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Making a Statement: “We Pedal Uphill” Director Roland Tec

Making a Statement: "We Pedal Uphill" Director Roland Tec

Roland Tec’s “We Pedal Uphill” opens in New York City on Friday, March 20, 2009.

Synopsis [courtesy of film’s official website]: One man drives an entire day to thank another for rescuing his family from the floodwaters of Katrina. A secretary to an election official must decide whether to bend the truth or lose her job. A PR handler scours the Redwood forest for the perfect spot for a presidential photo op. A mother watches silently from the window as her gay teenage son runs away from home in the middle of the night. These are just some of the characters brought to life in Roland Tec’s tapestry of post-9/11 America. The thirteen stories that fill the landscape of “We Pedal Uphill” offer an intimate portrait of those who either stood bravely against the tide of fear or found themselves helplessly swept up in it.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?

My introduction to filmmaking came through the back door, or the stage door or something. I was working a lot in theatre as both a composer and a playwright. I was running a small opera company in Boston and a young filmmaker named Marian Chang happened to attend a performance of a music-theatre piece I’d written based on Anne Sexton’s “Snow White” retelling. Marian liked my music so much she invited me to score a short operatic film she was making called “An Ego Floats in the Secretarial Pool.” Being on set was a magical experience for me and Marian was especially generous answering all my questions about the process and I found the director in me immediately drawn to the control of detail afforded by film. In contrast to theatre, where one never really can predict how things are going to go from night to night, there was something appealing about being able to direct an audience’s field of vision and emotional journey.

So one thing led to another and within about a year or so I’d made my first short, “Hooking Up,” which was an exploration of the language of the one-night stand. It toured to dozens of Lesbian & Gay film fests and through that I was able to meet several of the investors in my first feature, “All the Rage,” which was released in 1999 and still does some decent business in DVD thanks to Strand Releasing.

Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?

In recent years I’ve also embraced the producer in me. I worked on Mira Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding” and most recently co-produced Edward Zwick’s adaption of my mother Nechama Tec’s book, “Defiance.” Working on that was wonderful for me because I got to witness first-hand the differences and similarities between the micro-budget filmmaking I was used to and an action film with an international crew and a budget approaching $50 million. As Ed said to me on our first or second day on set, “there’s really not as much difference as you’d think.” In the end, no matter what the budget, every filmmaker fights against the challenges of budget and schedule, not to mention “competing temperaments.”

Please discuss how the idea for “We Pedal Uphill” film came about.

I had volunteered on the Kerry campaign in 2004 and when he lost I was really depressed. A couple of my producers and I were discussing the political situation in early 2005 and they encouraged me to translate my feelings and observations into something productive. At first I think someone said I should write a book but pretty early on it became clear that this had to be a film. Well, a collection of short films, actually. Because that’s what “We Pedal Uphill” really is. It’s a collection of narrative shorts ranging in length from 3 min. to 15 min.
 
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.

My concept of the film evolved as we were making it. At first I was motivated by politics but pretty soon – I think after we’d shot the first two and run out of money – I decided the film needed to be more personal than political, that what I was really most interested in was exploring the ways in which the political climate in the country in general might impact one individual’s life. I wanted to examine how people find themselves caught in something larger than themselves, in many cases when they’re not even aware of it. Once we’d started shooting, my Executive Producer John Tilley encouraged me to start clipping articles from the paper that caught my attention. Sometimes they’d be the tiniest item but something that struck me as important or surprising. Many of the stories that made it into the final film came from some of these things.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

Money is always the biggest challenge. It was our biggest challenge in scraping together a few dollars to shoot something on a shoestring over a period of years and it was the same challenge for Ed Zwick, who tried to finance “Defiance” for years before he finally found the money. The budgets are different but the challenges are the same. You have to convince those with access to financing that your vision can be commercially viable. Of course in the case of “We Pedal Uphill” I don’t think anyone involved in the financing actually expects it to be a commercial success – everyone involved pretty much decided to do this because they felt that something had to be done. That the country meant too much to them, NOT to make some sort of a statement. We certainly don’t see this as the next “Rambo.” In fact John Tilley recently said to me “You do realize Roland that you’ve made a film for people who don’t generally go to the movies?” I think he may be right in a way. But we hope to change that. Or at least for a week or two. I mean if I didn’t believe that people who like to think at the movies were out there, I would never have made this film. And in the couple of talk-backs that we’ve had so far, it’s clear to me that there’s a lot in this film that people not only WANT to talk about but that they NEED to talk about. “We Pedal Uphill” can act as a jumping off point for all sorts of conversation about the direction this country’s going in, our future, our shared past, etc. etc. Or at least that’s my wish.
 
How did the financing and/or casting for the film come together?

Some of the pieces in the film I wrote with specific actors in mind. For example, the Nebraska piece was written specifically for Alvin Epstein. Alvin originated most of Samuel Beckett’s lead roles in this country in the 1960s. He’s a brilliant older actor who is known for his physical prowess and his ability to work with silence. For him I wrote the most murky, ambiguous and eerily paced piece in the film. Other pieces were cast the traditional way with auditions. The majority of the cast members were actors I’d worked with before, either in film or in theatre. They were people I adored and just wanted to work with again. People like Judith Barcroft, Jenny Bacon, Paul Outlaw, Polly Adams, Carl Palmer, Stephen Barker Turner, Kate Weiman, Tom Bozell, Maureen Keiller, Molly Purves, Molly Powell, Ellen Colton. Some of them were in “All the Rage.” Some had been in plays I’d written or directed in New York. One of them – Merle Perkins – had been a member of my opera company and she was in “All the Rage” and because she is not only a terrific actress but a brilliant singer, she has often been my muse. Then of course there were those actors whom I’d admired from afar but never worked with before like Kate Blumberg or Marylouise Burke or David Drake. Anyway, the entire cast is amazing and if I left anyone out, I shouldn’t have. One of the things I’m most proud of is the high quality of the performances on screen. I was lucky to have been able to pull together an incredible cast. In fact I think all combined – including Tony, OBIE and Drama Desk – they have like 20 awards among them.

What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
 
“Defiance” was an independent film. It had a budget of nearly $50 million but technically speaking it was an independent film because it was made outside the studio system. Having said that, the current state of Hollywood studios, as they’ve become more and more corporate in their mindset, has made it even more difficult to make an independent film. And I would argue that many of the films that are technically speaking “independent” are not really… in spirit. To me the spirit of independent film is breaking from the narrow confines of what is accepted as commercial. In many ways “Defiance” fits that bill. So much of it is truly groundbreaking, not least of which is the way in which the community of extras become a major character in the story that evolves over the course of the film. In fact that’s one of the things I most love about what Ed did – he made the crowd come to life with his camera. That to me is certainly breaking from tradition. But many lower budget films stick to rather narrow storytelling formulae and as such, I feel they operate in another universe. Certainly people who go to see “Little Miss Sunshine” – as adorable as a film as it is – don’t go to see it in order to be challenged. That’s not what it’s about. So I guess the definitions are a bit blurred these days. Although with “We Pedal Uphill” we’ve got pretty much everything one would think of as being a hallmark of the old-school indie film: no money, unresolved endings (13 of them no less!), complex and morally ambiguous characterizations, shaky and poorly lit camera work. Makes you just wanna run to buy a ticket, doesn’t it?! Oh dear…

Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.

I am most proud of finishing another project. In a world with few incentives to actually make anything from scratch, it does feel good just to have gotten another one under my belt. And, you know, I heard Meryl Streep once say in an interview that your hardest film to make is your second, not your first. Now that I’ve done that, I feel I’ve really arrived. Now I can die. Or maybe not die… but… take a long nap.

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