Every day through the end of the Sundance Film Festival, including weekends, indieWIRE will be publishing two interviews with Sundance ’06 competition filmmakers. Sixty filmmakers were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview and each was sent the same questions.
Paul Fitzgerald wrote and directed “Forgiven,” screening in the Independent Film Competition: Dramatic section at the ’06 Sundance Film Festival. His film, described as a “political thriller” by the Sundance catalog, is the story of a smalltown D.A. who receives word that a deathrow inmate he prosecuted ten years earlier has been exhonerated by the governor on the eve of his campaign for the Senate. “Forgiven” is the first film that Fitzgerald has directed, having worked primarily as an actor in the past.
Please tell us about yourself…
I’m 35, and I was born here in New York City, but my folks moved down to Lynchburg, Virginia, when I was about six months old and that’s where they remain and where I was raised. After some years in the Midwest at Northwestern University, then doing theater in Chicago afterward, a stint in San Diego for grad school and three years in LA doing TV and film, I’ve been back in New York for several years — where I began and where I belong. With the exception of waiting tables right after college in Chicago for a couple of years, I’ve been fortunate enough to have made a living as an actor, combining television work with the occasional film role and much stage work on and off Broadway here in New York.
What were the circumstances that led you to become a filmmaker?
I started writing screenplays about seven years ago. For a couple years I’d been taking notes on ideas that seemed to lend themselves to film. And then sometime in 1998 I saw a bad movie one night and went home and thought surely I can’t do any worse than that. The next day I started writing and haven’t really stopped since.
“Forgiven” was my fourth screenplay and the first one I thought I could possibly make into a movie, fairly confident I wouldn’t consider the voice of the writing passe or immature two months into it. I would say I never aspired to be a filmmaker per se. Acting has always been my main focus since I was very young. But gradually the idea of story started to occur to me and the idea of telling whole stories as opposed to playing just one part in someone else’s story became appealing. I was only motivated to make a movie because I had an idea for a story, which precociously enough, I thought was important to be told. I suppose it’s sort of ass backward, but that’s how I came to it.
What other creative outlets do you explore?
I play the guitar a little for myself as an alternate creative outlet. I enjoy it way disproportionately to my talent for it. I have the voice of an angel though, my mother says so anyway. But honestly I do depend on music, singer-songwriter, storyteller stuff, for inspiration. I dabble in arts and crafts from time to time, collage with different materials. I love to chop wood when I’m home at my parent’s house, which I guess is more destructive than creative, but it’s a great way to take out aggression. I have a lot of aggression from stories that won’t work themselves out in my head or on paper. I’m currently working on four other screenplays, a huge stage musical and a long-form rant/monologue performance piece for either a middle-aged female actress or myself, I haven’t figured out yet.
How did you learn about filmmaking?
Never having gone to film school, making this movie was my film school in a sense. And fortunately for me, I hooked up with an amazing group of collaborators and creative artists. Kelly Miller, my producer, while being a completely bang-up lead producer, is also an amazing creative producer. Not ever having made a film before, I’ve no idea how often this is the case — that one’s lead producer so adeptly wears both hats — but I can’t imagine making a movie any other way. Not only is she enormously responsible for having helped me develop the story in the rewrite process, but she also found a way to always marry our aesthetic motivation and principles with our micro budgetary situation. In addition, my DP, Vanja Cernjul, production designer, Steve Carter, and editor, Shelby Siegel, also each in their own capacities were extremely patient and extravagant in sharing their talents and knowledge with me.
How did you finance your own film?
Kelly and I raised money all through small private investments, family and friends and ourselves. And some very generous institutions of credit — such as Visa, MasterCard and AmEx. And several of those institutions are still in the process of being reimbursed for their not insubstantial contributions to our movie. It should also be noted that “Forgiven” was financed with an enormous amount of sweat and sleep deprivation equity. There truly is a dollar figure, though I could not name it specifically, for all the overage that all the people who worked on this movie put into it. If you’re asking someone — I’m thinking for example of young art director extraordinaire, Eric Bryant — to do the work of five to 10 people, and they’re only one person, you’re literally getting the labor of nine people for free. We kind of asked a lot of people to do the impossible in order to make this movie, and they responded in the positive, I imagine all for their own various reasons — love of the particular project, love of film making, nothing else to do, proximity, insanity. But whatever the reason, we could not have made it without them and when we talk about how the film was financed their real-dollar contribution can’t be overlooked or overstated.
Where did the initial idea for your film come from?
The original inspiration for “Forgiven” came from following the spate of exonerations that started happening in Illinois in 2000 and gradually rippled across the country, leading to the moratorium of the death penalty movement in the last few years. I started thinking about these people who had spent years in prison, many on death row and imaging in what ways that experience might transform a person’s personality and psyche.
What are your biggest creative influences?
I’ve never been a cinephile by a long shot but I did a lot of watching in between the time I decided to make this movie and when we actually started shooting. Wong Kar-wai became one of my favorite filmmakers. Film-wise, I’m also inspired by Steven Soderbergh, John Salyes, Haskell Wexler and Terrence Malick’s “Badlands.” Creatively, Patty Griffin helps me unravel story knots and if James Baldwin and the poet Stanley Kunitz had a child — which is impossible because one is dead and the other is 100 years old, and they’re both men — but if … I would like to be that child.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
Ultimately the biggest challenge I faced in the whole arc of taking this movie from conception to completion was just overcoming my self-doubt that I could do this and that I should do this. And beginning. I exist to some extent in a state of paralysis between the pro and the con. I like to think of it as niche existentialism. Action carries all sorts of potential peril and the fear of committing something to film and getting it wrong, so to speak, stopped me from doing it at all for a long time. I think, in fact, the dilemma of action versus inaction finds its way into the movie itself as a strong theme, no coincidence, I guess.
But that was all before I began. Once I tipped that rock off its perch, the momentum of the roll completely took over. Then it was just a matter of learning to live in a state of constant crisis management. And getting used to everybody asking me questions all day long and always having to come up with answers. And also going to bed with everything still undone. I have a little bit of a compulsive order thing, I like things to be tidy and tied up in order to be able to relax. And as an actor, my life has totally been ordered around doing a role, and when the performance or shooting is done, I’m done. The parameters of your purview are finite. But as a director, you’re never done. A movie is a beast, it’s like a wisteria vine that takes over your entire life and you always go to bed knowing everything is in a state of undress and relative chaos. And worse still, on this movie, I was friends with the other three main actors and they’d be out carousing and calling me at all hours, telling me to come out and join them for a drink and I’d be like: I’m directing my first movie! Do you have any idea how close I am to drowning here?!?! So that was challenge.
And also acting while directing poses some serious challenges, mostly from a focus standpoint, being able to drop in emotionally when you’re in [the] middle of dealing with so much technical stuff. And also there’s a scene where my pants are around [my] ankles and my bare ass is exposed. I know I’ve listed quite a few things here, but ultimately standing in a room full of people with your pants on the floor and your ass hanging out in the breeze and trying to direct is an experience unto itself.
Tell us about the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance.
I was up at our family’s lake house in southwestern Virginia, and I was deathly hung over because it was the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and the night before I had shown the movie to my family and some close friends for the first time, and some wanted to stay up afterward and talk about it all, and we were all hitting the wine pretty hard.
So I got to bed real late and also thought as I went to bed that we hadn’t gotten in cause I knew we were supposed to hear by the end [of] the day Friday, and I hadn’t heard anything. Around 5 a.m. Saturday morning the phone rang, and I woke up and saw it was an international number, and I realized it was Kelly, who was in Italy at the time, six hours ahead, and that if she was calling at that hour it must be good news. So I actually let it go to voice mail cause I was really only half with the program just then, and I lay there for a half hour and let the possibility of great news roll over me. And then I checked my messages and sure enough we had. So I woke up my cousin who I was sharing a room with and he displayed genuine enthusiasm considering the hour and the fact that he was hung over too. And then I ran next door to where my parents were staying and jumped in their bed like a 5-year-old, and they woke up and were real excited. And then my 8-year-old niece bolted in the room from out of nowhere and hearing the news went running through the whole house like the town crier sending out the word. Within minutes the whole house was roused, and everyone was standing in the living room with bedhead hugging and carrying on. It was great.
What do you hope to get out of the festival, what are your own goals for the experience? I hope to get our movie sold. I hope to meet several money people who want to finance our next feature. I hope to be inspired and invigorated by the type of work being done, I hope to inspire at least one person to go out and make their own film, I hope to keep my head on straight and maintain my integrity. I hope to abundantly enough shower praise and thanks upon the people associated with the movie who are coming out to Park City to be a part of the experience.
What is your definition of “independent film”?
A film where the director is allowed to say what he or she wants. We had people who were interested in investing in our film, but they wanted us to change the seminal event around which the entire story is built because they thought it was too controversial. That, for instance, would not be an independent film in my opinion. Regardless of the money coming from private investors and not a studio per se, there’s no independence if someone else is calling the creative shots.
What are a few other films you’re hoping to see at Sundance and why?
I want to see Maria Maggenti’s movie [“Puccini for Beginners”] because I auditioned for it and thought it was a good script. And Hilary Brougher’s “Stephanie Daley” because she gave me great notes on my script. And “Wristcutters: A Love Story” because we share the same DP who is the first DP ever to have two films in competition, or 1/8 of the films, as I like to say to Vanja. And So Yong Kim’s “In Between Days” because it sounds interesting and I met her at the Sundance orientation here [in] NYC and she was cool. And there’s a documentary on the struggles of people trying to reintegrate into society after prison which is relevant to our film’s subject matter.
Who are a few people that you would you most like to meet at Sundance?
I’d like to meet Robert Redford, Geoff Gilmore and all the programmers and thank them for having us and for supporting independent film.
If you were given $10 million to be used for moviemaking, how would you spend it?
I would make one $5 million movie and give the other $5 million away in $500,000 chunks to 10 people who wanted to make their first movie — no strings attached. And I’d start with Leslie Jones, our wardrobe supervisor, who drove from Virginia to North Carolina and slept in the production office in the same room where we stored the costumes and who has the biggest heart and broadest smile and who did the work of 10 people and never complained and who told me she wanted to make a movie of her own.
What are one or two of your New Years resolutions?
I’m going to have a lot of rollover of things that didn’t get “resolved” from my 2005 list so I’m going to focus on those. “Do something kind for a stranger everyday” never really get off the ground so I’m going to have another go at that. But if it doesn’t get any traction in 2006 I’m dropping it. Other than that … I’m trying to decide if Spanish and ASL is taking on too much in one year.