It's essential to make change at all costs, at any age."

The more unsettling subplot stemming from the Wagners' 45-year marriage is the mystery of Allen Wagner's infidelities, which lead Judy to demand a divorce in her son's film. How authentic was this plot point in his parents' real relationship?

"My mother's quest to know what's wrong about her life is very much anchored to what's wrong in her marriage," Wagner replied, adding that his parents did separate for a time years ago. "And that's what is coming forth in those scenes. So to the degree that we needed to bring that out in the story—the question of disappointment in her life—we had to really go there."

And how the hell do you direct a love scene between your parents—even if it is just kissing?

"It's a fair question," Wagner said. "Luckily, I knew that most of those were going to be primarily thwarted love scenes, but in many respects, they were some of the most important scenes of the film."

If nothing else, The Talent Given Us is worth lauding just for such honest appraisals of love and family. Roger Ebert agreed, as did Variety and the jury at 2004's CineVegas Film Festival, which awarded Wagner's film its Special Jury Prize. Distributors, on the other hand, have yet to bite, so Wagner is distributing the picture himself. He said he booked his movie at the Angelika by simply walking up to the box office and asking for the manager. Vitagraph Films' David Shultz helped Wagner network with theaters in other markets across the country including L.A, where The Talent Given Us opens July 1.


If you like Zabar's, you will LOVE The Talent Given Us. Maggie, Emily and Judy Wagner (L-R) snag another fan on the Upper West Side (Photo: STV)

Meanwhile, his family has been busy promoting the film around New York. The Reeler caught up with Judy, Maggie and Emily Wagner outside Zabar's on Wednesday, where they had joined Judy Dixon and Wagner's wife Chelsea in publicizing the picture to passers-by on Broadway.

"I've been doing this for 14 days now," Emily Wagner said between handing out fliers and explaining the film's premise. "We've been down in SoHo, and now we're here and we'll go back out later. After it gets dark, we get in the van with posters and head back downtown. You know."

She smiles. Yep, I know. And soon enough, thanks to a resourceful son and his fearless family, everyone will know the Wagners. It is only what they deserve.

6 Comments:

Blogger Madley said...

Loved your write up, as I loved this movie!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful film. One of best I've ever seen.

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