EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling dramatic and documentary competition and American Spectrum directors who have films screening at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
From the Sundance catalog: “The true story of a Marine who volunteers to escort the remains of a 19-year-old killed in Iraq to his family in a small Wyoming town, the film is based on a journal by Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl. It is in every sense a personal narrative, beautifully presented by first-time filmmaker Ross Katz—who was heretofore an accomplished producer and now makes a remarkable debut as a director.”
Director: Ross Katz
Screenwriter: LtCol Michael R. Strobl (Ret.), Ross Katz
Executive Producers: Brad Krevoy, Cathy Wischner-Sola, Ross Katz
Producer: Lori Keith Douglas
Cinematographer: Alar Kivilo
Editors: Lee Percy, Brian A. Kates
Composer: Marcelo Zarvos
Cast: Kevin Bacon
Please introduce yourself…
My name is Ross Katz. I was born in Havertown, Pennsylvania in 1971. I’m based in New York, though in reality I spend more than half the year in LA. This is my first film as director and co-screenwriter. Before directing this movie, I produced five films. I started with the $400,000 romantic comedy “Trick”and continued on to produce “In the Bedroom”, “Lost in Translation”, “The Laramie Project”, and “Marie Antoinette”.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
I didn’t know anyone in the film business when I was growing up, but I’ve wanted to make movies since I was a little kid. From my Mom taking me to see “Back to the Future” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” many times, to my Dad and Step-Mom taking me to see “An American Werewolf in London” (which scared the hell out of me), I knew I wanted to do this. My, uh, interesting uncle took me to see “Midnight Express” when I was 8 years old. I was so freaked out (I don’t recommend the movie for kids!), but I think it was an introduction to a whole new kind of film for me. After 2 years of film school at Temple University, I dropped out. Two professors there, David Parry and Allen Barber, were an enormous influence on me. The only reason I dropped out was because I couldn’t wait anymore — just too restless and dying to get started. So, I drove out to LA and started looking for a job. My first job was as a ‘grip intern’ on “Reservoir Dogs.” I sent my resume dozens of times and ended up getting the job. I was hazed into the grip department by an amazing key grip, who taught me just what an art grip and electric work is. Quentin Tarantino, I think because I was so freaking excited (I could never believe that I was on an actual movie set), was incredibly kind and generous to me. He saw my interest and started letting me watch him make the movie closely. He had no cynicism in him at all — just a fully amped enthusiasm for making movies. I smile a lot whenever I see the movie. In certain shots, when Tim Roth is lying bload-soaked on the ramp inside the warehouse, I am standing on a small ladder holding a flag just outside the frame. Of course, it wasn’t always smooth. On the third or fourth day of shooting, I hit the dolly grip in the head with a piece of track. He was very nice about it.
How or what prompted the idea for your film and how did it evolve?
I didn’t want to make an Iraq war movie. In fact, I ran away from the idea. I just felt I didn’t have anything to contribute to the dialogue, at a time in which everyone knew where they stood on the war. ‘Taking Chance’ isn’t an Iraq war movie, nor is it a polemic. My interest initially came from a sense of shame. Watching a CNN story about the umpteenth roadside bomb to rip through a Baghdad market, I started to hate myself for somehow being desensitized. And even more, that I could walk outside of my apartment in New York and life was just normal. Like, some parents last night just got that horrific knock on the door and yet there was no effect on my everyday life. What’s worse is that I didn’t know a single troop. And I began to
think about that. When the Executive Producers, HBO Films, and LtCol Michael Strobl (author, co-screenwriter, Marine) began to work with me, I became increasingly hungry to get inside of the silent, virtually never seen work of Military Escorts and everyone involved in delivering remains home to a family. The entire project, I think , became so personal to me (almost in an unhealthy way), that I ended up making a very personal film about people I had never known.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
I wanted the film to feel dreamy and beautiful, yet never unreal. In the script , LtCol Strobl and I worked hard to show a lot of restraint. We wanted to do a lot with images and music and be judicious about how we used dialogue. Thankfully, I had THE best partners in the areas of photography, design, editorial, score. Our cinematographer, Alar Kivilo, instantly understood my clunky , inarticulate ideas and translated them into the most beautiful images. He is such an artist and is the greatest partner. And each day, we got to watch Kevin Bacon. Kevin, I think, is one of our finest actors. He brings a gravitas to his work that is startling. Yet there is always warmth in him. His performance is nuanced and restrained, but filled with emotion. I can’t, and could never, imagine anyone else doing this.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
We were lucky. This story was very personal for Brad Krevoy (Executive Producer). He brought the story to HBO Films with a great deal of passion and determination. I came in after that and we developed the script, knowing we had distribution. The script was a tough nut to crack. It’s difficult when one of the protagonists, 19 year old Chance Phelps, who was killed in Iraq, is not physically present. So, we had to try to find a way to feel his absence. With HBO , we did a ton of drafts based on their really smart notes and all of our anxiety in getting this right. Hopefully, we did!
What are some of your favorite films?
There’s a huge list. Right up at the top, for me, is Paul Greengrass. I think I’ve probably seen “Bloody Sunday” twenty-five times. What a filmmaker. His ability to go from “Bloody Sunday” or “United 93” to the Jason Bourne movies (my favorite action suspense films) is incredible. I would very much like to make all kinds of films. He’s a total inspiration.
How do you define success as a filmmaker?
Success? Hmm. I don’t know how to define it. I think I’ll feel successful when I don’t feel the need to express so much — that intangible thing that you just sort of have to get out. I imagine it would be a relief to unload whatever it is I’m carrying around. On the other hand, that’s what drives me. So, err, I don’t think I’m ready to define success.
What are your future projects?
I’ve scaled back my producing work to a very minimum. There are three projects (one of which is already shot) that are great passions of mine, and I’m excited to produce them. Outside of these, my entire focus is on writing and directing. I am a lucky SOB because producers Anthony Bregman and Stefanie Azpiazu brought me a book called “The Amateur American” by J. Elmore Saunders. It’s a political thriller in the vein of “Three Days of the Condor”. Writing a sexy action movie is a completely different kind of adventure for me. I’d love to direct someone else’s script, some time, as well.