[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance ’07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition section were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same set of questions.]
Described as an “elegant film that’s as topical as it is devastating” by the Sundance Film Festival, “Grace Is Gone” tells the story of a father of two whose wife is killed in the Iraq war. Played by John Cusack in what is described as “achingly poignant performance,” the father takes his daughters on a road trip to their favorite amusement park while he tries to figure out how to deliver the very bad news. “Grace Is Gone” is the directorial debut of James C. Strouse, and is screening in the Independent Film Competition: Dramatic section.
Please introduce yourself…
My name is Jim Strouse. I’m from Indiana but I’ve lived in New York City for over seven years. In that time I have worked at the Magnolia Bakery, Routledge Publishing and the Housing Works Used Book Store in SoHo. I have also done a lot of office temping. Currently I am a Dean’s Fellow in Columbia University‘s MFA program for fiction (which is a long winded way of saying I’m a student). I am 29 years old.
What are your creative outlets?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was five years old. I don’t know where I got the idea. I’m not from a particularly well-read family and to be honest I wasn’t really a voracious reader or anything when I was a kid. But I knew I always wanted to write. I loved making up stories. I write short fiction. I’ve had a few stories published. I just finished a collection called Noble County, which is set in a small town in Indiana. Directing grew pretty naturally out of my love for writing. I wrote a script called Lonesome Jim that was directed by Steve Buscemi. I was on the set of that film while it was being shot. Steve really included me in the process and I tried to take as many mental notes as possible.
How did you learn about filmmaking?
No film school. I watched a ton of movies in high school. All kinds, from pop American comedies to French New Wave. My real education as a filmmaker came from working with Steve Buscemi on “Lonesome Jim.”
How did you finance your film?
Financing for “Grace is Gone” was secured through my wife who was also the main producer on the film. My wife, Galt Niederhoffer, and I work together on everything. We are partners in every sense of the word. She read every draft of my script and really developed the story with me from an idea into the finished product.
Please tell us about your film, and how the initial idea come about.
“Grace is Gone” is the story of man left raising his two daughters while his wife serves in Iraq. Very soon into the story he finds that she has been killed in service. He doesn’t know how to tell his girls so he delays the news and takes them on a road trip to an amusement park in Florida. The story is all invention but it has a strong basis in truth. I pulled from personal and family history and researched what life was like for the families of deployed soldiers. It all came about very organically.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences, as well as your overall goals for the project.
I think the story or script needs to tell you how to make the film. Every decision I made as a filmmaker came out of an understanding and respect for the subject matter. I don’t believe in moving the camera or doing a close-up just for the hell of it. I think the moment needs to demand it. I love the films of Sidney Lumet. He is a filmmaker that has always followed this rule. If you look at his films you’ll see that form always follows content. His work was a big influence. My overall goal for the project was to make a film with deep feeling that was also entertaining, something that really took you on a journey and gave you a real emotional experience.
How did the financing and casting for the film come together?
My wife found some very smart and game investors that liked the story and were brave enough to take a risk on a first timer. I always liked John Cusack for this role. It kind of surprised us all that he said yes. But he’s an actor that likes to take risks. He goes where the parts are. I really respect his choices as an actor and producer.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
Just making the movie was a challenge. Directing demands so much of your mind and body (I was working about eighteen hour days). I was figuring out how to make a film as I was making it. I planned out every shot in pre-production but you can’t plan for all the unexpected stuff that comes up in the course of the shoot. And I found that the unexpected stuff that comes up usually leads to some of the best moments.
What do you hope to get out of the festival?
I’d be lying if I didn’t say a big hope is that we sell the film and make our money back. But I also really hope that the film just connects with people and they leave the theater having felt something.
Tell us about the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance, where were you, and how did you react?
My agents called me. I was in front of a movie theater in Chelsea. I was pretty stunned. It took a couple days for me to really believe it.
What is your definition of “independent film”?
I’m not sure. Anything that follows its own rules. I don’t think it’s a matter of budget or subject matter. Independent is a way of doing things, not a type of story. I think some big studio movies are just as independent as your typical low-budget films. It’s rare to make a film that feels singular and unique…to me anything that achieves those qualities is independent.
What are some of your favorite films, and why?
“The Heartbreak Kid“, written by Neil Simon, directed by Elaine May. Because it is hilarious and complicated and full of so many painfully funny moments.
“Five Easy Pieces“. Written and directed by Bob Raffleson. Because Jack Nicholson‘s performance is one of the best I’ve ever seen on film.
“Dog Day Afternoon“. Sidney Lumet. Lumet is one of my favorite directors. Every moment come across so authentically.
“Badlands“, “Paper Moon“, “Citizen Kane“, “Lola“, “The Graduate“…”Nashville“, “California Split“, “Rules of the Game“, “Mikey and Nickey“, “The Last Detail“. I love so many films it’s hard to name just a few.
What is your top ten list for 2006?
Old Joy, Army of Shadows, Borat, Volver, The Departed, The Queen, Keane, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, United 93, Last Letters Home.
What are one or two of your New Years resolutions?
To spend more time with my daughter…I’ve been so busy the past year, I’d really like to have more time with her. Also I would like to exercise more regularly.
Get the latest coverage of Park City ’07 in indieWIRE’s special section here at indieWIRE.com